Elmina Castle, Cultural Tourism and the lasting Psychological Scars of Slavery.

Posted: October 6, 2012 in Blogs
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In September of this year I went on a one week fact finding mission to Ghana.  The main purpose of my mission was to look for economic opportunities, but I also did a bit of cultural tourism whilst there.  For the first three days I was in love with Africa – we were on honeymoon.  On the fourth day we had our first big argument.  And whenever you have a big argument in the early stages of a relationship, you begin to question whether the relationship has a future.

Elmina castle – Africa’s oldest and largest slave fort.

Elimina Castle is the largest and most intact slave fort in existence. The group of 10 or 12 visitors who did the tour with me were all Black, and seemed to comprise of a couple of local Ghanians who had nipped over during their lunch break, a couple of African families on holiday from other nations, and a few Blacks from the diaspora like myself. The tour lasts for about an hour, and starts with a short look around a museum.  The museum takes a strange approach, with most of the information and exhibits focussing on the local chiefs and local history, with the slave trade being just a footnote. I couldn’t quite work out what the traditions of local chiefs had to do with this fort built by the Portugese. Presumably, it was these local chiefs who were exchanging guns, alcohol and tobacco for Africans. So it seemed strange to me that the museum would pay tribute to these men, but that was just the beginning of my psychological difficulties of the day.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade went on for 200 years.

Once the tour got going we were taken around the slave dungeons, shown the cell where white soldiers were put for a few hours as a punishment for raping female slaves, then shown the cell were rebellious slaves were thrown in to die.  We were shown the dungeon where female slaves were kept, shackled together, lying in their own faeces, urine and menstrual blood – the same dungeon where they had to eat.  We were shown the balcony where the commanding officer would stand and survey the female slaves before picking one out, to be washed, fed, and taken up to his quarters to be raped. Our tour guide told us how the fort was first controlled by the Dutch, then taken over by the British.  He told us how this trade in Africans went on for over 200 years, and yet as he rolled off these historical facts and figures, he didn’t seem to be sharing the emotional pain I was feeling.  Infact he didn’t even seem to be aware that some of the group were in pain.  He related the horrors of this Black holocaust with the same nonchalance as an English tour guide taking Japanese tourists around a stately home.  Was it because he worked here and had grown blasé about the horror he was describing, or was it because as a born and raised African, he didn’t share that psychological pain, as his ancestors did not actually  experience it?  The same lack of empathy was displayed by some of the other visitors born on the continent.  One local man actually took a call on his mobile during the tour, whilst the African women on the gate loudly joked and argued.  I wondered, would this same lack of solemnity/respect be shown at a German concentration camp like Auschwitz?  Would the tour guide take you through the gas chambers where Jews were exterminated, and then take you straight into the gift shop where you could purchase ‘Welcome to Auschwitz’ postcards?  But this is basically what happened to us after being shown the small hole through which enslaved Africans were shoved onto the waiting slave ships – the door of no-return.  After seeing this, I skipped the gift shop part and went outside to take a moment by myself.

At this point I had thought the that tour was over, but no, after a short break to allow visitors to buy books, and DVD’s on Kwame Nkrumah and the history of Ghana, the tour resumed to show us the kitchens where the food was cooked, and another opportunity to buy paintings and carvings. I was wondering ‘why would I want to see the kitchens when I have just seen the door of no return?’ but kept my thoughts to myself.  At the end of the tour there was a visitor’s book to leave comments, but at that point at felt unable to put my disgust into words.

But the horror did not stop once leaving the fort.  Outside, we were assailed once again by the hawkers trying to sell souvenir tat, or obtain sponsorship for their local football team.  These kids have probably never been inside Elmina, and they probably didn’t learn about slavery in school (if they could afford to go to school).  But surely the educated people in the Ministry of Tourism are aware.  Surely the staff who work at Elimina are aware?  But no, no consideration is given to the feelings of those who’s ancestors died in this Black Holocaust.

In all of my four trips to Africa,  I have never felt more distant, more further removed from native Africans.  The sad and shocking truth that I learnt in my time in Ghana, that was brought staggeringly home to me in Elmina castle, is that we Blacks in the diaspora, are no longer Africans.  It doesn’t matter how many books we read, or if we choose to trace our ancestors and change our names, or learn an African language, or wear traditional clothes, we are still NOT African.  That 400 year process that began with slavery, and continued with colonisation and the racial discrimination which is an integral part of living in the West, has changed us.  We think differently.  We are different.  For Africans, slavery was just one chapter in their long, long history, which even if removed, wouldn’t make that much difference.  Whilst we in the diaspora feel that slavery was the end of our history as proud Africans and beginning of our existence as servants: the beginning of a process in which we were taught to hate ourselves and worship our enslaver.  A process where our name, our language, our culture and religion were forcibly taken from us, and replaced with those of our oppressor.

