On Slavery’s Doorstep in Ghana

Descendants of Venture Smith, a famous slave who won freedom and success in America, return to the roots of his captivity.

Comments: 63

  1. As a frequent resident of Ghana who has written a book about the country, I must unfortunately disagree with the author's statement that Accra is the music capital of West Africa. How I wish that were true! Accra's musical heyday was long ago, in the immediate postwar and early independence era. It is in fact difficult to find any good live music around Accra today, although the recording scene is fairly vibrant, if somewhat over-produced in the Nashville manner. For a real immersion in the best West African pop music today, you need to head to the nightclubs of Dakar, Senegal--and keep your wits about you on those streets.

  2. Yes. That's what the article is about, music and thieving Africans. SMH.

  3. The guy is talking about finding his heritage. Taking issue on what city has the better music suggests that you have a tin ear.

  4. Your point might be valid but I think his point about the music scene is secondary to the powerful story of this family's visit to the homeland of one of their ancestors.

  5. Not many American are aware that the British owned the source and destination of the slave trade on both sides of the Atlantic as well the means of transport. In fact, Britain had a legal monopoly of the slave trade in the Americas, a monopoly which was the spoils of war backed by a treaty. The "Original Sin" was bequeathed on the young nation by the British only when the colonies declared independence from the crown. Until then, it was too lucrative a trade to give up.

    Slavery and its repercussions, including the Civil War and Jim Crow, were not invented by the US but inherited from the previous colonial masters. African slavery in the Americas would probably not exist without colonialism on both sides of the Atlantic.

  6. Really! I don't mean to exculpate the British but this posting reminds me of Pontius Pilate washing his hands to ward off his sins. What is the point of differentiating Britain and the US on slavery? It was the same people benefiting form the same trade. The US may have inherited slavery from Britain but willing. And then they perpetuated it with much vigour for a century after independence. As for profit, the entire economy of the South was dependent on slave labour.

  7. While I appreciate your comments re: Britain's role in establishing the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade (let us remember they were only trying to catch up to Portugal & Spain's lead. The Portuguese brought a whopping 40% of the African enslaved persons in the New World to Brazil!!!), I disagree with the part of your statement that relates the trade to colonialism in Africa. Colonialism as we know it in West Africa was a relatively modern event. There were not colonies to speak of until maybe the 19th century at earliest. There was certainly incentive for people to poach folks from enemy tribes; especially because slavery (although in an entirely different & way more humane iteration) existed in many West African villages. Those who sold people to the Europeans received goods (guns, rum, sugar, etc.) in return. It was not a one-sided relationship by any stretch of the imagination.

  8. Also, African slavery would probably not exist if African blacks had not captured and sold their people to the slave profiteers which were both blacks and whites.

  9. It is heartening to see no comment here (as of this moment) to the effect that the fact that some black Africans sold other black Africans into slavery somehow excuses America's own slavery history.

    I was startled the first time I heard this on a visit to New Orleans, when a white guide paused to state with uncommon emphasis that, at one time, a major slaveholder in the area was himself a former slave. The second and third times I heard this I was even more perplexed by this curious line of reasoning.

  10. Well, you are the first to bring it up M.L. But why do you find it surprising? Slavery is a practice on the rise in this world where people earn more in an hour than others earn in a life time. Parents sell their daughters and sons because they cannot afford to keep them or are told the child will have a "better" life. Unconsciousness is not a racial problem, it is a human problem.

  11. The fact that many people entered into slavery at the hands of their own countrymen is one of many disturbing aspects of slavery. There is a plaque at Cape Coast addressing this. Recognizing this regrettable part of West Africa's past is one way to prevent its recurrence. Simply ignoring it would be akin to explaining the Rwandan genocide without considering colonial influences. I must admit that I have never heard it offered as an excuse for what took place here.

  12. @ M.L. Chadwick - "The second and third times I heard this I was even more perplexed by this curious line of reasoning."

    Don't be perplexed. A very similar line of reasoning will have all believe that every white American is a rabid racist because some white Americans owned slaves over one hundred years ago.

  13. I think the author's comment that everyone should have this experience of standing where slaves left Africa, since it is woven into our country's soul is so true. My ancestors came here from England, Scotland and Ireland, looking for a better life, and still the terrible curse of slavery reverberates down the years in America. The differential economic outcomes by race, the killings by police by race, the incarceration rates by race, it goes on and on. It is a shame to us and we must do something to move forward.

