History in Elmina

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A Panoramic View of South Side of Elmina township

A Panoramic View of South Side of Elmina township

Michael Kunke

Over the years Elmina has played an important role on the crossroads between Africa and Europe and its development is therefore strongly linked to the development of European trade with West Africa. The Portugese initiated the development of Elmina as a regional commercial centre and a node in an international trading network when they commenced with the building of St. George Castle in Elmina in 1482. When the Dutch succeeded the Portugese in 1637, they made it their headquarters on the Gold Coast for the following three centuries.

Originally, the European commercial interest in the Gold Coast was in the gold it produced, alongside products like pepper and ivory. By the end of the 17th century, a new type of trade was established on the Gold Coast: the trade in slaves for the plantations in the New World. Elmina became an important distribution point for the slaves, which were brought from the hinterland, to be shipped to the Americas.

All through the 15th to 19th centuries, the town thrived on a host of economic activities, directly or indirectly related to the presence of the Europeans. The town became a bustling commercial centre, where fish and agricultural products were traded alongside a flourishing service industry providing transport, security, storage, as well as artisan activities like pottery and carpentry. The population of the town grew from several hundred people at the arrival of the Portuguese in the 15th century to roughly 20,000 in the mid-19th century.

After the abolition of the slave trade by the Dutch government in 1814, the Dutch lost interest in the Gold Coast and Elmina, and minimised their presence. During the 19th century, they tried to enhance their income from Elmina by developing a gold mine and a cotton plantation, both of which failed. More successful was the recruitment exercise the government set up in the 1830s, to enlist African soldiers for service in the Netherlands East Indies (Indonesia). Many returned after the Second World War and settled in Elmina, on what is now known as Java Hill. They brought back the techniques to make batiks, which are still very popular in modern Ghana.

In 1872 the Dutch Government transferred all its possessions at the Gold Coast to the British. In Elmina, as in other places, this gave rise to public protest and guerrilla activities against the British, in which the Ashanti were also involved. Eventually the British grew tired of all these protests, and exiled the king of Elmina to Sierra Leone while locking up the Ashanti king in St George Castle. In June 1873 they bombarded the old town of Elmina, burning it to the ground completely. For almost a decade Elmina was a ghost town. The site of the old town was transformed into a parade ground and never rebuilt.

From 1880 onwards, now part of the British Gold Coast Colony, the town came alive again, although it took more than a century before it regained the population level of the mid-19th century. In the 1920s money from gold and cocoa flowed into the town, and expectations of a new economic dawn returned. The typical 1920s-style colonial merchants' houses built in this period are still dominant in several parts of the Elmina townscape. Private initiatives to develop Elmina into an economic hub (undertaken between 1880 and 1920), including a railway connection to the mining and timber areas of the Western Region and the development of a modern harbour for intercontinental shipping, did not materialise.

When Ghana gained independence from the British in 1957, Elmina was little more than a fishing town. Since then it has grown significantly in terms of population but a growth unmatched by employment. Many of the more prosperous families have left the town and live in Accra, Kumasi or overseas, and no longer invest much time and money in the town. What once was the heart of the West African Gold Trade has become one of Ghana's poorest towns.

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