Elmina: Tour/Counter-Tour

Though yesterday’s presentations and discussions served to provide background and incite consideration of the workshop’s themes, we were all eager to set out and explore the issues on the ground as they relate to local heritage sites. Thus, we headed west and south from Accra, towards the coastal town of Elmina and it’s rich cultural heritage.

Our visit to Elmina began at Elmina Castle (or St. George’s Castle), a large fortification initially constructed by the Portuguese in 1482 (making it one of the oldest European settlements in Sub-Saharan Africa).   The Dutch took the fortification by force from the Portuguese in the first half of the 17th century, who subsequently ceded the fort to the British in the late 19th century.   Though initially built as a trading hub for material commodities such as gold, the fortification ultimately served as an administrative center for the sale and shipment of human beings. Nearly 100,000 slaves disembarked their home continent from Elmina, and it is this legacy of bondage that looms large in the historical narrative told to visitors at the site today.

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Left: Workshop participants gather outside Elmina Castle’s walls for the tour.  Right: A cannon lays pointing from the castle’s walls into the present town of Elmina; note Fort Jago on the hill in the distance. 

Local surgeon and history enthusiast, Dr. Anthony Anan-prah, graciously provided us a guided tour of the castle and its grounds. The doctor’s tour, though entertaining, was largely characterized by a sort of shock-and-awe approach to the legacy of slavery at the site; dark tales of cramped, dirty dungeons and promiscuous governors permeate the narrative given by tour guides at the site. Though these tales no doubt have a basis in the reality of the past (if not at Elmina Castle proper, then certainly in similar places), their exact veracity is challenged by historical documents regarding the fort’s occupation, as well by as the material evidence and architecture of the fort itself. One of the workshop’s participants, Dr. Mark Horton, deftly provided a counter-narrative of the castle’s heritage as presented by our guides, an interesting juxtaposition to the story presented by Dr. Anan-prah. For example, a small, gated door that exits the sea side of the fort was presented by our tour guide as the “Gate of No Return” of the castle.   Through this door, slaves were marched from the keep’s dungeons to the beach and then to the slave ships waiting anchored in the water beyond for transport across the Atlantic Ocean. The door, however, lies roughly three to four meters above the ground surface, with no visible remnants of a staircase or any other means of descent to the sand below.   Furthermore, a drainage system of the castle clearly empties from this passageway, suggesting the door is nothing more than an exit for the structure’s rainwater.

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Left: Drs. Anthony Anan-prah (far right) and Mark Horton (far left) stand in front of a brick compass constructed during the Dutch occupation of the fort.  Right: Workshop participants listen as Dr. Anan-prah gives his tour of the fortification’s courtyard.  

After lunch, Dr. Anan-prah led a guided walking tour of the town of Elmina and some of the town’s sites of significant cultural heritage.   He began by describing the layout of the town, the streets of which follow a loosely gridded pattern that corresponds to the boundaries of former plantations in the area. Over the bridge, just beyond the castle, we came to the Bridge House. Built by the Dutch in the 17th century, the house exhibits typical architectural motifs common in the Netherlands and its colonies at the time. Today, the Bridge House is owned an operated by the Coconut Grove Beach Resort, and visitors may rent rooms to stay overnight within its aged walls.

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Left: Workshop participants walk down a steet of Elmina; note the rock structure to the right is part of the Bridge House.  Right: A view of the lagoon and part of Elmina castle from the bridge connecting the fort to the town. 

Next, we were led by Dr. Anan-prah to three of the seven Asafo club houses in Elmina. The Asafo were once a seven-part military organization that served as the de facto force of the local people in the town. Though the martial responsibilities of the Asafo companies have long been abandoned, to this day they remain important organizations of cultural and political practice and belief for the people of Elmina. Each company has its own associated iconography, and their clubhouses serve as material reminders of this rich cultural heritage. Dr. Anan-prah also led us by the Dutch cemetery in town, in which many Dutch colonists (including governors) were buried.

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Left: Asafo post #5, Abese Comany’s clubhouse.  Right: Workshop participants climb the hill towards St. Joseph’s basilica; note the Dutch cemetery in the foreground of the town.

Lastly, we visited St. Joseph’s Minor Basilica and the small museum now housed in the former Catholic boys school building on the basilica’s grounds. The basilica sits upon a hill, and offers a commanding view of the Fort Jago (another fort built by the Dutch in Elmina in the 17th century) and the surrounding town. According to Dr. Anan-prah, St. Joseph’s is the oldest Catholic church still in use in the entire country (built 1892). The Catholic Church Museum just across the courtyard from the basilica was began as a hobby by Dr. Anan-prah, but has since grown into an extensive repository for cultural resources related to Elmina and especially St. Joseph’s. These include a scaled replica of many of the important buildings in town, as well as significant historical records from the church dating back into the 1800s. Dr. Anan-prah conveyed that the church complex sits upon the former grounds of yet another fort in the town, Fort Schomerus, the remains of which were not readily visible on the heavily developed hillside.

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Left: Miniature exhibit of Elmina’s buildings in the Catholic Church Museum.  Right:  A view of Elmina from St. Joseph’s hill; note Fort Jago and Castle Elmina (more distantly) in the background to the right of the frame. 

During the night’s closing discussion, many of the workshop’s participants remarked on the juxtaposition of the two tours we received in Elmina. First, we were told the narrative that all visitors to Elmina Castle are given—a shock-inducing narrative of bondage and horror, the details of which remain historically unsubstantiated but emotionally compelling. The first tour was marked by a literal and figurative segregation of spaces and bodies; few local people of Elmina have cause to venture within its walls, and tourists visiting the castle can avoid spending any time whatsoever among the pulsing throngs of daily life in the town. The second tour, however, felt much different in connecting the place to its people. Local residents on the streets remarked that tourists never ventured far from the castle to explore the other rich cultural heritage sites of Elmina.

Overall, the trip to Elmina provided us a wonderful context within which to view the issues our workshop seeks to address.  The contested narratives the town’s heritage are readily apparent in the spaces we traversed, and we look forward to visiting more sites before the week is done.

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