“In everlasting memory of the anguish of our ancestors. May those who died rest in peace. May those who return find their roots. May humanity never again perpetrate such injustice against humanity. We, the living vow to uphold this.”
Plaque at Cape Coast Castle in Ghana.
In the baking heat of a Ghanaian afternoon in an area once nicknamed “the slave coast”, I read these sobering words. Today, I’ve been down to the dungeons of one of the biggest colonial castles in the world, where more than 1,000 slaves were kept at any one time, and up to the governor’s airy, spacious rooms. I’ve looked through a small hole outside the first Protestant church in West Africa, where members of the congregation could look down on the cramped slaves, just to make sure they were still festering in there, before entering into God’s house to worship Him.
In the claustrophobic dungeons we were plunged into darkness. A trio of tiny windows cast minimal light on the walls. It seemed that the stench of faeces, death and blood remained even though no slaves have been kept there for almost 200 years. From Cape Coast Castle, thousands of slaves from all over West Africa would be led in chains through a gate called “the door of no return”: as if they hadn’t guessed it already, the slave masters wanted to make it clear that they would never be free to come back. Once through the fateful gate they would be sent onto the infamous slave ships and sailed halfway round the world to work in fields and plantations across the Americas and the Caribbean – if they managed to survive the treacherous journey. Up to two thirds of the slaves would die in transit and their bodies would be thrown out to sea.
A brutal moment in Britain’s history that I don’t remember learning about in school at all. In the exhibition, which proceeds the tour of the castle, one sentence that struck me was that for hundreds of years no one particularly opposed the slave trade because it served their own economic interests.
As shocking as this notion is, what it really made me thing about was this: what do I choose to ignore because it serves my own economic interest?
The roots of the transatlantic slave trade ran deep, spanning centuries and continents. Just as today’s modern-day slavery is a complex, multi-faceted and pervasive issue. In the course of a day it’s highly likely I will have eaten, used or worn something made or grown by someone who is being forced to work against their will or in an oppressive situation.
It’s a reality we have become used to, as was true of that other devastating slave trade that I came face to face with today. The last lines of the plaque on the wall by the exit of the castle were the hardest for me to read:
“May humanity never again perpetrate such injustice against humanity. We, the living vow to uphold this.'”
They were the hardest because we do tolerate injustice and if we are honest it’s for our own economic gain. We can stand like those churchgoers looking down with disdain on the incarcerated, at those slave traders of old, so far removed from our modern lives, forgetting all the while we are only fingertips away from the slaves we build our lives of convenience on.
It’s hard, and a struggle to really live out. The Rhythms community grapple with these kind of questions constantly and we certainly don’t have all the answers.
A visit like I made today has the potential to guilt trip me into change or to seek some kind of atonement for the grim past though my actions.
Christ’s love however compels us rather than condemns – 2 Corinthians 5:14. It’s love for God and our brothers and sisters that will cause us to transform our actions. Without that love flowing in us and through us any response will be short-lived. We’ll get fed up when we don’t see any real change, we’ll give up at the first hurdle and forget why we were doing it in the first place. But Christ’s love sinks down into us and changes us, it increases our compassion and strengthens our weakness. It has the power to influence our shopping baskets and what we do with out credit cards. It’s through Jesus’ atonement for atrocities and the sins of our fathers that we are humbled enough to live differently.
I want to be able to put my hands up and truthfully say I’m an upholder of justice, but I can’t do it alone. Guilt will only lead me so far before I’m too broken – and depressed – to get any further. I can’t do it without love and I can’t do it without community. We invite you to join us on this journey and be transformed.
This post is part of a series that our friends at Rhythms are writing on minimalism and ethical lifestyles.