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Ghana History - Early Contact

The Phoenicians are supposed to have been the first people who visited this coast; for Pharaoh Necho, one of the kings of Egypt, after having taken Sidon and subdued Phoenicia and Palestine (he must therefore have possessed considerable maritime power, nor was he less powerful by land, II Kings 23,29), employed Phoenician mariners to circumnavigate Africa, an undertaking which they accomplished with success. This was done about the year 600 before Christ.

Thirty or forty years after this, the Carthaginians, who were rivals of the Egyptians in commerce, must undoubtedly have explored a great part of the Western Coast of Africa, they may even have settled there. But according to the usual caution and monopolizing spirit of commercial states, it is probable that they concealed their discoveries from other nations. Only one important document seems to have reached our times, which demonstrates the enterprising spirit of that people. It is an apparently abridged journal of a voyage to the Western Coast of Africa, undertaken by Hanno the Carthaginian.

It is a debated question whether the Gold Coast was discovered by French or by Portuguese sailors. The evidence available is insufficient to prove the assertion, of which there is no contemporary record, that a company of Norman merchants established themselves about 1364 at a place they named La Mina (Elmina), and that they traded with the nativesfor nearly fifty years, when the enterprise was abandoned. It is well estab- , lished that a Portuguese expedition under Diogo d’Azarnbuja, accompanied probably by Christopher Columbus, took possession of (or founded) Elmina in 1481—1482.

By the Portuguese it was called variously Sao Jorge da Mina. or Ora del Mime—the mouth of the (gold) mines. That besides alluvial washings they also worked the gold mines was proved by discoveries in the latter part of the 19th century.

The initial Portuguese interest in trading for gold, ivory, and pepper increased so much that in 1482 the Portuguese built their first permanent trading post on the western coast of present-day Ghana. This fortress, Elmina Castle, constructed to protect Portuguese trade from European competitors and hostile Africans, still stands.

With the opening of European plantations in the New World during the 1500s, which suddenly expanded the demand for slaves in the Americas, slaves soon overshadowed gold as the principal export of the area. Indeed, the west coast of Africa became the principal source of slaves for the New World. The seemingly insatiable market and the substantial profits to be gained from the slave trade attracted adventurers from all over Europe. Much of the conflict that arose among European groups on the coast and among competing African kingdoms was the result of rivalry for control of this trade.

The Portuguese position on the Gold Coast remained secure for almost a century. During that time, Lisbon leased the right to establish trading posts to individuals or companies that sought to align themselves with the local chiefs and to exchange trade goods both for rights to conduct commerce and for slaves provided by the chiefs.

The Portuguese remained undisturbed in their trade until the Reformation, when the papal bull which had given the country, with many others, to Portugal ceased to have a binding power. English ships in 1553 brought back from Guinea gold to the weight of 150 lb. The fame of the Gold Coast thereafter attracted to it adventurers from almost every European nation. The English were followed by French, Danes, Brandenburgers, Dutch and Swedes.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, adventurers—first Dutch, and later English, Danish, and Swedish—were granted licenses by their governments to trade overseas. On the Gold Coast, these European competitors built fortified trading stations and challenged the Portuguese. Sometimes they were also drawn into conflicts with local inhabitants as Europeans developed commercial alliances with local chiefs.

The most aggressive were the Dutch, who from the end of the 16th century sought to oust the Portuguese from the Gold Coast, and in whose favor the Portuguese did finally withdraw in 1642, in return for the withdrawal on the part of the Dutch of their claims to Brazil. The Dutch henceforth made Elmina their headquarters on the coast. With the loss of Elmina in 1642 to the Dutch, the Portuguese left the Gold Coast permanently.

The next 150 years saw kaleidoscopic change and uncertainty, marked by local conflicts and diplomatic maneuvers, during which various European powers struggled to establish or to maintain a position of dominance in the profitable trade of the Gold Coast littoral. Forts were built, abandoned, attacked, captured, sold, and exchanged, and many sites were selected at one time or another for fortified positions by contending European nations.

Both the Dutch and the British formed companies to advance their African ventures and to protect their coastal establishments. The Dutch West India Company operated throughout most of the eighteenth century. The British African Company of Merchants, founded in 1750, was the successor to several earlier organizations of this type. These enterprises built and manned new installations as the companies pursued their trading activities and defended their respective jurisdictions with varying degrees of government backing. There were short-lived ventures by the Swedes and the Prussians.

The Danes remained until 1850, when they withdrew from the Gold Coast. The purchase of the Danish forts in 1850, and of the Dutch forts and territory in 1871, led to the consolidation of the British power along the coast. The British gained possession of all Dutch coastal forts by the last quarter of the nineteenth century, thus making them the dominant European power on the Gold Coast. The Ashanti war of 1873-74 resulted in the extension of the area of British influence. Since that time the colony has been chiefly engaged in the development of its material resources, a development accompanied by a slow but substantial advance in civilization among the native population.

Traces of the Portuguese occupation, which lasted 160 years, are still to be found, notably in the language of the natives. Such familiar words as palaver, fetish, caboceer and dash (i.e. a gift or bribe) have all a Portuguese origin.

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Page last modified: 16-03-2017 19:02:49 ZULU