History, European Influence
Elmina, local conflicts, Axim, Atlantic slave trade, Cape Coast
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive in what is now Ghana, landing on the shores in 1471. Aware that the source of the rich trans-Saharan gold trade was inland, the Portuguese named the region the Gold Coast. At a coastal village that they named Elmina (Portuguese for “the mine”), they established a commercial mecca, trading firearms and slaves from other parts of Africa for gold dust. Competition with Portugal’s gold trade monopoly soon came from Spanish, Italian, and British traders, among others. To protect their commercial interests, the Portuguese constructed several fortresses. Saint George’s Castle, the most impressive of the Portuguese strongholds, was begun in 1482 at Elmina.
Competition among European merchants on the Gold Coast intensified in the 17th century. In 1637 the Dutch invaded and took control of the Portuguese fortress at Elmina. Farther west, the Dutch seized another Portuguese castle at Axim in 1642. At Cape Coast, the British captured a Dutch stronghold in 1665. Ultimately, the British, Danish, and Dutch emerged as the dominant European powers on the coast. The aggressiveness with which European merchants competed on the coast was not due solely to a profitable gold trade. By the 18th century the Atlantic slave trade, supplying African slaves to European plantation colonies in North America, South America, and the Caribbean, had become a vast enterprise. The slave trade subsequently came to dominate commercial activities in the Gold Coast, as more than 40 European slave-trading fortresses dotted the coast.
The exact number of slaves taken from the Gold Coast cannot be estimated accurately. The majority of individuals who were sold into slavery were prisoners from local wars, but others were the victims of systematic slave raids. Also, many local people were enslaved as punishment for acts classified as crimes, ranging from challenging political traditions to infringements of religious customs. In exchange for slaves, local rulers and traders typically received guns and gunpowder. As a result of the slave trade, powerful states such as Ashanti were able to acquire enough weapons to sustain their dominance. Occasionally, however, coastal Fante states formed alliances to resist Ashanti threats. At times, European powers—the British in particular—were drawn into these local conflicts. Historians agree that the Atlantic slave trade was the cause of many wars in the region. Britain abolished slave trading in 1807; other European nations followed suit, and the trade dwindled in the mid-19th century. Europe’s ongoing Industrial Revolution led European entrepreneurs to turn their attention to Africa’s wealth of critical raw materials—such as the Gold Coast’s plentiful palm oil, timber, and rubber—and its potential for providing new markets for manufactured goods.
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