Unique nature of Elmina Castle
Between the early 16th century and the middle of 19th century, the wicked trade in humans was booming. Millions of Africans had their freedom taken from them. They were forcefully captured, held under inhuman condition and shipped to the West Indies and America, then known as the New World. Right through the coast of West Africa, from Calabar, Badagry, Lagos, Ouidah in Benin Republic, Togo, Ghana, Senegal, The Gambia and so on, there is probably no other relic of this obnoxious era that graphically captured this better unremembered era like the Elmina Castle. That it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site is an indication that the castle has greatly impacted on humanity.
It stands on top a rock facing the sea, a little detached from the town. The location is a vantage position as it allows easy access to the sea and from the building. One easily monitors activities in the town of Elmina. Just in front of the castle are canons that might have been used in the fierce fight that was waged for the control of this lucrative trading post. Tens of young men and women from the town cluster around an approaching vehicle bringing tourists to sell every kind of craft.They were very persuasive in haggling. At the right hand side of the gate into the castle’s compound, there is an old metal chain. It left one with an eerie feeling. Between the gate and main entrance, there was a kind of deep excavation. To get to the main building, one has to pass through a bridge. This is the first line of defence. Without the bridge, accessing the main building is difficult.
Although the three-storey rock castle is painted white, that does not remove the negative vibe the building emits. Maybe this is psychological being aware of the obnoxious history of the place. How did the European trader conceive the idea of building such monstrous impregnable building in the heart of Africa? To understand that, one has to go back to when the European exploration of the world championed by Spain and Portugal, the then world powers, started. The Portuguese, in the quest for gold and other exotic products from Africa, came to the coast of Elmina to trade. They established contacts with the natives. They had an abundance of gold and were willing to trade that for the products brought by European traders. The rate at which our people were giving out their gold gave them the impression that the land had abundant gold. So, they named the place Al Mina which in Portuguese means the mine. The people could not pronounce the phrase at that time, so it was corrupted to El Mina. This has become the name of the town. The original name of the place was Anumansa which means inexhaustible water. In 1482, due to the insatiable quest for gold, this motivated one of the Portuguese captains named Don Diego de Azanbuja to arrive at El Mina with soldiers made up of carpenters and masons to see the then King of Elmina named Nana Kwamenansa. He gave the Portuguese the land where the castle was built. It was the first time in the Gold Coast region that a title to a land was transferred from an African chief to a European. The place was a high rock. So the Portuguese had to work on the rock to get to a level ground. The rock on which the building is standing is sedimentary rock and it is about 100 metres beneath the earth. On completion of the castle, they named it after one of their saint patrons in Portugal called St. George. This place is called St. George’s Castle or El Mina Castle.
The Portuguese had two reasons for building the castle: first, they wanted the natives to believe it was built to protect their trade and their traders; second, to have a place of abode for their missionaries who were coming to spread Christianity. Before the early 16th century, all the rooms on the ground floor were used as warehouses for storage, but these same warehouses during the slave trade were converted to a place where African slaves were kept. When the slave trade started, the castle was accommodating a minimum of 1000 slaves at a time, 400 women and 600 men. The transition from the legitimate trade in goods to the slave trade was brought about. 1441 was the year Portuguese started taking Africans to Portugal by a certain man called Antonio Gonzales, one of the Portuguese explorers. When he came to a place in Senegambia, a place referred to as the River of Gold, when he was going back to Africa, he captured 10 Africans. When he got back to Portugal and the prince of Portugal saw them, he was happy because he wanted to train the most intelligent among them as missionaries to return back to Africa and spread Christianity and second, to serve as interpreters to the Portuguese in Africa. But these Africans never came back. They ended up in palaces and plantations. Since then, whenever European explorers visited Africa, they always returned with Africans. The story changed when the Spanish got to America and West Indies. They tried to make the red Indians to work on their sugar plantations. According to history, the Red Indians could not survive Spanish brutality, overwork and the European diseases. It started reducing the population of the West Indians. So, they had to stop. A certain Spanish priest tried to arrange for Africans to be taken to the West Indies because they were much stronger and they lived in the same climatic condition as that of West Indies. So, between 1512 and 1515, about 50 Africans were taken from Spain to Haiti. They survived the test and the demand for African slaves started coming in. That marked the beginning of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
St. Georges’ Castle, Elmina offers the best experience and sight of what the trans-Atlantic slave trade was all about, and graphically, visitors to the castle experience the unimaginably terrible conditions that the slaves were subjected to. After the preliminary introduction at the reception of the castle, the place is the courtyard of the building. It is in form of square with the wide space inside. The main building is three storeys, while the other linked building is just a storey. The castle was built to be a sustaining community that could exist for months without needing anything from outside. Just on the right of the courtyard is the huge church where the soldiers and Portuguese traders worship. The building is divided into different sections. The first floor was for the soldiers and other officials. The higher the rank, the higher the floor the officials stayed. The governor of the trading post stayed at the expansive top floor. He had a bed-eye view of the sea and could also monitor activities within the town and the castle from the comfort of the top floor. The top floor is built in such a way that it could easily access the main courtyard also the slaves’ section.
On the left, there is an entrance to the slave dungeon. The slave area is made up of the male section and the female section. As a hall, the female section should not take more than 50 persons, while the male dungeon should take about 70 persons at most, theatre style sitting. But the female dungeon was holding about 400 at a time, while the male section could take about 600. There are no windows except a opening in front just by the door. There was no convenience. Slaves were kept with no space to turn, no place for convenience except where one was. The condition was enough to kill one even before the slave ships arrived.
The female section was even worse. There was a kind of foul odour that pervaded the dungeon. Like many things in the castle, it was as if one was imagining the foul odour of human faeces. it was strong and pungent enough, but the smell just hovered. The guide also explained that the smell was real. It was the smell from the slaves almost 200 years since the abolition of slave trade. According to him, the condition of the female dungeon was worse than the male. The ventilation was worse added to the fact that female slaves had to pass faeces, urine and men flow all in the cell. That added to the stench. The female slave could only come out if the camp governor from the third floor saw her and desired to sleep with her. In such situation, the guards would bring her out, give her water to bath and then ship her above to the governor. There is a well at the centre of the open space between the male and female dungeon. The female slave would take water from there to bath and cleans herself. She would then be taken up to the chamber of the head. The product of the unholy liaison is the high number of mulattoes in Elmina.
Once the slaves were about to be shipped to the New World, they were taken through a low roof exit tunnel to the point-of-no-return. At the point of no return, there is an opening where the slaves where taken out of the boat in a waiting boat that would take them to the merchant ship in the ocean. The Elmina Castle has been in existence for 533 years. Within this period, the Portuguese who were the original owners held the place for about 155 years before it was captured by the Dutch who overthrew them and took over the slave trade business. The Dutch held sway there for about 235 years before they sold it to the British in 1872. The British held the place until 1957 when the Ghana took over the place after independence.