Elmina is a town on the South coast of Ghana in what is known as the Central Region. It was the first European settlement in all of West Africa and is therefore steeped in history -albeit a shameful one.
The Elmina Castle is the most well-known landmark in the little town of Elmina, which prior to European settlement, was called Anomansah (meaning: the perpetual drink).
The Portuguese were the first of many Europeans to exploit the natural resources of the region – from gold to ivory, and later, human beings. Elmina is most widely known for its horrific past as a major hub for the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade, which took place from the 15th to 19th Century. Millions of Africans were captured and transported to the New World as slaves. The Elmina Castle stands today to remind us of this awful period in history, as both a tourist attraction and a living museum – but more importantly, as a reminder to humanity that such an atrocity should never be allowed to take place again.
The castle itself is an imposing fortress, with a painful past. Built by the Portuguese in 1482, it was the first trading post constructed on the Gulf of Guinea coast. This makes it the oldest European building in existence below the Sahara. The Portuguese realized the enormous potential for trade which existed at the time, thanks to the discovery of gold.
It was initially built as a trading settlement and used as a warehouse to store their newly acquired wealth (commodities such as gold and ivory), which were being traded extensively at the time. It would however come to serve a more vile purpose. By the 17th Century, the Portuguese realized there was a commodity more valuable and lucrative than gold or ivory: that of human property. The castle was used as a depot for captured Africans, before they would be sold into slavery.
The Dutch seized the fort from the Portuguese in 1637 and took over the entire “Gold Coast” as it was then reffered to. The Slave Trade continued under the Dutch until 1814 and finally, in 1872, the fort, including the Gold Coast, became the possession of the British Empire.
A guided tour takes you into the various rooms of the upper section of the castle including the Governors’ bedroom, complete with a panoramic view of the Atlantic, a far cry from the squalor and desperation of the dungeons in the courtyard below. The dungeons served as holding cells, and separate rooms existed for men and for women. The conditions were squalid, with very poor ventilation and little respite from the heat. Captors were chained up and forced to endure cramped and sordid conditions until such time as they would be marched to a small room and shipped away to the New World.
Ironically, there was even a church on site, a very clever guise as Christianity was often used as a convenient loop hole to justify the exploitation and subsequent colonization that took place throughout the African continent.
You can walk along the exterior terraces of the castle, and look out towards the ocean and the fishermen below, boys playing football on the beach and women going about their daily lives in the market place.
Then there is the “Door of No Return”, a small opening through which the captured men and women would exit the castle on to small boats waiting to take them to the slave ships which would carry them over the ocean to the Americas. This room was by far the most impactful for me, even more so than the dungeons – which were by no means not moving – but for some reason, this little room felt heavy with such sadness – something really difficult to explain. Just thinking that these souls probably knew that this was the point of no return, and the beginning of yet another journey of suffering, is what really struck me. The saying “if these walls could speak” could not be more apt. If they could indeed speak, what kind of suffering and hardship would they speak of? One cannot even imagine what these people went through, and we were only given a mere glimpse into the unimaginable suffering that took place here through the explanations, narratives and descriptions given by our tour guide. But reality is always far harsher.
Elmina Castle is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site and is definitely worth a visit if you’re planning a trip to the Central Region. We stayed at the Elmina Bay Resort for two nights and then Coconut Grove for one night – both places are really nice and right on the beach. The drive to Elmina is very pleasant, especially now that some rain has fallen and everything is green and lush. The drive from Cape Coast to Elmina is especially beautiful as the scenery consists of coastal views and palm trees!
A visit to Elmina town itself is also recommended. We took a guided walking tour which included the town surrounds, the Dutch Cemetry, the fishing port, the Bridge House and various other places of interest such as the local shrines. The buildings are remiscient of both Dutch and British architecture and it was really interesting to walk the streets and see the people going about their every-day lives.
We didn’t get to visit the Cape Coast Castle on this trip, the British equivalent of Elmina Castle, but I’m hoping to do this trip next.
It’s interesting to note that numerous slave castles and forts dot the West African coastline, including Senegal, Gambia and Sierre Leone. The majority can be found here in Ghana, although most have fallen into ruin.