Ghana's Slave Castles

By Billings, Malcolm | History Today, August 1999 | Go to article overview

Ghana's Slave Castles


Billings, Malcolm, History Today


GHANA'S SLAVING PAST, long regarded as too sensitive to even discusss, is now becoming a lively issue. A group of Ghanaians, led by lawyers and tribal chiefs, have convened an Africa-wide meeting to seek `retribution and compensation for the crime of slavery'.

Using the example of recent successes for Jews whose property was confiscated by the Nazis, they cite the misery of millions of African slaves and their descendants, and have called on Western bankers and governments to compensate them by at least lifting the burden of Third World debt. But, as more is discovered about the realities of the tragic trade, some Ghanaians are beginning to wonder how much of the blame for the centuries of slavery should be shared by Africans themselves.

Elmina Castle, the most famous of Ghana's slaving castles, sits astride a rocky promontory at one end of a palm-fringed bay on the coast of Ghana. It was built by the Portuguese before Columbus discovered America. Indeed, it is thought that Columbus may himself have sailed as a deck-hand on one of the ships in the convoy that carried the building materials for the new castle on what was then known as the Guinea coast.

This great pile of whitewashed walls and battlements, dating from 1482, is the oldest European building in tropical Africa. It is one of about thirty surviving castles, forts and trading posts that still bear witness to four centuries of the presence of Europeans trading in gold, ivory -- and slaves.

At the height of the slave trade there were over sixty such strongholds crammed together on a stretch of coast less than 300 miles long. The remains of about thirty can still be seen today. They are one of Ghana's most distinctive features, a unique collective historical monument.

Elmina is one of the castles that has been rescued from crumbling into the sea, while others, built by the Dutch, Prussians, French and British, are variously used as police stations, prisons, post offices, lighthouses, schools and official residences.

Clearly visible from the ramparts of Elmina is the outline of another great castle in the distance, Cape Coast, built by the Swedes in 1653. Some of these competitive fortresses were almost within cannon-shot of each other. Many changed hands, and, by the end of the nineteenth century, after the abolition of slavery, the British had either conquered or bought out the trading interests of all the other European nations and set up the Gold Coast colony. The Danish-built Fort Osu, dating from 1661, became the British seat of colonial government in 1873, and is today the official home of the president of Ghana.

Lust for gold drew the Portuguese to this part Of West Africa. Alluvial deposits and mines in the hinterland became an important source of raw material for the royal mints in Lisbon. Slaves were needed to work the mines and at first the Portuguese imported them from other areas of Africa. But, in the 16th century they began using slaves caught on the Gold Coast. As the historian Albert van Dantzig points out: `Nearly all the forts were built with the consent, sometimes at the urgent request, of the local chiefs and people. The forts were built to keep other European traders away and it was on the side of the sea that they had their strongest defence.'

Elmina's dominance of the Gold Coast trade lasted until 1637 when the Dutch drove out the Portuguese and expanded their own slave trade. …

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