A group of more than 50 people traveled from Charlottesville to Ghana earlier this month to learn about the origins of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and how it can be better taught back here in the U. S.
Deep in the jungles of Ghana is a crossroads by a river called Assin Manso, where for several hundred years Africans from all over the continent were forced to bathe after being marched—barefoot, naked, and in shackles.
“So after your last bath, you had your first auction,” describes a tour guide as Assin Manso. “After your first auction you had your first branding, right here in market, before you walk another 31 miles.”
Niya Bates is the public historian of slavery and African American life at Monticello. “There’s something about the power of the ocean,” says Bates. “And I can’t help but think about those people who marched 300 or 400 miles from inland who maybe had never actually been to the coast but would have heard about the beach.”
Bates studies the lives of the people our third president Thomas Jefferson enslaved. Europeans brought hundreds of thousands of Africans to what would become the United States, and Virginia, was ground zero. The country was founded on the exploitation of slavery. And so Bates has come to Ghana, 5,000 miles away, to learn more about its origins.
“To hear those waves crash on that shore,” she says. “And then to be thrown in a dungeon where you can hear it resonating against the wails, against the screaming and the crying and all of the deprivation of these spaces, and then the last time you see it, is the moment they take you out to the ships. Like, that’s your last impression of your homeland, I just can’t imagine how terrifying that must have been.”
The Cape Coast and Elmina Castles are massive multi-level stone fortresses with dozens of rooms. Cape Coast was built by the British to compete with the Portuguese and the Dutch, which had operated Elmina for two centuries just seven miles down the Ghanian coast.
As Europeans invaded the America’s, the castle’s cavernous underground rooms transitioned from storing goods and gold for trade, to holding Africans in bondage. Kidnapped from homes or captured in tribal wars, at any given time, as many as 1,000 African men, women and children, were held for weeks, sometimes months in the dark dungeons.
“They had everything on the floor, and they were sleeping in it,” says Ato Ashun, a tour guide at Elmina Castle. “Meaning that what you see today, sometime past had feces, urine, vomit, menstrual blood, and you seriously cannot underestimate the heat and the stench.”
It was so bad, for so long, that recently, when the castles opened to the public for the first time, several feet worth of excrement had to be dug out. Even today, visitors stand not on the original stone floor, but on caked layers of fossilized remains.
For enslaved women, the threat of rape was omnipresent—traders, soldiers, but especially the castle’s governor, who would stand on a balcony overlooking the courtyard where women would be brought out from the dungeons.
“From there he just looked through and then made his choice,” says Ashun. “This woman chosen could have been in the dungeons for a whole month, never cleaned her feet, never took a bath or bathed, gone through menses sometimes and still, the governor wanted.”
Justin Reid is the director of African American programs at the Virginia Humanities and at one point he found himself standing in the governor’s bedroom. Both he and Bates have ancestors who were enslaved and sexually assaulted by white people.
“Clearly, Niya and I both have women ancestors who were violated in that way—to be alone in that space, really conjured up those emotions,” says Reid. “And then again at Elmina we were shown the staircase where enslaved women would have [been] brought into the private quarters of the castle governor and again violated in the same way. The entire history is horrendous but I think something about that in particular just really impacted me.”
In teaching the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Bates and Reid say many of these details are often ignored, along with the advanced complexity of African societies that existed long before Europeans arrived.
“They had different cultures, different belief systems, different practices, different economies,” said Bates.
Reid says, “Very sophisticated, they weren’t helpless in all of this.”
“Sophisticated, right,” Bates agrees. “And they were doing what they had to do not to be colonized. It’s important to note that these places were not colonized until 400 years after this slave trade started, so they did what they had to do to survive.”
Reid adds, “When we teach this history in the US, when we say things like ‘the Europeans stole’ or ‘the Europeans kidnapped’ or ‘took’—when we say those statements, we’re unconsciously saying that the Europeans had all the power in this scenario and that the West Africans were weak, they were unsophisticated, unskilled.”
Ashun says they’re right, it’s much more complicated than most history books let on. Europeans, he explains, created a deadly cycle. They’d help smaller Ghanian tribes wage wars of independence against larger tribes, creating the need for more weapons—European weapons. But Europeans no longer wanted gold or other native goods in exchange. Instead they wanted people, to force to work the land they were taking in the Americas.
“So the more independent states created, the more the need came for them to gather weapons to defend themselves,” says Ashun. “And the only way to gather weapons was to bring in people. So make it a principle: divide already divided people, and heighten insecurity, and that will fuel the system.”
In the U.S. white enslavers tried to control African Americans by eliminating any hope or purpose beyond the plantation. So they used physical violence to strip away names, languages, customs. But in Ghana, Bates and Reid say, all of these were on full display.
“Experiencing that first-hand has changed the way I think about the people who were taken as captives,” says Bates. “This is a culture that has been relatively the same regardless of modern technology for a long time, and so these things were things that were stripped from the people that were taken…I feel like somebody robbed me. I always had that sense anyway, but now I really feel like there’s something…that’s been stripped.”
Reid says, “This is how we could have moved through the world had we not endured the centuries of oppression and colonization and enslavement.”
“Right,” agrees Bates. “I see here entrepreneurs, people making a way out of no way, and I see that in the states too, but not to the same degree. And I think that’s a spirit that was intentionally removed from a lot of black Americans. So that will change the way that I r esearch people at Monticello. They had a background before they were enslaved by Jefferson.”
Now, 200 years later, 5,000 miles across an ocean, that background is finally starting to come into view.