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A Brief History of Near and Actual Losses

[clock] 23-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Summer 2014

Ariadne Van Zandbergen

“All the new thinking is about loss. In this it resembles all the old thinking.”

—​Robert Hass

We are at Cape Coast Castle, and Callie refuses to be held. She won’t let me carry her in my arms. She won’t let me put her in the cloth carrier on my back. She won’t ride on her father’s shoulders. She won’t sit astride my hip. She wants to be in charge of exactly where her body goes. She wants both feet on the ground.

I don’t want her feet on the ground. The floors of the slave dungeons are caked five to seven inches deep with centuries of hard-​packed dirt and sweat and human waste. In one chamber, a drainage canal has been dug to reveal the brick half a foot below. This way, visitors to the former slave-​trading outpost on the west coast of Ghana can more fully visualize what constitutes the floor under our feet. What kind of mother would freely let her child walk on such filth? I try to hold her off of the floor, but Callie wiggles out of my arms and runs in circles around her father, our guide, and me, giving the soles of her tiny Keens maximum exposure to the nasty ground. Again and again I try to pick up my daughter. Again and again, she makes it clear she will not be carried anywhere against her will.

It is the middle of May 2013. It is three weeks before my daughter’s third birthday and 206 years since the British Parliament passed An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. The dungeons are museum installations now, part of a series of UNESCO World Heritage Sites dotting the Ghanaian coast. Our guide tells us the castle serves, today, to remind people of the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade and to caution us to treat one another better this time around. To never let slavery happen again. I can’t find the energy to remind him that people are still at risk, still being shipped away for profit, every minute, every day. My daughter, running circles around me in her babyGap shorts, is driving me to distraction.

The exterior walls of Cape Coast Castle are brightly whitewashed, so when we walk out of the tropical sun into the male slave dungeons—​chambers that are essentially windowless and purposefully dank—​we are blinded by the darkness of the place. For extra shock value, our guide turns off a chamber’s one dim bulb. This is to help us imagine something even more horrible than what we can already see.

“I don’t like it here,” Callie says. “I want to get out of this place.” 

Our guide turns the light back on, acknowledges how uncomfortable these dungeons are. My family is alone with him in this room, having chosen to pay more for a private tour. The guide assigned to us has been leading these tours for many years and is personable and quietly authoritative. He understands what we want from this experience. He asks us to imagine being packed in here with 200 men, shackled and naked. He asks us to imagine the stench, the vomit, the sounds of writhing bodies, chains drawn against chains. Callie wiggles out of my arms and nearly evades me, but I grip her hand and keep her near. “Shh,” I say. “This is a sacred space. Be still.”

My husband, Ray, and I flew from California to Ghana so I could speak at a conference for pan-​African women writers, but also so he could visit Africa for the first time. I wanted to make sure his first trip to the Mother Land was memorable, and so I’d carefully planned our stay. After several days in the capital city, Accra, we’d ventured to Cape Coast to visit the historic sites where Old World Africans were converted into New World slaves. Cape Coast Castle hosted more than 100,000 visitors in 2012, more than 80,000 of whom were from outside of Ghana. New World Africans are drawn to this site of rupture, curious to stand on the soil where sometime someone who was somehow related to us last took a breath of African air. 

The walls of the chamber where we are standing are lined with memorial wreaths, candles, and bottles for libations. Callie runs toward these memorials, then circles back toward us. “She’s disrupting the tour,” I whisper to Ray as I tug on her arm, trying to curtail her frenzied circle. “She’s herding us like some sort of border collie.”

This is Callie’s forty-​sixth airplane trip, so though Ghana is the farthest she’s ever been from home, she knows the protocols of travel. On the eleven-​hour, overnight flight from JFK to Accra, she ate her dinner, watched the first movie, then crawled into her father’s lap and slept until we landed. She knows how to behave. She is no stranger to museums, historical sites, shrines, and churches. She has visited dozens in her short life, and never have I known her to act like she’s acting today. She knows she needs to stay near so I don’t lose track of her in this strange and crowded place. She knows I would prefer to wear her on my back as we move from one unknown destination to another. She knows how to be quiet on a tour, how to wait patiently next to me while I read informational placards. She knows, in short, how to be the kind of child who causes adults to say, “What a great little traveler you are!” These circles she is running, her refusal to let me carry her, are out of character. After three years of moving around the world in basically the way I’ve asked of her, Callie is asserting her independence. I do not like it one bit. 

