Encrusted with chipped paint, salt, sweat and misery, the walls lead to a tiny door – the door of no return. Stepping onto the beach, captives were led across the scorching sands onto ships sailing for the Americas and the Caribbean. Elmina Castle is a powerful reminder of the abhorrent history of slavery.
Approaching the tiny beachside town of Elmina, a grand white castle perches proudly over the Ghanaian coastline. Fringed by palms and with the echoes of fishermen selling their wares from handcrafted wooden boats, it appears as a resort that has seen its best days. From the outside, this castle hides its hellish past as a slave castle for 300 years where hundreds of thousands of natives were held before being shipped away.
Initially built as a Portuguese trading post for gold, ivory and tropical foods, human labour became a more valued commodity. Inside the reminders of this trade in human cargo abound. The main courtyard contains a cast-iron cannonball and chain. Slaves who disobeyed orders were chained up and left to die in the baking African sun.
The courtyard is surrounded by tiny darkened cells, stifling from the warm air, where shackled prisoners in their hundreds and thousands awaited their fate. Locked in one of these cells for only a few minutes is upsetting. Kept here for months and years, the privations and fear of the African captives are inconceivable. Larger bare storerooms stained with algae with only a couple tiny slits for air held the women prisoners in large numbers. They often remained here for two years awaiting shipment, barely surviving on the meagre rations, torture, cruel treatment and indignities.
The opulent governor’s quarters overlooked the women’s prison where his officers could select women they deemed suitable to sleep with. Those who refused were chained up in the courtyard while those who fell pregnant were moved to the town and freed.
Hauntingly, over half the captives who entered the slave castle never survived the imprisonment. A further half died on board the ships where conditions were equally harsh for the long journey across the oceans.
The most chilling aspect of the tour is left till last. Down a set of stairs and along a corridor to a small room with only a tiny doorway – the door of no return – only wide enough for one person to squeeze through. By this time, several on the guided tour are openly weeping. While the stories are difficult to emotionally handle, the images of this castle with its external palm-fringed beauty but cruel, inhuman interior, will stay with me forever.