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A West African Cosmopolis: Elmina (Ghana) in the Nineteenth Century

Larry W. Yarak
Texas A&M University



            The precolonial history of the Akan and Ga towns1 of the Gold Coast littoral has long attracted the attention of Africanist historians.  Until recently, however, these coastal towns have not been studied in order to recover the distinctive qualities they developed as trading entrep»ts linking the Atlantic World and the West African interior.  Rather, they have customarily been viewed as the setting for the growth of European influence in this part of Africa,2 as sites for the establishment and growth of direct British colonial rule in the later nineteenth century,3 and ultimately as the seedbeds of a new African nationalism that would develop in the colonial period and lead to the regaining of political independence in the middle of the twentieth century.4  In other words, the study of Gold Coast towns and their immediate hinterlands in the precolonial period has been largely teleological in character, driven by an overriding interest in what they were to become rather than what they were.

            In order to break out of this historiographical straightjacket I wish to place at the center of the analysis Elmina, one of the key Akan towns of the central Gold Coast during the middle decades of the nineteenth century.  The period 1831-1868 in Elmina was remarkable for a number of reasons.  First, this was an unprecedented time of predominantly peaceful relations between, on the one side, Elmina with its immediate hinterland, and, on the other side, the surrounding littoral Akan states and microstatesăFante, Wasa, Cape Coast, Abrem, and Komenda.  Secondly, and related to the first, this was a time of unprecedented growth of commerce at Elmina: commodities (gold, ivory, palm oil, foodstuffs) flowed from the interior to a variety of town-based merchants, some of whom sold their goods locally while others exchanged them for goods imported on Dutch, British, American, and Brazilian ships.  Thirdly, the period saw the rise to prominence of a set of families who were of mixed local and European descent, who gained literacy in European languages, and who began to embrace Christianity, while maintaining intimate cultural ties to the larger Akan world of the coast.  Fourthly, a Dutch scheme to obtain military "recruits" at Elmina (and the other Dutch forts located on the Gold Coast) for service in the Dutch East Indies military brought the town into direct, if sporadic contact with Southeast Asia during precisely this period.  Finally, the configuration of military and political power at the coast during these years of peace and expanding commerce created a distinctive interlude; it contrasted dramatically with the preceding period of local warfare, involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, and the (brief) domination of all the littoral states by the Asante empire, as well as with the subsequent period which saw the imposition of alien colonial rule by Great Britain.  No existing study of the Gold Coast or any of its constituent towns and states has in my view quite captured the remarkable qualities of this vibrant era in Elmina and Gold Coast history.

Elmina Before 1831

            From its rather humble beginnings as perhaps a set of two nearby fishing villages located on a peninsula situated to the east of Cape Three Points and the mouth of the Pra River,5 Elmina grew into an urban settlement located adjacent to the military and trading fort constructed by the Portuguese at the eastern tip of the peninsula in 1482: the Portuguese called it "S†o Jorge da Mina."  Initially the principal interest of the Portuguese was in tapping into and diverting the gold trade which already existed between Akan peoples of the forest interior and the savanna states of the western Sudanic belt.  In this effort they proved remarkably successful.  Through a process obscure to modern historians the Portuguese name for the fort was transformed into "Elmina" by the other European traders who began arriving on the Gold Coast in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and this name was also applied to the town which grew up alongside the fort.  "Elmina" became "Edina" in the Akan language (or perhaps the reverse!), and this came to replace the indigenous name or names of the original fishing villages on the peninsula.  Elmina was thus the site of the first permanent European presence on the Gold Coast, and its townspeople became involved in a wide variety of economic activities, many (but not all) of which were called into existence by that presence.  In 1637 the Dutch West India Company attacked and seized the fort from the Portuguese with the assistance of locally recruited troops; it remained the Dutch headquarters on the Gold Coast until 1872, when they ceded it and all of their other forts on the Gold Coast to the British.6

