Esi describes how the smell around her is unbearable. In the corner, one woman is sobbing. In another, a baby is crying because its mother, Afua, has no milk. There are hundreds of women, all pushed together in the women’s dungeon of the Cape Coast Castle.
Esi’s situation in the Cape Coast Castle dungeon begins a long line of brutality that both she and her descendants experience as a result of the slave trade.
One year prior, when Esi turned fourteen, she had been in Asanteland, in her father’s (Big Man’s) compound. He had been the best warrior in the village, and so everyone had come to pay their respects to her, including the man she would have married.
With the exception of the dungeon, Esi’s story begins very similarly to the way her half-sister Effia’s does, being courted by various men in her village to fulfill her role in society.
A soldier enters the dungeon, holding his nose and speaking. The women do not understand him. He comes into the room and takes the baby from a woman named Afua. When she cries, the soldier slaps her.
As will come to be repeated throughout the novel, separating children and parents becomes one of the harshest injustices of the slave trade, as it removes them not only from a loving family but also from their heritage.
Esi asks her friend Tansi why they are taking the baby. Tansi tells her they will probably kill it. Afua had conceived the baby out of wedlock, and as punishment, the village chief had sold her to the British.
Tansi’s explanation reveals once again some of the double standards of the village, as women (and not the men) are blamed and punished for having a child outside of the confines of marriage.
Esi asks Tansi to tell her a story, but the soldiers interrupt them again. They bring porridge to the women, the only food that the women eat. They are not allowed outside the dungeon to go to the bathroom, and so the ground is littered with their feces.
The brutality continues as the women are treated like animals. Their most basic needs, like having a full meal and being able to go to the bathroom, are barely met.
Tansi asks Esi if she knows the story of the kente cloth. Esi shakes her head, even though she does know it. Tansi tells the story: two Asante weavers had been hunting in the forest when they met Anansi, the mischievous spider. They saw how magnificent his web was, and went home to weave the cloth the way Anansi did. From that, kente cloth was created.
Storytelling becomes an important recurrence in the novel. As Yaw explains much later, “history is storytelling,” and stories are part of a cultural heritage and history. In two generations, Esi’s descendants will have no knowledge of these stories.
Esi compliments Tansi on her storytelling. The previous story she had told Esi was of her capture by northerners while her husband was off fighting a war. She had been taken with other girls, but the rest had not survived.
Though Esi and Tansi had been captured by northerners, the British are taking advantage of this tradition of taking war prisoners when they later sell those slaves for profit. Their system of slavery stems from greed, but also from racism as they find it easy to trade those slaves because they are black.
By morning, Afua has died by holding her breath until she suffocated. The soldiers then come in, forcing the women to the ground and piling more new women into the dungeon on top of them. Esi can feel the women on top of her peeing.
Afua is the first casualty of the despair of a mother who has had a child taken from her. Characters like Esi and Ness later learn to deal with this despair only through the hope that their children will be able to survive them.
Esi had been born in a small village to Big Man (who at that time was known as Kwame Asare) and Maame. Esi’s father was not a chief, but he was the best warrior in the village. By the time he was twenty-five, he had five wives and ten children. Esi grows up with doting parents. Her father walks with her through the forest, describing how impenetrable it is to their enemies.
Even Esi’s father’s name conforms to some of the gender stereotypes in the society, as a great warrior is literally a “Big Man” with many wives and children to confirm that masculinity.
When Esi is seven, her father wins the battle that earns him the title of Big Man. The village chief tells them that the northerners had stolen guns from the British. One man, Kwaku Agyei says that they should not try to confront the northerners, because a hasty confrontation might end poorly for them. Esi’s father tells Kwaku Agyei that it does not make sense to wait for the northerners to show up at their village because the village would appear weak.
The first several chapters in the novel emphasize the society’s rigid gender stereotypes. Here, Esi’s father’s is concerned that the village will appear weak.
Esi hears the men’s rallying cries and spills a bit of hot oil on her mother, Maame. Maame chastises her, telling her to be careful around fire. But she doesn’t stay mad for long, kissing the top of Esi’s head.
Maame’s fear of fire reinforces its connection to the institution and destructive force of slavery, because she escaped both slavery and fire at the same time at the very beginning of the novel.
