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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Exploring the Tragic Legacy of Ghana’s Elmina Castle and The “Door Of No Return”


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Elmina Castle, also known as Castelo da Mina was built by the Portuguese in 1482 as Castelo de So Jorge da Mina (St. George of the Mine Castle), in present-day Elmina, Ghana (formerly the Gold Coast).

It was the first commercial post on the Gulf of Guinea and the oldest European structure south of the Sahara. The castle was initially built as a trading post and eventually developed into one of the most significant sites along the path of the Atlantic slave trade.

Following a failed effort in 1596, the Dutch took control of the fort from the Portuguese in 1637, and the Portuguese Gold Coast as a whole in 1642.

Under the Dutch, the slave trade lasted until 1814. The fort and the rest of the Dutch Gold Coast were seized by Great Britain in 1872.

The Gold Coast, which is now Ghana, was in charge of the castle when it won its independence from Britain in 1957.

Elmina Castle is a historical place that was used extensively in Werner Herzog’s 1987 drama film Cobra Verde.

Due to its witness to the Atlantic slave trade, the castle is included by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site together with other castles and forts in Ghana. It is also a major tourist attraction in Ghana’s central region.

It is likely that the Fante ethnic group was present in Elmina throughout the fifteenth century. The Fante ethnic group has an ambiguous tie to “Akan,” which comes from the root word “kan,” which means to be the first or original.

From mediaeval times, their forefathers included traders and miners who traded gold into the Near Eastern and Mediterranean regions. However, it is certain that the Akan-speaking people of the woodlands descended from people who lived to the north of the forest.

The inhabitants of the West African coast were divided into a number of populations based on kinship ties. Families played a crucial role in society, and family chiefs gathered in their localities to form a single authority.

More than twenty autonomous kingdom-states existed only along the Gold Coast. Fetu and Eguafo were the two distinct Fante kingdoms that Elmina laid between. West Africans have long maintained ties to other continents.

Trade in common metals, enduring artistic styles, and agricultural borrowing demonstrate the success of trans-Saharan and local coastal links. Although not technically the first sailors to arrive at the port, the Portuguese were the first Europeans to visit the Gold Coast as such in 1471.

The Gold Coast was originally encountered by the Portuguese in 1471. In 1418, Prince Henry the Navigator sent the first ships to survey the African coast.

The Portuguese travelled south for a variety of reasons. Rumors of fertile African countries abundant in gold and ivory lured them in.

In order to avoid Arab traders and start doing business directly with Asia, they also looked for a southern route to India. Another area of attention for the Portuguese was Christian proselytism, which was consistent with the strong religious beliefs of the time.

Additionally, they hoped to join forces with the fabled Prester John, who was said to be the ruler of a powerful Christian nation located far from Europe.

The Portuguese expanded their commerce with Guinea for these reasons. Each journey brought them to a place along the African coast that was further than the one before it.

During the reign of King Afonso V, the Portuguese finally arrived at Elmina in 1471 after fifty years of coastal exploration.

However, the Guinea trade was placed under the management of the Portuguese trader Ferno Gomes since Portuguese royalty had lost interest in African exploration due to the small returns.

 When Gomes arrived at modern-day Elmina, he discovered that the locals and travelling Arab and Berber traders had already developed a booming gold trade.

He created his own trading post, which became known as “A Mina” (the Mine) to the Portuguese due to the gold that could be found there.

Construction Of Elmina Castle

In the decade that followed Gomes’s founding of the trading post, trade between Elmina and Portugal increased.

In order to maintain the preservation of this trade, which was once again held as a royal monopoly, newly crowned Joo II made the decision to construct a fort on the shore in 1481.

All the supplies required to construct the fort were provided by King Joo on ten caravels and two transport ships.

Along with the pre-fitted materials, which included everything from large foundation stones to roof tiles, six hundred men’s worth of food was also provided.

The fleet set sail on December 12, 1481, under the command of Diogo de Azambuja, and arrived in Elmina, in a village called Of Two Parts, a little more than a month later, on January 19, 1482.

Some historians believe that Christopher Columbus was among those who sailed with this fleet to the Gold Coast.

Azambuja hired a Portuguese trader who had been in Elmina for a while when they first arrived to set up and interpret a formal meeting with the local chief, Kwamin Ansah (interpreted from the Portuguese, “Caramansa”).

Azambuja informed the chief of the many benefits of constructing a fort, including defence from the ruthless king of Portugal.

Azambuja and Chief Kwamin Ansah took part in a large-scale peace rite that included a feast, musicians, and other people who were both Portuguese and native during the meeting.

While Chief Kwamin Ansah welcomed Azambuja as he did every previous Portuguese trader who had come ashore, he was wary of establishing a permanent settlement.

However, the Portuguese would not be deterred because they had solid plans in place. The Portuguese were finally successful in persuading Kwamin Ansah to accept after presenting gifts, making promises, and implying the repercussions of breaking the deal.

The chief’s hesitation turned out to be well-founded when construction began to take place the following morning.

The Portuguese had to destroy the dwellings of some of the inhabitants, who agreed only after being given compensation, in order to construct the fort in the most secure location on the peninsula.

Additionally, the Portuguese attempted to quarry a nearby rock that the animist residents of Elmina believed to be the residence of the god of the neighbouring River Benya.

