Tuesday, 3 May 2011
Captured in Cape Coast
Cape Coast, the capital of the Central Region on the coastline of Ghana, is a treasure trove cove of history, art and tourism. The region is home to other notable towns such as Abandze, Anomabu, Winneba, Saltpond, Apam and Moree, and is famed for its beautiful coconut palm-fringed beaches, natural reserves, historical towns, and of course, ancient forts and castles from the colonial era.
One of the city's main attraction is Cape Coast Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage site that houses several hundred years of history in one iconic building. It is a stunning and heart-wrenching remnant of colonialism, and, until the late half of the 19th century, the nerve centre of British colonial rule in the Gold Coast (Ghana's pre-independence name), before the administration was moved to Christianborg Castle in Accra in 1877.
More importantly, Cape Coast Castle was one of the biggest trading posts in the most abhorrent of all trades: slave trade. And you never forget as you walk through the entrance that it has seen some highly disturbing scenes of human suffering and degradation for those who were captured and shipped to uncertain futures in the New World.
I am pondering this as I stand in front of the castle when a seller with trinkets, necklaces and bracelets ambles over and says in English, 'I've all these beautiful bracelets...' He gestures to a tray of jewellery with carefully crafted Adinkra symbols.
'No, thanks.' I say firmly.
'Do you know about *Sankofa?' (A traditional symbol which represents taking the valuable aspects of the past and bringing it into the present in order to make positive progress). He persists, not at all swayed by the note of finality in my voice.
'Of course I know about Sankofa. I am Ghanaian.'
He has a disbelieving look on his face. 'So where are you from?' He challenges, a belligerent note creeping into his voice.
'Kumasi.' I say shortly.
'No, I mean where in abroad do you live?' He shoots back cheekily. Oh.
My friend, who witnesses this exchange, is very tickled. I tut good-naturedly, and we leave the seller and hurry into the castle.
The name Cape Coast comes from the Portuguese 'cabo corso' (short cape). In 1482, the Portuguese established the first European presence in sub-Saharan Africa by building a fortified trading post in nearby Elmina to engage in commerce with the local people. It wasn't long before other European nations wanted in on the lucrative opportunities the Gold Coast offered. The 60 or so forts littered along the coastline of Ghana are testament to what was once the hub of increased European activity in West Africa. Cape Coast, though, was the mother of all Ghana's forts.
Today, a walk through the castle reveals cracked, peeling white walls within which you will find many interesting reminders of what it once was. Strategically placed canons line the upper platform, overlooking the sea, ready to defend the castle from enemy invasion. At ground level, rusted canon balls are piled high, giving an impressive sense of how they might have once been a menacing sight. There are darkened slave dungeons within which many souls perished under dehumanizing living conditions, whilst still others awaited their fate. (See images above)
This city packs an intriguing melange of history and modernity, and is full of character at every turn. And with that thought, I think what a fascinating visitor experience Cape Coast is; a steep lesson in rediscovery for me, for before this visit, I'd only known the city as far as the gates of the senior high school I attended within the region. And suddenly I'm assailed with feelings of gratitude that in spite of the truly atrocious things that happened there, Cape Coast boasts a high concentration of the nation's best senior high schools, amazing tourist attractions like Kakum National Park, crafts villages, unforgettable seaside resorts, Fante kenkey that's got to be eaten to be believed, and much, much more. And that, ultimately, is the powerful pull of this historical city: it came out tops in the end.
Welcome to Cape Coast, the city that gives you Moree.