Last Updated on June 1, 2022 by Nellie Huang
One of the things that drew me to West Africa was its slave history. Here’s my experience learning about history and retracing slavery in Ghana.
Crumbling colonial buildings and half-built concrete blocks jostle for space alongside congested and pockmarked sidewalks. Corrugated-roofed slums and hundreds of fishing boats dot the rubbish-strewn beach. The choppy waters of the Atlantic Ocean slam against the rocky coastline where centuries-old slave forts still stand today.
Jamestown, the oldest and poorest area of Accra, is a place that tells the haunting stories of Ghana’s past.
Table of Contents
- Learning about Slavery in Ghana
- Colonial History in Jamestown, Accra
- Growing up in Accra, Ghana
- Slave Trade at James Fort
- Slavery: An Important Chapter of World History
- How Slavery Changed the World
- Digging up the Past in Cape Coast Fort
- Visiting Cape Coast Fort
- The Door of No Return
- Tunnel of Death
- Going Back in Time at Elmina Castle
- Experiencing What the Slaves Went through
- Learning Our Lessons from the Past
- How to Get There:
Learning about Slavery in Ghana
This was once the hub for the Portuguese colonisers, before the city became the capital of the British-colonized Ghana in 1877. The British, Dutch, French, Germans, Danes and Swedes all came this way as well. Each of them building their own fort on this corner of Ghana’s capital city.
Today, Jamestown is one of the liveliest areas in Accra. It’s vibrant, smelly and noisy, sound-tracked by the clatter of pans, the babble of radios and the roar of exhausts. Although in a state of decay following years of neglect by subsequent governments, the district is a great place to explore for those seeking to see the remnants of Accra’s colonial past.
Colonial History in Jamestown, Accra
Daniel, a Rastafarian fisherman with dreadlocks, acts as my guide for the day and leads me through his hometown.
We first make our way to Jamestown Lighthouse, erected in the 1930s to replace the original British-built lighthouse that dates back to 1871. From the top of the lighthouse, I drink in views of the Atlantic Ocean, the fishing port beneath us, and the massive shanty town behind. It’s a sprawling mess and a place I wouldn’t want to live in.
Pointing to a cluster of dilapidated shacks on the beach below, Daniel says, “That’s my home. It’s where I grew up and will probably live for the rest of my life.”
“As you can see, we don’t have a lot here.”
Growing up in Accra, Ghana
Daniel shares more about his childhood: Growing up, he never had a father. He had to leave school at a young age to help his mother with chores and make some money to feed his younger siblings. Like most of the people living in Jamestown, he makes a living from fishing. With two kids to support now, he also doubles as a tour guide from time to time to supplement his income.
As we wander amidst the endless flotillas of wooden pirogues at the fishing port, I observe the ins and outs of daily life in Jamestown. Women sit on stools, selling freshly caught tilapia and small anchovies in white buckets. Men are working on half-built wooden boats, hammering up the hull under the blazing sun. Sardines are laid out on charred grills to smoke, while chickens wander aimlessly on the sandy soil.
Despite the apparent poverty, the quarter still makes for a safe and friendly place through which to wander during the day. More than anywhere else in Accra, there’s an evident sense of community.
Slave Trade at James Fort
We then leave the port behind us and walk up back to the road to arrive at the gate of James Fort, built by the British in the 17th century as a trading post. The storage rooms were converted into prison cells during the era of slavery in Ghana, in which more than a million slaves were moved from here to the Americas.
After slavery was banned, the fort served as a prison until 2008. Daniel tells me that Dr. Kwame Nkrumah who led the struggle for Independence from British colonialism was held here for nearly a year.
Today, it lays in abandonment and there’s no chance of entering. It’s still compelling as a peeling, whitewashed memento of days past.
Slavery: An Important Chapter of World History
I had traveled West Africa with a purpose: to dig deep into slavery, an important chapter of world history.
