Egypt has pyramids and Kenya its wildlife, but Ghana’s best-known icons – the slave forts and castles along the coast – were places of misery and suffering. Not the easiest features with which to market your country.
Given this tricky selling point, tours of these historic buildings are done extremely well. At Cape Coast castle, the most famous slave fort, the visit starts in the museum. This has artefacts from the slave trade – chains, shackles, whips, that sort of thing – as well as interesting details about all the trading that occurred in the Gold Coast.
Europeans traded in guns and powder; they would leave their goods on a beach and return to their ships. At this point the local traders would leave an amount of gold or ivory on the beach, before heading back into the forest. The Europeans would then either accept the trade, or return again and wait for more gold and ivory to be added. This wordless bargaining continued until both sides were happy and would take away the goods.
Other displays detail the extent of the slave trade. The large maps demonstrate just how many countries were involved, but the role of different African tribes, who captured slaves and sold them (usually captives from inter-tribal wars), is also fully acknowledged. The Ashanti people don’t come out of this too well, although, as a Brit, colonial slave forts are not the best places to start pointing fingers.
It is during the tour of the castle’s rooms that the grim lives of the slaves are spelled out. Our guide described each room in an understated way, without any melodrama or sensation. But much of the tour makes for uneasy listening, with the little details often the most shocking. In the windowless punishment cell, he pointed out the scratches in the stone floor, made by prisoners going mad as they were slowly starved to death for the most trivial of disobediences. In the male slave holding room, he showed us a line about two feet up the wall; this marked the level of human excrement that had built up during its period of use, discovered as archaeologists dug out what they thought was the floor when excavating the cell.
Our guide at the Castle of St George in Elmina, which we visited the following day, had even more stories to tell. He described– four times in fact – how the courtyard by the female cells was built so that the governor, from his living quarters, could choose which women to take to his bed. He then showed us where the women were made to wash before entering, and even the steps they used up to the bedroom. Judging by the detail, this was his favourite bit of the tour.
More sobering was the Dutch church, built directly over the slave cells, from where both groups would have heard the other during services. And perhaps the most unsettling aspect of the tour was the two punishment cells near the main gate. The cell for soldiers, whose usual crime was coming in drunk, had windows for air. The cell next door had no windows; this was for slaves, who were locked in there to suffocate in the intense heat.
We made a quick tour to Fort St Jago in the centre of Elmina – worth the climb uphill for the opportunity to explore a castle without any guides or other tourists – before exploring one of Ghana’s most colourful coastal towns.
We stayed at the Bridge House Hotel, next to the harbour, and were woken at 5am to the sounds of fishermen preparing their nets, one man beating a rhythm on a bucket while the others sang and worked. This, along with a pungent smell of fish, provided our backdrop as we ate breakfast, accompanied with several lizards and geckos that fought for the bits of jam on toast we dropped.
Elmina’s main activities are fishing and harvesting salt from the nearby lagoon. Given its famous castle and prominence in Ghana’s coastal tourist circuit, it’s remarkable how little tourism has affected the village. It feels very different to beach resorts in Thailand or Goa, where towns seem set up solely for tourists; in Elmina, visitors are welcomed, catered for, and then largely ignored as people get on with their lives. And, as a result, Elmina is a much more interesting place to stay.