All the stone on the castle is painted white in the Cape Coast sun. When you re-emerge from the dungeon, even after only 5 minutes down there, the world will blind you. The dungeon is composed of three or so chambers. The large one –around 7 by 15 metres – is meant to hold a hundred men, easily. There are two slits high in the wall where a tiny amount of light drips through. And if you stand still enough, you’ll feel the faintest of breeze.
When it rains outside, the water spraying through the slits washes the faeces, urine and vomit down two drains chiselled into the stone floor. Otherwise, the kidnapped sit and lie in and amongst their filth. The floor is black, not stone grey. The black has been chemically tested. We are standing on the centuries old sedimentation of excrement that has irrevocably stained the stone. The middle passage begins in the rock of the continent, not on the waves of the Atlantic.
A subterranean passage leads from the dungeon to emerge just before the door-of-no-return. Thereafter that kidnapped will be deposited on the surf, by the waiting boats. After 1833 the dungeon entrance to the passage is bricked-up on orders of the governor. The passage behind remains. Abolition as a plastering over of horror; self-congratulations for good souls. A thin veil.
Immediately above the dungeon entrance stands the chapel. The floor of the chapel is the roof of the dungeon. Christians above chant praises to the white god as the captives below are condemned to his hell. When the congregation mumble their prayers, when they listen to the pastor, when they sing their psalms, do they discern the moans, cries, discussion, argument, chants, songs under their heels? Or does it all merge into the sound of breaking waves, a natural scape?
It can’t be so easy.
To the European sensibility nothing of much note can differentiate the captives from the peoples who surround the castle. Who trade food and provisions. Whose authorities meet with those of the castle. Who are servants in the castle. Who fish besides the castle. Who load the stumbling, blinded enslaved into small boats by the rocks. Those in the dungeon are not minority. Nor uncanny, nor phantasmagorical. They are quotidian – the majority.
What is the level of self-deception that is required to render a human being into a dumb animal? What is the psychic investment that you must make to hate those things who should not be talking like humans? You must deny to yourself even the most basic instinctive empathy, despite the evidence in front of your eyes. You must damn them to non-human hell. You must build a chapel on top of their heads to seal the investment. The beast is never buried. Theirs is a living sickness, an acquired taste that you must learn to enjoy.
The governor’s spacious living quarters are positioned above the chapel. Catching the best of the breeze, a panorama of blue, ending with the lookout hill. Can he smell the dung? Is incense lit regularly? What can he hear? Is it high enough?
Opposite the dungeon in a corner lies a door that leads immediately to another door that leads immediately to another door beyond which is a medium sized cell. There is no window, not even a slat. With just one door shut, the space is already sweltering. When all three doors lock, the tomb becomes a vacuum. The most rebellious of the enslaved are deposited here. The three doors shut and are not opened until two days later to release the corpse.
As you stand in the cell, attention is directed to the patterns on the floor. They are carved by the condemned. I see circles. Almost perfect circles. They must be carved with the iron of the shackles. The more I look, the more there are. I am standing on them. I don’t want to stand on them. I feel the intimacy of the prison as an antechamber. Are they portals to the ancestors? Or are they the Adinkrahene, the symbol of chieftancy and leadership? There is a commonly accepted story that only the strongest – the most rebellious – survived the Atlantic passage. I wonder if this is actually the case.
There is another chamber, quite far away from the chapel, at the end of the castle, just by the door of no return. It is where the women captives are stacked. When you condemn an animal to hell there must be some fleeting recognition of its humanity. Is it better to not be recognized at all? Not even hell blesses the women. Albeit a special, cramped cell for those who refuse to be raped by the governor. There are no drainage channels cut into the stone floor of the women’s hold. Unlike the men, their faeces, urine and vomit mixes on the floor… and mixes… with menses too. No respite come the rain. Slavery was never supposed to reproduce the enslaved.
Just five metres away, and we are outside. The verso to the door of no return has been renamed the door of return. Looking back we are looking forward. The erasure of one word can reveal a whole cosmos. The enslaved are never dehumanised. Individuals, families, groups, suffer the worst of dehumanisation. But the practice of humanity is woven into every community of fate. Neither is this purely a new world fabric. Africa bears witness from the beginning. Every retrieval is a creation.