Cape Coast Castle

If Ghana has one main tourist attraction it would be a visit to one of the old colonial castles. Cape Coast Castle and Elmina Castle sit close together on the southern coast and are the largest and the best preserved European-built castles in West Africa. Over three centuries more than 60 forts and castles were built along the Gold Coast, as Ghana was once known. They were built by the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British, the Danes, the Swedes, the French and the Germans. Their main purpose was to act as store houses and trading posts and some were used at living quarters for commercial or military staff. Goods were brought from Europe for trade and the Gold Coast supplied an abundance of Gold and other commodities.

Cape Coast Castle started life as a fort made from timber in 1653, built by the Swedish and fortified in stone the following year. It changed hands several times before it was captured by the British in 1665. They strengthened and expanded the fort and named it Cape Coast Castle. The castle became the seat of the British administration until they relocated to Christianborg Castle in Accra around 1877.

Nowadays the building stands gleaming and white on the rocky coastline. With the sun shining it could almost fool you into thinking it had a nice story to tell. However, what lies behind, or rather beneath, those bright white walls is a rather sinister tale. Now classified under UNESCO as a World Heritage Site Cape Coast Castle is thought to have been one of the largest slave-holding sites in the world during the colonial era.

A tour of the castle starts with a trip into the dungeons, the guide asking you to proceed in the dark to get a feel for the place. When he does switch on the lighting you may not feel any less claustrophobic. The few so called windows are placed high and are incredibly small, letting in very little light. There is no toilet, only a small channel running down the centre of the room. Despite the underground location the African heat is stifling and that combined with imagining 500 prisoners crammed into each of the 3 dungeons can make your head spin in this dark and depressing place. Disease and death were prominent and the people incarcerated here must have had the most horrific experience, which is thought to have lasted between 6-12 weeks. When their time came to leave the castle they would pass via an underground tunnel to The Door of No Return. Here, waiting ships would take them to a life of forced labour in the New World. Many more died at sea.

It is perhaps worth mentioning that the indigenous people of Ghana had kept slaves long before the arrival of colonial power. Some of the main tribes in this part of West Africa include the Akan (Ashanti), Ewe, Mole-Dagbane, Guan, and Ga-Adangbe, to name but a few of a much larger list. Slaves were obviously used and abused but generally were not kept in the appalling conditions used later by the Europeans. Rather interestingly it was possible, in certain unusual circumstances, for an indigenous slave to become elevated out of their slave role and into the family. When the colonial powers realised there was value in the trade of slaves they encouraged fighting between the local tribes. They knew that people captured during tribal wars could be traded with them for goods.

The Trans-Atlantic slave trade played such a major role in the history or West Africa and indeed the world. This is what makes a visit so very much worthwhile. As part of the tour visitors are lead through the Door of No Return. If you were expecting a moment of quiet contemplation however, you can think again. Instead you will step from inside the quiet castle walls into the bustling fishing port of Cape Coast. Right outside the door your senses are hit by the sounds and smells of busy fishing life. Women gut and cook fish right by the door, men and children are repairing nets and everyone is chatting and shouting. This is what I really enjoy about Ghana, real life is never far away!