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Mark Moxon's Travel Writing

Ghana: Cape Coast

Cape Coast Castle
Cape Coast Castle was the main slave-trading fort in the bad old days when Ghana was a British colony

Unlikely as it might have seemed a few days ago, yesterday I finally got myself motivated to leave Kokrobite and head west to explore Ghana's historic coastline. I tempered the strain of my departure by promising myself that I'd pop back for a night before returning to Accra, but if I hadn't made a break for it quickly, I'd have been in danger of sinking deep into holiday-induced lethargy, which probably would have eaten up all my remaining time in West Africa. Kokrobite was the perfect stop for the festive season, but you can have too much of a good thing.

Cape Coast Castle
Countless slaves marched through a tunnel under the cannons to reach slave ships bound for the New World

Cape Coast Castle

The steps from Cape Coast Castle onto the beach
Going down the castle steps onto the beach would be the last time most slaves would stand on African soil

Cape Coast's main attraction is the stunning Cape Coast Castle, a World Heritage site that genuinely deserves the accolade. In nearly three months in West Africa I haven't seen anything that remotely compares to Cape Coast Castle; it's the first place I've visited here that compares to the colonial remnants in places like Malaysia and India, and I lapped it up.

The beach at Cape Coast
Slave ships dropped their anchors here, but these days it's mainly fishermen

A Short History of Cape Coast Castle

The slums of Cape Coast
From Cape Coast Castle you can look down on the slums of the town, where thousands of Ghanaians live in sweltering poverty

The first thing I visited in Cape Coast Castle was the excellent museum housed in one of the castle wings. As I've already mentioned, Cape Coast Castle is a UNESCO World Heritage site, as are the two forts in neighbouring Elmina, and a lot of effort has been invested in justifying this accolade. The museum is just one of the results; the excellent guided tours are another, and ongoing restoration work (complete with its own museum) is a sign that its World Heritage status is being taken seriously. I spent hours in the museum – indeed, I had to be wrenched away to attend my guided tour, after which I returned to finish lapping up every detail about the castle – and without a doubt it's the best museum I've yet seen in West Africa. OK, this isn't necessarily saying much, but I found out a lot about the history of Cape Coast Castle, and it fascinated me.

Cannons at Cape Coast Castle
The black cannons of Cape Coast Castle are a stark reminder of the British occupation of Ghana
The view west from Cape Coast Castle
Looking west from the castle

The Slave Trade

Fishermen on the beach below Cape Coast Castle
The beach below Cape Coast Castle may have been the realm of slave traders, but now it's home to Ghanaian fishermen

So far all I've talked about is the history of the colonial powers fighting over tracts of land in faraway West Africa, but the thing that makes Cape Coast such a harrowing place is its role in the slave trade. So much has been written about the slave trade that I doubt I can throw any new light on this shameful episode in human history, but a potted history wouldn't go amiss.

Fort William and Chapel Square from Cape Coast Castle
Fort William and Chapel Square from Cape Coast Castle
A view over Cape Coast
The rooftops of Cape Coast
The view east from Cape Coast Castle
Looking east from the castle

To Be Sold & Let
By Public Auction,
On Monday the 18th of May, 1829,
Under the Trees.
For Sale,
The Three Following
Hannibal, about 30 Years old, an excellent
House Servant, of good Character.
William, about 35 Years old, a Labourer.
Nancy, an excellent House Servant and Nurse.
The Men belonging to "Leech's" Estate,
and the Woman to Mrs D Smit.
Also for Sale, at Eleven o'Clock,
Fine Rice, Gram, Paddy, Books, Muslins,
Needles, Pins, Ribbons &c. &c.

Cape Coast from Fort William
Cape Coast is a crowded place

The bit that really hits me is the section at the end; I think it sums up the inhumanity of the slave trade rather well, but not by talking about numbers, or being crammed into dungeons in remote castles, or the nightmare of being shoehorned into a ship so tightly that you can't sit up, with the faeces and vomit of the people above dripping down on you as you lie there in the dark. The notice above, to me, denotes the real human tragedy of the slave trade; back then it was socially acceptable and indeed normal to think of your fellow man not as a human being, but as an object to be sold at the same time as rice, books, muslins and needles. Thankfully most of the world has moved on and human rights are now centre stage; one sincerely hopes the human race will never print posters like this again.

Touring the Castle

Fort William
Fort William was used as a look-out post

There's no doubt that the highlights of Cape Coast Castle are the museum and the dungeons, but there are plenty of other historical touches that bring the place to life. One of the more life-affirming is the fact that when the British abolished slavery they walled up the entrance of the tunnel that leads from the male dungeon to the beach where the slave ships would drop anchor; not only this, the Fante tribe have turned this walled section into a shrine to their local gods, because there used to be a shrine on the site of Cape Coast Castle before the Europeans stuck their oars in, and it's now back in operation, smothered in animal skins, wine, schnapps, bowls, cloths and various other bits and bobs. Meanwhile the tunnel to the beach was converted by the British into a cistern for fresh water, a huge improvement on the previous use; it's good to see a guilty conscience being put to good use...

Cape Coast from Fort William
Cape Coast from Fort William

Fort William and Fort Victoria

Fort Victoria, Cape Coast
Fort Victoria, like Fort William, was used mainly as a look-out

I figured I might as well visit the two other forts in Cape Coast, even though they're completely eclipsed by Cape Coast Castle. They're nothing special but I like walking, and as these two forts are both perched on the tops of hills, I gave in to the male compulsion to conquer every peak, no matter how small. In Cape Coast Castle there are two turrets on opposite ends of the battlements that look out directly at the two other forts; this is because the two smaller forts functioned as look-out posts that could signal the main castle in case of invasion from the sea. These glimpses were just enough to whet my appetite, so off I went.