The Throne of Zion
A Pilgrimage to São Jorge Da Mina, Ghana’s Oldest and Most Notorious Slave Castle
When I arrived in Ghana, my narrative of slavery was one of black victimhood and white violence. I didn’t know much of anything about the history, complexity, or semantics of slavery on the African side of the Atlantic. I knew about field slaves and house slaves and thought of them mainly as tied to American plantations, deep in the past. To my mind they were chattel without rights; commodities who could be bought, sold, and inherited; property who were not considered human; people whose children inherited their status in perpetuity. Until I read the book Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, by Saidiya Hartman, I didn’t know the many words in Akan for “slave,” the particular shades of meaning for Ghana’s own peculiar institution. Akoa—“a subject, assistant, or vassal”; awowa—“a bondservant pawned for a relative’s debt”; akyere—“a peon enslaved as punishment for a crime”; domun—“a captive of war”; odonkor—“a person for sale in the market.” This was the book my eyes strained to read in the weak light of my hotel room. I hadn’t known that of these words, odonkor, closest to what we mean by “slave” in the West, was the only one colored by stigma and shame, a brand of dishonor that made the topic of slavery, as I understood it, utterly taboo to discuss with Ghanaians. And I wouldn’t know until later about the scope of contemporary slave traffic in Ghana—grand enough to land it on the Tier 2 Watch List of the U.S. State Department’s 2009 Trafficking in Persons Report, which opens:
Ghana is a source, transit, and destination country for children and women trafficked for the purposes of forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation. Trafficking within the country is more prevalent than transnational trafficking and the majority of victims are children. Both boys and girls are trafficked within Ghana for forced labor in agriculture and the fishing industry, for street hawking, forced begging by religious instructors, as porters, and possibly for forced kente weaving. Over 30,000 children are believed to be working as porters, or Kayaye, in Accra alone. Annually, the IOM [International Organization for Migration] reports numerous deaths of boys trafficked for hazardous forced labor in the Lake Volta fishing industry. Girls are trafficked within the country for domestic servitude and sexual exploitation. To a lesser extent, boys are also trafficked internally for sexual exploitation, primarily for sex tourism… In 2008, the UN reported that a form of ritual servitude called Trokosi, in which young girls are subjected to forced labor and sexual servitude, continues in at least 23 fetish shrines.
These practices are so entrenched in Ghanaian society today that in 2007, when former president Rawlings announced the nation would commemorate the two-hundredth anniversary of slavery’s abolishment in the British Caribbean on Emancipation Day, Ghanaians responded, “Has slavery ended in Ghana?”
I was vaguely aware that some Africans had colluded in and profited from the international slave trade, and that Africans had enslaved Africans for centuries before the Europeans arrived. Unlike the slaves who would work the plantations in the West, domestic slaves in Ghana could own property, inherit their master’s wealth, specialize in artisan crafts, marry, and bear children, and they were rarely sold. But had those Africans who sold Africans to Europeans (and who had no concept of racial ideology, nor of themselves as African) foreseen the brutality of chattel slavery or the magnitude of the millions dispossessed and dead, would they have had moral qualms about the trade? Probably not, as long as they stood to profit from it. For a long, long time, it was perfectly legal, and besides, they weren’t selling their own. The people they exchanged were spoils of war won in battles with different tribes who spoke different languages and prayed to different gods.
I didn’t know that domestic trade in slaves continued through the tail end of the nineteenth century and even into the early part of the twentieth, decades past the point when the transatlantic trade had been officially abolished. In that century there were more slaves in Africa than in the Americas. These slaves and their descendants made up somewhere between half and three quarters of West Africa’s entire population. The largest slave market in Ghana wasn’t run by Europeans on the coast, where I would make the compulsory errand to wrestle with the crime of slavery, but by Africans in Salaga, which sat poised below the Sahel and above the Volta River. Tens of thousands of captives were bought and sold each year of the nineteenth century in Salaga to feed the ravenous appetite of the trans-Saharan, transatlantic, and African slave trades.
The sun glinting off the white walls of the slave castle seared my eyeballs. It was high noon and the heat was unforgiving. I had no shadow and neither did the castle. I glanced at it sideways, unable to look upon it directly. My stance reminded me of a dear friend who once drove me in his jeep along Route 64 where it chases the churning Rio Grande. Not once did he turn his head from the road to look directly at the water. When I asked him why, he told me he was cowed by the river’s majesty. But it wasn’t for its majesty that I couldn’t look upon the castle.
