The Grand Slave Emporium: Cape Coast Castle and the British Slave Trade by William St Clair

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The Grand Slave Emporium: Cape Coast Castle and the British Slave Trade by William St Clair

Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jacqueline Kay
Reviewed by Jacqueline Kay
Summary: An accessible account of life in and around Cape Coast Castle on the coast of Ghana, the main point of departure for the British Slave Trade ships with their human cargoes. Recommended for lovers of historical detail.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: March 2007
Publisher: Profile Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-1861979889

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On 25th March 1807 the British Parliament passed the Abolition of Slavery Act which brought to an end the legal British Slave Trade. The publication of the latest edition of William St Clair's book The Grand Slave Emporium coincides with the bicentenary of that event and may prompt British readers to reflect on shameful episodes from our colonial past. From the comfort of our 21st century armchairs, William St Clair escorts us on an imaginary journey back in time to the slaving era and to a location of significance throughout its history: Cape Coast Castle on the coast of Ghana. We are there to witness the departure of African slaves on their horrific transatlantic voyages. Our guide has painstakingly researched his subject using a lot of primary source material to reconstruct the lives not just of the slaves who were passing through this location but of all the people who lived and worked in and around the castle.

Before I read this book, I had not given much thought to the scale of the operation and its importance to the British "establishment" of the time, to the military organisation required to effect a forced migration of millions of people, not to mention the practicalities of conducting such an activity remotely. We tend to think of "globalisation" in commerce as a relatively recent phenomenon but, as St Clair points out, the slave industry had a huge impact on the Europeanised world economy. Ships of many nations, often literally at war with one another, competed for their cargoes. Their relative success depended on the manner in which their expatriates conducted their business onshore. The "slave-hole" in Cape Coast Castle was central to the British Operation in more ways than one.

In a very well structured book, we catch our first glimpse of the castle through the eyes of the British expatriates arriving by sea. We witness their shock, terror, humiliation and indignity as they make their way by canoe to the shore, utterly dependent on the skills of the local indigenous population to bring them safely to land. We are gradually introduced to the layout of the castle and its environs. We learn about the pioneers who caused it to be built and that all is not quite as secure as it at first seems. With a chapter devoted to each stratum of the microcosmic society which formed within its walls, we are introduced to successive governors, their officers, the soldiers and other workers including the castle slaves whose fate was far preferable to that of those bound for the ships. A memorable section entitled the "The House that Jack Built" captures beautifully how the community developed to support many specialist trades people. Finally we get to meet the women and children who visited or stayed in the castle.

I was so immersed in the book at this point that I wanted to stay in the castle with some of the characters I had started to feel I knew. I rather resented being taken to some of the other forts along the coast in the next chapter. I was even more reluctantly brought back to the present as the remaining chapters widened the scope both in time and place. I shared in the bewilderment of those who wondered what to do with the castle when its primary purpose had gone away. Today Cape Coast Castle is a UNESCO World Heritage site, attracting tourists and educational visits from far and wide. The author leaves us to consider just what we should be telling our children about it.

If, like me, you want to immerse yourself in historical detail, you will find much in this book to interest you at many different levels. The account is full of little surprises: at a very mundane level, for example, we discover that footwear needs to be oiled on a daily basis to avoid the growth of mould; while at a much higher level we encounter governors of rival forts collaborating with one another to minimise the damage to each others' fortifications in times of war, giving priority to the safety of their future commercial endeavours over any current calls to national duty. A discovery of a slightly more chilling nature is that the number of slaves who died on board ship while awaiting departure off the coast of Ghana actually exceeded the number that died in transit across the Atlantic Ocean, the difference being that the empty slots when this occurred could easily be filled by others.

At a detailed level I have found a few quibbles with this book. Some of the money conversions seem to be wrong e.g. "half a guinea" converted to "60p"; another section quoting a figure of £7000 being £350 for each of 200 men had me trying to work out whether I was missing a zero somewhere or had one too many somewhere else; and a reference to castle slaves coming from Gambia, 2500 miles away had me reaching for my atlas to confirm an earlier figure in the book of 1000 miles for the distance. These have undermined my confidence in some of the other numerical details given which cannot be checked so readily such as the life expectancy of the officers.

The above quibbles are all relatively trivial and should not be allowed to detract from the impressive collation of material presented in a very readable form. If looking for other unusual angles on man's inhumanity to man in the past you might like to try Heather Pringle's The Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust or you may prefer to stay in Africa with Peter Godwin's Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa.

Our thanks to the publishers, Profile Books, who sent this book to us.

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