Ghana: Slave Castles and Colonial Chains

The “slave castle at Cape Coast, Ghana

Ghana is an incredible country to visit, rightly known for its hospitality and safety among travellers to Africa. I visited Ghana in 2012, on my first trip to sub-Saharan Africa, and had an amazing time visiting the sites I’ve described below. With relatively small tourist numbers, I could explore Ghana’s sites at a relaxed pace under the baking West African sun.

The slave castles at Cape Coast & Elmina

The outwardly pretty, white-washed ‘slave castles’ at Cape Coast and Elmina are notorious symbols of the Atlantic slave trade. They were the gateway to the terrible ‘Middle Passage’, where slaves were shipped in appalling conditions from Africa to plantations and colonies in the New World. For many slaves, these castles were their last ever sight of Africa; and for many who died in the Middle Passage, their last of land.

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Cape Coast Castle, above, was first the site of a small trade lodge, built by the Portuguese in 1555. Europeans were initially attracted to modern-day Ghana for its abundance of gold, and accordingly, the territory was known as the Gold Coast. As you can see in the photo below, Cape Coast Castle is elevated and has flat beach on either side, perfect for loading ships.

Its permanent structure was first built by the Swedes – not normally known as a big player in African colonial history – in 1653, after the local King of Fetu granted permission. The fort briefly fell into Danish, Dutch and again Fetu possession, but in 1664 it was captured by the British. By 1700, as the slave trade grew to dominate trading in West Africa, the site was upgraded to a castle.

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Just down the coast lies another such castle, at Elmina (below). This is the oldest known European building south of the Sahara, built by the Portuguese in 1482. But the Dutch took over in 1637, and Elmina’s castle remained in their hands for the duration of the slave trading era. The British took over comparatively late, in the 1870s, long after the slave trade had been abolished (across the British Empire in 1807, though slavery itself persisted in parts Cuba and Brazil until the 1880s).

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I visited both castles at Elmina and Cape Coast. They are remarkably similar, both visually and in terms of the horrors they witnessed. Slave dungeons, chains, and a chilling atmosphere remain in the castles. The floors of the dungeons, for example, are several inches higher than they were originally, a result of centuries of human excrement and filth. Many slaves were held there for months.

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Both castles have a ‘Door of No Return’, marking the point through which slaves were led onto ships and towards the New World. An estimated 30,000 slaves passed through Elmina’s ‘Door of No Return’ each year by the 1700s. Up to 25 million Africans were forcibly removed from the continent in total, sent both to the Americas and to the Arab world, but a lack of accurate data means these figures will remain disputed.

Movingly, ancestors and travellers (even Barack and Michelle Obama) still come here to pay their respects and lay down wreaths to the many who suffered and died in the slave trade.

Accra, Ghana’s modern capital

Fast forward several centuries to Ghana’s independence from the British Empire in 1957. In Accra, Ghana’s buzzing capital city, stands Independence Square. It marks a momentous break in African history, when Ghana – then called Gold Coast – became the first sub-Saharan colony to throw off British imperial rule.

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Ghana’s independence movement was led by Kwame Nkrumah, and he became leader at independence in 1957. Nkrumah commissioned the Black Star Gate (above) and Independence Arch (below) to honour the visit of Queen Elizabeth II in 1961. (British Pathé have some great footage of her trip.) The move seems ironic, but British decolonisation in Ghana is often regarded as among the most amicable in Africa – compared, for example, with Portugal’s wars in Angola, or France’s in Algeria, or even Britain in Kenya. The Queen remained the sovereign, and Ghana became a republic only in 1960.

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Nkrumah, third from right, at the 1960 Commonwealth Conference

226887330_3eae11921a_zYou can combine a visit to the Independence Square with the nearby Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum & Memorial Park (right). It’s a small but interesting place, where you can see Nkrumah’s grave and some of his personal possessions, including the clothes he wore when he declared the country’s independence in 1957. Vivid in my memories are the park’s beautiful peacocks!

Sadly as my trip was only 10 days, I didn’t get a chance to visit other historical sites around Ghana, including the history of the Asante in Kumasi. Next time.

General Tips & Advice

  • For further info, try Ghana’s Museums and Monuments website. This longer article by the Culture Trip on Ghana’s slave castles is also interesting.
  • I stayed in Cape Coast, at a cool little beachfront hostel called Oasis Beach Resort. They have delicious local food and a great nightlife. From there, we took a taxi to Elmina on a day trip, which is just 13km away.

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