            During the period of Dutch occupation of the fort, which they renamed "St. George d'Elmina," the town grew in size and importance.  The Dutch constructed a second fort on a small hill across the lagoon overlooking the main fort; this is the only fort built by Europeans on the Gold Coast which did not have an economic purpose, but was rather intended to protect the main fort from the kind of attack that the Dutch themselves had mounted successfully in 1637.  The Dutch constructed a variety of other forts and trading lodges along the Gold Coast, as did the English, Prussians, Swedes and Danes. 7  By the nineteenth century, besides the Dutch only the British and Danes remained: the former with headquarters at Cape Coast, located within eyesight of Elmina, and the latter with headquarters at Accra, adjacent to the Ga town of Osu at the eastern end of the Gold Coast.  The number of Europeans employed by the Dutch on the coast fluctuated throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; according to Harvey Feinberg, their numbers averaged about 250 during 1700-1760.8  Most resided at Elmina.  By contrast, Feinberg estimates the population of the town of Elmina in the same period to have been between 12,000 and 16,000.9  It was probably already the largest town on the Gold Coast.  By the middle decades of the nineteenth century this was almost certainly so.

            In the early eighteenth century the gold and ivory export trades were overtaken in importance by the export trade in enslaved Africans.10  Elmina merchants were active in this trade, both in supplying slaves to European traders and in purchasing people for their own purposes.  Indeed, people of servile origin were then and would remain a substantial portion of the town's population.  The vast majority of those sold to European slave purchasers at Elmina were people who were taken captive in wars carried out in the interior, reaching far into savanna areas north of the Akan forestlands.  The Asante Empire, founded in 1701, was a major supplier of enslaved persons for sale at Elmina, and Elmina and Asante merchants and political leaders developed a close relationship that would last for more than a century and a half.11  A number of wars fought between the Akan states of the forest, like Asante and the kingdom of Akyem in 1742, and the smaller states of the littoral also produced numbers of captives for sale, and the Elmina people themselves sometimes fell victim to these events.  In fact, Elmina endured major sieges and attacks mounted by neighboring states in 1726, 1740, 1765, and 1782.  In addition, relations between the citizens of the town and the Dutch were not always cordial, despite the fact that from the beginning of their occupation of the main fort the Dutch engaged the Elmina authorities in a written "contract" that purported to regulate their mutual responsibilities.12  Occasionally disputes between the parties resulted in a complete breakdown of contact for short periods.  During the eighteenth century Elmina's social and political organization became increasingly militarized and by the middle decades of the century a single figure in the political hierarchy was recognized by the Dutch as "king," though his powers remained quite limited.

            Throughout the eighteenth century the Dutch played a relatively declining role in the transatlantic slave trade.  In 1791 the bankrupt West India Company was liquidated and its forts and possessions on the Gold Coast were taken over by the Dutch state.  With the subsequent outbreak of wars in Europe associated with the French Revolution and Napoleon, contact between the Netherlands government and the Gold Coast was sporadic and trade collapsed.  The declining numbers of Dutch officers and soldiers resident at Elmina became increasingly dependent on the people of Elmina, and particularly on powerful Elmina merchants like the Euro-African slave trader Jan Niezer,13 as well as on the other European powers on the coast.  Then in 1806-7 the Asante Empire, provoked by the rebellion of one of its subordinate southern provinces, sent a large army into the coastal districts.  This invasion was followed by another in 1810-1811, which was partly intended to lift a siege of Elmina by the surrounding microstates, initiated because of Elmina's close relationship with Asante.  A third Asante invasion in 1815-1816 resulted in the complete subjugation of all the littoral states, Akan and Ga.  This very disturbed period on the Gold Coast did not however produce a dramatic increase in the export slave trade because the British had banned the trade in 1807; the Danes, who had never been a major trader in enslaved Africans, had done so earlier, and the Dutch outlawed the trade for its citizens in 1814.

            In 1824 the subjugated microstates of the littoral, Akan and Ga, but not including Elmina, rose in revolt against Asante with the active encouragement and support of the British authorities at Cape Coast.  In a famous battle fought near the eastern edge of the Gold Coast, not far from Accra, the Asante army sent to punish the rebellious states was defeated.  In 1828 the victorious rebels pressed yet another siege on Elmina, which was again repulsed, though this time without Asante support.  Several years of negotiations between the belligerent parties followed, culminating in the signing of treaties of peace in 1831, which ended direct Asante domination of the littoral states.  A new era ensued, one of political independence for the littoral states, including Elmina, and expanding commodity trade for all.

