A bustling fishing market and slave castle

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January, 2024

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Elmina fishing market
Elmina, a fishing port on Ghana’s southern coast, is known for its role in the former transatlantic slave trade.

A bridge overlooking the harbour area provided a bird’s-eye view of the seething mass of pirogues and people. The market looked impenetrable, but our guide skillfully steered us through the crowds where all kinds of fish were being unloaded, before being sold by the fishermen’s wives. It was incredibly busy, and we had to keep making way for the porters carrying huge metal bowls or baskets on their heads. We were told that the boats are rented with the catch proceeds being divided between the boat owner and the crew, with a third share being used for maintenance. At the far end of the harbour, we found large wooden boats under construction and bright blue nets being mended by hand.

Elmina Castle and Elmina Castle Museum
A short walk took us to the whitewashed Elmina or St George’s Castle, a UNESCO site perched on a rocky promontory between Benya Lagoon and the Atlantic Ocean. Built by the Portuguese in 1482, it is the oldest surviving building in sub-Saharan Africa, although it has been extended and rebuilt several times.

We crossed a wooden drawbridge over two dry moats, and firstly visited the small museum, housed in what was the Portuguese Church until 1637. Exhibits included photographs of the castle across the centuries and information on how the Asante tribe traded with the Europeans. There was also a wide range of objects ranging from glass beads and ceramics to shackles used in the slave trade.

Our guided tour began in the main courtyard with a brief historical overview – the Dutch conquered and remodelled the castle in 1637 and made it the Africa HQ of the Dutch East India Company until 1872, when Britain conquered it and ruled until Ghana’s independence in 1957. The castle is said to be less popular than the nearby Cape Coast Castle which had been visited by Barack Obama in 2009.

Off the courtyard was a prison and condemned cell. The prison, built to accommodate disobedient officers, had two windows and would have been relatively spacious, housing only five at a time. In contrast, the condemned cell, with skull and crossbones above the door, was used for agitating slaves to prevent them influencing others. The slaves would have been crammed in and left without food or water and scratch marks of the desperate men were still visible on the walls. They would have remained in the cell until death, when their bodies would have been tossed into the sea.

We moved into the female dungeon and courtyard. A balcony overlooked the latter, from where the Governor could view the women before choosing those he wanted to keep him company in the night. Two covered holes filled naturally with rainwater is where the women would have bathed before being walked up the stairs to the Governor’s bedroom. If the women refused to comply, they would have been shackled to a large stone ball and left to stand in the heat without food or water for 24 hours to serve as a deterrent to others: one of the eight original balls remains.

From the male dungeon, we saw the Door of No Return: deliberately narrow, so slaves had to pass through one by one, which allowed them to be counted before boarding the ships that would take them to the Americas. It is estimated that 30,000 slaves were traded from Elmina every year.

Our route then led upstairs through the first-floor soldier’s barracks, book and souvenir shops, to the Governor’s residence which comprised of a kitchen, two living rooms and a bedroom. In stark contrast to the dark, damp dungeons, these rooms were roomy, light, and airy.

On the ramparts were 12-foot Dutch cannons and three watchtower turrets facing both land and sea. From this vantage point we could see the nearby smaller, abandoned Fort St. Jago, built by the Dutch in 1652, and the fishing market. We were told that on a clear day you could see Cape Coast Castle but the Harmattan, a cool dry wind which blows from the north, creates a constant haze.

This was a sobering experience and summed up by an inscription near a cell door:

Of the Anguish of Our Ancestors.
May Those Who Died Rest in Peace.
May Those Who Return Find Their Roots.
May Humanity Never Again Perpetrate
Such Injustice Against Humanity.
We, The Living, Vow to Uphold This.

Helen Jackson

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