And though slavery was abolished 200 years ago, it is a process which continues to affect how we think and behave to this day.  We are the products of slavery, the victims of a racist idealogy, we are a people without knowledge of our culture or our homeland.  Our history is one of oppression and servitude.  And then people wonder why we under achieve. We were created out of slavery and we are now defined by racism.  This is something that white people, and yes even Africans on the continent cannot understand.  They tell us we should get over it. But that’s easy for them to say.

No one dares to tell the Jews to get over the Holocaust, but their holocaust does not even come close to the one suffered by us.  Imagine if you will, that Hitler didn’t lose World War II, and the Nazi’s were allowed to continue with their wicked Final Solution to the ‘Jewish Problem’.  But instead of exterminating the Jews, they decided to keep them alive in those concentration camps and turn them into beast of burden. Imagine that the Germans didn’t lose in 1945 but continued their reign over Europe for another 200 years.

Victims of the Jewish Holocaust.

Jews in the concentration camps lived and died of old age, new generations born never knowing life on the outside.  The Nazi guards who rule over them don’t allow them to keep their Jewish names, or speak their own language, or follow their own religion, but instead take Germanic names, speak only German, and study only German scholars taught in concentration camp schools by Nazi school teachers.

In these concentration camp schools the young Jewish kids, are taught to hate themselves and revere the Aryan race.  All knowledge of Jewish history and Jewish achievement are blotted out, and German historical achievements are lauded.  The females are forcibly raped by their Nazi persecutors and their half German/half Jewish offspring are given preferential treatment taking positions of authority over their fully Jewish relatives once they come of age.

And this process goes on for generation after generation for two hundred years, until those concentration camp inmates are finally set free.  What a confused psychologically damaged set of people would step out of those gates.  Could they even call themselves Jewish anymore?  Would they want to?  Well this is the state of the descendants of African slaves.  This why we despise our African features, and bleach our skin, and straighten our hair, and struggle to maintain stable family units. And they tell us to get over it.  The wonder is not why do we underachieve, but how we didn’t all go completely mad?

Michael Jackson – a physical manifestation of Black self-hatred

So when we in the diaspora go back to Africa, we have in our hearts and minds that we are returning to the motherland to be reunited with our long lost brothers.  But they don’t see us like that.  They see us as cash cows, walking ATMs, more westerners ready to be hustled.  Because they know that we have some emotional attachment to the continent, they can use that as a tool to leverage more money out of us.  And whilst we go back to Africa trying to recapture what we have lost, Africans wish they could swop places with us and have what we have.

No, slavery changed us permanently, and we can never go back to being what we once were, but what we must do is not live in the past but keep moving forward. Check out my next posting to find out how……………

  1. Rasheed Dauda says:


  2. akinsankofa says:

    Lee, good insights here on the view of the African vs the African Diasporan. The legacy of slavery has inflicted some very deep scars, especially the lack of empathy and the disconnection of the Diasporan African from the language and spiritual culture. Some of us in the Diaspora are reconnecting with our traditional religion through our ancestors and the Akashic records. But i am observing that many of the homeland Africans have become blinded by Christianity and or the spirit of the trickster that facilitates separatism and individualism. The pilgrimage to Elmina is honorable, we do not have to be on the continent to recapture what we have lost, our ancestors are always with us. We have to learn to listen to them and they will guide us.

  3. Kesewa says:

    Lee, a powerful and thought-provoking piece.

  4. Kesewa says:

    Your thought experiment on the Second World War was interesting. Though, just to pick up one point, it’s difficult to weigh one holocaust against another – how do you evaluate them? Maybe it’s futile to try.

