The first thing I noticed as our guide shut the door and locked us in was that it was instantly more difficult to breath. Which sounds like an exaggeration, nothing changes instantaneously, but by closing that door, he had cut off the circulation of air in the room.
I peered around in the darkness, trying to make out the shapes of the 10 or so other people locked in with me. The room started to feel smaller and I couldn’t imagine trying to fit another 20 people inside the small space. And then the door opened and after only a minute inside, we walked out to fresh air and our freedom.
No African ever put in that room walked out. Their bodies were carried out – the cell was used for any slave who had attempted to escape, woman who refused to be raped, or anyone else the soldiers felt like making an example of. This cell was above ground. The Male Slave Dungeon was below.
Built in 1653 as a wooden structure, the fort (now Cape Coast Castle) changed hands many times. Originally built by the Swedes, it was temporarily in Danish and Dutch hands before being reinforced and rebuilt by the British in 1665.
The underground cells were split into three rooms, holding up to 200 men in each at any given time. Two rooms were in nearly complete blackness. The first housed the strongest and most able-bodied men and usually remained locked the three months the men were kept there. On a rare occasion, the men would be allowed out to be fed while the room was cleaned. Over time, this happened less and less and eventually, those in charge stopped cleaning the room at all. Instead, they merely tossed sawdust over the food, feces, urine, vomit, and blood and brought in a new roundup of slaves.
The third room housed the youngest of the boys, often between the ages of 10 and 25. This room also remained locked to “protect” the most valuable merchandise. It was the only room that afforded enough light to see. The middle room housed the rest of the male slaves.
Above ground was the Female Slave Dungeon. Up to 400 women were held in that single room any given time.
Slaves who died during captivity at the castle were simply tossed into the sea. When those in charge died, they were given a ceremony and burial.
The following photo shows the graves of Governor George Maclean and his wife, Letitia Landon, (rare for a wife to accompany her husband) who died while at the castle. Castle rumor has it that the wife committed suicide after she discovered her husband’s African mistress. The story has, of course, never been substantiated. It is known that her husband died of malaria.
From up above, you’d never know of the terrible things happening below. The whitewashed walls, beautiful ocean views, and bright, smiling faces masked the human cruelties going on below. Additionally, there was a church above the underground cells.
We spent about 30 minutes in the various dungeons and cells that slaves spent up to three months in. The rest of our time at Cape Coast Castle was spent above ground, breathing in the fresh air, enjoying the architecture, and marveling at how human beings could so degrade other human beings.
Even the storage rooms allowed for better ventilation than the slaves quarters. They had plenty of light and airflow, as well as wooden ceilings. They were also washed on a regular basis.