European Contact with the West African Coast

Up until the early part of the fifteenth century, European nations were economically isolated for political and technological reasons. Politically, during this period, Europe was in shambles. She was intensely engaged in the Hundred Years War until 1435, was under attack from the Turks, and in the Iberian Peninsula, was controlled by the Muslims until eventual independence under Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain was achieved in 1492. Technologically, Europeans had not been able to build ships that were capable of crossing the vast oceans. Before the early fifteenth century, it proved difficult to find one's way in the uncharted seas until the compass was later perfected and, the astrolobe and quadrant invented.

Confronted by internal and external threats and technologically unable to access the sources of the trade goods' production, Europeans relied on middlemen to bring goods like spices, gold, salt and ivory. The prices were high, but there was no alternative. With the conquests of the Moors and Turks in the Mediterranean, Europe was further isolated from the Trans-Saharan and Middle Eastern trade.

Portugal was the first country that was able to overcome her political and technical difficulties, and she initiated the 'Age of Discovery'. In 1417, the nephew of the King of Portugal known as Henry 'the Navigator,' encouraged and financed these efforts of discovery beyond the Straits of Gibraltar so as learn about the unknown regions of Africa and find a sea route to East Indies, to make contact with the legendary Christian leader Prester John with whom Henry could attack the Muslims, to transform Lisbon into a center of commerce, and to gain direct access to Africa's gold from primarily the Western Coast. Once the other European nations had resolved their conflicts and saw the possible profits of trade that could be attained from West Africa, the development of sailing technologies spiraled. The general aims were to facilitate trade, to Christianize and to establish various colonies or spheres of interest.

By 1471, Ferno Gomes and the Portuguese arrived on the part of the African coast where gold could be purchased in large quantities for little merchandise. This was at the mouth of the River Pra wherein there was alluvial gold. Due to the quantities of gold worn, the Portuguese thought that the gold mines must have been very near to the coast. Thus they began to to call the region "Mina de Ouro" (gold-mine). In 1482, the construction of the castle So Jorge da Mina was begun (now called Elmina castle). It was the first of the 46 forts and castles that was built on the 'Gold Coast' which is now Ghana. It is from this point we begin our analysis of the transition from the trade in gold to that in slaves.

The Transition from the Gold Trade to the Transatlantic Slave Trade

I: When the Europeans arrived on the 'Gold Coast', their main priority was the procurement of gold. Walter Rodney in "Gold and Slaves on the Gold Coast" states that due to the fact that the Europeans came to Africa with few saleable goods, they were forced to engage in the purchase items like cloth and beads from other regions such as the Kingdom of Dahomey. They also purchased slaves, the majority of whom would be taken to So Tom where they were used on the Portuguese 'experimental' sugar plantations. The Portuguese used to barter the goods from Benin in exchange for gold on the Gold Coast. Initially, African rulers on the Gold Coast purchased the cloth and beads and some of the slaves from Benin were used as porters of the goods. Many Gold Coast rulers were not opposed to acquiring labor from outside since they could be incorporated into the mining labor force. Therefore, many of the porters were incorporated into the societies to whom they carried goods.

Slavery had previously existed within West African society and was perceived as a form of service or indentureship. Some slaves functioned as bodyguards or house-servants, whilst others were expected to function as sources of free labor. Yet even despite this and the Trans-Saharan slave markets, those taken were not treated like chattels. A slave's fate was not hopeless in that there was room for freedom and social mobility. Thus with this already existing market for slaves, it was initially possible for the Gold Coast States to supply slaves to the Europeans as the demands switched from gold to slaves. However, initially within the Gold Coast States, the Europeans did not pressure the rulers for slaves.

This is not to say that the Transatlantic Slave Trade had not begun but the point being that the Portuguese were not willing to jeopardize their relationship with those in Elmina, for example, by pressuring them to supply slaves since gold was in abundance in this region. Unlike the Portuguese, the Dutch did not buy slaves in Benin, but rather brought Dutch cloth and beads with them to sell for gold on the Gold Coast.

II: Ten years after the construction of So Jorge da Mina began, Christopher Columbus, in search for the East Indies 'discovered' Hispaniola and later the Americas. The Spanish soldiers and adventurers that came in his wake killed, pillaged and destroyed the Amerindian populations of Caribs, Arawaks, Tainos, Aztecs, and Incas. Those that survived this onslaught were only to be enslaved upon the establishment of the mines and plantations that would characterize the Americas from the 1540's onward. Due to the high demand for sugar in Europe, sugar plantations established by the British, French and Dutch soon sprang up. The enslaved 'Indians' died in large numbers and only a lucky few were able to escape.

In Madeira, So Tom and the other islands off the coast of West Africa, the Spanish and Portuguese had used African slaves to work on their plantations. Upon the destruction of the Amerindian populations, the Spanish and the Portuguese extended their use of African slaves to the Americas. In 1501, the first Africans were exported to the Americas from Lisbon for the purposes of slave labor. When the British, French and Dutch developed their plantations they adopted the same system of slave labor. This system was seen as cheap since a purchased slave, including any children the slave had, were considered a piece of property. The slave would have to work in any conditions for no pay and was seen as easily replaceable.

