The dungeons can still shock, two centuries after their last inmates were freed. Damp and fetid in the tropical air, immersed in virtual darkness, this is where slaves were kept, often for months at a time—before being led down a tunnel through the “door of no return” to ships riding in the surf, ready to begin their appalling voyage over the ocean.
Just one of the countless inmates left a written record. Having been sold to white traders for a gun, a piece of cloth and some lead, Quobna Ottobah Cugoano recalled waiting in the dungeon till his time arrived: “To conduct us away to the ship, it was a most horrible scene; there was nothing to be heard but rattling of chains, smacking of whips, and groans and cries of our fellow men. Some would not stir from the ground, when they were lashed and beaten in the most horrible manner.”
When the dungeons were excavated in the late 19th century, a mass of caked excrement was removed, together with the bones of birds and animals on which the slaves presumably fed. On such misery was founded a global trading system that in its heyday, in the mid-18th century, was taking about 85,000 Africans a year across the Atlantic to work on sugar and tobacco plantations that made Europe rich.