Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Door of No Return

Today we went to Elmina Castle, where many of the slaves traded to the Americas and Europe made there last stop on the African continent. To get to the castle we drove along a touristy stretch of palm lined beach road. Perched at the end of a sandy point, the sun-baked whitewashed castle that seemed more like part of the land mass than a building. Entrance to the 3 story castle was made by going through an archway at the end of a drawbridge over a now-dry moat. The breezy entry hall let to an open courtyard. High bright white walls rose up around the brick and stone pavement. Stairs and the dark shadows of windows and doors pierced the walls at regular intervals. In front of us were the doorways to the warehouses. The stairs to the second floor mounted up in one corner and led to the living and working areas for the free occupants of the Castle. The spacious Governor's apartment was perched on the third floor, getting the best breeze and view from the ocean.

The Portugese built Elmina castle after finding the area fertile trading ground for ivory and gold. Elmina actually means "'The Mines" in a vernacular corruption of the Portugese, referring to the gold discovered here. As first the Portugese, then the Dutch and then the English passed through Elmina Castle, each left their mark on the building and on the people. All of them were businessmen. As profit from one commodity was outstripped by another, the more lucrative commodity, slaves, attracted traders both from within West African Society and from Europe and the Americas. As there was no money, slaves were commonly created by intertribal warfare. Captives could be sold to the European traders for desirable goods brought in on the boats. When there weren't enough war captives to sell, African traders basically "minted" more trading power by raiding other villages and capturing people to sell.

The Elmina dungeons held 1000 souls, many of whom died before ever seeing the boat. So the warehouses that once held ivory and gold became warehouses that held human beings who had been stripped of their freedoms, their comfort, and often, their life. I say "held" because I lack the word to describe what must have been. The mens' dungeon was grim enough, but the smell in the womens' dungeon is still so strong that, as our guide paused to speak, I could not stand inside it.

Every two months the boat would come. The slaves would be herded out through the narrow "Door of No Return" onto a flooded bit of beach at high tide into waiting rowboats. When the slaves boarded the sailing ship, they were shackled to the floor of the hold both by their arms and legs. Many died on the trans-Atlantic trip. Those who survived were thought to be stronger and more fit for work.

There was one sight which gave me hope. As we walked through the dungeons toward the "Door of No Return," I saw some wreaths propped against the opposite wall. One was a pink heart shaped wreath, the other a darker roundish wreath. The wreaths looked like a couple, one a girl and one a boy. The guide told us these were placed here not for those who died, but by those who came back. The descendants of Africans who were carried to other shores have been coming back to Ghana, and when they do, they walk back through the "Door of No Return." They walk back into the darkness from the beach where their ancestors were taken away. And against that wall they place a wreath of remembrance and homecoming.

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