Elmina Castle sits stubbornly along the Gold Coast of Defiant to the Atlantic , it has tested nature since 1452. Built by the Portuguese, later seized by the Dutch before being last occupied by the British, Elmina Castle, named for the Portuguese word for “mine,” has also challenged humanity for centuries.in western Africa .
We arrived to the small fishing village-town to learn more about Elmina was a major port of no return for thousands of slaves stolen from and sold to the New World .’s sad history.
The castle itself, if you were to view it without a history, is a beautiful site. Grand, stately, perched on the water, waves rolling in, palm trees, and a glorious vista could give one an idyllic picture of life. But, like all things castle-like, one could just as likely look at it and be repulsed.
Add the history lesson, and Elmina Castle is one of the ugliest places on the planet.
Our guide showed us the female dungeons where women slept, sat, and stood in their bodily wastes for weeks on end before exiting to the ships waiting beyond the surf line. If she was a trouble maker, she was brought out to a small court yard and shackled to a cannonball and forced to stand in the relentless sun, her skin frying, her body dehydrating—her lesson to follow orders.
Or maybe she was one of the women selected to go into the same courtyard so the Governor could walk out on to his balcony overhead and pick from the slaves the woman he was going to rape that day. Once selected, she was washed in public by the guards and escorted upstairs. When the Governor was done, the guards and clergy took their turn. All the while, the small church the enslavers attended and praised their God in was only a doorknob’s turn away.
Men were placed in dungeons as well. Fortunate for them, they were not women and did not have to worry about rape.
If a man was a trouble maker, he was placed in a small cell with no windows and only a small opening in the door for air. The air did little. Chances are that when he was thrown into the cell, there was a rotting corpse waiting for him. When a slave died in a cell, he remained there until his decaying body served its purpose as misery-inducer to the dying slaves. No food or water was given. A male slave’s lesson to be learned could not result in a learning process. He remained in the cell until he died from starvation, his body blown up like a rubber balloon in the hot tropical sun.
Walking through the dungeons and down to the room of No-Return, I felt a heaviness descend upon me. It was too much to comprehend. I stood in the dark rooms and felt humanity looking at me. I smelled burning flesh from last-minute brandings. I saw eyes and faces of Africans I work with, America ’s Africans I have known, befriended, worked with, and I felt shame. It is shameful.
Looking out the small exit wide and tall enough for a stooped-over emaciated body to fit through, the Atlantic was bright and endless.
However, it was also a dark highway, a highway that history cannot erase despite its trying to forget. It was a place where humanity mined humanity and sold off our dignity.
While in the castle listening to the waves crashing on the beach, I thought of the wailing, the screaming, the agony that surely poured out of the dungeons.
I hope I can get the connection between the sound of waves crashing on a beach and human agony out of my head some day.
(written 13 November 2005)