On Slavery’s Doorstep in Ghana

Jasir Robert Ryan-Lee, a descendant of Venture Smith, looks out to the shore from the roof of the fort in Anomabo, Ghana, where his ancestor was held as a slave, then taken to a ship through its Door of No Return. Credit Jane Hahn for The New York Times

Mandred Henry was a health care sales rep from Hartford whom people often stopped on the street, saying he was a dead ringer for Morgan Freeman. Throughout his life he identified strongly with his African-American background. He was president of the local N.A.A.C.P. chapter. He remembered his mother keeping her grandmother’s slavery manumission papers in her top drawer.

But his awareness of his origins went back further than that. As a child he heard stories from his father of a distant ancestor who grew up among a cattle-herding tribe in West Africa in the 1700s. This ancestor was captured by enemy tribesman as a boy, sold into slavery and eventually wound up in New England, where he bought his freedom, then that of his sons and his wife. That ancestor, Venture Smith, was a colossus of a man, physically and otherwise, who defied slavery at its very height, becoming a landowner and businessman in the early days of the American republic.

Venture Smith’s renown was great enough that his sons passed on the story of their father to their children, and they to theirs. Mandred Henry in his turn told his children of their ancestor. He dreamed of traveling to Africa himself and completing the circle of the African-American experience.

Mandred Henry, who died in 2007, never made it, but last September three of his children, along with a granddaughter and a great-grandson, did, in a remarkable trip that took them to the slave fort where their ancestor was held and that culminated in a ceremonial gathering with the elders of the village where he was sold into slavery. I tagged along because I am researching Venture Smith for a book, and took part in an experience that I now feel every American should have a chance to duplicate, so woven is it into the country’s soul.

Ghana, where our journey took us, is sometimes called Africa Light by veteran travelers to the continent. To a first-timer, it doesn’t feel so light. A wall of stimuli rises up to greet you as you leave the airport and head into town: dust, scrub, heat, blinding sunlight, roving goats, hellbent traffic, throngs of vendors bearing their wares on their heads, crowding your vehicle at every stop, offering chocolate, feminine products, yams, everything. Give it a minute, though, and Accra, the sprawling capital, comes into some kind of focus. People are deeply friendly. And of course it helps enormously that, thanks to Britain’s long colonization, almost everyone speaks English.

Venture Smith’s tombstone at First Congregational Church cemetery in East Haddam, Conn., in a Smith family plot. Credit American Cultural Specialists, Torrington, CT

Our trip came about through a Switzerland-based historical preservationist named Chandler Saint, who, after working for several years to maintain sites related to Venture Smith’s life in New England, turned his attention to the three-century-old slave fort from which Smith left Africa. Mr. Saint had been in contact for some time with the chiefs of the town of Anomabo, 100 miles west of Accra along the infamous Gold Coast, to develop its ruined fort for tourism. But he needed traction, something that would jump-start the project.

He thought of bringing some of Venture Smith’s American descendants to the place. He had made contact with many of them in 2007 as part of an effort to use the former slave’s DNA to trace his exact origins. Mr. Saint broached the idea to some of the descendants, encouraged them to raise money for the trip and promised to set everything up. “We just had to say yes,” Angi Perron, one of Mandred Henry’s daughters, said. “For my dad, the idea of going to Africa was so special.”

As it happened, Mr. Saint’s organizational abilities did not match his enthusiasm. Practically the only information he gave me about the trip was the name of a hotel in Accra — and that I got only the day before my departure. On arrival, I discovered that no one else from the party was checked in, so I spent the day familiarizing myself with the capital.

Accra is a sprawling city, with ferocious energy. I quickly learned the truth of what my acquaintance Ama van Dantzig, a Ghanaian-Dutch social entrepreneur, told me: “There isn’t much cultural activity, theater and things like that. Street life — that’s where it’s happening.” Accra is the capital of the West African music scene, and recent innovations — “hiplife,” a combination of hip-hop and Ghanaian traditions, and a dance called Al Qaeda, where you look like you’re trying to hold onto your bombs — play out in clubs that spill onto the streets.

