The Door of No Return

The tunnel leads from the dungeons to the harbor.

At the end of the tunnel hangs an ominous sign: “Door of no return.”

Through this door human beings were marched from the bowels of the castle to the holds of slave ships. The transition from a stone to a wooden prison offered the captives one last gaze to the African sun. They would not see it, their families, or their homes again.

Drawing of the harbor at Cape Coast Castle. Image from C. F. Dow, Slave Ships and Slaving (1970: 2). Image from here.

We step through this door as part of a guided tour. Although it is peeling and moldy, Cape Coast Castle is numbered among UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. We are learning why from a young guide named Mark. Edem, KK, James and I soberly follow him. Mark explains how the castle was a hub (termed a “factory” by contemporaries) for the largest migration of human history. Numbers vary, but something like eleven million people were forcibly moved from Africa to the New World as a part of the transatlantic slave trade. Many of those individuals were processed right here at Cape Coast between the years 1665 and 1807.

A sign in the display area describes the slave trade as one leg of a larger economic triangle between Africa, the Americas, and Europe. Slaves were brought from Africa to the Americas to work plantations and mines. Agricultural products, such as cotton and tobacco were brought from the Americas to Europe. Manufactured goods, such as alcohol and guns, were brought from Europe to Africa.

The triangular trade of the 17th century. Image modified from here

The appetite for these goods had consequences. In Africa, for example, it exacerbated tribal conflict, which, in turn, produced more war and more prisoners-of-war. These captives were sold to the Europeans who, for fear of disease and hostilities, hovered behind a network of walled fortresses along the coast. It was a vicious cycle. Greed greased the wheels.

As I walk through the artifacts on display (wrist and neck shackles, branding irons for marking people, and even a model of a slave ship), it is a visceral experience. I am struck by the fallenness of humanity, the rawness of the evil that we are capable of mustering, and the reality of unchecked consumerism. Free enterprise without conscience will consume even human life.

Map of West Africa from 1736. Image posted here.  

Fierce competition for market access in West Africa meant that the Cape Coast Castle would change hands several times. The wooden fort built by the Swedes was refurbished by the Danes, but ultimately reached the form we see today in the hands of the British. Viewed from above, the castle is diamond shaped with stout batteries facing the sea. Despite being pummeled by French cannons during the Seven Years’ War, the British held out and continued to build. The castle would remain at the center of their regional interests until the late 19th century when power shifted east to Accra.

Mark leads us to the men’s dungeon.

A powerful segment of our tour is a moment when we stand in one of the men’s dungeons. Our guide turns off the lights and we are imprisoned by darkness. The room is small. The ventilation is poor (remember this is an equatorial climate!). We taste the mustiness of the space. We are asked to imagine what it would be like to await the arrival of the ships (sometimes for weeks) in this room with as many as 200 other persons. There is no place to sit or lie down. There are several inches of human waste on the floor; the drains are incapable of handling the volume. The dead are hauled out when identified. Thinking about it even now makes me weep. Thousands died in this room from dehydration, malnutrition, disease, and, (who can possibly measure this malady?) a loss of hope.

This dungeon is linked to another dungeon by a door that leads to yet another. The last room in the series releases into the tunnel that expires at the “door of no return.”

The batteries rest above the dungeons and tunnel.

In the cruel twist, the space directly above the men’s dungeon was used by the British as a chapel. The dying souls of those below could hear the singing of those above. How such a juxtaposition could occur is staggering. Biblical texts were used in the 18th century both to support and condemn the transatlantic slave trade.

The Cape Coast Beach is full of the activities, colors, and smell of fishing.

We pass through the “door of no return” on our tour and find a busy beach on the other side. The fishermen have come in with their morning’s catch. Some pick and sort small crabs. Others mend and fold the nets for another day.

One man wants to show me. He calls. When I get close, he sticks out his hands and says one word: “money.”

I back off and stand on the stone apron of the fort. I breath the sea air, feel the African sun, and take in the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean.

Behind me, a second sign marks the outside of the same gateway. It reads “Door of Return” on this side. We step through it and make our way back up the stairs. No one says anything. Unlike so many others, we are free to leave. Free to remember. Free to forget.

I remember the first months of the presidency of Barack Obama. He received flack from conservatives for daring to make apologies for deeds past. At the time, I paid little attention. I felt I had better things to do. I am ashamed of my thinking today.

Today as we leave the peeling and moldy buildings of Cape Coast Castle though, I notice a plaque placed in the wall above the men’s dungeon. It sparks a memory. I read the words of the plaque, and later, the words of Obama’s speech offered from that austere podium.

I pull a single line from the President’s mouth: “The capacity for cruelty still exists.” No doubt. But there is an even more appropriate line for the moment. It was scripted long ago and runs like this:

“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me . . . to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn.”