A Lesson in Liberty at Cape Coast Castle

The feeling of dark, crowded, stale air is a breath I won’t forget.

The slave dungeon of Cape Coast Castle is still thick with the memory of the unspeakable treatment of thousands of men and women in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.

I made my way through the nearly 4000 year old building, imagining the people before me, who had walked the same corridors with shackles on their legs. They were hungry, unhealthy, overheated men and women who were sentenced to a life of slavery by no fault of their own.

The men and women were held within the stone walls of the castle while waiting to be transported across the Atlantic to colonies in North and South America. Cape Coast Castle is said to be one of the largest slave holding dungeons of its era. Ten of thousands of Ghanaians were traded for gold, alcohol and guns. The cramped dungeons of Cape Coast were their purgatory before being taken across the atlantic to their dim future of life as slaves in North America.

There are 3 dungeons in the castle. The rooms are small considering they are meant to hold up to 1000 people at at time. In the main male slave dungeon, there are 3 small windows near the ceiling that are the only source of light and fresh air. The men held in the cells for months at a time. They defecated there, and were then made to eat, and sleep in their own mess. As my tour group and I stood staring at the sobering reminder of Ghana’s grim history, our tour guide pointed to white mark on one of the walls. The mark was 2 feet from the ground.

“This is where the feces, urine and vomit level sat. The men who lived in here spent their entire time waist deep in their own waste.”

He then turned out the energy efficient bulb that has been added for the benefit of guided tours and gave us a taste of what it would have been like to live in the dark dungeon.

The thought of men and women living this way is heartbreaking. I couldn’t help but feel shaken by the story of thousands of men and women before me who had braved these unimaginable conditions in the very room I was standing. It’s unconceivable that this kind of injustice was carried out as common practice.

The rest of the tour highlighted 3 graves in the castle courtyard, the women’s quarters- separate for those ladies who offered themselves up to soldiers and those who denied their masters sexual service.

Our guided tour ended with the “door of no return”. Our group waited quietly as the giant gate was opened to reveal the ocean, waves crashing on the rocky shore. This is the same ocean that sealed the fate of tens of thousands of African slaves so many years before.

Like so many before us- we also passed through “the door of no return”. We stood on the shore and I imagined the shackled prisoners making their way through Cape Coast Castle. This was their last stop for slaves before being taken across the ocean, bidding farewell to their homeland and their freedom.

As we turned to make our way back into the castle, our guide pointed out a sign on the outside of the door. It’s shiny white lettering told us- this was a new addition to the castle.
“Door of Return.” It read.

The plaque was placed above the gate as a gesture of reconciliation. It is meant to welcome African Diaspora tourists home. Thousands visit the museum each year.

Ghana gained it’s independence in 1957. That’s when the castle was turned over the Ghana Museums and Monuments Board.

A sign now hangs outside the male slave dungeons. It reads:

“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 perpetrate such injustice against humanity. We the living vow to uphold this.”

The Door of No Return at Cape Coast Castle

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About Cheryl Oates

Returning to Africa has been a goal of Cheryl's since she visited Mozambique in 2008. She traveled to the southeast coast to work on a community development project and returned home with a new found appreciation for the Dark Continent and the people who inhabit it. Cheryl has spent the last few years working as a television news producer, videographer and anchor in Alberta, Canada. She feels Journalists for Human Rights is providing her an amazing opportunity to return to Africa and apply her formal training and experience. "My goal is to get as much out of this 6 month adventure as I put into it," Oates says. "I'm excited to witness the kind of changes that can come about through media in Ghana". Cheryl Oates is currently working as a Media Rights Education Officer at the African University College of Communications.

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