The last view of daylight many slaves saw before they were confined to Elmina.
This closing piece on my experience in Ghana has taken a long time for me to write, because I’ve been struggling with the best way to express what I saw on my last full day in West Africa.
The primary item on our agenda that morning was a visit to the Elmina slave castle. We drove through the markets in Cape Coast, parked and walked to a relic from the 15th century- a port castle that had once served as a holding area for gold (hence the moniker “Gold Coast”), but ended up being a place where human beings were treated as anything but human before being sold as commodities, many of them being raped, beaten, or even killed before any money could be taken in exchange for them.
The slave castle at Elmina came into its own under the Portugese, then was taken over by the Dutch, and eventually the English when they established Ghana as a British colony. Slavery already existed in West Africa in the form of indentured servanthood; if you couldn’t pay off a debt monetarily, you paid it off through service. In this form, as well as by taking prisoners of war, Africans had been enslaving one another for centuries. But with the discovery of the New World, tribal leaders began to understand that these slaves were of immense economic value, and began selling them in bulk to the Europeans, starting tribal skirmishes for the express purposes of rounding up new human merchandise.
I saw the historical evidence of terrible things at Elmina- holding cells for women and girls, so cramped that not all of them could lie down at night for sleep, and those who could lie down would lie in their own filth and the filth of their fellow prisoners. When the governor of Elmina had the urge, he’d commission soldiers to douse one of them with buckets of water so she’d be clean enough to satisfy his carnal pleasures.
The private staircase from the female prisoner area to the Governor’s chambers
The men would be starved to the point of not being able to resist the guards. When it was time to ship them away, they were chained together; we hunched our way through the hall that led from the holding cells to the loading docks, made intentionally restrictive so that prisoners couldn’t fight as they were being prodded like cattle toward enforced servitude.
In the final room leading out to the ships, we saw wreaths, notes, flowers, and memorials; some left by descendants of those who had been treated so inhumanely by their fellow human beings. I thought of so many of the immigrant peoples who came to the United States looking for a better life: the Irish, Italians, Germans and others on whose backs so much of our national infrastructure was built. For those of us who are able to trace our lineage and visit the graves of our ancestors, we at least have some form of familial consolation in that regard. For many who left these remembrances at Elmina, all they could hope for was that they had possibly found one of the most harrowing places where their ancestors might have at one point been humiliated.
The undersized tunnel from the prison cells to the slave ships.
We were told about the conditions on the ships that were part of the Transatlantic slave trade, as recounted in the diaries of “Amazing Grace” songwriter William Wilberforce; how prisoners were laid on their backs on shelves, side by side, unable to roll over, sit up, or wipe the seasickness from their mouths. Often, it would be morning before a slave master would remove a dead person who had been chained to a live person all night, and throw them into the sea. When the Transatlantic slave trade became illegal, and slave ships saw authorities coming, they’d offload their human cargo- dumping slaves chained to one another into the sea, drowning together without any way to free themselves.
Our tour guide, a native Ghanaian who had spent his career sharing this history, knew we were Catholics, and told us one of the most common questions posed to him by tourists: knowing that all of these atrocities were committed by men who came from Christian Europe, why did he decide to commit himself to a relationship with Jesus Christ? He told us that he had read the words of Our Lord in the New Testament over and over, and saw nothing in them that advocated or encouraged the kind of inhumanity that had been perpetuated at Elmina. In fact, as one of our liturgical readings at Mass reminded us recently, it is those who cause scandal in the name of Christ who should prefer to be tied to weights and tossed into the sea.
I am more than a generation removed from Jim Crow, and several generations removed from imposed slave labor on our soil. I didn’t live through the Civil Rights Movement in this country; I learned about it in Social Studies class. But as I stood in that memorial room where human beings had been shoved onto ships, and we sang “We Shall Overcome” together, all of my cynicism about the bastardized political correctness in our society that has forgotten what oppression really is fell away. I wept for what man had done to man in that very room, and I prayed that we would overcome what humans do to humans in our own day and age: to those who forcibly recruit child soldiers, to those who enslave victims of the sex trade, to those who politically exploit the unborn, the elderly and infirm, and I said a prayer for the protection of any whom we find it politically or economically expedient to exploit in our own day and age, so seemingly far removed from the abuses that took place at Elmina.
St. Josephine Bakhita, ora pro nobis.