The men’s plan is to overtake the northern village and steal what had been stolen from the British. When they come upon the warriors of the village, they fight bravely, but are ultimately captured. Luckily, Kwaku Agyei and a few others had waited in the forest instead of fighting. They find the guns that the northerners were hiding and free the captured men.
It is worth noting the additional destructive force of colonization here: the presence of British guns. Like the presence of the British themselves, this introduction makes the already destructive dynamic between villages a lot deadlier.
Kwame Asare apologizes to Kwaku Agyei, saying that he would never rush into a fight again. Kwaku Agyei says that it takes a “big man” to admit his folly, and thus Esi’s father gains his new name: Big Man. By the time Esi turns twelve, the village has won more than fifty-five wars under his leadership.
Despite the rigid gender stereotypes at the beginning of the novel, there is still room for some progress: wisdom, measured reason, and the strength to admit one’s mistakes are valued over stereotypical male aggression.
Esi is particularly fascinated by the prisoners captured in the wars, some of whom are then taken by villagers as slaves and servants. Esi asks Maame what happens to the extra prisoners; her mother tells her that that’s “boys’ talk.”
Maame’s explanation that the business of slavery is simply “boys’ talk” once again reveals the sexism in the society, and the association of men with violence.
Maame, for her part, had refused for many years to choose a house girl. But with the overflow of prisoners, Big Man insists that she have one to help her with the cooking and cleaning. Maame agrees to choose a girl the next day. Esi knows that her mother would do anything for her father, because he had saved her in some way—though Esi isn’t sure exactly how.
Maame’s refusal to get a house girl, and Esi’s understanding that Maame was saved in some way, both call attention to the fact that the reader already knows that Maame had once been a house girl herself. Yet even though she is hesitant to the idea, Maame allows her husband to control her actions and even her moral compass.
The next day, Esi and Maame choose a girl and name her Abronoma: “Little Dove.” However, they quickly discover that she is horrible at the chores. When Maame complains to Big Man, he tells Esi to get his switch. Maame stops Esi from giving it to him, and says that she will do the beating. Big Man relents, but says that the next day he will make Abronoma carry water on her head across the yard, and if a single drop falls from the bucket, he will take care of it.
The fact that Maame had been a house girl and still has her own servant demonstrates how widespread the use of slavery is even by those who had once been enslaved. Its universality is what makes it such a dangerous presence, as it makes it difficult to eradicate.
Maame returns to her hut and pulls out her own switch, which she has never used. Maame asks Esi to leave and then she beats Abronoma as both women cry.
The cruelty of a society that condones slavery is apparent as both Abronoma and Maame cry during Abronoma’s beating.
The next day, Big Man gathers everyone to see Abronoma carry the water. Esi can see Abronoma shaking as she lifts the bucket onto her head. She steadies herself and walks, sweat dripping from her nose and her eyes brimming with tears. She makes it back to the front of the yard, but just as she takes the bucket from her head, two drops slosh out. Big Man reaches for his switch. This time, Abronoma does not cry.
Abronoma’s failure and her subsequent second beating relays how the intention to teach a lesson can cause people to quickly become tyrannical. Abronoma essentially completed the task, but she was cruelly and brutally beaten anyway on a technicality.
Maame is very upset after the beating, and she watches Abronoma sleep. Esi tries to comfort her by saying that if Big Man had not beaten Abronoma, everyone would have thought he was weak. Maame says that treating someone as though they belong to you is weakness.
Abronoma wakes up. Esi fetches her water, and Abronoma asks her to leave. Esi starts to say that her father, Big Man, is a good person, but Abronoma protests. She says her father was a big man, too, and now look what has become of her. She hints that Maame had also been a house girl. Esi is surprised by this news.
The fact that Abronoma had once been the daughter of a Big Man demonstrates how easy it might have been—and will be—for Esi to experience the same fate. No one is safe from the tyranny of slavery.
Abronoma explains that Maame had been a slave for a Fante family. She goes on to say that Maame had been raped and had left a daughter in her former village. Before the house girl can explain any more, Maame returns to the hut.
Maame’s experience serves as the first example of sexual violation in the novel, and how it is used to subjugate women in particular.
