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Slave Trade: Sins of the Past and Present

Elmina Slave Dungeon
Elmina Slave Dungeon

AFRICANGLOBE – Every day sees visitors breaking down in tears while touring 97,000-square-foot Elmina Castle in Elmina, west of Cape Coast, Ghana.

Built in 1482 by the Portuguese as a gold trading post on the Gulf of Guinea, it was turned into a fortress for the transatlantic slave trade by the Dutch in 1637.

These days tourists get to see the once-luxurious suites where the European slave merchants stayed and sexually exploited female and male Africans.

They also see the dungeons that once housed the enslaved Africans, and the dingy, dimly lit corridors that lead to the “door of no return.”

This door is in the outer walls of the castle, facing the sea, and was so named because once Africans walked through it they never returned.

At the “door of no return” the enslaved Africans were led into boats that transferred them onto big ships farther down the sea, for the long and horrendous journey to the Americas.

In the travel book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, Patricia Schultz writes that by the 18th century, up to 30,000 enslaved Africans passed through the “door of no return” each year.

Anouk Zijlma, a Malawian travel guide, says of her visit to Elmina Castle, “You can always feel the suffering in the air, it’s unsettling.”

Elmina Dungeon—designated a World Heritage Site by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) due to its significance—is one of many relics of slavery in Ghana and other African countries.

There is Cape Coast Castle, also in Ghana, visited in 2009 by US President Barack Obama, his wife Michelle, and their daughters. President Obama said the site reminded him of man’s potential for “great evil.”

Goree Island in Senegal, another slave post, equally evokes spine-chilling emotions.

After visiting Goree Island in March of this year, Chernor Bah, a Sierra Leonean youth activist, wrote, “I was humbled by my experience; the history of the slave trade is vicious.”

Transatlantic Slave Trade

Harvard University economics professor Nathan Nunn says that although Africa experienced four slave trades between 1400 and 1900, the transatlantic slave trade is the best known.

The Portuguese started it in 1519, and by the time it ended in 1867, Britain, France, the Netherlands and others had all taken part in it.

About 15 million people from West Africa, Central Africa and Eastern Africa were captured and shipped to European colonies in inhumane conditions.

Around 9.6 million people are said to have survived, while millions of others died during the journey.

The transatlantic slave trade is a scar on the world’s conscience even as questions are still being asked as to why human beings inflicted such brutality on fellow human beings.

Jamaican-born American sociologist Orlando Patterson refers to slavery as “social death” because slaves were perceived as incomplete humans who were not fit to be society’s members.

But the world is now speaking with one voice against the slave trade eras, and visits to former slave fortifications in Ghana, Senegal and elsewhere rekindle anger against such cruelty, past and present.

Along this line, the United Nations General Assembly in 2007 declared 25 March of every year the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

The day “serves as an opportunity to honor and remember those Africans who suffered and died at the hands of the brutal European and Arab slavery system, and to raise awareness about the dangers of racism and prejudice today,” says the UN.

Part Two

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