Castle of dread: Door of No Return chronicles Atlantic slave trade from Ghana

June 4, 2007

By William St Clair
BlueBridge, 282 pp., $24.95

An unusual title, The Door of No Return. It sounds like the title of a mystery, but this story is true. The subtitle reveals it as "the history of Cape Coast Castle and the Atlantic Slave Trade."

The enormity of the slave trade will stun those who read that, from the mid-15th to the late-19th century, more than 11 million African men, women and children were carried across the ocean. Was there ever such a forced migration, before or since?

Author William St Clair used for reference a huge accumulation of papers, saved from both Cape Coast Castle -- one of three castles and many forts on the coast of present-day Ghana -- and Africa House, the London headquarters from which the castle was managed.

The castles were headquarters for three national enterprises run by the British, Dutch and Danish. From 1664 to 1807, the Cape Coast Castle was the headquarters in Africa of the entire British involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. It stood on a rocky outcrop where the rocks, the winds and the waves of the Atlantic Ocean kept ships at a distance. At times, 20 to 30 sailing ships of different nations would sit offshore.

The United States never owned land in the area, but it did have ships that called at the castle to buy slaves, who were transported and sold in North and South America, the Bahamas, Cuba, Jamaica and other islands in the Caribbean.

Canoes operated by skillful, experienced Africans moved all supplies for the castle. And anyone leaving the castle by sea, including slaves, was taken by canoe through the rough surf, always facing the danger of capsizing and perhaps drowning.

African families from the town outside the walls maintained the castle and the guns, repairing, painting, cleaning, cooking and performing other duties, including the care of the slaves.

Strict discipline
Discipline was tight and punishment severe for both the slaves and the workers. One visitor, asked how the slaves were treated, said, "They were chained day and night and drove down to the sea side twice a day to be washed."

Some of the women became wives, called wenches, for the officers and soldiers. In an area where polygamy, slavery and native religious beliefs were widely accepted and practiced, the British were not immune to the temptations. The care of one's wench and the children you had together may have been one of few comforts.

There was no chapel and a chaplain only for a period of 42 years, after one of the African boys who had been sent to England for education returned as a chaplain. While he performed the rites of baptism, marriage and burial, his work was to teach the children. There were no religious services. Perhaps no one wanted the liturgy with its confession of sin, its prayer for pardon. The only service of communion recorded occurred once, when a dying man requested it.

One of the few white women who came was Sarah Bowdich, who lived in the castle for two years with her husband, Thomas. Sarah was a naturalist and made many notes, observing and classifying plants and wildlife -- in fact, identifying several species previously unknown to Europeans. Later, after returning to Britain, she wrote a book based on her experiences.

St Clair often refers to her comments about life in the castle. For example, she wrote: "Wherever there are Englishmen there are luxuries." And there were: carved mahogany furniture, clocks, fine Spode china and Georgian silverware, Turkish and Indian carpets, silk wall hangings, paintings and prints, and many books.

All of these were on the upper floors, where the governor, the officers and guests lived. The slaves to be sold were kept in the dungeons below, and the "slave hole" was near "the door of no return" on the seaward side, where the canoes were beached.

New role for castle
The castle today serves as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Partially restored, it is in good condition with an informative museum. Visitors come to see where their ancestors may have been confined. And children come on "educational visits."

We could ask: Why slave trade, and why didn't somebody blow the whistle?

Some people tried. We remember John Newton and William Wilberforce. And we know that through Wilberforce's influence the British slave trade was legally abolished in 1807, though it continued unofficially until the 1833 Act of Emancipation. The movie Amazing Grace brings that story to life.

However, inequities remain. Over the world, prejudice can be seen; people are being mistreated; and slavery continues. Do not close your eyes to this. Reading William St Clair's The Door of No Return may be an important new beginning for you.

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