Elmina Castle and the Year of Return

By Evan Binkley (@evanbinkley_)

In 2019, Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo inaugurated the Year of Return, a national tourism strategy that invited members of the African Diaspora to visit Ghana.[1] The Year of Return marked four hundred years since the first enslaved Africans arrived in the English Colony of Virginia. To commemorate this anniversary, President Akufo-Addo and representatives of the Ghana Tourism Authority encouraged individuals to visit former sites of enslavement such as Elmina Castle. 

Located on the coast of Ghana, Elmina Castle is one of the first European buildings in sub-Saharan Africa. In the centuries following its construction by Portuguese traders in 1482, Elmina was captured by Dutch forces in 1637 and served as a central site of captivity during the transatlantic slave trade.[2] Immense human suffering enabled economic activity beyond the castle’s walls. Britain annexed the castle in 1872 as part of its colonial territory of the Gold Coast.[3] Following Ghanaian independence in 1957, Elmina was recognized as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site.[4] What was once a site of unimaginable pain and departure now serves as a point of reconnection and return. 

As a testament to its sustained significance, the castle annually attracts tens of thousands of visitors, many of whom arrive to confront the anguish faced by their forebears.[5] The promotion of Elmina Castle through the Year of Return brought even further attention to the site. In 2019, the contribution of tourism to Ghana’s GDP climbed to US$3.7 billion, and 93,000 more international travelers visited Ghanaian cultural and natural attractions than in 2017.[6] However, such attention also contributed to the deterioration of the castle itself. In June of 2019, a crew of workers bulldozed a section of land directly in front of the entrance to the castle. As machines removed layer after layer of soil, they exposed stone flooring that had been laid in previous centuries. Despite the archaeological and historical significance of this discovery, demolition continued. After clearing the area, workers laid new bricks for a parking lot.

When the dust settled, Elmina had expanded its capacity to accommodate additional visitors. However, the construction of the new lot space represented an act of significant commercial encroachment on a site that already faces threats to its survival. As a building that directly borders the Gulf of Guinea, Elmina Castle is susceptible to environmental factors such as erosion, humidity, and wind. Without sustained funding for its conservation, the castle remains at risk of partial collapse. One important strategy for protecting cultural heritage sites is the use of buffer zones, designated neutral land around a site that can provide protection from commercial activities and environmental threats. UNESCO monitoring reports have repeatedly cited the lack of defined buffer zones around Elmina Castle to protect against such pressures.

As a World Heritage Site in jeopardy, Elmina requires further intervention to ensure its future. Today, a labyrinth of stone fractures and mold growth can be found throughout the castle. Many rooms are shrouded in darkness and unsafe to enter due to unstable flooring, and corrosion continues to tear walls apart from each other. However, due to the castle’s historical connection to the transatlantic slave trade, conservation is not universally accepted as a solution to such issues.[7] For many visitors, Elmina’s dilapidated condition allows them to visualize past human suffering beyond the words of a tour guide alone, offering tangible evidence of trauma in areas such as the slave dungeons.[8] In this context, decay rather than conservation serves as a reminder of enslavement. The decomposition of the castle demarcates its past use as a site of confinement and death. Yet, at the same time, the current lack of protection against deterioration endangers the castle’s ability to be visited altogether in the future.[9] To date, despite its promotion of the castle as a tourism destination, the Ghanaian government has not implemented a conservation management plan for Elmina.[10]

The Year of Return provided an unparalleled opportunity for many individuals to visit Ghana and Elmina Castle for the first time. However, as demonstrated through the construction of the parking lot, the government initiative also provoked concerns over the protection of cultural heritage. As waves from the Gulf of Guinea and construction activity inch closer to the castle’s walls, visitors continue to arrive to confront a site that is deteriorating. 


[1] Tetteh 2019

[2] Reed 2006, pp. 30-35; Lawrence, p. 133

[3] DeCorse, pp. 30-31; Singleton, pp. 152-154

[4] UNESCO 1998; UNESCO 1996

[5] UNESCO 2018

[6] Sasu 2021; Sasu 2022

[7] Bruner, pp. 101-104; Singleton, p. 158

[8] Reed 2014, pp. 58-60; Reed 2006, pp. 1-10

[9] UNESCO 2022; UNESCO 2021a; UNESCO 2021b

[10] UNESCO 2019

Works Cited

Bruner, Edward M. (2005). Culture on Tour: Ethnographies of Travel. Chicago, University of

Chicago Press. Retrieved from https://www.google.co.uk.

DeCorse, Christopher R. (2001). An Archaeology of Elmina: Africans and Europeans on the

Gold Coast, 1400-1900. Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution Press.

Lawrence, A.W. (1964). Trade Castles and Forts of West Africa. Stanford, Stanford University Press.

Reed, Ann (2014). Pilgrimage Tourism of Diaspora Africans to Ghana. New York, Routledge. Retrieved from https://www.google.co.uk.

—— (2006). ‘Gateway to Africa: The Pilgrimage Tourism of Diaspora Africans to Ghana’.

Unpublished Doctor of Philosophy dissertation, Indiana University. Retrieved from https://core.ac.uk.

Sasu, Doris Dokua (2022). ‘Number of Visits at Tourist Attraction Sites in Ghana from 2016 to 2020, by Residency Status’. Statista. Retrieved from https://www.statista.com.

—— (2021). ‘Contribution of Travel and Tourism to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in Ghana in 2019 and 2020’. Statista. Retrieved from https://www.statista.com.

Singleton, Theresa A. (1999). ‘The Slave Trade Remembered on the Former Gold and Slave

Coasts’. Slavery & Abolition 20(1): 150-169. Retrieved from https://www-tandfonline-com.

Tetteh, Benjamin (2019). ‘2019: Year of Return for African Diaspora’. Africa Renewal, United Nations. Retrieved from https://www.un.org

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) (2022).

‘UNESCO-Ghana: Challenges in Sustainable Heritage Conservation in Ghana’. UNESCO Ghana Commission. Retrieved from https://unescoghana.gov.gh.

—— (2021a). ‘Forts and Castles, Volta, Greater Accra, Central and Western Regions’. Retrieved from https://whc.unesco.org.

—— (2021b). ‘State of Conservation of Properties Inscribed on the World Heritage List’.

UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage,

44th session, Fuzhou. World Heritage Committee. Retrieved from https://whc.unesco.org.

—— (2019). ‘State of Conservation of Properties Inscribed on the World Heritage List’.

UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage,

43rd session, Baku. World Heritage Committee. Retrieved from https://whc.unesco.org.

—— (2018). Legacies of Slavery: A Resource Book for Managers of Sites and Itineraries of

Memory. France, UNESCO. Retrieved from https://unesdoc.unesco.org.

—— (1998). ‘Reports on the State of Conservation of Properties Inscribed on the World

Heritage List’. Bureau of the World Heritage Committee, 22nd session. Bureau of the World

Heritage Committee. Retrieved from https://whc.unesco.org.

—— (1996). ‘Reports on the State of Conservation of Specific Properties’. UNESCO

Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, 20th session, Paris. Bureau of the World Heritage Committee. Retrieved from https://whc.unesco.org.

Image credit: Panorama of Elmina Castle and the Gulf of Guinea, 2019 (Photograph by Evan Binkley)

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