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Ghana Slave Castle


 

 

Unlike Berlin, little happens “frantically” in Ghana (Huyssen, 49). Like Huyssen, I like to think of cities as texts to be read. Cape Coast Castle isn’t a city. But it is a text.

One reading of the castle asks to whom should it belong? Another reading sees a question in this statement from Kwame Appiah’s Whose Culture is it?: “I actually want museums in Europe to be able to show the riches of the society they plundered…” (84). Appiah is Ghanaian and I wonder who or what he imagines to be the visitor to a museum displaying Ashanti art and what he imagines the wall-text will say?

The third start. The third start is a return to the first with influence from the second. When I arrived in Cape Coast, I caught a taxi to the hostel where I would stay. It was called Oasis Beach Resort but I’m not sure why. The ‘resort’ was on the beach. And had several ‘cabanas.’ These were thatch roof structures each with a table and chairs at which to eat or drink while watching the ocean. But the Oasis’s amenities couldn’t rival a Motel 6, much less The Ritz. The beach was pretty though. It had white-gray sand, big waves, and few people both of the days I spent there. The primary reason to stay at this ‘resort,’ and seemingly to stay in the town, was to visit Cape Coast Castle.

Fourth Start. The fourth start uses the second person to interpolate the reader because I just read Swann’s Way by Proust and the layering of habitual memory onto individual events lends a profundity and a realism to the reading of memories even if they aren’t actually your own. Because you need to get into the slave castle to start processing the first three starts alongside the fourth. You stay at the Oasis Beach Resort. It’s summer. Maybe you sat in the cabanas before leaving. Maybe you had a beer. It’s sunny out. It’s summer in Ghana and you are at the beach. Rain comes in fits when it comes. The weather is bipolar. Like the weather knew to reflect the bipolar culturo-historical landscape. When it comes it comes hard and heavy, but it doesn’t stay long. And you don’t go to the castle if it’s raining. Because you don’t want to be soaking wet on a museum tour. You decided to walk the mile to the castle. Bright sunlight reflects off the sand and off the whitewashed walls of the Resort. The thatch roofs reflect little light as they are the only darkness on the buildings. Except for the Ghanaian symbol. The symbol painted on the outside of the white buildings. The symbol is like a fossil Pokémon. Fish bones in the center with two tails 180 degrees across from one another trailing off the bones and encircling them in opposite directions, each ending at the start of the other. Like an Ashanti yin-yang of fish bones. The ‘bones’ are stylized, cartoonish. Pokémon. Not menacing. But bones. The symbol means “except for God.” It’s prevalence ties it to the Ghanaian greeting “akwaba,” which means “you are welcome” and is also witnessed everywhere. And maybe you think about this as you walk to Cape Coast Castle.

It’s sunny out. You wear sunglasses because it’s so sunny and the castle is whitewashed too and your eyes hurt walking around with all that sunlight everywhere bouncing off the white things that aren’t white under the paint. The sunlight seems like it ought to be happy, warm. And it is. You take pictures on the walk. Of old buildings or the novelties of a landscape that seems healthy against buildings slowly, casually crumbling.

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At the castle you claim student status to get a discounted ticket. It’s something like $5, which is nothing considering how far you have probably come to get here. And considering the price the original ‘visitors’ to the dungeon had to pay. It couldn’t be free when you consider that fact. But the $5 must get stretched pretty far to cover the castle in white paint. Or maybe not. Because as you stand in the courtyard waiting to start your tour you can see the paint is peeling. After you begin your tour and climb the stairs to the outer wall you see the canons rusting. They can’t fire cannonballs anymore. As you walk around the top level, you learn about the history, how the canons failed to protect the castle from multiple overthrows and changes of administration (Rujumba). You wind up staircases to the captain’s quarters. Perched high in the castle and featuring windows that allow views of the beach to the south and north. And to the north, from the window of the captain’s quarters, past the open shutters, you see the Oasis Resort. There’s no glass or screen on the window, just shutters with peeling green paint opening onto long, rugged, picturesque beaches. You take photos of the beach through the window. The view lends a perspective reminiscent of Las Meninas by Velasquez via the contrast of light and shadow. The dark of the room you are in, contrasted against the bright sun outside, is impressive even with multiple windows in the captain’s quarters. Exiting onto the wall again, you linger behind the tour group and take playful photos in the happy sun along the wall, showing off the beach, the impressive height of the castle, and the canons. The group is going downstairs. In the courtyard there are shadows, and the space isn’t so bright as at the top of the wall, or as the walk to the castle.

