The Door of No Return

by Mark Ziese on June 27, 2013

Door of No Return 1 The Door of No Return

The tunnel leads from the dungeons to the harbor.

At the end of the tunnel hangs an ominous sign: “Door of no return.”

Through this door human beings were marched from the bowels of the castle to the holds of slave ships. The transition from a stone to a wooden prison offered the captives one last gaze to the African sun. They would not see it, their families, or their homes again.

Door of No Return 2 The Door of No Return

Drawing of the harbor at Cape Coast Castle. Image from C. F. Dow, Slave Ships and Slaving (1970: 2). Available at http://public.gettysburg.edu/~tshannon/hist106web/site2/AFRICA3.gif.

We step through this door as part of a guided tour. Although it is peeling and moldy, Cape Coast Castle is numbered among UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. We are learning why from a young guide named Mark. Edem, KK, James and I soberly follow him. Mark explains how the castle was a hub (termed a “factory” by contemporaries) for the largest migration of human history. Numbers vary, but something like eleven million people were forcibly moved from Africa to the New World as a part of the transatlantic slave trade. Many of those individuals were processed right here at Cape Coast between the years 1665 and 1807.

A sign in the display area describes the slave trade as one leg of a larger economic triangle between Africa, the Americas, and Europe. Slaves were brought from Africa to the Americas to work plantations and mines. Agricultural products, such as cotton and tobacco were brought from the Americas to Europe. Manufactured goods, such as alcohol and guns, were brought from Europe to Africa.

Door of No Return 3 The Door of No Return

The triangular trade of the 17th century. Image modified from http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/bf/Triangular_trade.svg

The appetite for these goods had consequences. In Africa, for example, it exacerbated tribal conflict, which, in turn, produced more war and more prisoners-of-war. These captives were sold to the Europeans who, for fear of disease and hostilities, hovered behind a network of walled fortresses along the coast. It was a vicious cycle. Greed greased the wheels.

As I walk through the artifacts on display (wrist and neck shackles, branding irons for marking people, and even a model of a slave ship), it is a visceral experience. I am struck by the fallenness of humanity, the rawness of the evil that we are capable of mustering, and the reality of unchecked consumerism. Free enterprise without conscience will consume even human life.

Door of No Return 4 The Door of No Return

Map of West Africa from 1736. Image posted at https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/82/Negroland_and_Guinea_with_the_European_Settlements%2C_1736.jpg

Fierce competition for market access in West Africa meant that the Cape Coast Castle would change hands several times. The wooden fort built by the Swedes was refurbished by the Danes, but ultimately reached the form we see today in the hands of the British. Viewed from above, the castle is diamond shaped with stout batteries facing the sea. Despite being pummeled by French cannons during the Seven Years’ War, the British held out and continued to build. The castle would remain at the center of their regional interests until the late 19th century when power shifted east to Accra.

Door of No Return 5 The Door of No Return

Mark leads us to the men’s dungeon.

A powerful segment of our tour is a moment when we stand in one of the men’s dungeons. Our guide turns off the lights and we are imprisoned by darkness. The room is small. The ventilation is poor (remember this is an equatorial climate!). We taste the mustiness of the space. We are asked to imagine what it would be like to await the arrival of the ships (sometimes for weeks) in this room with as many as 200 other persons. There is no place to sit or lie down. There are several inches of human waste on the floor; the drains are incapable of handling the volume. The dead are hauled out when identified. Thinking about it even now makes me weep. Thousands died in this room from dehydration, malnutrition, disease, and, (who can possibly measure this malady?) a loss of hope.

This dungeon is linked to another dungeon by a door that leads to yet another. The last room in the series releases into the tunnel that expires at the “door of no return.”

Door of No Return 6 The Door of No Return

The batteries rest above the dungeons and tunnel.

In the cruel twist, the space directly above the men’s dungeon was used by the British as a chapel. The dying souls of those below could hear the singing of those above. How such a juxtaposition could occur is staggering. Biblical texts were used in the 18th century both to support and condemn the transatlantic slave trade.

Door of No Return 7 The Door of No Return

The Cape Coast Beach is full of the activities, colors, and smell of fishing.

We pass through the “door of no return” on our tour and find a busy beach on the other side. The fishermen have come in with their morning’s catch. Some pick and sort small crabs. Others mend and fold the nets for another day.

One man wants to show me. He calls. When I get close, he sticks out his hands and says one word: “money.”

I back off and stand on the stone apron of the fort. I breath the sea air, feel the African sun, and take in the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean.

Behind me, a second sign marks the outside of the same gateway. It reads “Door of Return” on this side. We step through it and make our way back up the stairs. No one says anything. Unlike so many others, we are free to leave. Free to remember. Free to forget.

Door of No Return 8 The Door of No Return

I remember the first months of the presidency of Barack Obama. He received flack from conservatives for daring to make apologies for deeds past. At the time, I paid little attention. I had better things to do than listen to political bickering.

Today as we leave the peeling and moldy buildings of Cape Coast Castle though, I notice a plaque placed in the wall above the men’s dungeon. It sparks a memory. I read the words of the plaque, and later, the words of Obama’s speech offered from that austere podium.

I pull a single line from the President’s mouth: “The capacity for cruelty still exists.” No doubt. But there is an even more appropriate line for the moment. It was scripted long ago and runs like this:

“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me . . . to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn.”

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

John Such June 28, 2013 at 11:04 AM

Cruelty is a tyrant that's always attended with fear.
Thomas Fuller

Reply

Dynitta Simpson Lieuwen June 28, 2013 at 3:19 PM

Thank you Mark for taking the time to post on this history. I have been thinking of doing my dissertation on racial reconciliation in America and recently someone asked me a very good question: for those white Americans inclined towards reconciliation but also are of the opinion that Americans of African descent need to "get over the past," or "I didn't do it, I never owned slaves," or "my ancestors were not even here"… in addition to "we just voted in a black president," why would they care enough to have a real conversation about race in America. Not the finger pointing and name calling conversation, but a real hard conversation and an honest look at race, particularly among Christians, what would it take for white American Christians to really enter the conversation?

I am still working through the answer to that question… I have to admit it is hard for me to understand that mindset as an American of African descent. It was my ancestors that survived the experience you described here, it was my ancestors that survived the Middle Passage, 350 years of slavery, followed by 100 years of Jim Crow laws, and finally many of the laws of the 80's that still show discrimination towards black Americans. I do believe that the opinions of many have changed in regards to race, however, many of the structures are still the same.

One thing is certainly true, as Christians we are called to unity and we are called to love one another. So how can one culture claim to love their brothers and sisters of the faith and NOT have this conversation?

Reply

Katherine Callahan-Howell June 28, 2013 at 5:17 PM

Preach it sister.

Reply

Erwin Goedicke June 28, 2013 at 8:19 PM

Well, part of the answer is ignorance. Some of it willful ignorance. Which is even more reason to have the conversation!

Reply

Peggy Hatfield Bowman June 29, 2013 at 1:30 PM

Dynitta as stated above, "Preach it sister! I have personally blessed by having people cross my path that were willing to discuss race and cultural issues with me. I have gained so much knowledge from these encounters but it isn't enough! All people must first lay know down their "perceived" notions to really enter into that dialog, understanding that no one culture of this world is the "best" culture. I thank God for these people and pray that He sends more my way!

Reply

Bill Weber June 28, 2013 at 5:40 PM

I was there a few years ago with James. Quite sobering!

Reply

Leave a Comment