Pulling Back the Veil: History and Memory of the Cape Coast Castle (Part 1)

by Courtney Luke

NOTHING COULD be simpler:
History simplified as a castle
The wind stands mouthing
Nothing can be heard
Except the rainroar of the past

To hear the rain
Recount its story to the roof
Flash silver and sorrow

This history: a drop of amnesia
Widening in its pool
It hates to intrude, fears to offend
The past with the averted eyes
Is careful not to impose:
A gift of absence to the present

The weight of the braided days
A whirlwind coming home
The sun slowly blinded by the clouds

It was dark then, it is dark now
Give memory nothing
And it is darker still tomorrow

I can feel the sea gently rock our earth to sleep

-“Eclipse,” Kwadwo Opoku-Agyemang

Elmina .jpg

In his poetry collection Cape Coast Castle, Ghanaian poet Kwadwo Opoku-Agyemang captures for readers many of the lost memories of the prisoners of the Cape Coast Castle. Writing from the points of view of history and time, the Castle itself, the enslaved, their mothers, and the city, he takes readers on a journey through memory, and the poems act as a moment of reclamation for those who lost their lives to the horrors of slavery. The poem transcribed above, “Eclipse,” encapsulates the problem of memory, history, and slavery as it mourns the fact that all that is left of the dark history of slavery in the Cape Coast is the Castle itself. The painful memories of the enslaved are not welcome, as history does not wish to intrude upon the present with its past hurts. What Opoku-Agyemang captures in this poem is the reality that ignoring the darkness of the past makes the present everdarker. Not dealing with the memories of the Castles leaves them to linger in the air, the rain, the sun, the sea. The sorrows are present even without acknowledgment. His poetry brings forward the issue of remembrance and is doing the work that many modern-day writers attempt in their work on the history of slavery and its legacy. This work is what novelist Toni Morrison calls “literary archaeology,” digging into spaces and places where narratives are absent in order to yield some kind of truth and reclaim what is lost from the past.[1] The Cape Coast Castle is a place that is rich in memory, but those memories require excavation and narration from writers and thinkers who were not present in the past but are willing to dig into the possibility of memory and create for themselves and others what could have been. 

In this essay, I will be doing a close reading of the descriptions of the Cape Coast slave Castles in both Yaa Gyasi’s novel Homegoing and Saidiya Hartman’s semi-autobiographical work Lose Your Mother. The goal of these close readings is to discover and highlight how these authors capture and recapture memories existing outside of the written record. The projects of these two writers are different in approach and choice of narrative style; however, the literary practice of writing from an image, place, or site of memory is common in African and African American literature attempting to do the work of recovery. By focusing on their descriptions of and interactions in and with the Cape Coast Castle and dungeons, readers are made aware of how sites are used to conjure up memory, and how memory becomes a place where imagination can begin to fill in the gaps left behind by a silent history. Toni Morrison writes in her essay, “The Site of Memory,” that remembering is akin to the flooding of a river: “All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. Writers are like that: remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place. It is emotional memory - what the nerves and the skin remember as well as how it appeared. And a rush of imagination is our ‘flooding.’”[2] Both Hartman and Gyasi are using the site of the slave Castles to remember where they once were. They use their alleged,ancestors as the literary agents of the flooding, of this memory, to recreate for present-day readers the picture of the slave castles lost in the emptiness of the archive. 

As Hartman points out in Lose Your Mother, there are hardly any recorded narratives by those kept as prisoners in the Cape Coast Castle. The only writer she can point to as having recorded any memory of their time in the Castle is Ottobah Cugoano and the nine lines in which he wrote ambiguously about encountering the Castles for the first time in his book Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evils of Slavery. In order to gain a better understanding of how enslavement is remembered by those who experienced it, we can place both Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evils of Slavery and The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African, in conversation with Hartman’s work.  It is interesting to take note of how memory operates in both of these narratives, both falling into the politically and socially acceptable formats for the formerly enslaved to write in at the time. These two narratives mark the deep absence of memory that exists of the enslaved in Castles and dungeons and it is because of this silence that Hartman’s work is so bound up in the recovery of memory. Her project being different from that Equiano and Cugoano enables her to dive into the “sordid details,” and recall for her readers the pain left by the silence in the archive. Her project is to juxtapose the absence of enslaved persons in the archive with the real and present repercussions of slavery.[6]