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Then you are led into the holding room for the male slaves. There are no windows here. An extension cord is hung on the wall to lend power to a light in the rear corner. So you can see the dungeon you’ve entered. You need light because the floor is uneven and it would be black inside without the light. But the single light is no match for the immensity of the dungeon. And the dungeon’s immense, lingering darkness. It routinely housed several hundred captured Africans waiting to be sold into slavery. In your tour-group of 12 you can already feel how quickly claustrophobia would creep with even 100 people. 100 is a lot of people to put in one room. One light isn’t enough for the dungeon. The walls are dark. They seem to eat the light. As does the floor. There could be more lights in the room but maybe it wouldn’t matter. This isn’t a place to bring lights. This isn’t a place you go to see. The history is too heavy to let any light in. The ceiling is high enough, but it smells a like a gym that is too small and hasn’t been cleaned or ventilated. The guide informs you that the floor is now higher than when the room was built because the captured people, along with having no light, weren’t allowed to leave. The room would be so full that while standing upright you would be touching your neighbor. And this is where you shat. Where you urinated. Where you slept if you could. Where you threw up when claustrophobic. This is where you might reasonably have died. That was one way out. And now you, the non-omnitemporal you, is here again, for the first time, in this place where even the light struggles to escape the fixture whose anachronistic pulse is undetectable. A lamp would flicker, might be eaten alive by scarcity of oxygen. Luckily the bulb forges on as the breath is sucked out of all of your yous and as you pray to get back out of this place. The flash from your camera won’t fight this darkness. It would get lost too. The flash doesn’t have enough drive, fight, desire, to overwhelm this darkness. And you have lost the will to photograph. There is nothing novel in a room that won’t crumble, whose floor layers shit on shit, who just keeps building up the excrement. It is supposed to excrete. Everything in language that describes the matter passing out of bodies says it is leaving. But not here. The light isn’t leaving. The excrement isn’t leaving. It’s all building up. And the curators manage and maintain it because this history can’t crumble. If we are going to continue living we must consider the shit.

There aren’t any images of the dungeon. There aren’t any more images of the castle. There aren’t any more images of Cape Coast. Because even though I was honest enough to go, I’m not honest enough to make that darkness my screensaver. Pictures of sunlight are warmer. How do I tell a story about this history? It’s still there, trying to speak for itself, but it’s hard to ground those stories in an “official” language. Maybe it changed owners so often because it couldn’t defend itself. Maybe it changed owners so often because it didn’t want to. Because how do you defend something so dark? Even while you protect yourself from the outside, it’s the darkness inside that you really have to worry about. Unless you figure out how to turn the multiplicity of those narratives into A story, you can’t come to grips with that darkness. Maybe that’s why Paul Gilroy’s TheBlack Atlantic was necessary. To begin to synthesize a recognition of a space not thought of as space through which to narrate the multiplicity of experience. Perhaps this is why Andreas Huyssen says: “Lived memory is active, alive, embodied in the social—that is, in individuals, families, groups, nations and regions. These are the memories needed to construct differential local futures in a global world” (28). And why he says: “… Libesking’s architecture has become script. His building itself writes the discontinuous narrative that is Berlin, inscribes it physically into the very movement of the visitor, and yet opens a space for remembrance to be articulated and read between the lines” (69). Because Huyssen sees the need for memory to have articulation. He sees the need for that articulation, which he reads in cities, to be read by others, and sometimes to be written with readers in mind. He isn’t thinking of slavery, so his project looks a bit different, but the valences are there. And Gilroy seems to pick up some of those threads.

It is important to re-read just as it is important to re-write. And how to honestly re-write something that is inscribed in memory, memory that lacked the luxury of paper, is a challenge for those working in/around/with slavery. Asking Appiah “who is going to learn and how they will be informed?” returns to Gilroy because Gilroy might re-write the wall-text as well as the building housing the objects. The impression garnered from entry into the dungeon is difficult to transport. So Gilroy wants to write that experience and write the difficulties involved with lacking ‘official’ boundaries and ‘official’ place. In some ways I write in response to the charge of Colin Sorenson: “…usually in the museum profession, we call up ghosts under very strict conditions. It seems to me that we don’t want to meet and try to comprehend them. We usually call them up in order that they should help us to understand the artifacts- to show us how the ‘things’ work. Our interest seems primarily in the objects, rather than in the human context out of which they arose” (72). I aim here to write the profundity of a museal darkness. A darkness revealed through richness of description and working towards granting a human context to objects and history. I do this through a reading of the castle as text which, even as it may appear to lack the sterile, scientific, bibliographic authority of academic writing, may reveal more profoundly sentiments and memories too seldom appreciated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography:

Appiah, Kwame A. “Whose Culture Is It?” Whose Culture?: The Promise of Museums and the Debate over Antiquities. Ed. James B. Cuno. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2009. N. pag. Print.

“Cape Coast Castle &Museum.” Home. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Oct. 2013. <http://capecoastcastle.ghana-net.net/>.

Huyssen, Andreas. Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2003. Print.

Rujumba, Karamagi. “At Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, Retracing Slavery’s Steps.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. N.p., 11 July 2009. Web. 16 Oct. 2013.

Sorensen, Colin. “Theme Parks and Time Machines.” The New Museology. Ed. Peter Vergo. London: Reaktion, 1989. 60-73. Print.

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