Between its construction in 1776 until the mid-1800s, it is untold hundreds of thousands of souls were forced through the unforgiving “Doors of No Return” in the “slave castles” of West Africa. Unclothed, shamed and chained, they were marched down dungeon tunnels to ships that delivered them to new lives as slaves. They lost their families, their freedom and many lost their hope.
The Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, English and French all participated in the Atlantic slave trade, shipping out the African captives from the areas of the Senegal and Gambia rivers and West Central Africa, from countries we know today as Ghana, Senegal, Angola, Benin and others.
As I visit Senegal, Ghana and Benin, I am witness to a very hefty reminder of this human exploitation. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana is one of about forty “slave castles” located along what was formerly known as the Gold Coast. It’s an imposing white-washed fort, clinging to the edge of the sea, offering easy transport of the human cargo to awaiting ships and their dark destiny … to the New World, Brazil and the Caribbean.
Ile de Gorée is a tiny car-free island located off the coast of Dakar (also a UNESCO World Heritage Center). With its lively tourist craft market, winding stone paths and a plethora of bright painted houses, it’s impossible to imagine the history of death and immense suffering, until I visit the House of Slaves.
In the castle dungeon, I breathe the heavy, humid air. It is stifling hot. Our guide shuts off the light, leaving us in the dark, showing us how it was for the slaves, cramped inside this small dungeon room, awaiting shipment out through the “Door of No Return.” It is tight, even for our little group. What must it have been like for the hundred-plus souls continually rotated for centuries through this same room? I feel heart-pain as I struggle to understand the inhumanity. My entire body is soaked in sweat – for me, only sweat, but for the slaves — blood, sweat and tears.
In Benin, I attend the annual “Fête du Vodoun” where the ancestral enslaved spirits are celebrated. A Voodoo priest leads a trek from the slave auction block to the harbour, offering prayers for those stolen from their lands, making sure these old souls are not forgotten.
At the Temple of Pythons in Ouidah, I wander through tangled snakes, worshipped in the Voodoo religion and often let free to roam the village. In the fetish market I have my ghoulish fill of viewing animal heads and body parts, then a local soothsayer “throws the bones” for me, scattering them over his small table as he bends his head to interpret.
As I depart this once slave island, I again walk a dungeon tunnel of a “Door of No Return” tow its exit point, where I wonder about the slave’s last look at their land, and cling to the knowledge that this once very dark place is now a sanctuary for reconciliation.
Peggy Wright, CTC, CITM, CATS is ‘The Travel Agent Next Door.’