  5. Kwame says:

    Lee this article made tears come to my eyes. As you have noted I have visited Elmina and several other slave castles along the West African coast and I have to say Elmina has improved a thousand fold from when I first visited it 20 odd years ago. Then people were blasting music from the offices, playing football against the walls and the walls hadn’t been ‘whitewashed’. The pain of the experience was/is more difficult than I can articulate in words and doubt if I will ever truly be able to. As to your point about we the diasporian African being ‘different’ some how from the African born at home- is explicit by the pre fix. But the operative is – African. The insensivity of those who actually may have many more pressuring issues to fill their heart can not separate us from the family we have descended from. Many of their ancestors took that journey across the middle passage in to hell, however few of them are descended from those who were tortured by the duel sins of de-culturalisation and dehumanisation. I’m not trying to get all Jesus on it, trust, but it is the beginning of OUR chapter, and with the riches we have at out finger tips- it is for us, I think, to tell our family to remember this is a place of deep pain for us. To somehow help them recognise that this castle of sin is almost a holy place for us, a sacred burial ground and it is a good thing to recognise your families pain, and treat it with the respect you would expect someone to give you profound and everlasting agony. Sorry that this was a long one but I started and couldn’t stop. But I shall now.

  6. Amanda Percy says:

    Hi Lee. Some real “food for thought” in this article. One of your best in my opinion!

  7. Douglas says:

    Brave writing, and a very good read. However, might I quibble with one thing? Are you sure the Africans see you as walking ATMs? I’ve traveled to 57 countries, and I used to think this when I first traveled. Then, I began to accept that there were painful stories to each of these people I wished to walk by and avoid. I began to listen, and I realized that my experience is always someone’s other half, and their experience is always mine.

  8. A really insightful piece of work…….as a Ghanaian this makes a pretty uncomfortable reading because I can boldly say Ghanaians are about the most welcoming and friendly people you can ever come across. I have been to may of these historic sites and I must admit the way tour guards conduct business is less than desirable, but a little insight into Ghanaian mannerism and the general way of life should help you understand their behaviour and not mistake them to be disrespectful. Take the man that took a call during the tour. This sort of behaviour is undoubtedly rude- in the western world, but not so much in a Ghanaian community. You go to church services,weddings, funerals and you hear phones ringing every now and then. On several occasions during the funeral service of my uncle’s wife, a similar thing occurred. My cousins were rightly displeased and called this old man rude for taking a call during the service. They have grown up in the UK and are therefore used to a slightly different set of values whereas most people at the funeral including myself migrated to the UK after our formative years in Ghana and therefore would not necessarily take offence.

    Do not fell alienated at all because that is the last impression any Ghanaian would want to give a black diasporan. Taxi drivers may try to get more off you or children may call you “obroni”, but that is in no way meant to alienate you. Everyone who the locals sense is resident abroad gets it. My cousins get when they go to Ghana simply because they have been born and raised in the UK and can not fluently speak any Ghanaian language. And shockingly, I get it sometimes too because I have lived in the UK for a while and have acquired a bit of an accent. I even get called “obroni” sometime! The meaning of “obroni”.has change over time. It should not be viewed as a term of alienation but merely a term to signify one who is resident abroad.

    I’m sure there are many times-apart from this Elmina castle incident, where you felt welcomed and part of a big Ghanaian family. I would be interested in reading about that too 🙂

    • leepinkerton says:

      Thanks for the comment Ato, and thanks for your insight into cultural differences. its incidences like these that make us Black Brits abroad that make us realise how British we actually are. But don’t get it twisted. The Elmina castle experience did not put me off Ghana. In my 7 days there, Elmina castle was my only bad experience, and for the most part i di find Ghananians warm and welcoming (especially when they were trying to hustle me!!!). I am indeed thinking of ‘returning’ myself to Ghana. If you read my next blog post ‘Back To Africa part 2 – The returnees’ you’ll get the other side of the story.

      • Hi Lee, just finished reading “Back to Africa part 2-The returnees”- great piece!I did a similar article about the phenomenon of African migrants resident in Europe and the US increasingly returning home on my blog arthurmaclean.blogspot.com do check it out sometime.

