Ghana Speaking (I): The "living wound" at Cape Coast Castle

I’m in Ghana for a week — starting from Cape Coast, toward the western end of Ghana’s Atlantic shore. Cape Coast is a university town and a major fishing center in West Africa. It’s the spot where First Lady Michelle Obama locates her ancestors. It is the site of the Castle that President Obama and his family visited last July. No ordinary tourist attration, the Castle is the place that haunts human history eternally as the point where millions of Africans were warehoused, then shipped in the infamous Middle Passage to slavery in the new worlds of North and South America.

I am picking up many threads (starting with slavery) of a conversation that began most of ten years ago with the poet and teacher Kwadwo Opoku-Agyemang, at the University of Cape Coast. His voice has become for me one of the beautiful deep songs of Africa. Before I’d ever met Kwadwo Opoku-Agyemang, his book of poetry and prose, Cape Coast Castle jumped into my hands off a bookstore table in Accra, and many of his lines seemed to clutch my heart and never let go:

Slavery is the living wound under the patchwork of scars. A lot of time has passed, yet whole nations cry, sometimes softly, sometimes harshly, often without knowing why…

… perhaps the most horrendous experience of the victim society belonged to a group hardly ever mentioned in the literature: the damned who survived, those deprived relatives of the captured African. These included parents, brothers and sisters, uncles and other relatives and friends who knew and cared for the captive. In a way, theirs was a lot de profoundis, a lost of deepest death. For they were denied the cathartic benefit of a burial for their loved ones. Olaudah Equiano, the 18th century African abolitionist, tells the story in his autobiography of 1789 of how, as a greening youth, he and his sister were kidnapped from their Igbo village by slavers while their parents were at the farm… And yet what we read is not the full story, only a portion of it. For Equiano’s mother came home from the farm one evening to find her only daughter and youngest son stolen, never to be heard from again. We do not know her story. Nobody knows the story of her grief…

The Castle is a standing provocation to thought and action: upon its disarming rests a whole people’s freedom. Cape Coast Castle, the metaphor and the edifice, is a society in itself, a society of experiences, a system or order whose fundamental concepts are planted in the disordering of our society. We kneel because it stands, and it stands for a system of production, distribution and exchange. But it does not tend what it produces, does not nurture what it distributes, does not value what it exchanges. There is no tending, no nurturing, no valuing…

The fact is that the pressures of our societies today, the tributes we play in blood — colonialism, neo-colonialism, even poverty in the lopsided world order — are largely the effects of the slave trade. In the trade, societies were ransacked, the land was gutted, its human loam was washed to the sea, its potential was stunted…

Slavery gives the enslaved nothing but a legacy of pain, alienation, fear, and worst of all, a fetish erected around the denial of the fact and lasting effects of enlavement. It is a fetish that allows us to pretend that our world is whole; thus we nullify the castle by incorporating, then ignoring it. And so we live in a shattered world with an eroded sense of history in a world we swear is whole.

Kwadwo Opoku-Agyemang, Cape Coast Castle, A Collection of Poems, 1996. Pages 1 – 10.

I associate Kwadwo Opoku-Agyemang with a broad and deep unofficial drive in Ghana to break an old silence around slavery. About the time his book was published, a troupe of Jamaican musicians and dancers refused to perform at Ghana’s first Pan-African Arts Festival, precisely because it was being held in the Castle where their forebears had been stockpiled in chains. In public and private, Ghana’s conversation about itself has never been the same again. In my first Cape Coast reunion with Kwadwo Opoku-Agyemang we’re trying to keep the inquiry perpetually open-ended, as he says, “so that every new generation may visit it to quarry its lessons.”

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  • I love this work so much. It’s a great piece.

  • Despite having been in African Studies for a while, I hadn’t realized that the Atlantic Slave Trade had such a different significance in contemporary Ghana than it does in some other parts of West Africa.

    In Mali, for instance, different forms of slavery are discussed much more openly and it usually doesn’t sound like the one involving Euro-American slave-drivers is so present on people’s minds, as opposed to both local forms and those involving Arab slave-drivers. Among Malians who know about the European form (especially people with formal education from Euro-American institutions), there can be a conception which would shock many American descendants of African slaves: that slave origins should be hidden. A specific form of the shame Kwadwo discusses, informed by the specific context (having to do, in part, with how descendants of slaves could gain a new identity).

    I only passed by Dakar and I didn’t go to Gorée Island, but even during my brief layover (and, especially, plane travels to and from Dakar), I couldn’t help but notice a sort of tension between Americans of African origins and West Africans who were interacting with them. Very anecdotal, to be sure, but it left me a lasting impression. For instance, embarking the plane from NYC’s JFK to Dakar’s Senghor, the flight attendant greeted me with a “vous, au moins, vous parlez français!” Apart from me, most people in this Air Afrique flight was going to Gorée Island to visit the place where atrocities had been made to their ancestors. Sure, this flight attendant might have had his own agenda. But, contrary to my experience with other people in (“Francophone”) West Africa, there was a clear sense that I was more like them than these Others.

