Cape Coast, A Short Slaving Primer

The intricate weaving and bobbing of traffic along crowded, overused roads of mixed quality seems nearly universal in emerging markets.  As does the collection of detritus, shacks, businesses, folks doing stuff; a road is an artery of life  The steady toots of horns (“I’m here”), dust, the medley of potholes and speed bumps tharumping the car suspension. Not quite completed expressways built with Chinese precision and now overrun with trucks, buses, cars and motorcycles.  Toll booths with sleepy attendants (Where does all that cash go?), snappy, almost Western, gas stations with clusters of women at their entrances with all manner of snacks. Villages and trading centers popping up here and there, huddled along the highway and everywhere half built brick and concrete structures signalling optimism, growth, commerce and congestion.

I’d buy a cool drink from this gal!

Our drive to Cape Coast, a few hours West of Accra was no different.   We headed off early one morning to avoid traffic that builds in and around Accra shortly after daybreak,  through fields bordered with palm trees along the coast where remnants of 1/2 a dozen slave “castles” (Slave processing centers) built by the Portuguese, French, Dutch, English and Danes stand.  There were 25 of these structures along the “Slave Coast” which stretches from Senegal to Gabon during the height of the trade.

The dungeons of Cape Coast – and this is really what they are – are very hot, very humid and close, with no access to water or sunlight, and sit under the administrative offices and governor’s residence.  Captives would have been marched to the castle, some from 100s of miles away, and packed into the dungeon with 100s of other victims for  several months waiting for a ship to arrive.  Men were separated from women and troublemakers were flogged and left to die with no food, water or aid in solitary cells.  Female captives were frequently raped.

When the slaving ship arrived, captives were hustled out the “door of no return” under a blinding, hazy equatorial sun into lighters that took them out to a waiting ship. Then it was onto a world about which they knew nothing and where their life would be nasty, short and brutish.

We toured the castle – now a museum – with a very knowledgeable guide.  Outside, rows of fishing boats were lined up, with nets neatly organized for the next evenings run; most of today’s catch had been gathered, sorted and taken to market.  Neat stacks of cassava, plantain and pineapple.  A woman selling a collection of cell phones, another a rack of Chinese wrist watches.  Gaggles of handsome school children in neatly pressed uniforms run about and the local market which is in full swing.

Some photos follow, as well as a primer on slavery.

Slavery – A Short Primer

A Meccan merchant with his Circassian slave, CA 1888

Slavery has been with mankind since recorded history began;  the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Chinese, Koreans and Egyptians all managed slaves.  The Koran and Torah indicate that believers should treat slaves with tolerance, not outlaw it, and early Christians were ambivalent about the issue (Philemon, a new testament letter discusses returning an escaped slave – Onesimus – who has run away.)  Even when slavery was outlawed in Poland in the 15th century it was replaced with serfdom, not functionally much different.  In Russia in the early 1600s about 13 million people were serfs – essentially slaves – and another 1.5 million were full on slaves.

Slavery has varied from a simple role as a domestic servant and property of a family, to Chattel Slavery to being held solely for human sacrifice.  Some legal frameworks enabled the slave to share in the profits of his labor and in certain cases buy his freedom.

The kind of slavery Westerners know best is “Chattel Slavery” – where humans are treated like property which can be bought and sold and are afforded few rights.

Main Medieval slaving routes in Africa

Slavery radically reshaped African demographics and economies for 2,000 years; the story of humans on the continent is inextricably linked to the process.

From the 1500s on Barbary pirates (North Africans) went on raiding parties to coastal towns in Britain, Iceland, the Netherlands and Spain to enslave (and convert) those they captured.  The occasional American whaling ship would undergo the same fate with little sympathy back home for the sailors who converted to Islam under the threat of the sword.

Slavery continued to be legal in Mauritania – A large expanse of mostly trackless sand South from Morocco – until 1981.  Even then, it was only made punishable there in 2007.  And slavery still goes on today, in more covert forms.

Slavery is very difficult for you and me to comprehend.  It complicates America’s narrative because the country was founded on enlightenment principles of humans having inalienable rights which cannot be removed, by some folks who owned slaves.  It is a little hard to believe in “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” when you’re someone else’s property.  75 years after engaging in a civil war to end the practice, America fought World War II, a war against despotic tyrannies, with a segregated army.

Packing them in.

The Americas chiefly exported slaves from the “Slave Coast” – the stretch of Africa from the Western Sahara down to Namibia.  Up to 12 million souls were transported to the New World over 3 – 4 centuries, with up to 2.4 million dying on the way due to the atrocious conditions they were shipped in.  Everyone was in on the act – not just the Americans, Portuguese, French and British. The Danes, Swiss, Swedes and countless entrepreneurs made good money shipping live human flesh.  Ships’ officers were allowed to buy and sell slaves – each could command $40,000 in today’s dollars so doing this 2 – 3 times a year could fund a very comfortable life, pay for a kid’s college, fund the Tahoe ski cabin purchase, etc.





  1. Thanks for sharing this. We continue to pray for you & Jennifer

  2. Bryan S Vais says

    Hugh thanks for the short education. Never having been to the Slavery Coast, seeing the old white castles with their dungeons and wicked history are a bit of a shock to me.

  3. Marilyn Sharron says

    Thanks for sharing all this Hugh. This is important information for all of us to know even though it is hard to imagine what the slaves endured. May God be with you on your new adventure,

  4. Emily Liggett says

    Hugh, thanks so much for the updates. We’re watching “Selma” this weekend – appropriate to read your post so near MLK day. I appreciate what a terrific writer you are. Sounds like Seed has found a much better apartment complex for the coaches! Erika will remember where we were earlier. I hope you are enjoying your new companies to coach. You’re in our thoughts and prayers –

  5. Iain Morgan says

    Thank you for this “day in the life of”. Yes slavery ancient and modern is a horror ! I trust you are settling in well to the routines and experiences of the day to day with your new life and work. Blessings. Doris and I continue to pray for you and Jennifer.

  6. Dan Vastola says

    Hi Hugh, thank you for news of your travels and for the informative piece on slavery. I’m keeping you and your family in my prayers.

  7. Sheri Stock says

    Hugh, please add me to your email list. Ardith forwarded the above to me and enjoyed it so much. Would like to keep up with you, And I see the bread!!! Can’t be nearly as good as yours.
    Be safe and hear my prayers!

  8. carol woods says

    a wee bit shocked at how pervasive and long standing slavery is. yes, I know all about this in my head, but Im sure seeing what you are surrounded by is very strong. thanks for sharing…

  9. Wanda Lucibello says

    To think that this short primer is more than any of us in raised in the USA received in our education. I hope that has changed now from when I was in school.

  10. Andy Hilliard says

    Very nice educational post!

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