Cape Coast Castle, Ghana

Down Inside the Slave Castle

Packed Like Sardines in a Can

In the Dungeons

The West Coast of Africa


“They were the last place a slave would ‘reside’ before going through the door-of-no-return”

It is virtually impossible to write about the Slave Castles without describing the brutality of the African slave trade, the most evil and insidious holocaust of Black human beings in history which was perpetrated primarily by White Europeans on the Black African (men, women and children). It was not only the physical being that was captured and destroyed, it was the mind, soul and spirit of millions of Black people who were uprooted and transplanted. According to research, what is referred to as the African slave trade began around the latter half of the 15th century when Europeans captured and sold Blacks to White traders as porters. Looking at a map of Africa at the beginning of the 20th century–when slavery was supposedly abolished–it can be described as the United States of Europe. These human traffickers may have proclaimed the end of slavery but colonialism and imperialism lingered on in Africa as a way of life for Blacks. The continent was divided up among the Belgians, the British, the Dutch, the French, the Germans, the Italians, the Portuguese and the Spanish. As a matter of fact, approximately three-fourths of the world was ruled the aforementioned and a few others.

These European traffickers had castles built along the West Coast of Africa close to the sea to facilitate easy access of their human cargo onto ships. The conditions of the castles reflected their attitudes and treatment of Black slaves. To be able to eliminate vacancies (as if such existed) and to ensure a constant supply of slaves, the Europeans instigated conflicts between the tribes which led to continuous wars. The ensuing wars produced able-bodied men, children-bearing women and even children who were yoked together and held for weeks in the dungeons of the slave castles until ships arrived–ships that took the slaves to Europe, North and South America, and the Caribbean.

Life in the castles for the slaves was a living hell on earth before the perilous voyage across the ocean in hole of a ship. At the beginning, the need for the slave trade appeared to be basic economics; Whites needed lots of free labor to work their colonial possessions and they surmised Blacks would fill that labor void. The stay in the dungeon lasted about four to six weeks and it was not subliminal; it was real and it was physical. The men and the women were separated. Some of the women were used as servants in the castle. Conditions in the castle were wretched; the slaves were packed in literally like sardines in a can. One of the purposes of the stay was to break the warrior spirit of the men so by the time the ships arrive, they would be docile and ready for what was next. It was an unknown prelude of what was to come on the ship on the other side of the infamous door-of-no-return. That doorway was aptly named.

Europeans who came to the Gold Coast built castles and forts (fortified trading posts), and they engaged in serious competition among themselves over the natural resources of the continent. But that competition paled in comparison to the bitter rivalry they engineered among the tribal chiefs whom they initially paid monthly rents and protection money intending to gain footholds to a little bit of the land (to build their castles and forts) and eventually lots of Black bodies. They employed the divide-and-conquer mechanism to the maximum. What started as commerce evolved into the slave trade.

Gold was one of the most precious metals sought after in those days as the only reliable means of conducting international trade–it was common in all countries. The name Gold Coast was named for the reservoir of gold it contained. It seemed natural that the combination of gold and slaves would create the ideal place for the Europeans to “set up shop” and build permanent lodgings: castles for “Black” gold and natural gold. Gold Coast was located more strategically than any other African coastal area. Referred to as the “Land of the Blacks,” word went to European monarchs of the fertile and populous land rich in gold, ivory and other natural resources, and they sent their explorers out to search for this land. The trading started off as commercial ventures dealing mostly in gold and ivory. Then it attracted so many different European nations that the castles (and forts) became a necessary form of survival and protection, just as they had been in Europe. In addition, it gave the marauders front row access to a profitable market and easy access to the sea.

During the period of active, trans-oceanic slave-trading, about 40 slave castles were built along the coast of West Africa–from Senegal to Ghana (formerly Gold Coast) however, slaves that were brought, bought and housed therein were also from the interior of the continent. In addition to Cape Coast Castle, other castles and forts included Elmina Castle, Osu Castle aka Fort Christiansborg, Bunce Island and Goree Island. Sometimes villages and towns would arise around the castles and forts which were considered the focal point of the settlement–the civic center. The plan called for traders to purchase, capture or barter for the slaves, imprison them in the castles and finally transfer them to waiting ships as the ships arrive to begin the slaves’ last ride along the infamous Middle Passage. The castles were dubbed “warehouses of Black humanity.”

