Commonplace
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www.common-place.org · vol. 1 · no. 4 · July 2001
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"As a fortified structure that once held African captives in a complex matrix of dungeons, it might seem a bit odd that Christianborg Castle is now home to the president of Ghana. But equally perplexing for today's roots tourist is the very term 'castle.'"

The Door of (No) Return
Cheryl Finley

Part I | II | III | IV | V | VI

What's in a Name, II
The original name for Elmina, Saõ Jorge da Mina, pays tribute to the patron saint of Portugal, St. George, and harks back to its initial function as a fortified trading post within close proximity of the gold mines near the Prah River in present-day Ghana. Built in 1482 by Portuguese soldiers, masons, and carpenters, it remains the oldest and largest colonial structure in sub-Saharan Africa, and one of the world's important medieval castles. Even Richard Wright was seduced by its mere presence: "I reached Elmina just as the sun was setting and its long red rays lit the awe-inspiring battlements of the castle with a somber but resplendent majesty. It is by far the most impressive castle or fort on the Atlantic shore of the Gold Coast" (383). Elmina had to be both immense and imposing. Impenetrable even (fig. 3).


Fig. 3. Elmina Castle

With the reluctant permission of the local village chief, Elmina was built into the rocky coastline on a narrow peninsula where the Benya River meets the Gulf of Guinea. Underground storerooms and dungeons were carved out of the stone. These were used for Portuguese trade goods, such as linen, brass manilas, and earthenware, and for the local resources received in exchange: first gold, salt, and ivory, and then human beings.

Elmina's strategic location was a reminder for rival European nations, who were vying to break the Portuguese monopoly over the vast new supplies of gold, and for the local inhabitants, who weren't altogether happy with the presence of a foreign stronghold in their midst. The site long since had been the center of commerce for a small fishing village, split geographically by the Benya Lagoon and politically between the Eguafo and Efutu States. By sea, Elmina was sheltered by the treacherous, rocky coastline. By land, approximately three hundred feet away as the crow flies, a steep hill, perfect for keeping watch, provided additional protection. On top of this hill, the Portuguese built a church in 1503, from which missionaries converted and baptized the local villagers, including the paramount chief (fig. 4).


Fig. 4. View of the town of Elmina from one of the upper bastions of the castle. The Gulf of Guinea is to the left and the Benya Lagoon is to the right.

Destroyed in battles with the Dutch by the end of the sixteenth century, the Portuguese church was later rebuilt in a courtyard within the fortified walls of Elmina Castle, where it was surrounded on three sides by cavernous dungeons that held African men bound for slave ships (fig. 5).


Fig. 5. Central courtyard showing the Portuguese Church at Elmina Castle

After the Dutch finally seized Elmina in 1637, it was expanded to include a Dutch chapel. The Portuguese church became an auction gallery and later, an officer's mess hall. After nearly 150 years of maintaining colonial headquarters at Elmina, the Dutch relinquished the castle to the British in 1872, who turned it over to the newly independent Ghanaian government of Kwame Nkrumah in 1957.

On a clear day, it is possible to see Elmina from Cape Coast Castle, located just a few miles to the east. Cape Coast began as a Portuguese trading lodge in 1555. Strategically situated on a rocky promontory with an adjacent natural harbor, it was called Cabo Corso, or short cape, by the Portuguese. For nearly one hundred years, rival European nations fought for control of Cape Coast until 1653, when the Swedish signed a treaty with the Efutu paramount chief to build a permanent structure named after King Charles X of Sweden. Over the next decade, more skirmishes ensued between the Dutch, the Efutu chief, and the Danish. But the final European power to take the fort would be the British, who captured it in 1665 and named it Cape Coast (fig. 6).


Fig. 6. Filming a documentary about Cape Coast

The British were quick to make significant reinforcements to Cape Coast, increasing both its size and strength to compete with the headquarters of the Dutch West India Company just a few miles away at Elmina Castle. The architectural improvements greatly enhanced the total surface area of the castle to include additional officers' barracks, trading rooms, underground cisterns, more cannon, and taller battlements. Not only did the British hope to remain in control of this strategically positioned fort, they also aimed to establish a dominant presence on the West African coast. By enclosing virtually all the necessities of a small city within the walls of the expanded Cape Coast Castle, the British protected themselves against attacks from local and European enemies, and efficiently refined the business of the slave trade through what an economist might call vertical integration. Cape Coast remained a central conduit for the extremely high volume of British slave trafficking until the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. Beginning in the mid-1820s, Cape Coast served primarily as an administrative headquarters, first over British forts in West Africa and then as the initial seat of government for the British Gold Coast Colony in 1872. Cape Coast Castle remained under British colonial rule until Ghanaian independence in 1957.

According to the Ghana Museums and Monuments Board, there are only three structures designated as castles among the sixty colonial forts that remain on Ghana's coast: Elmina, Cape Coast, and Christianborg. Of the three, Cape Coast and Elmina are the most popular with present-day tourists. By default, Christianborg is virtually off limits to tourists and photography because it houses the Ghanaian head of state. Of Danish origin, Christianborg was built in 1661 at Osu in the capital city of Accra. As a fortified structure that once held African captives in a complex matrix of dungeons, it might seem a bit odd that Christianborg Castle is now home to the president of Ghana. But equally perplexing for today's roots tourist is the very term "castle."

The word castle dates from before the twelfth century. From the Latin castellum or fortress, a diminutive of castrum, meaning fortified place, the word castle signifies "a large fortified building or set of buildings." Over the past three hundred years, Christianborg, Elmina, and Cape Coast have been classified as castles for their style of architecture, their sheer size, and their function. Distinguished from the more numerous but smaller forts, the castles have a larger surface area, a more intricate complex of connecting structures, and the ability to house a large number of people. Yet the word rings oddly in many visitors' ears. African Americans and many blacks from the diaspora feel that calling Cape Coast and Elmina by the name "castle" elides the history of the dungeons beneath these places and with it, their ancestors' experiences. With such a name, they say the stories of their forebears get lost. In their place, fairytale notions of European architectural grandeur associated with a popular understanding of the term "castle," sugarcoat the fact that enslaved Africans, possibly their ancestors, were held captive there.

Just as they reject the label "castle" to describe sites like Elmina and Cape Coast, some members of the African Diaspora also disagree with the renovation efforts being made in the name of historic preservation. They feel that the renovations privilege high architecture and transform the castles into "make believe" places. One visitor plainly stated, "It is horrible to watch this dungeon being turned into a Walt Disney castle!" referring to coats of fresh white paint on the bastions, the addition of potted plants and flowers at the entrance, and the effort to clean and paint the inside of the dungeons. The double-edged phrase, "Stop white washing our history!" appears frequently in the visitor comment books at Cape Coast and Elmina. Instead of the regular program of painting, upkeep, and renovation, some feel that these monuments should be left alone to crumble and fall into the sea (fig. 7).


Fig. 7. Inside the female dungeons at Elmina Castle

Other African Americans have recommended that the word "dungeons" be added to the official name of Cape Coast Castle and Elmina Castle. Their suggestion seeks to recognize the memory of the millions who were held captive there. But considering the GMMB's marketing efforts aimed at international tourism, a name like Cape Coast Castle and Dungeons might not be so good for business.

All photographs the copyright of Cheryl Finley.

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