Seeking a Lion's Historian

Brendan O'Brien

© Copyright 2015 by Brendan O'Brien


Photo of two hunters with a dead lion.

            The ocean water stretches on for days, onward and upward until intermingling with the pale blue sky. But teasing them apart proves impossible, with the beginning of one easily mistaken for the edge of the other. The relative stillness of waves and absence of clouds betray nothing of the passages they once observed. A stone castle hovers over the horizon, perched high above surrounding sandbars and small fishing boats. The chatter of seagulls and villagers are mere whispers amidst the crash of waves on the rocks below, the only sounds of the world beyond to breach this fortress. No words escape the stone block or gentle breeze or uninhibited sun, but they know.

            The horrors of the past are palpable in a place like this. The blood has dried on the walls and the chains have ceased to rattle, but the castle speaks nonetheless. Whatever Ghana’s future, it would inevitably be linked to the centuries-old happenings of Cape Coast Castle. Whether the nation will ever fully recover is yet to be seen, but its past is steeped in untold stories and unmarked graves. Countless former inhabitants died at sea, their only legacy the disease that killed them. The men, women, and children chained by the thousand to the darkest annals of these ships often shared nothing beyond air and ailment. The common African identity was a myth, perhaps propagated by the West to justify enslavement or perhaps embraced by the afflicted continent to distance itself from the cruelty of these outsiders.

            No matter the actual homogeneity of the entity of Africa, it is a continent still decades and cultural mores apart from the one into which I was born. Friends and family object to my choice of where to spend my time abroad, citing fear of safety or preference for practicality. Yet, for us, this world across the Atlantic is a market’s people bustling with uncertainty and a child’s face yearning for food. It’s an elephant speckling the sky with water and a monkey’s screech carrying through the treetops. There is malaria and cholera and dengue fever, each of which can shorten my stay on both the continent and the Earth. Europe is safer, more convenient, less threatening. And yet, I wish to know the world and no chaos staggered by perception or dangers cited in statistics will keep me from its most remote corners.

            But even as I stepped from the plane with this unabashed desire to explore the unknown, I was met with a harsh reality: my white skin marks me as foreign to this place. I am irrevocably removed from the horrors endured by this castle’s captives. I am stamped with the mark of where I’m from, as if in an effort to prevent my forgetting. Place me in the sun and I’ll burn, as if even the sun were unhappy with my presence. Walking in a market, sitting in class, my identity follows me: obruni. White person, or so it seems to mean. The actual meaning of the Twi word is person from across the sea. An obibini, a person from here, I can never be. The first thing a stranger knows about me, before even learning of my name, is that I do not belong there. From a distance, in fact, I have more in common with the foreigners who once imprisoned and enslaved the natives; with the pathogens who set the body in motion against itself.

            I beg to be seen for more than my susceptibility to sunburn or inherited wealth. Slavery is an ancient practice, stretching from one continent to the next skin color to the next belief system. Indeed, the ‘Africans’ brought to the coast by rival soldiers and tribesmen often had as little connection with the men who took them captive as the ones who shipped them across the ocean. In fact, the “white man” on the coast may have provided the demand for slaves in the transatlantic trade, but the supply came from inland, far beyond familiar territory for the malaria-prone visitors. Long before rails and roads were built to clear the way for colonists to collect these slaves themselves, this slave trade was kept alive by people similarly caught in the eternal struggle for land and resources. Ancestors of captives and prisoners that would one day reconcile and proudly call themselves Africans.


            Our Cape Coast Castle tour winds from narrow corridor to open courtyard and back again, our Ghanaian guide ushering us on in much the same way a party’s host leads guests through a home. He describes the music and celebration of past religious ceremonies, gesturing to the contrasting dungeon as his tour group inspects the surrounding stone. “Heaven up there; hell down here,” the guide explains, his pointer finger alternating between the ceiling and floor. Two hallelujahs. Two whispers to beyond through tear-stained eyes. Two hands clenched before the man basking in light to mirror those chained behind the man drenched in darkness. Indeed, slavery seems to arise not from any one entity, but from the distinctions made between one, as belonging above, and another, as belonging below.

            But the earth takes each the same. Eyes once turned skyward are filled with dirt. Skin once made raw with lashes, just as skin once burned by the same sun that sustained it, disintegrates amidst the soil. Mouths that feasted and mouths that starved, both are reduced to maggots’ next meal. Blood that once carried nutrients to the body now does the same for the earth, whether it once flowed through an obibini or obruni.

            To the untrained eye, the castle bears testimony to the genius of mankind. The stone and mortar pay homage to architectural mastery and offer no tribute to the sins and scars of prisoners past. But nature keeps no secret. The faces and cultures which once passed through these dark corridors en route to their deaths have not been lost; they have been absorbed. The past haunts these grounds. Every breeze echoes with the prisoner’s wails. Every groove in a stone is a fingernail that fell short in digging for freedom. The archways and cannons and drains have been infused with the souls of a continent, and the rock and timber of which this temple was built can never return to their basic substance. No, an inner voice within me whispers, the earth hides nothing from one who cares to look.