The closest thing to a neighborhood with an identity that I came across was Jamestown, the oldest part of Accra, whose blocks of shanties, fronted by stalls with plantains and kebabs cooking over open fires and selling everything from motorcycles to plastic baggies of water, are dominated by the English-built fort and lighthouse at the beach. Otherwise, this city of more than two million sprawls and ranges, an endless succession of low concrete-block buildings with corrugated metal roofs.

Gina E. Ryan and her son, Jasir, lead the procession during their visit in September. Credit Jane Hahn for The New York Times

The next morning, the Venture Smith party, 10 people in all, ranging from 7 years old to late middle age, was there in the breakfast room of the hotel, looking bewildered. Some of them had never been out of the United States before, which partly accounted for their disorientation. But much of their anxiety came from the fact that Chandler Saint, their organizer, was not there. They were on their own.

But they were a spirited group, game for what they hoped would be the adventure of their lives. As it turned out, the descendants all hailed from New England, not too far from where their ancestor had settled. Floyd Henry is an electrician on Martha’s Vineyard. His sister Angi Perron is a schoolteacher in Milford, N.H.; another sister, Corinne Henry Brady, is a parole officer in Providence, R.I.

We took charge of things ourselves, arranging taxis for the day, and set off exploring Accra. Our first stop was the National Museum, where the guide, in explaining the significance of the displays of beads, gold jewelry, ceremonial stools and drums, gave what amounted to an introduction to Ghana, West Africa and the slave trade.

The next morning, still lacking our organizer, we hired a minibus and driver for the two-and-a-half hour trip along the coast to Anomabo. After miles of urban sprawl, the countryside slowly emerged: red-earth hills covered in hunkered vegetation, floppy fronds of banana trees, the occasional tree towering above as a reminder that much of this was once rain forest. The landscape was punctuated by an endlessly entertaining succession of signs: Peculiar International School; Perfect Circumcision; Ask God Electrical Supply.

Ten minutes past the town of Mankessim, whose central traffic circle was overrun by grazing goats, we turned left and entered a pleasant enclave. The Anomabo Beach Resort is a collection of cabins scattered along the beach, interspersed with palm trees. After checking into our rooms (clean and modern, though the air-conditioning was anemic), we headed toward the open-air restaurant. It was on the beachfront, so we naturally detoured to the water’s edge.

The town’s elders pour libations on the earth to appease and summon the spirits of the ancestors. Credit Jane Hahn for The New York Times

And there I stood, feet in surf, suddenly stunned, looking up and down the scallop of palm-fringed beach, thinking: “The Gold Coast. The Gold Coast.” It was like a first visit to the White House. Or someplace more elemental: the Acropolis, or Jerusalem’s Old City. Only this, of course, was the opposite of a holy place. The Gold Coast was named for the resource that attracted first Africans and then Europeans, but eventually it became synonymous with another resource, for which the stretch of beach to the east — the Slave Coast — would be named. I looked down. My feet were embedded in sand that had soaked up historic misery.

Chandler Saint, the man who had brought us all here, finally greeted us at the restaurant. He introduced us to one of the chiefs of Anomabo, Nana Baffoe IV. We all sat down at one long table; with the urban intensity of Accra now firmly behind us, everyone succumbed to the warm sea breeze and began chattering at once. The descendants talked about their father, their distant ancestor and the wonder of being in Ghana. In one surreal moment, I saw two of them showing Nana Baffoe, the official representative of the tribal people who had sold their ancestor into slavery, pictures of their father on an iPad. Then Corinne and Angi talked to me about their parents. “Our father had a complicated relationship to race,” Angi said. Corinne added: “It was the ’60s and he was part of the civil rights movement. He had his dashiki phase. But at the same time, he married my mother: a white woman. We were a blended family before it was a thing.”

