Exploring the slave castle, tourism and urban economic opportunity at Cape Coast

in Cultural + Heritage by

“Please, it’s somehow deep,” the tour guide warns as each member of the group climbs down into the dark cell. “Come closer and take a look, but watch your head.” Each descends, one by one, away from the slave castle’s bright exterior and into an inner chamber, engulfed in near total darkness.

Inside a chamber of the male dungeon, three American tourists listen to tour guide Kwabena Kumi recount the history and circumstances of the location.
Inside a chamber of the male dungeon, three American tourists listen to tour guide Kwabena Kumi recount the history and circumstances of the location.

This is Cape Coast, a town on Ghana’s southern coast that attracts throngs of visitors every year. It’s a Saturday, and hot; the sun is high in the sky. Down below, the waves push up  against the shore. The structure’s white walls gleam in the midday sunshine, a stunning, white-washed camouflage to the still dank, still dark and still seemingly haunted chambers below. The group of tourists circle round the tour guide as he recounts history.

And it has a heavy history, this slave castle. For many who visit the castle, its memories and rememories are still fresh. A holding place for slaves just before their shipment across the Atlantic to the New World (and the first seat of government for the British colonial government), this is perhaps one of the more recognizable and faithfully preserved edifices of Ghana’s (and black people’s) economic  exploitation. But the castle is also an important part of Cape Coast’s history, an opportunity for experiential tourism to explore the past, and a resource that could — and should —  be leveraged to support the city’s economic future.

A Disconnect Between Tourism and Local Economic Development

From its beginnings, the castle had served as a node for capital gains that were strategically isolated from its urban surroundings. It is said that this castle, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was originally purposed by the Swedish for the storage of timber, gold, and other goods to be shipped to Europe; after changing hands, Cape Coast grew as a major trading nervepoint for the British along the West African route. With the popularity of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, it became a waiting depot for human goods (slaves), captured locally and shipped to the Americas.

According to Kwabena Kumi, tour guide at the castle, its dungeons could hold, on average, some 1300 slaves — 1000 males and 300 females — at one time. “But you can imagine during the peak periods,” he said, “it might even surpass that.”

At the time, little of the wealth generated from the trade trickled down to the city of Cape Coast or the locals. Today, the castle is generating a new form of capital (tourism), through the thousands of visitors streaming through the castle’s entrance gates each year who explore this aspect of Ghana’s history.

Kwabena has been leading groups of visitors around the castle for three years now, leading as many as three to four tours a day. He and the other castle staff seem unsure of how many visitors come per day, month or year. According the Museum and Monuments Board, 80,000 visited the castle in 2009, the same year U.S. President Barack Obama visited. The next year, in 2010, that number swelled to just over 89,000. But in 2011, the Museum and Monuments Board officer reported just 78,691 visitors to the castle.

“It must bring a lot of revenue,” Kwabena says, estimating it’s somewhere in the millions of Ghana cedis.

It seems a vicious cycle, where again, few outside of the direct revenue stream see any benefit, with little positive impact for the surrounding urban area of Cape Coast.  But one of the challenges is that the revenue doesn’t flow back into the city. It’s a problematic aspect of the tourism sector, not just for Cape Coast, but more widely for Ghana’s “booming” economy: ensuring that opportunities for big-buck revenues flow back into and support the wider, local economy.

At the foot of the Cape Coast castle, the locals continue their livelihoods -- fishing -- a local trade that predates the history of the castle itself.
At the foot of the Cape Coast castle, the locals continue their livelihoods — fishing — a local trade that predates the history of the castle itself.

“Out of the 100 percent [total revenue], they give the local chiefs 15 percent,” he explains. “The lands belong to them.” He says the other 85 percent goes to the government. “What does the government using the money for?” he asks, rhetorically. It’s unclear. As of a few years ago, the Ministry of Tourism reported that 60 percent of the revenue went to the Museum and Monuments Board, 15 percent to traditional councils, and 10 percent to the ministry itself.

For the fiscal year 2012, the Cape Cost Metropolitan Assembly’s budget ran just past 5.57 million Ghana cedis (US$2.96 million);  20,000 Ghana cedis (0.3 percent of that budget) was allocated to the “key focus area” of diversifying and expanding the tourism industry for jobs and revenue generation.

