Ghosts of Ghana's Gold Coast

Ignore Ghana's slave legacy at your peril: the joys of modern-day Ghana are rooted in its sad past

8 mins

The signpost could have been a joke. In poor taste, admittedly, but... No... We checked with the caretaker and it would certainly be possible to hold one's wedding in the Fort of Good Hope.

And why not, you might wonder? This small, sturdy fortress on the coast of Ghana is, in estate agent parlance, well-maintained, steeped in period character, and beautifully appointed, perched on a low cliff rising from a postcard-perfect tropical beach. If you attach any portent to names, you could do a lot worse than tie the knot in a place called the Fort of Good Hope.

Still, I find it difficult to imagine that the entrepreneurial soul who paid to have this particular signpost erected will ever recoup the investment. It isn't that the accommodation doesn't quite match expectations of a honeymoon suite, nor even that the road to the fort would be close to impassable in anything much less sturdy than a bulldozer. What is offputting, to put it mildly, is the knowledge that the majority of people who have passed through the gates of the Fort of Good Hope arrived in shackles and chains, and left in the cramped hold of a ship about to set sail for the plantations of the Americas and the Caribbean.

Good Hope, indeed! Who in their right mind would want to be married in a building which, for most of its active history, served as little more than a holding house for slaves?

The Fort of Good Hope is just one of about 40 forts and castles built by various European powers along the Gold Coast, the name by which the coast of Ghana was known prior to independence. No trace remains of some of these forts, and others have collapsed. But those that are still intact have become something of a pilgrimage site for Americans of distant West African descent; not because the Gold Coast was especially active in the slave trade, but because it was one of the few places in West Africa where the trade in human lives was conducted out of buildings solid enough to have survived into the modern era.

A land of many murky masters

The first Europeans to reach the Gold Coast were the Portuguese, who landed at Elmina in 1471 and had established a permanent presence there within a decade. The Portuguese initiated the gold trade out of Elmina, but by the end of the 16th century they were facing competition from the Danish, Dutch and English, among others. The Dutch captured Elmina and assumed control of the gold trade in 1637. By this time, the slave trade was firmly entrenched elsewhere in West Africa, but slaving ships were discouraged from operating along the Gold Coast, due to its importance as the source of roughly 10% of Europe's gold.

When the English captured Cape Coast Castle, 15km east of Elmina, in 1664, the balance shifted again. Unable to wrest control of the gold trade from their Dutch neighbours, the English decided to undermine it by instituting a market for slaves out of Cape Coast. By 1700, the gold trade had been driven into a terminal decline. One Dutch official bemoaned the fact that "the Gold Coast has become a virtual Slave Coast". So it would remain for the next 150 years.

The heart of the industry

Today, Cape Coast Castle lies at the heart of Ghana's tourist industry: a neatly whitewashed hulk that towers handsomely above the surrounding coastline, lending an air of quiet distinction to an otherwise rather chaotic port. Once inside the castle, however, its considerable architectural merits are subverted by the more ignoble aspects of its past. During the 17th century, Cape Coast Castle was expanded to its present size with the addition of slave dungeons that held up to 5000 prisoners annually.

The small museum, which charts in graphic detail the origins and mechanisms of what was the largest involuntary diaspora in human history, set my mind reeling. The figures are unimaginable, mind-numbing - over a period of three centuries, an estimated 20 million African captives were shipped across the Atlantic, and perhaps twice as many were killed by slave raiders who had no use for the old or infirm.

More chilling than numbing are the slave dungeons which line the seaward side of the castle: dank, dark, evil places that render all facts and figures meaningless. Who could walk through these dungeons and not leave haunted by the scratches on their walls, the one tangible legacy left by the thousands of hapless Africans who were chained up within them? The urge to escape from these dungeons into the open air is almost irresistible; when I succumbed, I was drawn towards an attractive doorway framing the open sea. Later, I realised that I had unwittingly followed in the footsteps of the thousands of prisoners who were herded through to the 'Gate of No Return', the open exit through which slaves would be loaded directly on to ships.

When we arrived at Cape Coast, we had already spent a month travelling through the Ghanaian interior, an underrated region notable for its hauntingly beautiful old mosques, rich cultural diversity, unexpectedly good wildlife, and a geographical variety that encompasses everything from lush rainforest to the savannah of Mole National Park.

Cape Coast Castle seemed to us totally divorced from the colourful and ebullient country we had been exploring, and we found it bizarre that tourism to Ghana should be based not on the country's many home-grown attractions, but on the grandiose relics of a bygone era of European exploitation.

St George's Castle

After Cape Coast, our next stop was Elmina, the site of St George's Castle, founded by Portugal in the 1480s and generally regarded to be the oldest European building in sub-Saharan Africa.