The next morning we pulled up in front of a squat, decaying two-story structure in Anomabo, the British-era tribal council building. We arranged ourselves under a canopy on one side of the entrance, while on the other side sat Anomabo’s traditional leaders: about a dozen men and two women, all in brightly patterned robes of kente cloth, the typical Ghanaian weave. A band of drummers and singers went to work. One of the elders danced, inviting Angi Perron to join him. Then we proceeded upstairs to the council chamber. The tribal elders settled themselves on a weathered set of maroon stuffed chairs and sofas while we visitors sat on plastic chairs near the entrance. It was dark and stiflingly hot. One of the chief’s cellphones went off: bells playing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

Mr. Saint stood and introduced each of us. The chiefs welcomed us and explained the role they traditionally played. Until a century or so ago this kind of council held sway across the country. The chiefs inherit their office through their mother’s line, and in the past they performed the functions of government. Now, in all but the most remote places, elected bodies have taken over many of the responsibilities. But there is still considerable respect for traditional offices.

Surprisingly, an argument ensued. A female elder said to us, “If you were not foreigners, I would say that you were in big trouble.” It seems that we had made an egregious error in failing to bring a bottle of schnapps as an offering. In fact, Mr. Saint had mentioned schnapps to us, but none of us registered it as an imperative, more as a gift suggestion. Some of us had brought wine. But no, only schnapps would do.

Chiefs from Anomabo listen as Phillip Yawson, a guide at the fort in Anomabo, talks about the slave dungeons. Credit Jane Hahn for The New York Times

One of our group countered that he refused to give liquor as a present, since when Europeans first made contact with Africans, they used liquor to grease the slaving transactions. The chiefs replied that the schnapps was not meant to be drunk. It was poured on the earth as part of a libation ceremony to appease and summon the spirits of the ancestors. This, in fact, had been done outside, when we came, but with their own schnapps. No one seemed to know why schnapps had become the de rigueur beverage.

This cross-cultural misunderstanding broke the ice, turning an event whose ultimate purpose was cloudy into an open exchange. It became clear that the chiefs hoped that Chandler Saint’s project, which involved installing in the fort a permanent exhibit of panels devoted to Venture Smith’s life, would economically benefit their impoverished community. “Venture Smith can stand for the thousands who passed through here,” Nana Baffoe said.

Getting closer to the point, another of the elders added, “Our children have basic needs: education, health care.” The elders were less interested in historic preservation than in the possibility of the fort becoming a locus of tourism, and perhaps a link to sympathetic individuals and organizations in the United States.

Eventually we all went back outside and organized ourselves into a loose procession. While the musicians chanted, we walked through Anomabo to the town’s infamous centerpiece: the hulking whitewashed mass of the European-built fort. Many of the town’s 14,000 people came out to watch.

The first English fort on the site was built in 1672; the current one, officially called Fort William, though known as Anomabo, dates from 1753. Given that it hasn’t been used since the early 19th century, when the British abolished slavery, it looks surprisingly sturdy. There are larger slave forts up the road, at Cape Coast and Elmina, which receive more tourists, but the one at Anomabo is the only one still in existence that was built for the purpose of processing human beings.

Top, the American descendants did as their ancestors would have been forced to do and stepped into small boats (in this case dugout canoes) to head out into the waves. The slaves would have been rowed to a waiting ship, as seen in the depiction, bottom, at the National Museum in Accra. Credit Jane Hahn for The New York Times

Indescribably powerful highlights, if highlights is the right word, include the auction block and the pens where men, women and children were held separately, and which, when the door is slammed shut, are black as night even on a bright day and almost airless. A few manacles are still attached to walls.

Walking the parapets of the fort, meanwhile, is another experience entirely. From here lie staggering views in every direction: palm-fringed beaches, the clustered roofs of the town, the endless sea. At your feet, cannons, with the British insignia from the reign of George III still visible, lie rusting along the walls.

