When I visit places with dark histories, I’m always surprised by how beautiful they are — I expect their past to leave a visible stain on the space, but even people who do terrible things want to do them in beautiful places.
The slave castle at Elmina is massive, and so white it’s almost blinding in the sun. It’s on a lovely coastline, but a bloody one — it was chosen for the ease with which slave traders could transport their people to America.
As we walked in, vendors tried to sell us anything and everything — sunglasses, bracelets, figurines. We had been prepped for this, told that we should keep our eyes forward and avoid talking to the vendors unless we were sure we were going to buy something. It was hard not to look at them and think how incongruous it is to be selling souvenirs at a slave castle. Still, as my friend told me later, some people need to weep and some people need to eat.
Inside, we were given a brief history of the castle and then led around inside by a guide. As we entered each room, he explained what it had been used for. His voice was quiet, and it cracked with emotion. I was surprised by how raw it still seemed for him, even after giving this tour every day for many years.
He led us into a room where kidnapped people were punished when they misbehaved. He closed the door behind us, plunging the room into complete darkness. A silence held for several minutes, punctuated only by quiet cries. My tears could have come easily, if I had let them, but I didn’t want to be the white person making a scene here – this was not my history. I just let my despondency sink into my stomach in a hard, tight feeling, and let my heartbreak constrict my esophagus — this history was hard to swallow.
As I was led through the castle, I imagined how my experiences compared to the experiences of the people who were held there.
I walked out of the darkness, my eyes burning in the blinding sunshine. Did their eyes burn like mine? Or were they brought out at night?
I climbed the steep steps to the block from where people were bought and sold. Did they walk or were they dragged? Did the stone scrape their feet? Did they trip and fall?
I smelled the salt of the ocean when a rare breeze hit me. Did they ever get to smell the ocean, or were their senses too overwhelmed by the stench of excrement left to rot?
Much of the slave castle has been restored since it was in use, but a few of the original metal rods used to bar people in were maintained and our guide said we could touch them. I wanted to, but I had to work myself up to it. I thought about how many people had shook them, had banged on them, and how many were too weak even to do that.
When I finally ran my fingers lightly over them, I thought I would feel something, like a blinding moment of being pulled through history and back again; I thought I might hear faint screaming or whimpering; I thought I would instantly know that these bars were special — but I didn’t. The bars felt just like any other bars. Still, for the rest of the tour, I absentmindedly rubbed my fingers together, knowing that I had touched history, and that it was much closer to us today than we’d like to believe.
The castle made me feel uneasy because of its historical and emotional significance, but also because of its physicality. I don’t like to be close to dirty walls and ceilings; I imagine their ickiness jumping off the stone and burrowing into me. I tried to distance myself from the walls, but as we started walking through the spaces where captured people were held, the ceilings dipped lower and the walls closed in.
The last room we visited is called, “The Room of No Return.” It was the last place people were held in the castle before they were put on boats headed to America. To get to The Room of No Return, you have to hunch over and walk through a tiny opening, moving from a dark, cavernous room to a cramped one. The wall between the two rooms is unusually thick and, when shuffling through the opening, you have to remain hunched over for several seconds. Our tour guide explained this to us, and I wondered how many kidnapped people without that guidance had hit their heads on their way through.
Watching my peers go through the opening before me, I had a moment of claustrophobic panic — I didn’t want to go. And I knew I didn’t have to go, which is why I went.
Unlike the other rooms, The Room of No Return required no explanation. Its only other exit opened right into the sea. The light from outside spilled in through the opening, illuminating tally marks etched into the walls stained an eery green. The opening was inconceivably small; I could only have fit if I had turned sideways. Unlike me, the people who left that room did not need to worry about fitting. And unlike them, I got to return.