Cape Coast: Following in the Footsteps of Colonial History

The past seems almost tangible: Colonial style buildings made of solid brick, with elegant upper floor balconies, the faded wall paint flaking off, line the entangled streets. Cape Coast Castle, reputedly one of the world’s largest slave-holding sites during colonialism, and the two smaller forts William and Victoria, remains of a chain of lookout posts, recall the days of European rivalry for hegemony along the Gulf of Guinea. And a bust of Queen Victoria in a park named after her reminds today’s visitors that the Gold Coast was once in the Queen’s possession.

But in between the architectural relicts of the past, Ghanaian modernity has reclaimed the public space: Wooden food stalls and stores along the streets are selling biscuits, sweet white bread, cold drinks and household items. Women are frying fresh fish, plantains and sweet potatoes on little charcoal grills and serve them with groundnut paste or spicy salsa. Approaching the little fishing harbour, you’ll see colourful pirogues rocking gently in the water. Green fishing nets are piled up on the sidewalks and heaps of little silvery fish are drying in the sun.

Cape Coast

The busy streets of Cape Coast

The hilly streets are crowded: Women carrying baskets on their heads and babies – wrapped up in colorful cloths – on their backs, young men in suits with cell phones and laptop bags hurrying past, old toothless men sitting on the sidewalks, smiling at passengers, and hordes of children, dirty and breathless from playing in the dusty streets. Unimpressed by the general tumult, goats, chickens, pigs and dogs stoically make their way through the crowd, often causing the racing motorbikes and occasional cars to brake hard.

Cape Coast is both, a lively, modern town and fishing port on the Ghanaian coast, supporting a population of about 215,000, and a place steeped in history with Cape Coast Castle being a sad reminder of the atrocities committed during the transatlantic slave trade.

Cape Coast – Village of Crabs

Roughly 600 years ago Cape Coast was nothing more than a small fishing village consisting of about 20 houses. Its original name Kotokuraba meaning “River of Crabs” or “Village of Crabs” refers to the the abundance of these animals in the area which were, supposedly, the favorite food of a former chief.

Colourful pirogues in the fishing port of Cape Coast

Colourful pirogues in the fishing port

The Portuguese were the first to discover the little settlement. Sailing past in 1471, they called the village Cabo Corso (which was later changed into Cape Coast) and constructed a lodge at the outskirts of town in 1610.

During the second half of the 17th century, the fort, abandoned by the Portuguese, was successively occupied by the Swedes, the Danes, the Dutch and finally by the British who made Cape Coast their key outpost along the Gulf of Guinea and expanded the fort to its current shape.

Door of No Return

Today, Cape Coast Castle as well as the remaining European-built forts along the Ghanaian coastline are a UNESCO world heritage site and can be visited. The whitewashed building, sitting high on rocks at the beach, overlooking the rough Atlantic ocean, seems too attractive at first sight to be the scene of such dark crimes. But when you enter the humid, narrow dungeons in which hundreds of slaves were crammed together for two to six weeks, awaiting their turn to walk through the infamous “Door of No Return” and being shipped to America, you’ll get an idea of the despair and suffering these silent stone walls have seen. It is more than cruel irony that the inhabitants of the castle attended church services just above one of the three dungeons.

The British abolished slavery in 1807, but due to an ongoing demand for slaves in the “new world” and efficient colonial officers, it took much longer to actually end the trade in human beings. When it finally stopped, Cape Coast Castle regained its original function as trading post for goods such as gold, cocoa and salt. It became the first seat of government under British rule in 1874 until this role was assumed by Accra three years later.

Trading post, slave dungeon, seat of government: Cape Coast Castle has served various purposes

Trading post, slave dungeon, seat of government: Cape Coast Castle has served various purposes

Maritime Flair and Community Feel

Except for the fort, Cape Coast lacks major touristic sites. However, its location at the coast, the maritime flair of the fishing harbour and the  relaxed and sociable atmosphere make it a great place to spend a few days exploring. It’s also a good base to visit Kakum National Park and the nearby town of Elmina, boasting the oldest colonial building in sub-Saharan Africa, St George’s Castle. Both locations can be easily reached by public transport.

A good place to stay overnight is Baobab Guesthouse, centrally located just opposite the castle and offering clean, nicely decorated rooms with shared bath and toilet. The guesthouse was set up by the Baobab Children Foundation, a NGO providing education to street kids in Ghana’s Central Region, and all proceeds go to the school.

The guesthouse also has a nice restaurant preparing inexpensive Ghanaian and international dishes and a shop selling products such as batik, clothes, beads, postcards, drawings and bamboo furniture made by the children. Volunteering with the project is possible too.

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