The Door of No Return: The History of Cape Coast Castle and the Atlantic Slave Trade

William St Clair

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Hardcover (288 pages)



Editorial Description

The grim history of the slave trade from Africa is one that has had an impact on generations of people all over the world. While much of the initial voyage and inhumane treatment of slavery has been historically analyzed, there has been little written on the several forts and castles along the coast of Ghana that were used as slave holding facilities. This book focuses primarily on Cape Coast Castle, the African headquarters of the British slave trade from 1664 to 1807, through which countless men, women, and children were sold as slaves and carried away on slave ships, often to North America. It tells the story of the people who lived, worked, or were imprisoned within its walls, as well as the construction and upkeep of the building, the arrivals and departures of ships, the negotiations with local African leaders, and the deadly diseases inside.

Reader Reviews

I feel like I was misled ...
This was indeed a fine book on a certain topic--namely the history of the Cape Coast Castle. However, based on (1) the title of the book ("Door of No Return"), (2) the subtitle of the book ("the history of the Cape Coast Castle AND the Atlantic Slave Trade") and (3) the drawing on the cover of the slaves packed into the slave ship, I naturally expected that this was going to be a book which was basically going to be about the slaves themselves. For example, some of the topics I was hoping/expecting to read about included: (1) How did the slaves come to the castle in the first place (both as a literal matter and in terms of how they were "selected" to go there)?; (2) What was daily life like for the slaves imprisoned there? (What was their diet? How long were they typically there? Were they in chains 24 hours a day? Did they have any freedom of movement? How many were there at a time? etc. etc.); (3) What was the process by which they were placed on the outgoing slave ships? (4) How did the selection process work--i.e. which slaves were picked and why? (5) How did the slave trade process itself work?

Unfortunately none of these topics were touched on in the slightest. In fact the slaves themselves (other than the Castle slaves) seem to be a total afterthought in the book. Instead the focus was solely on the structure itself, including access to it, the outside of it, the inside of it, which officers, soldiers and women lived there, etc. In fairness to the author, the reason the above topics were not discussed MAY be because, as admitted in the Introduction (p. 7), the answers to many of the above questions may simply not be known. However when I bought the book, I didn't know that--I saw the title, the subtitle and the cover drawing.

In short, for the sake of accuracy, the subtitle of the book should have been altered in a subtle but significant way. It should have been called "A history of Cape Coast Castle DURING the slave trade." I wonder whether the impression created by the title, the subtitle and the cover drawing were intentional ...

The Business of Slavery
Written with the Gold Coast of Africa as its center, this remarkable book is an amazing piece of work. The author uses records recovered from Britain's slave forts to recreate the business life of the trade. We learn how and why people were bartered for manufactured goods and the process of assembly and shipping of human cargo. The recovered douments also provide the personal side never meant to be viewed by others. I found this book to be excellent and recommend it thoroughly.

This is a monograph on one of the few remaining monuments of the slave trade that still exist in Africa. Cape Coast Castle was a lightly fortified warehouse the British used to store slaves awaiting shipment to offshore slavers. The commercially-provided administration of the fort acted as a go-between between the white slavers and Africans selling the slaves.

On the plus side, this book is a wonderful vehicle to make the reality of this dreadful business very concrete. It also gives an incredible view into the day-to-day working of the fort.

On the minus side, though, it's all rather bloodless. There's not much about how anyone felt about the ugly business. Now, this may reflect an absence of primary material, but it also reflects the author's style, which can be very dry, non-committal, and above-it-all.

Another thing that seemed missing was any real human reaction to the incredible death toll that affected the whites. My guess is letters would have been very useful for this human element (for both topics), but probably don't exist in any one collection and would have involved a lot more research.

At the same time, one very interesting thing the author was able to uncover was how little racism was involved in the whole operation. The fort actually had a black chaplain, white males routinely took African wives, and local custom and law was highly respected. This was probably because of the time period (mostly pre-19th century) but also because of the commercial nature of the enterprise.

On the minus side again, I noticed a real falling off in the latter part of the book. For example, the treatment of white women is basically the stories of two of them, focusing on one who also happened to be a literary figure. This seemed to turn into an excuse for the author, who has a literary background, to devote a good 12 pages to literary biography and criticism.

There are also sections that cover multiple topics, with the topics very lightly pulled together. In fact, a lot of these topics are really just single incidents that seem to just pop as they occur to the author.

Finally, the author starts to use primary material quite a bit in the latter part of the book, without enough introduction or explanation. In one particularly salient example, he starts out the section "Embarking" with "The letters carried by canoe betweenship and shore speak for themselves," then simply includes 8 letters.

Overall, a very interesting topic, but rather uneven treatment.

Matter-of-fact, almost understated, account of slave trading headquarters
Short history of the British headquarters of the slaving trade on the southwest-facing coast of Africa. St. Clair is very matter-of-fact, almost understated, in his writing, imparting a sense of quietness about a place where millions of Africans were bought, bartered, sold, penned in dungeons under the "castle", then led out the "door of no return" to the the canoes and long boats that would take them to slave ships for the deadly trip to the deadlier destination of the US and the Caribbean.

The castle, in contemporary pictures and words, and in modern pictures and words, invites one to think alternately in terms of adventure, romance, regret, disgust, and anger, St. Clair's quiet writing considers each angle, but never glories in one or wallows in another.

The Cape Coast was lined with dozens of these slave holding pens, fancied forts or castles; one is still in use by the Gambian government as its house of state.

Good history
If you are interested in British participation in the slave trade you need to read this book. Tells how it went and how the slave trade was the elephant in the drawing room of upper class down on their luck Britishers for a long time.