Rachel Engmann, a professor at Hampshire College, found her surname in a slave castle in Accra, Ghana, and decided to do some digging.
The World August 19, 2019 · 12:45 PM EDT
Editor’s note: This story originally aired on The World earlier this year as part of the series, “400 years: Slavery’s unresolved history.” It was repackaged on the show again on Nov. 29 as part of a special feature over the holidays along with this story.
Rachel Engmann’s aunt told her there was something at Christiansborg Castle she should go check out for herself.
“She said to me, ‘Oh, you know, you’re interested in culture. You should go to the castle and see.’ She said, “See your name on the wall.” So, of course, my surname is her surname, but when she relayed it to me, she didn’t say our surname; she said my surname.”
Christiansborg Castle is a walled, stone building that stands 3 stories tall on the coast of Accra, Ghana’s capital. The facade is painted so white, it almost seems to glow in the sun.
In the 1600s and 1700s, they used it to transport and sell about 125,000 Africans into slavery — most to what today is the US Virgin Islands. The lower levels were the dungeons where many captive Africans died in cavelike cells with low ceilings.
“It’s very strange being here, which I can’t really explain,” said Rachel Engmann, a professor from Hampshire College in central Massachusetts. “I wouldn’t stay here after dark. … People hear footsteps. People hear crying.”
Rachel Engmann, who is English and Ghanaian, was raised in Singapore and began visiting here in 2005. She found the family name in the castle courtyard, inscribed on the side of a water cistern. It read: “Carl Gustav Engmann, 1757.”
Rachel Engmann, then in her 20s, didn’t know then that the find would become integral to her archaeology work, and to understanding her own family history.
Rachel Engmann had heard of a Carl Gustav Engmann in her family history — a Danish man who came here when the Danes occupied the area.
“I’d grown up with the understanding that [Carl Gustav Engmann] was a missionary,” she said.
That was family lore. But in Carl Gustav Engmann’s papers in the National Archives in Denmark, Rachel Engmann learned he was a governor of the castle for five years and oversaw the sale of captive Africans. He was on the board of the Danish slave trading company and had his own enslaved people.
That didn’t keep Carl Gustav Engmann from also marrying an African — Ashiokai Ahinaekwa, the daughter of a chief from the local Ga ethnic group. Carl Gustav Engmann later returned to Denmark, but not before he and his wife started the Engmann line in Ghana — which, generations later produced Rachel Engmann’s father, and herself.
She’s still trying to understand how she feels about being the direct descendent of slavers.
“This will sound like I’m avoiding it, which I’m not really, but I think I need time to process this.”
“This will sound like I’m avoiding it, which I’m not really, but I think I need time to process this,” she said.
But finding the family name in a way tied her to this castle. Rachel Engmann wanted to know more about it, and she was looking for a project to complete her graduate degree. She went to the Ghanaian president to ask for permission to do an archaeological dig at the castle.
Five years ago, Rachel Engmann’s team broke ground on a dig site on the far side of the castle gardens. They began digging a hole that was the size of a small box. Now, it almost looks like Rachel Engmann’s team has uncovered the foundation of a house.
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- Up-close with Prof. Ama Asaa Engmann. (PhD Stanford University)