In Cape Coast, the men greet travellers with a flash of white teeth and a limp, drawn-out handshake which ends with a rather complicated finger click. Children refrain joyously from that ditches that line the roads, "Hello. How are you? I'm fine." Women smile shyly from the side of the road where they are braiding each other's hair in divinely-named boutiques such as 'Believe in God Hair Cut' or 'Rely on Jesus Beauty Salon.'.Such friendliness towards visitors is a dwindling commodity in some parts of the backpacking world but not in Ghana.
And certainly not in Cape Coast, which is made all the more meaningful by the fact that this town was once a busy slaving port on the notoriously brutal Transatlantic Slave Route.Visiting the slaving forts of the Gold Coast - the former name of the area encompassing much of modern day Ghana - is a sobering, yet enriching, experience. Dotting the Ghanaian coast line from Prampram, in the east to Beyin, in the west; these fortresses are chilly reminders in a very hot country of humanity's past wrongs against humanity.Undoubtedly, the most fascinating of these fortress towns is Cape Coast with its infamous castle which bears the same name.Entering Cape Coast, a visitor might be forgiven for mistaking this UNESCO World Heritage castle for one of the many rundown colonial buildings that line the town. Crouching by the coast, it is not as visually magnificent as some of the other coastal forts.
However, the castle's somewhat shabby exterior belies its shocking slaving history which has rendered it the most visited of all the forts in Ghana.Used originally to trade commodities far less innocuous than human beings, the strategic location of the castle on a rocky cape, with an adjoining natural harbor, made it an obvious choice for European occupiers from the mid 1600s. Swapping numerous times between rival colonizing administrations, it was eventually captured by the British in 1664 and made the government headquarters for British colonial administration until 1877.
It was here, during the height of the slave trade, that many thousands of people were imprisoned in squalid dungeons before beginning their perilous journeys to the Americas.Touring the castle is a paradoxical experience. Walking around the battlements, it is difficult to reconcile the idyllic view of the surrounding palm-fringed beaches with the dank, airless dungeons that lie below. However, the urge to take endless photographs of the stunning vista soon dwindles as the castle's gruesome secrets begin to reveal themselves.
The tour starts with a short introductory video on Ghanaian culture both past and present and is followed by a visit to the very informative museum housed within the castle's walls. Rather than focusing solely on the slaving period, the museum approaches the history of the area chronologically and begins with a display on the traditions of local tribes before the Europeans came. It then moves on to the slaving period which, with its graphic displays, descriptions and pictures, leaves the visitor in no doubt as to the horrific conditions in which slaves were kept prior to their forced migration across the Atlantic Ocean. The exhibition does, however, end rather more buoyantly with a celebration of African-American heroes such as Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali.Visiting the museum though does little to prepare you for seeing the dungeons themselves. Eerily dark with little natural light and no breeze, the guide describes, in his softly-spoken voice, how these sweltering rooms were made to hold hundreds of enslaved people at a time.
With little in the way of sanitation, apart from vastly inadequate sewerage channels, the imprisoned were forced to wait in up to two feet of excrement as their fates were determined by those who resided in the comparatively luxurious administration quarters above.As I listen to the guide, the stifling Ghanaian heat is making me sweat until my eyes sting. The humidity is so overwhelming, it is almost impossible to imagine how anyone managed to survive at all.
Many of course did not.The tour ends at the poignantly named 'DOOR OF NO RETURN'; a huge arched doorway with two black doors which open out to the blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Sticky with sweat, everyone on the tour finds the view from the door refreshingly cool. Yet for the slaves that came before us, this very same view would have represented the beginning of a treacherous voyage to far flung lands - never to return. It is a subduing thought and one that remains with me for the rest of my visit.
Although the castle is the primary reason visitors come to Cape Coast, the town itself is a lively place to stay. The markets that line Kotokuraba Road are filled with colourful characters: brightly-dressed women carrying nail polish, peanuts, even knives, on their heads, men selling electrical plugs in dazzling boubous, the air pounding with the rhythmic sounds of African drums. An easy daytrip is also possible to the pretty port town of Elmina with its stunningly beautiful St George's Castle - another UNESO World Heritage fortress.During my visit to Cape Coast I am frequently stopped and asked to take photographs. At the exit to the castle, a Ghanaian man and his son ask to have one taken with me by a pile of corroded cannon balls.
A fort-keeper at nearby Fortress Victoria makes a similar request. It is hard to know whether to smile or grimace when posing next to such bleak reminders. While I have learned that the villains who perpetrated the slave trade were many: European occupiers, greedy plantation owners, warring tribes; I had expected to feel a little more uncomfortable in a town where the only thing paler than me is the castle's white-washed walls. Instead, however, I find I am being welcomed as warmly as the beating African sun.Cape Coast, it would seem, is more than happy to be occupied by visitors these days..
Currently completing a freelance couse with the London School of Journalism,I have had two short stories published in the United Kingdom through a writer's websure community.
By: Joanna Galbraith