I grab her again. She squirms and pushes away.

“She’s reclaiming the space,” my husband says. “Let her be.” Then he turns back to our waiting guide. “Go on,” he tells the guide, and on the guide does go, describing chambers that lead to other chambers that lead to other chambers that lead to a tunnel that lead to the Door of No Return where boats waited to carry human cargo over the shore-​hugging waves and into the holds of transatlantic slave ships.

Cape Coast Castle was occupied over several centuries, first by the Swedes and then by the Danes, the Dutch, and then by the British. Between 1665 and 1807, the building was constructed, reconstructed, repurposed, and reinforced numerous times, used as an outpost for trading first timber and gold and blankets and spices and then, most lucratively and for the longest duration, human beings. The upper levels of the castle once served as the colonial government headquarters for the British on the western coast of what was then called the Gold Coast but would come to be known as Ghana. There was a church, a customs house, an open courtyard for military parades. There were eighteen-​foot walls to protect the castle from the onslaught of the rough Atlantic surf, and lookout posts and cannon mounts to protect the fortification from the onslaught of competing military (and financial) forces. Over time, the castle’s stewards built quarters for the colonial governor, quarters for colonial soldiers, and holding rooms for African men and women awaiting shipment to the new world. Up to 1,000 men could be held in the male dungeons at any given time, divided among five different chambers. In a different part of the castle, there were chambers for the 500 African women who, our guide points out, added their monthly blood to the filth that soiled their chambers’ floors. 

Cape Coast Castle prepared 1,500 African men and women at a time for transit to colonies in the New World. Men, women, and children from throughout the interior and the coast. Men, women, and children from many tribes and nations, many language groups. Fifteen hundred, and then another 1,500, and then another 1,500, and another, month after month, year after year, decade after decade, for more than 150 years. Most of the West Africans who ended up in British Colonies in the Americas passed through the castle at Cape Coast. Millions of Africans who ended up in the Americas passed through these dungeons. Visiting Cape Coast Castle, for a New World African, is, in a most distressing way, like coming home. 

I have been here once before, in 2003. After that visit to Cape Coast and Elmina, the coast’s original slave castle farther west, I had lunch with Ama Ata Aidoo, one of Ghana’s leading writers. “Tell me,” she asked. “What did you think?”

I remember being quiet for longer than seemed polite. I was trying to formulate an answer to her question. “Honestly,” I told her finally, “I don’t know what to think. It was all so overwhelming.”

“Good,” she said. “That’s good. I’ve lived in the shadow of those castles my whole life, and I still don’t know what to think about them. If you had words already, I’d say you weren’t thinking hard enough.”

I didn’t feel Ray should travel to Ghana without visiting the castles, and I didn’t want him to have to go alone. So the whole family went together. I had been curious to see if the castles would be different the second time around, but nothing had changed since I visited them a decade ago. I am still awed by the experience of standing on this polluted ground. 

This time, though, I have my daughter with me. I am trying to make sure she behaves like a civilized girl, and I am also trying to push back waves of terror that overcome me when I think about what it would have been like to be a mother here, terrified not only for my own life, but also, I understand palpably now, for my child’s. 

In Elmina, the day before, Callie first demonstrated her refusal to be carried. The pan-​African women’s conference had arranged a tour of the Portuguese stronghold as an extension of the week’s historic and literary explorations. When the thirty-​person group we were part of stopped in the women’s holding pen, Callie ran in circles around everyone. Some women appeared not to notice her at all, some actively ignored her, but a few women smiled and held out their hands for Callie to slap as she neared them. 

Part of me welcomed my daughter’s wild behavior. My reactions to Elmina were muted because I was focused on Callie, trying to reign her in, trying to keep her from infringing on the other travelers’ experiences. 

