Every year in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, the months of February and October are?set apart?to celebrate the journey and achievements of Africans in the Diaspora, during what is known as Black History Month. In the United States, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Arthur Ashe, Jackie Robinson, and George Washington Carver are some of the few historical and powerful individuals?who created change and fought to represent the black community. All over the country, children every year are able to highlight the achievements of key black leaders, athletes, and citizens who worked hard for equality in American history. However, the origin of slavery is virtually unknown in American history books. What part of Africa did our slave ancestors come from? What is the real truth of how our African descendants made it to America? As?I asked these questions, I began?to research ?the role Ghana has played in the arrival of slaves in?the Americas and the Caribbean Islands. As you begin reading this short narrative, close your eyes and imagine what tourists see as they walk with a tour guide through?the remains of what is known as the Elmina castle?in Ghana.
A glimpse of sunlight shines through a small crack into a dark room where hundreds of bodies are huddled together. As the slaves laid on top of each other, a strong pungent smell of urine and feces filled the air, as the African men and women were escorted slowly out of the dark and obscure rooms. Pushed through the door with shackles on their wrists and ankles, walking closely behind each other as they stepped onto a wooden board attached to a huge ship headed to a point of no return.
For millions of tourists, the Elmina castle is a historic and antiquated fort that was a pivotal place that represented the grim reality of Africans being transported away from their home in West Africa. The fort in Elmina, Ghana is a physical symbol of the painful past that would forever change history and the lives of many Africans.?Elmina castle (also called the Castle of St. George) is located on the Atlantic coast of Ghana, west of the capital, Accra. ?Built by the Portuguese in 1482, it was a regarded as a ‘link in the trade routes established by the Portuguese in many areas of the world during their era of great maritime exploration.’ The castle was conquered by the Dutch in 1637 and held until 1872, when it was sold to the British.
This historic location?played a key role in the transatlantic slave trade, containing a series of dungeons in which both male and female slaves were imprisoned during the 17th and 18th centuries as their last stop before embarking on their journey to (mostly) the Caribbean and Brazil.
As we think through the horrible things that Africans were subjected to in this fort, we also try to wrap our thoughts around the impact of this story?has had on Africans on the continent and in the Diaspora. ?We are very lucky. Today we can go back out of this room the way we came,” said Robert Kugbey, a soft spoken guide?in a feature on Elmina covered by Reuters. Today, Ghanians are still dealing with the aftermath of Africans who were captured and sold into slavery and how it affected the country. Though Elmina sits quietly on the West African coast surrounded with palm trees and a picturesque view of white sandy beaches, years ago, it was the complete opposite. Many forts such as Elmina were savage and brutal holding places for slaves (men and women). Slaves were forced to endure unbearable conditions as they packed multiple ships en route to countries to be traded and sold to wealthy owners. Sadly, many Africans were tricked into slavery by tribal conflicts or misled by?other Africans, which resulted in a long melancholic journey, as they trekked to coastal dungeon forts like Elmina.
According to Reuters, it is estimated that somewhere between 10 and 28 million Africans were captured and sent across the Atlantic between the 15th and 19th centuries. With the inhumane conditions, many died on these voyages. Kugbey, a?tour guide, begins to explain the dismal reality of what female slaves faced as they entered the walls of the fort.
“Any time the governor wanted to rape one of the slaves, he would hand pick one,? Kugbey said. Out of a thousand?inhabitants, four hundred of them?were women who lived in this dungeon and were packed together while covered in feces, vomit, urine, and menstrual blood with only a small window for ventilation. This horrific detail never loses its power to paint a picture of what African men and women endured during this time. Many preferred death over the long and perilous journey to the foreign countries. Recognized as ‘dead weight’, the slaves who?died were immediately tossed into the sea. This continued on for years, even after abolition in 1807, but was finally enforced in 1833. Many residents of Ghana blame slavery for the generational years of poverty and slow development in the region. However, Africans are also responsible for their role in slavery as well. Enticed by money, some Africans contributed to the large practice of slavery before the Europeans arrived on?the continent.
?We were enticed. You can take the money or you can refuse. Unfortunately, we took the money,” said Richard Noi, a 28-year-old teacher?and?a resident of Ghana. ?Today, tourists are still reminded as the walk through the fort of Elmina in Ghana of the past, including?the exploitation of African men and women..
The controversy: Is Goree Island part of this story?
In 2013, President Barack Obama and the first family visited Goree Island outside of Dakar, Senegal. As the first family examined the fort on the Senegalese island, many photographers snapped photos of the President and first lady looking out the door at the rocks and waves below. In fact, many world leaders and individuals of note including Pope John Paul II, Nelson Mandela, and former U.S. presidents [George W. Bush and Bill Clinton] have also visited Goree Island as well. However, many historians believe the door of the slave house was not a door used for shipping slaves but used for dumping garbage. In an interview with the Associated Press, Professor Ralph Austen from the University of Chicago said ?There are literally no historians who believe the Slave House is what they’re claiming it to be, or that believe Goree Island was associated directly in terms of the slave trade.” ? ?
In the 1990?s, Philip Curtin, professor of history at John Hopkins University and author of several books disagreed with the claim that Goree Island was a significant part of history for African slave trade. “A lot of people have visited Goree Island, and what they believe is a scam,” Curtin has written. Yes, Goree is a picturesque place, but it was marginal to the slave trade.”
Others?believe that it was too shallow and rocky for a ship to load passengers at the point of the door and sail into the Atlantic Ocean. Instead, historians such as Professor Austen believe that the African slaves were only kept at the location as a holding place until it was time to travel to the Americas and overseas. These scholars believe other locations in West Africa and Ghana have stronger validity about being posts for slaves? travel.
Years later, the debate carries on, but the island continues to attract visitors from around the world. President Obama described the visit as a ‘very powerful moment’ and has deepened his appreciation for?and?understanding of the magnitude of the slave trade.
As an African-American president, he described the trip as a reminder of?the past and motivation to work harder for human rights around the world.