Azambuja sent a Portuguese crew member, Joo Bernaldes, with gifts to give to Chief Kwamin Ansah and the villagers before the quarry and houses were demolished.

To appease the locals and prevent them from being upset when their houses and sacred rocks were demolished, Azambuja offered them brass basins, shawls, and other presents.

However, Joo Bernaldes did not give the gifts until after construction had begun, at which point the people were outraged after seeing the demolition without notice or compensation.

In retaliation, the locals staged an assault that led to the deaths of numerous Portuguese. Finally, an agreement was struck, but ongoing opposition prompted the Portuguese to fire down the nearby village in revenge.

Despite the anxious situation, the first floor of the tower was completed in only twenty days due to the large amount of prefabricated building supplies imported.

Despite opposition, the remainder of the fort and an accompanying church were completed soon after.

The fort was the first planned and built prefabricated structure of European origin in Sub-Saharan Africa. After it was finished, Elmina was recognised as a legitimate city. King Joo appointed Azambuja as governor and added “Lord of Guinea” to his noble titles.

The Portuguese plant at Arguim Island, on the southern edge of Mauritania, lost its position as a military and commercial hub in favour of So Jorge da Mina.

A tenth of the world’s supply of gold, or 24,000 ounces, was exported each year from the Gold Coast at the height of the gold trade in the early sixteenth century.

Africans who lived along the shore saw significant change as a result of the new fort, which symbolised the permanent presence of Europeans in West Africa.

Elmina declared itself an independent state at the Portuguese’ request, and its governor then assumed command of the town’s operations.

Portuguese protection against raids from nearby coastal tribes, with whom they had considerably less cordial connections, was extended to the residents of Elmina (even though they were friendly with the powerful trading nations in the African interior).

The Portuguese reacted violently and often by forging alliances with the adversaries of any locals who tried to trade with any country but Portugal.

The traditional structure of native communities was harmed, and hostility between groups worsened once the Portuguese gave them access to firearms, which facilitated the supremacy of the more powerful countries.

Trade with the Europeans helped increase the availability of some items for the coastal population, like as cloth and beads, but European involvement also disrupted traditional trade channels between the coastal and northern populations by removing the African intermediaries.

As traders from neighboring cities flocked to Elmina in an effort to deal with the Portuguese, who progressively acquired a monopoly over West Africa, the town’s population grew.

West Africa Slave Trade

The Portuguese government decided early on that So Jorge da Mina would not directly participate in the slave trade because they did not want to obstruct the gold mining and trade routes of the region’s hinterland with the conflicts required to seize free people and make them slaves.

Instead, the Portuguese ordered captives to be transported from other places, most notably the Slave Coast (Benin) and So Tomé, to So Jorge da Mina. The port of So Jorge da Mina was used for transshipment.

The Dutch made a failed attempt to capture the fortress in 1596, which was followed by a successful attack in 1637, after which it was designated as the capital of the Dutch Gold Coast.

Fort Coenraadsburg, a newer, more compact fort, was erected nearby to defend St. George’s Castle from inland incursions during the Dutch occupation.

Up until 1814, when they ended the slave trade in accordance with the Anglo-Dutch Slave Trade Treaty, the Dutch continued to use the triangular Atlantic slave route.

Life and Death at Elmina Castle During the Slave Trade

Even though the slave trade has long since ended, the interior of the castle serves as a chilling reminder of times gone by.

Those who made it to Elmina Castle were held captive there and subjected to all forms of indignities, torture, and humiliation without knowing what awaited them on the slave ships. There were just two tiny windows in the basement dungeons, which were oppressively gloomy and airless.

In a room that could barely hold 200 individuals, slave dealers would jam more than 1,000 slaves without access to water or sanitary facilities.

In these filthy, uncomfortable dungeons, malaria and yellow fever epidemics were frequent. Food was scarce, and illness was widespread.

The notorious “Door of No Return,” where slaves boarded ships for the perilous voyage across the Atlantic known as the Middle Passage, is located near the seaward side of the castle.

At Elmina, slave uprisings were violently suppressed. Some of the prisoners were simply killed, while others were starved to death in solitary confinement in an enclosed, gloomy holding area in the courtyard.

Thousands of slaves, both male and female, were made to stand outside in the scorching sun as they were shackled. Women were frequently raped by the guards, and as punishment, they could be compelled to lift large cannonballs.

Similar to other West African slave sites, Elmina Castle had opulent chambers for European visitors in its top floors. The officers’ quarters were located upstairs and featured parquet floors, lovely sea views, and plenty of natural light.

How they managed to enjoy such ease while thousands suffocated under their feet is difficult to imagine. The castle formerly held a church and was a haven for missionaries despite its crimes.

Elmina Castle was named a World Heritage Monument by UNESCO in 1972 and is currently conserved as a national landmark of Ghana.

It serves as a potent reminder of the history of the slave trade and is an incredibly popular tourist site for African Americans looking to connect with their past. Unfortunately, though, owing to neglect, the castle has started to break down.

Also read: Nana Olomu, the Nigerian Millionaire who made slave trade difficult for British

The roughly 30 remaining castles and forts discovered along Ghana’s coast are evidence of the largest forced migration in history as well as the horrors that people are capable of.

Elmina Castle currently shows honor to the numerous people who suffered the cruelties of slavery.


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