Emergence of the Guinea Coast States Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The emergence and consolidation of states and kingdoms along the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa owed as much to the external stimulus provided by trade with Europeans as to the internal dynamics of the region’s African states and societies.

Summary of Event

The West African coastline between the Gold Coast and the Bight of Benin was home to speakers of languages in the Kwa subgroup of the Niger-Congo group of languages, including Fante, Ewe, Yoruba, Edo, and Ijo (Izon). By the beginning of the seventeenth century, a number of states of varying sizes had emerged in this coastal zone on the strength of local or internal dynamics and subsequently developed in response to European trade. A major event during this period was the consolidation of these states into substantial polities. Ajagbo Ansa Sasraku [kw]Emergence of the Guinea Coast States (mid-17th cent.) [kw]Guinea Coast States, Emergence of the (mid-17th cent.) Government and politics;Mid-17th cent.: Emergence of the Guinea Coast States[1670] Trade and commerce;Mid-17th cent.: Emergence of the Guinea Coast States[1670] Africa;Mid-17th cent.: Emergence of the Guinea Coast States[1670] Benin;Mid-17th cent.: Emergence of the Guinea Coast States[1670] Nigeria;Mid-17th cent.: Emergence of the Guinea Coast States[1670] Ghana;Mid-17th cent.: Emergence of the Guinea Coast States[1670] Guinea coast states

The first years of the seventeenth century saw as many as thirty states along the Gold Coast and its hinterland. These states had been established at least one hundred years earlier and had traded with the Mande and Hausa to the north and with the Europeans at the coast. The growth of trade in both directions imposed demands of effective political authority on these states, and the ongoing internal processes of change were affected by external developments, such as the intrigues of the European traders, who had established trading posts on the coast. Consequently, states located along the coast were drawn into conflicts among the rival European nations. Hence, it was along the Gold Coast that two powerful states, Denkyira Denkyira and Akwamu Akwamu , emerged and expanded at the expense of their African neighbors.

Akwamu had been founded about 1500 by migrants from the northern Akan region, who had settled in the forest just off the coast where the Portuguese had established a settlement at Elmina. The migrants, known as the Abrade, became clients of the indigenous Accra, whose ruler permitted them to settle on the northern frontier at Nyanaoase. The Abrade, with their ruler Ansa Sasraku, then participated actively in the gold trade with the hinterland, resulting in the emergence of a major market at Abonse near Nyanaoase. By the mid-seventeenth century, the Abrade had created the Akwamu kingdom of Nyanaoase, which was to become more influential than its Accra patron. From its nucleus at Nyanaoase, the rising Akwamu kingdom soon incorporated the Guan, Ewe, Ga, and Adangme as well as the southern Akan Akyem and Kwahu. Akwamu had hitherto expanded largely by colonization.

Akwamu’s preeminence along the Gold Coast was accomplished by the capture in 1677 of the capital, Greater Accra, and the takeover of their patron state of Accra. The displaced rulers of Accra eventually resettled in Little Popo, which Akwamu also attacked in 1702. Thus, beginning in 1677, Akwamu expanded by a series of conquests as far east as Little Popo and Whydah in the Aja country. In the 1680’, Akwamu launched major campaigns against the Adangme and Agona. By 1688, European accounts noted that the Akwamu king was being addressed as king of Accra and that he was rich in gold and slaves. Like Akwamu, Denkyira expanded its territory from the mid-seventeenth century with the aid of firearms procured from the Dutch stationed at the coast. Akwamu’s greatest expansion occurred during the reign of Boadu Akafo Brempon Boadu Akafo Brempon . By the end of the century, Akwamu had established its control over Wassaw and Aowin to the west and Twifo and Assin to the south. This feat ensured its control over the centers of gold Trade;gold production and trade.