The tour of Elmina progressed from one horror to the next. Our group stood in the courtyard in front of the women’s holding pen learning about the well that held disease-​laced water in which particular women were made to bathe before they were sent up to the governor’s quarters where they could be used by any man whose path they crossed. I was busy keeping my daughter from the well’s open pit. All my attention was focused on her body. Though I heard what the guide was saying about all the other bodies that had been in jeopardy right where I was standing, I also couldn’t really hear him because I was too busy worrying about what might happen to my girl.

She and I split from the group and climbed the stairs to the governor’s chambers. Callie has always loved stairs, and letting her climb them was the best diversion I could come up with. Outside of the castle would be worse than inside. Hawkers and grifters patrolled the exterior courtyard waiting to beg money from foreigners whose wealth, even when meager, was exponentially more than theirs would likely ever be. The taxi we’d hired to ferry us between our resort hotel and Elmina was parked some distance away, and walking into those crowds to find it would mean fending off dozens of men, women, and children practiced in the art of extracting money through guilt and manipulation. My husband was still on the tour and would be for some time. Since nothing was air-​conditioned in that part of the country, including our taxi, the coolest, most comfortable place to wait for him was inside the castle. Upstairs, in a room with walls yellow as a child’s painting of the sun, Callie could move freely. In the governor’s quarters, she ran in circles around the site that would have held the governor’s bed, a bed into which centuries of African women were forced for the pleasure of the men in charge. 

“This is really out of character for Callie. She doesn’t usually run around like this,” I said to a woman who’d broken from the larger group and joined us upstairs. She was a poet from Harlem. Callie and I frequently spend time with her when I travel to New York for speaking engagements. I said, as much to convince myself as to remind my friend LaTasha, “She’s usually incredibly well behaved.” 

Callie ran in circles and circles and circles around the room, and when she finished her circles she ran to the big window that looked out over the exterior courtyard and down to the sea. “There!” she said, pointing to our taxi driver. He was standing just apart from a crowd of local men, watching fishermen paddle their boats toward the shore.

“That’s right, mamí,” LaTasha told Callie, using the Harlem endearment acquired from neighbors who came to New York from stops on the diaspora like Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba. “It’s never too early to plan your escape.” 

“There,” Callie said, pointing toward the ocean and our driver one more time.

Later that morning, our guide walked us to Elmina’s courtyard. He was going on about military exercises and other late colonial uses for the space when Callie broke free from my grip and ran toward a set of stairs on which an elder member from our group sat. She was an African-​American woman who spent half of each year living in the Republic of Benin, 280 miles northeast on the old Slave Coast. She was wearing a dress and head wrap made from West African wax-​print cloth. Callie sat beside the woman with her feet together. She placed her hands, palms up and open, on her lap. “Auntie,” my daughter said, though we’d not directly taught her to use that honorific with a stranger, “I’m hungry. Do you have any food?”

Callie had been asking me for food since we arrived at Elmina, but I’d brought no snacks, thinking it would be disrespectful to eat in a place where so many people were tortured, some unto death. I had a lot of ideas about propriety, and Callie was resisting nearly all of them. Auntie dug in her purse and came up with a toffee, which she taught Callie how to suck without swallowing and which stemmed my girl’s hunger and her wandering focus until I could get her back to the hotel for a proper meal. 

“This one knows how to take care of herself,” the woman said to me. “She’ll be okay, no matter what happens.” Then she pressed her cane against the castle steps, strained into a standing position, and walked away.

I think of these words now, in one of the men’s dungeons in Cape Coast Castle, Callie primed to run circles around her parents and our guide. Maybe my husband was right: She is reclaiming the space. Maybe Auntie was right: Callie is taking care of herself. I decide to let her go, to let her direct her own movements. She circles the three of us, and I falter in my certainty. I look at our guide to see if I should do something to stop her.

“She’s not bothering me,” says the guide. 

“Let her be,” says my husband.

