WHERE THOUSANDS OF SLAVES PASSED THROUGH THE “DOOR OF NO RETURN.”
This castle in Cape Coast, Ghana—once known as the Gold Coast of West Africa—was one of around 40 “slave castles” that served as prisons and embarkation points for slaves en route to the Americas (the Caribbean, South America, and the U.S.). Thousands of enslaved Africans from regions near and far, sometimes hundreds of miles away, were taken to these castles to be sold to slave ships.
One of the most well known parts of Cape Coast Castle, that you can visit today, is the “Door of No Return,” which led slaves out of the castle and onto the ships setting off on the Middle Passage. Their boat journeys could last several months, and an estimated 15 percent of slaves died aboard, en route. Somewhere around 12 millions slaves were sent from Africa, millions of whom died in the process. Cape Coast Castle was a way station in history’s largest, and darkest, forced human migration.
The history of the castle, which could also be termed a fort, is predictably complicated and contentious. Possession of it was stolen back and forth as the slave trade grew bigger and more lucrative in the 1600s and 1700s. The site’s first establishment was built by the Swedish Africa Company, whose officers had established good relations with local chiefs. In 1650, Swede Hendrik Caerloff finagled the King of Fetu’s permission to build a fort, and in 1653, Carlusborg Fort was erected.
It was snatched by the Danish West India Company in 1657, and seized back and forth between the Danish, Dutch, and Swedes, competitors in the growing slave economy. When the King of Fetu died in 1663, the Dutch seized control for a hot second before the British swooped in, in 1664. The British renamed it Cape Coast Castle and managed to maintain possession, though there were a few close calls. In 1757, for example, an attack by the French badly damaged the fort, leading to a complete reconstruction. Tens of thousands of bricks and tiles were imported from England in 1797 for the reconstruction effort, which was also intended to expand the castle’s slave-holding capacity.
When you visit Cape Coast Castle today, the main destination in the calm and breezy seaside town of Cape Coast, you can tour the entire expansive building, from the ramparts lined with cannons to the nearly lightless dungeons. These dungeons, called “slave holes” by the British, had essentially no ventilation nor windows, with 200 slaves, separated by gender, crammed in one room, and the floor covered in human waste. Diseases like malaria and yellow fever were common under such wretched conditions.
As many as 1,500 slaves (two-thirds of whom were male) were held in the castle dungeons at any one time. When you walk through the dungeons today, it is terrifying to imagine the reality of what took place in these suffocating spaces just over two centuries ago. Then, moments later, you’ll be out of the dungeons and wandering by the church or strolling down long hallways leading to officer’s quarters with pleasant views over the sea—two adjacent spaces set entire worlds apart.
The Brits formally declared the slave trade illegal in 1807, though Cape Coast Castle remained their local headquarters on the Gold Coast until 1877. The British Public Works Department later restored the premises in 1920s, and retained ownership right up until Ghana’s independence in 1957, at which point the castle came under the purview of the Ghana Museums and Monuments Board.
Though the remains of other slave castles exist along the former Gold Coast, Cape Coast Castle is one of the most well restored and well known. It is well worth a visit to remind each of us of the many corners of the globe involved in the former slave trade—and a reminder that many more such corners still exist.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Cape Coast can be reached by car or bus (a tro tro is your best bet) from Accra, Ghana’s capital city. Travel time will probably be between three to four hours.
Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park
- Located in downtown Accra, Ghana is the Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park and Mausoleum. The Mausoleum is the final resting place of Ghana’s first President and Africanist. The museum hosts rare artefacts relating to Ghana’s independence and tours at the park give visitors in-depth history of the Sub-saharan struggle for independence.The mausoleum designed by Don Arthur houses the mortal remains of Dr. Kwame Nkrumah and his wife Fathia Nkrumah. It is meant to represent an upside-down sword which in the Akan culture is a symbol of peace. The mausoleum is clad from top to bottom with Italian marble, with a black star at its apex to symbolize unity. The interior of the Mausoleum boasts marble flooring and a mini mastaba looking marble grave marker surrounded by river-washed rocks.
- A skylight at the top in the Mausoleum illuminates the grave, and at the right time, seems to reflect off the marble further emphasizing that beauty many have come to fall in love with.The Mausoleum is surrounded by water which is a symbol of life. Its presence conveys a sense of immortality for the name Nkrumah. It shows that even in death he lives on in the hearts and minds of generations here and generations yet to come.
- The entrance to the site is from the 28th February High Street just along the coast from Independence Square. It is located directly opposite the old Paliarment House now known as the Commission for Human Rights and Administrative Justice(CHRAJ).It has a total surface area of approximately 5.3 acres. The mausoleum provides a front for the statue of Nkrumah whereas the museum is subterranean and does not compete with the mausoleum for attention. Rhythm, contrast and harmony were the main principles of design used in this building.HistoryGhana’s first President, Osagyefo Dr Kwame Nkrumah and his colleagues stood at the Old Polo Grounds in Accra on the eve of Ghana’s political independence, to declare the country’s freedom from British colonial rule.Together with Comrades Kojo Botsio, Komla Agbeli Gbedemah, Archie Casely Hayford and Krobo Edusei, all clad in their northern smocks and hats, emotional and before a huge crowd which had travelled from the entire country to witness the memorable occasion, Nkrumah said “Ghana is free forever”.
- In side the Nkrumah MausoleumThe Museum houses the personal effects and publications of Ghana’s first president and pictures showing his life history.Some of these pictures of Dr. Nkrumah with some of the most famous people of his time is an eye opener.Wander through the photos, and you will be stunned at how many of the 20th century’s most iconic people pictured shaking hands with the founder of modern Ghana.He is pictured with famous people like Jawarharlal Nehru, Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro, Nikita Khrushchev, John F Kennedy of U.S.A, Sir Alec Hume, Queen Elizabeth II of England, Harold Macmillan, Pope Pius XII, President Nasser of Egypt, and countless leaders of countries like Malaya, Sri Lanka, Niger not forgetting Nigeria and many other more.The body is buried under a catafalque raised in the centre of the park. Symbols which reflect Ghana’s culture and history were used to portray Dr. Nkrumah’s vision to promote the African personality. The full statue of Dr Nkrumah, wearing a cloth, in bronze is sited at the exact location where he proclaimed Ghana’s independence.As you approach the main way leading to the Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum, you’ll see springs on either sides of the walk way. Each spring has seven bare-chested, squatting statuettes of flute blowers, who seem to welcome the arrival of world leaders and other important personalities.The design of the Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum, which represents swords turned upside down symbolizes peace. It can also be viewed as an uprooted tree to signify the unfinished work of Dr. Nkrumah to totally unite Africa.This is a place you wouldn’t want to miss during your stay in Accra, since the transition of Gold Coast to Ghana happened on this same location. Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum, is what some scholars call the “genesis” of the actual History Of Ghana. Original caption: 1/20/1963-Accra, Ghana- Ghana President Kwame Nkrumah (in suit) and his Egyptian-born wife, Madame Fathia Nkrumah (on Nkrumah’s right), are flanked by paramount Chieftains as they dance to high life music here recently during a reception. The affair was staged on the grounds of Flagstaff House in Accra. January 20, 1963 Accra, Ghana