Elmina Castle

Elmina drawbridge

One place I’ve always wanted to visit is Elmina Castle, the first European settlement on the coast of Ghana and one of the most important slave trading ports anywhere on the African coast. So, since I have this government-paid vacation in Ghana (now extended for a few days, more on that later), I decided to take off yesterday to go and see.

I got up early in the morning, had breakfast at the hotel, and went to the tro-tro station. Tro-tro are what we call “taxi en commun” in Guinea, that is, minivans that travel established routes through the city. Apparently in Ouaga there is a bus system though I haven’t used it yet.  Anyway, one cedi (25 cents US) got me to Kwame Nkrumah circle and another bus got me to Kaneshi Market, where the “Ford” vans load up for the coastal route west from the city. I caught a van, and off we went:

Van to Elmina

Reasonably air conditioned, every seat full (because they don’t leave until they have a full load) but unlike the tro-tro where they take overloads, you have a seat and a seat belt to yourself. In fact, seatbelt use is obligatory:


Couldn’t tell if everybody in the vehicle was using their seat belts but the people around me were. This is something entirely new in Africa by my experience. The rate of traffic accidents and traffic fatalities is enormous here, much higher than in the US for a population with a much lower rate of car ownership and, I suspect, a lower rate of travel by motor vehicle. But you are always hearing of horrendous accidents that kill dozens. Along the road to Elmina, the government had put up signs reading “overspeeding kills, 24 people died here” or whatever number, and the signs were distressingly close together. So it is good to see that they are doing something about it, at least in the bus company I rode in. Note: American school buses don’t have seat belts. Don’t know about Greyhound, I haven’t ridden with them for about 35 years.

Anyway, the bus I was in was going to Takoradi, but I had asked to be let off at Elmina. Luckily, I was paying attention as the driver forgot and when I called his attention to the fact we were already a few miles past the stop where I should have gotten off. He found a taxi to carry me back and I arrived at the castle in good order.

The castle tour was 40 cedis, which I thought quite reasonable, especially as it came with a guided tour by the quite knowledgeable Alex.

Alex in eternal memory

The plaque on the wall has a somewhat apologetic tone, and with good reason. Alex and the other inhabitants of Elmina today are descended from African merchants and Dutch and Portuguese sailors and merchants who were the perpetrators of the slave trade. He didn’t make a big deal out of this, but he did not try to hide or minimize the fact that African people were participants in the slave trade both as victims and as implementers/facilitators.

Our tour took us all over the fort, from the “door of no return”, the water gate where people would be taken out to board small boats that would take them to waiting slave ships

Door of no return

and the dungeons where slaves were held before shipment, and where many died

Return of the slaves props

up to the governor’s porch and walkway along the battlements high above the smell and bugs of the slave quarters

Elmina battlements 1

After the tour, I walked across the bridge from the barrier island where the fort is located to the little town on the other side and sat in a bar with a nice view of the castle and had a beer and fish and chips.

Elmina from bar

And had some thoughts. This is a place of great beauty, a small, pretty colonial town, full of people who are interesting if sometimes a little pushy about selling their tourist art. But the facility itself is a place soaked in death and suffering. Some people say it is like visiting Auschwitz, though the goal of this facility was to deliver people alive to work in the Americas. The Germans falsely tried to convince their Jewish victims that Auschwitz was a work facility but in fact their goal was to kill the Jews, while covering expenses by exploiting their labor as long as they could. Still, you get a feeling of coldness visiting.

The history of the place, briefly, is that the Portuguese arrived in 1471, led by Jõao Satarem and Pedro d’Escobar. They originally came to trade for gold. Ghana was known at the time as the Gold Coast, and there are still very significant gold mines in Ghana and Burkina Faso. Gold was a monetary metal in early modern Europe, and one that Europeans did not have much of – the early modern global economy was distinguished by a flow of precious metals from Europe and Africa, though the hands of Middle Eastern middlemen, to India and China in exchange for manufactured goods (silk, porcelain, metals) and some agricultural products (particularly spices). Traditionally, Europe produced silver and Africa, gold. By sailing down the African coast, Europeans were trying to get direct access to the source of gold and cut out the middleman by finding a sea route to Asia. Ultimately they were successful, and in the process also found a sea route to the Americas.

When the Portuguese arrived in Elmina, they found a small local kingdom, Edina. Edina ruled the coastal zone for about 50 km either way from Elmina; the town itself, located on the land side of the lagoon, was called Amankwaa. The rocky barrier island where the fort is was uninhabited, and so the Portuguese asked the king if they could settle there and trade. The Edina people were threatened by powerful neighbors inland, the Bono, who claimed descent in their tradition from the medieval Ghana empire of the Sahel (confusingly, the ancient Ghana kingdom was not located in modern Ghana, but instead in today’s Mali; the most powerful ethnic group in today’s nation of Ghana, the Akan, claim descent from the people of the ancient kingdom of Ghana). Anway, these coastal people saw the Portuguese as potential allies against their powerful neighbors to the north and agreed to let them settle. The Portuguese built the original fort in 1481, using bricks brought from Europe as ballast in their ships, and settled in a small village on the barrier island.

The Portuguese merchants were almost all men, so they took local women as concubines. Those women would then have children who, as the children of Portuguese men, counted as Portuguese in the racial/ethnic vision of the day. The idea that the children of a black woman are black is a later creation of the period of racial slavery in the Americas. In the 15th century, the classic patrilineal model predominated in Europe – these children were Portuguese in the eyes of European society. Many traveled to Portugal, and they formed the core of the Portuguese community in Elmina (especially since the European men had a high death rate from tropical diseases). Similar groups evolved around all the Portuguese settlements along the African coast, all the way from Guinea to Somalia, and similarly in Asia where the Portuguese seaborne empire spread as far as Nagasaki in Japan.