            This castle is alien to its landscape, a buried secret on the path to civilization. A tunnel separates one room from the outside world, the archway marked with a small sign placed above. Door of No Return. The sign is new, but our guide describes this passage in such detail that I imagine the shackles tearing into my own wrists. I imagine my heart like a weight within me as I am torn from my home and family and culture. Try as I might, I cannot pretend to know the plight of those faceless beings that once passed through this doorway, from one prison to the next. For all of us who now pass through and turn back toward the castle, a sign reads simply Door of Return. Not all were granted such a luxury.

            For those whose roots stretch back to these walls, this is a symbol of the freedom once taken; a bold testament to the struggle of the human spirit to overcome even the most immense odds; a hope of re-scripting the destiny once assigned to a people. It is a simple attitude of Sankɔfa, an ancient Adinkra characterReturn and fetch it. Learn from the past. Carry it with you. The Adinkra symbols form the code of the Asante, Ghana’s most powerful tribeInk that bleeds from the soaked and scorched bark of the Badie tree is stamped upon hand-woven fabric with iron slag. A visible sign of the culture stamped upon the hearts of the Asante people, the culture that frees a people from the oppressive hold of the past inflicted upon it.

            But are they free? A voice nags me once more, directing my glance beyond these walls. And my gaze brings me face-to-face with people striving and fighting and haggling, engaged in the eternal struggles of their ancestors despite their freedoms. Fishermen reeling in nearly empty nets, children begging for tourists’ change, vendors peddling a new crop of shirts donated from the first world. Boats boasting flags from across the world, a reminder of the disunity at Ghana’s core. Ghana’s borders with Cote D’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, and Togo, like those of most sub-Saharan nations, were decided by imperial mandates. The country’s original name, Gold Coast, was given by the British for their personal exploitation of the resource.

            Even today, Ghana’s major natural resources provide little income for the nation. People spend their lives mining gold and growing cocoa and drilling for oil in return for the equivalent of a few dollars each day. The pesewas, worth a fraction of pennies, of brutal labor become profits in the billions as these raw materials are shipped abroad and manufactured into finished products. And these same products return to Ghana with embellished prices to adorn, feed, and move its inhabitants, not that many can afford anything beyond the minimum.

            Obruni, obibini, I simply do not care; our origins were not of our choosing. Must I be forever disdained and desired for my starting point? My white skin has become inherently linked with the wealth of my nation. Hands stretch to me from elderly beggars and small children as I pass on crowded city streets, as though a cedi worth 60 cents given so simply can overcome the systems of inequality which have banished them to the margins of society. And yet, offering monetary aid is declining the status of such human beings to a level once enforced by enslavement. I have not come to offer any temporary assistance; I have come to share in the story of those long-forgotten individuals, in the hopes of understanding it in the context of my own.


            No, this castle is as relevant to the nation’s identity now as it was when built in 1653. It has served as a slave castle, trade outpost, fortress, and museum. It’s been occupied by Swedes, Danes, Brits, and finally Ghanaians. The place has stood as a symbol of freedom and oppression, sometimes even both at once. Its white walls have withstood time’s trials, permitting those imprisoned—whether by bars or personal greed—to gaze out on an endless horizon. Birds amidst sky, boats amidst waves, walls amidst open spaces. The place is a silent witness to the horrors of this castle. She will give up her secrets if one knows the right questions to ask, but few can provoke such raw truth.

            Do you think the Earth cares? Can a tree grow without knowledge of its roots? Can scars heal when their cause is unknown? Can the morning bring the sun without feeling the darkness preceding it? Waves that once carried settlers to safety and slaves to graves roll casually on. Walls that once gave ear to desperate pleas of enslaved Africans and sinister demands of distinguished Europeans stand remarkably unfazed by the years. Women were forced to give up their bodies to appease the shallow desires of dignitaries away from their wives. Men were forced to bear the burden of knowing they had failed their families. There is perhaps no time in the history of the species in which so much humanity has been lost in a single place, and yet a foreigner with no knowledge of the site could pass it idly by.

            A stranger walking along that seaside wall sees those 16 cannons as a nation’s defense from outside threats, neglecting the fact they were built by the intruders themselves. He sees towers as architectural achievements instead of lookout points for maintaining order of prisoners. She sees rooms without light, rank with the stench of centuries, as storage areas and remains blind to the human beings they once held. Thousands upon thousands were stripped of their lives and dignity and freedom for the benefit of a few.

            And wandering this hell christened with death and greed, I stumble upon a room lined with works dedicated to the memory of those whose existence has been erased. Among these is a photograph of a dark room adorned with dirt, on its back wall a simple quote faintly scribbled. Until the lion has his historian, the hunter will always be a hero. And this castle’s past, all its stolen dreams and mangled identities, will be forgotten. Until one cares to ponder the scar, the wound will never heal. My mind will continue its attempt to tear free of the shackles once imparted upon the progress of a continent. My heart will continue to splinter at the sound of echoes lost in time’s translation. And the sun will continue to bleach the mystic blue sky. 

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