The name Elmina is derived from the Portuguese “La Mina” for “The Mine”. The Portuguese named the town as such when it became the centre of commerce in gold after the Portuguese settled and built the St. George’s Castle in the town in 1482.
Elmina is the most common and popular of the three names by which the town is called. The other two names are Edina and Anomansa. Edina, the second name of the town, is a corruption of the Portuguese words “Adea” or “Oda” meaning village or settlement, where the employees of the Portuguese retired to after the days work in and around the St. George’s Castle. The local population commonly uses this name.
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.
The tributary has been severed from the main rivers by seismic disturbances and has dried up, though its course is still evident.
The inhabitants of Elmina traditionally recognise strong historic links with the interior of Ghana, more specifically with the Ashanti stock of people, since the 17th Century united in the powerful Kingdom of Ashanti.
According to local tradition, Kwaa Amankwa, the founder of Elmina, claimed direct blood relationships with an Ashanti progenitor. Kwaa Amankwa and his two cousins, Sama and Tekyi, migrated from Tekyiman in the present Brong Ahafo Region of Ghana to the south. Sama founded the town Shama in the Western Region of Ghana. Tekyi founded Eguafo, now a traditional state within the KEEA. Kwaa Amankwa settled at Eguafo too, before founding Elmina during one of his hunting expeditions.
In the course of history, the focus on hinterland origins meant that the Elmina people found their natural allies in the Ashanti, and their enemies in their Fante neighbours. For a long time it also established the status of Elmina as an independent city-state.
Historically, the development of Elmina is strongly linked to the development of the European trade with West Africa. The Portuguese explorers Juan de Santaran and Pedro d’Escobara landed in Elmina in 1470.
On 19th January 1482, 600 men lead by Don Diego d’Azambuja arrived in Elmina in twelve ships from Portugal to build the George’s Castle. The construction of the Castle initiated the development of Elmina both as a regional commercial centre and as a node in an international trading network, spanning three continents.
Competition between European trading nations for strategic positions on the West African Coast grew in the 16th and 17th centuries, with the Dutch and the British eventually gaining the strongest footholds. The Dutch conquered Elmina in 1637, by attacking the castle from the landside with the assistance of local allies, and guns positioned on St. Jago Hill. They made it their headquarters on the Gold Coast for the next 235 years.
All through the 15th to 19th centuries, the town thrived on a host of economic activities. Although some of these were not directly connected to the European presence, the volume and intensity of economic activities, as well as the growth of the town, was caused by that presence.
Economic activities included fishing and food production (cassava, maize, groundnuts, palm oil, yam, sugar cane) and food provision (especially for the local market and the European garrison), essential services like transport (porters, canoes, boats), security, storage, as well as artisan activities like pottery, carpentry, and masonry. The population of the town grew from several hundred people at the arrival of the Portuguese in the 15th Century to roughly 20,000 in the mid-19th Century.
During their presence in Elmina, the Dutch had a significant influence on the culture and socio-economic development of the town and region. The Dutch planned the town and built a number of defence works around it. They also established strong relationships with the local leaders and community, and vice versa. The relationship between the Elmina people and the Dutch was one of equal footing. Militarily, the Dutch and the Elmina people were allies, often fighting together against mutual enemies.
Economically, they were partners: the Elmina merchants maintaining the trading network and the flow of goods from the hinterland; the Dutch merchants providing for the European and American connections and goods. Politically, the Dutch and the Elmina authorities had their own jurisdictions, but co-operated with each other when necessary. Socially, the Dutch and the Elmina people fraternized up to a certain level.
Many European men, including high officials in the Dutch administration, married women from local families. In the case of officials, the bride often came from stool holding (elite) families, and the marriage, concluded according to local rites, reinforced the already close connections between the local and Dutch elites in Elmina.
