Monday, November 10, 2014

Cape Coast Castle - Ghana

It appears that George Cannon and the Eliza spent the next 22 months along the Gold Coast in the vicinity of Cape Coast Castle and Anomabu Fort collecting slaves. We do not know any particulars other than that more slaves were obtained in Anomabu than Cape Coast. But an examination of some details of those two forts give us some insight into the types of experiences George Cannon had while he was there. The numbers in the text of this post are end notes. The referenced end notes, found at the end of the post, gives the sources for the provided information.

British Administration of Gold Coast Forts

The Royal African Company (“RAC”) originally had a monopoly on the British slave trade in Africa. The RAC was abolished by Parliament in 1750 and the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa (“CMTA”) was established in its place. The CMTA was given the RAC assets, including Cape Coast Castle, the forts and its employees, and was also given an annual grant of £15,000 to £22,000 from the British government to maintain the buildings and staffing in Africa. The CMTA was governed by a committee of slaving industry leaders from London, Liverpool and Bristol, the three slave trading ports in England. The law prohibited the CMTA, or any of its governors or officers, from buying or selling slaves on their own account, directly or indirectly. Instead, the CMTA was to act as a facilitator or accommodator between British slave merchants and African slave merchants who were to negotiate their own deals. The Castle and fort facilities were available for British ships to temporarily store their barter goods, for African merchants to temporarily house their slaves, and rooms were available for both sides to conduct negotiations.

The governor of Cape Coast Castle was the governor-in-chief and president of a council that ran the CMTA settlements in Africa. Archibald Dalziel was governor when the Eliza arrived. The governor of Anomabu (also known as Annamaboe), the English fort nearest the Castle, was his deputy and usually succeeded him. Other members of the council were the governors of Tantumquerry (also known as Tantamkweri and Tantam), Winneba (also known as Winnebah), Fort James at Accra, Whydah (which was much further east on the Slave Coast) and senior staff at the Castle. Governors of the other English forts, including Apollonia, Fort Metal Cross at Dixcove, and Komenda were not on the council. Overall, the CMTA employed about 50 officers, about half at the Castle and the other half at other forts. There was a chaplain, a secretary, a deputy secretary, an accountant, a deputy accountant, a surveyor who maintained the buildings, a deputy surveyor, two officers of the guard, one at the Castle and one at Anomabu, a deputy warehouse keeper, a chief surgeon, five assistant surgeons, seven factors, who kept records of the trades, and ten writers, who copied documents and learned the business. The number of soldiers, all British born, was about the same as the number of officers. The combined number of officers and soldiers at the forts, other than the Castle, was usually about six. 

The CMTA paid monthly rent for the Castle, and for each fort, to the local African political and military leaders, known as “caboceers” and “braffoes,” where the facility was located. The CMTA and slave ship captains also had to pay fees for the use of water from streams and ponds, customs duties on the slaves that were purchased, fees to the canoemen who helped load and unload the ships that anchored off the coast and they also had to make frequent presents in gold and goods to the caboceers.[1]

Aside from the slaves held in the Castle and fort prisons for sale to British slave merchants, known as “slaves in chains,” the largest group of people at the Castle and forts were “public slaves” or “Castle slaves.” They did most of the physical work at the Castle and forts and most of them lived off-premises, in the case of the Castle, in the village of Cape Coast. A 1749 list of 376 Castle slaves lists carpenters, blacksmiths, brickmakers, bricklayers, goldsmiths, cooks, doctor’s servants, coopers, and canoemen, among many other trades and jobs listed. Although 27 canoemen were listed, many more were needed and they were free Africans contracting directly with the Castle and with the ships anchored one to four miles offshore. 
The modern town of Cape Coast just off the Castle.
Contrary to law, the governors and officers regularly traded for their own accounts, directly competing with the British ships they were supposed to serve. They illegally bought, sold and exchanged slaves with the neighboring Dutch and Danish forts on the coast, as well as French, Portuguese, American and Brazilian ships.

