A week’s meetings in Accra, Ghana last month gave the chance to visit a place I’d long known about but couldn’t visualise. There are many of these horrors dotted along Africa’s Atlantic coast. One of the most intact is Elmina Castle, a few hours west of Accra.
It was built by the Portuguese in 1482, then seized by the Dutch in 1637. Thousands upon thousands of lives passed through its walls en route to death or slavery. But lest Brits smugly feel superior, we had equivalent castles just a few miles east and west.
We were confronted by the horror as we stood at the hole in the wall known as the Door of No Return. Our guide, Philip, stands in front of it (right) explaining how the process worked. Over the centuries, sediment has built up, closing up the water channel used by dinghies to ferry their ‘cargo’ to the awaiting slaver. It is a truly terrible place.
It is impossible to do it justice in a blog, a photo, a statistic. But the resonance that most chilled me was the sense that this was Africa’s Holocaust, spread over centuries, not just a decade, fitting because we were visiting just a day before Holocaust Memorial Day (27 Jan). The consequences of this are inestimable and they last to the present.
For my own sake, as much as anything, I tried to get a sense of the scale of this atrocity. So I spent some time digging in this impressive, if quietly horrific, website: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Voyages – which tries to pool all data related to every single slave-carrying voyage, and thus is the source of all these figures:
I chatted to Philip a bit during our tour. He does it several times a day. I don’t know how he can manage it. It is a desperate place. But the only way to be sustained in it (I guess) is to see it as educating against repetition – much as the guides at Auschwitz are.
But I managed to take this image – as Philip waited for us to gather from the women’s dungeon at the stepladder below the governor’s lodgings – where he explained that whichever women the governor had his eye on would be pulled out of the crowd, washed and then sent up to his chambers above for him to have his way.
It was sickening in the extreme to discover later that the ONLY old memorial in the complex was for a Dutch governor who had died of disease after only a few months in post – on which he was described as (if memory serves) “godly, upright and just”.
For more images, go to my Flickr album
slavery, slave trade, Middle Passage, Ghana, Africa, Holocaust Memorial Day, injustice, Elmina Castle