We are in the last accessible male dungeon. The guide is orienting us, pointing out the gateways between chambers, and then making sure we see the wall on the ocean side of this chamber that interrupts these connections. In front of that wall is an altar on which a priest is quietly seated. After all the wreaths and offerings, I am not particularly surprised to see a priest waiting on an altar. “There used to be a tunnel there,” says the guide, pointing to the blocked-​off area behind the altar. This history lesson will go on, the guide’s uninterrupted speech indicates, regardless of my concerns about my daughter, regardless of the presence of a priest. “That tunnel led to other chambers and eventually to the Door of No Return. The British sealed that tunnel in 1807 to symbolize the end of the slave trade. Never again would a person have to walk through that tunnel to the waiting ships,” he says. Callie circles and circles and circles. Then she stops.

She stands in front of me now, watching the priest. The priest is dressed in a traditional manner, a cloth draped over one shoulder. He is holding something in one hand that looks like a feather-​tipped wand. His sandals are at the foot of the altar. His feet are bare. He has his back to the sealed tunnel and is facing in the direction of the chambers through which we’ve come. He does not seem to be looking at anything at all. The wall opposite him, maybe. Maybe something inside the wall or beyond it, but nothing I can discern.

Now our guide is nearly finished in this room. “People leave offerings here,” he tells us, acknowledging for the first time the wreaths and flowers and bottles we’ve seen lining the walls. Then he is quiet, as if he expects us to make an offering as well.

“Thank the man for his important work,” I tell Callie, because I think the priest’s important work is to absolve the horrors of slavery. I should have thanked him myself but chose, instead, to send Callie. I will wonder, later, if this was a mistake or a godsend. I know there is very little I can do to change the course of history, but later I will reflect on all the decisions I made while I was on that coast. I will wonder if I made a huge mistake going to that coast at all. Right now, though, all I do is ask her to thank the man for his important work. 

Rather than muffling her thank you in her shoulder, as young children often do when asked to acknowledge strange adults, Callie stands up straight, looks directly at the priest, bows, and says, “Thank you.” Crisply, cleanly, loudly. I think she repeated this seven times, but when I tell the story to my mother on our cheap international cell phone later that night, Callie will correct me. “No, Mommy, five times.” She will say this with authority, though she will not dwell on the issue any longer than required. “I did it five times.” 

As we leave the dank confines of the chamber and walk out into the Atlantic coastal air, our guide will tell us the priest back in the dungeon serves a local god. The castle and its dungeons were built over the place where the god lives, but the god did not move, even after all the things that happened here. Now that the castle is open to the public, a local priest has set up his altar. He returns, regularly, to honor the god, and people come for blessings and to give offerings. 

When Callie says her five thank-​yous, I watch the priest, who watches my girl. When she is finished, he gives her a nearly imperceptible nod. I will wonder about this later, but at the moment I am simply amazed.

Three days later, we are staying in the African Rainbow Resort at Busua Beach, seventy miles southwest of Cape Coast. The shore is shallow here, the currents calmer.

The night after Cape Coast Castle, Ray and I ask Callie to tell us her favorite thing about the day. We ask this of her nearly every day, so we don’t think about how difficult a question it might be after a day spent in a 350-​year-​old dungeon. Callie doesn’t hesitate, though, to describe her favorite thing. “Visiting my imaginary castle that wasn’t scary,” she says.

“Yes,” I say. “I guess the real castle we visited was pretty scary, wasn’t it.”

“Mmm hmm.” We are at dinner. She is eating french fries. 

After a moment’s hesitation, she puts down her fry so she can say the rest of what she needs to say. Her hands fly up as if she is holding scales of justice, one palm up to the right of her head, one palm up to the left. Between each clause she pauses, as if considering her options. She shrugs her shoulders, lifting both hands simultaneously, before continuing. “There are only a few things you can do when you are someplace really scary,” she says. “You can play or … be confused or … do something… . Or read a book.” Then she drops her hands and focuses on her fries.

This girl is three weeks shy of her third birthday, and already she knows how to address priests of the ancient order. She knows that a sacred number in Ifá, a dominant religious tradition of West Africa, is five, not seven, the sacred number of Christianity I attempted to impose upon her. I hadn’t explained slavery to her, could not explain slavery to her, but she knew how to deal with the stress of being asked to thank a priest who may or may not have been cleansing a site of centuries of trauma. We put her in positions where she had to take care of herself despite, and sometime because of, our well-​laid plans. I feel awful that I put my baby girl in a situation where she had to define her coping strategies so specifically. Ray and I determine, immediately, that the history portion of our Ghanaian tour is over. We are finished with slave castles and slave forts and slave dungeons and trading ports where the commodities of trade were human beings. We are going to relax on the beach. 