After all, it was here in West Africa that slavery reached its height in the 17th century. European traders encouraged African slave hunters to attack neighbouring tribes and take captives who were then exchanged for goods such as guns and alcohol. The slaves were then brought to the Americas (New World) to work on sugar cane, tobacco and cotton plantations. The trans-Atlantic slave trade route became one of the most lucrative industries for Europe by the 18th century.
Exact figures are unknown, but it is estimated from as many as 20 million West Africans were captured between the end of 15th century until 1870 (when the slave trade was abolished). Only half of them survived the harsh conditions on the voyages — and 10 million of them actually made it to the Americas.
The slave trade only came to an end when the Enlightenment brought on liberalisation of attitudes and, more expediently, the Industrial Revolution led to a demand for stable, compliant colonies supplying raw materials and providing a market for finished goods.
This slave trade was the biggest population movement in history, displacing millions of people from Africa over a period of 300 years.
How Slavery Changed the World
On some previously empty islands like Cape Verde, slavery actually populated entire countries and created new nations. The slaves also brought with them their own traditions and religions, and as a result, new cultures were introduced and a colorful concoction of ethnicities were created in the Americas as a result of slavery.
Voodoo culture for example was brought over by slaves and is still practised today in Haiti, Cuba and Brazil. Over 15% of the creole language spoken in Haiti for example comes from the Yoruba language spoken by the Yoruba tribe in Benin and Nigeria.
Slavery undoubtedly played a major role in moulding the Americas into what they are today.
Digging up the Past in Cape Coast Fort
To learn more about slavery in Ghana, my journey took me further along the coast, where over 37 slave-trading forts and castles still stand today.
These castles and forts constitute for more than four centuries of trading between Europe and West Africa. Many of them have been named World Heritage Sites by UNESCO as they are monuments not only to nearly four centuries of pre-colonial Afro-European commerce, but also to the evils of the slave trade. They represent, significantly and emotively, the starting point of the African Diaspora.
Originally, the forts were established as trading posts to store goods brought to the coast, like ivory, gold and spices. Their location – along this relatively short 500km coastline – were chosen as access to the interior was easy in comparison to the swampy coastlines in other parts of West Africa. As the slave trade took over, they were transformed into prisons for storing slaves ready for shipping.
Visiting Cape Coast Fort
The biggest fort of them all is the Cape Coast Fort, perched right on the sea front in the former British colonial capital. It’s not just the largest trading centre for slavery in Ghana, but also in the whole of West Africa.
This fort was first built by the Portuguese in 1555 as a trade lodge, and then converted into a castle by the Dutch in 1637, and expanded by the Swedes in 1652. It changed hands five times over the next 13 years before being captured by the British. During the two-century-long British occupation, this was the headquarters for the colonial administration until the capital was moved to Accra.
Today, the fort has been extensively restored and converted into an impressive museum. Its exhibits will give an eye-opening peek into the lives of the slaves.
The Door of No Return
Led by museum guide Jonathan, I make my way along the white-washed walkways of the castle. We head down the steps to see the dungeons where the slaves were kept in captivity underground. Once the slaves set foot in the castle, they could spend up to three months in captivity. Many were then shipped off to the New World.
In the castle’s dank and dark dungeon, the air is stale and humid. Besides the main gate, the only source of light and air comes from a small window. The chambers are the size of a garage big enough for three or four cars.
“Up to 1,000 male and 500 female slaves were kept here in these chambers at each time. They were all chained and shackled, and crammed into this tiny space, with no space to lie down. They didn’t have any toilets either, so they were literally sleeping on their own human waste.”
Tunnel of Death
Strong waves of emotions hit as I listen to Jonathan’s explicit descriptions of their living conditions. The image of thousands of people crammed in this space, hopeless and dying, flash across my eyes.
“Many people died here — almost half of those who were captured — because of illnesses, lack of sanitation, and suicide.”
I ask Jonathan why didn’t the Europeans take better care of the slaves, considering that they cost money. He explains, “The slaves were so cheap that the Europeans didn’t care if they died. They used to trade 5 male slaves for a pipe, 10 for a bottle of liquor, and 20 female slaves for a gun.”
