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28.08.2006 Feature Article


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The Portuguese set it up. A small fort, circa the 1700s, to guard their slice of coast. Over the years it fell into other hands. The Swedes, the Danes, the Dutch, the British—all had their turn, controlling the fort for a handful of years or for decades at a time. Gradually, walls were thickened, rooms built, a permanent chapel was installed. And the dungeons came into being.

I'm vague about the details, for my tired mind had reached saturation point by the time we came to the slavers' fort of Cape Coast, some three hours by car from Ghana's capital of Accra. It was the first week of a tropical August and the humidity of the ocean-side air seemed to weigh my limbs down, made me long for sleep. The castle was not one by any stretch of the imagination—not a European one at any rate, endowed with towers and stained glass and religious oils and opulent fabrics. Yet the Ghanaians call it by that paradoxical name. Slave castle. It is part of their history.

Entering the gates, we passed through a stone-vaulted entrance and found ourselves in a courtyard, surrounded by buildings on all sides. All surfaces were whitewashed—had been whitewashed, it seemed, for centuries, as if to sanitize the business that had gone on therein. The fourth side of the courtyard was a thick wall, topped by a line of cannons. The cannons faced the sea, as if awaiting a ship to greet with a broadside or two. I visualized a score of British redcoats, each accessorized with pigtail, musket, tricorn hat, arrayed over the white stone.

There was plenty to sanitize. The kidnapped African tribesmen were kept here. They were held in batches, mixed bunches from disparate tribes. No one spoke the same language. The purpose was to discourage the plotting that would lead to uprisings. The women were kept in a separate cell. For every 10 men, a woman, as men were by far the more profitable—and yet there was need for wombs on the plantations, for impregnation, to produce more slaves under controlled conditions. It took months for a ship to arrive. Three months, sometimes six. In the meantime, the captives waited.

They waited in dungeons, where there was no light. Careful, the guide urged us, as we descended a sloping passageway, bumbling into the walls. Puddles appeared underfoot; slimy water penetrated our sneakers. We found ourselves in a room, lit by a single window cut into the stone, some 12 feet up the wall. Wreaths lay against one wall, the offerings of African-American students from Texas and Louisiana, the descendants of those who had suffered in chambers much like this. A shallow ditch ran the length of this chamber. The ditch was where the captives relieved themselves, squatting, shackled, devoid of privacy. More than one hundred men were jammed into this room at one time, naked, in near darkness, deprived of voice, waiting for the unimaginable. In the filthy conditions, many died of disease, others went insane.

One level above the men's dungeon was the chapel. Here the white captors and their wives and children had worshipped each Sabbath, impervious to the moans of those doubled up beneath.

At one end of the dungeon the stones were recent; it was the walled-up entrance to the tunnel through which the captives were herded, once a slaver ship had entered port. They stumbled in their iron restraints over the stones to the Point of No Return (so read the inscription on the door's lintel). They would have had a flash of blinding daylight, a taste of salt breeze. They would not be going back to the dungeons. Ever. Nor to Africa. For no rapture awaited them. Only what we have come to know as the Middle Passage—weeks in the stinking hold of a slaver ship, beaten, starved, lacerated by metal cuffs, ravaged by disease. Death was the only release.

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