Darkness still visible

Slaves bound for America were held in the grim dungeons of Ghana's west coast forts. James Rampton reflects
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Equatorial West Africa is known as the White Man's Grave because so many caucasian settlers fell victim to tropical diseases there. But it might better be known as the Black Man's Grave. More than twenty-five million were shipped off to the Americas during the four centuries of the slave trade, and a third of them perished in the slave-ships, where they were stacked up like cocoa-sacks.

The forts in Ghana where they were held before embarkation have been designated as World Heritage Sites by Unesco and are the focus of a growing tourist trade. The coastline, once the centre of the whole African slave trade, possesses the highest concentration of European slave forts in the continent. Twenty-nine castles - many dating from five centuries ago - are preserved intact. The forts are already a magnet for African-Americans exploring their roots; the singers Dionne Warwick, Isaac Hayes and Roberta Flack performed a tearful, live, televised concert in the dungeons at Cape Coast. But they also provide white Europeans with insights into their past. Visiting the forts is by no means a cheery experience; rather, it is a profound confrontation with one of the most shameful periods of European history.

Driving west out of the increasingly-sophisticated capital, Accra, along the coast, you soon encounter a far less-developed Africa. The Nissan and Pirelli factories and billboards proclaiming "Ghana Will Go Forward With JJ Rawlings" peter out, the road becomes rutted and bumpy, and the sturdy concrete buildings give way to mud-huts. Huge termite nests punctuate the roadside like outsized pillar-boxes.

Every village is a frenzy of commercial activity. Nothing is too small or too old to be sold. The tiniest booth advertises itself as Thanks Be To God Hairdos, or Jesus Never Fails Dealers in Wood and General Goods. It is a fervently religious society, in which it is a sign of madness not to believe in God. Ghanaians are even buried in coffins designed to reflect their trade. We passed an undertaker's displaying a wondrous array of fish, hammer, and lobster shaped coffins. The driver said he wanted his to be modelled on a BMW.

It is a culture obsessive about recycling. Ships bring in used white goods from Germany and the Netherlands to be reconditioned and sold. There is a flourishing import trade in old British newspapers which are used for wrapping things up in. Ancient Datsuns from dealerships in Colliers Wood with bricks for wheels stand in front-yards being lovingly coaxed back to life.

At every crossing, people tap on the window, urging you to buy small deer, lavatory-paper, chocolate, lemons, hub-caps, inflatable Santas. Whenever you step out of the car, you are thronged by children trying to sell you immaculate, handmade model sailing-boats and thrusting notes into your hand begging you to write to them. But it is never aggressive. Even the road-signs are polite: "Be mindful of children crossing. They are our future."

After three hours weaving through this tapestry of activity, we entered the outskirts of Cape Coast. Driving past igloo-shaped clay fish-smokers, fading colonial facades, a very sad-looking hotel called the Savoy, and a bustling fish-market full of squirming crabs, we pulled up at the gates of a severe fort, which had Swedish, Danish and Dutch owners before being established in its present form by the British in 1665. With its imposing gates, white-washed walls and huge cannons pointing out to sea over chunky crenellations, it had the daunting look of the Alamo. Our party of four white Europeans exchanged glances and went in.

A guide met us at the entrance and showed us into the museum - the only sign of modern touristification in a site refreshingly free of burger- bars and sons et lumieres. (African-Americans have vociferously campaigned against the forts being "prettified".) There we watched a video about the history of slavery, made in collaboration with the Smithsonian in Washington DC. "With this trade," it solemnly informed us, "our world fell apart." The forts were originally constructed as warehouses for gold - Ghana, once known as the Gold Coast, has the largest gold-field in Africa - until the Europeans discovered an even more valuable commodity: people. To its credit, the video did not cover up black connivance in the trade. "Some of us collaborated with evil," it intoned, "and became tainted with evil."

Pausing to point out the finery in the Governor's wardrobe, the guide then took us out on the sunny, flagstoned courtyard. In the corner overlooking the sea, snub-nosed cannons stood beside piles of lead balls heaped up like so many grapes in a greengrocer's. We paused to remark that the gravestones dotted around the courtyard only commemorated the deaths of white governors and priests.

We were led across the courtyard down into the dungeons. We descended into the murky, Dante-esque pits where the slaves were kept before being herded onto the slave-ships. The temperature was in the hundreds outside, but down in the dungeon condensation clung to the walls and you shivered. One tiny sky-light offered just enough light to see the face of the person next to you.

Excavators in 1974 found manacles attached to the floor which kept "rebellious types" in the cavernous darkness twenty-four hours a day. The better-behaved captives were allowed out for an hour each morning. The archaeologists also discovered human bones. The only concession to sanitation was one meagre runnel along the floor. In those inhuman conditions, thousands must have contracted malaria, typhoid and yellow fever and been left to die. In one corner stood a three-tiered altar festooned with a few wilting flowers: a sadly apt monument to the slaves' prospects. The dungeons represented the point of no return.

The guide took us along a narrow tunnel, which gave onto a jetty, now overflowing with fishing-nets, lobster-pots and excited children. The captives may have thought this sudden sunlight represented freedom for them; but in reality they were merely being transferred from one hellish prison to another.

Ten minutes down the coast is Elmina, the oldest European edifice in the sub-Saharan area. This was even more un-touristy than Cape Coast; the fort had no car-park or guide, so our driver volunteered to show us round. Built by the Portuguese in 1482, this sturdy white-washed castle occupies a spectacular site fringed by palm-trees on a promontory jutting out from the coast, but you have mixed feelings glorying in its visual splendour. The sense of unease is sharpened inside the domineering walls; above the entrance to one of the dungeons, a skull and crossed bones has been carved into the stone. In the female slaves' dungeon, our driver- guide pointed out a step-ladder ascending to a trap-door into the Governor's private quarters. He used to come down each night to take his pick of the women. Perhaps surprisingly, they were eager to go with him because if they became pregnant, they would not be transported. Some even begged to be made pregnant by the European soldiers - a fact, the driver said, which explained why the people of Elmina have slightly lighter skin than other Ghanaians.

We looked out across the sturdy ramparts speckled with cannons at the crowds of villagers on the beach. They had come for a day out, bringing picnics, to watch tug-of-war teams haul in their trawling nets. Meanwhile, wonderful, multi-coloured long-boats sliced out from the shore through the breakers on fishing-expeditions. On the side of one barque were painted the words: "God's time is the best." We inhaled the distinctive aroma of fish and ripe fruit which the French call, with characteristic poetry, "le bouquet d'Afrique."

We were the sole visitors to Elmina that sunny Sunday afternoon, the only flaming white faces in town. Wandering around the dilapidated governor's residence, our contemplations were disturbed only by a solitary housemartin flapping around the salmon-pink interior of the chapel and by two little local boys intrigued by our visit. In the governor's dining-hall, I bumped into one who beamed a huge smile at me and asked, "How is it?"

On leaving we noticed a small sign by the exit: "In everlasting memory of the anguish of our ancestors. May those who died rest in peace. May those who return find their roots. May humanity never again perpetrate such injustice against humanity. We, the living, vow to uphold this." We drove back to Accra in silence.

This summer return flights from London to Accra with Ghana Airways are available for pounds 550 through African Travel Specialists (0171 630 5434). British passport holders require a visa. Processing normally takes three days; for details, contact the Ghana High Commission Visa Office (0181 342 8686). For further information, contact Ghana Tourist Information (0171 493 4901), 102 Park Street, London W1Y 3RJ.