Built in 1482 by the Portuguese Crown, São Jorge da Mina (or, more commonly, Elmina Castle) is the oldest European structure in Sub-Saharan Africa and the first of many fortified trading bases that European countries established along the West Coast of Africa. Elmina is the best preserved and most complete example of early European masonry construction in Ghana and was an active commercial outpost for over four centuries. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, it protected Portugal’s gold trade monopoly against Castilian, French, and English rivals. In 1637, the Dutch captured Elmina and made it the Dutch West India Company’s administrative headquarters, from which it managed gold and slave trading operations into the early nineteenth century.
Under the Portuguese and the Dutch, Elmina Castle served a broad array of functions. It was the center of trade, drawing interior African gold and slave traders to its warehouses. Elmina exported an estimated 10 percent of Europe’s annual gold supply in the early sixteenth century, dispatching more than a ton of gold to Lisbon between 1490 and 1560. In the mid-seventeenth century the Gold Coast joined the Slave Coast, Angola, and Congo as a significant participant in the Atlantic slave trade: European ships took nearly 750,000 Africans from the Gold Coast to the New World between 1500 and 1808, mostly by British slavers. The surrounding town of Elmina grew to more than 20,000 and played a vital role in supporting Dutch trade as military allies and trade facilitators, employing its vast canoe fleet to transporting slaves and goods along the coast and in fishing. It was a busy port town, where significant maritime traffic and interior overland trade overlapped. Elmina was also a regional political and religious education center. The castle’s chapel, school, and great hall were used to advance Christian missionary activity, provide European and religious education, and adjudicate civil and criminal cases for the local community.
British abolition of the Atlantic slave trade in 1807 and the Royal Navy’s subsequent suppression of other European nations’ slave trading efforts led to a sharp decline in Dutch Elmina’s activities and importance. The Netherlands ceded Elmina Castle to Great Britain in 1872. The following year, local protests over this transfer led to a naval bombardment that destroyed the “King’s Town” area om front of the castle, an area that remains barren today.
After Ghana achieved its independece in 1957, care for Elmina Castle was given over to the Ghana Museums and Monuments Board. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Monument in 1979. Today, Elmina’s economy is sustained by tourism focused on the castle and fishing, which is still done in traditionally built seagoing craft, albeit often fitted with outboard motors.