Magazine article History Today

Ghana's Crumbling Heritage

Magazine article History Today

Ghana's Crumbling Heritage

Article excerpt

The beaches of Ghana are among the most attractive in West Africa. Frowning down on thirty-one of them are the forts and castles which, for the most part, owe their existence to the slave trade. These beaches and castles - two splendid assets for tourism - are now significant foreign currency earners for Ghana, which last year ranked sixth in Africa for tourism receipts.

The grandest castle, Elmina, was founded by the Portuguese in 1482. Gold (hence Ghana's former name as the Gold Coast) was originally their quest. But Elmina owes its present extent to the Dutch, the first slave-traders on a massive, transatlantic scale.

With its size, its curtain-wall, towers, church, ravelin, drawbridges and bastions, Elmina is a great castle in the European tradition. So is Cape Coast Castle, a few miles away, the former British Headquarters until 1876. Ghana's other castle, Christiansborg, originally Danish, and the seat of the last British Governors, is now the residence of Ghana's President and is not open to the public.

But something must be done to protect all of these evocative buildings from the effects of both time and weather and of the tourists themselves. Some forts are crumbling; one, Keta, is simply vanishing into the sea. And as more and more tourists tramp through the castles, precautions need to be taken to conserve their original fabric.

Most overseas visitors at present are Afro-Americans. Locals estimate that, last year around 30,000 people visited Elmina castle. For many, this is an emotionally intense experience. Women wail and men are shaken after coming out of the extensive series of dank rooms in the dark bowels of the castle, where the slaves were confined, sometimes for many weeks, before shipment across the Atlantic.

They usually seek some souvenir which can speak to them of this place - in the female dungeon large sections of the original floor of one room have disappeared. The stones have simply been prised up and taken back to the United States. There are even a few who would like this process to be taken further. One Afro-American told a horrified Ghanaian custodian that, as the embodiment of all that was evil, he hoped the castles would one day be razed to the ground and all trace of them eradicated. …

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