Of the dozens of trade castles and forts dotting Ghana’s three-hundred-mile coastline, I’d chosen to visit the one in Elmina because it was the most notorious. Being the first permanent European settlement in Africa, it was also the oldest. The Portuguese began construction on São Jorge da Mina in 1482 with stones imported from Portugal. It was designed to defend against attacks from the local people and from other Europeans, but in the seventeenth century it was captured by the Dutch. In the nineteenth century it was purchased by the British. Now it is a World Heritage monument.
In the castle’s early days, Europeans didn’t think of themselves as European any more than Africans thought of themselves as African. The Dutch weren’t betraying a European bond when they captured the Portuguese castle, just as the Mandinke weren’t betraying an African bond when they captured Ayuba. Nor, in the castle’s early days, was the castle a slave castle. Like most of the fortifications built after São Jorge by Holland, England, Denmark, Sweden, and the state of Brandenburg, the castle was built to promote and protect the trade of goods, not people. The Europeans bartered brandy, brassware, beads, and guns for African pepper, ivory, and gold. These were the treasures warehoused in the castles.
But by 1700, the African face of commerce had changed. Holland and Britain needed labor on the plantations they were laying in their Caribbean and American colonies. Year after year, more and more slaves exchanged hands, until they’d tipped the scales and replaced gold as the most lucrative commodity of all. At the peak of the slave trade, in the eighteenth century, nearly a million slaves were shipped to the New World from Ghana alone. In 1730, a report from the Dutch West India Company tells us that the “part of Africa which as of old is known as the ‘Gold Coast’… has now virtually changed into a pure Slave Coast.” Someone had to pick all that cotton, till the soil, cut the cane.
Richard Wright wrote of the castle’s battlements as “awe-inspiring,” their form as having “a somber but resplendent majesty.” How should I describe the sprawling São Jorge castle? Its cannons were erect. Its towers rose two hundred feet in the air. In places its walls were thirty feet thick, punctuated by embrasures like black keys on a grand piano. It exuded a crumbling grandeur. Its edges and corners were rounded by time. It was ringed by palm trees and, in a postcard, might have been mistaken for an elegant resort hotel.
But to me the castle just looked like a wedding cake made out of pigeon shit.
I’d arrived carsick, having driven the hundred dusty miles from Accra with a young, goateed driver named Elolo who couldn’t comprehend why I wanted to go there. “At least let me take you to Akosombo Dam or somewhere beautiful instead! Elmina is no good. Only black Americans come across the water to cry about that place,” Elolo offered, assuming I was something other than a black American. I decided to play race spy rather than try to convince him of my blackness.
“You must guide them often,” I prompted.
“Of course. They have big money to spend on their tears. But with all that money, what are they crying for?”
“For their ancestors,” I said. If Elolo made something near the national average of two dollars a day, why should he sympathize with people who could afford to pay more than he could make in two years just for the airfare to come and grieve for ancestors they couldn’t even name? The baldness of his car’s tires made me sad. The vehicle was held together with duct tape, rubber bands, and grit. Every time we hit a rut in the road or had to stop for a herd of cattle, its engine shuddered, choked, and stalled, on the verge of dying altogether. I had no doubt his foreign passengers complained. But being raised in such a rich mourning tradition, I wondered why he wasn’t more sensitive to the pain that brought the black diaspora to Ghana. “They’re honoring the souls of their dead,” I said, somewhat defensively. “They come here to pay their respects.”
“But they don’t respect us,” Elolo objected. “These black people—oh! They keep saying they are Africans like us. ‘We are one people.’ ‘One Africa.’ But all they do is criticize us. Why won’t these blacks leave somebody alone? They say, ‘You are using the wrong fuel in your car. The air is dirty. The gutter stinks. It is unclean to cook near a gutter, therefore your food is dirty. Also you are dirty. You must wash yourself more frequently.’ They disapprove of how we live.”
Queasy from last night’s palm wine and the ruts in the road, I rolled down the passenger window to clear my head. The air rushed in, hot as a steam room, cloudy with red dust, and seething with diesel fumes. I quickly tried to roll the window back up, but the crank broke loose in my hand. Flashes of life scrolled past: TRY JESUS DIGITAL PHOTO CENTER, PRINCE OF PEACE MOTORS, GOD BE THE GLORY BEAUTY SALON. Ghana is a rabidly Christian country, which by no means signals that animism is dead, just that devotion and praise to God as key to success are often expressed in signs like these. We passed a CLAP FOR JESUS BLOCK FACTORY, and an ironically empty fruit stand called LITTLE IS MUCH WHEN GOD IS IN IT. I saw thatch-roofed mud huts made of dung and straw, with sheets strung in their doorways, a herd of goats in the shade of a calabash tree, a woman bent over a basin washing her hair, a gang of children tossing garbage onto a tire fire, a man holding two roasted grass cutter rodents by their naked tails.