Cape Coast Castle

Cape Coast Castle is located on a rocky outcrop along what was called Cabo Corso (short cape) by the Portuguese. Large rocks front the Castle and the ocean along the coast is shallow, with complex currents, hidden rocks, a reef, and a strong breaking surf. Ships coming to the Castle had to anchor far offshore in what was called “the roads,” a stretch of water with some shelter from the wind and deep enough that a loaded ship could avoid hitting the reef or getting stuck in sand. Smaller ships could anchor about a mile offshore, larger ships about two miles, and when it was windy, generally from May to August, the time the Eliza arrived, ships would anchor up to four miles offshore to avoid being blown by the wind toward the coast and damaged. 
Sea view of Cape Coast Castle when the surf is high.
Waves and rocks in front of the Castle.
Looking west down the beach. Elmina Castle is on the point barely visible in the background. 
The Castle itself was built of small stones held together by mud and lime, and painted white. Dozens of heavy cannons, on a large platform, pointed out to sea in three directions. The third floor housed the governor. The second floor had apartments for officers and a dining hall which was also used for palavers and religious services. The ground floor had barracks for soldiers and house slaves, a cookhouse, a hospital, large warehouses to hold imported goods and a prison for slaves. A narrow gate at the east end opened on to a rocky beach and was the access point for slaves and goods in barrels ferried back and forth between the Castle and ships anchored in the roads. On the opposite side of the Castle was a garden with fruit trees, a stockyard, and the African village of Cape Coast.[2]
Guns along the sea wall.
Looking in the opposite direction. 
Sea gate to the Castle. Also a set of steps to the left which provide a different entrance. 
Looking up the sloping entrance into the Castle from the sea gate.
Rocks and Castle walls near the sea gate.
Near the staircase that leads down to the beach. Looking out into the Gulf of Guinea.
Beach view of the Castle from the west.
The top two floors of the Castle had ocean views and the trappings of wealth: mahogany furniture, Turkish and Indian carpets, silk wall hangings, paintings, clocks, china, silverware, and even a pool table with balls made from ivory. Of particular benefit for visiting ship captains, there were charts, maps, globes and telescopes. The “public table” in the second floor dining hall, where visiting captains, surgeons and African merchants joined with the governor and officers, provided an impressive amount and variety of spirits, as well as food. A list for one month, in 1750, shows the consumption of 124 bottles of Malaga wine, 56 bottles of beer, 11 bottles of red port, 8 bottles of “Bristol water,” 52 gallons of rum, 212 bottles of “government’s beer,” 104 bottles of claret, 6 bottles of cider, 12 bottles of small beer, 2 bottles of old stock and 7 bottles of arrack. In addition, they ate chocolate, 3 cheeses, 70 pounds of raisins, 89 pounds of currents, 3 firkins of butter, 200 fowls, 4 sheep, 15 goats, 4 hogs, 5 ducks, 1 barrel of beef, 1 barrel of pork, 4 hams, 1 keg of sugar, 120 pounds of refined sugar, 6 pounds of common sugar, 646 pounds of flour, 2 gallons of palm oil, and 2 pounds of tea. Much of the drink and food was provided by an annual store-ship from England. But the nearby stockyard also raised cows, sheep, goats, pigs, turkeys, geese, ducks and guinea hens and the garden provided various types of fresh fruit. 
An upper floor in the Castle.
Various levels of the Castle. The exit to the sea gate goes down at the center toward the end of the building.
Despite these luxuries, even the second and third floors of the Castle could not escape the terrible stench that arose from the proximity of hundreds of slaves in chains and the “necessary,” a small house on the parade ground near the sea gate. To help mask the smell, lavender, rosewater and perfume were used regularly and the apartments were smoked with pitch, tar and tobacco every three months.[3] 
I believe this building is the "necessary."
The primary purpose of the Castle was to facilitate trade. Slaves brought in by African slave merchants were held, shown and then sold to British slave ships which would then transport them to the Americas. That was one side of the transaction. The Castle also held goods brought in by the ships used to barter for slaves. That was the other side of the transaction. However, because the slave gathering process took a long time, there was often bartering the other way. If prices were high and a captain intended to stay for awhile, he might sell slaves he already had on his ship to another ship, or take them back to the Castle for sale. A captain getting ready to leave for the Middle Passage might pay a premium for just a few slaves to fill-up the ship and leave more quickly. Children slaves, added at the last minute were valuable, because they did not need to be chained up below deck, but were allowed to wander around on deck. Because space was not budgeted for them, they were mostly pure profit.[4] The Castle prison, which held slaves, was protected by a heavy iron grille at ground level, then descended steeply below ground to five vaulted brick chambers connected to each other by internal doors. The prison had no windows, and only small air vents in the ceiling high above, so the slaves were in the dark and chained continuously. To keep the slaves healthy and the stench down, the slaves were marched down to the ocean twice each day for a wash, while the brick floors with gutters were flushed with water to clean them. The prison was also regularly smoked and sprinkled with lime and vinegar.[5] 
Entrance to the prison on the ground floor.
From the inside looking back: the entrance to the prison descends quickly underground.
Brick prison chamber.
Succession of brick prison chambers.
Warehouses at the Castle, on the ground level, held goods brought in by the ships used to barter for slaves. This made room in the ships for slaves, which were taken to the ship as they were purchased. As an example of the types of goods brought in, a ship in 1779 brought £10,000 worth of goods, including brandy, rum, tobacco, muskets, gunpowder, various small manufactures, scissors, knives, brass basins, pewter vessels, clay pipes, umbrellas and luxury goods.[6] The warehouses also held commodities produced by Africans for use at the castle and for sale to the slaves ships. Corn was produced locally and was used to feed the shipping slaves and sold to ships for the Middle Passage. A 1779 inventory included 4,200 gallons of corn at the Castle.[7]