The Catholic Church was always a part of the Portuguese colonial effort. At Elmina, they established the first Catholic parish in sub-Saharan Africa.

Elmina church 2

When the Dutch came in, they cut off the steeple and used it as a mess hall for their soldiers. The Catholic Church at the time taught that slavery was morally acceptable if the slaves had been captured in “just war”, and of course the slave traders were very very careful to make sure they didn’t find out too much about the provenance of the slaves they were buying.  In any case, Elmina didn’t become an important slave export facility until after the Dutch took over.

The very earliest Portuguese explorers to visit sub-Saharan Africa had raided for slaves, as Portuguese and Moroccan raiders had had the habit of doing in each other’s countries for centuries – the Iberian countries were fighting an 800-year war to drive out Muslim invaders, which was coming to its conclusion at the end of the 15th century. Slaves worked on farms, in the Algarve region of Portugal, in the fortified settlements on the Moroccan coast, and on islands in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. There had been a flourishing slave trade with the eastern Mediterranean, with Byzantine and Turkish merchants selling slaves captured in eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa to Europeans who put them to work on plantations in the Mediterranean islands such as Sicily and Sardinia. In the late 1400s, this Mediterranean slave trade was declining, with the Turkish capture of Byzantium in 1451 and the subsequent war between Catholic Europe and the Turks. The Portuguese saw sub-Saharan Africa as a potential alternative source for slaves to replace the Mediterranean trade. However, they rapidly realised that sub-Saharan African kingdoms could defend themselves and the small numbers of Portuguese who could get down that far, given the limited sailing technology of the age and the limited resources Portugal had to send expeditions, were not going to be able to force Africans into slavery. So they turned to cooperation.

For Portugal, Elmina was a place where slaves were brought to be sold. The Akan kingdoms in the interior controlled the gold mines, and they wanted labor to work them. The Portuguese obliged by bringing slaves from today’s Congo and Angola. The slave trade database shows no embarkations from Elmina before 1637. That was the year the Dutch captured the fort. They were attacking Brazil at the same time, as part of the Netherlands’ 120-year war of independence from Spain – Spain and Portugal were under a united monarchy at that time and the Dutch were taking advantage. The Portuguese had only fortified the Elmina site facing out to sea, and the Dutch exploited that weakness by gaining the friendship of the King of Edina and then establishing a gun position overlooking the castle from its inland side:

Elmina new port

With Dutch cannon up there overlooking them, the Portuguese had no option but to surrender, and Elmina became Dutch, and remained so throughout the remainder of the era of Atlantic Slave Trade.

The Dutch also reinforced the walls and defenses of the castle facing inland, to prevent anybody else from doing to them what they had done to the Portuguese. You can see the moat and drawbridge they added in the picture of the battlement walkway, above.

The Dutch held northern Brazil, the sugar-growing region, for about 20 years (1631-1654). When they got kicked out, they hung on to Elmina and shifted to a role as merchants instead of directly controlling plantation colonies in the Americas. Dutch ships, of the West Indies Corporation, embarked about 100,000 slaves from Elmina between 1637 and 1800. There were about 1.2 million slaves embarked from the Gold Coast in total by all countries, the vast majority British. Slave traders could and did go from port to port loading a few slaves here and a few there, depending on supply and prices, so it is unclear how many of those 1.2 million people passed through Elmina, but it was the biggest facility on the coast.

Joining the Portuguese-descended people in the village of Elmina, there was now a community of Dutch-descended people. Most people in Elmina have Dutch last names. Although the idea of race was growing in European consciousness at this time, the mixed-race children of Dutch men still had preference and often filled the administrative jobs in the community. Thus, Alex’s ancestors were part of the machinery moving those 1.2 million people (and the unknown but probably large number of people who died in the process of capture and shipment to the coast, or in the dungeons of castles like Elmina) onto ships and off to the Americas – where they often died shortly after arrival.

The Netherlands abolished the slave trade in 1814. After that, Elmina remained a tiny Dutch enclave in an area otherwise controlled and/or influenced by Britain – the main British post on the Gold Coast during the era of the slave trade, Cape Coast Castle, is visible from Elmina (on the front of the hill to the right, not a very good image):

Elmina port 1

You can see in the foreground of this picture the principal activity in Elmina today, fishing (well, along with tourism). They make large dugout canoes and go out fishing with big nets. You can see some of the nets hung out to dry in the photo of the new Dutch castle, above. The fish was excellent, by the way.

Elmina became British as part of the formal establishment of the British colony of the Gold Coast in 1872, exchanged for British claims on part of today’s Indonesia. A part that has oil, by the way, so maybe the Dutch got a good deal (now they’ve discovered oil offshore from Ghana, too). Anyway, the British used the fort as a prison, incarcerating the traditional king of the Akan people, the Asantehene, for several years before shipping him off to the Seychelles.

Now, the new colonial, or neo-colonial, presence is Chinese. China is building a new bridge over the little stream that divides the colonial town from the African town. You can see the PRC flag on the half-completed bridge structure in the photo of the town.

So that was my day. I had a nice fish meal in the restaurant, as foreshadowed, I got a taxi over to Cape Coast, then caught another nice air conditioned Ford van back to Accra, and was back to the hotel by dinnertime. We went for Indian food in the bar/restaurant district of Osu.

Back in Burkina Faso, they are dithering. Presumably, the generally good news about politics has not completely dispelled security concerns. They have extended our stay until Monday. Luckily, the hostel has room for us. So, another nice weekend in Accra. I will be completely spoiled for Ouaga when I get back…

3 thoughts on “Elmina Castle

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