Obama Visits Cape Coast Castle in Ghana

Accra, Ghana
July 11, 2009
Rhandi Green and Junia Ryan

ARC134 Project1B from Junia Ryan on Vimeo.

President Barack Obama and his family took a trip to Accra, Ghana to visit a well-known historical site: the Cape Coast Castle. This Castle is recognized to be home to the largest slave trade in Africa of the 1700s. Thousands of African-Americans were placed in these dungeon-like cells for months on end before being sold by Great Britain and taken to America. This event came to light after the Senate in Africa publically apologized for the acts of slavery that occurred at the Castle a month prior to Obama’s visit. It’s not his physical visit that makes this topic so important, but the comments that the President makes regarding his visit that leaves a lot of cloud in the air. President Obama speaks about how he brought his family, more specifically his two daughters, to visit the Castle to shine light on the importance of this historical site. He eludes that not many know about this slave trade site because it is not taught in schools, but we must not forget that these historical events happened. We must not forget about the oppression of a certain group of individuals. Obama also continues on to draw connection to the holocaust in Germany, and millions of Jewish individuals were singled out and placed in rugged conditions simply for being an underrepresented minority. But it’s not just the Holocaust. What about the Japanese internment camps, where thousands of Americans who had Japanese ancestry were excluded from the entire Pacific Coast during World War II due to “suspicion of crime”. Even taking things back to the construction of the Berlin Wall is an example of dehumanizing people because of a certain area they live in. These examples of history are extremely important not only because of the discrimination of people against their will, but they are being placed in unruly living conditions because of who they are or where they reside.

The Castle of Cape Coast housed thousands of slaves during the 1700s. The Castle originated as a palace, where the royal were residing in Africa. It’s a beautiful site, right on the coast where you can see the waves kissing the African shoreline and the never ending horizon. The castle is very large consisting of many underground dungeon halls and cells where the slaves were brought in and stored. There are many descriptions of the living conditions for these slaves to be anything except lavish. There were about ten chambers that held 200 slaves each, separated by gender. These chambers were referred to as dungeons because of how spacious they were, but still dark and cave-like. The entire castle is made from stone, and has no sense of comfort in it. Ironically, there is a church that was built above ground over the chambers of the male slaves. It is possible for the people of Accra, Ghana to not have known what was happening in this castle because all trades were easily made by ship. All transportation of slaves, from cell to ship, was done underground through connecting tunnels that were heavily guarded. Cape Coast Castle became a port for exporting human beings.

The Holocaust was a more tragic event because it resulted in the death of six million Jewish individuals. The Jews were singled out as “different” and were deemed to be no longer needed amongst the German population. This dehumanization process caused Jewish individuals to be placed within the worst living conditions possible. They were exiled to concentration camps where there was little food and uncomfortable living arrangements. Channeling the slave trade holding cells, the Jews were kept in small bunkers with more people than wooden shelf space known as bedding. They were given small rations of food that caused a lot of starvation related deaths. With the large number of people piled on top of each other in these bunkers, illness was common due to lack of fresh air and germ compilation. Unlike the Castle of Cape Coast, these people were held at one concentration camp for years on end instead of months like the salves in Africa were. The concentration camps were acres of land long, creating a new sectioned off area for the Jewish to now call home. There was little hope existing within the barbed wire of these camps because many were either killed on spot or transported to another location to be killed. This example of dehumanization is the most extreme because one group of individuals was placed in a ghetto, waiting to be executed, whereas the others were placed in ghettos to be transported or contained in general.

The Berlin Wall is another, less exclusive, type of dehumanizing event that is a direct architectural element. The Berlin Wall was put up to separate the communist East Germany from the free living West Germany. East Germans wanted to cut off any access to West Germany. The wall was a symbol for seclusion; it prevented East Germans from fleeing that side of Germany. The Iron Curtain, another name for the wall, was heavily guarded 24/7 making it impossible for the East Germans to escape from the governments control. Despite the fact that the living conditions were not as bad as the slave castle or the concentration camps, the wall that enclosed half a country from its other half shows how controlling architecture can be. There are photos that show the west side of the wall to be free, urbanized, and even art painted on the wall. The east side of the wall is dead, empty, organized and bound.
Each of these historical events are prime examples of how poorly one group of people were treated and how architecture contributed to their seclusion. These events are taught in history classes, but only the Holocaust is really taught to a deeper extent. Obama mentions that Cape Coast should become a museum, or have a museum about the slave trade and the Castle’s role in it because he fears this part of history will soon be overlooked. It’s important that topics like these are fully discussed in school because children need to know about the world’s past. Museums commemorating historical events are great because they show how one group of people were treated due to their physical appearance, and it makes sure that what happened is never forgotten. Why are there no museums for Japanese Internment Camps or the Castle at Cape Coast? More importantly, how many other historical sites that dealt with dehumanizing a group of individuals is there that go unnoticed outside of that country? Making Cape Coast Castle a museum or at least a spot where tours are possible immediately informs people what has happened and how these types of things happen right in front of people’s eyes. This containment of certain people that are considered to be the “other” still happens in front of peoples eyes but goes unnoticed because it is not as extreme.


Photo from inside a bunker of a concentration camp, showing the terrible conditions that people were forced to live in.


The Berlin Wall art showing West Germany graffiti and East Germany plain and desolate with soliders patrolling the border.



Inside one of the dungeons in the Cape Coast Castle where men or women were forced to stay before they were traded.


Japanese Internment Camp in Colorado, overseeing the acres of relocation housing for Japanese Americans.



Annotated Bibliography (Updated)




Rujumba, Karamagi . “At Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, retracing slavery’s steps – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/news/world/at-cape-coast-castle-in-ghana-retracing-slaverys-steps-349044/ (accessed September 9, 2013).

