Slave Castles and Blind Spots

About eight months ago I made a casual statement to a Ghanaian friend: “Someday I’ll come visit your country.” Some words of advice: Don’t make casual statements to Ghanaians (or anyone) that sound like promises – especially if you are only trying to be polite. Thank goodness my friend took me seriously, because he didn’t let up until I had made the plane reservations.

On May 13, my daughter and I boarded a 777 bound for Ghana. Our purpose was to work in a village school tutoring students. We landed in Accra on a Monday evening, and on Tuesday morning we headed to the Cape Coast Slave Castle. A friend had labeled the castle as a “don’t miss” opportunity, although I was fairly certain that this was going to be anything but a feel-good, casual excursion.

I was right.

In case you’re not up on slave trade history, here’s a little primer: The Portuguese were the first Europeans to begin the Trans-Atlantic slave trade along the West Coast of Africa during the 15th Century, and it lasted for over 300 hundred years. At least 200 million Africans were transported to destinations across the ocean. Other European nations were not content for the Portuguese to enjoy the monopoly of profits to be derived from West Africa, so it didn’t take long for the Dutch, English, French, Spanish, Swedes, Danes and then, the Americans to join in. Early on, the slave traders built forts and castles along the West Africa Gold Coast (now Ghana) so they could protect themselves from each other and keep the captives/future slaves confined until the arrival of the slave ships. The slave trade began because of the great demand for labor on plantations that produced sugar cane, but planters eventually grew other crops such as coffee, cocoa, rice, tobacco, and cotton. Plantation owners sought labor that was abundant and inexpensive. In the Americas, the Native Americans weren’t really a good source of labor, since many of them had been slaughtered or weakened by the diseases introduced by the settlers. And if enslaved Native Americans chose to run away, they didn’t have far to go to find home. The Africans were already immune to many of the diseases of the New World, and if they tried to run away, they would never find home. Much more convenient for the slaveholders.

The Cape Coast Slave Castle is an imposing structure of 73,600 square feet built by the British in 1665, and occupied by various administrators, governors, treasurers, soldiers, medical officers, chaplains, and about 1,000 male and 300 female African captives. Some of these captives were domestic slaves who served the British administration. The rest were bound for ships that would sail to the West Indies, the Caribbean, Europe, and, eventually, the new settlement of the Americas.

I really didn’t want to take the guided tour, but we did. Three white folks (we were joined by a particularly quiet Brit), and seven Ghanaians shuffled from room to room listening to the tour guide. I found myself slinking toward the back of the group as the guide led us through the various areas where the captives were held: the Barracks, the Cell (for those surly and rebellious captives), the Male and Female Dungeons, and the Door of No Return. As the stories of how the captives were treated within the castle became increasingly horrific, the conversations of the Ghanaians between one another became more heated. They were cognizant of the fact that the perpetuation of the slave trade could not have existed without Africans who were willing to supply captives to the Europeans. Many of them wanted to blame their ancestors for trading fellow Africans for goods, as well as leasing the land where the castles had been built. I, however, wanted to blame my ancestors for pretending to be a civilized society while they purchased people on auction blocks.

Europeans and Americans were complicit in the largest intercontinental forced migration and enslavement of people in the world prior to the 20th century. And they did it with it Bibles in tow. One of the many ironies of the Cape Coast Slave Castle is the Male Dungeon and what lies above it. The dungeon held a maximum of a thousand slave captives. It’s not an expansive space, and the captives would have been packed together in claustrophobic fashion. The cement structure has a low ceiling, and it twists and turns as it slopes downward, almost like a tunnel. As we entered, we could immediately feel the air turn stale and humid, and a stench arose. The poor ventilation allowed the trenches, which had been used as a sewage system, to maintain a faint odor. The captives, after being held sometimes for weeks in the  dungeon, were then marched through the Door of No Return where they were immediately placed in small boats that would carry them to the slave ships and on to an unknown destination. About 16 percent of the captives died on the slave ships.

And, housed above the Male Dungeon was the first English church in Ghana. It was called the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. I moved further to the back of the tour group and my stomach started to feel knotty. I wasn’t sure whether it was the dank stench, or learning that a church had sat comfortably on top of a torture chamber. Modern-day progressive preachers have called the era of slavery in our country a shameful “blind spot” in which the church was not only complicit, but defended the institution with Bibles and sermons. It defies imagination.

I smiled sheepishly at the Ghanaians as our group broke up at the end of the tour. How could three generations of people miss something so terribly unjust? How could the majority our forefathers and foremothers watch, and then do nothing while millions of people suffered? How could people sit in church pews, sing hymns, and ignore the desperate cries of their fellow human beings?

Blind spots.

On the continent of Africa, one child dies every three seconds. 30,000 African children under the age of five die every day. Malaria (easily preventable and treatable if you have a few spare dollars) kills 3,000 African children every day. Of the 6.7 billion people on earth, almost half of them live on less than two dollars a day.

The total income of American churchgoers is $5.2 trillion. It would take just a little over 1 percent of the income of American Christians to lift the poorest one billion people in the world out of extreme poverty. American Christians, who make up about 5 percent of the Church worldwide, control about half of global Christian wealth. And how much do those same Christians give to overseas relief work – whether evangelistic or to aid the poor? Six cents per person per day.

Blind spots.

We build our own castles while half of the people in are world are trapped in extreme poverty and its consequences. I wonder if future generations will wonder how we could have missed the obvious. I wonder if they will see our blind spot.

About Lisa Tresch, Contributor

Lisa Tresch is editor of Mia magazine, a quarterly storytelling journal for women. Lisa graduated from Oklahoma Baptist University with a B.A. in Journalism. She worked as a City Desk reporter and features writer for the Tulsa World before launching a freelance writing and editing business. In 2009, she entered the world of magazine publishing as a partner in The Leslie Group, and began editing Mia in 2009. She keeps a tenuous balance of competing passions: writing, editing, blogging, photography, advocating for orphans, and coordinating social media for a non-profit. Some of these things she does better than others, but she is most passionate about her role as the mother of three amazing children and the wife of her college sweetheart.


  1. Jan WeinheimerNo Gravatar says:

    Blind spots, by their very nature, often aren’t revealed to us until we collide with something that gets our attention. Thank you for giving us a glimpse of the injustices that we cannot afford to ignore.