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Letter from Ghana

Life Outside the Castle

At Christiansborg Castle, a community that embodied the complexity of the transatlantic slave trade is being uncovered by descendants of those who created it

By MARLEY BROWN

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Ghana Christiansborg CastleAlong a stretch of the West African coast known to European explorers and traders as “White Man’s Grave” due to its association with death from malaria, yellow fever, dengue, and heat exhaustion, Danish soldiers and merchants built a fortified structure called Christiansborg Castle in 1661. The building survives to this day in what is now the city of Accra, Ghana, where it is known as Osu Castle, after the district in which it stands. Since 2014, archaeologists led by Christiansborg Archaeological Heritage Project director Rachel Ama Asaa Engmann have been working at the castle. They have uncovered evidence of a Euro-African community made up of European men who worked at the castle, African women they married, and the children of their unions. The primary business in which this community was engaged was the transatlantic slave trade. With only a few brief interludes, from the construction of the fort until 1803, when Denmark began to enforce its abolition of that trade, an estimated tens of thousands of enslaved people were held in Christiansborg Castle’s dungeons before being taken to the Danish West Indies, which included the Caribbean islands of Saint Croix, Saint John, and Saint Thomas. At least 100,000 captives were transported during the Danish transatlantic slave trade.

 

Ghana MapEuropeans began formally trading with West African peoples in the last quarter of the fifteenth century, nearly 200 years prior to the construction of Christiansborg Castle. The Portuguese built Elmina Castle, the first permanent European trading post in West Africa, on the same stretch of coast as Christiansborg Castle, some 85 miles west, in 1482. Over the next 300 years, European nations, including Portugal, the Netherlands, England, France, Spain, Sweden, and Denmark, constructed around 80 castles, forts, and trading lodges within the borders of modern Ghana alone. This territory represents a fraction of the entire region of West Africa where Europeans traded with African groups and acquired captives, a massive area Europeans called Guinea, which stretched from roughly modern Senegal to modern Gabon.

 

In the late fifteenth century, Europeans encountered a diverse and ancient sociopolitical landscape in West Africa. “You are looking at a region that had developed a very sophisticated organizational network of cities, kingdoms, emerging states, and full-fledged states,” says archaeologist Akin Ogundiran of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “People had extensive political structures, and the region was thriving and bustling politically.” West Africans were accustomed to interacting, and even intermarrying, with people who looked different from them and spoke different languages, including Arabs and Berbers. “The only difference is that Europeans were coming across the ocean instead of across the Sahara,” says Ogundiran.

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