  9. Mina Janet Marks says:

    Very touching read Lester, i have been to Elmina castle as a child, during my secondary school years and taken every European friend in my adult life to this very awful place. Last visit there, my now deceased partner an Englishman was devastated to the point of tears and apology to me as if he bless his good soul could right this awful wrong to all African people, in Africa and Diaspora. The gravity of the castles history is not lost on us Africans and to say that so generally is somewhat unfair. My personal experience is actually vomitting in the castle courtyard during my last visit there from anger, sadness and a feeling of such overwhelming helplessness, and this after my 7th or so visit….i think the writer of this article raises some very relevant issues and makes very candid observations…But and there is a but, she failed to mention the smell from the area for instance. The smell of human excrement because the fishing town of Elmina is very poor so the locals relieve themselves into the nearby sea and beaches…people trying to sell things to visitors is because there is such poverty in the area survival paramount to locals and they sadly will not miss an opportunity to try and make a living however small…….the divide between people of African descent and Africans is corrosive and bearing in mind our horrible history the biggest tragedy and legacy slavery has left us. We have to keep our thoughts on what the motherland means to us all united because the divide is very relevant from an African looking at our brothers and sisters of African descent too. I lived in Birmingham for 4 years at some point in my life and there is a large Jamaican community…being the complexion i am, being African was the last thing some of the Jamaicans i encountered assumed i was and the things i heard said about Africans and some personal experiences will shock you if i told you. i think the whole slavery thing is a monster that will never go away and we all need to keep our focus in the right place….thank you for sharing. Very thought provoking and humbling read. We are as one!! We all need to know this….

  10. adu opoku says:

    Well thought must say. As a Ghanaian I have to say that part of the problem is that History of slaveryis not an important subject in schools and therefore we don’t understand this terrible tragedy of our history

  11. Ben says:

    Very well written article. Keep it up. Though I think that your analysis is slightly jaded, maybe from that particular experience at the Castle. Skin bleaching is actually common in parts of Subsaharan Africa, so it has to be attributed to other reasons besides self hatred perpetuated by slavery. Moreover, a good number of Diasporan Africans, including Rita Marley and the Great man Dubois himself moved to live in Africa, so I think the differences between the two groups really boils down to the perception of the individual. I hope you had a chance to visit the Dubois Center in Accra.

    • leepinkerton says:

      Thanks for the comment Ben. Yes I know that Black self hatred is a problem in Africa, as well as the diaspora. i also hear that skin bleaching is now a problem in India, where shadism is also a issue. It only goes to show that Euro-centric cultural imperialism is worldwide, affecting even those not touched by slavery. No I wasn’t aware of the Dubois Centre. I’ll put in on my list to check next time I’m in Ghana.

  12. Yemzi says:

    Thank-you for this interesting read.
    You have given me a few things to think about as British-Nigerian seeking knowledge and culture of my African heritage.

  13. Ethelrene Percy says:

    Lee, this is a truly heartfelt, insightful, honest account of your experience of the visit to Elmina Castle. The emotions unleashed will be recognised and shared with other conscious/enlightened diasporan and indigenous Black Africans, alike. However, it was the psychological analysis and contrasting of the outcomes and lasting legacy of slavery, with the outcomes and legacy of the Jewish Holocaust, that resonated the most truth to me.
    The oppression, dehumanization, degredation, subjugation, loss of identity and self-esteem, self-loathing, dissemblence and the ‘iron will’ to survive; are all factors that have contributed to the indelible psychological changes of the Black diasporan’s psyche, which has changed us and made us forever different from our African ancestors.
    (I’m going to read Part 2 now – with interest.)

    I am a Black Caribbean woman who has resided for over 50yrs. in the UK, since the age of four.

  14. Paul Sumba says:

    I have in the recent past been trying to get a handle on the whole issue of slave trade and slavery. Earlier today, I read s piece by Dr. Robert Beckford, originally from Jamaica, now living in England. This exercise arose from a desire to know more about those horrendous event. All I can say is that there is a paucity of knowledge and information about slave trade and slavery, both from the time when it was live and now in its aftermath. I feel deeply grieved by the information I have gathered. For sure, no right thinking African would divorce him/herself from such a calamitous event. I want to think that the writer’s indignation was stirred by the organisation of tour in and around Elmina. This post suggests to me an action point-a well thought out program of education and information about the African on the continent and in the diaspora and our shared past, present and future. We are not different. Forcible abduction of your children and their disappearance and the killing of others is not a trivial matter. I am from Kenya.

  15. John says:

    Lee, that was a very heartfelt piece. I am African, and grew up in both Ghana and the UK. I am currently visiting Ghana, and the lack of awareness re: racism and slavery by local Africans is staggering. However, I must admit that everything I know about slavery and racism, was a result of being non-white in a white country, as well as a naturally inquisitive mind and a refusal to accept the “status quo”.

