Traveling around Ghana: Elmina and Cape Coast

Throughout our month in Ghana, students will have a number of opportunities to travel around the country.  These trips will give us an opportunity to view different kinds of cities or urban communities in southern Ghana.  It will also give us the opportunity to explore some major historical, cultural, and educational sites.

Soon after we arrive in Ghana, we will visit the towns of Elmina and Cape Coast.  These towns – located quite close to one another – are the site of trading forts, similar to those that are found all along the West African coast.  Elmina, which was built by the Portuguese in 1482 as Sao Jorge da Mina (St. George of the Mine), was the first European trading post built on the Gulf of Guinea and is the oldest European building in existence south of the Sahara.  As its name indicates, activities around Elmina Castle were originally focused on the slave trade.  Increasingly, however, the Castle became one of the most important stops in the Atlantic slave trade.  Slave trading at Elmina continued after the Dutch seized the fort in the 1640s and continued under Dutch control until 1814.  The British seized control of Elmina in 1872.  The Castle is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Cape Coast Castle is one of about 40 “slave castles” built along the western African coast by European traders.  The Castle was originally built by Swedes to trade timber and gold.  The first structure erected on the site was built in 1653.  It was taken over by the Danish in 1663 and the British shortly after in 1664.  Like Elmina, Cape Coast is listed as a  UNESCO World Heritage site.

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Many people who visit Elmina and Cape Coast focus their attention on the castles (or on the canopy walk in Kakum).  We will certainly visit these sites.  They are important sites of memory and history for Ghana, for the African Diaspora, and for the world.  However, we will also seek to understand Elmina and Cape Coast as spaces with extensive urban histories and complex urban cultures, organized through Fante family groups and asafo companies who protected the community.

The people who occupied the areas around the Castles existed independent of and interconnected with Europeans located in the forts.  The power and independence of African groups around the forts ensured their continued control of trade deep into the interior.  African residents married European traders and used their connections to position themselves as intermediaries, facilitating trade, acting as translators, and establishing themselves as a coastal elite at the center of colonial cultures of journalism, education, trade, and nationalist politics.

On our trip, we will visit the castles and the canopy walk at Kakum.  But we will also explore these towns are urban spaces with deep histories and urban cultures.

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