Slave ships were anchored in the roads, off the Castle, or one of the other forts, for months at a time, even as long as a year or more. It was not unusual to have 20 or 30 ships anchored at the same time.[8] Because the ships were so far off shore, some basic signals were worked out to allow the ships and Castle to communicate with each other. A ship arriving to trade would fire at least nine guns (cannons) and the Castle would respond similarly. The Castle fired a gun at the same time each morning and evening so that the captains could synchronize their watches. A few weeks before a ship was going to leave for the Middle Passage, it put up a special flag. Then in the last few days before it left, the ship fired a gun each morning. This put the Castle, African merchants and other slave ships on notice that negotiations and paperwork had to be completed and that the governor needed to complete any correspondence he wanted the ship to forward on to its next destination.[9]
Cape Coast Castle and the village of Cape Coast to the right of it. 
Ships moored in the roads of Cape Coast.

Negotiations for slaves (and other goods) took place on the ship, at the Castle and presumably on other ships and in the local vicinity as well. It was the norm to have half a dozen African merchants on board the ship bartering with the captain and his officers. Normally only the captain and surgeon went to the Castle for onshore negotiations while the rest of the crew stayed to guard the ship, do maintenance, and guard slaves that were purchased and brought out to the ship. While onshore, the captain and surgeon were given private apartments on the second floor of the Castle, ate at the governor’s dinner table, and exchanged news and talked with other ship captains and surgeons and the governor and his officers. The crew might get ashore occasionally for brief periods to help load or unload, or obtain water.[10] It appears that the Eliza surgeon (ranked third on the muster roll), with the last name of Bowness, died on July 11, 1790, about two months after the Eliza’s arrival on the Gold Coast. About a month later, the Eliza’s first mate (ranked second on the muster roll), with the last name of Murray, died on August 7, 1790. George Cannon, ranked fourth on the muster roll, become first mate and in that capacity, particularly with the loss of the surgeon, may have accompanied Captain Bernard to the Castle.

Slave ship captains tried to time arrivals in Africa during the dry season, although there was less concern for ships going to the Gold Coast as fort officials had slaves and corn available most months. The Gold Coast has two rainy seasons, a longer one from April to mid-July, followed by a foggy season that lasts two or three weeks, and a shorter one in October. The rainy season is characterized by short, intensive storms, high humidity and cooler weather. August is the coolest month with an average temperature of 76.5 degrees. Dry harmattan winds, blowing down from Sahara Desert, start in February and make March the hottest month with an average temperature of 82.4 degrees. However, because it is less humid, the winds often make it feel cooler than the rainy season.[11] The Eliza arrived in Ghana in the rainy season. This was probably not a concern to Captain Bernard and the owner, John Dawson, because of the fort system and availability of corn. We visited Ghana during the rainy season and the heat and humidity were stifling. The conditions the slaves lived in in the castle prison and in the holds of ships are beyond conception. During our visit I had to walk out of the prison and one of the warehouses, as the lack of moving air and humidity created an overwhelming claustrophobia. Imagine being naked, chained, sandwiched together, and lying in vomit, urine and feces. Unimaginable.

There was a very high death rate for those new to Africa, whether sailors or working for the CMTA. The annual death rate was about 25% for officers of the CMTC. Those who survived were “seasoned” and their probabilities for survival increased. In 1790, the year that the Eliza arrived, ten officers died, including one that drowned in the surf coming ashore.[12] As previously indicated, the Eliza lost two of its officers within three months of its arrival on the Gold Coast.


