Part of our multidisciplinary approach to understanding the dynamic interaction between Europeans and Africans in West Africa and that region’s integration within a larger Atlantic world system involves historical and cartographic research. Maps, sketches, and documents reveal important information about the spatial distribution of various European empires’ trade lodges, forts, and castles. In partnership with the University of Rochester’s Digital Scholarship Lab, we are using GIS (Geographic Information System) platforms to bring together many different types of historical data and make this data interactive by creating layers that reflect changes over time and across space.
A Gold Coast Historical Visualization
The map below uses a dynamic time slider to represent five hundred years of history in roughly four minutes. It was made to complicate an often-asserted but somewhat misleading statement about the Gold Coast (modern-day Ghana) that “at one time or another, nine European countries . . . kept fortified stations in West Africa . . . to protect and expand the trade of each country and to exclude competitors.”* The region was a constantly contested site where these nine European nations vied with each other for control over five centuries. While this is broadly true, it misconstrues the fact that several of these European nations had only a fleeting presence on Ghana’s coast. There were also long periods when a few European companies maintained status quo relations to pursue trade, despite their parent nations being at war in Europe. The map is also admittedly incomplete, in that we should rightly see the shifting local coastal polities of Eguafu, Fetu, Edina, Asebu, Kormantse, Winneba, Accra, and additional inland groups arrayed across time alongside the fixed positions of European trading forts and castles, but it does indicate periods when African leaders or independent black traders seized control of or destroyed trading forts.*
The visualization of historical change and persistence that this map provides is interactive. Viewers can pause the preset three-year average advancement of time embedded in the pane to assess the current state of European rivalries and trading locations at any given moment. The map is also scalable, enabling viewers to zoom down to the precise location of individual castles, their ruins, or, where completely lost, their purported locations transposed from historic maps onto the modern landscape. The map was created using ArcGIS Desktop and Online platforms and draws from an extensive database that lists the physical state, georeferenced location, and ownership of all known Gold Coast trading heritage sites from their individual construction dates to the present. We welcome additions and corrections based on documented historical evidence toward the scholarly end of maintaining the most correct and accurate rendering of Ghana’s considerable, rich past.
N.B. – please be patient – the first near-static minute reflects Portugal’s long, early, uncontested presence in this area.
The visualization shows several broad trends. First, the long 150-year span when Portugal was the sole European nation with land bases on the coast, concentrating almost entirely on the gold trade. Between 1600 and 1640, the Dutch began encroaching upon the coast, competing with and eventually ousting the Portuguese from the gold trade as part of the Netherlands’ global war for independence from a conjoined Spanish-Portuguese Crown. During the mid-seventeenth century, English, Dutch, Swedish, and Danish companies competed intensely with each other for slaves as well as gold. By 1700, the Dutch and English were the sole survivors, maintaining strings of interspersed satellite trading lodges and forts from headquarters in Elmina and Cape Coast, respectively, although Danish traders established a modest presence outside the Anglo-Dutch coastal core, east of Accra. Wars in the interior related to the expansion of the Ashanti state kept streams of enslaved captives flowing south to the numerous Dutch, British, and Danish bases on the coast during most of the eighteenth century. The Gold Coast Visualization shows little change until the early nineteenth century, when one can see the stark consequences of the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade: the wholesale abandonment of most forts and their quick decay into ruin.
After a brief interlude when Great Britain and the Netherlands partitioned the Gold Coast Dutch and British zones (1868-1872), the map reflects complete British control of all historic trading sites until Ghana became an independent nation in 1957. The time-stream ends in 2019 and provides the current state of preservation of each of these UNESCO-listed World Heritage Sites, which are under the stewardship of the Ghana Museums and Monuments Board.
*_ A.W. Lawrence, Trade Castles and Forts of West Africa (London, 1963), 25.