  14. Words fail me. Wonderful article Mr. shorto. Thank you.

  15. Nice piece regarding a very sordid chapter in the history of man. It's important we save these monuments of man's inhumanity. You look around today and still see the ghastly random killing of innocent people around the world, and you wonder if we have really learned much yet. We see grotesque physical carnage based purely on fantasy beliefs of religions.

  16. The slave forts are a somber and awful reminder of a chapter of human history which must never be forgotten so that it may never be repeated. Tours to these sites must be conducted as if visiting a graveyard; no place for levity here. Slavery is a crime for which there is not and can never be any excuse. We must not forget that millions of people are still ensaved thru sex trafficking and various immigrant labor scams, often with unspoken complicity of national governments. Countries claiming to be enlightened still have a lot to do in rooting out this evil.

  17. In 1962 I visited Calabar with an Efik friend. The slave traders who had raided Igbo villages for slaves had built huge houses in Calabar. We stayed outside of town with his broken family. The husband joined us one evening with native gin. He poured some on the ground and said it was for his ancestors. Americans going back to Africa should not expect to be greeted as brothers. Be patient, be friendly, be helpful and try to appreciate local customs. You will be rewarded.

  18. After the holocaust day we just had, the slaves are trying to get their day now.

  19. "The slaves are trying to get their day now?" What in the world are you talking about.

  20. One of my ancestors has a connection to this time and place as well.... his name was Paul Erdmann Isert (1756 – 21 January 1789). He is buried in Ghana.

    ''...was a German botanist. Isert was born in Angermünde/Brandenburg, but educated in Berlin. He was the first scientist to identify the bird Red Bishop (Euplectes orix franciscana (Isert)'.

    He was appointed Chief Surgeon to Christiansborg (Osu, Accra) in Danish Guinea, arriving there in 1783. Once there, realizing that the inhabitants had no written language, he felt it his duty to record – for future generations – details of all aspects of life on the Gold Coast, as he observed them, thus creating an ethnographic, as well as botanical, work.

    After nearly three years on the Gold Coast Isert abruptly determined to leave the country on the first possible ship back to Europe. It was on this ship, a slave ship en route from Danish Guinea, that he witnessed a slave rebellion on the open sea, which almost cost him his life. The cargo of 452 blacks rose against the whites, with a resulting loss of 34 of their number and 2 of the crew wounded after a heated battle. In the West Indies, he visited Saint Croix, Saint. Thomas, Saint John, Guadeloupe and Martinique. Sickened by the horror and human misery he saw, both in the slave-processing dungeons of Christiansborg, aboard the ship, and on the sugar plantations, Isert came up with an alternative to the abhorrent practice of the transatlantic slave trade.''

  21. Why is it that the story of slavery cannot admit that the tribesman, chiefs and marauders were Africans selling their own neighbors? There was no duplicity on the part of the European slavers and American Markets involved as the author seems to suggest that the local Africans were tricked with alcohol. Everyone except the actual slaves equally consented to the slave trade. To omit African culpability is to rewrite history and whitewash the capability of a one human, any human, to sell another human.

  22. Matt, well said. Thank you. What we've learned about slavery in the US is so one dimensional---that only whites were responsible. That's just not true. It was a multicultural affair! No one's trying to deny the fact that it was a part of history that was wrong, but let's present and face ALL the facts not just the politically correct version.

  23. This comment that Africans sold their own people into slavery grossly oversimplifies the issues, even as it repeats a familiar western narrative intended to exonerate European slavers. As Joseph C. Miller has shown in his definitive work Way of Death: Merchant Capitalism and the Angolan Slave Trade 1730-1830, European merchants working all along the Atlantic coast of Africa extended credit to African chiefs in exchange for ivory, wax and rubber exports--credit that allowed African traders to purchase guns and other desired goods. An inflationary economy ensued, and European merchants called in the debts. In this state of hyper-inflationary trade on the slave coast, in order to keep the whole trade enterprise afloat, violent seizures of African slaves grew more and more common, and ever greater numbers of slaves were brought from the interior of west central Africa--all in order to feed this European merchant capitalist system that was brought to Africa's shores. There is plenty of blame to go around in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but the economic system propelling the trade--one that incentivized the trade in human beings-- was a system brought to West African shores by European merchants.

