Dutch and Portuguese Struggle for the Guinea Coast Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Portuguese fort of São Jorge da Mina, once a major entry point for the gold trade, was already in decline when it was captured by the Dutch in 1637. This operation was part of a larger war that spanned three continents.

Summary of Event

By the early seventeenth century, the empire of the Portuguese on the African coast stretched from Morocco to Kenya. In West Africa, Portuguese power was anchored by the great fort of São Jorge da Mina São Jorge da Mina on the Costa da Mina, or Gold Coast Gold Coast . São Jorge, built in 1482, was essentially a medieval castle adapted to the use of cannon. Its function was to tap into the trade of the Akan gold fields, the richest in West Africa. Satellite forts were built at Shama and Axim. At Mina, African merchants traded gold for a variety of European manufactured goods, with textiles and copper-based products leading the list. Gold, Africa Trade;gold [kw]Dutch and Portuguese Struggle for the Guinea Coast (Oct., 1625-1637) [kw]Guinea Coast, Dutch and Portuguese Struggle for the (Oct., 1625-1637) [kw]Portuguese Struggle for the Guinea Coast, Dutch and (Oct., 1625-1637) Trade and commerce;Oct., 1625-1637: Dutch and Portuguese Struggle for the Guinea Coast[1000] Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Oct., 1625-1637: Dutch and Portuguese Struggle for the Guinea Coast[1000] Africa;Oct., 1625-1637: Dutch and Portuguese Struggle for the Guinea Coast[1000] Ghana;Oct., 1625-1637: Dutch and Portuguese Struggle for the Guinea Coast[1000] Guinea coast states;Dutch and Portuguese in

By the seventeenth century, however, the post at Mina was suffering chronic problems. The government’s attempt at a complete trade monopoly had led to widespread corruption and smuggling. The Portuguese system proved too cumbersome and archaic to adapt to new economic conditions, often resulting in a failure to supply Mina with sufficient or acceptable trade goods. The climate on the Guinea coast was unhealthy for Europeans, and few in the Portuguese military volunteered for duty there. The ranks became filled with convicts and other social undesirables. Military discipline sagged, and morale hit bottom. On the positive side, the local Africans, particularly those in the nearby village of Dondou, developed an intense loyalty to Portugal, greatly augmenting Portuguese power in the area.

In 1580, Portugal came under the rule of the Spanish royal family, binding the two states together until 1640. Henceforth, Spain’s enemies were Portugal’s enemies, especially the Dutch, the most implacable. Dutch ships began arriving in Guinea waters in the 1590’. The Dutch could provide goods the Africans wanted because metal products and cloth were manufactured in the Netherlands and neighboring areas. Dutch financiers and merchants had the capital for such enterprises, and the Dutch had bigger, better, and more ships than the Portuguese.

In 1612, the Dutch built their own castle, Fort Nassau Fort Nassau , 12 miles down the coast from São Jorge. From there a Dutch force set out in October of 1625 with fifteen ships and twelve hundred European soldiers, augmented by African allies, to drive the Portuguese from the Mina coast. The garrison in São Jorge consisted of fifty-six soldiers, but Governor Francisco Sotomaior Sotomaior, Francisco knew the attack was coming, and so he secured the help of the men of Dondou. Sotomaior also bribed nearby African rulers into neutrality by emptying the castle’s storerooms of trade goods. The Dutch opened the siege with a naval bombardment, which did no real harm to São Jorge. The sides of the castle, it seemed, were so unevenly matched that Dutch confidence became cockiness. On ordering a land assault, the Dutch commander did not bother to send scouts. When the Dutch reached a clearing known as Pilicada near the castle, Portuguese crossbowmen caught them in a cross fire, throwing confusion into their ranks. Before the Dutch could reorganize, the men of Dondou appeared, fighting hand-to-hand with axes and spears. The Dutch admitted to losing more than four hundred soldiers; Portuguese casualties, including the Dondou allies, reportedly were less than thirty. The Dutch fleet retaliated with a concentrated bombardment, which was ineffectual. In mid-November, it sailed away.

In Lisbon, the Battle of Pilicada Pilicada, Battle of (1625) was greeted as a great victory. However, this did not rekindle a new interest in the distant outpost, and Mina was soon forgotten. The trade goods used to buy the neutrality of local rulers were not replenished. Neglect became the norm, and the garrison went without pay, sometimes for years. In 1634, the soldiers decided they had suffered enough. They refused to recognize the newly appointed governor and elected one of their own. The townspeople of Dondou, however, refused to recognize the usurper. Portuguese power was unraveling, a good time for the Dutch to renew their aggression.

