A First-Hand Look at the African Slave Trade and its Impact

Editor’s Note: Grizel Ubarry is a friend and colleague in the community development field. She has devoted her life to community development and advocacy for justice for all. She shares her lessons from a recent trip to Africa, a powerful testament to Black History and Women’s History.

As a Puerto Rican woman working with communities of color in the US and Puerto Rico, visiting Africa had long been a goal for me. 

As part of my work with a client in moving forward on an African Diaspora Community Arts Project, I was offered an opportunity to take part in a 16-day Africa study trip.  Such a trip is a unique opportunity to fully understand the history of Africa and its relationship to the mass dispersion of Africans and their descendants throughout the Americas and the Caribbean.

What follows is an excerpt from my story of the trip that describes a visit to two slave forts, one in Ghana and the other in Senegal.  

To begin with, we need to acknowledge that so little is known about how Africans were enslaved and transported to the Americas. Our educational system is ill-prepared to do this honestly and with courage. It is not a pretty story. Yet this omission denies us a full understanding of how America and Europe became world superpowers through colonization and slavery.

We know few details of how the Portuguese, the British, the French and the Dutch built and managed a series of slave ports on the West African coast which transported over 12 million slaves to the New World. More than 2 million died during these treacherous journeys. (Many historians believe these numbers to be inaccurate.  Some estimate that over 33 million Africans were transported with a significant portion dying.)

There were over 20 slaves’ ports, mostly on the West and Central African coasts, that served as depots for holding slaves transported to the Americas. The transatlantic slave trade, referred to as the Middle Passage, brought slaves to Brazil, the Caribbean islands and eventually the US.

About 10 years ago, I purchased an Ancestry kit to understand my genealogy. The DNA results revealed 15% ethnicity from West Africa, inherited by both Puerto Rican parents. Being able to visit these slave forts certainly gave me some perspective on what the conditions were like back in the 1600s. It allowed me to fully imagine the brutality, and the over-crowdedness and unsanitary conditions of both the dungeons and the slave ships forced on Africans traveling thousands of miles, stripped of their humanity.

Africa has maintained many of these slave ports as museums and historic sites. They also represent a significant part of its tourism. These historical sites are available to the growing African Diaspora community from all parts of the world who seek to connect with their ancestral heritage. I was fortunate to visit two of these Slave trade history sites and found the experience so profoundly moving.

During the visit to Dakar in Senegal, three of us headed to the ferry to travel to the island of Gorée, about 25 minutes off the Dakar coast. The ferry was full mostly of locals who lived or worked on this island. Once we arrived, our first stop was to have a bite to eat, as spending money on this island is what keeps it sustainable. The village is quite quaint and colorful, with the main attraction being the restored Maison des Esclaves (House of Slaves), built by the Dutch in 1776 as a warehouse for slaves. The Portuguese, the Dutch, the British, and the French fought each other for the control of this island in their quest to dominate the slave trade. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site recently restored and painted.   The site itself is a museum where you can tour through the dungeons once occupied by men, women, and children before they were sold and shipped to America. The House of Slaves is vacant and without original furnishings but contains exhibits that provide some history and drawings of the fate of so many that were enslaved there.

It’s hard to describe the emotional affect that one has walking through these dungeons and learning about the horrific conditions that Africans endured before being transported to an unknown world. It is equally hard to comprehend emotionally the cruelty as well as the complexities of our humanity and our economics in the exploitation of humans. Hmm!

Our second visit to a slave port occurred once we were in Accra, the capital of Ghana. Arrangements were made for us to travel up the Cape Coast to arrive at Elmina, a small town, part of a fishing port. The drive was almost two hours and was quite a scene. We drove on a narrow road highly congested through small shanty towns of immense poverty. Many of the towns’ homes were shacks built from recycled materials. Many didn’t appear to have electricity or plumbing. On both sides of the road were women and men seeking to sell goods as cars drove through the congestion.

From far away, as we approached the fishing port, we could see a stunning white castle, once a colonial fort. Actually, it wasn’t a castle; it was a prison that tortured slaves waiting to be shipped to the New World. As the demand for slaves grew among American plantation owners, Elmina was shipping them as quickly as they arrived there.

What was once built by the Portuguese as a trading post for gold and ivory quickly became more profitable in the selling of humans. The castle dungeons have no bathrooms, just small cells with hardly any windows where at times up to 200 slaves would be required to live in filth and hunger.

The castle contains exhibits that offer a chronology of horrific oppression. There are plenty of drawings depicting the harsh realities of life in the dungeons where many died from diseases, torture or suicide, never making that last journey to their new slave homes.

Again, you are emotionally affected by what you see and learn from the tour guides.  More profoundly, you are saddened to know that Elmina Castle represents one of at least 20 others that supported the slave trade for 400 years.

Both sites provide visitors with new learnings that are nonexistent in most history books. However, they also make a point of reminding those that visit that slavery still exists throughout the world. According to the latest Global Estimates of Modern Slavery (2022) close to 50 million people are currently victims of modern forms of slavery… forced labor, child labor, forced marriages, human trafficking, and sexual exploitation. Of this number, approximately 70% are women and girls and about a quarter are children. This also exists in the US where migrant communities are continuously victimized. For more information on antislavery campaigns click here.

I like to think that my photos reflect the realities of what travel should be about … learning and sharing history and its relationship to the people who live among us.  I hope to return to Africa at least one more time. For me, it will always be a place of wonder and resiliency.

Photo of stairway leading to the dungeons at Elmina Castle by Grizel Ubarry

Post and photos adapted from Grizel Ubarry’s newsletter at Limitedlimitlessliving.com.  Additional photos can be found at https://www.limitedlimitlessliving.com/2023/03/01/visiting-africa-series-5-elmina-castle-and-the-island-of-goree-slave-forts-a-visit-of-conscience/

 If you like to contact Grizel, you can email her at [email protected]

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4 Comments

  1. Bob Zdenek

    Grizell- thanks for sharing this sobering, tragic, and important story. You definitely gave me a better sense of the physical and psychological damage that people in the African Slave Trade experienced as chattel. Would be interested in talking to you more about it.

    • Tom Adams

      Thanks Bob, you can reach Grizel at the email in post. Be well, Tom

  2. sally mac

    Thank you, Grizel. I appreciate your clear narrative . It reminds us that inhumanity still exists, and we should remain vigilant because ancestors not only implore, but require it.

    • Tom Adams

      Thanks Sally, indeed.
      Tom

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