Saturday, July 29, 2017

Ghana 2017 - Day 16. The Cape Coast

3:30 am. The fresh water of the shower felt like a mild form of torture, but today the group is meeting at 5 am for a fieldtrip and I am planning to crash it. The big objective of the day is to go visit the Cape Coast Slave Castle, which implies a trip of about 3 hours. Unfortunately our fearless leader, Uncle Joe, forgot to stress the fact that he wanted us in time, so we had to wait for those that are now in African time and we didn’t take off until 5:20 am.

The trip was rather uneventful, basically because we all fell asleep. We stirred back to life sometime around 9 am, when we left the paved road to drive to the Kakum National Park, where our guide had planned for breakfast and a pleasant surprise. We started walking around 10 am, and after 20 minutes reached the first of a series of rope bridges that gave us access to the canopy of this beautiful equatorial rain forest. The first bridge was wobbly and scary, but the view was absolutely fantastic. Unfortunately we had a group of Spanish tourists insert themselves between our group, and they were pretty obnoxious. Every other word was a malediction, and they were loud and didn’t care that the other people were trying to have a quiet moment to admire this cathedral of nature.

We pushed forward and managed to get to the other four bridges ahead of them. We were then able to slow down and take the time to just feel the glorious experience of flying among the giant trees of the jungle. We were hoping to spot a monkey or a colorful bird, but with the racket behind us every living thing within a radius of several kilometers had decamped.

On the way up to the bridges Kaleb had become fascinated with a stream of small black ants, and was happily taking extreme closeup photos when he felt the bite of an ant up his leg. And then another, and another, and … he had to drop his pants in front of everyone to shake the ants that were now crawling up his leg!  He is our bug, lizard, snake, and rodent guy, so I suspect deep in his heart he enjoyed his close encounter with African wildlife. Later, on the way down, the girls saw a worm that was about a foot long and were all doing yuk faces when Kaleb dropped to his knees, picked the worm up, and proceeded to coo sweet little nothings in his little worm ear. Double yuk!

From there we drove to Elmina, one of the oldest towns in Ghana. “A Mina”, later corrupted to Elmina, was the first Portuguese settlement in the Gold Coast (ca. 1471). The Portuguese built a fort here to protect the town from the depredations of other European nations, but in no time became a slave castle, where the slaves bartered by the local chiefs were kept until it was time to load them in ships for their transport to the Brazilian plantations. We didn’t visit the Elmina Castle, but went close to it for us to take photos. In the way there we ran into the funeral of someone really important (today is Saturday), and the funerary activities had taken over the main road, causing traffic to figure their own detours. The castle is pretty imposing, but anyone coming to the Gold Coast could simply disembark 10 kilometers down the coast and no one would be the wiser.

That is precisely what the Swedes did in 1654, when they established the Cape Coast Castle a few kilometers to the east. The Swedes handed the castle over to the Danes in one of the many ups and downs of the Sweden-Denmark reversals of war, and the Danes eventually lost it to the Dutch, which in turn lost it to the British, who made it one of their main points of slave embarkation in the 1700’s for overseas transport to their American colonies. The English abolished slavery in the British empire in 1833 (with the exceptions "of the Territories in the Possession of the East India Company", Ceylon, and Saint Helena; the exceptions were eliminated in 1843).

We went into the castle, and one of the guides walked us through the slave holding cells. They were pretty grim. There were five male slave cells and three female cells. Imagine a dark, dank enclosure, about 5 by 10 meters, where up to 200 slaves would be held until it was time for embarkation, once every three months. Reportedly the slaves were kept in chains, and wallowed in their own filth up to their knees. It is not clear how they were fed, or why the slave masters would allow slaves to die by the hundreds, when they were valuable merchandise. Was it to break their spirit, as some think, or simply because there were so many that a dead slave would be easily replaced by one recently arrived with one of the inland riding parties? In either case they were treated worst than a sty of pigs.

Cape Coast Castle was an English operation, supervised by the Anglican Church, and the pastor was ex officio the Master Slave Trader. The most famous of them held the post for over 50 years, and is buried right in the main court of the castle.

The current administration of the castle (National Park Service?) has undertaken a rather macabre memorial project, in which hundreds of heads of likely slaves have been carved, molded, and then cast in cement. These heads are now in the dungeons, in the dark, to remind visitors that this is ground hallowed by the misery of tens of thousands of miserables who were transported across the Atlantic, away from homeland and family, to serve the interests of an insatiably greedy class. It was a very chilling reminder.

Michelle and Barack Obama visited the Cape Coast Castle in 2009. Barack Obama is of course of Kenyan descent, but Michelle believes that her ancestors may have come from Ghana, and could have very well passed through the walls of this infamous castle. Both of them came, with respect, to honor the memory of the ancestors of many African Americans. May these ancestors rest in peace.

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