The Door of No Return

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

During the Atlantic slave trade era, Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Britain maintained trade-related buildings on the western African coast, where slaves were held until they were sold to slave ships that would transport them to North and South America and the lands of the Caribbean. On the coast of Ghana were many such buildings, among which Cape Coast Castle was the center of England’s slave trade from its capture by the British in 1664 until 1807, when English law abolished the slave trade industry.

William St. Clair in The Door of No Return, originally published in 2006 as The Grand Slave Emporium, perhaps a more fitting title, accesses previously unresearched primary documents, mainly slave trade business records from the years of British occupation of the Castle, but also letters to close relatives and trading associates and short messages to and from the Castle and the slave ships anchored in the nearby seawaters. The British slave trade was declared illegal in 1807, and in 1820 these documents were transported directly from the Cape Coast Castle to London. From these materials and a few secondary sources, St. Clair creates a well-crafted, very readable, and, in many parts, original perspective on the Atlantic slave trade: “The story of just one building, and of some of the men, women, and children who spent part of their lives” there reveals “an immense panorama of history which, in its entirety, is [otherwise] almost impossible to comprehend.”

St. Clair presents first the immediate setting from which the materials he studies emerged. Moored beyond the dangerous breakers and rock-strewn coastal waters were the slave-trading vessels from Europe and America. These ships arrived carrying much precious cargo: European goods to be traded for the slaves held in the Castle and that the Castle personnel would trade with Africans for their captured slaves; household and maintenance goods for the Castle itself; and, on ships from England, newly recruited personnel for the Castle.

To carry these goods and personnel to the shore, both ship and Castle relied on and paid skillful Africans paddlers of native-made canoes. These same hired transporters brought the slaves purchased by the ship captains from the shore to the ships. From his source materials, St. Clair documents the many fatalities among those who, for business purposes, made what they knew to be a perilous, often fatal journey.

Cape Coast Castle sat a short distance from the shoreline. Although it gave the appearance of a military fortress, the Castle was principally an industrial-age “defended warehouse” with living quarters for the company employees. In the lowest level, the Castle governor stored the main items of trade, the slaves bought by the Castle governor from native traders. Crowded in quarters similar to those in the hold of a slave ship, they waited; when sold, they would cross the coastal waters by canoe to even more crowded quarters on the slave ship and begin a journey across the seas to be sold once again.

Also living in the Castle, on the lowest level, were the Castle’s own household slaves. The next levels housed the British clerks, soldiers, and officers who helped run the business of the Castle. The British governor in charge of the Castle lived at the top in the best-appointed quarters, with a good view of the activities on the sea and on shore.

Beyond the Castle was the forest where the local Africans lived and from whom the British rented their spot of territory on the coast. In the deeper forest lived the Africans who regularly brought to the coast captured slaves to trade to the British at Cape Coast Castle.

St. Clair is an intellectual historian who pushes beyond the data to find the values inherent in his materials. Thus, he describes this business setup in and around the Castle with care, because both the idea and the fact that the British were engaged in a business seems to answer a question he asks throughout his narrative: How did the Castle personnel and the British nation over two centuries reconcile their buying and selling of human beings and their Christian and national moral standards?

The earliest seventeenth century British ventures in the purchase of African slaves were privately funded projects. When England took over the Castle, the government formed the Royal African Company of England to be its only trading...

(The entire section is 1830 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Booklist 103, no. 11 (February 1, 2007): 28.

The Economist 380 (July 29, 2006): 75.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (May 20, 2007): 13.

Publishers Weekly 254, no. 6 (February 5, 2007): 50-51.

The Times Literary Supplement, September 22, 2006, p. 24.