The new Dutch commander at Fort Nassau, Nikolaas van Ypren, Ypren, Nikolaas van had been busy taking care of matters ignored by his predecessor. He used a wealth of Dutch trade goods to bribe virtually all the African states in the area into alliances or neutrality. He also secured the support of a large Dutch fleet then operating in Brazil. In August of 1637, a Dutch force of eight hundred soldiers and more than one thousand African auxiliaries marched on São Jorge. This attack was much more determined and carefully planned. This time there was no ambush on the road. The initial clash was over control of a small hill near the castle, from which the Dutch hoped to position their artillery. At the base of the hill, the Portuguese had stationed the ever-loyal Dondou men. It is unclear which governor was actually in charge of the Portuguese effort.

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The Dutch attacked the hill, were repulsed in fierce fighting, and suffered heavy casualties. The Dondou men returned to their town to celebrate, assuming the battle was over. As soon as they were gone, however, a second Dutch force moved in and occupied the hill, from which they bombarded the castle. Nevertheless, the walls of the old fort held firm. In the meantime, the African allies of the Dutch attacked and overran Dondou. If, however, the Portuguese situation seemed hopeless, the Dutch also were in fairly bad shape. Their recently arrived army was quickly becoming incapacitated from sickness and would be good for a siege of only a few days. As a bluff, Dutch commander van Ypren demanded that the Portuguese surrender or be put to death once the castle fell. At first the Portuguese refused, but soon thereafter they reconsidered and surrendered.

The castle of São Jorge was still intact, suffering little damage. Inside was a large inventory of weapons, most of which qualified as antiques. Under the terms of surrender the Portuguese were not allowed to take anything from the castle. Even gold crosses from the church were to be left behind. When the Dutch searched the fortress, they found no gold, no trade goods, and no provisions.

Significance

The loss of São Jorge da Mina was not a crippling blow to Portugal. One century earlier it had been the single richest source of gold in the world. The huge quantity of bullion that flowed from the Americas, though, made West African production pale in comparison, and by the early seventeenth century Mina, had slipped into irreversible decline. In some years, the expense of maintaining the post was greater than the income it provided.

The Dutch conquest of Mina and occupation of the surrounding coast were part of a much larger conflict spanning across decades of the seventeenth century that some historians consider the first real “world war.” Alliances shifted, but generally the Dutch, English, and French were pitted against the empires of Spain and Portugal. For the most part, the Dutch were successful in Asia, but the reverse was true in South America, where the Portuguese retained control over Brazil.

In Africa, the results were mixed. As early as 1598-1599, the Dutch had raided São Tomé and Principe, the sugar-producing islands in the Gulf of Guinea that were also important as slave emporiums. Farther south along the Angolan coast, the Dutch attacked and occupied the slaving ports of Luanda and Benguela in 1641. Luanda However, seven years later, a Portuguese expedition from Brazil recaptured Luanda largely because of the leadership of Salvador Correia de Sá e Benevides, Sá e Benevides, Salvador Correia de governor of Rio de Janeiro and subsequent captain-general of Angola. São Tomé and Principe, which had also come under Dutch control, were likewise retaken. When a peace treaty was finally signed in 1663, the Dutch kept Mina, but the Portuguese stayed in Angola and on the islands.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boxer, C. R. The Portuguese Seaborne Empire, 1415-1825. 2d ed. Manchester, England: Carcanet Press, 1991. A detailed survey by the author of an equally useful book, The Dutch Seaborne Empire.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hair, P. E. H. “Discovery and Discoveries: The Portuguese in Guinea, 1444-1650.” Bulletin of Hispanic Studies 69 (1992): 11-28. A broad look at the Portuguese in West Africa, with helpful historiographical information.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Russell-Wood, A. J. R. A World on the Move: The Portuguese in Africa, Asia, and America, 1415-1808. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. A topical examination of the Portuguese Empire that assumes some basic knowledge of the period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Volt, John. Portuguese Rule on the Gold Coast, 1469-1682. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1979. Still the best place to start for a basic understanding of this topic.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Winius, George D., ed. Portugal the Pathfinder: Journeys from the Medieval Toward the Modern World, 1300-ca. 1600. Madison, Wis.: Hispanic Seminary of Medieval Studies, 1995. This work provides a context for understanding the Portuguese colonial enterprise.
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