The lessons of Ghana's slave forts

Friday, January 13, 2006

asap contributor MADISON J. GRAY reflects on his ancestors as he visits two of the forts that African slaves passed through during the horrifying journeys that took them far from home.

KETA, Ghana (AP) -- It's hard not to find traveling through Ghana a pleasant experience. The people, the culture, the environment -- they're all very inviting. But the mood changes when you arrive at one of the castles along the country's Atlantic shore that were once stopping points in the African slave trade.

I visited two of them -- Cape Coast Castle in Cape Coast, and Fort Prinzenstein in Keta -- during my month living in the West African nation. I was eager to hear an indigenous perspective on African history, but I was not prepared for how emotionally taxing these visits would be.

Prinzenstein was built by the Danish in 1794 as a trading post and eventually becoming a processing station for slaves. Much of the fort is in ruins, but it still retains enough of its structure to illustrate its history.

Sand covers the ground all around the building and its walls speak not only of Africa in centuries past, but also of old Europe. Ibrahim Mohammed Bellah, the fort's spokesman and tour guide, greeted me with the common Ewe language greeting "mia wiezo," or "you are welcome."

The structure has survived the extensive sea erosion that has destroyed the surrounding town. Bellah is glad: He wants the world to know the history of what happened to his people.

"People learn here about how people suffered, the way they died," said Bellah. "The starvation, the dehydration, suffocation, they were packed, by the hundreds, into the dungeons we have in the fort."

The rooms that faced inland were the ones where people were dropped off by their captors. I imagined the stale odor was the leftover funk of constricted human beings. In one, there was a cold, iron scale that must have horrified people who were weighed on it.

In other rooms that faced the sea, the focus was on the shipment of slaves. I became afraid to go in, but did anyway. It became easy to empathize with a Jewish person who might have visited Auschwitz or Dachau.

Two different holocausts, both crimes against humanity.

Bellah led me into one of the dungeons. In the center, there was a 50-pound iron chain. He told me it was used for the strongest males because the fort's governors feared their strength.

I picked up the rusty, 200-year-old chain and grimaced. I realized that one of my own ancestors may have been confined here -- if not in the spot where I stood, then somewhere on this coast. At that point, I wept.

Bellah, who had been calming my nerves for the past half-hour, explained that local officials were fighting to keep the fort standing. Many of the 42 forts and castles along the West African coast are fighting to survive, he said. It is all a question of funding and support.

"We are looking for help from anybody who can help preserve the fort," he said, explaining the amount of damage caused by erosion. "Otherwise, within two to three years the whole place will be destroyed."

Two weeks later, still thirsty for knowledge, I traveled to Cape Coast Castle. This place, built by the Swedes in 1653 and extensively reconstructed in the late 18th century, was a different experience altogether.

I was happy to see that the castle had been well-preserved, and to learn that the outside was undergoing a renovation that was to be finished by the end of 2005. The castle is designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational Scientific Cultural Organization.

This time, I kept my composure, since there were many more people around as I viewed displays featuring the whips used on slaves and a textbook-style video presentation explaining slavery. The dungeons there were equally intimidating, but some of the rooms had lighting installed and others were sealed off when the British government restored the building in the 1920s.

During my tour, I got another history lesson. The guide explained how traders and local chiefs would negotiate over goods, but the traders eventually became greedy for slaves. In some cases, the Europeans would start wars between the different tribes.

After passing through the infamous "Door of No Return" -- as African slaves once did on their way to awaiting ships -- I turned around and passed through the "Door of Return," as it has since been labeled on the other side. All African-Americans are encouraged to do this when they visit the castle, in what the tour guide, Peter Sewornoo, said was a symbolic but proud gesture.

"It is a way for black people from throughout the diaspora to reconnect with their heritage," he said.

My mood changed when I was going toward the exit. I saw tourists posing for photographs, smiling in front of the dungeons, laughing. I was frustrated at how they could just think of this place as another tourist attraction. I wondered if slavery had been sugarcoated somehow.

Before I left Ghana, I visited Fort Prinzenstein again. Bellah was there, and I promised him I would tell the world about what I had seen. We walked around the structure for about an hour and discussed more of the local history.

"Welcome home, brother," he said as he handed me a wooden amulet carved with the Ghanaian 'Gye Nyame' symbol, which represents the supremacy of God.

"Thanks, Ibrahim," I said. "It's good to be back after so long."

asap contributor Madison J. Gray is a former AP reporter and freelance writer based in New York.

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