An Unforgettable History: The Slave Castles of Ghana

While crouching to avoid hitting my head on the solid stone ceiling above me, I enter a room that is so tiny that it makes me feel claustrophobic. This room was once a dungeon that held enslaved Africans, and the worn-down stone I stand upon was eroded by the feet of thousands of people who passed through here.

I am visiting Elmina Castle and Cape Coast Castle in Ghana. They are two of the principal depots, often called “slave castles,” that held enslaved persons from kingdoms all across Africa. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, this was their final stopping point before they were loaded onto ships to cross the Atlantic Ocean, never to return to this coastline.

Room at Elmina Castle, Ghana
The skull and crossbones mark the entrance to a tiny room at Elmina Castle where rebellious slaves were left to starve to death/ Alexandra Yingst

The guide turns off the light in the room, which plunges us into total darkness. My heart pounds in my chest as I think of the hundreds of people who would have been piled into this small, dark room at one time. They were left for months to starve or perish from disease as they awaited transportation to the Americas.

Enslaved Africans were forced through the so-called “Door of No Return” at these castles, a narrow opening in the fortress wall that led to the water’s edge and the nearby ships awaiting them. This image of passing through a door, escaping unbelievable horrors, only to be forced to cross the Atlantic Ocean in similar inhumane conditions, really unsettles me. As I look around at the others in my group, I realize that I am not the only one struggling to hold back tears.

“The Door of No Return was the most powerful experience for me at Elmina Castle,” says Silversea historian Shannon Calloway. “To get there, you have to walk through the dungeons, even to the point where you have to crouch. The guide has to use a flashlight for visibility.” For me, experiencing such conditions is something that a book or a documentary could never portray. It is truly unforgettable.

Slavery on the Gold Coast

Although initially built as trading centers for timber and gold, these castles would become strategic trading points in the Triangle Trade. This route brought goods to the West African coast, slaves to the Americas, and raw materials to Europe. The Gold Coast, now present-day Ghana, got its name in the 15th century because of the gold and other valuable goods found in the area.

Elmina Castle is the oldest building constructed by Europeans that is still in existence in sub-Saharan Africa. After the Portuguese built the fortress in 1482, it changed ownership multiple times, falling into Dutch hands in the mid-1600s when they found it profitable to be involved in the slave trade on the Gold Coast.

Cannons in Cape Coast Castle, Ghana
The black cannons lining the edge of Cape Coast Castle point to sea/ Alexandra Yingst

Millions of the recently enslaved awaited transport to the Americas in Elmina Castle until the Dutch ended their participation in the slave trade in 1814. Towards the end of the 19th century, Elmina Castle came under British colonial rule until Ghana became an independent nation in 1957.

Cape Coast Castle, less than ten miles from Elmina Castle, was also heavily used during this incredibly brutal chapter in history. Swedish traders constructed it in 1653, but, after a few different owners, it fell under British control eleven years later. The castle’s cannons pointed at the sea and kept other traders from venturing too close to the British-controlled castle. Many enslaved Africans passed through here on their way to British colonies in the Americas.

Elmina Castle and Cape Coast Castle are just two of over forty castles on this coast that held enslaved people on their way across the Atlantic Ocean. Around 30 still stand to this day, serving as a reminder of a period that humanity should never forget.

Fishing boats, called pirogues, line the beach next to Cape Coast Castle/ Alexandra Yingst

Living in the Shadow of This History

Although it is a somber day walking through the castles, it is also a hopeful day. From the castle walls of Cape Coast Castle, I look down at the beach and see a swarm of activity. Fishermen haul their colorful, wooden canoes ashore, providing food for the nearby community. Children, using the base of the castle as a place to dry off in the sun, swim and play in the waves breaking against the fort.

“Ghana is a shining example of humanity and culture,” says Calloway. “The people of Ghana refuse to give up, which is amazing considering their fairly recent history of difficulties.” The first country to gain independence from colonial powers south of the Sahara Desert, Ghana receives more and more visitors every year. Many of them come to visit the infamous castles that are now UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Children now play in the surf next to Cape Coast Castle/ Alexandra Yingst

It is hard to picture the brutality of the slave trade as I watch children play on the steps that the recently enslaved would have walked down after exiting through the Door of No Return. But I am in awe of the people of Ghana and feel so privileged to be here. Even though they live in the shadow of the slave trade, they are resilient people that grew from that devastation and created a culturally-rich, beautiful country.