To the east of the Gold Coast in what is now the republics of Togo and Benin, the coastal states did not achieve as much economic and political success. Inhabited by Aja-speaking peoples, including the Ewe and Fon, the zone exhibited a contrast between the western section, inhabited by the Ewe, which did not produce any significant kingdom, and the eastern section, occupied by the Fon, in which were established three major states—Allada Allada (Ardra), Ouidah Whydah (Hueda or Whydah), and Abomey Abomey . Abomey later developed into the powerful empire of Dahomey in the eighteenth century. The eastern Aja, unlike the Ewe, were influenced by their Yoruba neighbors, whose leading state of Oyo, Oyo Kingdom under ruler Ajagbo, attacked Allada and Dahomey between 1680 and 1682. With the subjugation of Allada in 1698, Oyo extended its reach to the Aja coast, especially during the eighteenth century. In addition, the involvement of the eastern Aja in the transatlantic slave trade was accompanied by the establishment of European trading posts along their coast, unlike that of the Ewe. Trade;slaves

In the first decade of the seventeenth century, the Dutch established a trading post at Assim, capital of Allada. French Capuchin missionaries settled there, too, in 1640, and French traders visited the state and inaugurated an exchange of delegations between the Allada court and France. When the French could not secure a treaty from Allada, they turned to Whydah, where they were able to establish a trading post, sparking a trade rivalry between Allada and Whydah. Between 1670 and 1700, the French were joined by other European nations that established trading posts, marking a significant time for the economic and political systems of the Aja coastal states. The rivalry among the states was exploited by European traders, who instigated wars and political instability to weaken the rivals. Indeed, European traders interfered in the succession to the throne, installing puppets who were willing to do their bidding. In 1698, the leading Aja state of Allada had been conquered by Oyo, facilitating the rise of its rival Whydah, which became the leading slave port in West Africa by 1701.

To the east of the Aja country, Lagos Lagos and Warri Warri were the only significant coastal settlements by the beginning of the seventeenth century. They already were involved in the transatlantic slave trade and both were subject to the Benin kingdom in the hinterland of what is now south-central Nigeria. Lagos and Badagry were later to develop into major outlets for the slave trade in the next century. Hence, their relative unimportance during the seventeenth century spared them the kind of European interference experienced by the Aja states. Neither kingdom embarked on territorial expansion, possibly because of their lack of military capacity and subjection to the Benin kingdom.


Intense rivalry, conflict, political consolidation, and external interference characterized relations among the states of this region in the seventeenth century. However, Denkyira and Akwamu consolidated their conquests with differing outcomes. Denkyira utilized political and administrative reforms to incorporate its conquests but failed because of its oppressive rule, precipitating the formation of a hostile coalition that led to its defeat and collapse by the 1730’.

The Guinea coastal states experienced major political and economic changes during the seventeenth century, largely because of their participation in the growing transatlantic slave trade, their use of firearms, internal reforms, their invasion by inland states such as Oyo, and the intervention of European traders in local politics. Akwamu, Denkyira, and Whydah exploited these opportunities to their political and economic advantage. Allada declined largely because it was reduced to vassalage by Oyo, whose intervention in Aja politics and trade had been facilitated by internal crisis in that region.

The developments of the seventeenth century shed light on the process of state formation, intergroup relations, and the conduct of international trade along the Guinea coast of West Africa. The developments also help to explain the rise of Asante in the Gold Coast hinterland and of Dahomey in the Aja hinterland, and they contextualize the events that culminated in the European conquest and colonization of West Africa during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ajayi, J. F. A., and Michael Crowder, eds. History of West Africa. 3d ed. Vol. 1. London: Longman, 1985. An authoritative text containing several relevant chapters.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Akinjogbin, I. A. Dahomey and Its Neighbours, 1708-1818. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1967. Contains background information on seventeenth century developments in the Aja country.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Daaku, K. Y. Trade and Politics on the Gold Coast, 1600-1720: A Study of the African Reaction to European Trade. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1970. A major text on commercial and political developments along the Gold Coast.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kea, Ray. “Firearms and Warfare on the Gold and Slave Coasts from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Centuries.” Journal of African History 12 (1971): 185-213. Kea considers a critical element in state formation and intergroup relations in the region.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Law, Robin. “Trade and Politics Behind the Slave Coast: The Lagoon Traffic and the Rise of Lagos, 1500-1800.” Journal of African History 24 (1983): 321-348. Law focuses on trade, intergroup relations, and state formation in the Lagos area.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ogot, B. A., ed. Africa from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century. Vol. 5 in UNESCO General History of Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. An authoritative collection of essays by leading experts on the Africa of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries.
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Categories: History