Aesthetics and Atrocity: The Violent Clash

“To walk around such a beautiful place where a great deal of unimaginable tragedy happened; to know that in such breathtaking surroundings, people were enslaved and stolen the liberty to even merely appreciate the beauty — was unfathomably violent.”​

— excerpt from Journal, Jan. 21st entry

One of the most timeless beauties is that of nature. An exquisite view leaves people speechless, and often in itself offers certain rejuvenating factors to those who are looking for solace in busy lives. Upon arrival to the Paga Slave Camp, it was none other than the stunning sight that struck me. It was nothing like I had imagined because it only made sense for a site of crimes against humanity to be just as ugly as the deeds done at the place. Yet the nature of Paga remained quite divine and even majestic, as if it were attempting to muffle the screeching screams of too many lives tormented and taken at the once-rampant Slave Camp. The struggle between the aesthetics and the wheezing tragedy underlying, only grew uncontrollably more noticeable as Aaron, our tour guide, took us around the site. 

“These holes on the rock were where the slaves ate.” At the end of Aaron’s fingertips were some indented ovals on a giant stone, each big enough to barely fit a grown man’s hand. He explained that this “dining place” epitomizes how the masters and raiders took advantage of something so humanly fundamental as hunger and starvation to weed out the weak; the weak slaves would either die fighting for the amount of food that hardly covered their palms, or give up and starve to death. The slaves were thrown to the most brutal form of “Natural” Selection. The weak die, and the fittest survive. While everyone grew silent in shock, I could not help but notice that four men were standing-by behind Aaron to perform music for us. Aaron explained that masters would sometimes bring tribal slaves to perform music for them using little rocks clanking on a bigger stone to create jubilant rhythm as men sang to it and that the four men behind him will be performing a reenactment of the “festival.” The very same spot where their ancestors had to kill or die to get enough food, was instantly filled with impressive music. While the tunes were exciting, the dark history of the site and the bright melody created a loud cacophony that pierced through covered ears. 

The cacophony trailed me around throughout the entire tour. In fact, the entire trip. It was so loud and unsettling. As I climbed the rocks where the raiders watched the entire land of the Paga Slave Camp to monitor the slaves, the discordance grew louder in volume. I stood at the top of the sentinel and looked at the vast golden fields solemnly owning its beauty, and yet again experienced the struggle. To watch an indisputably calming site and look for individuals who are desperately trying to run from it seemed simply too ironical at the least. The clash between the aesthetics and the atrocities underneath was so silently violent. The whole camp was mute, but I could hear everything. 

This beautiful yet violent tunes followed me all the way to the end of our Ghana trip. Cape Coast, our last destination, was playing the exact same melody as the one sung in Paga. The beautiful resort and magnificent beach facing the broad horizon melting into the sky was not even a mile away from the Cape Coast Castle where many were forced out of the ‘Door of No Return.’ The visual clash was evident; the quite luxurious and touristy beach resort versus the decaying walls of the Castle created a jarring harmony. It was also an emotional clash. To have had studied the monstrosity happened at the very site, yet faced with the vivacity of fishermen and women selling bread and water beyond the notorious Door of No Return — it was an experience that once again violently shook my expectation and interpretation of a historic slave trade site. 

I have always enjoyed and appreciated beauty. Yet, the recurring theme of aesthetics hand-in-hand with atrocities inherently challenged my idea of it. I once thought appreciation was the only appropriate attitude towards beautiful things. Now I realize beauty can be confrontational, broken, and violent. What brings life to the tragedies of the slave trade sites — what amplifies the tortured screams, is the acknowledgment that cruelty existed in something we now have the privilege and luxury to enjoy. So music was dissonant, vision was tainted, and beauty was ugly.