    I can assure you that the behavior you encountered was a result of ignorance, rather than a lack of empathy. I have started educating a few of the locals during my stay here, and I must tell you the expression of disbelief on their faces when they learn about the truth of Africa’s relationship with the West – is priceless. Slowly, they are beginning to have the wool lifted from their eyes, and they are beginning to understand how come the world is the way it is today.

    On the issue of slavery, we were briefly taught about it at school in Ghana – almost in passing, as a side note in history lessons. I remember thinking that it was something that happened “millenia ago” and had no relevance to my life!. That was a failure of immense proportions by our history teacher back then. I had the chance to look at the history course work for a local school, and there is scant information still about slavery and the devastation that it wreaked on the African psyche.

    I was appalled when some young guys in Accra were making jokes about taking one of their friends to the Elmina fort and locking him into one of the cells. I have educated them and shown them pictures of Lynchings in America (complete with smiling posing crowds) etc – their eyes almost popped out. Suffice to say, they no longer make those jokes – because they have a deeper understanding of what happened there and how that has affected them personally (whether they are aware of it or not).

    The problem therefore, is not a lack of empathy, but rather a lack of knowledge. Most Africans have little knowledge of slavery or racism (which is almost bizzare – since that’s the dominant narrative of Africans and their descendants in the Western world).

    Regarding the diaspora, and also Africans visiting from abroad, I have never understood those who invite their white friends/partners etc, to go visit the slave castles. Have some respect, please. Would you invite people to come and look at where females in your family were raped and brutalized? – it is exactly the same thing.

    I have never understood why white people visit slave castles – is it almost like rubbing salt in the psychic wounds of Black people. It is a most perverse form of “ghoulish voyeurism”. I am always very suspicious of the motives of any white person who visits these slave dungeons. The African’s should also have some self respect, and stop using these places as a source of revenue generation (aka tourism) – it is most despicable. I can understand the need for African school children visiting to learn, and also for African Americans, to try to understand their history – but for white people, the cause of (continuing) stigmatization and suffering for an entire branch of humanity, visiting slave castles shows at best, a shocking lack of empathy and at worst, something far more sinister.

  16. wpdiaspora says:

    > John:
    Very interesting commentary. It seems this is a pan-African disconnect, within the home of one of the original pan-Africanists! Perhaps a solution would be Caribbeans and African-Americans not to visit the likes of Elmina, but to make guest visits to schools, to teach children (and the teachers) of the real horrors (still manifest today!) of the African holocaust. Such interaction would definitely reduce the clamour for all things European.

  17. Leanna says:

    I’m not trying to be rude, but I would like to point out a flaw in this article. Michael Jackson did not hate himself. He did not bleach himself. Michael himself said he was PROUD TO BE AFRICAN AMERICAN. After that, he talked about how much things like this hurt him. Go watch his interview with Oprah. Michael had a skin disease called vitiligo. This causes the skin pigment to go away in blotchy spots. It caused his appearance to change.
    Michael had two surgeries on his nose. Why? Because his father constantly told him how “ugly” his nose was and make him extremely self-conscious about it.
    Michael’s hair also looks different because while filming a commercial for Pepsi, his hair caught on fire, causing him to have second and third degree burns on his scalp.
    Michael was proud of his culture and proud to be who he was.

    • leepinkerton says:

      Thank you for taking the time to comment. I’m presuming you’re a MJ fan, since that’s the only aspect of this post that you chose to comment on. I too am a fan of MJ’s (earlier) music, but i can separate his artistic genius from the issues of the man himself. Despite what he may have said, MJ clearly had some self-hatred issues – lets look at the evidence.
      1) His hair – even before the Pepsi accident, he chemically altered the appearance of his hair to make it look more European.
      2) His nose – He had cosmetic surgery to alter the shape to make it more European
      3) His skin – I have seen people in real life with virtiligo. If he had a disease like they do, that makes patches of the skin lighter, why did he not use make up to make those patches looker DARKER, rather than try and make all of his skin LIGHTER?
      4) His children – when looking for a woman to give birth to his children, he chose a white woman. And apparently he obtained donated sperm from a white man. So clearly he had no desire for his children to look anything like him, or any other member of his family i.e Black.
      And Michael is not alone in these issues. Many Black people the world over display these same symptoms of self-hatred. MJ is just the most famous example
      Leanna, many of our heroes have flaws in their personal lives. Just because we admire their work/talent doesn’t mean we should deny the truth and pretend these flaws don’t exist.
      Thanks for reading

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