White Chapel, Black Hole

Human excrement paves the dungeon floors at Cape Coast Castle. The same is true of other slave forts dotting Ghana’s coast, and along the rest of West Africa.

The impacted waste is one of the more subtle, more stirring features of a tour through those high limestone walls. The cannons are there and stacks of cannonballs. The iron shackles and chains. The prison doors, the skull on the cell of the condemned, the door of no return. These things strike the visitor as obviously as the humidity and the ocean lapping against the shore.

The dungeon floor is something else.

Year after year, decade after decade, over a matter of centuries that foul hole imprisoned over a thousand Africans for months at a time. Over time, the floor encroached on the ceiling, so thick was the filth. This was suffering and suffocation, a slow burial in one’s own waste.

In Lose Your Mother–A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, historian Saidiya Hartman writes of the Cape Coast dungeon:

Human waste covered the floor of the dungeon. To the naked eye it looked like soot. After the last group of captives had been deported, the holding cells were closed but never cleaned out. For a century and a half after the abolition of the slave trade, the waste remained. To control the stench and the pestilence, the floor had been covered with sand and lime. In 1972, a team of archaeologists excavated the dungeon and cleared away eighteen inches of dirt and waste. They identified the topmost layer of the floor as the compressed remains of captives – feces, blood, and exfoliated skin.

In this place, on this floor, in these tight, airless cells thousands of Africans lay in squalor and misery, the last of their days on the continent of their birth before the suffocating Middle Passage. Their lot improved no more on land. Their blood and sweat, unrewarded, extracted America’s potential from the earth. From their enforced labor came the prosperity of new nations. More than sacrifice, worse than loss, the scars of their servitude—servitude which transformed our nation from Backwater to Empire—earn no repair.

Where did they come from to make our nation great? How do we forget?

From all across Africa, marched in coffles, bound in iron at wrist and ankle, dragging chains through the dust to reach the dark dungeons and lie on floors caked in shit. Above them, above these holes, slave traders and their families prayed in the chapel.

Who dares darken our discourse through ignorance of this past, this crime of man against man? Who insults us today through willful slander  of our humblest origins? We know who. And we know this: He hasn’t got the courage of his conviction, nor the humility of his deficiencies. He has only cowardice, hiding from his remark behind a shield of partisans.

Find a white chapel and pray; the soul is already bared.


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