Mr. Valenzuela
20Aug/11

Ghana – Kormantse, Assin Manso and Elmina

Today was going to be our most ambitious day yet, and so we decided to hire a car to take us to the far-reaching sites of the Central Region. We had Victor pick us up early in the morning. Our first stop was actually within Moree (where we were staying) to see the ruins of Fort Nassau, the first Dutch outpost in the Gold Coast. At the time, Dutch architects only knew how to use Dutch-made materials (like red brick), so the whole structure was made of imported materials, rather than quarried stone from the surrounding area. The road through Moree is a narrow dirt road, cars seem unable to pass through it, but Victor trudged along anyhow. When we reached the top of the cliff where the fort used to stand, Victor asked if we could have a look around. We were welcomed, and the folks insisted that it was okay, but to be honest the whole experience made me remarkably uncomfortable. Only about two or three portions of the large walls of the fort remain, and the whole site is occupied by several families, and I felt intrusive, to say the least. It seems apparent that the Ghana Museum and Monuments Board (GMMB) has not had much interest in Fort Nassau in a very, very long time. We thanked everyone for their kindness, despite the awkwardness, and moved on to our next stop – Fort Amsterdam in Abandze (near to Kormantse). This site has become well known in the United States and the Caribbean for its links to prominent African-Americans and others that have traced their ancestry to this fort – many slaves in the early history of the United States were referred to as “Kormantins” (i.e. from Kormantse) and not Africans. Louis Armstrong apparently traced his ancestry to this place. Fort Amsterdam sits on the top of a high hill overlooking the coast from all sides. We walked around the fort, assuming it was abandoned, and content with some pictures of the outside of the structure. However, the caretaker found us wondering around and invited us in. Although parts of Amsterdam are in ruins, like Nassau, much of the building is standing, and it seems the GMMB has shown interest in maintaining this important historical site. The caretaker was knowledgeable and his tour was informative, as he described the conditions of slaves and masters alike at Amsterdam. I enjoyed visiting this site far better than Cape Coast, partly because of the knowledge of the caretaker, and partly because of the lack of crowds, but mainly because Fort Amsterdam allowed me to visualize what was occurring inside, rather than having it visualized for me.

At any rate, we said our goodbyes to the caretaker and moved on to visit Assin Manso, a village that is about an hour north of Cape Coast. Assin Manso is not quite halfway between Kumasi and Cape Coast along the main road between those two cities. The village’s importance came in the river that ran through it – the last place that enslaved Africans were allowed to bathe before making their final journey to Cape Coast Castle, and eventually the Americas. The site has obviously continued to carry symbolic meaning for Ghanaians and the African Diaspora, and it now contains a small museum, memorial, and burial site for two former slaves reinterred in Ghana to symbolize the African Diaspora’s return to Africa. The museum was closed when we visited, but we were taken on a tour down the path that leads to the “slave river.” There was a strange calm to the trees that overhang the path. I thought about the millions that were chained and forced to walk that portion of the path to the slave market, part of the hundreds of miles they were forced to walk barefoot and dirty. The river itself seems more like a large stream, and the water was clean. I tried to imagine the chaos that would ensue from forcing chained individuals to bathe together in this small river, some perhaps even using the opportunity to attempt their final escape, knowing the slave market and Cape Coast were only a few days march away. I thought that perhaps would have a much stronger connection to the place, as I imagine many people do, but instead I felt that the place didn’t honor those that passed through this place as much as I had expected. Perhaps there really is no way to truly honor such a tragic history.

We left Assin Manso to make the one-hour return journey to Elmina, a fishing town about 12 km. west of Cape Coast. The town itself has a colonial feel, and seems to have maintained its character for many years. Elmina is also home to St. George’s Castle (or São Jorge da Mina in Portuguese), considered the oldest European building in Africa (although sometimes disputed), erected in 1482 by the Portuguese. The castle was overtaken by the Dutch, and like all other forts in Ghana, eventually overturned to the British in 1872. The castle has undergone major changes throughout its history, just like Ghana’s other castles – Osu and Cape Coast. The complex is enormous, four stories tall in some places, and the whole place is full of labyrinthian confusion. We entered the main gate, crossing a drawbridge over a moat to protect the castle from enemies. The Portuguese and Dutch certainly were paranoid! When you first walk inside the vast courtyard, the first thing you see is the church the Portuguese built. And of course, right to the back of you, are the prison cells for “difficult” slaves. Certainly no building we have seen yet shows such a contrast. The entrance to the prison cells is morbidly marked by a skull and cross bones (apparently the cell without the symbol meant you would be allowed to live, while the other one meant the prisoners would die inside). We decided to skip the tour to explore the complex on our own. We definitely got lost, and the whole places has a sort of schizophrenic mood to it – a place not able to even explain itself, a place without a proper floor plan or map.

The most gruesome part of the castle has to be the male and female slave dungeons. The male slave dungeon is large and probably held up to 200 men at a time, often waiting 3 months for a ship to arrive to take them to the Americas. From inside the male slave dungeon is a small, dark tunnel, grimly marked “To waiting slave ships.” The tunnel itself is not lit and was the only time so far that I actually felt scared – I couldn’t see my hands in front of me, and the tunnel kept getting smaller and smaller. I turned back to the light, something so many individuals weren’t allowed to do. The female slave dungeons were smaller, but no less sinister, all facing a courtyard that opened up to the captain’s rooms, allowing them access to the female Africans below (via a secret staircase). Inside the dungeons was perhaps one of the foulest smells imaginable, one probably not as a potent as it was when the place was still actually a dungeon. I think that one could get spend hours and hours exploring the place, but we had one last stop before sundown. São Jorge da Mina certainly left an impression on me that I won’t soon forget.

 

 

Our last stop was across the street from the castle and up the Jago Hill to Fort St. Jago, the only fort in the Gold Coast built primarily for military reasons. The place was the perfect location to look down over Elmina, and the Dutch used it to capture the castle in 1637. The Dutch wanted to make sure no other European or African power repeated what they had accomplished, so they built a fort on the hill to protect the castle. The castle is in decent condition, and the views over Elmina are unmatched. We watched the sun begin to set over the small fishing boats in the harbor. We headed to our new base in Elmina to rest after a long day. Tomorrow is Sunday, a day to finally rest and reflect on all that we have seen and experienced so far.

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