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Dungeons Of Darkness
A visit to the African slave forts at Cape Coast, Ghana in West Africa raises ghosts and questions for Author.
Marvin V Arnett
Marvin V. Arnett is a retired Federal Manager born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. She has witnessed the understanding, or lack thereof, between the races in the Detroit Metropolitan area over a 70 year time span.
Ms. Arnett has served as National Vice-president of "Blacks in Government" (BIG) an organization devoted to the search for equal employment opportunities for people of all races within the Federal Service.
She has also held workshops at the National Conference of Federally Employed Women (FEW) on Upward Mobility within the Federal Service. Many of the graduates of these sessions have gone on to become top-level managers.
She has spoke at many Black History Programs presented by both government and civic organizations.
Perhaps her most successful effort has been in the field of mentoring. She has counseled and advised many young men and women on both career and life situations.
Ms. Arnett has traveled extensively, both within the United States and overseas
She is the proud mother of three, grandmother of four, great-grandmother of five, and great-great-grandmother of one. She serves on the Board of Friends of the Southfield Library, and enjoys reading, listening to jazz and volunteering time to service organizations.
Published works include a childhood memoir, Pieces from the Crazy Quilt, Dungeons of Darkness, and Let’s Talk Turkey.
Writing is her joy!
Dungeons Of Darkness
Marvin V Arnett
"Welcome to the home of your grandfathers," the cultural minister said as he greeted us with outstretched arms.
We were standing on the portico of Elmina Castle, at Cape Coast, Ghana—41 African Americans, male and female, ages 15 to80. We had been traveling in West Africa for seven days from Abidjan on the Ivory Coast to Ghana. At last we had arrived at the infamous slave dungeons located in the fort at Elmina Castle.
For many years I had anticipated a trip to Africa, even before I retired from Federal Service in 1988. Finally, I was in the land of my ancestors.
The actual trip was far different from my expectations. The French-speaking black population of Abidjan had proved to be snobbish and rude, but the people of Ghana were very friendly. I soon forgot my negative experiences in Abidjan.
The voice of the guide, directing our group up the worn stone steps and into the castle, interrupted my thoughts. I felt a surge of apprehension. What would feel when I entered the dungeons that had been the doorway to purgatory for my forefathers so many years ago?
I first read of the slave forts at Elmina Castle in a series of pamphlets my father ordered from the Chicago Negro Press. Although the quality of the paper was poor and the writing riddled with spelling errors, the information they contained seemed factual. Certainly it was compelling. As I tried to recall the contents of the pamphlets, a guide fell into step beside me.
"Where are you from?" he asked.
"From Detroit, Michigan," I replied. "You know, automobiles."
The young guide spoke good English. He told me he had spent three years in the United States, obviously proud of having attended Kansas State University for two years.
We continued the conversation while ascending a wide stone staircase. I was not prepared for the setting into which we emerged. Large, airy rooms greeted us with a spectacular view of the Atlantic Ocean. Wide stone balconies ran the width of each room. Supporting columns framed the blue-green ocean, clear blue skies and swaying palm trees. These were the once luxurious living quarters enjoyed by Portuguese and Dutch officials hundreds of years ago.
The scene reminded me of a travel poster for some lush tropical island. I could imagine being served lunch on one of these balconies while servants waved large palm fans to enhance the gentle breeze blowing in from the ocean. But the elegant images faded as I remembered the dungeons waiting below.
The descent into darkness began on a secret staircase that led from the Governor General’s bedroom to the female slave quarters below. At the foot of the staircase, we found ourselves in a large entryway into the dungeons. Were it not for the large, bare light bulbs strung high above in the cathedral ceiling, we could not have seen anything.
Once my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I looked to the left and saw a room about 30 by 50 feet in size. This was the female slave dungeon, one of five dungeons in the fort that could, all together, hold 2000 slaves. The floor of the room was about two feet below the level of the entry hall. I closed my eyes as the voice of the guide droned on and on.
"Chained and branded, they stood mired in their body waste," he said.
The acrid smell of human urine floated in the air, stung my nostrils and made my eyes water. Was it my imagination? No—the odor was real enough, generated not by past occupants but by present day guards who often used the dungeons as toilets.
Our guide pointed to the staircase we had just descended. "These stairs were used by the young female slaves selected by the Governor General for his personal use. Those who became pregnant were set free as they could not survive the voyage to the New World."
In the suddenly silent room, one of the young students grasped my hand and held on tight as if she needed an anchor. I put my arm around her waist and gently rocked her as she cried, silently. We threaded our way up a double flight of stone steps on the opposite side of entry hall to a narrow opening in the wall that overlooked the beach. This was the "eye of the needle," the exit through which slaves were lowered to ships waiting below. Those who could not pass through the "eye" were thrown back into the dungeons and stared until they were thin enough to make it.