The cruelty of it all makes me shudder at just how evil human beings can be.
At the end of our tour, we walk along the fort’s ‘Tunnel of Death’. We then go through the ‘Door of No Return’ where slaves would take to get to the ship. The voyage to the Americas would take three months or so and conditions on these ships were terrible. Many slaves died on the way, and their bodies were simply discarded into the sea.
“This was the exact point where millions of them took their last glimpse of home, to never step on their home soil ever again.”
Today, the Door of No Return opens up to the bustling and vibrant fishing port of Cape Coast. It’s a complete contrast to the dark and treacherous stories that had taken place here in the castle.
Going Back in Time at Elmina Castle
With all these stories whirling in my head, I continue my journey to Elmina Fort, just 15 km from Cape Coast.
Also known as Saint George Fort, this was the first ever European building to be erected in West Africa. Built in 1482 by the Portuguese, it still stands strong today as another reminder of Ghana’s dark history.
The Portuguese were attracted here by the natural labor here in Elmina. It is wedged on a narrow peninsula between the Atlantic Ocean and Benya Lagoon. Today, the town has a lively fishing labor that’s bursting with colors and energy especially in the morning.
In comparison with Cape Coast Fort, Elmina Fort isn’t quite as lavish or big — but it has the same features as the other slave-trading posts. It has a diagonal shaped courtyard, centered around a chapel and dark dungeons underground.
It is said that more than one million slaves were captured here and taken to the Americas.
Experiencing What the Slaves Went through
Led by another museum guide Destiny, I make my way through the cells where slaves were kept. “The men were separated from the women, and the captors regularly raped the helpless women.”
We stand in the middle of the courtyard and Destiny points up to a balcony perched on the second floor.
“This was where the General would choose which woman he would bed that night. Whoever refused to have intercourse with the General would be thrown into the confinement cells.”
We continue down the hallway to the confinement cells, small pitch-black spaces with not a single window. This was where they would keep the slaves who rebelled or tried to escape. Most of those who entered these cells died here.
“I’m going to close this door to let you experience how it must have been for the slaves back then…”
As we stand in silence and darkness, I can feel my fear and claustrophobia creeping in. I cannot imagine how it must feel to be in here for days, weeks or even months.
Thankfully we are out in the open courtyard within seconds.
Learning Our Lessons from the Past
We continue our tour up to the second floor of the fort, where the General’s office and bedroom was. Big, bright and airy, his living quarters look out to a beautiful view of the sea. It is probably twice the size of the dungeon underground.
“The General lived in luxury here while thousands of slaves were kept underground below him.”
It makes me furious just thinking about how evil and brutal the European colonisers were. What gave them the right to go to a foreign land, hold the people captive, and do whatever they wanted??? What made them think they were superior?!
Jonathan responds with calmness, “We are sharing these stories not to point fingers, but to educate everyone, and hope that we learn our lesson and to never repeat it again.”
At the end of our tour, he points out a plaque at the entrance of the castle.
“In everlasting memory 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.”
Indeed, I hope we humankind will never commit such brutality ever again…
How to Get There:
I traveled with local tour operator, Jolinaiko Eco Tours, who offers affordable, eco-themed trips in West Africa. They specially designed my trip to focus on learning about slavery history and voodoo culture. They also included deep cultural immersions where I got to stay in rural villages and experience local daily life. My two-week trip also included several hikes to allow me to explore the nature of Ghana, Togo and Benin.
It’s easy to fly into Accra, Ghana’s capital (get your visa before hand) from most of Europe. I got a promo fare on Iberia Airlines from Madrid to Accra for just 200 euros return taxes included. From Accra, Cape Coast is just a two-hour drive away and Elmina is just 15 minutes from there. I stayed at KO-SA, an eco-friendly backpackers beach resort in the village of Ampenyi just a short drive from Cape Coast.