It’s hard to imagine 1,000 men and women packed into these dank underground dungeons for months at a time.
They died in great numbers, Africans from inland tribes kidnapped and crammed into holding cells inside 60 fortresses that European powers built during the 17th century along the Gulf of Guinea.
“There were about 200 in each room, 1,000 in all, and because they were not in the best condition many of them died and they were thrown into the sea,” explained Emansi Hackman, a tour guide at Cape Coast Castle in southern Ghana.
“When the ships arrived, there was a tunnel that linked the slave dungeon to the exit,” Hackman said as he gestured to a shrine inside the dungeon that marks the passage, now walled-off, that led slaves to through the Door of No Return, where they embarked in manacles to points west.
Anyone who tried to rebel was locked in a separate holding cell and left without food or water until they died.
The smell inside that stone chamber overpowers the senses. Perhaps it’s sentimental to ponder the reek of death, but many people died slowly and rotted in this place, and it stinks.
“If anyone had just this much life in them,” Hackman said, holding out his pinky finger, “they were left inside until they were dead.”
Those who survived incarceration had to endure a months-long journey, squished in the hold of a galleon.
Those conditions were worse than the coastal forts offered because the crowded prisoners had no respite from nausea brought on by the rolling of the open ocean.
Those who survived the journey had a lifetime of slavery at the mines and plantations of the newly discovered Americas to look forward to, for themselves and their children.
Half the captured slaves died before they got there.
The trans-Atlantic slave trade resulted in an estimated 10 million surviving Africans exported from their homes to the New World. It was a sickening period of human history.
Standing in the courtyard at Cape Coast Castle where slaves stood in chains, looking up at the parapet where European traders bid and haggled over their human chattel, the question comes relentlessly to mind: “What were they thinking?”
It seems incredible the traders lacked the sentiment inscribed on a marble stone set into the wall beside the dungeon entrance.
It reads: “May humanity never again perpetuate such injustice against humanity. We, the living, vow to uphold this.”
Indeed, lest we forget, Cape Coast Castle is a world heritage site immortalized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
But something was missing from the tour and the castle’s museum.
It was not the Portuguese who did the kidnapping, although they were the first Europeans to establish maritime trading routes along the coastline.
Nor was it the Dutch, the French, the Germans, the Danes or the Swedes, all of whom had a hand in building the forts and establishing the slave trade across the ocean.
It wasn’t the British either, although they eventually dominated the region and used Cape Coast Castle as their headquarters while the slave trade thrived.
Europeans profited from the buying and selling and shipping of human beings for more than 200 years. But they didn’t abduct them.
That was done by other Africans — a fact that is conspicuously obscure at Cape Coast Castle.
“Many people are ignorant about the slave trade,” said Stephen Dankwa, the attendant at the castle museum.
The slave trade existed in Africa well before the Europeans arrived, “but in a different form — it wasn’t cruel, people didn’t die,” said Dankwa.
Africa spawned and suffered three epochs of slavery: trans-Atlantic, trans-Saharan and domestic, he said.
Europeans “empowered” local tribes, such as the Ashanti, to rob people from villages as far away as southern Nigeria.
Of the minority of Ghanaians who understand the slave trade’s history, 40 per cent know their ancestors perpetuated it and profited by it, he said.
Some of them feel bad, some less so. “They participated in it. Why do they blame only one side?” asked Dankwa.
Shame waits in the shadows of Cape Coast Castle for any person of conscience, but it should not be reserved for those with European blood.
It is Africa’s disgrace as well, and it is still going on.
Today, children in Ghana’s Volta region are routinely abducted from their families and sold into forced labour, said Dankwa.
“Child trafficking is still going on,” he said.
“They are sent to work on fishing boats or cocoa plantations.
“Children are being taken away from their parents and sold to work in Cote d’Ivoire.
“They are just like slaves.”
Child labourers in Ghana and other parts of the world don’t have an historic monument to remind of their misery, which begs the question: will there ever be one?
Former Yukon News reporter Graeme McElheran is currently living and writing in Ghana.