Monday, April 28, 2008

Cape Coast- Easter Weekend

Before coming to Ghana I knew little of the European slave trade from the West Coast of Africa. Over the Easter break I had the opportunity to travel to Ghana’s Gold Coast and visit both Cape Coast and Elmina “castles”. I have been putting off writing about it because I was surprisingly moved by the experience; it is hard for me to fathom that such atrocities could happen in such a beautiful setting.

My family is not a stranger to slavery. In the 1800’s my grandmother’s family was involved in the rubber boom of the Amazon in Peru and thus also guilty of slave owning and trade. Clara, the nanny of my grandmother, mother and senior cousins was once a family slave. And while she died several years before my birth, the realities of her slavery were passed on to me by my grandmother and mother throughout my childhood. She told stories of how slave masters would use feuding tribes to capture slaves. How in order to keep “the peace” at the plantations, masters would purposely keep slaves from 2 differing tribes as their conflict would quell any organized efforts to overthrow the slave owners. She told of women in villages under attack that would purposely kill their babies to prevent their capture. I thought that these stories and my trip to the Amazon in 2005 had prepared me for the slave “castles” of Ghana. Was I wrong.

To describe Elmina castle as anything less than beautiful is a lie. This truth makes me uncomfortable as these fortresses; I dislike the use of the term of castle, were the site of terrible injustice. The statistics are very fuzzy but it appears that between 8 and 10 million people passed through the doors of the slave fortresses along the West Coast of Africa. Between 3 and 5 million made it to their intended destination. The majority of the fortresses were originally built for the trade of gold and other goods such as cocoa, but once the slave trade proved to be more lucrative they were easily abandoned for human trafficking. The Europeans would live in the upper levels of the fortress while down below hundreds of Africans would be packed into cramped rooms with a complete lack of sanitation, and limited ventilation or light. The men and women were separated with the European masters often raping the women. Women who became pregnant would be moved to town where they would give birth in a clinic and pardoned from the voyage, instead serving the European slave owners. Surprisingly, the slave trade is what brought organized education to Ghana with schools being created to teach the offspring of these horrible unions.

While we learn about the slave trade and its repercussions in North America, I recall learning little about its origins. Like genocides, and wars, this low point in human history should serve as a reminder to us of what we are capable of. I am glad that the Gold Coast is beautiful as it will continue to attract both Ghanaians and tourists and to tell the story of a time, not so much in the distant path, that we should not forget.

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