The first Castle that Hartman introduces her readers to is Elmina, an old Portuguese fort and slave Castle that exists today amid a vibrant and busy marketplace. The walls are whitewashed, looking new and sometimes upsetting modern-day visitors in search of ancestors and meaning of lost stories, as they see it as an attempt to beautify an ugly past.[7] This chapter, “Markets and Martyrs,” starts with a lamentation. Hartman is devastated that life continues on around the Castle; she expresses her wish for mourning at this painful site of history and memory, “I would have preferred mourners with disheartened faces and bowed heads and the pallor of sadness coloring the town...Instead, I found myself immersed in the proasic conduct of everyday life…”[8] The scene that lay before Hartman is incompatible with her desire for a living memory of the lives lost at the Castle. Her writing, then, is the place where the memories of the enslaved resurrect.. Starting from this place of resurrection, the story becomes nonlinear. Hartman takes readers back to the Elimina that she came in search of and back again to the present. She recounts the Castle’s history, how the Portuguese and Dutch began their slave trade, the uses of Elmina Castle and the items would have been present there. She describes the smells and sounds that would have been present, bringing the reader into the memories that she wished she had, and that she longed to be collectively remembered in the present day busy market. Most poignant is her description of the captive people held in the Castle. She tells readers how their “stink and sweat and waste and disease thickened as cargo was completed...[and how] The townspeople would have grown accustomed to the stench.”[9] The description of how the people in the past have grown accustomed to the stench of the captives and their ignorance of the enslaved parallels the anxiety Hartman feels towards the mundane treatment of the Castle in present-day. Both then and now, “there were those who preferred not to think about them at all.”[10] Her writing seems to overcompensate for the lack of recognition and care that the enslaved received. Rather than accept that the memory of their forced departure is under-grieved, Hartman doubles down on her own, wishing she could give them the good-byes and “I love yous” they never received. Her memory though fails her because the words are “of no use now.”[11]

Not Letting the lack of care given to the enslaved discourage her from excavating a narrative of their captivity, Hartman borrows from the memory of the Portuguese and places the story of a saint and martyr onto the bodies and experiences of the enslaved Africans. In this way, the unnamed receive  a name, and their stories get the reverence and holiness that they were not afforded in their time. Hartman places her grief over the religious narratives of the slavers and sets enslaved upon a shrine of memory, their suffering made visible through the patron saint of the Elmina Castle, Saint George. This act of replacing memory alleviates some of the tension brought to Hartman in the absence of story and mourning. The memory she wants to resurrect is centered on the visibility of suffering. She wants for the people of Elmina to acknowledge the pain and anguish those enslaved in the Castle felt, and then the pain and suffering experienced by enslaved persons of the African diaspora globally. She tells readers that Saint George has many legends surrounding his death. Saint George was killed many times in many different places, but because of his divine nature, he was always resurrected, both in flesh and in memory. Taking the legends and tales of his many deaths, Hartman then applies his story to the enslaved Africans across the diaspora, hoping that the perseverance of his memory and his sainthood will make the lost peoples of the Transatlantic slave trade into saints as well:

The trial of saints and the anguish of martyrs would be put to the test in the holding cells of the Castle and beyond. Did Saint George also provide an emblem for the suffering of slaves or a vision of life resurrected? In the Gold Coast, his ears were cut off and then he was put to death. In São Tomé, he was drowned in the sea. In Dahomey, he was decapitated. In Kongo, he was asphyxiated in a barracoon. In Santo Domingo, boiling sugarcane was poured on his head and withered the flesh on his body. In Barbados, he was flogged with a seven-headed whip. In Cuba, he was filled with gunpowder and blown up with a match. In St. John, he was burned at the stake, sawed in half, and impaled. In Maryland, he was hanged and decapitated. In Georgia, he was covered in sugar and buried in an anthill....In face of such torments, some allowed themselves to dream that the defeated might rise and the world be transformed. Broken bones, severed appendages, and charred limbs didn’t stop them from swearing oaths to destroy their enemies, or rejoicing that they were going home, or taunting their masters, “You can roast me today, but can’t tomorrow.”

