When we think of the slave trade in West Africa, we might easily imagine the European-built forts and castles along the coast. However, many towns within the interior played pivotal roles in buying, selling and transporting enslaved people. The Slave Market in Salaga is one such example.
Salaga is a town in the Northern Region of Ghana, in the East Gonja district. The name Salaga is derived from salgi, a Dagomba word meaning “to get used to a place of abode.”
Ruled by the Gonja Kingdom, between the 16th and 19th centuries, Salaga was an important mercantile center. Due to its strategic location, it connected trade in the northern Sahel regions with coastal markets further down south. With its cosmopolitan population of Gonjas, Hausas, Wangaras, Dagombas, Gurmas etc., Salaga earned the nickname “Timbuktu of the South.”
In its early days, the market was integral to the sale of items like kola, beads, ostrich feathers, textiles, gold and animal hides. However, by the 18th and 19th centuries, the trade in slaves became Salaga Market’s most lucrative. According to oral history, the trade in humans was conducted under the shade of a baobab tree, which no longer stands. It is said that while able-bodied people were sold as slaves, those too weak to work would be tied to a “tree of vultures,” and left to die and be eaten by vultures.
Other relics of the trade such as a slave cemetery where enslaved people who passed away would be buried, a slave warehouse where enslaved people were detained until they were sold, and drinking wells built and used by enslaved people, as well as chains, shackles, irons, and spears, can still be seen in Salaga.
In popular culture, Salaga features in Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, the 2006 book by African American scholar Saidiya Hartman.
By Nnenna Onuoha