  24. Well stated. Free, forced labor made, and its aftermath keeps, the U.S. economy #1 in the world.

  25. I firmly believe every American's experience of what it means to be American should include a pilgrimage to one of the slave castles in West Africa, just as much as it might include visiting Williamsburg, Plymouth Bay, Ft. McHenry. Several years ago, on a business trip to Ghana, my hosts took me to Elmina. I stooped down to pass through the Door of No Return, saw the prisons without light, air, food or water, the remnants of the church that stood on top of those prisons where the pious Dutch slavemasters worshipped God as black men, women and children died of hunger, thirst and loneliness literally underneath their feet.

    The experience was overwhelming for me. You can smell the despair of past centuries along with the heat. No white American can walk away from one of those castles without being compelled to ponder how his country came to be. Slaveholders and slaves were part of the very first settlements at Jamestown and the White House itself was built in part with slave labor.

    At that particular time, America had just elected its first black president. On that day, I remembered Martin Luther King's comment that one day 'the sons of former slaves and sons of former slaveowners' would sit together at the table of brotherhood. If you visit the region, you will get the chance to see for youself what those remarks really mean.

  26. Except that Obama is not descended from slaves as his father was from Kenya.

  27. Thank you, thank you, thank you, for pointing that truth out!

  28. Exactly! That is why scoff at the British preening about ending their slave trade earlier than other countries. They are the ones that made it really big, got extremely wealthy on it for several generations and then found a conscience? Please. What are we going to do next? Canonize Mike Tyson for stopping (I hope) physically abusing women after he was well into his 30s or 40s?

    The Europeans committed the ultimate genocide for at least three centuries on at least three other continents, then when they had had enough, went back home and told the rest of the world how civilized they were. For all America's racial sins since our founding, we are far more likely to admit and take responsibility for them, than the Europeans, who started the whole thing ever have or will.

  29. The British, with all of their self- righteous anti- slavery rhetoric, supported the Confederacy during the Civil War...why? Cheap cotton...and don't even ask about the British involvement in the opium trade in the first hslf of the 19th century. They managed to heavily damage two peoples simultaneously- Indians who grew and made the opium for the British and The Chonese who bought the finished product.. When the emporer of China tried to get the British to stop bringing in opium and raddicting millions of Chinese, the British response was, " how dare you try to restrict free trade!" , in that inimitable way that the British have when they are cornered in a moral argument.

  30. I have been to a similar fort on the Guana coast. From the Atlantic strong waves coming from multiple directions surged towards the coast. It was easy to visualize a large sailing ship waiting past the waves as terrified people in chains-most of whom had never seen the ocean- slowly made the transition from their homeland to a hell beyond any of their imaginations.

  31. Thank you for this fascinating article which to me represents the best kind of travel writing - inspiring, funny, and illuminating. What a very special trip for this family and the ritual at the end was beautiful. I was so interested to learn about the origins of ritual scarification and other lasting effects of slavery on Ghanaian culture. I agree with the author that this trip would be one for all Americans to make. It is one I would like to make, as someone whose ancestors were slaveowners and part of the enormous global tragedy of slavery.

  32. It is important and admirable, the family's interest in discovering where their remote ancestor came from in the 1700s. But I was struck by the extent to which the current day descendants of those who would have traded him into slavery somehow see the connection as meaning his African American descendants have obligations to the descendants of the slave traders. Bring schnapps to make libations, they urged, use the connection to bring money into the community. Is there a real connection? Should there be? In addition, their attempt to follow the canoe journey was met with amusement. It is good the lecturer discussed the significance of the trauma and its influence upon the local culture; it explained a lot.

  33. I found the article interesting especially in terms of "transcending the legacy of slavery" in the US as opposed to Ghana. Of note it is interesting the incorporation of the sale of Africans resulting from indigenous warfare as opposed to the method of White slave catchers that is almost exclusively taught and the only method of slave procurement in American schools and universities. Regardless of the emphasis placed upon the British Imperial role in this process, as also evidenced in colonial America by Jefferson's deleted clause in the Declaration of Independence, we Americans must also recount our historical legacy in terms of perpetuation and mediation of the social, political, and economic effects of African enslavement.

