Visiting Africa Series #5 : Elmina Castle and the Island of Gorée– Slave Forts…. a Visit of Conscience
This is a five-part-story series on traveling to Morocco—Senegal—Ghana, part of North and West Africa
This story sums up the series on my October trip to Africa and speaks to the most profound part of my visit in recognition of Black History Month. So little is known about how Africans were enslaved and transported to the Americas. How the Portuguese, the British, the French and the Dutch built and managed a series of slave ports on the West African coast which transported over 12 million slaves to the New World with more than 2 million dying during this treacherous journey*. We visited two slave forts—-the island of Gorée and the Elmina Castle, both tell a story that should never be forgotten… a visit of conscience.
* (Many historians believe this number may be more like 33 million due to the lack of documentation)
A Bit of History —-The Transatlantic Slave Trade
There is so little we know about the slave trade, for the simple fact our educational system is ill prepared to do this honestly and with courage. It is not a pretty story. Yet it denies us a full understanding of how America and Europe became world superpowers through colonization and slavery. There were over 20 of these slaves’ forts, mostly on the West and Central African coasts that served as depots for holding slaves transported to the Americas. The transatlantic slave trade, referred to as the Middle Passage, brought slaves to Brazil, the Caribbean islands and eventually the US.
About 10 years ago, I purchased an Ancestry kit to understand my genealogy. The DNA results revealed 15% ethnicity from West Africa, inherited by both Puerto Rican parents. Being able to visit these slave forts certainly gave me some perspective on seeing and learning what the conditions were like back in the 1600. It allowed me to fully imagine the brutality, overcrowdedness, unsanitary conditions of both the dungeons and the slave ships forced on Africans traveling thousands of miles, stripped of their humanity.
Africa has maintained many of these slave forts as museums and historic sites. They also represent a significant part of its tourism. These history sites support the growing African Diaspora community from all parts of the world who seek to connect with their ancestral heritage. I was fortunate to visit two of these Slave trade history sites and found the experience so profoundly moving. For each site, I am sharing what that experience was like along with my photos.
The Island of Gorée (part of Dakar)
During my visit to Dakar in Senegal, three of us headed to the ferry to travel to the island of Gorée, about 25 minutes off the Dakar coast. The ferry was full mostly of locals who lived or worked on this island. Once we arrived, our first stop was to have a bite to eat, as spending money on this island is what keeps it sustainable. The village is quite quaint and colorful, with the main attraction being the restored Maison des Esclaves (House of Slaves), built by the Dutch in 1776 as a warehouse for slaves. The Portuguese, the Dutch, the British, and the French fought each other for the control of this island in their quest to continue the slave trade. Today, it is a UNESCO Heritage site recently restored and painted. A museum where you can tour through the dungeons once occupied by men, women, and children before they were sold and shipped to America. Most of the House is vacant, with no furnishings of what the place may have looked like other than exhibits that provide some history and drawings of the fate of so many that were enslaved here. The rest of the island consists of cottage homes with small commercial stalls for selling household goods and souvenirs. By all means, a pleasant walk through the village to and from the port with a heavy heart of its dark past. My photos are of the slave house, its people and the island’s unique architecture, which has been maintained over centuries. Truly, a visit of conscience to never forget.
The Elmina Castle — Ghana
Once we were in Accra, the capital of Ghana, arrangements were made for us to travel up the Cape Coast to arrive at Elmina, a small town, part of a fishing port. The drive was almost two hours and was quite a scene. We drove on a narrow road highly congested through small shanty towns of immense poverty. Many of these homes were shacks built from recyclable material of which many didn’t appear to have electricity or plumbing. Both sides of the road are where women and men seek to sell goods as cars drive through the congestion. We drove through 4-5 such towns before we arrived at Elmina.
From far away, as we approach the fishing port, we can see the stunning white castle,once a colonial fort. Actually, a prison that tortured slaves shipped to the New World. As the demand for slaves grew among plantation owners, Elmina was shipping them as quickly as they arrived there. Here too, you had the Portuguese, British and the Dutch fighting each other, taking turns owning and managing this slave port.
What was once built by the Portuguese as a trading post for gold and ivory quickly became more profitable in the selling of humans. The castle dungeons have no bathrooms, just small cells with hardly any windows where at times up to 200 slaves would be required to live in filth and hunger.
The castle is empty. There are no furnishings other than a store and rooms containing exhibits that offer a chronology of the horrific oppression. The exhibits are in French and some in English with plenty of drawings depicting the harsh realities of life in those days of which many died from diseases, torture or suicide, never making that last journey to their new slave homes.
The surroundings of the castle consisted mainly of the port, the town, and the ocean. Both the port and the town reflect centuries of colonization lacking in restoration. The Elmina Castle is designated as a World Heritage Monument under UNESCO and is an important tourist attraction for the city and a mecca for those who seek to understand the complexities of humanity.
Final Note: Both these sites make a point of reminding folks that slavery is still striving throughout the world. According to the latest Global Estimates of Modern Slavery (2022) close to 50 million people are currently victims of modern forms of slavery… forced labor, child labor, forced marriages, human trafficking, and sexual exploitation. Of this number, approximately 70% are women and girls and about a quarter are children. This is also happening in the US where migrant communities are continuously victimized. For more information on antislavery campaigns click here.
My photos specifically of Elmina are not what you generally see among tourists. They reflect the realities of what travel should be about … learning and sharing history and its relationship to the people who live among us.
As always, I try to provide a collection of photos that are part of the story for you to enjoy. They are in the same order as the narrative. Remember to click the center of the photo for a full view.
I hope to return to Africa at least one more time. For me, it will always be a place of wonder and resiliency.
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