Elmina in the Mid-Nineteenth Century

            Elmina in the middle decades of the nineteenth century was a complex, plural, and in certain ways a decidedly modern, cosmopolitan society.14  A Dutch survey of the town and its hinterland in 1858 provides us with the greatest detail of its physical and demographic circumstances.  It found that the town adjacent to the Dutch fort counted over 3,350 "houses" and that each was inhabited by "five to six" persons, yielding an estimated total population of "18,000 to 20,000."15  This was almost certainly the largest town on the entire Gold Coast at the time, and it rivaled the estimated permanent population of Kumasi, the capital of the Asante Empire.  The Dutch surveyors also counted 71 subordinate villages in the Elmina hinterland.  Some of these were old, relatively autonomous villages inhabited by free citizens; others were newly created settlements housing the slaves and dependents of wealthy Elmina townspeople, male and female.  Elmina's population was organized into wards, or "quarters" (kwartieren), as the Dutch called them, each with an elected head or supi.  To the Elmina these were the asafo, an Akan word that is usually translated into English as "company."  This translation captures the military and social functions of these groupings, in which membership was determined by patrifiliation, but "ward" properly captures their spatial dimension.  Elmina was constituted by seven such asafo, and they comprised far and away the majority of the town's inhabitants.  The origins of Elmina's asafo are obscure, but it is clear that they did not all have an equal social standing.  The inhabitants also traced descent matrilineally; all Elminas belonged to one of seven matriclans, each of which had a recognized head.  Succession to clan chieftaincy, inheritance of immoveable property (including slaves), and access to arable land were determined by matrifiliation.  Elmina's government was constituted by a king, who was always a member of the same asafo (meaning that succession to the office passed patrilineally, unlike most Akan states); an elected head of the seven asafo, whose functions were largely military; a council of royal advisors whose members seem to have been most often wealthy merchants; and an appointed counselor or "secretary," in the Dutch term, who was basically the king's chief adviser.  Political power lay disproportionately in the hands of the asafo, most of whose members were fishermen, but also including canoemen, petty traders, and skilled artisans.  Asafo members constituted the main force of the town's militia, and there are indications that gun ownership was widespread, even among the servile classes.

            The presence of at least five other resident groups with distinct identities established the plural and cosmopolitan dimensions of Elmina society.  All were the outgrowth of Elmina's involvement in the Atlantic economy.  The numerical size of each is impossible to establish in the current state of the evidence, though they were clearly dwarfed by the seven asafo.  Two of these groups came to be increasingly accepted during the nineteenth century as constituting in effect additional, if junior, asafo groups: the first was comprised of the descendants of the old West India Company slaves who were employed as artisans and laborers in the maintenance of the Dutch forts.  In 1818 they were officially manumitted, but they retained a separate, inferior social status compared with the members Elmina's asafo. The second group were the descendants of a large body of slaves owned by a wealthy eighteenth-century Elmina merchant who had held the position of chief "broker" (makelaar) for Dutch trade at Elmina.  Most of this group lived in two villages located a short distance from the town.  Though clearly of a lower social status because of their servile origins, members of these two groups shared broadly the culture of the seven full asafo groups.

