What Was Africa to Them?

Anthony Appiah – The New York Review of Books

Copyright The New York Review of Books
The vast majority of those who traveled in the holds of the slave ships from the Gold Coast passed through one of three major castles: a Dutch one at Elmina, the Danish Christiansborg at Accra (now the office of the president in Ghana), and the British one at Cape Coast. Cape Coast Castle has become a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the main stops on the path that brings African-Americans in Wright’s footsteps to Ghana. The castle’s extensive archives have now been put to good use by William St Clair, whose remarkable new book, The Door of No Return, is a sort of biography of the building. The Atlantic slave trade was a great capitalist enterprise: its cargo was insured; its fleets financed by borrowing. It depended, St Clair makes plain, on written agreements, files upon files of lists and memoranda. About the white men’s records, at least, Wright wasn’t entirely accurate.
The castle was constructed by Europeans, but on land rented out by the Efutu king, who behaved like a shrewd landlord, playing European competitors off against one another to squeeze out better deals. At various times, amid extensive negotiations, tenancy passed among Swedish, Danish, Dutch, and British traders. Despite the superiority of European weapons technology, it was the local rulers who had the upper hand. The 1970s miniseries Roots popularized the image of white slave raiders in embroidered silk vests stalking their quarry through the countryside. But most of the Europeans who lived in, worked in, or visited the castle stayed within a few miles of the coastline, never venturing further inland.
The building was not fundamentally a military installation; it was a place to make deals and store the goods—and the people—being bought and sold. Its imposing ramparts and cannons were all bluff: the walls consisted mostly of small stones, bound with lime and mud; the cannons were rusted. The castle could probably not have withstood being attacked with cannons from the sea (as it nearly was by the French in 1756) or by a large well-armed force (as it nearly was by the Asante in 1825). It was, as St Clair says, not so much a fort as a “defended warehouse.”
But Cape Coast Castle does have a place in military history. It was the source of many of the slaves who made up Britain’s West India Regiment, which stood ready to protect the Brit-ish planters of the West Indies from their potentially rebellious New World bondsmen. In a further irony, that regiment was the main British force in the castle through much of the nineteenth century; indeed, it helped the British in their wars against the Asante. Some of those who garrisoned the castle after Britain abolished its slave trade in 1807 must have been returning to the site of their initial departure from the continent years earlier. The castle’s seaward gate, through which the enslaved were taken to the ships in the harbor, was known as the Door of No Return. Time and again, this menacing boast has proved mistaken.
Indeed, almost as soon as the Atlantic slave trade began, there were natives of the continent who made their way back. The earliest returnee whose life story we know was probably Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, born in 1703 between the Senegal and the Gambia rivers. Ayuba, a Fulani Muslim, set off in 1730 to sell slaves in Joar on the Gambia River, two hundred miles from home. Unable to agree on a price with the English captain of the slave ship Arabella, which lay at anchor there, he traveled south to find other buyers; but on the way home, he was captured. Captain Pike of the Arabella received him now not as a trader but as chattel, and Ayuba ended up on a Maryland plantation.
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