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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Architecture & National Identity: A Tale of Two Buildings

The discussions on this site have largely been focused on defining African architecture. Although others have suggested that architecture and national identity are two separate entities, I continue to make the assertion that societies in general always find physical and tangible things to identify with; Romans and the dome of St. Peter’s Cathedral, Greeks and the Parthenon, Americans and the dome of the Capitol building… etc. Think of every historic place you would like to visit, and I’m certain the image of a building comes to mind. The question I keep posing is, what building images come to mind when one thinks of Africa? Thus, in order to begin the process of bringing African architecture into mainstream discussions, I would like to bring your attention to two significant buildings in the history of architecture in Ghana, West Africa.

For the purpose of this discussion, I will take the liberty of making this as short as possible. Do note however that I have done all the preliminary research to support all my statements, and I will be more than willing to post any facts in support should your questions merit such a response.

The buildings I wish to discuss are Elmina Castle and Cape Coast Castle, both located along the southern coast of Ghana. The original intent of these buildings were very different, but the end use became the same, and both are now considered world historical monuments.

At the time of its construction in 1482, Elmina Castle was the first structure built on African soil of complete European influence. It was originally built as sovereign property of the Portuguese to be a trading post. At the time, items being traded were gold, ivory, spices, and other goods. In return, Ghana (or Gold Coast as it was called) received guns and gun powder, salt, glass, and other items considered worthy. Due to the aggressive nature of the trading business, the building was designed as a defensive fort. The large courtyard allowed for a training area for the men in the castle, and the storage rooms were well ventilated so items stored there did not go bad. Eventually, the trade shifted from gold to humans, and Elmina Castle was transformed from a trading post into a slave castle.

Brief note on the slave trade. No Europeans ventured into the mainland to capture slaves. The Europeans made deals with the African chiefs, who in turn would wage wars against each other, then sell their prisoners to the Europeans for weapons, salt, glass, etc. The slaves were from all over west Africa, making the long journey by foot, and leaving the weak to die along the way. Once they arrived at the castle, the slaves were separated by sexes, and packed into the storage rooms as tightly as possible. They lived in their own filth, not being allowed out for any reason. Food was shoved through the cell doors, and on the rare occasion, water as well. If a slave needed to relieve themselves, they would try to make it to the outer perimeter inside the cell and add their excrements to what was already there. The dead are dragged to the perimeter as well, hopefully to be dragged out by the guards. Rebellious slaves were put into a much smaller cell, the doors closed, and not opened until the last of them dropped dead…. And these were just the male slaves.

The female slaves went through much the same process as the males, except once a month, a chosen few would be brought out into the small courtyard, where the general would look down from his balcony and chose one. The chosen slave would then be hosed down in the yard and sent up the staircase, through a trap door, into the private suite of the general. Due to the fact that there were hardly any women in the castles, the female slaves were at the mercy of the male guards. Perhaps the silver lining in the dark cloud was that any pregnant slave was not allowed on the ship.

Once the ship arrived… which could be months, the slaves were looked over one last time to determine which ones would survive the long journey. They made their way to “the door of no return,” taking one last look at their native land, and the last thing any of them would ever see is the castle where they had been stored.

Cape Coast Castle, built much later around 1654 by the Swedes was meant to be a slave castle. The dungeons are much smaller and more ominous in comparison to Elmina. These dungeons are also below grade, and from the day of arrival to the day of departure, the slaves never saw natural light. In fact the conditions at Cape Coast Castle were the worst for any slave, but the most efficient of all the slave castles in terms of being equipped for the slave trade.

The reason I went through all this in talking about these two castles is that the slave trade lasted for about 400 years, and roughly 70% - 80% of all African slaves spent some time in either Elmina or Cape Coast Castle. That means, for about 80% of the slave population, the very last sight they saw of Africa was one of these two castles. Think about that for a second. For them, these buildings must have been the very epitome of evil, and yet they were connected to it in every way imaginable. You literally left your identity behind when you boarded the ship because as you went through the door of no return, there was a European guard there giving you a new name.

Keep in mind that ships from these castles made stops from Haiti to Jamaica, Havana to Santo Domingo, most ports in Europe, and eventually the Americas. Thus, most blacks in any of these places can trace their ancestors back to either Elmina or Cape Coast Castle. Not to mention that the slaves left behind who ran away, or any lucky to escape, and those who returned, founded Liberia and Sierra Leone, nations of freed slaves, and most originated from Elmina and Cape Coast Castle.

For these reasons, I believe that Elmina and Cape Coast Castles are a very large part of the national identity of most Ghanaians, and we are defined by them due to its impact on our society and our culture.

As such, although these buildings were designed and built by Europeans, they are very much African because of its social impact. The question does still remain that what were Ghanaians identifying with before Elmina Castle was built? This is a question which continues to drive me, and hopefully this forum, as we continue to ask ourselves as Africans what images we identify with, and what is it about these images that make them African? That is when I believe we will truly be on the path to defining African Architecture, and perhaps making that very important connection to our past.