Into that sea, a million journeys were made… Never did a black soul return!
Vineet Thakur, a research scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi has just returned from an academic tour of Ghana, Africa. In this article, he tells us about the town of Elmina. He can be contacted at vineet1232[at]gmail.com.
Like an ode to modernity, it stands tall as a glittering piece of western architecture. Its white exterior shines like the ‘beautiful whiteness’ one witnesses in skin colours and streets of Europe. Embodying the architectural genius of three great nations of Europe – Portugal, Holland and England – Elmina Castle exudes imperious bearing. Yet like modernity, it hides beneath an underbelly which when brought to the fore devastates the ‘modernity as progress’ argument so forcefully that humankind could be robbed of its claim of being a superior species.
A grand compass welcomes us some distance from the gate, reminding us with some lost arrogance that this was the single most important tool of modern civilization that defeated distance. The compass took Europeans across the seas to lands that had fascinated them in their folklores. Christopher Columbus, the flag bearer of the Western modernity as we are told, stayed at this fort for three days during his voyage to ‘discover’ the new world. ‘Discover’, according to Cambridge dictionary, is ‘to find a place or an object for the first time’.
‘Find…for the first time’???
The place that he ‘found’ was not a virgin territory, but already populated. It is another matter that in perhaps one of the most rigorous and consistently brutal acts of genocide, Columbus and his followers, including some of the founding father of the United States, made sure America was made ‘new’ by ethnically cleansing the indigenous population. In one narrative, 1492 is the birth of renaissance, in the other, more authentic one, it is the onset of dark ages.
The Dark Ages at Elmina however began 10 years before – in 1482. The natives, like in the modern Caribbean a decade later, received these ‘white’ people with amazement, fascination and also apprehension. In most cases, they were treated as guests and given warm welcome. At Elmina, it was no different. The Portuguese who were the first to arrive in the late fifteenth century were accorded welcome and allowed trade. Within a few years, the local chief was prodded to give the land to the Portuguese for building a fort. He was initially hesitant, yet gave in after the Portuguese assured him that it was only for trade and the native land would not be taken – a promise that was only honoured in breach. Ever since, in more than five and a half centuries of its colonial existence, the Fort saw three different masters, each as brutal as the other. The Dutch conquered it in 1687 and the British owned it from 1871 to the date Ghana became independent in 1957.
As we enter the gate through a small bridge that could curl itself up to keep an invader at bay, it strikes me as to what every African who entered this white ghost must have thought. For tourists today, those 35 metres from the bridge to the gate are walked in anticipation of what to expect inside the castle, curiosity quickly reaches a crescendo and every step is quicker than the last. However, for those many thousands who were dragged in chains, these 35 meters were the last steps of hope. Every step was slower than the last, partly because of fatigue and beating and partly because of an uncomfortable intuition that the Gate was an insurmountable barrier that could never be crossed back. As slaves [who could be anyone from a young boy fiddling at the cusp of puberty to a relatively middle-aged man flirting with old age, or it could be a ‘she’, beaten and raped incessantly] were shoved in through this small gate, chained of course, what they left behind was not only their families and their land, but every possibility of a ‘human life’. From the moment they entered the gate, they were ‘slaves’ who, as most western philosophers from Plato to Hegel had reasoned, could be treated as ‘beasts’. A life inside this gate was worse than death. Many explored the latter possibility with a pitiful hope of finding an embrace from death; others were just too courageous for opting for this easy way out. For the record, no slave ever came out the same way alive.
Inside the Fort, one could only marvel at the structure. Strongly built (the British fought too hard against the Dutch but no matter how hard they tried could not capture it forcefully from the Dutch, they had to buy it in 1872), it is the oldest slave trading castle in the whole of Africa, and that speaks also of its longevity. The white paint inside however is beginning to wane, despite the recent renovation by the government. Rust – dark black – is oozing out, thrusting up its own identity despite attempts at cover up. My neighbor quickly metaphorizes these black spots in the White castle as the evil underbelly of this shining castle. I merely wonder if we all have already assumed ‘white’ and ‘black’ as colour categories representing good and evil respectively. If yes – and it is yes – colonialism is not dead, it lives in our minds. We are all trying too hard to be ‘white’ (quite literally, the whitening facial creams are only the most vulgar expression of our desires).
The Fort meanwhile exudes a strange, eerie silence. It converses in haunting voices; one is though never sure if they emerge from its hollowed walls or from one’s own conscience. As we battle this dilemma, our tour guide leads us into the female dungeon. A narrow, dark pathway leads into a courtyard which is connected to the dungeon. On the right is a wooden staircase, whose broken steps stand testimony to the unheard cries of hundreds of women.
The cries coalesce to tell us a common story.
“No one knows how many months she had spent in the dungeon before she walked up these stairs. In these months, she had shared the dungeon – a small jail unfit to carry 10 prisoners – with 150 fellow ‘slaves’. Chained from head to toe, she slept on a hard floor which was wet with faeces of inmates. She also lay between the floor and other inmates who were chained on top of her in layers to save the space in the dungeon. No one ever moved an inch, not even to pass stool. You did everything at one place, invariably passing your stool and vomit over the inmate under you. The air had a peculiar odour – a mixture of stool, food, vomit, sweat and fear [which one can still smell, no matter how many times the dungeon has been cleaned in the last five centuries]. In this hell, the slaves were only said to be biding their time for a life worse than hell to follow.
Human desires however follow no convention. The colonial Governor General, feeling away from home, could not be deprived of his carnal needs. He stood on his balcony overlooking the courtyard in the dungeon and women – unbathed, unfed for months – were dragged outside of their cells to the courtyard.
The Governor General chose a girl by pointing finger at her from his balcony. The poor girl had her first bath in months – bathed by male guards, fed a little – and she walked up these stairs to meet her rapist. The Governor General satiated himself and passed her on to the male guards, who were only too happy to follow the example of their boss. Deprived of her chastity many times over, and humanity for life, she only wondered how worse the future could be. She was soon to know.”
The dungeon leads us to another room from where the slaves were ultimately passed into the sea. Through a narrow stream, where for the first time men and women saw their partners – of what was now a previous birth – for a fleeting second for the first time in many months. As they clamoured to touch each other, the stream of water pushed them ahead while the chains pulled them apart. After this fleeting second of proximity, without a touch, they would never meet again. Not in this life.
And finally, we reached the point they called a ‘door of no return’. As all of us walked up one by one – it was deliberately narrowed down to prevent any chaos at this last moment, for the slave knew it was his/her very last chance, at least theoretically, to stay in his/her land – and stood on the last step from where the slaves were pushed onto the ship, we saw a vast, immensely beautiful sea. This certainly seemed a respite from the cold, haunting air of the Castle. A breath of fresh air gleamed through this small opening. Yet, like it has always been true of modernity – it is ugliest when it looks the most beautiful; the journey into this vastly beautiful sea was only the beginning of hell for the slaves. In those more than five centuries of colonial rule, a million journeys were made into that sea, never did a black soul come back to this port.
Into that sea, a million journeys were made.