Palm trees sway in the wind as waves crash on the shore below. Emerald waters stretch far beyond the ancient white walls and neatly aligned cannons. A cool ocean breeze gave relief from the overhead sun. On the other side, a bustling market and dense single-room structures lie between the castle and a hill topped by a colonial fort. This scene is picturesque, cliché, and the setting where a thousand people at a time – some six hundred men and four hundred women – were regularly manacled to each other in solid stone dungeons with a few square inches of sunlight before being sent through the “Door of No Return” onto death ships to the Americas. About 10 million total people went through this ordeal.
Visiting Elmina and Cape Coast Castles, slave trade forts built respectively by the Portuguese and the British, reminded me of visiting Auschwitz four years ago. My first encounter with Auschwitz was as spooky as it gets – waking up at 3 am on the night train from Vienna to Krakow to look out the window and see the train was stopped with some sort of electrical issue at the Oświęcim station which I quickly realized was the Polish town name that was Germanized into Auschwitz. But when I visited Auschwitz the next day it was a beautiful spring day with the sun beating down on the grassy fields around Birkenau, site of the gas chambers that likely killed my great-grandfather’s family.
Beautiful weather and architectural flourishes surround the sites of some of the greatest atrocities ever committed. This is a simple fact to state but an oddly emotionally complex one to wrap your head around when you feel it with your own body. When we think about evil, we think about it in a monochromatic way. Footage of the Holocaust is black and white (hence Steven Spielberg’s decision to film Schindler’s List in black and white, where many of our mental images of Auschwitz come from). For obvious reasons there aren’t pictures of these slave forts in operation, but when I think of the Atlantic Passage, I think of grimy and yellowed blueprints for the boats slave traders stacked kidnapped Africans like library books.
One exception might be the image of an overpowering sun over fields of cotton – but even then, we’re inclined to think of blinding light and overpowering heat. We don’t realize there were days when the weather was fine – pleasant even – as slaves were whipped and worked mercilessly.
We think thematically: it rains on sad days and the sun shines on happy ones. Yet evil can happen in very normal times. It can happen on days that would otherwise be pleasant. It happens in public, in visible spaces with little hiding. (Auschwitz may not have been public, but round ups and deportations and ghettos and checkpoints where people in Munich were required to salute all were.)
All of this is to say that visiting these sites has made it unnerving just how normal evil is. It really happened, and it happened in a place whose air you can still breathe and whose walls you can feel with your own fingers. It happens on bright, breezy days.