Elolo griped on about the gripes of black Americans. “And even if they are spending their nights in the biggest hotel in all of Ghana, they cry, ‘It’s too hot here. Where is the air conditioning? Where is the toilet paper? This bed has fleas. The water doesn’t run. The TV is broken. The power is out.’ Eh, my sister, you should see them! They think they are too fine.”
“That’s entitlement for you,” I said, shaking my aching head. “I bet they believe light bulbs grow on trees.”
“Yes! You have understood me. When a man’s coat is threadbare, it is easy to pick a hole in it.”
“But not all of them are like you think, Elolo.”
“Are you sure?”
I hesitated. “Yes.”
“How would you know?” He sucked his teeth. “These blacks truly expect too much. When you go to a new country, you can’t expect to belong to that place. Here, everybody knows where they are from, but they are lost here. They will hire me to be their guide in Africa, but truly they intend to guide me to become a better African. They should not come in here thinking that they are on a god-given mission to change Mother Africa. They want us to love them, not as our neighbors but as our superiors. So I ask you this: how can we weep with them?”
The castle hove into view. “We are seriously approaching,” Elolo remarked. “Slavery is not the only story about black people. It’s only a small story! Don’t they know that if tomorrow a slave ship arrived at Elmina to carry us to America, so many Ghanaians would climb on board that this ship would sink to the bed of the ocean from our weight?” He laughed. I couldn’t help laughing myself. But who was the butt of the joke?
I’d been to the Annual Tribute to Our Ancestors of the Middle Passage, celebrated every June in Coney Island, where people tossed roses and oranges into the surf while the Wonder Wheel spun behind them. Here I was on the flip side of the tragic Atlantic. From the drawbridge of the castle, I could see that the beach was being used by the local men and boys as a public toilet. Once I crossed over the moat and into the mouth of the castle, I could no longer make out the sound of the waves. The auction hall was silent, vast, and bright as sin. Blinding white. Whiter than cowrie shell, white as bone. There was no shade. It was hard to see.
The first thing I saw was a marble plaque engraved with these words:
IN EVERLASTING MEMORY OF
THE ANGUISH OF OUR ANCESTORS
MAY THOSE WHO DIED REST IN PEACE.
MAY THOSE WHO RETURN FIND THEIR ROOTS.
MAY HUMANITY NEVER AGAIN PERPETUATE
SUCH INJUSTICE AGAINST HUMANITY.
WE THE LIVING VOW TO UPHOLD THIS.
The scale of those words was too large for my mind to contain. I could see pieces of the castle, such as the heart-shaped plastic funeral wreath of flowers someone had placed beneath the plaque, the iron balustrades decorated with the initials of the Dutch West India Company, and the skull and crossbones above the door to the male dungeon. But like one of the blind men in that Indian parable about the elephant where one feels the tail and says it is a rope, one feels the belly and says it is a wall, one feels an ear and says it is a hand fan, one feels the trunk and says it is a tree branch, and one feels a tusk and says it is a solid pipe, I could only grasp at the castle’s details, not understand its shape as a whole. If I had been hovering above it, at a cold distance, from a helicopter, or reading about it in a dispassionate history book, I might have been able to discern its magnitude, but I was swallowed inside it, wandering its entrails on a guided tour of hell.
As Elolo had predicted, the others in my tour group were black Americans. An elderly couple from Brooklyn, a family of five from Baltimore, and two middle-aged sisters from Pasadena who peeled off halfway through the tour for Cape Coast when they realized that was the castle the Obamas had visited, not this. “I heard he cried,” the one using a kente-print umbrella as a sunshade said by way of explanation. “But they won’t show that in the news,” added her sister with the knockoff designer bag, and they were off to replicate the president’s purported trail of tears, leaving the rest of us shading our eyes in the Dutch West India Company trading hall, where, our guide explained, a male slave worth six ounces of gold in 1750 could be traded in equivalent goods such as: one thousand beads, four pieces of fine linen, two muskets, or one anker of brandy. If he was missing a tooth, the slave was worth less, though smearing his skin with palm oil was a useful trick to make him seem strong and young enough to fetch the full price.