Slave ships carried longboats and used them extensively along the African coast. Some had masts and could sail, all could be rowed. However, along the Gold Coast longboats were supplanted by local canoes operated by African canoemen because the canoes were easier to maneuver and held up better among the reef, rocks and heavy surf of the Gold Coast. The canoes were made from the hollowed-out trunk of a single tree, which made the canoes stronger and more bendable. But even with expert African canoemen, about one in ten canoes capsized crossing the surf, which was frightening and dangerous for the British sailors, most of whom could not swim. Everyone got soaked, even without a capsize, and when they did capsize, some men did drown and waterproof barrels and casks, which held the goods, were lost or damaged, despite the fact that the canoemen were expert in righting the canoes and bailing out the water.
Modern canoes and fishing nets near the sea entrance to Cape Coast Castle.
Because most local journeys, between forts, or between ship and fort, were made by canoe, and because the African canoemen, good swimmers and very skillful, were indispensable, they had great negotiating power and they were well paid, usually in cloth, gunpowder and rum. They might refuse to work for a captain they didn’t like and they occasionally went on strike. Sometimes contracts were with the Castle, or with a ship, for a single trip. For example, in 1804, an eleven hand canoe (the number of crewmembers it took to operate it) was paid £1.50 in goods (a half gallon of rum and a romal cloth) for taking the governor of Anomabu on a trip to the Castle and back. Sometimes contracts were for the entire time a ship was anchored in the roads, which required many round-trip journeys. In 1765, two 15 hand canoes and one 17 hand canoe worked for three weeks and were paid £52.75 in goods to unload the cargo of a ship to one of the forts on the Gold Coast. For large items, such as cannons, platforms were lashed across multiple canoes, like a catamaran, and the surf was crossed when it was low. The Castle did have a few public slaves that were canoemen, at least sometimes, but they were probably used for transporting officers between nearby forts and in transporting letters, notes, packages, invoices and receipts between the Castle and ships in the roads.[13] 


[1] Professor Marshall C. Eakin, Professor at Vanderbilt University, Conquest of the Americas (The Teaching Company, 2002), chapter 4, “Europeans and Africans” and chapter 13, “The Atlantic Slave Trade”; Memoirs of the Late Captain Hugh Crow of Liverpool, pp. 180-182; Paul Bohannan, Africa and Africans, pp. 37-39, 68-69, 89, 95, 105-107; Rise of African Slavery, pp. 133, 138, 146-149; William St. Clair, The Door of No Return: The History of Cape Coast Castle and the Atlantic Slave Trade, pp. 39-40 (hereafter “Door of No Return”).
[2] Door of No Return, pp. 13-14, 108-112, 128-129, 132-135, 145-146, 211-213, 225.
[3] Door of No Return, pp. 63-66, 72, 103-105, 125-126.
[4] Door of No Return, pp. 214-215.
[5] Door of No Return, pp. 78-81, 114, 143.
[6] Door of No Return, p. 70.
[7] Door of No Return, pp. 76-77.
[8] Door of No Return, pp. 2, 19.
[9] Door of No Return, pp. 17-18, 21.
[10] Door of No Return, p. 23.
[11]Bruce L. Mouser, editor, A Slaving Voyage to Africa and Jamaica: The Log of the Sandown, 1793-1794 by Samuel Gamble (Indiana University Press, Bloomington: 2002), pp. 39-40, n. 150, p. 51 and n. 189; Behrendt, Stephen D., “Human Capital in the British Slave Trade,” Richardson, David, Schwarz, Suzanne and Tibbles, Anthony, editors, Liverpool and Transatlantic Slavery, (Liverpool University Press, Liverpool: 2007), p. 74.
[12] Door of No Return, pp. 98-101.
[13] Door of No Return, pp.23, 26, 47-48, 76, 135.


  1. You'd think the sailors would learn to swim as a form of self-preservation. How amazing to be able to visit the areas your ancestors spent so much time and get a feel for the kind of life they lived.

  2. This is a fascinating discussion of life in the castle. The conditions in the dungeons are worse than anything I've ever read about, and life upstairs, while not even comparable to life below, was not that great either, in spite of the accoutrements of wealth. It seems one would have had to be pretty desperate to be a member of the ship's crew, and I suppose many of them were conscripted. All the way around, a horrible way to live.