House of Slaves and “Door of No Return”: Gold Coast/Ghana Slave Forts, Castles & Dungeons and the Atlantic Slave Trade

Kwame Essien
Edmund Abaka, House of Slaves and “Door of No Return”: Gold Coast/Ghana Slave Forts, Castles & Dungeons and the Atlantic Slave Trade. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2012. 413 + xxvii pages.

Edmund Abaka’s House of Slaves and “Door of No Return” focuses on various conversations that took place within the compounds of the slave forts, castles, and dungeons in Ghana among major players and actors of the Middle Passage during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Abaka is mainly interested in exploring the ways in which ordinary people interacted with the owners of these historical landmarks and the voiceless walls that housed the slaves prior to their dispersals to the New World. Unlike a host of recent literature that mainly explains how people of African descent respond to these sites of memories (especially how they connect to the voices and the spirits of their ancestors embedded within the compound), Abaka’s work shifts away from this simplified analysis. Rather, he examines the lives of those who worked on the compound: slaves, slave merchants, Christian missionaries, priests, colonial officials, soldiers, sailors, cooks, artisans, ordinary workers, and Europeans who designed the historical sites as a storage facility and later as a slave holding. The book complicates how they negotiated space and the ways in which they contributed to various horrific activities that gave rise to the Middle Passage.

Abaka describes how the Euro-African encounters and the cross-cultural interactions and exchanges they generated created three opposing conditions: violence and torture, global trading networks, and a path or a site of memory for searching for an ancestral heritage. For the latter, returnees seek to minimize the attention given to the “door of no return” and replace it with another inscription “the door of return” on the opposite side of the same door to symbolize the physical return of the descendants of slaves. The contention between these two inscriptions informs aspects of Abaka’s book. By tracing the lives and the daily activities of people within the slave compound, Abaka is able to link together commercial activities, preaching, education, the role of chartered companies and brokers, health practices, hygiene and sanitary conditions, how slaves were fed, and where they slept. This allows the reader to imagine how these conditions were similar or different from conditions of slaves in various slave plantations. Another part of the book chronicles Euro-African encounters, the friendship they created, the tension they developed, and most significantly how various European groups (the Portuguese, the Dutch, the English, and the Danes) built permanent structures along the coastline of Ghana beginning in the fifteenth century to register their interest in commerce, religion, and slavery. Abaka uses photographs, statistical tables, and maps to explain how interactions between Europeans and coastal Ghanaians evolved over time. He not only provides a constructive and coherent narrative, but his list of European Governors, including the period they reigned, shows the conflict between Europeans over the sites of memories which demonstrates how power shifted over time. Further, it provides insight into how slaves in the “house” were treated and manipulated as well as how those in authority punished the workers who failed to carry out their duties. Abaka asserts that sexual unions between Europeans and African women created a group known in the Fante/i Ghanaian language as abrofommba or children of mixed race (p. 22). The quality education the abrofommba were given did not only benefit them socially but it created new opportunities, gave them economic advantage, and enabled them to rise to the upper echelons of Ghanaian society.

Abaka does not downplay the importance of the experiences of slaves in the New World. However, he argues that one cannot fully appreciate the multifaceted nature of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade without including what happened at various sites of memories in Ghana prior to the Middle Passage. According to Abaka these historical landmarks were “ships of permanent anchor.” Although they are permanently stationed along the coast and cannot move, they are representations of the historical experiences of slaves in the New World. Both embody the fullness of the black Diaspora experience (p. 40). Abaka is convinced that the pivotal place of the forts, castles, and dungeons has not gained sufficient attention in academic circles. He therefore asserts that discourses on the transatlantic experience should begin with the giant voiceless walls that sit on the coastline of Ghana where most of the sites of memories are located in West Africa (p. 66).

The last chapter of House of Slaves and “Door of No Return” is a social history about the significance of historical landmarks and their contribution to the descendants of slaves’ search for a home in Ghana. These landmarks, which were once sites of torture, now stand as a space for reconnecting returnees with the voices of their ancestors. Further, these silent spaces form the bedrock for World Heritage Sites and form an important nucleus for tourism in Ghana. In full circle, the collision of voices of pain, anguish, and violence that are contained within those fortresses and walls have become a place for some kind of reunion with the Diasporan past. Indeed, as Abaka’s book shows, there are several ways of tracing the circular motion associated with enslavement and subsequent emancipation. On the one hand, the story of slavery embedded within those walls epitomizes aspects of servitude. On the other hand, as Abaka puts it: “The slave forts, castles, and dungeons have situated slavery, its legacy and African Diaspora history back in popular discourse” (p. 346).

Abaka’s book which relies on archival documents is thoroughly researched and well written. The visual aids in the book are quite dense and could be overwhelming and perhaps distracting but they are well positioned to facilitate the analysis and narratives. This book will be useful for historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, and upper-level and graduate classes. Students interested in pre-colonial aesthetics and architecture will find the photographs on European forts, castles, and dungeons very useful. In general, this book adds a new dimension to transatlantic study of sites of memories in Ghana.