Children from these marriages bore their father’s surnames, and were regularly sent to the Netherlands for education. Apart from the Elmina dialect of Twi, Dutch was spoken in Elmina, and the Elmina elite adopted Dutch cultural traits. After the abolition of the Slave Trade by the Dutch government in 1814, the Dutch lost interest in the Gold Coast and Elmina, and minimized their presence. During the 19th century, one tried to revitalize the economy of the place by setting up plantations for palm oil and some other products.
For a short time palm oil trade was profitable, whereby local businessmen profited more than the Dutch merchants. The boom led to a spree of house building in the former Government Garden Area of Elmina. The remainder of these houses now make up the core of the historical townscape of Elmina. After 1860, with a drop in world market demand for palm oil, the economic prospects of Elmina foundered, and the local merchant community moved to Cape Coast, Accra, Axim, and other Gold Coast towns, as well as further fields, to set up new enterprises in timber and rubber production, cocoa farming, and gold prospecting.
During the 19th century, the Dutch Government tried to enhance its income from the Gold Coast by developing a gold mine and a cotton plantation, both of which failed. More successful was the recruitment exercise the government set up in the 1830s, to enlist African soldiers for service in the Netherlands East Indies (Indonesia).
Most of the recruits came from the north, and were provided by the king of Ashanti, in accordance with a contract he had with the Dutch Government. Many of these recruits were originally slaves, who were given their freedom before they embarked in Elmina, in exchange for a regular military service contract. After the conclusion of the contract, the soldiers could opt for return to the Gold Coast on a pension. Many returned and settled in Elmina, on what is now known as Java Hill.
Eventually, the Dutch Government decided that its possessions on the Gold Coast were more a burden than a benefit, and transferred them all to the British in 1872. In Elmina, as in other places, this gave rise to public protest and guerrilla activities against the British, in which the Ashanti were also involved.
The king (Omanhene) of Elmina, Kobina Gyan, openly pledged his steadfast allegiance to the Dutch. Eventually the British grew tired of all this protest, and exiled the king to Sierra Leone. In June 1873 they also bombarded the old town of Elmina, burning it to the ground completely. The population fled to the countryside and settled in surrounding villages. For almost a decade Elmina was a ghost town. The site of the old town was transformed into a parade ground and never rebuilt. Currently the area is a protected archaeological site.
From 1880 onwards, now part of the British Gold Coast Colony, the town came alive again, although it took more than a century before it regained the population level of the mid-19th century. Elmina businessmen who had done good businesses elsewhere returned to their hometown, and built large residential houses, often on the ruin of old family houses.
The less prosperous part of the population also returned around this time, and mainly settled in the area known as Esuekyir (’behind the hill’) and New Town. Fishing and trading activities gradually picked up too, but the former prosperity of the town was lost forever. Only in the 1920s, when money from gold and cocoa flowed into the town, did expectations of a new economic dawn return.
The typical 1920s-style colonial merchants’ houses built in this period are still dominant in several parts of the Elmina township. Private initiatives to develop Elmina into an economic hub undertaken between 1880 and 1920 , including a railway connection to the mining and timber areas of the Western Region and the development of a modern harbour for intercontinental shipping, did not materialize.
In recent times, Elmina has become a sub-regional centre of limited economic importance, mainly servicing the needs of its direct surroundings. The port remains the largest traditional fishing port of Ghana. Together with Cape Coast, Elmina is a nucleus in the Central Region tourism development, with cultural heritage, beach tourism, and small-scale natural reserves as main assets for development. The region and Elmina are relatively successful in this development, but as yet few of the benefits of tourism actually reach the local population and the local administration.
Majority of the prosperous sons and daughters of Elmina have left the town and live in Kumasi, Accra or overseas and no longer invest much time and money in the town. Like the local people, however, the Elmina people in the Diaspora nurture the close relations Elmina had for so long with the Dutch, and which are not only visible in the monuments and sites in the town itself, but also in the Dutch family names many Ghanaians still bear.