Updated: Jun 19, 2020
As I trace my fingertips along the rough stone wall, I sense the sentiments of those seized over 500 years ago. It sweeps through me with a shudder. I imagine their anguished wailing and utter desperation as captives in Elmina Castle—the point of no return for so many West Africans. The atmosphere drips with deeds of darker days.
I enter the dreary dungeons where up to 400 sisters and 600 brothers were packed together in their respective holding areas. Kept against their will, they languished until they, as goods destined for the New World, were driven through the Door of No Return and crammed into immense sailing ships. The sense of suffering is palpable as their ghosts reach out for remembrance. I pinch my nose to stem the stench of death and disease while its ancient odor seeps from the stones.
The sun sits high at midday. I wince from its burning rays and pause for my blind eyes to adjust as we step from the dungeon to the women’s courtyard. Our guide Nana explains this Gold Coast region was also nicknamed the White Man’s Graveyard due to the tropical diseases like malaria and yellow fever that killed countless Europeans. For this reason, the soldiers did not bring their spouses to the tropics. Instead, they claimed substitute African “wives.” Paraded around the small square, after selection the sexual surrogates ascended the steep, narrow, wooden stairs to the floor above. Their new prisons were the officers’ quarters with wardrobes wrapped in rape.
Defiance of sensual subjugation prompted public punishment devised to subdue the other women. A cannonball sunk in concrete at the far end of the courtyard served as the anchor where guards chained the insolent sister. Leg irons clasped around her ankles, she stood in the searing sun, denied food and water. From the nearby dungeon, her fellow captives watched her waste away minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day. Death from deprivation and heat beat fear and carved obedience sharper than any whip.
For the indigenous men, any fugitive found was condemned and thrown into the African’s cell. Standing side by side with the more comfortable European’s cell created for drunk and disorderly soldiers, it was a world away and an automatic death sentence. Denied both food and water, the escapees found a different liberation. Only when their bodies collapsed and exhaled their last breath did their souls secure freedom.
Nearly 30 of us travelers pile into the African’s cell. Faint light filters through a one square foot ventilation hole at the top of the wall. The entry is thick, dense iron. Its bars weave a crisscross of tiny square openings for the only other source of oxygen. Nana shuts the black metal door allowing us to immerse in the dim and cramped confinement. As soon as the door clangs shut, our bodies heat the room. Stagnation settles on our shoulders.
The air is heavy with heartache. Phantoms clutch our chests as our breathing tightens. Mere minutes pass, but we are transported in time and become one with those doomed to die in this chamber. We are all connected in this moment. Each silently vows we can never repeat this atrocity.
Some wonder how many of those who perished were long-lost relatives, but I know they were not mine. My ancestors were on the other side of the world waiting for the ships to arrive. A sense of shame and grief creeps from my heart to my head. My eyes well with tears that I can’t bear to shed among strangers. I am the only one of European descent on this tour. I did not perpetrate these crimes, but disgrace and regret crush my core, nonetheless, for what I imagine to be my predecessors’ actions across the Atlantic.
In the privacy of our taxi returning to Accra, my husband consoles me. I am not responsible for my forefathers. I am accountable only for my acts. I have adopted West Africa as my home. I married into his culture. Perhaps some of his relatives were pushed through the castle’s corridors, detained within the dungeons, and stuffed inside the waiting tall ships. However, our children’s blood blends both sides of the Atlantic. They are a living testament to changing times and people gaining greater acceptance of our similarities, rejecting superficial, skin-deep differences.
The sweet Twi music purrs in the cab. I don’t understand the words they sing, but it is honeyed smoothness. To my right, I watch wave upon wave tumble and spread foamy lace on the sandy shore. The ocean’s cresting and ebbing restores a calm in me. My heart full, I feel grateful for the present connection with my African in-law ancestors and my Twi neighbors on this momentous excursion.
History lives and breathes, and I am in it. Today will be tomorrow’s yesterday. I give thanks for the opportunity to encounter yesteryear’s events and the remembrance that moved me today. I cherish it now and always.