Travel: The Slave Castle of Ghana

It takes four hours on an un-air-conditioned minibus called a tro-tros to get from Accra, the capital of Ghana, to the town of Elmina. The drive is lovely, especially when the road dances above the beautiful Cape Coast and when it enters Elmina's twisty streets lined with palm trees and hundreds of people trading fish like we buy hamburgers at McDonald's. The town's main attraction is a huge white castle that sits on top of a hill. From the road it appears so suddenly, it takes your breath away. The Elmina Castle, with its enormous white walls and red-tile roofs peering out onto the Indian Ocean, could easily be confused for some decaying Mediterranean resort. Such a pretty building—for a hellhole. Elmina Castle is actually one of 20 buildings running along the Ghanaian coast that housed African captives before they were shipped off to the New World. Which is why these buildings are more commonly, and oxymoronically, known as slave castles.

The Portuguese built Elmina Castle in 1482 as a trading post for goods bartered for local gold and gems. As demand for slaves increased in America and the Caribbean, the castle began to store a more precious and perishable trade. Although the castle is empty now, there are many reminders of its horrible past on the inside. In the middle of the courtyard stands a cast-iron ball and chain the size of a backyard barbecue; slaves who disobeyed, including women who refused to sleep with their captors, were shackled to it and left to die in the burning African sun. The castle's interior is rimmed with closet-size rooms where the Africans waited for their dock at the shore. When our guide offered my tour group a chance to get locked into a cell to experience what it might have felt like to be held there, I was the only one to decline. The tears were beginning to well up as I wandered off alone, thinking of how my ancestors would have been crammed on top of each with no room to breath, and without knowing that their lives would only get worse on the ships that would take them through the "middle passage" and across the ocean. If they made it that far.

The tour ended at a dank, dark cell that housed only a door: the "door of no return," an iron gate that led to the planks where the captives were loaded on the ships. Wreaths, flowers and other mementos surrounding the door now pay tribute to the lives that passed through it, and were changed or lost forever. As I peered through the holes in the gate and gazed at the Atlantic Ocean beyond, I realized that walking in the footsteps of my African ancestors was perhaps even more painful than I imagined it would be ever since I watched Roots as a child in the '70s. That feeling was complicated by the fact that because the history of slavery isn't taught in the Ghanaian schools, many of the children and adults I met simply thought of me as a foreigner, and what they call "ye vu"—white visitor. I felt like a stranger in a land where the people looked exactly like me. Yet I felt like a native, too. I guess going home can be like that—sadness and wonder all mixed together. That's especially true when you follow the path back to your ancestors and find yourself looking at the door of no return.

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