Creating Opportunities 

The opportunities for tourism’s contributions to the local economy are present but poorly integrated, a weakness admitted by the Ministry of Tourism in its own 2009-2012 national tourism strategy. For the local population, finding ways to benefit from the castle’s tourism translates into young children who surround tourists outside the Door of No Return, soliciting cedis; in the local craftmakers outside the castle’s entrance and inside the castle’s walls, peddling bracelets and small arts pieces; in the employment opportunities at tourist-oriented restaurants or the small resort hotels along the beach; or the taxi drivers or water satchet vendors stationed outside the gates, hoping for customers.

Two young street vendors sell sachet water to taxi drivers and tourists who patronize the castle and nearby areas.
Two young street vendors sell sachet water to taxi drivers and tourists who patronize the castle and nearby areas.

Cape Coast’s castle already stands out as a tourism magnet, reliably drawing local and international tourists each year. For example, researcher and academic Michelle Commander writes about “cultural roots tourism,” in which African-Americans desire to explore their past leads them to places like Ghana and Cape Coast castle, with its significance of their ancestors and physical history of the slave trade. But Cape Coast is also the original seat of government during the British colonial administration, the regional capital and the capital of the Fante people (the indigenous group of the region); the city itself has a wealth of cultural and historic spaces and buildings, not just the castle. At the same time, with an estimated population of just over 82,000, Cape Coast is still a manageable city for tourists.

As an urban economic development strategy, the city could — and should — maximize its widespread cultural resources: attract tourists to Cape Coast or Elmina with the castles and beaches, but then keep them there with activities, business, restaurants and things to do, to maximize tourists’ experience, and the economic contribution to the city (translated into monetary benefits for local businesses).  The spaces are already there (Centre for National Culture, Asafo shrines, traditional festivals, hotels and resorts, the Panafest theatre festival) what is needed are efforts to document them (online), to add to them, to make them publicly available and attractive to tourists. For example, the ministry and city government could identify a dozen points of interest and create a cultural map (or hire me to do that) and accompanying mobile phone application; local businesses could develop city tours  by bike, bus, or even tro-tro to highlight local sites, restaurants and places of interest that tourists could patronize.

There are plenty of untapped opportunities, as well. Ghana can capitalize on the estimated four million Ghanaians living abroad, and the increasing interest of African-Americans in there heritage and roots on the continent. With its booming economy, more business means more business travelers, which could translate into more tourism revenues. There are also a wealth of untapped local opportunities, as well. For example, fishing is part of the backbone of the economy and employs scores of able-bodied men in Cape Coast (and doubtless supplies the tilapia that many customers enjoy at area restaurants). However, this economic activity is forever overshadowed by the size of Cape Coast castle. How difficult would be it to set up a fishing tour — there’s always a tourist or two who wants an experiential adventure like going out with the fisherman at dawn and catching his or her own tilapia.

In the end, the opportunities are there. But in order to make tourism a sector that brings widespread economic gains, it has to be focused on integrating local businesses and opportunities, not just attracting more and more visitors to a slave castle each year.

Note: This post is inspired by a recent visit to Cape Coast slave castle, by the recent article “Something’s Got a Hold on Me:  ‘Lingering Whispers’ of the Atlantic Slave Trade in Ghana” by my friend Dr. Sionne Neely, and by conversations with our friend Dr. Michelle Commander, her article “Ghana at Fifty, Moving Toward Kwame Nkrumah’s Pan-African Dream,” and a book discussion she lead on Toni Morrison’s Beloved, in which we discussed the idea of “rememory.” 

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  • Michelle Commander

    firstly, thanks for the shout out. you raise a significant point here. after all these years of profiting from slavery tourism, the ghanaian government has the moral responsibility to map out a serious, long-term plan for economic growth in the cape coast and elmina communities. frederick douglass once said that “power concedes nothing without a demand.” i wonder if the residents of these areas have ever organized around this issue? -m.

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  • Hi Michelle — thanks for your comment, and I think what you’re saying is very on point. I think what’s more than moral responsibility (as you rightly mention), what’s missing is community participation in the planning for Cape Coast, including in the tourism sector — precisely as you mention, there’s a huge need for residents to organize around this and to demand something. From the urban planning perspective, that’s what makes it so interesting, in general (the opportunity to take a community’s vision and find a way to implement that, in line with balancing necessary goals), but that’s also precisely what’s missing, in this case and more widely in some of the ways planning is done in Ghana.