From Slave Post to Museum ; in Ghana, African-Americans Visit Castles Where Their Ancestors May Have Been Held before Being Shipped to the New World as Slaves

Article excerpt

The old slave castle looks peaceful today, covered with a coat of white paint and overlooking the waves lapping the rocks along the Atlantic shoreline.

Local boys play soccer matches among abandoned buildings nearby. In the evenings they move into the castle and fill the warm air with the beat of energetic drum circles.

None of this can overshadow Cape Coast Castle's gruesome past for hundreds of tourists who pass through each week to tour the grounds and weep in its eerie dungeons.

Cape Coast lies about three hours from Accra, the modern capital of Ghana, on a stretch of West Africa known as the Gold Coast.

Ghana may well have the highest concentration of slave posts anywhere in the world, giving it the dubious nickname "the shopping street of West Africa."

Dozens of historic castles, forts, and trading posts may still be found along a coastline less than 310 miles long.

In Cape Coast and nearby Elmina, the castles have been converted into well-maintained museums that educate as much as they torment, while many other forts are now inexpensive hotels with breathtaking views of the ocean.

This former British colony has become a destination for African- Americans digging for their roots or looking for a different perspective of the continent that seems to generate only bad-news headlines.

Because it is one of the few stable, democratic countries on the continent, and one where English is the official language, American tourists generally feel comfortable here.

Ghana Airlines offers nonstop flights once a week from New York and Washington to Accra, and British Airways flies through London. Finding a round-trip ticket for under $800 is nearly impossible, but, once you've arrived, you'll find that everything in Ghana tends to be inexpensive.

It's easy to find comfortable accommodations in Accra or Cape Coast for less than $70 per night, and a scenic, safe highway connects the two coastal cities. The best time to go is in February and March or July and August, just before the Gold Coast's two rainy seasons.

The anguish

"I have come full circle back to my destiny: from Africa to America and back to Africa," Atlanta resident Contrena Randolph wrote in the guest book at Cape Coast Castle, built by Swedes in 1653. "I could hear the cries and wails of my ancestors. I weep with them and for them."

Kwadwo Opoku-Agyemang, a professor of literature at the University of Cape Coast, warns against the danger of forgetting, in poems about Ghana's slavery castles: "In silence and alone mothers hear the cries of their stolen children. The castle breathes sweetness. If people died of all the things they remember, we would live forever."

The tour through Cape Coast Castle is saddening though subtle, as the soft-voiced guide speaks with neither anger nor alarm in his voice. He points out scratch marks nearly two feet high on the dungeon walls, the height to which prisoners' waste reached as they waited, sometimes for months, for slavery ships to take them to the New World.

"Something startles where I thought I was safest," writes Professor Opoku-Agyemang. "The darkness of the dark continent was born here in the fretful culture of dense fear."

The tourist also sees the one-room, windowless cells, where unruly prisoners were condemned to death by starvation.

This contrasts sharply with the roomy, illuminated quarters upstairs for the Europeans occupying the castle at that time.

Historical journey

But Cape Coast's most powerful display is a Smithsonian-funded exhibition saved for the end of the tour. It provides a chronological journey through local history, before the Europeans arrived, showing the traditional lives of local African tribes, both around Cape Coast and also farther inland, where the majority of the slaves lived.

The men hollowed out canoes and painted them with symbols. …