Castles + Dungeons: Ghana’s Tragic Past

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Semester at Sea offers 300 trips through its international field program, distributed among the 14 stops we’ll be making. These range from afternoon trips around Mauritius to four-day tours of India. SVV and I have been doing half SAS trips, half independent travel, which I find is the perfect balance of alone time and group tours, and one of the things I love best about the SAS trips is the expertise that accompany them and the access to things and places that you wouldn’t be granted on your own (such as a tour of the Ghana Parliament, thanks to one of our students whose dad works within).

While in Ghana, SVV and I opted to go on the Castles and Dungeons tour of the Cape Coast (which quickly became dubbed “Dungeons and Dragons” beforehand when one of the students made a major faux pas in referencing the trip to her professor). This particular trip was an FDP—faculty-directed practica—for three professors, which simply means their classes are required to attend for credit, while the rest of us opted to go out of interest. It also meant we had brilliant faculty members along to divulge their academic knowledge.

I knew absolutely nothing about Ghana going into our time there. I’m not sure if this pegs me as ignorant or is a reflection on the little attention the American school system pays to history outside of our own, but visiting the Cape Coast was a living history lesson for me, as well as for many of the other SAS participants. The western coast of Africa was a major exporter of slaves into the Americas. Before being outlawed in the mid- to late-1800s, vast amounts of humankind were shipped as commodities in the holds of specialized ships to toil in the mines of South and Central America, work the cotton and tobacco fields of the United States or perform as servants and disposable labor in whatever form their purchaser required. This distressing and horrifying history was related to us via our professorial escort Louis Nelson and the guides at each castle in passionate and meaningful detail throughout our daylong trip into the countryside of Ghana. For more on this topic see this and this.

Fittingly, it was a dark, overcast day as we made our way through the slave quarters. These dungeons were built as far back as six centuries ago by slave traders from Europe, yet the people of Ghana harbor no obvious grudge toward the Europeans, which I found pretty remarkable. Elmina Castle in particular was established by the Portuguese during the days of gold trading in 1482.

Despite our collective lack of knowledge of slave conditions in long-ago Africa, I still think this struck a chord with many in our group as comparisons could be drawn to slaves in the American South during the 1800s and the difficult time our country has had with race relations throughout its history.

Elmina Castle was the last stop on the Atlantic Slave Trade, and there was a “door of no return” at the shore’s edge, through which the slaves were led in shackles to boats that would transport them overseas. On said boats, the slaves laid side by side, chained to the wooden deck.

Even our bus full of passengers barely fit into one cell. Can you imagine twice the number of people living in here at once?

Both castles looked like they could have been extracted from a horror movie, but they were both very much real.

The eerie seaside setting was further enhanced by the presence of bats hiding in the dungeons.

After Elmina, we drove up the road to Cape Coast Castle, where we saw much of the same: alarmingly small holding cells, terrible living conditions, troughs through the dungeon rooms that carried the body waste away. This castle was built two centuries after Elmina, in 1653, by the Swedes.

Between our visits to the castles, the mood was lightened significantly when all three buses and 100-something participants pulled up to Coconut Grove Resort for a beach side buffet.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, the food in Ghana is killer. But yes, it felt odd to have such a feast after driving through the poverty of Ghana, as well as seeing what the slaves went through for centuries.

However, I did enjoy seeing a slice of this section of the country, immensely: For as dirty as most of Accra was, the beaches and coastal areas were surprisingly clean and devoid of piles of trash.

Driving back to Tema that night was an adventure in itself. The traffic in Ghana is no joke, and we experienced true Africa in the time it took us nearly five hours to travel the 92 miles back to the port. As if we weren’t already feeling like privileged Americans after what we had witnessed just hours before, we had a motorcade of police escorts who not only parted the seas of traffic for our buses to get through, but went as far as to drive down the streets in jam-packed traffic GOING THE OPPOSITE DIRECTION as all the cars pulled into the sidewalks to make way for our fleet of four buses. It was not unlike a scene from the Bourne movies and quite difficult to watch. Have you ever driven straight into oncoming traffic before on purpose? Not stressful at all.

I honestly don’t know what to make of my disjointed time and experiences in Ghana—nor do I think I had enough time on the ground there to form an educated opinion—but I do know it’s not a country that will leave my thoughts anytime soon.

  • September 29, 2011

    What a mix of experiences. Even now, trying to come up with my own reaction to your experience it’s awful and wonderful and eye-opening and…it’s a lot. But how wonderful that the trip touched you as much as it did.

  • September 29, 2011

    I traveled to Ghana in 2009 and also visited Cape Coast Castle – it is an eerie and disturbing experience. I visited on a break from my main project (starting a school library in Sunyani) the day after President Obama did , so there was the additional contrast of the exterior of the castle being decorated for his visit, the even-more-than-usual friendliness towards Americans, and the excitement of the trip overall.