            A third group was comprised of the descendants of European officers and soldiers and their Akan wives.  To the Dutch these people were known as vrijburgers ("free citizens") or "mulattos"; in the recent historical literature they are referred to as Euro-Africans.  This was a highly varied group: probably most were raised in their mother's wards, and so they did not come to occupy a separate physical space within the town precincts, unlike the asafo.  They often were favored by the Dutch for employment in the lower ranks of the Dutch fort administration as soldiers, artisans and laborers; a number acquired limited literacy and fluency in Dutch and English, the trade languages at Elmina.  But a few, who appear mostly to have been the sons and grandsons of high-ranking Dutch officers, became highly literate, wealthy traders and influential players in the public affairs of the town.  Mention has already been of Jan Niezer whose career as a successful slave merchant in Elmina spanned the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  In the nineteenth century the more privileged and well-to-do Euro-Africans sent their children to the Netherlands and England for schooling.  They often served as junior officers in the Dutch fort administration for varying lengths of time after their return to the Gold Coast.  Examples of such men include Carel Hendrik Bartels, the son of a Dutch governor and his local wife; Bartels' many daughters and sons, who played similar roles in the years after their father's death in 1851; Jacob Huydecoper, grandson of a Dutch governor, who became envoy and agent of the Dutch government to the Asante court in the late 1830s; and Jacob Simons, of obscure Dutch ancestry, but another former Dutch envoy to Asante and successful independent trader.  All of these individuals were cultural hybrids: they were literate, fluent in English and Dutch as well as the language of their motherland, Akan; they corresponded with and sometimes worked as agents for trading firms based in the Netherlands, Great Britain, France, and the United States; all married women who were born locally, though they increasingly preferred Euro-African women as marriage partners; many came to profess Protestant Christianity.  Interestingly, Euro-African women born in this period were sometimes also sent to Europe for schooling; however, most came to exercise prominent roles in public affairs only after the establishment of British colonial rule.  The more prosperous families built large homes outside of the traditional confines of Elmina, on land located across the Benya lagoon to the north of town, along the road leading to Cape Coast.  This area was referred to in Dutch sources as the "Garden" (Tuin) because it lay in the vicinity of the "garden" or farm maintained by the Dutch government.  In a sense wealthy Euro-Africans constructed their own (suburban) Elmina ward in the mid-nineteenth century.

            A fourth distinctive group was comprised of the pensioned ex-servicemen who had returned from careers in the Dutch East Indies army.16  Their story began in the early 1830s when the Dutch first recruited young men at Elmina for service in the Dutch East Indies.  During two principal periods of recruitment, during 1831-1842 and 1855-1872, some 3,000 men were enlisted and shipped to Java where they served in the Dutch colonial military throughout the Indonesian archipelago.  Most of these were slaves whose freedom was purchased by the Dutch government in exchange for their signing an enlistment contract of twelve years.  When a West African soldier was incapacitated or reached the end of his service contract, he was given the option of retirement from service, often with a modest pension, in either the East Indies (where some had acquired Indonesian wives) or at the Gold Coast (which they reurned to via the Netherlands, with travel expenses paid for by the Dutch government).  Scores of pensioned soldiers opted to return to Elmina.  Many took up residence on a hill located across the Benya lagoon, not far from the area occupied by the wealthy Euro-African merchant families; this hill became known in the middle of the nineteenth century, as it still is today, as "Java Hill" (in Akan, Yafer Kokoado).  The Java veterans recognized one of their own as head of their community.  Some appear to have been Muslims, perhaps those who had been so prior to their enslavement, though it is possible that some converted to Islam as a result of their military careers in the East Indies.

            The fifth group in Elmina which added to its cosmopolitan character were the Europeans themselves: the civilian and military officers, employees of the Dutch government, most whom resided in the fort; and a handful of private European merchants who built houses or rented those built by Euro-Africans in the "Garden."  In the nineteenth century the number of Dutch officers and merchants residing at Elmina seldom exceeded twenty.  Virtually every European officer who survived the first few months of the Gold Coast's disease environment would sooner or later marry a locally-born woman.  Like the male Euro-Africans by the middle decades of the nineteenth century they tended to marry the daughters of prominent Euro-Africans.  These "country marriages" were often not the stereotypical relationship of European male and African concubine that is almost automatically conjured up in the modern Western mind.  The historical evidence is not as full as one would like, but there is at least one description on record of the procedures that accompanied the marriage of a Dutch officer with a Euro-African womanăthey conformed to marriage practices among the Akanăand the material advantages that accrued to the woman who agreed to the marriage.17  There is also the case of the Dutch governor who retired to the Netherlands accompanied by his three sons by a daughter of Carel Hendrik Bartels, his wife having deceased before his retirement from Dutch service at Elmina.  The sons went on to distinguished public service careers, two of them in the colonial service of the Dutch East Indies.18  The point is that marriage of whatever form, along with commercial and political interest, drew Europeans intimately into the social worlds of coastal society.  There was in fact no separate European world on the Gold Coast; the European residents were forced to accommodate to the cultural world of the coast if they were to flourish or even survive.

