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The Cape Coast slave cells — a thin place between earth and hell

by
23 February 2023

Graham Usher joins a visit by the Anglican Consultative Council to the former slave castle at Cape Coast in Ghana

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Cape Coast Castle, Ghana

Cape Coast Castle, Ghana

IN THE slave dungeons of Cape Coast Castle, I smelt evil and touched humanity. Like many places of atrocity, where the human preponderance to harm rather than love one’s neighbour is to the fore, there is a darkness in these cells that is somehow greater than the simple absence of light.

We entered down an uneven tunnel ramp. Forget those thin places where we think heaven touches earth; this is a place where hell touches earth. A different kind of thin place, one that disturbs.

It was as if in the darkness, in the suffocating absence of clean air, and in the marks scratched on the walls, we had been shoved in with the thousand or so slaves who were rammed in at any one time. The group I was with — ­­­those whose ancestors were slaves joined by those whose forebears traded in them­ — fell silent as we tried to take it all in. Yet, for me, the silence was filled with noise. It did not take much imagination to sense the horror of this place. It was as if the stones were crying out in distress at all they had seen and heard.

Human beings are heavy. The floor of one cell has been excavated down to the original bricks, made in England and brought as ballast on the returning slave ships. That which God had fashioned from clay, breathing life into their nostrils, and precious in his sight, were replaced with lifeless slabs as the barbaric trade plied its route.

As the archaeologists dug down, they examined the composition of the floor of these cells: it contained human hair, vomit, faeces, urine, blood, and sweat. We literally walked on the remains of the human beings once held here — the detritus of utter misery.

Above these dungeons are the palatial rooms that were once home to the Castle’s governor and staff. These include the chapel, supported by a succession of chaplains from the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, many of whom died from malaria.

It is almost impossible to imagine that people prayed within metres of the industrial exploitation of humans. Could they not hear the cry of the slaves? What exactly was the gospel they were propagating? It must have taken a warped view of theology and humanity. Yet we know all too well that theology continues to be used today to reduce the humanity of others whom we judge not to be like us or of us. The scourge continues.

A pilgrimage to Cape Coast changes your very being. There is no return from breathing in the atmosphere of this place.

 

I WAS last here in my mid-twenties. I recall now how I wandered around, thinking to myself that, thanks to William Wilberforce, the British had put an end to all this. Wilberforce was a famous former pupil of the school I attended, and I walked with some pride.

Now I find myself a Church Commissioner at a time when we have been undertaking a forensic analysis of the Queen Anne’s Bounty that formed part of our historic funding. Shockingly, that research has revealed that this fund not only invested heavily in the slave trade through the South Seas Company, but also received benefactions from slave traders.

The successor endowment to Queen Anne’s Bounty supports ministry across the Church of England today, including my ministry as a bishop. A fraction of the money awarded in each grant comes directly from money made in the slave trade. That should disturb us.

The Church Commissioners have begun to look openly at their past. I am now more convinced than ever that the fund that they are seeking to create to bring transformation in communities most damaged by the legacy of slavery is the right moral choice at this time. The commitment of £100 million is a start, perhaps even a mustard seed in proportion to the harm caused. Our legacy must be one that takes serious steps to prevent the denial of humanity in any investment we make.

Across the road from the castle we gathered for a service of reconciliation in Christ Church Cathedral. The local Bishop, Victor Atta-Baffoe, asked us to consider what we had seen and heard, and to begin to trace where we go from here. It felt too soon to talk of reconciliation. I was close to tears.

We cry out to God because we know this should never have been — and that the legacy of this horrible place lives on in relationships that are still out of kilter. We cry out, holding on to the hope of a better future. In a place like this, only lament offers hope of return in our search for God.


The Rt Revd Graham Usher is the Bishop of Norwich, and the Church of England’s lead bishop on the environment.

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