Danette Frederique (Northwestern University), a CIEE Ghana Fall 2015 Participant.
Cape Coast Castle, built in the 1600s
17th century odors should remain in the 17th century. Unfortunately for me, and to the shame of the rest of the world, on Sunday, October 4th while standing in the captive dungeons of the Cape Coast slave castle, I could smell the musty, moldy, dampness of the caves where thousands of black bodies stood (ate, sweat, urinated, defecated, mourned, plead, gave birth, and died…). I did not know misery and sorrow could have such a distinct scent. Being in those dungeons was an assault to the senses and emotions. The scents, the sound of the dungeon door closing, the maddening silence that ensued, the feelings of unease.
The dungeons where male slaves were kept.
An endless list of emotions could have been felt by a visitor to this dark place, and one’s emotional state, or lack thereof for some, depends on our identities, our personalities, where we come from, our educations and our passions. Whether you can feel the misery of your ancestors, sympathize with the misery of another people's ancestors, or feel nothing at all for misery of an entire population, this experience is a telling one that illustrates the lack of our abilities as members of this Earth to grasp a universal concept of humanity. Humanity didn’t exist when this castle was built. It didn’t exist when Africans were chained and marched to face an unknown fate. Humanity
was nowhere to be found in the male dungeon, female dungeon, punishment cells, the governor’s bedroom, and there was certainly no humanity in the chapel that was built on the territory. The audacity of the Europeans to build a church in a place of such wickedness, I thought. What kind of worship could be practiced here? The audacity of the Ghanaians to play and laugh on the beach and sell fabrics in the rooms of this castle where not too long ago, white people sold their ancestors. The audacity of some of my peers to break the crucial moments of silence with questions that yielded answers that did not solve any problems or ease any pain. These are some of what seemed like thousands of thoughts that traveled through my brain in that moment. Some of these thoughts do not seem rational in retrospect, but rationality is irrelevant in a place like that. The concept of space and who can command it is an interesting one.
Individuals who don’t bear the scars of these atrocities and descendants of those fortunate
enough to escape capture and enslavement may not be able to relate as deeply to the sorrow of
these captive Africans as members of the Diaspora can, but empathy is a powerful thing.
Perhaps it's too late for empathy to show its face in this space, in spaces related to this space,
and in these contexts.
“In Everlasting Memory” said the sign by the entrance down to the male captive dungeon, but to merely keep the memories of this era alive isn’t enough. An unfathomable injustice was done to an entire population, and descendants of this population continue to suffer today. I suppose the stifling odor that lingers today is fitting for these crimes against humanity perpetrated hundreds of years ago. If the detrimental impacts can last this long, so can the smells. There is a lot of cleaning up to do.