HOW I GOT OVER: Elmina Castle & the Slave Experience

THIS WAS, PROBABLY, THE MOST SOBERING EXPERIENCE OF THE TOUR. Our visit to Elmina Castle was the experience that no one wanted to miss. It’s “Door of No Return” is a critical symbol in the historical memory of African Americans who are not able to definitively trace their ethnic roots to a specific place or peoples in West Africa.

Elmina Castle was erected by the Portuguese in 1482 as São Jorge da Mina (St. George of the Mine) Castle, also known simply as Mina in present-day Elmina. It was the first trading post built on the West coast of Africa and is the oldest European building in existence in sub-Saharan Africa. First established as a trade settlement, the castle later became one of the most important stops on the route of the transatlantic slave trade. The Dutch seized the fort from the Portuguese in 1637. The slave trade continued under the Dutch until 1814; in 1871 the  fort became a possession of the British Empire. Britain granted the Gold Coast its independence in 1957, and control of the castle was transferred to the post-colonial government. Today it is a popular historical site and the castle is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

On this one-hour guided tour we witnessed firsthand the dank, windowless dungeons that kept 400 men and women each in separate quarters. The tour guide informed us that the stench we were inhaling in one of the female dungeons is a mix of the ocean deposits, blood, urine and feces that had accumulated over the years. Even centuries later, the horrid smell of these fateful encounters still exist.

We were escorted through the spacious, airy quarters given to the British governor–a space that is larger than that of the crowded holding cells. We toured the courtyard that captured women would crowd in as the British governor stood from his balcony above and pointed out who he desired to sleep with. The chosen woman would be hosed down and sent up, unwillingly, up a back staircase that led directly to his boudoir. We saw the unventilated holding cells used for those who misbehaved and resisted capture. These death dungeons were a message to others to not get out of line. We toured the church that would have Sunday services for the governor and his staff directly over the male dungeons, drowning out cries of suffering with exuberant hymned song.

We passed through the dark, cavernous route the enslaved marched through-one by one, shackled together-from their holding cells to the awaiting ships on the Atlantic Ocean. Touring Elmina can be an emotional experience but transformative for understanding one’s racial history, present and future.

See more of our visit to Elmina Castle here:

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