Esi thinks about Maame and starts to acknowledge some of the remnants of her former life: how her shoulders droop and her eyes shift. Esi is filled with shame at how she had treated the slaves in the town square’s cage, spitting on them as she had seen an elder do. Now she can only picture her mother behind the bars of the cage, with a sister Esi would never know.
This sequence contains a lot of dramatic irony, as the reader already knows that Esi will very soon be enslaved herself. This allows the readers to see how easily someone could have been captured and oppressed by slavery, while others (like Effia) were able to escape it only by a stroke of luck.
In the following months, Esi tries to befriend Abronoma and find out more. Abronoma says she doesn’t know anything, and Esi asks what she can do to make amends. Abronoma tells Esi to send a message to Abronoma’s father, explaining where she is. Esi agrees despite knowing that Big Man would be very upset with her for doing so.
Esi wants to make things right, but never does it occur to her that the system itself is unjust or cruel, demonstrating just how rooted in the society the system of slavery is.
The next morning, Esi sends a messenger man very early to Abronoma’s father. When she tells Abronoma she has done this, Abronoma hugs her and says that all is forgiven. Esi imagines that she is hugging her sister.
Esi tries to escape feeling that she has participated in this cruel system, but the irony is that she will soon be enslaved, while her half-sister Effia will go free.
Months go by, and Abronoma grows excited, constantly muttering that her father is coming. But other than that, everyone goes along as usual. Fighting continues away from home, as Esi’s village had never been challenged in her lifetime.
Esi and the rest of her village treat the fighting as a normal occurrence, associating typical male roles in society with violence.
One night, it is Big Man’s night in the hut, and so Esi sleeps in the corner, facing away from her parents. Once she had watched them in the darkness. She couldn’t see much, but she was intrigued by the sounds that they had made, lying together. She “wanted and was afraid to want.”
Esi’s curiosity here and her excitement at seeing her parents sleep together is placed in contrast with Esi’s first sexual experience later, which is with a soldier who rapes her in the dungeon simply for his own pleasure and for her subjugation.
But this night, a call goes out, signaling that the enemy is upon their village. Big Man jumps up and grabs his machete. He screams at Maame to take Esi into the woods. Esi grabs a small knife and places it in her skirt. She grabs her mother, but Maame protests. She starts to whisper, “No more woods. No more fire.”
Maame’s fear of fire once again connects to her past experiences with slavery. She’s escaped slavery and the fire before, and doesn’t want to be subjected to it again.
Abronoma bursts in, laughing and dancing at her father’s arrival. Outside, people are screaming and running. Maame gives Esi a black stone that she had been keeping for Esi’s wedding day, saying that she left one for her sister as well. Esi tucks it into her headwrap.
As with Effia, the black stone that Maame gives Esi represents Esi’s connection to her family and her heritage. However, Esi’s later loss of the stone is emblematic of the difference between the two girls.
Esi wants to ask more questions, but the noise outside grows louder, and Maame tells her to go. Esi sees that her mother cannot will herself to come with her, and so Esi gives her knife to Maame before running out into the woods. She finds a palm tree and climbs up as far as she can go.
Even though Maame cannot bring herself to go into the woods, she still sees hope for Esi and tries to urge her to save herself, hoping that Esi might fare better in the future.
Time passes, and Esi’s arms start to burn as she hugs the tree. Soon a warrior appears at the bottom of her tree. He throws rocks at her until her arms come undone. The warriors tie Esi to many other people, but she doesn’t see any of her family. She walks for miles. On the tenth day, the calluses on her feet split open, and blood seeps out with every step.
The blood that Esi leaves on the ground as she walks is echoed in a later chapter when Ness tries to escape slavery, evoking a trail of pain that slavery leaves both when a person is brought into it and trying to break out of it.
The woman behind Esi—Tansi—worries that the white men will eat them. Esi shudders, then introduces herself. In an instant, the two become friends. They walk another half a week, day and night, until they reach the edge of a Fante village. They are packed into a dark cellar where they eat porridge and sleep.
Even though Esi and Tansi’s fear that the British soldiers will eat them is unfounded, it demonstrates a general fear of people who are unlike oneself—the same fear that fuels the British soldiers’ racism against the Fantes and Asantes.
