History in stone: Coastal slave forts offer testament to the colonial past

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Few buildings are more representative of the continent’s tumultuous history than the series of stone-built fortresses that dot several of Ghana’s coastal towns. Of these fortresses, some lie forgotten and broken down, hardly visited, while others have attracted travellers from the other side of the Atlantic, keen to learn about their ancestry and history.

AFRICA, EUROPE & THE NEW WORLD: Africa and Europe intersected on these shores in a decisive and violent way. Ghana’s slave castles, as they are known, constitute some of the country’s most interesting historic attractions. But they tell a story of the brutal displacement that would have a profound impact on the history and development of West Africa – as well that of the New World. Built as fortified trading posts, the castles soon become passageways for African slaves taken to the New World by European colonisers.

Chasing valuable commodities, Portuguese sailors under the auspices of Prince Henry the Navigator were the first to arrive in the region that was to be known as the Gold Coast. Their aim was to undercut the Muslim traders that had long been taking gold and ivory to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea via ancient Saharan trade routes. Galvanised by the abundant riches they found in the region, and in an effort to protect the profitable routes from other European seafaring competitors, the Portuguese established the first permanent trading post in West Africa in 1482, in Elmina. The fortress still stands today, but it has become synonymous with the insidious slave trade that would characterise exchanges between Europe, Africa and the colonies of the New World for hundreds of years.

THE SLAVE TRADE: By 1500, the demand for slaves as plantation workers in the colonies of the Americas transformed them into the most valuable commodity for European colonial traders, overshadowing gold and spices. The decline of Portuguese dominance along the Gold Coast led to increased competition from other European powers. The Dutch, Swedish, English and Danish all fought for control of the slave trade along West Africa, gaining and losing authority over many outposts that still exist today. Making use of this network of fortifications, the colonial nations fought for control of the lucrative West African trade.

Overall, it is estimated that more than 6m slaves were shipped from trading posts in colonial West Africa to the colonies of North and South America between the 1500s and the 18th century. In recognition of this forced migration and its importance to African and world history, several of the slave castles along the Ghanaian coast were made UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1979. Cape Coast Castle and Elmina Castle, both recognised by the international body as World Heritage sites, are two of the most famous slave fortresses, and both are popular tourist attractions today, having received 97,595 and 81,677 visitors, respectively, in 2011.

ELMINA: Erected by the Portuguese colonisers, Elmina is considered to be the oldest European building in sub-Saharan Africa. It was built in the style of the old feitorias, which simultaneously served as storage houses, marketplaces, advanced military posts and centres of government for the Portuguese colonial power.

Elmina fell to Dutch hands in 1637, a sign of heavier losses to come years later, when the Portuguese lost control of the Gold Coast trade routes. The Dutch Gold Coast and Elmina Castle were eventually handed over to the British under the terms of the Anglo-Dutch treaties of 1870-71 that settled several colonial disputes between the two nations.

CAPE COAST: Cape Coast Castle is another fortress with ties to the slave trade. The initial wooden structure was commissioned by Henry Carloff, a Swedish trader who would become heavily involved in the regional slave trade. The Danish fleet eventually took control of the territories of the Swedish Gold Coast in 1663. A year later, Cape Coast Castle was conquered by the English.

It was under the British administration that renovations eventually took place, giving the fort its current stone appearance, and by 1844, Cape Coast had become the seat of government for the British Gold Coast.

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