From the town side, you enter the fort via a wide doorway, which yields to the central courtyard. Exiting is another matter. You could go out the way you came, or you can do what Venture Smith and an estimated 460,000 other Africans did: leave by the so-called Door of No Return. We did, by ones and twos, walking down a dark hallway, falling silent. Then from the darkness into the light: You step through a narrow door and are on the beach, with the town’s wooden fishing boats lined up to your left.

Hundreds of locals were there, watching with amusement as the Americans did what Mr. Saint had promised they would do at the climax of the trip: step into small vessels, as their ancestor would have been forced to do, and head out into the waves. But while the slaves were rowed to a ship, which would transport them to an unimaginably distant place, the descendants were given a tour of the harbor in dugout fishing canoes.

The boat ride was more than they had bargained for. The seas were rough, and the local sailors who steered the boats didn’t seem to care; the boats pitched violently as they made their circuit. Jasir, the 7-year-old in the party, screamed in terror. When they were all back on shore again, Corinne Brady marched grimly away from the water, muttering, “That. Was. Not. Fun.” Given what they were re-enacting, perhaps it wasn’t meant to be.

The next day, Kwadwo Opoku-Agyemang, an English professor from the nearby University of Cape Coast, showed up at the beach resort with an unusual request. He wanted to deliver a lecture. We gathered in the lounge, and as the wind gently whipped the palm fronds outside, he proceeded, in a soft, deep, resonant voice, to put everything we had done and seen in a cultural frame.

Ghana’s history is intricately tied to slavery — not just involving Europeans but also slavery within Africa — and his talk reflected a despair of his country’s ever transcending it. What Prof. Opoku-Agyemang wanted to impress on us was the difference between the way Ghanaian and African-American cultures have processed the vast trauma of slavery. He talked about American music, jazz, blues, hip-hop, and the achievements of African-American writers. “They have not taken this legacy passively inside themselves, but have converted it,” he said. And in converting it into art, he said, they have transcended it. “You can hear John Coltrane’s music anywhere on earth.”

Then he gave us examples of Ghanaian culture. To this day, he said, houses in the north, the region where slaves like Venture Smith were taken from, are built with a front door so low you have to stoop to get inside, and then with a wall in front of the doorway that you have to walk around to enter. He asked us to ponder these architectural artifacts with him, suggesting that they dated to a time when people tried to protect themselves against marauders in search of slaves. “Slavery,” he said, “has shaped tradition.”

Also, to this day, he said, when you enter a home in the region the host’s traditional greeting is, “Are you being chased?” He told us that no one gives a thought to the actual meaning of the words, any more than people do other deep-seated traditions. But, he asked us to consider, “Are they not indications of a buried trauma?”

And he talked about tribal scarification — ritual cuts on the face and body — which is still practiced, saying that at one time people scarred their children with knives to make them less appealing to slavers. His message seemed to be that in too many ways, Ghanaian society still bears the scars of slavery.

Later, we took a drive with Prof. Opoku-Agyemang to Cape Coast. The city was far more appealing than Accra: smaller, and set on a hill overlooking a bay. It was breezier than the capital, more languorous, with almost the feel of an Italian village. Its fort is grander than Anomabo, has been restored, perhaps overly so, and attracts streams of visitors (President Obama visited in 2009).

We had lunch at a place outside the city, right on the water, called Mabel’s Table. The eponymous owner is Ghanaian; her husband is from Mount Vernon, N.Y. From our table we could see, out on a point of land, the third infamous slave fort of the area, Elmina. None of us knew what would come of Mr. Saint’s project to restore the fort at Anomabo, but over lunch we brainstormed ways to use the descendants’ visit to help the residents of that town.

On the last day of the descendants’ trip, Mandred Henry’s three children went back to the beach at the base of the fort. Nobody was around; this would be a private ceremony. Corinne Brady pulled an Advil bottle from her purse. It contained some of her father’s ashes. The three said a prayer, then she scattered them on the beach. “As you get older, you realize it’s all about family,” she said. “We were all there when my dad died. He looked around the room and he said, ‘We made a really nice family, didn’t we?’ ”

Source: Russell Shorto for NYTimes