Mid-Nineteenth Century Elmina (and the Gold Coast) as a "Middle Ground"

            How did these various groups interact at Elmina and what kind of society did they create?  As mentioned earlier, historians have seldom framed the question in this way, preferring instead to look ahead to the colonial period, or simply to see the forces for change in the period before full-blown colonial rule as emanating from outside the region.19  More than a decade ago Richard White published a study of a zone of commercial, cultural and military interaction which bears in important ways some remarkable similarities with the situation on the nineteenth century Gold Coast, of which Elmina was an important part.20  We must start with the understandingăone that has not been fully explored by historiansăthat the Gold Coast littoral was in mid century a place quite literally "in between empires," as was Whites's Great Lakes world in the eighteenth century.21  Prior to the 1870s neither the Dutch nor the British acted with the authority, conviction or power that this was an area within their imperial ambit.  And, as we have seen, the Asante Empire had relinquished its imperial power over the region in 1831, having exercised its authority for only a brief period.  The result was that the coastal littoral became a "middle ground" where:

diverse peoples adjust their differences through what amounts to a process of creative, often expedient, misunderstandings.  People try to persuade others who are different from themselves by appealing to what they perceive to be the values and the practices of those others.  They often misinterpret and distort both the values and practices of those they deal with, but from these misunderstandings arise new meanings and through them new practicesăthe shared meanings and practices of the middle ground.22

            "Creative misunderstandings" were in abundance in the interaction of Europeans and Africans on the nineteenth century Gold Coast.  That Europeans "misinterpreted and distorted" the "values and practices" of the Akan peoples of the region has of course long been recognized by Africanist historians.  But they have seldom considered that this misunderstanding was as much a product of European accommodation to littoral society as it was of European cultural arrogance and developing racism.  Nor have they considered that the peoples of the coast also engaged in creative misunderstandings of the values and practices of the Europeans.  The history of the middle decades on the Gold Coast can fruitfully be reconsidered in light of this new interpretive framework.  Many examples of "creative misunderstandings" could be cited, but limitations of space preclude that here.

            Just as in the Great Lakes region where the middle ground dissolved when the Indians were no longer able to force the Europeans to accommodate, so the departure of the Dutch and the imposition of British rule at Elmina in 1872 marked the dissolution of this West African middle ground.  The Elmina authorities did not quite grasp the nature of the change until it was too late.  Though lulled into acceptance of the transfer of Elmina fort to the British by promises that little would change with the Dutch departure, by March 1873 it became clear that the British were determined to exercise a new kind of authority.  The new British governor called Elmina King Kobena Gyan and his senior advisers into the fort and demanded that they take an oath of allegiance to the British government.  The king refused, stating that:

This Castle belonged to the Dutch Gvt before, and the people of Elmina were free men; they are no slaves to compel them to do anything.  When [the British] Governor [at Cape Coast] came to take this Castle he did not consult me before the English flag was hoisted; if he had considered me as king he would have done so. . . .  The Governor offered me as a bribe a large sum of money to let the transfer go on smoothly and peaceably.  I refused the bribe because had I taken it chiefs would have turned round on me afterwards and said I sold the country for money.23

The king and the majority of the Elmina asafo rejected British authority and appealed for help to Asante.  The Asante king responded by dispatching an army to assist Elmina in taking the fort by force.  They failed to do so.  In retaliation and as a lesson to other Akan towns of the coast, the British bombed Elmina town from the forts and from ships at sea and in the bay.  Old Elmina town was utterly destroyed and then looted by peoples from the surrounding microstatesăthe descendants of those who had failed on so many previous occasions to conquer Elmina themselves.  It was never allowed to be rebuilt and stands today as an empty field adjacent to the fort, which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.  The destruction and burial of old Elmina brought the middle ground between Europeans, Euro-Africans and Elmina asafo to an end and opened the new era of colonialism.