Sites of history can bring up a multitude of memories and often such as spaces like the Elmina Castle, these memories can clash.[12] The revered memory of Saint George and Portuguese religiosity clashed with the experiences of the enslaved. “The crucifix and a cursory baptism had ushered them into slavery,”[13]but Hartman rewrites the memories so that at the site of the Castle they become one, and the memory of the enslaved gains preference and hope for triumph. As the chapter continues, Hartman laments that there are no mourners for her to join, and that she can draw no “tragedy from the landscape.”[14]Her mourning, then, becomes centered on the absence of mourning. Hartman senses that this absence rise from the shame Ghanaians feel about the history of slavery – and their role in crafting it.


Cugoano, Ottobah. Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery : And Commerce of the Human Species, Humbly Submitted to the Inhabitants of Great-Britain, by Ottobah Cugoano, A Native of Africa.Eighteenth Century Collections Online. London: [s.n.], 1787. 

Equiano, Olaudah, and Robert J. Allison. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. Third ed. Bedford Series in History and Culture. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2016.

Hartman, S. (2007). Lose Your Mother : A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (1st ed.). New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Gyasi, Y. (2016). Homegoing. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 

Maris-Wolf, Ted. "Many Seasons Gone: Memory, History, and the Atlantic Slave Trade." 2009, 2.

Morrison, Toni. "The Site of Memory." In Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir,  83-102. 2nd ed. Boston; New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1995.          

Mowatt, and Chancellor. "Visiting Death and Life: Dark Tourism and Slave Castles." Annals of Tourism Research38, no. 4 (2011): 1410-434.

Opoku-Agyemang, Kwadwo. Cape Coast Castle. Accra, Ghana: Afram Publications, 1996.

Reed, Ann. "Sankofa Site: Cape Coast Castle and Its Museum as Markers of Memory."Museum Anthropology27, no. 1-2 (2004): 13-24.

St. Clair, William. The Door of No Return : The History of Cape Coast Castle and the Atlantic Slave Trade. New York: BlueBridge, 2007.

Stitt, Jocelyn Fenton. "The Aftereffects of Slavery: A Black Feminist Genealogy." Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism 17, no. 1 (2018): 150-62.

Winters, Lisa Ze. "Fiction and Slavery's Archive: Memory, Agency, and Finding Home." Reviews in American History 46, no. 2 (2018): 338-44.

[1]Toni Morrison, “The Site of Memory,” inInventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, ed. Russell Baker, (Boston; New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1995), 92

[2]Ibid., 99

[3]Ibid., 90

[4]Ibid., 88

[5]Ottobah Cugoano, Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery : And Commerce of the Human Species, Humbly Submitted to the Inhabitants of Great-Britain, by Ottobah Cugoano, A Native of Africa (London: Eighteenth Century Collections Online, 1787), 9

[6]Jocelyn Fenton Stitt, “The Aftereffects of Slavery: A Black Feminist Genealogy,” Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism 17, no. 1 (2018):151

[7]Rasul A. Mowatt & Charles H. Chancellor, “Visiting Death and Life: Dark Tourism and Slave Castles,” Annals of Tourism Research38, no. 4 (2011):1422

[8]Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), 50

[9]Ibid., 53


[11]Ibid., 54

[12]Ann Reed, “Sankofa Site: Cape Coast Castle and Its Museum as Markers of Memory,”  Museum Anthropology 27, no. 1-2 (2004):16

[13]Hartman, Lose Your Mother, 67

[14]Ibid., 69

[15]William St. ClairThe Door of No Return: The History of Cape Coast Castle and the Atlantic Slave Trade (New York: Bluebridge, 2007),2;7

[16]Hartman, Lose Your Mother, 119


[18]Ibid., 116 

[19]Morrison, “The Site of Memory,” 91

[20]Hartman,Lose Your Mother, 123

[21]Mowatt, and Chancellor, “Visiting Death and Life,” 1414;1418

[22]Lisa Ze Winters, “Fiction and Slavery’s Archive: Memory, Agency, and Finding Home,” Reviews in American History 46, no. 2 (2018): 341-342

[23]Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing,(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016), 17


[25]Ibid., 25

[26]Ibid., 31

[27]Hartman, Lose Your Mother, 111

[28]Gyasi, Homegoing, 49

Daniel Foster