Slave Trade: The Dark Ages Of Africa

Have you watched the movie “12 years a slave”? Well, if you haven’t watched it because of the horrific title, then I would say I was just like you , until two weeks back. Two weeks back, I surprised myself by picking up its DVD and watching it all alone. That was a surprise for Sid also (who has watched his favourite movies over 60 times and watches not just Bollywood and Hollywood but also Japanese, Korean, French, Spanish, Iranian and Chinese movies!!). Previously, when this Movie-Guru had suggested me to watch this movie, I snorted my disapproval declaring that I prefer happy movies with happy endings. I have a ‘rom-com’ heart and may be some comedy and Hollywood action once in a while. But something as serious as this – NEVER.

But then what made me watch it all alone??

Well, knowing history doesn’t stir you up as much as visiting the site which has witnessed history in making. My picnic turned serious when I visited the Elmina castle at Cape Coast, a major slave trade center for over two centuries. Humans were traded as property along with spices and jewels here. Humans were just priced livestock. Human rights were unheard of.

’12 yrs a slave’ is based on a true story of an educated free African man who gets kidnapped and captured as slave. He was meant to live rest of his life as a slave but after 12 years he is rescued by a friend. This Oscar winning movie portrays slave trade and the hard life of the slaves after they have been exported to different destinations.

Elmina witnessed their lives prior to the export. Poor and uneducated locals were captured, tortured, traded and exported from Elmina. It was a human market. It is estimated that around 2 million slaves were exported from Elmina alone and around 15 million slaves from the whole of west Africa.

slave_trade_1650-1860_b - www.slaveryinamerica.org

Elmina Castle was built by Portuguese in 1483. Portuguese started exporting slaves in horrifying conditions to Europe and the Americas to work in the agricultural plantations and mines. Other European powers- the Danes, Dutch, English, French, Germans and Swedes soon joined the trade.  Besides trade, African soldiers were recruited during the Dutch period and sent from Elmina to other Dutch colonies  such as Java in Indonesia, as part of Dutch army.

Elmina castle
Elmina castle
Entrance to the castle. The cross over bridge was built later for the tourists. Earlier, water body was surrounding the outer wall
Entrance to the castle. The cross over bridge was built later for the tourists. Earlier, water body was surrounding the outer wall to prevent any escape

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Iron collars, chains, fetters and handcuffs which they wore upon their necks, wrists, ankles, and other parts of their bodies.
Iron collars, chains, fetters and handcuffs which slaves wore upon their necks, wrists, ankles, and other parts of the bodies.

For almost 200 years, in the ‘Main Trading Hall’ of the Castle, Europeans traded their goods such as  cloth, brassware, liquor, guns etc to African traders in exchange for the produce of Africa – gold, ivory, local foodstuff and artifacts and slaves. Until the abolishment of slave trade in early 19th century, the most lucrative commodities traded here were slaves.

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Main Trading Hall

In ’12 years a slave’, there is a scene depicting slave trade. Slaves are striped naked and lined up. The trader tries to strike a deal with a customer by describing features of the slave such as, a masculine body that is healthy, strong and sturdy etc.

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Female Slave Dungeon
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Male Slave Dungeon
About 100-150 slaves were cramped in these dungeons.
About 100-150 slaves were cramped in these dungeons.
Sunlight is pouring in these rooms now. But back then, there used to be iron doors which kept away light.
Sunlight is pouring in these rooms now. But back then, there used to be iron doors which kept away light.
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The iron doors have been removed. Instead,these iron bars have been installed for tourists to experience ‘being caged’
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Our guide played a prank on us. He locked us in the dungeon demanding for more fee! 😛

The fate of being a slave also meant giving up the right to bodily integrity. The Chief European officer, head of the Castle had some special privileges. For his physical pleasure, he could select any woman slave to spend the night. The women slaves were striped and lined up in the common area. The Chief standing on his balcony, over looking the common area,  chose the unlucky slave.

The balcony of the Chief
Chief’s balcony
The space where all women slaves were lined up
The common area where slaves were lined up.

Once the slave was chosen, she was brought to the side for a bath. After the wash, she was sent up to the Chief’s room.

Our guide pointing to the bathing area of the slave before sending her up through the stairs behind him
Our guide pointing to the bathing area of the slave before sending her up through the stairs behind him

 If any slave dared to refuse to spend the night with the Chief, then she was made to bend down and was chained to a canon ball for days without food or water till she agreed.

Punishing canon ball
The punishing canon ball. Our guide explaining the punishment.

The castle was guarded in such a way that escape was not feasible. If any slave was caught while trying to escape from the Castle, the slave was put in the ‘Condemn Room’ with no water or food till the slave died.

The Condemn room. Notice the skull and cross  at the entrance.
The Condemn Room. Notice the skull and cross at the entrance.

Once the slaves were captured in Elmina, they never saw the outside world. They were kept in dungeons till the ships arrived to pick them up. There was a path way from the Castle going directly to the ships. The last room of the Castle was called the “Room of No Return”,which was the waiting room before boarding the ship . It meant that once they enter that room, they will be sent to a foreign land but with no hope of returning to their home land ever.  This statement stood true. It is believed that no slave returned to their homes. They either died during the voyage or lived rest of their lives in the foreign land.

Even after six centuries, Elmina stands strong with some necessary restoration work. It stands as an everlasting memory of the anguish of those who never returned to their homes. The scenic beauty of the place with Atlantic ocean kissing its shore does help in easing out the heart ache momentarily. 
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3 thoughts on “Slave Trade: The Dark Ages Of Africa

  1. harrowing indeed. the past is so shameful. slave trade, if with varying intensity, existed elsewhere too. in wayanad, kerala, there was an annual auction of slaves less than a century ago. less than half a century ago, manual labourers used to be identified as the property of their masters. not slavery exactly but something of slavery did go into that system. amid these thoughts there is the atlantic, laccadives sea nearer home for me, to ease the ache. there is more. mankind has shown that it can abolish slavery with an indomitable will. someone like lincoln gave his life for the struggle.

    Liked by 1 person

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