Monday, September 28, 2009

“He’s not heavy…”

This morning my alarm went off about 10 minutes after I woke up. I laid in quiet contemplation feeling the same heaviness I feel on the mornings that I have to attend a funeral. I showered got dressed and packed my bags, grabbed my camera and headed out the door. I then realized there was a lot of haze on the water, I would once again not see the sunrise over Ghana. I walked the 100 or so yards from the front door of my cottage to the beach front and walked along the beach towards the east where the sun would rise.

I could see it trying to burn off the haze and break through the clouds, for some reason the hymn “How Great Thou Art” (one of my favorites) popped into my head. I caught myself praying and humming as the sun broke through and burned off the haze. I noticed a couple of fishermen in their boats several hundred yards off the coast. I then noticed the traffic on the beach had started to pick up with women walking to market using the beach front as a cut through. All the while I tried to prepare myself for the Castles I was about to visit, I had read about slavery, studied that part of history but I was now standing on the coastline, one of the last, that many captives saw before they were shipped to the Americas and into a life of slavery. It all felt so heavy. I gave considerable thought to my own family’s migration to the US and how our struggles pale in comparison to the 400 years of migratory practices imposed on people of the Sub-Sahara African region. It was very heavy.

I joined a colleague for breakfast which had just started by the time I walked back to the outdoors dining area, an older woman who works at the University of the Bahamas, during our breakfast she turned to me and asked, “do you think these people are prepared for what we are about to see?” I boldly replied, “I don’t think I’m prepared and I have at least studied it”. We both nodded and continued eating our breakfast and small talk.

The ride to the Cape Coast Castle was a quiet one for me; I sat with my iPod on listening to my inspirational song selection trying to get the melancholy out of my system as if that would help. Our tour guide informed us the previous day that she was one of the guides that was available and traveled with the Obama’s when they came and visited the Cape Coast castle and the Michelle cried during the tour but that Barack was stoic during the visit.

We arrived and were quickly led in to meet our guide for the Cape Coast Castle tour. Our tour guide was a middle aged man, the lead tour guide of the Castle; he himself had given the Obama’s their tour. He provided us with great details of the history of the Castle and when it was erected and how many times it had changed hands, first the Portuguese, then the Dutch, then the British (the British actually maintained slaves at the Castle into the late 1800’s well after slavery had been abolished). He then led us to the first dungeon. The Male holding dungeon; this was a tunnel that winded in a downward slope into darkness which led to a greater cave dwelling with a room to the right and left. This space was where they would hold a thousand or more men at one time, chained together. In this space these men would relieve themselves, starve, be extremely ill, and even die.

He turned the lights off (installed for tourists) so that we could see just how pitch black it was in the space. As he walked us form one area to the other he gestured to the ground and said,” please watch your step as you walk on the caked feces and remains of ancestors that did not make it out alive”. That’s about the point where all my emotions came to the surface. The tears started to flow as I walked to the other room with the rest of my group and watched quietly as he introduced us to the keeper of the sanctuary that was placed in that room which once housed the tunnel that led the captives to the "Door of No Return". The keeper of the sanctuary performed a brief greeting for our safe voyage and to keep the spirits of the captives at rest. We continued on the tour to the other holding areas. Walking past the original dungeons which were nothing more than a crawl space on the roof top of the fortification which led to open space below, where captives would be forced down into total darkness for months at a time. We also walked past the observation tunnels, where soldiers would stand and watch the captives ensuring they were moving towards the door. Then we entered (or rather peeked into) a space shape of an isosceles triangle, the depth of the room was no more than 4 ft and about 8 feet at its longest point, this was the room where the women who objected to have sex with soldiers were held, this with no ventilation just a small 2X3 space looking towards the soldiers quarters. The next space was a much larger area where the women were held, this area was right next to the huge wooden black doors, a sign posted above the doors read “Door of No Return”.

 As our guide opened it the light from outside was blinding and as my sight adjusted I could see and hear the Atlantic Ocean as well as the members of the fishing community that now make this their home. I imagine this was not the case 400 years ago. Instead when that door was opened it was to lead captives onto small boats, 20 or so at a time to bring them to the slave ships that would then transport them across the Atlantic. What a completely different view it was now.

As a tour drew to a close we walked through some of the other cells and saw some of the other parts of the building, ED joined us, he was meeting one of the Faculty members to go visit a village and bring them a gift. I gave him a guided tour of what he missed and he too was moved by the information I provided, though not to tears.

We moved on to Elmina Castle, the largest of these castles in the Sub Sahara African countries, where we pretty much heard more of the same, these castles are located on the same coastline a few miles from each other and were operating at the same time. The one detail that really stuck out for me at this particular castle was that here like at Cape Coast the men and women were kept separate, however the Governor’s bedroom and the men’s mess hall was immediately about the courtyard of the female captives. At any given time the Governor could step out onto his balcony and select a female captive which would then be taken to a corner of the courtyard and forced up sets of wooden stairs to a hatch where she would then be taken to the Governor’s quarters and raped.

 Any female captive that rebelled or tried to escape would be made an example of and made to stand in the corner of the courtyard, that gets all the day’s sun, chained to a cannon ball (think Prometheus). All the women were checked prior to embarking on a slave ship to ensure they were not pregnant. Any female found pregnant was not allowed aboard the ship, instead allowed to give birth and set free, her child to be educated by the state, thus these castles also became the first conduit to educate a mulato population. How altruistic?

The ride back to the ship was solemn and quiet most slept some read and others reflected. It was a heavy day.

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