In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Architectures of West African Enslavement
  • Louis P. Nelson (bio)

The gleaming white castle rises dramatically from the promontory overlooking the coastal town of Dixcove, Ghana, much as it has for more than three centuries (Figure 1). Visitors arrive in town and park at the base of the hill, climbing to the castle on foot. The path wends up the side of the hill and diverts to the west toward the small parade ground that stands between the front of the castle and the sea. Two massive diamond-shaped bastions stand to either side of a heavily rusticated door, which opens through the solid, unbroken masonry of the outer wall into the front courtyard of the castle. In the back corner of an interior courtyard is an arched opening into the northeast bastion, accessed by a range of three steps. The small chamber behind is closed by a heavy iron gate (Figure 2). No more than two hundred square feet, this was the slave hole. Merely 2 percent of the total square footage of the whole compound, this small cell was a critical component of the sequences of such spaces in English castles along the west coast of Africa. It played a vital role in the highly lucrative system of transatlantic slavery that defined the coastline of West Africa and that sustained the sugar production of the British West Indies from the late seventeenth century to the abolition of the slave trade in 1807.1

The slave holes of the English castles lining the west coast of Africa were and are horrifying.2 "There was nothing to be heard but the rattling of chains, smacking of whips, and the groans and cries of our fellow men," reported Ottobah Cugoano.3 But these chambers were not the only spaces experienced by enslaved Africans in the long journey from Africa to the Caribbean. While historians have dealt extensively with many dimensions of the slave trade—and this article depends on the published scholarship of a number of excellent historians—architectural historians have left the spaces of enslavement largely untouched. This article situates the historical narratives of the slave trade not in buildings but in spaces, some permanent, some temporary, some floating, and some created by implements of bondage. This understanding of space depends on that formulated by Henri Lefebvre in which space is at once physical, socially produced, and imagined.4 When possible, physical spaces have been documented, recorded in their surviving conditions as artifacts of slavery.5 But these spaces were very much the product of those social and economic relationships governing the capture (and resistance to capture), containment, transfer, and sale of people. They are also products of the British imagination, changing as their intended function changed and changing relative to other institutional architecture. Understood as agents in the economic and social relationships of exchange, these spaces—in buildings and in canoes—are components of a machine of production dedicated to the generation of "the slave" as a social, historically contingent and situated subject.

In tracking sequences of spaces, I do not pretend to suggest that this article reports a typical experience; variations over space and time and among personal dispositions mean such an attempt would be folly.6 But the telling that follows was in its component parts the reality for many [End Page 88] who were transported against their will from Africa to the Caribbean by British slavers, a term used historically to identify both the men who enslaved and the boats that carried their victims. Based on fieldwork in Ghana and on a careful examination of documentary and visual records in England, Ghana, and the United States, this article reconstructs the spatial experience of the enslaved, examining when possible not just the physical spaces but also the spatial experience of the senses, so powerfully captured by Cugoano.

By engaging sequences of spaces, this article embraces four methodological convictions. The first is that the meanings of spaces are not always determined by their physical production. Sometimes the experience of a space, if such an experience can be reconstructed, is far more important than its material making. Another conviction is that the writing of history benefits from the rigorous examination...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 88-125
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.