St George's Castle seemed to us rather aloof from its surroundings - when we looked out from the castle's elevated battlements, watching the human bustle in the market and the brightly painted fishing pirogues sail past, we felt like we could have been in any small West African port. St George's castle has stood over Elmina Harbour for more than 500 years, yet it doesn't seem to be a part of Elmina at all.

Many of the forts we visited struck us this way - vast anachronisms whose presence had become incidental to the daily routine of the small African towns and rustic fishing villages they tower over.

It was while we were standing on the battlements of St George's Castle that we noticed what appeared to be a European ship on a roof in the old quarter of Elmina town. This, we discovered, was the top floor of a posuban - a type of concrete shrine unique to this part of the Ghanaian coast, and linked to the asafo system that is a feature of the region.

The asafo is a patrilineal military hierarchy under which every town is divided into five or more rival companies. Traditionally, the asafo companies were charged with defending their town, but these days their role is largely ceremonial.

Every asafo has its own posuban and, while the oldest shrines were founded centuries ago as storage houses for the company arms and regalia, most have been extensively expanded and resculpted over the years. Several shrines now stand three storeys high and are populated by close to a dozen life-size human figures, as well as an assortment of other objects both richly symbolic and - to the outsider - decidedly cryptic.

Few would claim posubans to be works of high art, but they do provide a rare and intriguing example of cultural assimilation between indigenous Ghanaians and European settlers. Of the three largest shrines in Elmina, one is dominated by a European ship and a trio of uniformed sailors, another is flanked by a pair of aeroplanes, while the third depicts the story of Adam and Eve. Were you to show a picture of one of these shrines to most westerners, I doubt that they would guess what continent the picture was taken in, let alone what country.

Fort Apollonia is the most remote of Ghana's old European forts, situated along a sandy dirt track close to the Côte d'Ivoire border. Only 5km from this 250-year-old fort lies the village of Mzulezu, as idiosyncratic and untouched by western influences as any in the country.

Raised on stilts above the inky waters of Lake Amansuri, Mzulezu consists of some 30 reed homesteads flanking a wooden gangway. Some of the villagers have portable radios, and many have inexplicably taken to adorning their roofs with wooden replica aerials - but otherwise Mzulezu is literally a backwater, with no means of access other than by boat.

Mzulezu: a blissful sense of timelessness

We set out for Mzulezu on a leaky dugout canoe, through the swampy, forest-lined waterways that connect Fort Apollonia to Lake Amansuri. In the grand tradition of African transport, our poler stopped every once in a while to exchange animated gossip with passengers of passing dugouts.

Every few minutes, we would disturb a heron stalking through the reeds, or glide past a kingfisher seemingly pinned to his low perch. Otherwise, the stillness was interrupted only by the occasional raucous explosion of a flock of hornbills or plantain-eaters.

Our reception at Mzulezu was overwhelming. A gang of teenagers beat out the percussive equivalent of a fanfare, while their friends reached out to lift us onto the platform. Then, as is the custom, we were received by the chief and his elders, who passed around a bottle of local schnapps while debating our questions about the origin and age of Mzulezu - our curiosity had been aroused when we discovered that the villagers were not fishermen, as one would expect, but agriculturalists.

We never received an answer to our questions...

Nobody could remember why their ancestors decided to build a village on stilts, and the chief's hesitant suggestion that Mzulezu might be 700 years old struck me as wholly improbable. But after a while in Ghana, you get used to such vagaries.

Once, in the east of the country, our attempts to obtain the exact height of a waterfall had brought forward estimates ranging from 20ft to 2km. In the north-west, we'd asked a local chief if he knew when a centuries-old mosque had been built, only to be told, after much chin-stroking and discussion, that the mosque "is old, older than this man's father!".

Throughout our excursion to Mzulezu, I felt a growing sense of exhilaration at being somewhere so utterly timeless, so unburdened by the weight of history. No doubt this sense of liberation was a reaction to all the old slaving castles we had visited over the previous week, and as we were punted away from the stilted village, I realised with something approaching relief that Fort Apollonia, for us, had been the end of it.

That afternoon, we were due to cut back into the interior, far away from the whitewashed stone ghosts that line the Gold Coast, the string of forts and castles that form an unforgettable but less-than-uplifting collective monument to one of the more horrific episodes of human history.

As Mzulezu receded from view, the midday heat started to take hold. The water lapped the side of the boat, a colourful bee-eater darted into the air, and our poler waved lazily at a distant dugout. Nobody seemed to care or remember how and why Mzulezu had come into being. It felt good to be back in Ghana.

Philip Briggs is the author of African travel guides, including Bradt’s Guide to Ghana

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