  34. With reference to the 'Where to Eat' section at the end of this interesting article, the national dish of Ghana is not 'red red'; the more likely contender would be fufu. Also 'Red red' is not a rice dish - it is made up of fried ripe plantain and beans cooked in palm oil, hence the name.

  35. Agree, the national dish of Ghana is definitely not red red

  36. Nice article Shorto - I showed my students a program from Danish TV when teaching black students at st Johns, about a boy working in a quarry w.no education. Suddenly they were not so unhappy being slave descendants in the US! (I did not expect that reaction). I worked for Ole Justesen on publishing Danish docs (2vols) from Accra, which was the main Danish fortification, which was at a gun shot distance from the British and Dutch fortresses. A trader went to Almina (?), opened the gunpowder box and lighted a cigar... The locals drank Rhum not aquavit, maybe poured out?

  37. Agree; a lovely read. Mr. Shorto but I wondered why, as an expert on Dutch colonial history (I cherish my copy of Island at the Centre of the World), he did not mention the Dutch connection with the gold coast. I recall walking with a Ghananian friend along the Herengracht in Amsterdam. Benedict looked up to the richly gilded gables and said 'that is gold from my country'.

  38. Great article. Brought back memories of my visit to Ghana. Touring the forts at Cape Coast and Elmina was very powerful. Standing in the slave dungeons was a sobering experience.

  39. As a Ghanaian-born American, I fully agree with the atmospheric conditions of the Cape Coast. A very tranquil place to live. Highly recommended to anyone who's thinking about relocating to Ghana.

    On a serious note, slavery was abomination and a blot that remains between the Trans-Atlantic world. It is a deep wound that may never heal. Some African chiefs and groups of bandits and thugs had hand in it. However, the sole beneficiaries were England, United States.

  40. ...and the tribes and chiefs who captured and sold and were paid.

  41. "Some African chiefs and groups of bandits and thugs had hand in [the slave trade]. However, the sole beneficiaries were England, United States."

    This statement is very PC and incredibly ignorant. The Spanish were involved in the slave trade (Spain's insistence on monopolizing the trade to the mainland led to repeated conflicts with the British and others) as were the Dutch and the French, and, I would guess, the Portuguese - Brazil imported almost half the slaves brought to the Americas, and didn't abolish slavery until 1888.

    There wouldn't have been much of a slave trade if the white men had had to go ashore and seize the captives themselves; locals did that for them, and given the size of the exports from England and New England alone to pay for this product it is clear that slave-catching and selling was a fully organized industry which clearly paid its participants to continue until the tally exceeded four million people.

  42. You need to read "The Slave Trade" by Hugh Thomas.

    Using ships logs and commercial papers in archives,
    he documents the profits and power of the coastal African kings,
    selling criminals and captives for an interesting panoply of goods,
    depending on the local culture. I.e. if a culture had advanced iron working,
    they were not interested in finished goods, but only pig iron; but if another culture was dependent on "those people" up the coast for iron pots, etc.,
    they were very glad to buy European pots, axes, knives, etc.

    One can read letters from African kings of the time proclaiming their resistance to ending the slave trade.

    They of course were greatly aided by the European merchants who were also making vast fortunes in this evil commerce. Citizens of the World by David Hancock is a good one on this aspect.

  43. It is important to mention that thousands of children are still kept in slavery in the fishing industry in Ghana on Lake Volta. The article highlights the history of the slave trade, but unfortunately it is still alive and well in Ghana and the rest of the world with estimates of more than 30 million current slaves.

  44. Slavery comes in many forms.
    Stand up as much you can, not only male but female, against depravation, physically, mentally or monetarily, wherever you live.

  45. slavery is slavery...no poetic words

  46. Seeing the town’s elders pour libations on the earth to appease and summon the spirits of the ancestors, is stepping back to a time of idol worship and made up religious myths. Absolutely ridiculous that anyone with a modicum of education would not just lead the practice of this ceremony, but that others would participate in it.

  47. Yes, Judeo- Christian myths, however, are ok.

  48. The African slave trade predated European involvement. Arabs had a vigorous slave trade. But the European trade in terms of numbers greatly surpassed previous enterprises, largely due to the opening up of the New World and its need for this type of labor. Standing in one of these slave forts and looking out to the Atlantic gives a visitor a small taste of the utter misery so many people experienced.

