Sunday, June 5, 2016

Ghana’s Slave Castles

Cape Coast Castle is one of about forty "slave castles", or large commercial forts, built on the Gold Coast of West Africa (now Ghana) by European traders. It was originally built by the Swedes for trade in timber and gold, but later used in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Other Ghanaian slave castles include Elmina Castle and Fort Christiansborg. They were used to hold slaves before they were loaded onto ships and sold in the Americas, especially the Caribbean. This “gate of no return” was the last stop before crossing the Atlantic Ocean.

History of the building

The first lodge established on the present site of Cape Coast Castle was built by Hendrik Caerloff for the Swedish Africa Company. Caerloff was a former employee of the Dutch West India Company who had risen to the rank of fiscal before employing himself with the latter company established by Louis de Geer. As a former high-ranking officer of the Dutch, Caerloff had the friendly relations with the local chiefs necessary to establish a trading post. In 1650, Caerloff succeeded in getting the permission of the King of Fetu to establish a fort at Cabo Corso (meaning short cape in Portuguese, later corrupted to English Cape Coast). The first timber lodge was erected at the site in 1653 and named Carolusborg after King Charles X of Sweden.

Caerloff returned to Europe in 1655, leaving a Swede by the name of Johann Philipp von Krusenstjerna in charge of Carolusborg. Louis de Geer had however died in the meantime, and Caerloff got himself involved in a serious dispute with his heirs. In Amsterdam, he convinced merchants to give a financial injection to the Danish West India Company, for which he set sail to the Gold Coast in 1657, with the goal in mind to capture for Denmark the Swedish lodges and forts he had established himself.With the help of the Dutch, Caerloff succeeded in driving the Swedes out, leaving the Gold Coast on the captured ship Stockholm Slott, and with Von Krusenstjerna on board as a prisoner.

Caerloff had left Samuel Smit, also a former employee of the Dutch West India Company, in charge of Carolusborg.The Dutch were able to convince Smit in 1659 of the rumour that Denmark had been conquered by Sweden, upon which Smit rejoined the Dutch West India Company, handing over all Danish possessions to the Dutch. The King of Fetu was displeased with this, however, and prevented the Dutch from taking possession of the fort. A year later, the King decided to sell it to the Swedes. After the King died in 1663, the Dutch were finally able to occupy the fort.

The Danes had in the meantime established another fort, Fort Frederiksborg (1661), just a few hundred yards east from Carolusborg. Although situated perfectly to launch an attack on Carolusborg, the British capture of Carolusborg (1664) during the prelude to the Second Anglo-Dutch War, prevented the Danes from challenging them; the British had reinforced the fort, which they named Cape Coast Castle, to such an extent that even Dutch Admiral Michiel de Ruyter deemed it impossible to conquer. As the Dutch had captured the former British headquarters at Kormantin and had rebuilt it as Fort Amsterdam, Cape Coast became the new capital of the British possessions on the Gold Coast.

In 1722, the fort was the site were 54 men of the crew of the pirate Bartholomew Roberts were condemned to death, of whom 52 were hanged and two reprieved.

In 1757, during the Seven Years' War, a French naval squadron badly damaged and nearly captured Cape Coast Castle.This event was likely one of the most important reasons to entirely reconstruct the Castle, which was quite notorious for its collapsing walls and leaking roofs. In 1762, an extensive spur ending in a tower was built on the western side and in 1773, a high building along the north curtain was erected, during which the last remnants of the 17th-century fort were demolished. Greenhill Point, a bastion to the east of the castle, was replaced by two new bastions, with a sea gate in the middle. To the south, two new bastions, named Grossle's Bastions, replaced an old round tower as the main defensive work. The tower, which now had no military use, was extended in 1790s with two stories, now becoming the governors' apartments. The space below Grossle's Bastions was used as the new slave dungeons.

Horror of Slave Castle

The castles were the ultimate stop in many ways. They provided the last experience that men and women had in their homeland before their final departure. For those who didn’t make it to the new world, the castles were the last place they ever saw on land. The last shreds of hope would wither away with everyday of captivity in the castle. On the seaboard side of the coastal slave castles, was ‘the door of no return’, a portal through which the slaves were lowered into boats, and then loaded like cargo onto big slaving ships further out at sea, never to set foot in their homeland again and with a final goodbye to the freedom they once knew.

Up to 1,000 male and 500 female slaves were shackled and crammed in the castle’s dank, poorly ventilated dungeons, with no space to lie down and with very little light. Without water or sanitation, the floor of the dungeons was littered with human waste and many captives fell seriously ill. The men were separated from the women, and the captors regularly raped the helpless women. The castle also featured confinement cells, small pitch-black spaces for prisoners who revolted or were seen as rebellious. Once the slaves set foot in the castle, they could spend up to three months in captivity under these dreadful conditions before being shipped off to the New World.

An environment of harsh contrasts, the castle also had some extravagant chambers, devoid of the stench and misery of the dungeons, only a couple of meters down below. For example, the British governor and officers’ quarters were spacious and airy, with beautiful parquet floors and scenic views of the blue waters of Atlantic. There was also a chapel in the castle enclosure for the officers, traders and their families as they went about their normal day-to-day life completely detached from the unfathomable human suffering they were consciously inflicting.

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