A pilgrimage to Ghana’s slave forts

The fortified trading posts along Ghana’s coast are full of wreaths left by visitors who come to honour the millions of African slaves, searching for answers, belonging and roots.

As they sat finishing their meal in the shadow of St George’s Castle in the city of Elmina, Pat and Beverly, two Londoners holidaying in Ghana, were chatting about the afternoon ahead. A waiter suddenly appeared with a large bag of sugar cane. “Oh I’ve been waiting for this for ages!” Pat said excitedly. “Thank you so much!” She pulled out a long stalk and started chewing greedily.

Pat was born and grew up in London but her family was originally from Ghana. “We used to have these as treats when we were little,” she said, munching away. The reason Pat has come to Ghana isn’t to indulge in her guilty pleasure however. It is something of a pilgrimage.

“My great-grandfather came from a village that was one of the last to be freed of slavery,” she explained. “From an early age we were told where we came from – slavery wasn’t taught in school, so as an adult I was determined to find out for myself.”

St George’s Castle is one of the 30-odd “slave forts” concentrated along Ghana’s coast. These fortified trading posts were built between 1482 and 1786 by the numerous traders – Portuguese, Swedish, English, Danish, Dutch – that plied this accessible coastline, initially in search of gold, then heavily involved in the slave trade. St George’s is the oldest of the coastal forts – and at four storeys high, one of the most imposing. Built in 1482 by Portuguese traders, it was fortified and extended by the Dutch as slaves gradually became the main object of commerce on the coast.

Exact figures are hard to come by, but it is generally estimated that around 12 million Africans, from Senegal to Angola, were shipped to the Americas over a period of 500 years. Around one million are thought to have perished during the journey; many more died in the forts’ dungeons while they waited for the ships. The slave trade reached its peak in the 18th Century, during the so-called “triangular trade” when Europeans traded African slaves for weapons and manufactured goods from Europe, then shipped the slaves to work on their colonies in the Americas, from where they reaped raw materials such as cotton, sugar and tobacco.

The days of the slave trade may be long gone, but the interior of the castle is still haunting. The dark, airless dungeons in the basements are oppressive with just a couple of tiny windows. Traders crammed more than 1,000 slaves – with no water or sanitation – in a space that should have fit around 200. Prisoners sometimes had to spend up to three months in these conditions before being shipped across the Atlantic. The only bathroom in the fort was reserved for the fort’s garrison – and the slaves they regularly raped. Upstairs, the officers’ quarters are light and spacious, with parquet floors, gorgeous views and sea breezes; it is unbearable to imagine the life of comfort they led while thousands languished beneath their feet.

When asked how she felt about being here, right in front of the fort, Pat’s joviality evaporated; she kept chewing on her sugar cane and, after a while, managed a small: “It’s very hard.”

Beverly, whose family is of Jamaican heritage, joined in. “It was emotional just seeing the castle as we drove here. I haven’t been inside yet – that’s probably going to be my nervous breakdown point,” she laughed sadly.

Beverly and Pat are not alone in their quest for answers, belonging and roots. The dungeons of St George’s Castle and Cape Coast Castle, another flagship fort on Ghana’s coast, are full of wreaths left by African-Americans, Afro-Caribbean and British-Caribbean visitors who have come to honour their ancestors. “It’s about meeting your history,” Beverly said, “being able to touch it and see it”.

Sebastian Kwanema Tettey, a guide at Cape Coast Castle, said that many visitors break down during the tours, stricken with an ancient, dormant grief. There were no tears the day I visited, but when he shut us all in the confinement cell – a dank, small, pitch-black space where rebellious slaves were kept – for just a few seconds, you could feel the panic rise among the group.

Ghanaians too are starting to show greater interest in this episode of their history and its heritage, making up 70% of the fort’s visitors, up from just 40% a decade or so ago, Tettey said.

Abraham Sakey and Emmanuel Hagan, two music students from Accra, Ghana’s capital, sat on the fort’s steps at the end of their tour, quietly reflecting, one picking out a melancholic tune on a guitar. “I’ve read about slavery in books, I’ve watched films, but here I was in the dungeons, I saw the shackles, it was real,” Sakey said.

Many Ghanaians are superstitious. In Fort William in the town of Anomabu, the fort keeper Philip has tried to turn the old officers’ quarters into a library for local school children. “But they just won’t come,” he said. “People are too scared of the ghosts.” This old slave fort was used as a prison from 1962 to 2000 and is now in poor state of repair. Philip, who lives inside the fort and knows every nook and cranny of the building, said he would love to see it renovated and given more prominence.

We walked past the dungeons, down a small alleyway and through a small door – the “Door of No Return”, through which slaves left the fort and boarded the ship that took them to their new lives. Darkness gave way to the sight of dazzling sunshine, the ocean surf and fishermen working on their nets and pirogues. For many slaves, this was their last image of home.

“It makes me proud to know that so many survived that trip,” said Beverly. “For us to be here and actually talk about it now... I know many didn’t make it and that’s why we have come back: to honour them”.