Denmark and Slavery: Danish Forts and Possessions on the Gold Coast

Slavery_Denmark_Mary Thomas_NY Times Nick Furbo
Sculpture of Queen Mary in Copenhagen (Source: NY Times – Nick Furbo)

If you are like me, you probably did not know that Denmark (and Norway) was involved in slavery in Africa, and that Denmark had several colonies, and forts in Africa, and exported slaves to its colonies in the Americas. Just last week, Denmark erected its first public statue of a Black woman, a rebel Queen, in Copenhagen; this was the statue of Queen Mary, a Black slave who led the slave uprising in the Virgin islands. The sculpture was inspired by Mary Thomas, known as one of “the three queens.” Thomas , along with two other female leaders Agnes and Matilda, unleashed an uprising in 1878 called the “Fireburn.” Fifty plantations and most of the town of Frederiksted in St. Croix were burned, in what has been called the largest labor revolt in Danish colonial history.

Ghana_Christiansborg
Fort Christiansborg (now Osu Castle in Ghana)

Denmark was one of the Signatory Powers to the Berlin Act of 26th February, 1885 (No. 17), as well as to the Brussels Act of 2nd July, 1890 (No. 18); she has also entered into Treaty Arrangements with the Congo Free State (No. 45).

By a Convention dated 17th August, 1850, ‘the Danish forts and Possessions on the Gold Coast were ceded to Her Britannic Majesty for the sum of £10,000.

The following are extracts from that Convention:—

Preamble.

“ HIS Majesty the King of Denmark having offered to cede to Her Majesty the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland all the forts and Possessions belonging to the Crown of Denmark, situated on that part of the coast of Africa which is called the Gold Coast, or the Coast of Guinea, and Her Britannic Majesty having resolved to accept that offer, their said Majesties have named as their Plenipotentiaries to conclude a Convention for carrying such cession into effect, that is to say :”

[Here follow the names of the Plenipotentiaries.]

Cession of Danish Forts and Territorial Rights on the Gold Coast, or Coast of Guinea.

Ghana_Slave fort Kongensteen
Fort Kongensteeen

“ART. I. In consideration of the sum of £10,000 sterling, to be paid by Her Majesty the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland to His Majesty the King of Denmark, on the exchange of the Ratifications of the present Convention,+

Ghana_Slave fort Prindsensteen
Fort Prindsensteen

His Danish Majesty cedes to Her Britannic Majesty, to be possessed by Her Britannic Majesty, her heirs and successors, in full property and Sovereignty, all the forts belonging to the Crown of Denmark, which are situated on that part of the Coast of Africa called the Gold Coast or the Coast of Guinea, and which comprise Fort Christiansborg,1 Fort Augustaborg,2 Fort Fredensborg,3 Fort Kongensteen,4 and Fort Prindsensteen,5 with their appurtenances and all the guns and stores contained therein, together with all other Possessions, property, and territorial rights whatever belonging to His Danish Majesty on the said coast.” The exact extent of the Possessions thus ceded was not at that time clearly defined; but, on the 9th May, l887, the Kings and Chiefs of the country of Aquamoo signed a Declaration acknowledging that they and their country formed part of the Protectorate of Her Majesty the Queen of Great Britain and Ireland on the Gold Coast, and that they were subject to the jurisdiction and authority of Her Majesty, and declaring that they had that belief inasmuch as their country of old enjoyed similar protection from His Majesty the King of Denmark, who, they said, they understood had ceded his right and title to their country to the British Crown in 1850.

Ghana_The_Danish_fort_Augustaborg,_built_1787
Fort Augustaborg

On the 1st July, 1890, an Agreement was entered into between Great Britain and Germany, for defining their respective spheres of influence on the Gold Coast and in other parts of Africa (No. 129); and on the 14th April, l893, a further agreement was entered into between the two countries for defining the limits of their respective spheres from the Gulf of Guinea into the Interior (No. 131).

 

 

1 Fort Christiansborg (Accra).

2 Fort Augustaborg (Adda).

3 Fort Fredensborg (Fingo).

4 Fort Kongensteen.

5 Fort Prindsensteen (Quetta).

Reclaiming African History: Cape Coast Castle, a Slave Fort in Ghana

Cape Coast Castle (Wikipedia)
Cape Coast Castle (Wikipedia)

The Cape Coast Castle is one of the 30 slave forts of Ghana. In 2009, the US president Barack Obama and his family, made a point to visit the Cape Coast Castle. So why should you learn about it?

Well, it took 50 years to build the three-story building that forms today’s Cape Coast Castle. It was originally built by the Swedes (the Swedish Africa Company), starting in 1653 (it was then known as Fort Carlsborg or Carolusborg) for timber and mineral exportation, and then taken over by the Dutch before the British wrestled it away. The original cannons, cannon balls, and mortars used to defend the fort can still be seen today, facing the Atlantic Ocean.

Cape Coast Castle in 1682
Cape Coast Castle in 1682

The brick courtyard of the castle, which Ghanaians commonly refer to as Cape Coast Dungeon, has two 18-foot water wells and four graves. The first grave is for the Rev. Phillip Quarcoo, the first black Anglican pastor in the area. Beside him lies C.B. Whitehead, 38-year old British soldier who was killed by a Dutch soldier in the courtyard. Besides them are the graves of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, and her husband George MacLean, the British governor of Cape Coast from 1830 to 1844. I am not sure how a woman could possibly live next to such atrocities; maybe by rationalizing that the people being imprisoned, were not human beings?