1 In the usage of scholars of Ghana, the terms "Akan" and "Ga" refer to languages as well as to ethnic identifiers.

2 See e.g. Roger Gocking, Facing Two Ways : Ghana's Coastal Communities Under Colonial Rule (Lanham: University Press of America, 1999); Christopher DeCorse, An Archaeology of Elmina: Africans and Europeans on the Gold Coast (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001).

3 See e.g. John Parker, Making the Town: Ga State and Society in Early Colonial Accra (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2000).

4 See e.g. David Kimble, A Political History of Ghana: The Rise of Gold Coast Nationalism, 1850-1928 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963).

5 DeCorse, Archaeology, 47-8.

6 For an excellent survey of the history of Elmina before 1800 see Harvey Feinberg, Africans and Europeans in West Africa: Elminans and Dutchmen on the Gold Coast During the Eighteenth Century (Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1989)

7 For a brief history of the construction of European forts on the Gold Coast, see Albert van Dantzig, Forts and Castles of Ghana (Accra, Ghana: Sedco Publishing, 1980).

8 Feinberg, Africans and Europeans, 35.

9 Ibid., 85.

10 For the Dutch slave trade see Johannes Postma, The Dutch in the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1600-1815 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

11 John Fynn, Asante and Its Neighbours, 1700-1807 (London: Heinemann, 1971); Ivor Wilks, Asante in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975); Larry Yarak, Asante and the Dutch, 1744-1873 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990).

12 These contracts were renewed irregularly; for a translation of the contract of 1844, see Renț Baesjou, "Dutch 'Irregular' Jurisdiction on the Nineteenth Century Gold Coast," African Perspectives (Leiden, the Netherlands), 2 (1979), 56-66.  Curiously, the first contract drawn up in 1642 after the Dutch took the fort from the Portuguese is missing from the archives of the West India Company.

13 J. Lever, "Mulatto Influence on the Gold Coast in the Early Nineteenth Century: Jan Nieser of Elmina," African Historical Studies 3, 2 (1970).

14 The following description of Elmina is based on a wide variety of documents drawn from the Algemeen Rijksarchief (ARAăDutch National Archives) at The Hague, published traveler's accounts, and the records of colonial Elmina in the Ghana National Archives, Accra and Cape Coast Depositories

15 ARA, Archief van het Ministerie van Koloniïn 956: verbaal, 25 June 1860, No. 22/44: Nagtglas to Minister, dd. Elmina 7 May 1860, No. 199/39, enclosure: "Report on the Elmina District," by J. Scheffelaer and A. Magnin, n.d. (1858).

16 See Larry Yarak, "New Sources for the Study of Akan Slavery and Slave Trade: Dutch Military Recruitment in the Gold Coast and Asante, 1831-72," in Source Material for Studying the Slave Trade and the African Diaspora, ed. R. Law (Stirling, Scotland: Centre of Commonwealth Studies, University of Stirling, 1997).

17 H. Tengbergen, Verhaal van den reistogt en expeditie naar de Nederlandsche bezittingen ter westkust van Afrika (kust van Guinea) ('s Gravenhage: S. de Visser & Zoon, 1839), 68.

18 Personal communication from Michel Doortmont, University of Groningen, the Netherlands.

19 See in particular Gocking, Facing Two Ways.

20 R. White The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

21 Ibid., x.

22 Ibid.

23 Renț Baesjou, An Asante Embassy on the Gold Coast: The Mission of Akyempon Yaw to Elmina, 1869-72 (Leiden, the Netherlands: Afrika-Studiecentrum, 1979), 50, citing Public Record Office, London, CO 879/3: 12 March 1873.


Copyright Statement

Copyright: © 2003 by the American Historical Association. Compiled by Debbie Ann Doyle and Brandon Schneider. Format by Chris Hale.

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