From Houston to Sydney 2013

West Africa



Elmina, and the nearby city of Cape Coast, were major centres for the slave trade over a period of several hundred years.  It was not surprising, therefore, that the focus of our visits today were two of the largest ‘castles’ (as the European fortresses are known locally) used for the slave trade.

Leaving our hotel at 8:30 am, after our first English-style breakfast for a few weeks (sliced toast with marmalade rather than crusty baguettes with local honey), we headed off to the nearby town of Elmina.

The centrepiece of Elmina is St George’s Castle, the oldest European monument in sub-Saharan Africa.  Built by the Portuguese in 1482 (it was the Portuguese who initiated the African slave trade, and held a monopoly on it for a couple of hundred years), the castle was expanded after an invasion by the Dutch in 1637, and again after the British obtained it in 1872 in exchange for some territory in Indonesia.

St George’s Castle is impressively located on a rocky headland that protrudes into the rough seas of the Gulf of Guinea.  Getting to the Castle was half the fun, as it involved a walk along the narrow streets of Elmina, which is now primarily a large fishing settlement.  The calm (in terms of wave movement) harbour where the fishing boats are kept was a riot of colour and human activity – perhaps like Mopti on steroids.

After crossing a metal bridge that joins the harbour to the sea (and stopping for lots of photo taking on the way), we walked up to the castle, and entered it via a drawbridge that crossed the old moat.  After going inside, we were given 20 minutes to explore by ourselves, which we did, looking around the main courtyard, beginning with the old Portuguese church in the middle that was later converted by the Dutch into an auction room for slaves.  We then climbed some stairs and walked around the upper defence walls, which gave some spectacular views looking down on the fishing activity and the boat harbour below.

The guided tour certainly added to our understanding of the Castle.  Begun as a centre for exporting gold, it was transformed into a slave trading centre when demand for gold fell simultaneously with a rise in the demand for labour in the American colonies.  We were shown the terrible conditions of the cells, including the separate punishment cells where those who tried to escape were left to suffocate and die, the commandant’s quarters (with its separate stairs used to bring selected female slaves to his bedroom), as well as the infamous “Door of No Return”.

Looking across the town of Elmina from St George’s Castle, another smaller fort could be seen on a steep, nearby hill.  Called Fort St Jago, it was built by the Dutch in 1666 as a watchtower to protect St George’s Castle from attacks.  We climbed the hill to Fort St Jago, but unfortunately it was closed, as it apparently has been since 1992 due to a dispute with UNESCO over whether it should operate as a museum, or a guesthouse, or both.

Before returning to our car, we walked along some of the streets beside the fishing port to see some of the posuban shrines.  Unique to central Ghana, posubans are elaborate concrete shrines erected in urban areas by the local Fante people.  The shrines are built by Asafo companies, which are traditional patrilineal military units.  Although they were once responsible for the defence of the towns, these days they simply perform a ceremonial role.

Having explored Elmina, we took the short drive to nearby Cape Coast, which was the capital of Ghana under British rule, when the country was known as Gold Coast.  It was once the largest slave trading centre in West Africa, drawing slaves from as far away as Burkina Faso and Niger.  Today, Cape Coast is mainly a fishing town, although it also has Ghana’s first university and several large schools, often in some of the city’s large old colonial buildings

Our destination was Cape Coast Castle, one of the largest of the thirty or so slave ‘castles’ on the Ghanaian coastline.  The original castle was built by Sweden, taken over by the Danes, who subsequently lost it to the Dutch before the British finally got it in 1662.  It was entirely re-built by the British in 1760 after a savage French bombardment had failed to take the castle in 1757.

We were shown around the castle by a guide, and his description was informative and moving.  We began by experiencing the underground dungeons where slaves would have to wait for between two to twelve weeks (depending on the shipping schedules) in appallingly dark, cramped conditions, with a river of urine and faeces running down the middle of the room and out through a pipe into the ocean.  We noted the huge contrast between the condemned prisoner’s dark, sealed cell and the lavish bedroom and living room enjoyed by the Governor, several floors above with its panoramic ocean views.

As was the case at Elmina, one of the most poignant moments came when we were shown out through the Door of No Return.  Rather than being met by armed soldiers and a sailing ship to the West Indies, however, we enjoyed an overview of one of the most colourful and active fishing beaches I think I have ever seen.  Like Elmina, it was a raging riot of colour and activity, with fish selling going on beside repairing of nets, unloading of boats, fishing with nets in the breaking waves – so much to take in.

After our tour of the castle finished, Andrew and I did some more exploring on our own, climbing up to enjoy the view (and the very welcome sea breeze) from some of the elevated defence walls as well as exploring the excellent, informative museum of the history of Cape Coast, the evolution of the slave trade (featuring a mock up of slaves’ cramped conditions on the ships), a description of local Fante culture and a brief outline of modern Ghana’s economic progress.

Cape Coast does have some other forts, notably Fort William and Fort Victoria, but both are currently closed to the public.  Therefore, we were happy to return our hotel – hot, sweaty, thirsty, tired from lots of walking and climbing – with just one brief stop on the way to watch a team of Fante fishermen pulling in their fish net.

After yesterday’s long, smoky drive, it was great to get out and walk today, to learn some important history and to experience something of the colourful fishing culture of coastal Ghana.  Yes, today was a much better day than yesterday.


23 January 2014

Day 27 - Elmina and Cape Coast, Ghana