The open auditorium on the top floor of the former administration building now hosts an exhibit chronicling the history of slavery on Ghanaian shores.

Cape Coast Castle in 1890 (National Archives UK - Wikimedia)
Cape Coast Castle in 1890 (National Archives UK – Wikimedia)

During the 17th and 18th centuries, the Cape Coast slave fort imprisoned about 1000 men and 300 women for any given 3 months period, before they were crammed into ships bound for a life of slavery in the Americas. Its corridors are full of dungeons where only dim light coming from tiny windows let the light and air in. 200 males will be kept in space meant for 50 people or less, where they will spend over 23h a day for three months, and will only be brought briefly out to eat. Ironically, Christian services were held in the fort while these poor souls were screaming for their lives underneath.The majority of captives ranged between 15 and 35 years of age.

Women were locked in 2 similar dungeons, 150 of them per chamber. They will be raped daily by the British soldiers, who would come into the cells and select the ones to spend the night with. Any slave who challenged the authorities was thrown into the condemned cellwhich held 30 – 50 in a room no bigger than most walk-in closets. There, they would die deprived of food, water, light, and oxygen, clawing the brick walls and floors as they suffocated.

Cape Coast Castle (WZM - Wikipedia)
Cape Coast Castle (WZM – Wikipedia)

To descend into the exposed brick castle feels like entering the depth of the underworld (I can only imagine how those captives felt going through there). There are five dungeon chambers for men. The strongest ones were separated during branding, when hot iron rods were used to mark their chests, and then chained and shackled together in the first chamber. The last cell has a hole in the wall, which leads into a deep dark tunnel which was used to take slaves underneath the castle’s courtyard, leading them to the “door of no return.” Cape Coast Castle was once the most active slave trading hub in West Africa.

Slavery was not just a European affair, but an African one as well, since many African chiefs traded slaves  (rarely their own people – but people from other nations) to the Europeans in exchange for goods. Thus, the Ghana House of Chiefs – a body comprising all the country’s traditional kings and chiefs- has placed a plaque on one of Cape Coast castle’s walls, asking for forgiveness to the souls of those who were sold. When will European nations also ask for forgiveness?

Reclaiming African History: Elmina Castle – West Africa’s Oldest Slave Fort

Elmina Castle
Elmina Castle (Source: Ghana.nl)
Inner courtyard at Elmina Castle (Source: Ghana.nl)
Inner courtyard at Elmina Castle (Source: Ghana.nl)

The Elmina Castle is one of the 30 slave forts along the coasts of Ghana. It was built in 1482 by Portuguese traders on the site of a town called Amankwa or Amankwakurom. It was the first European slave-trading post in all of sub-saharan Africa. The Portuguese gave it the name of São Jorge da Mina, or St. George’s of the mine, or simply “Elmina” (the mine). At four storeys high, it was one of the most imposing coastal forts, and for many years the largest one. It was originally build by the Portuguese as a warehouse to protect the gold trade, but later it became the center of the Dutch slave trade, after its capture by the Dutch in 1637. The British attacked the city in 1782, but it remained in Dutch hands until 1872, when the Dutch Gold Coast was sold to the British.

16th Century map of West Africa with Fort Elmina
16th Century map of West Africa with Fort Elmina

Slaves were typically captured inland, and then brought to the fort on an arduous journey that often lasted many days. Half of all captives did not even make it to the coast. Once at the fort, the slaves would wait, often for a long period of time ranging from 3-9 months, until a ship arrived. Imagine waiting in crammed conditions, packed in cells like sardines for 3 or more months!

Painting of Elmina Castle in 1668; notice the ships and sea in the front
Painting of Elmina Castle in 1668; notice the ships and sea in the front

Elmina, like other West African slave fortresses, housed luxury suites for the Europeans in the upper levels. The slaves were kept in cramped and filthy cells below, each cell often housing as many as 200-600 people at a time, without enough space to even lie down. Staircases led directly from the spacious governor’s chambers on the third level to the women’s cells below, making it easy for him to select personal concubines from amongst the women to “service him” every night.

There was also a discipline cell for “freedom fighters” : those who disobeyed were shut in this cell until they suffocated or starved to death. Ironically, Elmina also held Christian church services for the Europeans, on the second floor of the castle.

Slave holding cell in Elmina (Wikimedia Commons - KD)
Slave holding cell in Elmina (Wikimedia Commons – KD)

On the seaboard side of the castle was the Door of No Return, the infamous portal through which slaves boarded the ships that would take them on the treacherous journey across the Atlantic ocean known as the Middle Passage. At Elmina, the door of no return was a child-size window that slaves squeezed through to board the ship.

British bombing of Elmina - 13 June 1873
British bombing of Elmina – 13 June 1873

By the 18th century, at least 30,000 slaves on their way to the Americas had passed through Elmina each year. That is 30,000 slaves each year for at least 250 years: about 7.5 millions! Appalling!!

Today, Elmina’s economy is sustained by tourism and fishing. Elmina Castle is preserved as a Ghanaian national museum and the monument was designated as a World Heritage Monument under UNESCO in 1979. It is a place of pilgrimage for many African Americans seeking to connect with their long lost heritage. Enjoy the video below which is very educational!