“God Almighty,” said the father from Baltimore, shaking with rage.
I wanted to feel angry, too, but I felt nothing aside from dizziness, not even in the dank female dungeon, which was humid and swarming with flies. The Dutch word for this storeroom was hoeregat—“whore hole.” One hundred and fifty women at a time were imprisoned for as long as it took for the ships to arrive. One month, three months in the barracoon. It’s hard to say how they crammed in so many women. As many as 15 percent of them died here before making it onto the ships, mainly of dysentery, from lying in their own waste. The accretion of menstrual blood, excrement, urine, sweat, and tears combined over time into a carpet several inches thick upon the stone floor. I believed I could still smell it, the compacted issue of those women’s bodies. I wanted to smell it. Something stank, but it might have been just the green beard of algae on the dungeon walls.
A rope ladder led through a trapdoor from the female dungeon up to the governor’s private quarters. He could descend and choose whichever woman in the whore hold he desired. The governor’s quarters, which overlooked the sea, were breezy and palatial. Attached to his chambers was a worship space where the soldiers, lieutenants, clergymen, bookkeeper, and governor had prayed. What did the company men pray for in that lofty room? Within a year of their arrival from Europe, most of the white men had died of “climate fever.” They died between the harmattan and the monsoon, between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, where there were no seasons, where the humidity turned their wigs to mold. They died of hepatitis, guinea worm, typhoid, boredom, malaria, and yellow fever. For the most part they were too weak to penetrate the interior. They simply sat in their fort and waited for the slaves to be brought to them. The castle must have been a hell, a higher circle of hell than the hell of the dungeons and the belly of the boats, but a circle of hell all the same. The officers could not have seen Africa as the utopia many Europeans envisioned it to be during the Age of Discovery, a tropical Eden before the Fall. This was the Fall. What did they think in the chapel above the dungeons when they read the psalm I discovered high up on the wall?
Zion is des Heeren ruste
Zion is the Lord’s throne
Dit is syn woonplaetse in
This is His resting place
For all eternity.
Did it seem to the Dutchmen, as it did to me, a terrible irony for the castle to be cast as the throne of Zion? Or was the church above the dungeon a reminder that sometimes, as Barack Obama remarked at Cape Coast Castle, “we can tolerate and stand by great evil even as we think that we’re doing good”?
“This history is not told to open old wounds, but to serve as education,” the guide told us. “For you and I to come together to fight the slave trade. Together we stand. United we fall. The history is not also told to point a finger. No. It is basically told to bring us together.” The guide said nothing about the expansion of African slavery in response to Atlantic trade. He offered no approaches to work through that history. He gave no information about the slave traffic going on in Ghana today. But with a great show of solemnity, he led us down a stone staircase through the transit dungeon and the room, dark as a cave, where slaves were once branded on the forehead, back, or arm with the stamp of the ship they would be forced to embark.
“Where did they think they were going to go?” whispered the retired wife from Brooklyn, removing her Panama hat. Moving slowly and groping the brick walls with our hands, we arrived at the Room of No Return, with its exit to the sea: a narrow, provocative door. Originally, before the goods transported from the castle included human beings, this door was wider. It was made into a slit for the slaves, tight as a cattle shoot, to prevent them from stampeding en masse or from seeing with clarity where they were going.
This, then, was the door. It struck me as vaginal. You passed through it and onto a ship for Suriname or Curaçao, or through similar doorways for Cuba or Jamaica, Savannah or New Orleans. You passed through it, lost everything, and became something else. You lost your language. You lost your parents. You were no longer Asante or Krobo, Ewe or Ga. You became black. You were a slave. Your children inherited your condition. You lost your children. You lost your gods, as you had known them. You slaved. You suffered, like Christ, the new god you learned of. You learned of the Hebrew slaves of old. In the field, you sang about Moses and Pharaoh. You built a church, different from your masters’. You prayed for freedom. You wondered about the Promised Land, where that place might be.
The sea has receded since those days. The pier where the dugout canoes were tied to collect, then carry, the slaves to the anchored ships is long gone, but the stones that propped up the pier are still there, like gravestones in the sand. The youngest of the children from Baltimore, no more than six and no doubt tempted by the peek of blue the doorway offered, dropped his plastic brontosaurus and tried to make a break for the beach.
