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The Gold Coast and the Slave Trade

Ikechukwu Modungwo is a student of life and geography, researching quite frequently the topics that invincibly move the world and drives man

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The Gold Coast Trade

It was not until 1471, however that the Portuguese finally reached the Gold Coast, under the command of Juan de Santarem and Pedro de Escobar. They landed at Shama near the estuary of the Pra River and here the European trade in gold began. Diego d’Azambuja, who followed the route of Santarem, sailed to the Gold Coast to trade in gold with the people who live in an area that the Portuguese would come to call El Mine (the Mine), hence Elmina, and where in 1482 they would build a fort. On one trip, d’Azambuja had on board a sailor engaged in cartographic work: some believe that it was Christopher Columbus. On completion of this project he was to be commissioned by the queen of Spain to discover a westward route to the Indies to find gold – a route that led eventually to his accidental landing on the American mainland. The Dutch, who had arrived at the Gold Coast in 1595, captured Elmina in 1637 and had taken over all Portuguese possession by 1642. At this time, British traders were also active. Despite Dutch efforts to expel them, the British maintained their footing and, after hostilities in 1664-65, the two parties concluded a peace treaty in 1667. By 1750, there were only the Danes at Christianborg Castle, the Dutch at Elmina and the British at Cape Coast Castle still trading. Most Europeans arrived at the Gold Coast in the hope of finding wealth, but many simply found malaria and other tropical diseases and ended up in the European cemetery in Elmina. In 1850 the Danes left, the Dutch in 1872, leaving the British in complete control of a thriving trade in gold dust and nuggets.

The Effects of the Trade

Not only does the movement of gold from one area of the globe to another set great changes in motion in the recipient states, but it also has a profound effect on the producing society. The gold that flowed out of the Akan forests caused major changes in the society of the Ashanti and the surrounding peoples. The gold trade effectively tied them into the rest of the world and they soon became inextricably linked to the developing capitalist and industrial system of Europe, a system which, by the 19th century, came to dominate the whole globe.

Expanding Horizons

The gold trade to the North of the Ashantis, over the Sahelian belt, had already introduced new goods and new ideas, perhaps even new mining techniques, by the time the Portuguese arrived on the scene. The Wangara traders who came from the north to obtain gold provided valuable commodities in exchange: salt, North African cloth, and metal items. Among the most valued of the latter were bowls and other brass vessels made in Egypt or North Africa, decorated with elaborate designs and text in Arabic scripts. Vessels of this sort were highly valued by the Akans and they entered into their early traditions and mythologies: the founding ancestors of some groups are said to have come down from the sky in brass basins and such vessels are used as shrines for their gods or treated as sacred relics. Later, the Ashanti and other groups began making their own copies of them, creating the type of ritual vessels known as kuduo, which were decorated in patterns copied from the original Islamic imports. The knowledge of Islamic designs and scripts introduced in this way may also have influenced the patterns used in Ashanti art. The incoming traders also used a system of weights for measuring out gold which influenced the development of local weights. The local need to find gold in order to trade for exotic goods, set in train vast changes that eventually led to the creation of a system of an elaborate centralized government in Ashanti. When the first traders arrived, the ancestors of the Ashanti were probably living in small communities scattered through the rain forest, subsisting by a combination of hunting and horticulture. The gold trade gave them another source of livelihood and, apart from importing necessary items such as salt and cloth; it also allowed them to import slaves in return for the gold they were producing.

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Gold and the Slave Trade

When the Portuguese began to fight their way into the gold trade, they discovered that there was a great demand for human labour in the interior, that is, in the area where the gold was being produced. In order to profit from this demand they began to buy or capture slaves in the area of Benin and ship them to the Gold Coast. There, once they were exchanged for gold, they were taken inland. Why was there this demand? What were all these extra hands needed for? Although the process is unclear, it seems that the Akans were undergoing a sort of agricultural revolution. Areas of the dense rain forest were being cleared to allow more productive farming. As productivity rose, so the forest was able to support a larger population, grouped together in bigger settlements. The labour they bought in exchange for gold supported this process.

Trading With the World

By the 16th century, Akan society had reached a take-off point and exported gold provided much of the power that enabled it to do so. But the gold trade did not end once the local society had begun to move into a period of population growth and increasing prosperity. Gold, traded to Europeans, could provide other resources which served to increase the power of those who controlled local gold production. These included: slaves, cloth, iron, beads, brass, distilled liquor and, most importantly firearms. The Ashanti used their guns to expand the resources under their control. For much of the 18th and early 19th century, theirs was a growing economy fuelled by war, conquest, booty and levies as well as by trade. While trade links with the wider world helped the Ashanti society to evolve, they also had the power to damage it. When the slave trade was abolished in the 1820s, the Asantehene found himself in considerable difficulty because the slave trade had developed into an important part of the Ashanti economy. Equally, when trade was depressed in Europe or the Americas, the Ashanti suffered. But the Ashanti developed a great understanding of trade, establishing systems of credit and always being ready to embark on new enterprises if they felt they could show a profit. Besides gold, they exported caffeine-rich kolanuts (mostly to the north where their power to suppress appetite and tiredness was especially valued by Muslims, denied the use of tobacco on religious grounds.) and, later, rubber and cocoa beans.

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