The Cape Coast Castle was built initially for commercial trading between Africans and Europeans. (It was similar to the American Indians “greeting” the Pilgrims on the other side of the world). It was first built in timber and later rebuild in stone. Its ownership changed many times as the Europeans battled for dominancy of the region. At various times, it was occupied by the Dutch, the Swedes and the British (1664), who used it as the seat of their colonial administration. (It is important to note that though the British boasted about abolishing the slave trade, they kept a colonial grip on countries throughout the world infusing them, including parts of Africa, with their white superiority agenda. So too, did their European brethren.) Not until 1957 did Ghana achieved its independence.

In the dungeons, there were hundreds and perhaps thousands of slaves housed at the same time awaiting transportation; there were no toilet facilities. Slaves ate and slept in the same place; they urinated and relieved themselves in the same place. A channel in the floor would carry the waste away from one point to another along the floor. Taking baths was out of the question and there was barely enough ventilation to keep them alive.

Elmina Castle was established prior to Cape Coast Castle centered around a fishing village port. Before the slave trade thrived, the village was a hub of commercial and social activity centering around a fort that had been built by the Portuguese. As the need for slaves was becoming more apparent, the castle was built in anticipation of the pending mass trafficking of the Black cargo. Even though the Portuguese may have been the ones who entered the slave enterprise on a mass scale, the British took it to a whole new level. They (the British) became innovators of the business and made it into a highly specialized industry; they made it white and “respectable.”

The operation of Elmina Castle was used as the model from which many of the other castles took their lead. Those castles were the last place millions of Africans would see of their homeland. The slave trade continued for over three centuries and at the peak of the trafficking, the average castle would account for approximately 30,000 bodies per year. And to fully understand the scope of this human atrocity, life in the slave castle was a mild microcosm of the slaves’ future–the journey across the oceans was the beginning of eternal slavery, for those who survived the voyage. Leaving the dungeons was definitely not what it was thought to be.

In order to keep the castles’ dungeons filled with a consistent flow of Black bodies, Europeans employed many devious means including goods for slaves, the basis of the triangular trade. Finished goods and other imports were brought to the Coast of West Africa, on the first leg of the triangle. On the second leg, slaves, usually housed in the castle dungeons, were transported to the Americas and the Caribbean to be sold. The ships then returned to Europe filled with monetary rewards to be filled up again as the third leg of the triangle.

One of the way-stations along the route was Goree Island, one of the first places in Africa that was settled by the Europeans. The island was more significant as a memorial to the slave trade than the activities that transpired there. It was said to have been more of a transient port-of-call than a permanent location. However, the trading of slaves did go on there and from that perspective, it could be considered in terms of guilt by association. (In modern times, Goree Island has been visited by many prominent westerners to dramatize the horrors of the slave trade across the Atlantic.

Though it was not as well known, Bunce Island was the site of one of the largest slave castles on the West African Coast, located in Sierra Leone. Its location was considered vitally and strategically important as a shipping port for slaves; it was West Africa’s largest harbor, which made it important for shipping purposes. The modern computer, through enhanced technology, has been able to produce life-like renditions of images of Bunce Island as it was during the days of slave trading.

As was previously stated, though the Europeans and the United States proclaimed the abolition of slavery and by inference, the castles became residential rather than commercial, the Europeans still occupied most of Africa and brutally enforced their will on Black Africans. This was evidenced by the Berlin West African Conference of 1884-1885 where the Europeans laid claim to virtually all of Africa. Parts of the continent had been “explored,” but now representatives of European governments and rulers went into the continent to create and/or expand strangleholds of influence for Europe. This conference laid the groundwork for the now familiar politico-geographical/physical occupation of Africa, and many of the slave castles became civic centers from where they administrated their ill-gotten colonial possessions.

Thousands of visitors, especially African Americans, visit these historic castles and other sites that once served as trading posts for their ancestors. After visiting one site in 1991, former Secretary of State, General Colin Powell said, “I am an American but today, I am something more … I am an African too. I feel my roots here in this continent.”

When President Barack Obama visited the Cape Coast slave castle, it was shown to the world as a documentary. Many before him had visited the site and had documented its horrors. But the idea that the President of the United States could visit a slave castle and emotionally identify with the people who were enslaved is a totally captivating experience. (Not to minimize “Roots,” as horrible as the depiction was, it was still a movie. The presidential documentary is real).

Unlike many other horrible human tragedies, there was no photography during the slave trade therefore, much of what has been reported came through stories passed down, drawings and scrolls that were left, archaeological diggings, advancement in technology and most importantly through the souls of Black folks.