“No you don’t!” his father snapped, yanking the boy back by his collar and smacking him on the backside of his head.
Our guide held up his index finger to gather our attention. “Here was the point where the slaves broke down and cried,” he said. As if on cue, the woman from Brooklyn broke down and cried. She reached into a Macy’s bag, pulled out a beribboned funeral wreath of her own, and set it on the floor. Her husband later explained that the wreath was a gift from their church back home. IN MEMORY OF OUR DEPARTED ANCESTORS. MAY WE KEEP THE TORCH BURNING.
I thought about the eternal flames burning at the Holocaust memorials in Jerusalem and Washington, D.C., and felt the absence of such a gesture at this monument. I wasn’t looking for anything as grand, or as grotesque, as the reenactment ceremonies staged here from time to time. But as a museum, I found the castle disappointing. There was nothing written on the walls. There were no marks left by the captives. There were no maps to display the regions from which they’d been kidnapped, no paintings of how they’d lived, no glass cases to show their belongings. Nor were there any accounts in their words of the hell it was to be imprisoned here. What we know about them we know from the ledgers and journals of the merchants. The slaves themselves left no shadow.
The castle was cavernous, the lives it swallowed, digested, excreted too staggering to fathom. I once visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam with my mother. We gasped in the same instant before the pencil marks on the yellowed wallpaper where Mrs. Frank had measured Anne’s growth. My mother had done the same for me and my brothers, and maybe all mothers do this for their growing children. When we confronted the topmost line, the point where Anne’s life was cut down, we inhaled as if history had punched us in the gut. It was easier to measure the loss of one girl’s life than the lives of six million. It was easier to cry when you could see that person’s face and read her story. I wanted a moment like that. I wanted a yardstick.
“We think it was about sixty million slaves they shipped to the New World. Of that number, I am sorry to say, only 20 percent survived. But, look at the bright side, my sisters and brothers. Now it is no longer called the Room of No Return, because you have come back home! They left in chains, but you came freely. Now it is more properly called the Room of Return,” the guide said, enthusiastically. “So!” He clapped and finished with a prayer: “May the ancestors rest in perfect peace, amen.”
“Amen,” we responded, crossing ourselves. The mother from Baltimore continued to cry. Her little boy cried, too, but I knew from the way he rubbed the back of his head that it wasn’t for the sake of the slaves. I wanted to cry but I could not. I couldn’t buy the idea that we had closed some broken circle by returning. Our guide wore a bright red T-shirt that said coca cola, st. george castle. I do not know what the link was between Coke and the castle, except that the tour felt as much an advertisement as the T-shirt. On sale was the notion that this was a reunion and that our visitation represented progress.
In the gift shop you could buy a postcard with a poem called “Living the Dream,” which read:
Rosa sat so Martin could walk
Martin walked so Obama
Obama ran so our children
As if to suggest we’d crossed some racial finish line. Was this what black Americans wanted to buy? Was this really what we came to Ghana for? I was more interested in the book by David Rooney, also for sale in the gift shop, called Kwame Nkrumah: Vision and Tragedy. I purchased this book before lunching with the retired couple from Brooklyn in the restaurant attached to the castle.
“This fish is inedible,” complained the wife, laying down her fork and batting away the flies with her hat. “Do they have to drown everything in palm oil?” Their trip to Ghana was a seventieth-birthday present for her husband. She’d also gifted him with a $350 DNA test through African Ancestry, a successful black-owned genealogy company that genetically linked him to the Hausa people of Nigeria.
“I told her not to spend all that money,” said her husband. He wore cataract sunglasses and madras shorts.
“It was worth every penny,” she insisted. “If we don’t know our past, we can’t understand our present.”
“So why did you come here instead of going to Nigeria?” I asked.
“Nigerians are con artists,” the wife said. “Don’t you get those emails from Prince So-and-So asking you to deposit a thousand dollars in his bank account? I hate to think how many poor folks they sucker with that scheme.”
“But how did it feel to figure out where your ancestors were from?” I asked the husband.
He shrugged and looked down at his Velcro sneakers. He seemed depressed, wiped out from the castle. “I guess it felt good to fill in a gap. But what do I know about the Hausa? We don’t know them and they don’t know us. All I know is that I always wanted to see Africa before I die. It was just easier to plan a trip to Ghana is all,” he said.
View of the castle in Elmina on the northwest side, seen from the river, circa 1665. From the Atlas Blaeu-van der Hem
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