Elmina in Ghana - Medieval Trading Center on the West African Coast

What Has Science Learned about the Slave Trade in Elmina, Ghana?

Elmina Castle, Ghana
Elmina Castle, Ghana. benketaro

In the 15th century AD, Elmina (also known as Mina, Amina, Aminra, or Aminer) was one of several port communities on the Ghana coast (a.k.a. Gold Coast) of western Africa, associated with the West African ethnic group called Akan (Asante or Atweafo). Between the late 16th and early 19th centuries, Elmina served as a collection point in the international trade of slavery.

The Town

Located on a narrow rocky sandstone peninsula extending out between the Benya Lagoon and the Gulf of Guinea, the early community had few streets, many narrow alleys and numerous cul-de-sacs.

While the earliest houses were built of timber and clay (wattle and daub), the town eventually had a large number of stone houses, compared to other port cities

Eventually over 60 ports were established along the 500 kilometer (310 mile) long coastline, owned variously--and "owned" variously--by the Portuguese, Dutch, French, British and Scandinavians, although there was never more than a few hundred Europeans of any flavor on the entire coast at any one time. These individuals were government officials, traders and soldiers, who had no intention of permanently settling in the area. Christopher DeCorse's excavations at Elmina (1992) found that unlike other colonial ports, the local African population maintained their ritual practices, use of space and foodways, including a preference for locally made pots over low-fired lead and tin-glazed European ceramics. Evidence also shows that the Europeans adapted to the local diet as a result of their dependence on local food resources and cooks.

Elmina's Founding

Most of the ports on the coast were small, dispersed settlements that supported larger communities in the interior. That pattern of settlement probably began at least as long ago as 400 AD. Oral histories say that Elmina was founded by Kwa Amankwaa, either a member of the Eguafo or Asante royal family.

At the time of the first colonization, the town of Elmina (known then variously as Dondou, Oddena, Dana, Anomee, or Anomeekwakurom) had a fairly sizable population, as it was located on an excellent harbor; it was probably subservient to the neighboring states of Commany (Eguafo) and Fetu (Efutu). By the 17th century, the town was an independent state which maintained its sovereignty, despite the presence of the Dutch traders. By the 19th century, the African population at Elmina approached 20,000; European expatriates never totaled more than 400. Today both the town and the castle are known simply as Elmina.

The Portuguese began exploring the Gold Coast in search of gold and trading opportunities in the early 15th century. In 1482 they built the Sao Jorge Castle at Elmina, to help support their trade networks and fend off European competitors. Elmina was the first fortified European trade post in sub-saharan Africa.

The Slave Trade

The Portuguese were at first primarily interested in gold and luxury items such as ivory, pepper, and redwood, as were the Dutch who captured the fort in 1637. A few slaves were brought to Elmina from northern Ghana by African traders, but slavery was not a major part of the trade at Elmina until the late 17th century: most slaves were permanent residents of Elmina, some skilled laborers.

Others were traded to other societies in the African interior. Many of those who lived in Elmina eventually became free members of the city.

The first slaves traded into Elmina were imported into the city from Liberia, Benin, northern Ghana and other parts of coastal Africa, by the Portuguese during the 15th century. Slave exports to the Americas began in the 16th and 17th centuries, by the Spanish who had contracts with the Portuguese. The overseas export trade in slaves was abolished in the early 19th century, although local slaves imported from the interior were a continuing market in Elmina as artisans, plantation workers or personal militia. Full-out slavery was only one of several forms of indentured servitude practiced in Elmina and slave-holding was not restricted to Europeans.

Elmina Castle

Elmina Castle, also known as Castle Sao Jorge da Mina or St.

George's Castle, was described as "by far the most impressive castle or fort on the Atlantic shore of the Gold Coast" by writer Richard Wright (Black Power 1954). It was built primarily to facilitate their trade efforts on the Gold Coast. The castle was captured by the Dutch in 1637, and then by the British in 1872, and finally freed by Ghanaian independence from Britain in 1957.

The castle served numerous functions: first as a trading post, then as a slave dungeon and military fortification (between about 1700-1850), then under the British as a colonial administrative center and prison. After independence, Elmina Castle was the Edinaman Day Secondary School, the Ghana Education Service office, and a police training academy before becoming a tourist attraction.

Sources

Bruner EM. 1996. Tourism in Ghana. American Anthropologist 98(2):290-304.

DeCorse CR. 1991. West African archaeology and the Atlantic slave trade. Slavery & Abolition 12(2):92-96.

DeCorse CR. 1992. Culture contact, continuity, and change on the Gold Coast, AD 1400-1900. The African Archaeological Review 10:163-196.

DeCorse CR. 2001. An Archaeology of Elmina: Africans and Europeans on the Gold Coast, 1400-1900. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Price TD, Tiesler V, and Burton JHB. 2006. Early African Diaspora in Colonial Campeche, Mexico: Strontium Isotopic Evidence. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 130(4):485-490.

Yarak LW. 1986. The "Elmina Note:" Myth and Reality in Asante-Dutch Relations. History in Africa 13:363-382.

Yarak LW. 1989. West African coastal slavery in the nineteenth century: The case of the Afro=European slaveowners of Elmina. Ethnohistory 36(1):44-60.