Living with the shadow of slavery

By Simon Barrow
December 31, 2010

With its many natural harbours and gold deposits, 58 of the 60 colonial forts built on the Guinea Coast of West Africa are situated in what is modern Ghana - the first former European (latterly British) colony to gain independence, in 1957.

Visiting two of these establishments, the principal and strategic castle at Elmina (also named after the Portugese saint, George) and the castle at Cape Coast, gives a vivid and heart-rending picture of the deep wounds the historical reality of slavery has inflicted on a people who today are vibrant and forward looking - but who rightly never forget the appalling cruelty and exploitation wrought by Europeans for some 400 years.

Indeed, the effects of enslavement and forced economic subservience brought about by the transatlantic slave trade, which cost an estimated 100 million lives, are still felt today. It is impossible for a Western visitor to travel sensitively in West Africa today without seeing and sensing how the massive disparities in wealth and power between the continents are rooted in these heinous crimes - compounded by unjust trade and finance arrangements in subsequent centuries, and also through the legacies of political instability and corruption which arose on the basis of the old orders and boundaries.

Guyanan historian and activist Walter Rodney gives a succinct, poignant and impassioned account of all this in his classic text, 'How Europe Underdeveloped Africa', which I found on sale at Elmina Castle, along with the tourist guides and local literature. I am also currently re-reading the Heinnemann abridged version of 'Equiano's Travels', a remarkable account from a former slave born east of the River Niger, who subsequently managed to purchase his freedom and became an ardent member of the Movement for the Abolition of Slavery in Europe.

Over the years, I have been not unfamiliar with the history snd narratives of the triangular slave trade dating back to the 1400s. Indeed, for two terms in the early 1980s I taught a short course on colonial history and its contemporary implications for recruits being equipped for international service by the lay Volunteer Missionary Movement (VMM) within the Catholic Church.

But no amount of theoretical knowledge prepares you for the direct visceral and emotional experience of visiting the slave docks at Cape Coast and Elmina, where, under Portugese, Dutch and finally British tutelage, many thousands of African people - including some brought in from Benin - were subjected to inhuman conditions and cruel treatments which are hard to comprehend, let alone contemplate.

It is difficult to put into words what it is like see and smell (even through the most sanitised modern curation) the places where slaves were herded and chained with virtually no light, little food and water, disease-ridden, living in their own impacted detritus, and arbitrarily subjected to abuse (sexual slavery in the case of women) and death, before being put on ships which many would not survive - and which took people away from land, family and identity in order to provide wealth and comfort for their captors.

The dark history of both European Enlightenment and Christendom Christianity, Catholic and Protestant alike, is on stark view at Cape Coast and Elmina. In the former, an SPG church sits immediately above the caves where slaves lived and died in appalling degradation - the chasm between this human-made heaven and hell being only a few feet. In the latter, colonists on their way to worship could select slaves in the market that creates the chapel courtyard. Domestic servants were also used to spy on slaves, detecting any plans for rebellion in order to target, punish and execute the ringleaders.

With hindsight, the religious and 'rational, civilised' justifications for these horrors seem inexcusable. But the tendency of moderns to identify themselves only with the best of their traditions risks spiritual arrogance and political blindness in the present. Indentured labour is still a reality. Groups of people (from Roma and Albinos through to gay people and asylum seekers) are still regarded and treated as less than human and subjected to mistreatment up to and including death. The task of abolition is therefore still a live concern, along with the redemption of corrupt and corrupting belief systems.

Meanwhile, I am immensely grateful to those at Cape Coast and Elmina who have done a remarkable job in excavating and curating the past with which they still live. The guides, in particuar, were informed, articulate and committed in the way they presented a story which many find difficult to hear - myself included - but which is essential to our sense of perspective in the present and bearing for the future.


(Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow is currently travelling in Ghana.)

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.