    Of course, the relationships between Africans and Americans of African descent are very complex. And Liberia has been the source of much discussion on the topic, academic and otherwise. But it’s interesting to get more localized perspectives. After all, Africa is possibly the most diverse continent on the planet, culturally, and there are clearly many issues at stake. From Kwadwo’s description, it sounds likely that Ghanaians have a very specific connection with Americans of African descent. It’s possible that the English language helps a bit, as a something of a link (in a way French doesn’t between, say, Haitians and Ivoirians). Similarly, the specific Christian denominations present in Ghana may also play a role in a way Catholicism doesn’t, in Francophone contexts. But, from the fact that even something as fundamental as the greetings would have to do with being chased makes it sound like slavery has had a very different meaning in this part of Ghana than it did in other parts of the continent.

  • Potter

    How pleasant to see you Chris in summer clothes as we stare here at a white landscape. More, to hear birds (seagulls?) and the windchimes (?) in the background… imagining the smell of sea breezes.

    More sun than that comes from Mr. Kwadwo Opoku-Agyemang. I love the quality of his voice and more his spirit, the thoughtfulness.. the evolution that can come from suffering and trauma.

    We are still dealing with the effects of slavery..and we don’t hear this side of it. That we focus on this is so necessary. I really cannot tell you how it affects me. Forgive me but I relate it to the Holocaust that my people went through and still struggle so much about. It’s trauma and it reverberates in us all. Of course,one would not more want a music concert in Cape Castle than in Auschwitz.

    Mr. Kwadwo Opoku-Agyemang thank you and thank you Chris. I’ll think of this as the best journalism that can be- and it should be supported.

  • joan gray

    Mr Kwadwo’s language spoke deeply to me. I can only imagine the agony and suffering which took place in that place. And yes, it still reverberates down the long years. Kudos, Chris

  • Chris come on! Transcend the tired trope of the slave trade – full of guilt – need alternative narratives. Labor recruitment of Africans as military professionals, produced ‘privileged slaves’ in the Americas as well as the Moslem world – prized for their skills! not victims. Am suggesting a whole different story of significance re the 40+ Castles and Forts along the 350 mile shoreline of the ‘Gold Coast’ erected for LEGITIMATE trade – gold was the lure no? European competition Portuguese, Danes, Dutch, Brandenbergers, French, English etc. Its a much more nuanced story than simplistic slave raiders and slave traders. and more over Africans were engaged in their construction – stone masons, supplying 15th & 16th C Portuguese contact = labor recruitment of Africans encountered for their skills. linguists, seamen [Krews] stone masons, smiths, sailmakers,


  • Ah, ACMcH: The slave trade is now a “trope”? Tell me more — where are you coming from? What are you reading? What is your own experience of the history? Eager to learn more, CL.

  • continued: so architecture of the Castles – underground water storage tanks – Castles naval station for provisioning fleet of ships days of sail access to water imp. No way could conduct of trade be effected without Krumen to ferry water, food, cargo to sailing ships which lay ‘beyond the artillery of surf”. Also in earlier centuries European traders access labor pool resulting from drought, famine, whole communities migrating to avoid the ravages of these disasters [like Haiti’s earthquake today] no respector of persons – there are NO slaves – recommend you explore MAROON communities in the diaspora . My own work in Surinam and Jamaica – rich details of 1690 Akan/Twi, Akim, Bekwai etc history precolonial West African kingdoms, social, juridical, cultural, spiritual which informed empowered successful resistance and produced TREATY Maroons i.e freedom and independent communities before the indedpendence of Haiti. And important to know MAROON = integration people of African descent + Indigenous first nation people, + Europeans [ITS NOT A RACIAL IDENTITY]. Nor does it mean ‘wild and uncultured’. The identifying term is PALENQUE a Mayan Indian term for sanctuary [spiritual significance]. Continuity of traditions that Akan system of organizing society a/c double descent – a matrilineal system + recognition of paternal line in the ASAFO [military organization]; value of Asafo [fukua?] is ability to integrate into community other ethnic groups/ social classes. [Akan abusua Royal women could marry slaves] status follows Mother. Folk taboo survives not ‘trace’ origin. A system of OKYEAMES [professional historians, diplomatic skills, oratory] has its imprimature on Maroon communities in diaspora + [Jamaica and Surinam contemporary accounts re sophistication of negotiating skills re Peace Treaties]. Need alternative narratives to challenge negative stereotypes by bringing to light new FACTS. 17th C Ghanians – Cavalry in the court of the Brandenberg Elector and the knowledge that much of this ‘hidden’? history ‘encoded’ embeded constantly reenacted in Carnival, kings and queens with entourage of Justices officers funereal processions of marching bands, La rua, LaLlamada, Cowbellions of Mobile, Krews Cliques and Cumbes Mardi Gras, Jon Canoe, Nu Ouvert, Canne Bruilier. Knowledge of all this antiodote to any Ghanaian chauvanism [or any African ‘tribal’ prejudices. Time to Awaken.

  • Ibrahima Seck

    Hi Chris,
    Congratulations for this interesting program. I currently live in New Orleans where I am working on a Museum of slavery built on the site of Whitney Plantation on the Mississippi River in St. John the Baptist Parish. Prof Opokou-Agyemang was one of our instructors back in 1998 during a three-month seminar held at Legon University and the University of Cape Coast. The theme was “africa and the legacy of Slavery” and the seminar was supervised by prof. Koffi Anyidoho. I want to reconnect with them. Please provide any contact where I can join them.
    Dr. Ibrahima Seck
    Whitney Heritage Plantation Museum
    Wallace, Louisiana