On two side of the Atlantic ocean, there stand two reminders – one well-known, the other not – of one of the darkest periods of human history: the slave trade. Elmina Fort in Ghana is where millions slaves were held in captivity before being shipped off to the Americas; on the other side of the ocean, some 5443 kilometres away,there is a rocky trail built by slaves that leads away from a quiet cove on Brazil’s Ilha Grande, where slave ships landed. Mark Eveleigh takes a look into their dark past, and how they stand today.
The African Gold Coast
[words and photographs © Mark Eveleigh]
Elmina, on the coast of Ghana, is said to be the biggest and oldest slave-trading fort in tropical Africa. An estimated 15-million slaves passed through this hell-hole during the years of what has justifiably been described as “the African Holocaust”.
The suffering the victims endured here while they waited for slave ships is impossible to imagine and nobody knows how many died before their ship even arrived. Even for the Portuguese (and, later, Dutch) soldiers who manned the fort, the place seems to have been nothing short of a death-sentence. The governors seem mostly to have been alcoholics and consumptives – their one pleasure apparently being the rape of newly captured slave girls – and some survived only a matter of months before malaria claimed them.
Elmina today is a busy place with hundreds of brightly coloured fishing boats anchored in the shadow of the fort. The scene might not have changed as much as you would imagine. According to historical documents in the fort, slavery here was not exclusively “a black and white” question: the village survived as a trading centre, supplying the garrison with provisions, workers and trackers who could help to re-capture runaways. In many cases tribal chiefs would trade war prisoners into slavery and, not infrequently, they would even sell their own subjects.
I first visited Elmina when I was a five year old, and living in Ghana. Almost 40 years later, on an expedition through the country with my father, the fort struck me as an unforgettably disturbing place to visit. (It might be said that I took part of the place with my when I left – I contracted malaria for the third time somewhere in this area).
Fast-forward a year and I find myself on assignment on the other side of the Atlantic, trekking around the Brazilian paradise island of Ilha Grande. By pure coincidence I happen upon a remote beach that was used for many years as a secret landing place for slave traders.
Brazil’s “Island of the Damned”
A sunny afternoon on Ilha Grande. It’s hard to imagine anything bad ever happened here. This island boasts some of the most beautiful beaches in Brazil; the turquoise reefs attract divers and the jungle-clad slopes are a paradise for trekkers.
Like Elmina, however, Ilha Grande has a dark and brooding history. Just a few decades ago it was known as Brazil’s “island of the damned” because of the infamous political prison at Dois Rios. A century before that it was still operating as a way-station where slaves could be “broken” – beaten, tortured and raped – before they were transported inland to the great mines, sugar-mills and coffee plantations of Minas Gerais.
Near the ruined prison at Dois Rios there is a track that cuts through dense jungle towards the coast. Howler monkeys roar like demons in the canopy and butterflies and hummingbirds flitter through shady glades like fairy phalanxes. At first the track is like any other, meandering drunkenly over crags and around boulders. But you soon realize that the boulders you are walking on are too regularly placed to have been laid by nature. This is one of South America’s few remaining slave roads. Like the Inca trails of Peru, it was laid by hand. Whereas the Andean trails were laid through love and devotion, this Brazilian rainforest track was founded on fear and constructed under the merciless lash of whips.
Half the slaves who left Africa died on the voyage but over two-million are estimated to have arrived in Brazil. It seems clear that a great many must have landed at Caxadaço if it was deemed necessary to build such a sturdy stone highway. How many slaves worked – and died – to build the slave road? Nobody will ever know. In the years leading up to the final abolition of slavery in 1888, Caxadaço was used as an important secret landing point. It would seem likely that more than a few of the 15-million slaves who passed through that hellish African port would have had their next glimpse of terra firma in the pretty, boulder-fringed little cove.
It is unlikely that the view charmed them as it does trekkers today. The “New World” would have held little attraction even after a month in the ship’s hold. The unfamiliar plants and animals would have put fear in superstitious hearts: the monstrous roar of howler monkeys in particular must have frozen the blood.
Halfway up the trail beyond Dois Rios there is a spot known as the Hole of Ashes. This is where slaves were executed for crimes such as theft or rebellion. In an act that seems to have been unnecessarily cruel even for slave-traders the victims were simply chained to the rock and abandoned without food or water “until their bodies turned to ashes”. Even for those who survived Ilha Grande, life was destined to be brutal and short. The average life expectancy for a slave on a Brazilian plantation was 10 years.
While Elmina is famous today as an icon of “the African holocaust”, the remote hidden little trail at Caxadaço seems to be unknown to all but a few determined Brazilian trekkers. In its way it stands even more powerfully as a monument to remind us of the far reaching effects of one of the darkest and most unforgivable periods of human history.
Are you fascinated by the parallels and contradictions of our world? Take a look at other posts from our Parallel Worlds writing project here.