A few months ago I visited Elmina Castle, a centre of Dutch slave trade on Ghana’s Atlantic coast. The tour of the castle started in the women slaves’ dungeons, overlooked by a balcony of the castle governor’s apartment, from which he would periodically select women to rape as they were paraded below.
From the stifling heat of the dungeons the tour eventually proceeds up to the wonderfully airy governor’s apartment and the officers’s quarters at the top of the castle, with spectacular views of the sea and the surrounding coast. The thought of such horrors in the midst of such beauty is profoundly unsettling.
The narrative journey that William St Clair follows in his book The Grand Slave Emporium goes in the opposite direction to the path tourists, pilgrims and penitents tread touring such castles. Starting with a consideration of the establishment of Cape Coast Castle, the centre of the British slave trade on the Ghana coast a few miles from Elmina, he proceeds to describe the lives of the various denizens of the slave castles, from the governors, through the officers to the soldiers and the women – wives, “wenches” and the Castle’s sexual slaves – to the human beings – the slaves for export – who provided the entire rationale for the existence of the hundreds of such castles along the African coast.
The picture he describes is one of banal evil as the pretentious functionaries of the Castle, dreaming of lives like that of that idealised slave trader, Robinson Crusoe, dehumanise and process their human livestock through the Door of No Return and onto the waiting slave ships.
Over hundreds of years slavery devastated the African interior as wars and raids encouraged by the European powers kidnapped millions of people, many of them children, to feed the demand from the Americas for human beings who could and would be worked to death to produce cash crops, mostly for European markets.
It is one of the bleakest episodes in human history, echoing the holocausts of the 20th Century in the level of industialized organisation that was brought to bear on such an atrocity.
In spite of this compassionless bureaucracy of enslavement, moments of humanity and heroism do shine through: one person who had been enslaved through Cape Coast Castle, Quobna Ottobah Cogoano, eventually escaped and became a major anti-slavery campaigner at the end of the 18th Century. And David Richardson, an economic historian, estimated that the extra costs that slave ship owners incurred in order to discourage or defeat insurrections on the slave ships saved many hundreds of thousands of other Africans from having been enslaved.
The Grand Slave Emporium is an elegantly written, but profoundly bleak book. Nevertheless it is a necessary one. It shows humanity in its squalid complexity, and reminds us of how easily societies can, wholesale, descend into savagery while believing themselves to be the epitomes of refinement.