Review by Bamuturaki Musinguzi
Published October 1, 2008
Elmina Castle is said to be the oldest European-built structure in black Africa. Built by the Portuguese in 1492, the castle has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Bamuturaki Musinguzi, who recently visited Ghana, reports.
The Elmina Castle is located about 10 km west of Cape Coast and a two and half-hour drive west of Ghana’s capital, Accra. Cape Coast is the capital of the Central Region known as ‘The heartbeat of Ghana’s tourism’ because of its pivotal role in the development of tourism in the country, and its wealth of beaches, forts and castles, festivals and forests. It was the first capital of Britain’s Gold Coast Colony.
The Elmina castle is the largest and the oldest existing castle connected to the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
“It was built on sedimentary rocks believed to be over a hundred meters deep, thus explaining why it is in such good condition today,” Aton Ashun writes in his book, Elmina, The Castle and the Slave Trade, of the fort that used to hold slaves before they could be transported to the new world.
“The captives were held in the dungeons for a maximum of one or two months, depending on the availability of ships to take them away. In the dungeons, they were given food and water, sometimes twice a day, but just enough to keep them alive. Rarely were they brought out for exercise and sunlight,” Ashun writes.
The Portuguese, led by Joao Satarem and Pedro D’escobar, first came to the Gold Coast in 1471.
“When the Portuguese first arrived, they might have caused a bit of confusion, as some of the indigenes considered them to be enemies, while others took them to be gods,” Ashun.
The Portuguese exchanged their guns, gunpowder, spirituous liquour, enamel bowls, tobacco and iron bars for gold, ivory, spices and artifacts.
The rate at which the locals exchanged their gold for the Portuguese goods gave the latter the impression that the village was in abundance of gold. They thus called the town “El Mina” (the mine). This name was corrupted to today’s Elmina. “Aldea,” which also means “village” in Portuguese, was corrupted to “Eldina,” another contemporary name for the town.
The town of Elmina was elevated to a city annex of Lisbon and granted political freedom by King Jorge II of Portugal in 1486. The original Elmina Township, which was opposite the castle, was then fenced to show that status.
Above what served as the merchant and soldiers’ residences to the south are two watchtowers built by the Dutch to strengthen their security. When the British took over, the watch towers were converted to prisons where, for instance, they imprisoned the Asante King, Prempeh I, and his retinue were kept.
Along the coast of the Central Region is a succession of busy fishing villages and traditional market towns that reflect the distinct culture of the area. The people of this town were predominantly farmers, but today, fishing and salt-making are its economic mainstays. About 75 per cent of the people living in Elmina are into fishing and fishing-related businesses.
Having a very safe landing bay that was described by Arabs during 1400s as a natural harbour (“Al mina”), fishermen from all over Ghana do their fishing business here.
From 1471 onwards, there was not a single year the Piortuguese did not show up in Ghana. “Much as trade was flourishing, the need came for them to establish their monopoly on the Guinea Coast. Though by papal blessing they owned the Guinea Coast, there was still the need for them to get a place to lodge and store their wares. They also wished to establish their trade monopoly, protect their traders and their trade and propagate Christianity,” Ashun writes.
On January 19, 1482, during the reign of the sixth chief of the land, Nana Kwamena Kweiyga Ansah, the Portuguese in a fleet of twelve ships full of building materials and six hundred workmen under the captainship of Don Diego d’Azambuja came to negotiate for a piece of land and to build: a fort, which eventually became the castle. Included in Diego’s group that came to build the castle, was Christopher Columbus, who ten years later would make a stop over here on his way to the West Indies.
“It is important to note that this was the first time a title to land had been transferred by a West African chief to a European. The plot on which the castle stands is a huge rock that was believed to be a sacred place of some of the gods of the land; thus, the locals refused to take it kindly when they saw the foreigners quarrying the rock. The locals attacked them until the chiefs came to settle the impasse,” Ashun writes.
It is on Portuguese record that the chief Nana Kwamena Ansah never liked the idea of the permanent settlement of the Portuguese on his land. The king cited that differences in lifestyles and culture would be problem and emphatically stated that people are better friends if they don’t live together but instead see each other occasionally: “Though the sea and the land are neighbours, are always at variance and contending who shall give way; the sea with a great force attempting to subdue the land and land with the same strength resolving tom oppose the sea.”
