Cape Coast Castle; this World Heritage Site is reputed to have been one of the largest slave-holding sites in the world during the colonial ear, where Ghanaians – many of them traded to the British by the Ashanti in return for alcohol and guns – were stored before being cramped into returning merchant ships and deported to a life of captive labor. Sited on the edge of town overlooking a rocky stretch of coast with crashing waves, this whitewashed building is far more attractive than you feel a place with its history ought to be. But once below ground, in the claustrophobic dungeons that saw tens of thousands of Ghanaians incarcerated during the peak of that barbaric era, it is a grim and sobering place indeed.
Once inside, the museum houses an absorbing sequence of displays charting the origin and mechanisms of the slave trade, the scale of the resultant diaspora, and its aftermath in the hands of inspirational black leaders such as Marcus Garvey and Martin Luther King. But, ultimately, it is the time you spend in the slave dungeons that cuts most closely, their stone walls still marked by the desperate scratching of those imprisoned within them.
There are three dungeons in total, all grimly efficient in design. The oldest was built before 1790 on the southeastern bastion, and was followed with the male dungeon below Dalzel’s sea that bore the grim nickname ‘Door of No Return’. A couple of years ago, a symbolic invitation was issues to two descendants of slaves that saw them return through the Door of no Return, thus effectively breaking the chain. There is a sign on the other side, that says ‘Door of return’.
The castle itself, a squat, solid fortress of ramps, stairs and parapets – is thought to stand on the site of the Swedish Fort Carolusborg, built from wood in 1653 and fortified with stone the next year. After Cape Coast was captured by Britain in 1665, the fort was expanded to be comparable in size and strength to the nearby Dutch fort Elmina, and in the 1680s the slave dungeons were constructed in such a way that they were accessible only from the seaward side of the fort.
Those buried in the courtyard of the castle included the Reverend Philip Kwakwe (1741-1816), a native of Cape Coast who became the first Anglican priest of African origin. Also buried here are the novelist Letitia Elizabeth Landon (1802-38) and her husband George MacLean (1801-47), Governor of Cape Coast from 1830 until 1843 and Judicial Assessor of the town from 1843 until his death.
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