I stepped out of the flat, gray day and into the black depths of the tunnel that led to the Female Dungeon beneath the Cape Coast Castle. Sensing my way along the stone floor, I followed the footsteps of other visitors ahead as my eyes gradually adjusted to the darkness. Cool air in the tunnel provided no lasting respite from the thick humidity outside; any sense of relief was overshadowed by the heavy weight of souls in this place. We fell silent, immediately sensing the terrible truths housed within.
The castle guide led us down, down underground to the dungeon used to hold female slaves before they were taken from Africa’s Gold Coast (now Ghana) to be sold in the Americas at the height of the slave trade in the 1800’s. He ushered our small group into a stone chamber and closed the heavy door behind us. A single bare light bulb illuminated the room for just a moment before he flipped the switch, pitching us into blackness. No one spoke.
Thick stone walls muted the thunder of waves and even our own breathing, or perhaps we stopped breathing as we experienced the horror of this enclosure and its ghosts. Two small peep-holes high above delivered the only light or air allowed into this space, too small and too high to let more than a sliver of light reach those standing below. From these openings food and water were tossed down twice a day to the hundreds of women crammed together in the damp 15x30 foot cell for months as they waited for ships to return and sever them forever from their homeland. Through these openings faint strains of hymns could drift down to the ears of these captives while their good Christian traffickers gathered to worship and celebrate in the church directly over their heads.
Dim light returned with a hollow click and I realized that I was standing in the shallow channel that was designed to carry away human waste. For hundreds of people. In fact, the waste became the floor that held these captives and gradually accumulated to more than a foot deep, marked on the walls by those who excavated the building down to its original stone floor almost a century later. My mind struggled to imagine the unimaginable, but my body could feel the echoes of human sorrow and loss of hope, and my heart broke. I resisted an urge to reach out and touch the walls as if to comfort them, or me.
We followed our guide out of the dungeon to visit the two possible exits for those who didn’t succumb to starvation or sickness. Most left through the Door of No Return, boarded directly onto waiting ships for the horrific Middle Passage across the Atlantic, which many wouldn’t survive. Those few who dared to challenge their captors were taken instead to the Condemned Cell for certain, unhurried death, thrown into a tiny sealed cell without food, water, light or air. Claw marks remain on the floor and walls as testimony to this painful passage.
I emerged slowly from the dungeon into the castle courtyard and stood facing the vast expanse of Atlantic separating the Old and New Worlds as I gradually returned to this one, blinking away tears and daylight. It is impossible to return unchanged; thoughts and emotions battled for attention. Shock and revulsion at such unspeakable horror: How could human beings do this to one another? And how could anyone survive it? Anger that European traders would encourage African tribes to betray one another and sell rival members for profit: Why is this sordid detail left out of our history lessons? Guilt, and shame: As if I did this, somehow. And deep, deep sorrow: As if it was done to me.
A drizzle of rain picked up to a steady downpour and mingled with my own tears, but did little to wash away the turmoil within.
An engraved plaque near the dungeon entrance reminds all who bear witness to the terrible truths preserved here:
IN EVERLASTING MEMORY
OF THE ANGUISH OF OUR ANCESTORS.
MAY THOSE WHO DIED REST IN PEACE.
MAY THOSE WHO RETURN FIND THEIR ROOTS.
MAY HUMANITY NEVER AGAIN PERPETRATE
SUCH INJUSTICE AGAINST HUMANITY.
WE THE LIVING VOW TO UPHOLD THIS.
The anguish of our ancestors belongs to all of us. I, the living, vowed to remember.
Kathleen Koprowski is on sabbatical from a business consulting career to pursue a lifelong dream to turn words into groceries.
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If you enjoy the articles on YourLifeIsATrip.com, please visit another great resource and one of our sponsors, the Kiwi Collection: An interactive guide to the best luxury hotels, resorts, spas and destination experiences on the planet.
Subscribe to YourLifeisaTrip.com and be notified when new articles appear, click here. It's free, it's fun, and it keeps you on the cutting edge of what our writers are thinking.
photos by by bdinphoenix (lead image) and Kathleen Koprowski