  49. Once while in college I was suddenly taken back 200 years to what might have been the very spot this story describes. I was born and grew up in Haiti. My father is Haitian and my mother American, so I learned three languages, English, French, and of course Creole, the language of the street that everyone spoke in informal situations.

    Fast forward to an American college study area around 1980. I was at a table doing some homework and nearby speaking very softly were two guys. I listened a bit harder and suddenly it occurred to me that they were Haitian, or so it seemed, based on their voices. I moved a little closer to them and realized that they were not speaking Haitian Creole, but something that sounded very similar. The words were meaningless to me, but it sure sounded like the Creole I knew. Finally I went over, introduced myself, and asked them where they were from. As it turned out, they were from Ghana. My interpretation of the story is that years ago West Africans were captured, taken by force to what eventually became Haiti, and heard their masters speaking French. They tried to speak it, and it came out as Creole, with all the intonations and rhythms that approximately 200 years later I would hear again in the low voices of those Ghanaians.

  50. In "The invisible history of the human race' by Christine Keneally, (which covers everything you can inherit) she describes the damage done to several 'slaver' countries. The legacy is distrust. These countries have a continuing history of chaos. Behaviours & sayings which reflect you could be sold at any time, especially by family have become 'tradition'. The example she uses is Benin.

  51. I went on a medical mission trip to Tscondi/Tkarati region in 2007 and at the end of the trip we went to the Elmina castle where slaves were kept and loaded onto ships to enter into there lives of slavery. It broke my heart when came to this room where the guide explained that slaves that were unruly were kept until they died and the bodies were left inside with the one that were still alive, I still often think about how cruel slavery was and is.

  52. Very few Americans have been to place such as these. The experience would certainly add to their understanding of the U.S.

  53. From slavery to freedom to Jim Crow and beyond, the colored Negro Black African American human beings whose ancestors were forcibly removed from Africa as property are not the people who left Africa and the Africa that they left no longer exists.

    Africa is geography and history. Race is biology ,socioeconomics ,education ,religion and politics. America is in denial of it's history of race in relationship to Africa and Black African Americans. Teresa Heinz Kerry and Barack Hussien Obama know what this family is looking for .. an African beginning.

  54. Your first paragraph makes no sense. Slavery in Africa has existed for at least five thousand years and exists in more than a few African countries today. Sorry.

  55. Race is also historical,cultural and legal. Slaves and indentured whites found common cause in 17th century VA. They rebelled together. See Bacon Rebellion. Laws were made that gave indentured servant benefits that slaves did not get so poor whites would feel they were moving up the food chain and therefore "better" than the slaves. Once the servants were given freedom, they were given 50 acres of land! I'm still waiting for my Forty Acres and a mule. Tell it brother!

  56. Peter Stuyvesant, second Mayor of New Amsterdam, was given this job by the Dutch West Indies Company to thank him for his excellent slave management on the island of Curacao. The Dutch were very active in shipping the Africans from Ghana to Curacao then sell them to the highest bidders. To have in New York still so many places named after him, including a Manhattan High school, shows a great lack of understanding of this painful history.

  57. Just wanted to say what a great article this is.

  58. I would really like to visit that country and take my students with me.

  59. We were in Dakar, Senegal, several years ago. Dakar also served as a major export site for the slaves and also had/has its own "point of no return". The pictures accompanying this article look almost identical to those we took in Dakar.
    VERY emotional experience for these Caucasian persons.

  60. Coursera is currently offering a great course through the University of Pennsyvania on the History of the Slave South. First week's lectures on the slave trade from Western Africa 1500's-1800s provide a detailed picture.


  61. Whether or not the liberal left want to believe it not, Africans enslaved Africans, and sold their own kind to the whites.

  62. Nice story, I think the writer accurately has gotten all of it right. I know this because I am from Ghana. I have been in the US/NYC for 26 years and I haven't changed a thing about me. Why not change? Well, my African American brothers and sisters have changed so much at times comments about Obama not being black enough is disheartening especially when I hear it from an African American. Maybe one day, we will begin to humanize each other rather than colorize each other.

  63. A great read. The inclusion of the insights on historic cultural trauma on the Ghanaians really helped to tie things together. However, the story feels incomplete. Where did Venture Smith come from? It would have been great to go back to his likely point of origin. Why reward the descendants of those who captured/held/sold him and countless others? How much education about this retched history do the Ghanaians receive? It's all well to say that the fishermen looked on with amusement, but why?