The slave forts of Ghana – Notes from a visit to West Africa, Part 1

In December and January, I visited Ghana, Togo, Benin and Burkina Faso. The next few posts on this blog will be drawn from the notes I made on that visit.

A beautiful coastline with an ugly history

Accra, December 22: This week I toured two of the old slave forts on the Ghana coast, those at Elmina and Cape Coast. There were once fifty forts such as these along the stretch of West African coast that corresponds to modern day Ghana alone, and more to the east and west.

St George's Castle,  Elmina

St George’s Castle, Elmina. Photo: James Robb

The oldest, largest, and one of the best-preserved today is St George’s Castle at Elmina, built by the Portuguese in 1482. It is the oldest European building in West Africa. Originally it was built not for the slave trade, but to defend Portugal’s monopoly over the maritime trade in gold. (The name Elmina is a corruption of the original Portuguese name “La mina,” for the gold mine nearby. Gold from this region had previously been transported overland to Europe across the Sahara by Arab traders.)  The gold trade was profitable, and contested by other rising European trading powers, especially Holland.

Portuguese decorations above entrance

Portuguese decorations above entrance. Photo: James Robb

The Elmina castle itself is an impressive and beautiful structure, and the fortifications (which included a moat and drawbridge) and batteries of cannon arrayed against naval attack are formidable. Several times the fort was successfully defended from Dutch attack, but it finally succumbed to a land-based attack, an artillery bombardment from a nearby hill, in 1637.

Portuguese architecture at entrance and drawbridge

Portuguese architecture at entrance and drawbridge. Photo: James Robb

Having taken the fort, the Dutch secured their own control by building a further fort on the hill from which they had attacked. Elmina became the headquarters of the Dutch West India Company.

Warehouse cellars turned into slave dungeons

Warehouse cellars turned into slave dungeons. Photo: James Robb

By the time of the Dutch takeover, human beings had replaced gold as the principal cargo of trade. The largely windowless and airless storage warehouses in the forts became dungeons.

The slave forts were where the first Christian churches in Africa were built

The slave forts were where the first Christian churches in Africa were built. Photo: James Robb

The Dutch converted the Portuguese Catholic church into a slave-trading room, and built their own church above the dungeon. The slaves were kept here in these dark and ill-ventilated spaces, amid their own excrement and vomit, with food dumped over them from an overhead hatch, for up to three months. Occasionally the dead among them were removed. The slave trade was so immensely profitable, it could cope with a high death rate among the captives – it is estimated that some thirty percent of them died in these cells before the passage across the Atlantic, and many more on the passage itself.

The Condemned cell, St George's Castle

The Condemned cell, St George’s Castle. Photo: James Robb

An elaborate system was put in place for the fort’s governor to select a woman from among a fresh batches of slaves, who was then bathed and brought to the governor’s rooms through an internal ladder, to be raped,  first by the governor, and then by the clergy, soldiers and traders on her way back to the dungeons. Attempts to resist were punished by death: Spies were organised to listen to conversations among the slaves, and both forts had a condemned cell, where those who conspired to resist were taken, shackled in groups, and left until the last among them was dead. Elmina’s ‘condemned cell’ was decorated with a skull and crossbones. The dead were removed from the condemned cell by other slaves, who were then returned to the main dungeon to spread the word of what they had seen.

Cannon battery, Cape Coast Castle

Cannon battery, Cape Coast Castle. Photo: James Robb

Cape Coast Castle was the pride of the British slave trade. Built by the Dutch in 1637, taken and expanded by the Swedes in 1652, it then changed hands five times in 13 years before being taken by the British in 1664. From then until 1877 it was the headquarters of British control of the region.

The Christian church in West Africa was built on slavery, in a very literal sense. The first Christian churches were built inside these forts and castles. In both Elmina and Cape Coast, the churches were built directly above the dungeons. As the Christian governors, clergy, soldiers and traders sang and worshipped the Lord in heaven above, hell on earth was directly under their feet.

The spacious quarters of the governor, Cape Coast Castle

The spacious quarters of the governor, Cape Coast Castle. Photo: James Robb

The first African priest of the Anglican Church was the son of an African ‘middle-man,’ one of those who delivered slaves to the forts and exchanged them there for the products of European industry. Sent to England, he studied theology at English universities, and returned to the Cape Coast where he led services in churches such as these, giving religious sanction to the grisly trade below. He is buried in the Cape Coast  castle.

Cannon battery, Cape Coast Castle

Cannon battery, Cape Coast Castle. Photo: James Robb

Over the course of nearly five hundred years, some ten million human beings passed through such conditions in forts like these, and for those who survived it was just the beginning of their ordeal. Many European powers  competed for a share of the trade – along this section of coast there were forts established by Danish, Swedish, and German traders, but the ‘big three’ slave trading nations were Portugal, Holland, and Britain.

commemorative plaque at Cape Coast Castle

commemorative plaque at Cape Coast Castle. Photo: James Robb

The scale of the trade, as evidenced by the fifty forts built by the traders within eyesight of each other, is staggering. It was the profits of this trade, along with the plunder of the riches of the Americas and India, which gave rise to the first capitalist fortunes and brought capitalist industry into being. As Marx commented, “Capital comes into the world dripping with blood and filth from every pore.”






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