III: Most of what is now Ghana was engaged simultaneously in the Gold and Transatlantic Slave Trade. Initially most of the forts and castles had been built to facilitate the trade in gold. By 1734, however, almost all trade had switched to slave exportation. This complete transition was caused by a combination of mostly external interwoven factors: market forces of supply and demand, labor, and prices. Rodney points out that a large market was generated for slaves due to European capital and their ability to exploit Africans.

The English had a vast range of goods like muskets and powder with which they paid for the slaves. The Akwamu for example, were not able to gain full access to the gold in the Akan region due to the strength of the Akim. On their expansion into the Accra plains they began to participate primarily in the slave trade. With the money from the trade in slaves the Akwamu were now able to purchase arms with which to fight the Akim.

Those nations that had initially been characterized by their trade in gold such as the Netherlands and Portugal, soon shifted their emphasis and concentrated only on the trade in slaves. The internal structures of the Gold Coast states underwent changes so as to accommodate the demand for slaves. But this demand often drained labor from industries like gold production and drew many of them to a standstill.

With the decrease in access to gold fields and the increase in European demand for slaves, many African states shut off their gold production. Places in the Accra plains for example, became increasingly characterized with the supply of slaves, above all the state of Accra. Due to the expansion of the Akwamu in 1678, states such as Accra and Beraku were isolated from their sources that supplied gold, and as a result, shifted their emphasis to the supply of slaves.

The state machinery of the Akwamu and the Akim looked to the exploitation of the traditional forms of slavery which led to the internal and external search for slaves. Suddenly, punishment for some crimes became captivity and sale. Captives in wars could no longer expect to be ransomed but could expect to be sold and transported. The so-called 'Gold Coast' might as well have been called the 'Slave Coast,' for between September 1701 and April 1704, some 2,320 slaves were transported by British ships. In 1706, Cape Coast Castle alone handled 10,198 captives.

The goods the Europeans brought for trading purposes also changed with the transition from gold to slave exports. The purchasing power of linens fell and that for firearms, gunpowder, tobacco and rum rose. Brazilian gold also changed things. Now instead of bringing captives and exporting gold, the Europeans were bringing in Brazilian gold or other goods to purchase captives. Rodney suggests that the shift away from gold on the Gold Coast meant that in the grander scheme of things, slaves had become Africa's most valuable resource to her own detriment. The extreme stress that this trade put on the sociopolitical fabric of Gold Coast societies did not balance with the ostentatiously spent 'wealth' of the rulers and traders of these societies.

Impact of the Transatlantic Slave Trade on the Social fabric of Gold Coast States

The exportation of gold had a very different impact on the social structures of the Gold Coast states than that of the exportation of slaves. Within the Akan state, gold production provided a stimulus to the growth of the state. The Akan, for example, had been trading with the Arabs. With the arrival of the European ships, there was an added stimulus to production which led to an eventual increase in production. Population growth and political cohesion were not damaged. But with the onset of the trade in slaves, different consequences could be observed.

The removal of the adult male labor force from the subsistence economy severely damaged systems of production. The trade in slaves also became characterized by violence and warring. The political elites often overlooked the best interest of the state, and instead focused their energies on the search for slaves. As it became evident that the ruling groups no longer looked out for the welfare of their citizens, but rather to their own interests, many states were faced with sociopolitical instability.

An example of this was in the state of Akwamu on whom the Transatlantic Slave Trade had a devastating effect. The Akwamu, having stopped their trade in gold concentrated on the capture of slaves. The King and his men had several methods that they used to acquire the slaves, all of whom came from the Akwamu state. One method involved planting a group of women in each village. Each year on the King's rounds the women would be asked to 'confess' to who had touched them. Those males turned in would be carted off as slaves if their freedom could not be purchased by their families or friends. There was also a practice of panyarring or man stealing. 'Clever men' under the official protection of the King, were simply employed to catch local residents . This internal exploitation by the elites resulted in the loss of their 'social justification.' The constant search for slaves weakened the state not only morally and socially, but politically as well, for its lack of a strong army base placed it in an ideal position to be overthrown by the Akim.

Some other states survived and were still powerful in the wake of the Slave Trade. The Asante are a prime example of this. The Asante participated heavily in the Slave Trade but the one thing that distinguished them from the Akwamu was the fact that they did not engage in internal raiding for slaves. The Asante elite insulated their state and forbade the export of any fellow Asantes. The horrors of slaving were therefore only permitted to occur outside Asante boundaries. With a large army that was well trained and constantly fueled with mercenaries, the Asante instead raided regions to the North. Slaves were gained through wars with the Gonja and the purchase of victims of war.

It is important to examine not only the social but political and economic repercussions as well of the Slave Trade on the Gold Coast states. The Asante Kingdom was indeed quite successful in terms of wealth, but where did this capital end up in the long run? Most of it rested with the political elites who proceeded to fuel a significant portion of it into the military and various ceremonies. Like many other African states, the bases of economic production for the Asante were thoroughly disrupted by the trade. And finally, in their attempt to satiate the seemingly endless European demand for slaves, military and political elites only ended up creating internal fragmentation and havoc within their society. Eventually, the Asante came to realize the true effects of the trade on their people and their land and rose in opposition to reclaim the coast. Such rebellion would lead to the eventual withdrawal of the Dutch and extensive warring with the British.