In the morning, men enter the room, including Abeeku and Fiifi. Fiifi argues that they should not have taken the slaves, as their Asante allies will be furious to know that the Fantes have worked with their enemies. Abeeku says that their enemies are paying more for slaves.
Abeeku and Fiifi’s participation in Esi’s capture makes the separation of the two sides of the family tree more devastating, because one was directly involved in the oppression of the other.
James Collins and other British soldiers enter the compound. They are the first white men that Esi has seen. Abeeku shows off Esi and the others, explaining that the Asante are very strong. The men then start to undress everyone. When Fiifi reaches for her headwrap, Esi spits at him. He then smacks her so hard that her stone falls onto the floor, and she covers it with her body. When the men leave her there, Esi takes the stone and swallows it.
Again, there is an emphasis on male domination and power in this exchange. A sexual humiliation of the prisoners is implied here, as the soldiers undress everyone and inspect them. When Esi refuses and spits in Fiifi’s face, Fiifi feels he cannot appear weak, which results in violence against her.
Back in the dungeon of the Castle, the waste is up to Esi’s ankles. She can hardly breathe. That day, she had found her mother’s stone in the river of feces. She buries it, marking the spot so she can find it again when the time comes to leave.
Esi is so desperate to hang onto her heritage that she is literally forced to consume the stone and find it later in her own feces in order to protect it.
Soldiers enter the dungeon. One of them grabs a woman and pushes her up against the wall. He gropes her, moving from her breasts down the length of her body until she screams. The other women tell her to be quiet or else the soldiers will beat them all.
This episode demonstrates how dejected the women have become in the dungeon, as they tell other women to endure sexual violence so that everyone can be spared more violence.
Another soldier walks around. When he sees Esi, he smiles. She is baffled because it had been so long since she had seen someone smile, and she thinks it is an act of kindness. The soldier grabs her and drags her out of the room, taking her back to his quarters. He gestures at a glass of water. She stands still until he gestures at a whip, and she drinks.
The soldier’s smile reveals how manipulative and psychologically detrimental the system of slavery is, because it makes any small act of kindness appear extraordinarily benevolent by comparison, such as a smile or an offer of a glass of water.
The soldier places Esi on a folded tarp and begins to rape her. She screams, but he places his hand over her mouth. She finds that biting his fingers only pleases him, so she stops. She closes her eyes, trying to imagine that she is still the little girl in her parents’ room, looking at the mud walls instead of at them. When the soldier finishes, he looks disgusted with her, “as though he were the one who had been violated.” The soldier takes her back to the dungeon, not looking at her.
This sickening violation demonstrates how gender interplays with race. The white soldiers feel entitled to taking advantage of these black women simply because of their race and gender, yet at the same time the soldiers still feel that they are the ones being violated because of their deep-seated racism.
Days go on. Esi has not stopped bleeding since the soldier raped her. She doesn’t talk to Tansi and doesn’t want to hear stories. She thinks to herself that there is no pleasure in sex, only pain.
This sexual violation is completely shattering to Esi, who becomes hardened by the experience and passes on this sense of stoicism to her own daughter, Ness.
The dungeon door opens and reveals James Collins. He points to twenty women, including Esi. Another soldier grabs them by the wrists and drags them into a line. James checks over all of them, running his hands between Esi’s legs. When he sees blood on his hands, he gives her a pitying look. He signals to another soldier, who starts herding them out of the dungeon.
The fact that James is unsurprised by Esi’s injury demonstrates how systematic and routine the violation of the women is in the dungeon. James’s presence here also implies Effia’s inadvertent complacency in her own sister being sold into slavery.
Esi tries to dig for her stone, but she is lifted up by a soldier before she can reach it. Outside, Esi smells the ocean as the women are led to the beach. Before she leaves, James Collins looks at her and gives her a smile. For the rest of her life, she would see white men smile and know that it meant “more evil was coming with the next wave.”
The loss of Esi’s stone serves as a symbolic loss of her heritage as a result of slavery, as many of her descendants (starting with her own grandson, Kojo) lose connection to their parents at early ages, and therefore lose all ties to their history.