    It’s too bad there wasn’t time for you to visit Kakum National Park! It’s easy to get to from Cape Coast. And, believe it or not, the road between Cape Coast and Accra is one of the best in Ghana. It is hard to escape the crazy traffic though.

    • September 29, 2011

      I know! I really loved the Cape Coast area and would really love to see the beaches to the west of there, around Dixcove, as well. I wanted to go to Kakum from Cape Coast, and would have just stayed over for the night and taken public transportation back to Tema, but unfortunately, I had to be back on the ship to dispatch trips at 7am so it wasn’t a possibility.

      And I am still absolutely in shock by how bad the traffic situation was. It’s one of those things you simply can’t explain to someone who has never been to Ghana, as no adequate comparison can be drawn!

  • September 29, 2011

    Is it wrong that I want to apply for a position with SAS RIGHT. NOW. ? Because both your work and adventures sounds amazing. Please keep the updates coming!

    • September 29, 2011

      It is, no doubt, the most amazing thing I’ve ever been a part of. Even though we still have two-and-a-half months left, I’m already sad at the thought of the voyage coming to an end!

  • September 29, 2011

    How interesting, and heartbreaking. Goodness, we humans are cruel creatures.


  • September 29, 2011

    I have to know . . . what lens are you using here? I just got a sigma 10 20 and I am loving it, but I feel like your lens might be a hair wider?

    • September 29, 2011

      Same one exactly! Sigma 10-20mm. All the castle shots were taken with that one, but the beach shot of the two of us is with the GoPro, which is a fixed lens with a 172-degree angle.

  • September 29, 2011

    What an interesting, and sad, thing to see. SVV appears to have 10′ long stretchy arms in that last photo, does he have hidden superhero powers you’ve yet to reveal to us?

    • September 29, 2011

      He does! You’ve figured him out! It’s called a GoPro HD Helmet Camera! 😉

  • September 30, 2011

    Oh my God, the traffic in Accra is madness!
    When I was there I wanted to take a taxi to the Craft Centre which was about a 15 minute drive from my hotel.
    I sat in the taxi for 35 minutes on the road leading out of the hotel and eventually told the driver to call it a day, paid my fare and walked back inside (2 min walk!) and went to the hotel bar instead!
    Crazy with a capital C! But, an amazing country, I would love to go back too, hopefully one of these days!

    • September 30, 2011

      Seriously. No one who hasn’t been to Ghana can even fathom how bad it is. I wish I had video of our motorcade tearing through Accra going the WRONG WAY down the traffic-jammed streets!

  • September 30, 2011

    I spent just over a month there in 2001/2002 (was there over New Year’s Eve and most of January), and it’s been awesome to read about your time there! Thanks for sharing it with us! It is fun to see all these familiar photos of things I visited nearly a decade ago!! Can’t believe it was that long ago. I still remember it so well.

    Anyway, Ghana is one of my all-time favorite countries and where the travel bug bit me. It sounds silly, but traveling there as a college senior changed my life path forever. I returned to college in Atlanta for my final semester, then decided to withdraw all my applications to PhD programs in Industrial/Organizational Psychology, and instead I moved to DC in May, 2002–the day after I graduated–where I worked for a nonprofit organization called Women Thrive Worldwide.

    Ghana will do that. It can change your life.

    • October 7, 2011

      Not sure why I didn’t see this before, but that’s awesome! I’d really like to see more of the country, so hopefully if I work another SAS voyage, I can see Takoradi and more of the west part of the country. Were you in Accra?

  • October 1, 2011

    Finally catching up with your travels with Semester at Sea. Sounds like so much fun! I definitely hear you about traffic (not just in Ghana) but West Africa in general. The traffic in Lagos, Nigeria is legendary.

  • October 2, 2011

    I’m so jealous that you’re getting to go to such interesting places with professors as top-notch tour guides to give you all sorts of information on what you’re seeing. It sounds like this particular excursion was an enlightening trip.

  • October 3, 2011

    Loved this post. I always love a place more when I understand the history of it. Makes me feel personally connected somehow.

  • October 3, 2011

    What a mixed and fascinating experience. I can only image the conflicting emotions that come from visits like this one. It’s hard for me to imagine how I would feel after seeing such places.

  • October 4, 2011

    Looks like fun. Glad you made it back from the Door of No Return!

    • October 6, 2011

      It was touch or go there for a minute 😉

  • October 7, 2011

    It’s very eery to read this post and see the photos. The skulls, the Door of No Return, the bats. Really informative. And, as always, great photos. 🙂

  • October 7, 2011

    I had the same feelings after visiting a similar fort in Senegal, where slaves were shipped overseas. What an experience you are having!

  • October 9, 2011

    That cell photo is horrifying. I’m so glad you’re enjoying Ghana though!

  • October 12, 2011

    Ahhhh some of those cramped spaces would freak me out!!!

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