Accra, Ghana—Even in the dank and dim corners of Elmina Castle, behind whitewashed walls of stone blocks a foot thick, one can hear the angry sound of the ocean heaving waves to the shore.
For nearly 400 years, those tumultuous waves pounding the Guinea coast of West Africa carried off millions of her people—packed in rickety ships and bound for the Americas and a life of labor, humiliation and often cruelty.
As Ghana—the first African country to cast off its colonial rulers—marks the 50th anniversary of its independence next year, it will begin a tourism campaign aimed at Africans scattered around the globe by the slave trade.
“Project Joseph” is an invitation to blacks who trace their history to the slave trade to reconnect with the land of their ancestors—and it comes with an apology, not from countries associated with slave masters or slave traders, but from the black slave-catchers of Ghana.
“The reason why we wanted to do some formal thing is that we want—even if it’s just for the surface of it, for the cosmetic of it—to be seen to be saying ‘sorry’ to those who feel very strongly and who we believe have distorted history, because they get the impression that it was people here who just took them and sold them,” said Emmanuel Hagan, director of research and statistics at Ghana’s Ministry of Tourism and Diasporean Relations.
“It’s something we have to look straight in the face and try to address, because it exists. So we will want to say something went wrong. People made mistakes, but we are sorry for whatever happened.”
Sharing the blame
The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) estimates that 17 million men, women and children were forcibly taken from the western shores of Africa in wooden ships bound for the Americas.
Millions more died alone—unknown, far from home and without proper burial—during the overland march to slave-trading forts such as Elmina, where slaves were kept in dungeons and shackles and then branded with hot irons before being packed “like pieces of ebony” into waiting ships.
Most books on the history of African slavery blame the trade on maritime trading countries such as Portugal and the Netherlands, and the countries where the human cargo was sold, such as the United States, Britain and Brazil.
The idea that some Africans sold their own people into slavery is mostly ignored. Ghana, however, has never shied away from it.
“Long before the coming of Europeans to the Guinea coast of Africa, our local people here already practiced slavery,” said Philip Amoa-Mensah, a volunteer guide at Elmina Castle.
“Who a slave was and how they were treated could not be compared,” he added. “To the Europeans, a slave [was] always a slave and the absolute property of his master. He had no protection against the wickedness of the master and was a tool to be used and discarded when useless.”
Guides such as Mr. Amoa-Mensah deliver Tourism Ministry-approved scripts describing the dense bush and jungle along the coastline, the virulent illnesses that wiped out early slavers and their wives, and the columns of hundreds of African men and women forced into the forts, subdued by chains and whips.
They say it’s unlikely that Europeans could have survived such experiences.
Ghana, a stable but poor English-speaking country in a war-ravaged, mainly Francophone part of the continent, is considered a mecca for blacks seeking their roots.
It has more than 50 monuments left from the slave trade, one of the most comprehensive collections in the English-speaking world.
It is one of the only West African countries to offer an apology for its ancestral role in the slave trade.
“We have something we call the healing to take care of that aspect of the relationship, because we cannot gloss over it,” Mr. Hagan said.
Thousands of black Americans visit the slave-trading castles each year, many around Black History Month in February. Guides say they’ve seen all sorts of reactions—from utter devastation to rage to a kind of serenity.
Jazz vocalist Toni Manieson says she felt almost nothing. She visited the forts a year ago with a group of jazz singers and remembers the heat of the day most vividly. Like the people “Project Joseph” aims to attract, Mrs. Manieson was trained as a teacher and multicultural counselor when she moved to Ghana with her husband nine years ago. She now runs her own business and employs 22 local persons. Although she says she was never really into the idea of “return to Africa,” she feels a spiritual connection with the country that is now her home.
“I feel something here that I didn’t feel in America,” she said. “I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. I feel like I’m really living life.”
The project’s name is taken from the biblical story of Joseph. “Joseph was sold by his own brethren. He was betrayed by his own people, but eventually he prospered in the land of his own affliction,” said Mr. Hagan, of the Tourism Ministry. “He became prime minister in the pharaoh’s government, he became very powerful, and he went back and helped his own brethren who had cast him away.
“So we’re saying, no matter what happened, the people should feel comfortable to come back to Africa, and even help Africans develop, because they are better off than us. Ultimately, we also hope there are some who will come, and invest, and even stay.”