With this argument, the king refused the Portuguese proposal. However, upon the Portuguese’s incessant persuasions and their hope of peaceful co-existing, the chief granted their request.
Just eleven years after the Portuguese had visited Elmina, their castle was built. The construction itself was in a relatively short time. The castle now occupies an area of about 100,952 feet or 2.32 acres. Upon completion, the Portuguese named it after their patron saint in Portugal. Sao Jorge (Saint George).
The Portuguese went ahead with their noble trade intentions until the early sixteenth century, when the trans-Atlantic slave trade began.
While some of the slaves ended up in Europe, especially Spain and Portugal, others became domestic slaves in North Africa and Arabia. At the peak of the trade, three main trade routes developed across the desert from Tripoli, Tunis and Morocco.
The Portuguese had been enjoying their monopoly for some time before major competition came from the Dutch. Though other Europeans had been coming to the area for gold, they were treated as interlopers, and the Portuguese fought them. In order not to encourage the Africans for having a clandestine trade with these interlopers, an agreement “regimento agreement” was signed with some local chiefs in 1529. This agreement stated that when an African was caught trading with other Europeans apart from the Portuguese, he would be whipped and have an ear chopped off the first time, and would be persecuted the second time.
In 1596, the Dutch attacked the Portuguese for the first time but were defeated. However, to make their presence felt, the Dutch in 1612 built, a lodging fort called Fort Nassau in Moree, a village about 20km east of Elmina. In 1625, the Dutch tried to take over the Elmina Castle again and were defeated for the second time, more so because the attack came from the sea, where the Portuguese were very strong.
In 1637, the Dutch made a well-coordinated attack on the Portuguese in Elmina. The attack was led by Hans Coine with twelve ships. This final attack came from two fronts, sea and land. Strategically, the Dutch started the offensive from the seaward point, directing all of the Portuguese’s strength there. Just when the Portuguese were putting up a good defence, the Dutch started bombarding from land. The Dutch had been assisted by the local people bringing weapons atop a hill called San Jago, which overlooked the castle.
This really came as a shock to the Portuguese, who at that moment could not organise themselves well enough to take battle against both sea and land. On the third day the Portuguese surrendered to the Dutch. Thus on August 29, 1637 the Dutch took control of Elmina.
According to Ashun, “Critically putting all the pieces of information together, one can confidently conclude that the local people became fed up and assisted the Dutch because of three main reasons: (1) the Portuguese tampered with the scale they were using to measure, therefore exploiting the local people, (2) the locals were disenchanted with the advent of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, (3) the introduction of the barbaric regemento agreement that reduced them to subject of the Portuguese on their own land.”
“The local people were never happy when the Dutch continued with the slave trade, since they thought they were better alternative, because prior to the takeover, the Dutch were not active in that evil trade,” Ashun writes. “The Dutch, realising the threat the locals could pose if they were dissatisfied, built forts on all the major hills at Elmina to secure all the inland routes and avoid the repetition of what they had done to the Portuguese.” In all, the Dutch had five forts: San Jago, Natglas, Schomerus, Java and Beckenstein. Of these, San Jago is the only one standing today. The others are in ruins, with cannons at the various sites lying around as remnants of the past.
“The Dutch upon the take over of the Elmina castle extended the dungeons and continued the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In 1872, long after the trans-Atlantic slave trade had been abolished, the castle and other Dutch possessions became unprofitable and costly to maintain. On April 6, 1872 the Dutch traded their possessions in western hemisphere for the British possessions in northern Sumatra in Indonesia,” Ashun writes.
The British took over the castle at the time the trans-Atlantic slave trade had been abolished and had almost completely stopped. “They thus used the castle as a sub-administrative centre. This is not to suggest, however, that the British never took part in the trade. Rather, they used the Cape Coast castle; about 12 km east of Elmina, for their trade while the Dutch were at Elmina,” Ashun notes.
During the Second World War, the British brought men from all of English speaking West Africa except Liberia to the Elmina castle. Where they were trained and sent to India and Burma called the royal West African Frontier Force and fought for the British. In 1948, after World War II, the castle at Elmina was used as a police training school.
“The British ruled Elmina with iron hands until 1957, when Ghana became an independent state.”
The castle has been in existence for 526 years: Portuguese (1482-1637, 155 years), Dutch (1637-1872, 235 years), British (1872-1957, 85 years), and Ghana (1957-2008, 51 years).