As I have mentioned in prior posts (click on the “Ghana Experience” link on the sidebar for the rest of the Ghana series), we didn’t have much time for touristy stuff during our visit to Ghana. However, our 2-day trip to the Central Region allowed for a small bit of sight-seeing, allowing us to spend a bit of time on the beach, and to tour the famous Elmina Castle, also known as St. George’s Castle, in the port city of Elmina.
The Castle was built by the Portuguese in 1472 (that’s 20 years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue…) to protect their gold mining activities, back when the Gold Coast got its nickname. Elmina means “the mine.” Besides gold, the castle became a major trading post for ivory, salt and other items. In 1637 the Dutch captured the fort, and eventually it became the African headquarters of the Dutch West Indies Company.
St. George’s Castle is known as a “slaving” castle because the slave trade eventually replaced that of gold and other items as the primary export, and the store rooms were converted to holding cells, where humans were crowded in like cattle. It was quite interesting to learn that it was some of the African tribes themselves who first introduced the Europeans to the slave trade, which apparently went back to the time of the Romans. It was apparently not uncommon for warring tribes to sell their captives as slaves, and as I understand it, began trading their slaves, as well as criminals that they wanted to get rid of, to the Europeans in exchange for items brought in from Europe. Elmina was not the largest slave-trading location, but is the oldest such castle in Ghana.
The castle – as a structure – is amazing, and the view is breathtaking. However, seeing the small holding cells where humans were kept in terrible conditions before being shipped out in even worse conditions was sobering, to say the least. It is always horrifying to consider the cruelties that men can inflict on other human beings. In many rooms the original iron bars are still in place, and you can see the supports for the loading dock still standing in the water.
In the center of the castle, in plain sight of the cells, stands a church, constructed by the Dutch. Our tour guide – who was obviously not a Christian – pointed out on a number of occasions this hypocrisy. It is indeed hard to imagine how someone could consider themselves a Christian and participate in that kind of abuse. We were taken into the cells and through the passageways to the “door of no return” that the slaves would have gone through on their way to the loading docks – those that survived, that is.
What really impressed me, both here and wherever we went in Ghana, was the lack of racial tension. Here we had a black tour guide speaking to a group that included a handful of whites, including at us 3 Americans and a Dutch couple (recall the Dutch did most of the slave trading from this castle). However, I never felt the same kind of racial tension that I think I would have felt on a similar tour in the States. It was truly remarkable. I had wondered what it would be like, being the obvious minority. In Ghana, I never really felt that I was a minority.
The architecture and textures of the castle itself is wonderful – and just to touch anything that old is pretty amazing, especially for someone from the relatively young American western coast. If you can separate the magnificence of the castle itself apart from its history with the slave trade, it is a very impressive and beautiful place. As I said earlier, some of the iron bars are original, as are the cannons. The castle has been restored as a tourist site within the last 20 years or so, and as with all tourist attractions, even has a small gift shop.
I would have loved to have spent more time at Elmina, as there is more to see. Maybe next time.
I have put a few more pictures from the Castle in the Ghana photo album, including one of a large compass in the courtyard in front of the castle which I understand is as old as the Castle itself.