This article has a more conscientious feel of what things were like back in the day. It gives real life numbers as to how many people were held in these cells, how many people were moved in and out of these slave chambers and so on. It is different than the Obama tour because it shows statistically how large of a trading Cape Coast Castle was. It’s tragic to read about this now and know that this was okay for rulers to allow happen in their country. It also breaks down the a few key spots in the castle and how these rooms were used. It’s a real eye opener that will be good to use as primary research.

Huffington Post. “Obama Visits Cape Coast Castle in Ghana.” Last Modified May 25, 2011. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/07/11/obama-visits-slave-site-s_n_230041.html

The article summarizes President Obama’s trip to Cape Coast Castle and states some of the main points made by him regarding the significance of the sight to the present day and history. When the article quotes Obama on “humanity’s potential for great evil”, it seems like what he’s saying is that we do not live in a perfect world or the most peaceful society. There are people in the world who still think like how the people of that time did and want to cause harm. It may be harder for them to do so because of they are out weighed with laws, organizations, and people that are determined to make the world better and fight oppression but because these people with this mind set exist the potential still lies. Obama’s point on “learning about histories cruelty” is important to lessening the potential he talked about.

Olopade, Dayo. “Obama’s Remarks on Slavery, Africa, and America at the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana.” Black News, Opinion, Politics and Culture – The Root. http://www.theroot.com/blogs/slavery/video-obama-speaks-slave-fort-ghana (accessed September 7, 2013). http://www.theroot.com/blogs/slavery/video-obama-speaks-slave-fort-ghana

This article is extremely useful to our research because it gives a great background of Obama’s visit and his reasons for visiting. It explains that he brought his family there so that they could learn about the history of the Castle. He even pictured his daughter going through the doors of the castle and “never returning”. Obama speaks that this site should not be forgotten because so many ancestors derived from here. There is also a video clip of his CNN speech.


Encyclopedia Entries:

Wikipedia. “Cape Coast Castle.” Last Modified July 12, 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cape_Coast_Castle

Cape Coast Castle, which is now a museum is most known for it’s history with the slave trades at the time but it also was a market for other items. Because Ghana had a large quantity of gold dust, locals would trade it as well as mahogany for clothes, spices, and other items that they needed and didn’t have. Slaves after a while became the principle item.

Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. “African architecture,” accessed September 08, 2013, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/756980/African-architecture.

This source is important because it informs us of how 20th century African Architecture is. The encyclopedia not only talks about architecture on the coast, but architecture in Africa during that time. This article talks about the castle, and other forts/ castles around this time period, were influenced by the Portuguese. Thick masonry walls were built for castles, along with large dungeon-like rooms for slaves to be held. The article also explains that the English wanted to influence the area around, so there were a lot of houses built in that area. African castles along the coast all had this British influence within their architecture, making it easy to spot. This British influence could have taken over culturally as well. It’s something to further look into: how much of an influence did the British have in the coastal areas, and is is still present today?


Scholarly Articles:

Toi Derricotte, “Exits from Elmina Castle: Cape Coast, Ghana.” Callaloo Vol.19 No.1 (1996): 107-110. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3299325

This article was interesting to include in our research because it was mini accounts that resembled folk songs or poems of different moments in the Cape Coast Castle experience. It’s valuable to our research because the accounts are written from the perspective of the fist person account which lets us view the events that happened at Cape Coast Castle, the reason for President Obama’s trip, a different way.

Sandra L. Richards, “What Is to Be Remembered?: Tourism to Ghana’s Slave Castle-Dungeons.” Theatre Journal Vol.57 No.4 (2005): 617-637 http://www.jstor.org/stable/25069733

This article is important because it talks about the present controversy with these slaves castles and dungeons and is they should be used as tourist sites. It talks about if this is a way of educating people of the history of these places.


Orthographic Documentation:

“Index of /Ghana 06.” Last Modified October 29, 2006. http://aytch.mnsu.edu/Ghana%2006/Cape%20Coast–Cape%20Coast%20Castle%20Map.jpg

This map is valuable to our research because it shows the exact locations of some of the holding areas at Cape Coast Castle and how one would move through the building on a tour similar to the one President Obama and his family took.


This image is a good reference for location. We don’t have any maps of the area and I think that it’s a good idea to know where Cape Coast is in relation to the Atlantic Ocean, neighboring countries, and Great Britain. Later research would be ideal to see if there were any similar British influences in neighboring African countries.


Video and Audio:


#47 Cape Coast Castle (Cape Coast Ghana). YouTube. 9 Feb 2010

This is a home video found on YouTube of a tour of Cape Coast Castle. The tour is not an “official” tour but it still allows you to get a view around the castle. The narrator of the video speaks about the different areas of the castle and what they were used for. It’s different than reading about what went where because now you can visually see how the castle looks. It is also different from the Obama tour because it is more informal and personal. Seeing things through a normal person’s eyes, rather than a person of high authority, really allows you to get more of a personal experience of taking the tour yourself. I think this will come in handy for not only us while we do the project, but for the rest of the readers who read about our topic to see what things looked like and what type of living conditions these slaves were placed in.


This is an on site interview with President Obama and Anderson Cooper of CNN. One of the biggest things that was said in the interview was that the doorway of the Castle, which was a one way trip there was no turning back, was the start of the African American experience. This slave castle doesn’t just mean something to the local Ghanaians but it is significant in the history of the United States of America and how this country was built. The reasons for a lot of race issues, the civil rights movement, and other important historical turning points in this country all started from stepping past that doorway. The CNN page that the video is on also says that the trip and interview come weeks after the senate apologized for slavery and the on going debate over the apology and lawmakers saying there was no need for it.

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