Saturday, 20 February 2010

Elmina…History in pains

SITTING in a large expanse of land covering about 100,952 feet or 2.32 acres, Elmina Castle is one of Ghana’s most popular destinations. A tour to Ghana without a visit to the Castle is incomplete. It is a popular historical site, and was a major filming location for Werner Herzog’s Cobra Verde.

UNESCO recognises the castle as a World Heritage Site.
Tourists from Europe and the West besiege the place during summer to enjoy its serene ambience. In fact, the mountain of white sand by the seashores gives it a stunning scenery that could make any tourist want to come back.
Built on sedimentary rock believed to be over a hundred metres deep, which explains why it is still in good condition till date, Elmina was the first trading post built on the Gulf of Guinea.
This, perhaps, suggests why journalists from Anglophone West Africa, who were recently in Ghana for a workshop on Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), visited the castle, which is just about two hours drive to Accra, the capital city.

FIRST established as a trade settlement, the castle later became one of the most important stops on the route of the Atlantic Slave Trade.
Portuguese traders, led by Joao Satarem and Pedro D’escobar, came to Elmina in 1471 to trade and spread Christianity. And by 1482, Portugal erected the fort and named it São Jorge da Mina (St. George of the Mine) Castle, also known simply as Mina or Feitoria da Mina. However, the Dutch seized the place from the Portuguese in 1637, and took over all the Portuguese Gold Coast in 1642.
The slave trade continued under the Dutch until 1814; in 1871, the fort became a possession of British Empire. When Britain granted the Gold Coast its independence in 1957, control of the castle was transferred to the nation formed out of the colony, Ghana.

ENTERING the castle, the relic of slave trade — chains, handcuffs and clog — on display drew further hatred for the trade.
Charles Edwards Ocran, a volunteer worker, conducted his guests round. “Initially, all the rooms on ground floor were used as warehouses”, he said. “However, in the early 16th century, when slave trade was started by Portugal, all the rooms were converted to slave dungeons.” Said Ocran, “the slaves were not allowed to go out. While female slaves were locked in one enclave on the ground floor, the males were left in another with each group padlocked with iron or wooden bars.
Ocran noted that the ladies were only brought out from the dungeon when the Governor General needed to satisfy his lust.
“Whenever the governor wanted to sleep with a woman, he stood up there at the balcony of his room. He ordered the solders down to open the gates of the dungeon for the women to be assembled in the courtyard. The unlucky or lucky woman selected might have been in the dungeon for one month or two without bathing. So, the solders fetch water from the main courtyard reservoir to wash her body,” he said. “The selected lady would be forced to climb the stairs straight to the governor’s bedroom. Though the original stair has been changed, a replica of it is still there.
“After the session, she would be forced to return to the dungeon.”
A cell was even built with a danger sign, a human skull drawn on top of the entrance door, to warn recalcitrant slaves. “Some of the men were always fighting with the European solders to free themselves and others. However those caught were sent to the condemned cells, where they were killed,” he informed.
The second cell was meant for Europeans. It was like a remand home for some of the solders that misbehaved. They were punished there and later set free. Unlike the cell for condemned captives, the European cell is airy with perforated iron door.

THE Portuguese were Catholic and they built a church to worship God. Above the entrance door to the church is an inscription from Psalm 132: Heeren ruste/Dit syn woonplaetse eewighety, (Zion is the Lord’s resting place). “The Church was called St Gregory Catholic Church. But when the Dutch, who were Protestants, took over the castle they converted part of it as their Officers Mess while the other part served as slave market.
In 1948, when the British took over, they used the structure as training school for their police. But today, the whole place is a museum,” Ocran stated.

THE road to the dungeon is narrow, desolate and frightening. It is still dark today even during the day, but not for slaves to be taken to the unknown world, rather to serve as a reminiscence of the past. Behind the room of no return, is the remains of a jetty, where the ships of the barons docked and through which slaves were taken to the ship using smaller canoes.
The ships took these slaves to different countries such as the Caribbean Islands, Brazil and America to work in plantations under inclement conditions. Some of the descendants of the slaves do come to lay wreath in the room of no return.
At the castle is the epitaph of a Dutch governor, who arrived there in January 15, 1768 and died in March 12, same year, at the age of 41. He was the last Director General of the West Indian Company and took charge of the Northern and Southern Coast of Africa.
Ocran explained that the Dutch were in Elmina until 1807, when the British abolished the slave trade and in 1872 ceded it to the British. “The British came here, but they never used the Elmina castle for slave trading. Before they came here they were using the Cape Coast castle for their own slave trade. That was their headquarters. But in 1957 the Ghanaians government took over,” he said.
The mission statement for the castle reads: In everlasting memory of the anguish of our ancestors. May those who died rest in peace. May those who love to return find their roots. May humanity never again perpetrate such injustice against

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