At Busua, the beach extends a long way out, maybe a hundred yards, with hardly any increase in depth. This means that even at high tide my husband and I can safely walk out quite a distance. The waves come in sets of two. One wave takes the water level from waist-​high to shoulder height, then seven or eight beats of calm, a slight undertow, nothing too dramatic, then another wave takes the water level from waist-​high to shoulder height. Perfect bobbing conditions. 

At other beaches on the Ghanaian coast, I kept a firm grip on Callie’s arm, but here we frolic. I am not scared. Ray’s got our daughter on his back. He’s holding her with one arm, and she’s holding him around the neck. Callie has finally agreed to be carried. She is going where she wants to go and how. 

We bob when the swells come; we’re a good twenty feet from where the waves are breaking. We are laughing. We are not thinking about any of the horrible things we’ve been thinking about for the last several days. One wave takes the water from waist-​high to shoulder height, then seven or eight beats of calm, a slight undertow, then the water swells from waist-​high to shoulder height. We come together again as a family. We are all laughing and happy. We are feeling clean, finally, in this warm water. Callie is on her father’s back, and I am beside the two people I love most. One swell takes the water level from waist-​high to shoulder height, a slight undertow, then I look up at the twelve-​foot wave that is breaking over my head.

When I come up for air, I look immediately for Ray. He does not have our daughter on his back, or in his arms, or anywhere near. 

“Where’s the girl!?” I shout. I am so frightened I can’t even remember the name we chose for her. 

“I’m looking for her!” my husband shouts back. I am swimming toward where he’s standing, and we both see her, then, sinking just under the surface, legs toward the ocean floor, arms floating out to her side, like she’s been crucified in the water, chin tucked into her chest.

He grabs her out of the ocean, and we head toward the shore. Callie is coughing now, thank all the gods. No one says anything. We are just listening to the sound of the air coming in and out of her lungs.

We reach the beach and collapse on the wet red sand. Callie looks around and stands up. She walks higher up the beach to where the sand isn’t wet anymore, and then she sits, her legs planted firmly on the ground, running her fingers through the dry sand, staring at the ocean she just narrowly escaped. 

I pride myself on being a California girl, the sort of girl who has mastered knowledge of the ocean. I counted the sets and trusted, from this history, that I could predict the future, forgetting what a longer view of history could teach me. 

When we leave Busua and travel back to Accra, we stay a few nights with a woman who lived for years in the city of Cape Coast. We tell her what happened to Callie in the water, and she is horrified. “You have to be very careful swimming in those waters,” she tells us. “All the time people are lost to the Atlantic. All the time.” 

Of course. Of course. We know this. How many centuries of parents have lost their children along that voracious coast? São Jorge da Mina Castle, the first of the castles, was built by the Portuguese in 1482, first for the extraction of gold and then for the extraction of human beings. By late 1637, St. Georges of the Mine Castle, or Elmina, as it came to be known, was under the control of the Dutch West India Company, one of the most rapacious slave-​trading outfits in the world. Elmina, Cape Coast Castle, Fort Metal Cross. Fort Amsterdam is in the same village as the resort where we stayed while we visited Cape Coast and Elmina. Fort Christiansborg, now known as Osu Castle, has served as the seat of government in Ghana in recent years. Fort Santo Antonio, Fort Vredenburgh, Fort San Sebastian, Fort Batenstein, Fort Patience, Fort William, Fort Orange, Fort Apollonia, Fort Good Hope. We could have visited more than twenty-​eight slave castles and forts along the coast of Ghana, but we’d thought for a few days we could get away from all that fetid history and play, carefree, in the ocean. 

At Busua, just out of sight of Fort Metal Cross, we sit with Callie and watch the water for a good five minutes until she finally breaks the silence, says, “That was a really big wave,” and we feel, again, the coastal African sun as it beats on us, warming and also darkening our skin. 


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