Elmina is a fishing port on the south coast of Ghana, in West Africa. It’s known for its beaches and for its role in the former transatlantic slave trade. Its name comes from the Portuguese word for “Mine”. The gold found in these mines are also the origin of the name “Gold Coast”, which was the name of what is now Ghana, The traditional name of Elmina is ’Anomansa’, meaning “inexhaustible supply of water.” It refers to the tributary of the Kakom and Suruwi rivers, upon which according to local historical tradition the founder of the town, Kwaa Amankwa, stumbled during a hunting expedition. The availability made him establish a hamlet for rest, which was the start of the town of Elmina. Elmina was the first European settlement in West Africa and it has a population of 33,576 people.
Elmina is the only town in Ghana with two UNESCO World Sites, the Elmina Castle and Fort St Jago. The Elmina Castle, built by the Portuguese in 1482, was a base for trading slaves, gold and ivory. The 17th-century Fort St. Jago was used by the Dutch to attack Elmina Castle.
The people living along the West African coast at Elmina around the fifteenth century were presumably Fante. The Fante ethnicity bears an uncertain relationship to “Akan,” itself a word connoting originality from the root word, “kan”, to be first or original. Among their ancestors were merchants and miners trading gold into the Mediterranean and Near Eastern worlds from medieval times. The ancestors of the Akan-speakers of the forests however undoubtedly came from north of the forest.
The people on the West African coast were organized into numerous populations that were drawn according to kinship lines. Family was extremely important in society, and family heads were united in communities under a recognized local authority. Along the Gold Coast alone, more than twenty independent kingdom-states existed. Elmina lay between two different Fante kingdoms, Fetu and Eguafo. West Africans nurtured ancient connections to other parts of the world. Common metals trade, iconic artistic forms, and agricultural borrowing show that trans-Saharan and regional coastal connections thrived. The Portuguese in 1471 were the first Europeans to visit the Gold Coast as such, but not necessarily the first sailors to reach the port.
West African Slave Trade
From the outset, the Portuguese authorities determined that São Jorge da Mina would not engage directly in the slave trade, as they did not wish to disrupt the gold mining and trade routes of its hinterland with the wars necessary to capture free people and enslave them. Instead, the Portuguese had captives shipped to São Jorge da Mina from elsewhere, notably the Slave Coast (Benin) and São Tomé. São Jorge da Mina served as a transshipment entrepôt.
By the seventeenth century, most trade in West Africa concentrated on the sale of slaves. São Jorge da Mina played a significant part in the West African Slave Trade. The castle acted as a depot where enslaved Africans were brought in from different Kingdoms in West Africa. The Africans, often captured in the African interior by the slave-catchers of coastal peoples, were sold to Portuguese and later to Dutch traders in exchange for goods such as textiles and horses.
In 1596, the Dutch made a first unsuccessful attempt at capturing the castle, succeeded by a successful one in 1637, after which it was made the capital of the Dutch Gold Coast. During the period of Dutch control, new, smaller fortress were built on a nearby hill to protect St. George’s Castle from inland attacks; this fort was called Fort Coenraadsburg. The Dutch continued the triangular Atlantic slave route until 1814, when they abolished the slave trade, pursuant to the Anglo-Dutch Slave Trade Treaty. The captives were held in the castle before exiting through the castle’s infamous “Door of No Return” to be transported and resold in newly colonized Brazil and other Portuguese colonies. Up to 1,000 male and 500 female captives were shackled and crammed in the castle’s dank, poorly ventilated dungeons, with no space to lie down and very little light. Without water or sanitation, the floor of the dungeon was littered with human waste and many captives fell seriously ill. The men were separated from the women, and the captors regularly raped some of the helpless women. The castle also featured confinement cells — small pitch-black spaces for prisoners who revolted or were seen as rebellious. Once the captives set foot in the castle, they could spend up to three months in captivity under these dreadful conditions before being shipped off to the “New World”. An environment of harsh contrasts, the castle also had some extravagant chambers, devoid of the stench and misery of the dungeons only a couple of meters below. For example, the governor’s and officers’ quarters were spacious and airy, with beautiful parquet floors and scenic views of the blue waters of Atlantic. There was also a chapel in the castle enclosure for the officers, traders and their families as they went about their normal day-to-day life completely detached from the unfathomable human suffering they were consciously inflicting. In 1872 the British took over the Dutch territory and the fort pursuant to the Anglo-Dutch Sumatra treaties of 1871.
The people of Elmina are known for the celebration of two important festivals; Edina Bakatue and Edina Bronya. The Bakatue Festival celebrates the “opening” of Benya River, and is thus closely connected to the main economic activity of fishing. Edina Bronya is also called the Elmina Christmas. Bronya is actually a Libation Day during which ancestors are remembered.
Bakatue is more than a festival, it is the very embodiment of the people of Elmina, it holds their history, culture and heritage. During this time the true meaning of being an Elminian is brought to bare through the abundant display of the rich culture and history of the people. Bakatue is about fostering unity, bonding and giving thanks to God the creator, our ancestors and to offer sacrifices to appease souls of the departed who the living still count on for blessings and to chat a path to the future.
Within Elmina, shared taxis are very common. The main taxi and tro-tro station is outside the Wesley Methodist Cathedral. From here you can catch a tro-tro to Takoradi or passenger taxi to Cape Coast. You can also get around town via bicycle. Elmina can be termed as Ghana’s number one historic destination sites due to its role in the trans Atlantic slave trade and also the first point of contact with the western world. Its best to learn about Elmina via a bicycle tour or a walking tour.
As Ghana’s tourism hub Elmina has a lot to offer when it comes to accommodation ranging from budget hotels to the high end depending on your budget. For a full list of hotels available in Elmina please check out our listing page. Also to help you enjoy your stay in Elmina we have compiled the Top 10 Things to do in Elmina