Anger and sadness welled up in me. I turned, descended the stairs, and found my way to the entrance and out into the fresh air. I sat down on a driftwood log at the edge of the shore and cleared my mind of negative thoughts—gradually finding solace in the silence.
Further down the beach, I could see a group of tourists frolicking at the water’s edge. A guard stopped and asked, "Would you like to join them?"
"No," I replied, "But I would like to ask some questions about Elmina Castle, Cape Coast, and the slave forts."
He told me that the first Europeans who came to Ghana were the Portuguese. They arrived 1452 although they had conducted silent trading with Ghana for several decades before then. Eventually they secured permission from the local tribal chiefs to build forts to house articles of trade awaiting shipment.
Initially the Portuguese traded copper, tobacco and firearms for the gold and ivory of Ghana; but by 1482, trading in slaves had become their real source of wealth. When the Dutch arrived in 1600, war broke out as the Dutch and Portuguese fought for sole trading rights. The Dutch promised to stop the slave trade if the tribal chiefs helped them win the war.
The Dutch won the war in 1636, but, in an act of extreme treachery, continued and even increased the slave trade. Instead of housing goods, the forts were used to hold slaves prior to their shipment to the New World.
Then it was my turn to answer questions. The guard wanted to know more about America. Where did I live? Where did I work? Had I ever been to California? He was surprised to learn that I was a retiree but could still afford a trip to Africa. I reached for my purse with the thought of tipping him, but he shook his head, "No."
He began to walk away but suddenly turned and asked, "What took you so long to come?"
I didn’t know what to say. After what seemed like 10 minutes, but was actually only a few seconds, I blurted our: Why did you let them take us?" Why didn’t you come and get us?"
His body stiffened, and he looked away. Slowly he relaxed. He reached out and lightly touched my check, then turned and walked away.
In the silence that followed, I thought of the sights, sounds and smells of West Africa. The native women with their backs erect and neck cords taut under the heavy loads they carried on their heads. The six-foot-tall anthills that dotted the countryside like silent sentinels. The rhythmic beat of the traditional village music played in our honor by the children of Togoville. In the markets, the smell of vegetables and spices mingled with the heavy floral scent of bougainvillea growing wild. I was part of a sea of black faces marked by an occasional glimmer of white skin.
As I rejoined our group now leaving Elmina Castle, I realized that this place, these dungeons of darkness, defined the real reason for my trip and any others that might follow. While the slave trade had robbed me of precise knowledge of who my forefathers were, it had given me the freedom to claim any, or all, Africans as my relatives.
The slave dungeons of Elmina Castle had taught me that my roots in Africa balanced my roots in America. I had not one home, but two. In developing my history, I was free to combine the best of both worlds.
I begin to see my relatives reflected in the faces around me. My Aunt Bessie shopped in the markets at Grand Bassam. Uncle Smitty worked the fields outside Togoville, my little granddaughter ran to meet me at every bus stop. Somewhere along the way, I had become a part of Africa and Africa had become a part of me.
Finally, I was at home in the land of my grandfathers.
|READER'S REVIEWS (5)
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"I think the essay is excellent. All young people shoud read this. It gives you an insight into how far we have come and how far we still have to go. " -- Shirley, Detroit, Michigan, USA.
""I certainly enjoyed this essay! This writing increased my interest of wanting to travel to Africa. I thought the author's way of combining historic accounts along with her personal reflections lent cohesiveness to the two (2) continents Africa and American. Thanks for allowing us to share in your travels."" -- Rogenia Goza, Detroit, , Michigan, USA.
"I had heard of places like this but it hasn't been talked about much. It is an important part of history. Thank you Marvin for bringing it out more into the light." -- ROX, REDFORD, MI, Wayne.
"Dungeons of Darkness eloquently brings us Mr. Arnett's account of her journey to Elmina Castle in search of roots for all African-Americans. She answers the four w's--who, what, where and when? Elmina Castle was not the only forced embarkation point for slaves, but it is certainly the most notorious. Thank you, Ms. Arnett, for having the courage to take this journey and narrate it to us. This is required reading for all." -- Marie Poplawski, St. Clair, MI, USA.
"I am an activist for "Reparations" in America, for the descendants of African Slaves. I found this essay to be truthful, spiritually evoked and riveting. Thank you, Diva Arnett for opening your vessel...and sharing your soul." -- N' Griot The Poet, Southfield, Michigan, United States.
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© 2001 Marvin V Arnett
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