Founding of Elmina

Portugal’s fortress at Elmina was Europe’s first permanent settlement in sub-Saharan Africa. The fortress was intended to protect Portugal’s trade in slaves and in gold, spices, and other goods from competition from other European powers.

Summary of Event

In 1415, King John I of Portugal invaded Ceuta, a fortified port on the African side of the Strait of Gibraltar. Portugal’s seizure of Ceuta blocked Muslim shipping from the Atlantic Ocean, but the cost of the victory made further land attacks prohibitive. The Portuguese discovered, however, that Ceuta was the terminus of a trans-Saharan caravan route bringing gold to the Mediterranean world from Guinea—a region previously unknown to the Europeans. King John’s third son, Prince Henry the Navigator, concluded from sketchy information that the gold mines in this new region were accessible to ships, and he persuaded his father to support Portuguese explorations past Cape Bojador down the uncharted western coast of Africa in search of the mines. Exploration and colonization;Portugal of Africa
Colonization;Portugal of Africa
Henry the Navigator, Prince
Afonso V
John II (1455-1495)
Azambuja, Diogo de
Gomes, Fernão
John I (king of Portugal)
Henry the Navigator, Prince
Nicholas V
Calixtus III
Afonso V (king of Portugal)
Gomes, Fernão
John II (king of Portugal)
Azambuja, Diogo de

From his palace at Sagres on Cape St. Vincent, Prince Henry granted licenses to a succession of captains to go farther south along the African coast. The voyages of exploration were to chart the coastline, tides, currents, and winds and to establish trade relations with whatever societies they encountered. The expeditions turned into seaborne razzias, the plundering raids characteristic of the seven centuries of war between the Moors (Muslims) and the Christians on the Iberian Peninsula. Sailors combined purchase with robbery and kidnapping and returned to the port of Lagos with gold, peppers, ostrich eggs, salt, cloth, and slaves. Trade;gold

News of the Portuguese successes prompted French, Flemish, Genoese, and Castilian sea captains to try to establish their own contacts in Africa and to raid Portuguese ships on return voyages. King John I and Prince Henry ordered patrols to intercept and punish the interlopers. Pirates;European

In an effort to stop Christian nations from warring on each other and to encourage them to unite in resistance to the advancing Ottoman Empire, Popes Nicholas V and Calixtus III issued three successive papal bulls that approved what the Portuguese had done in Africa so far, encouraged them to spread Christianity in the continent, and gave Portugal a monopoly on trade in Africa. Even the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and Turkish advances in central Europe did not unite the Christian rulers, and Portugal had to make great efforts to defend its papally mandated monopoly. Trade;Portugal with Africa

When Prince Henry died in 1460, the Portuguese had explored as far as the northern edge of what became known as the Grain Coast, now Sierra Leone and Liberia. King Afonso V focused his energies on consolidating the new discoveries and acquisitions into administrative and military organizations. For a substantial annual payment, King Afonso gave, in 1469, exclusive exploration rights to Fernão Gomes, on the condition that he explore at least 300 miles (483 kilometers) of new coastline each year.

Gomes’s captains quickly mapped the Grain Coast and then turned west into tricky waters. From Cape Palmas to Cape Three Points, the Ivory Coast, there were long sandy coasts with no natural harbors and dangerous surf. Farther east, however, the coast was more hospitable. Between Cape Three Points and the mouth of the Volta River, the Portuguese found a gentler coastline and safe harbors. Moreover, in each of the relatively small communities they encountered, the residents had plentiful amounts of gold dust, which they said they had acquired through trade at mines to the north.

Calling this section of the coast A Mina, the Mine, the Portuguese immediately sought sites for a permanent trade center. The most promising place was a rocky promontory jutting a mile past the mouth of the Benya River. At the base of the promontory was a rock quarry, and across the river and inland was a large, deep lagoon that protected anchored ships from storms and pirates. On the little peninsula was a community of about two hundred Akan-speaking villagers. The Portuguese named the village El Mina, possibly a corruption of the Arabic term, el-Minnah, meaning the port.

Beyond the Volta River, the Portuguese encountered more inhospitable coastline until they headed south. There the Portuguese could buy slaves to resell to the Akan at El Mina, which became simply Elmina. The Akan took the slaves north to be sold to the Asante for gold. News of A Mina and the great profits the Portuguese were making leaked out of Portugal to the rest of Europe.

Upon Afonso’s death in 1481, his successor, King John II, acted swiftly to protect A Mina from his European neighbors. He commissioned Diogo de Azambuja to construct a fortress at Elmina, the best situated of several trade sites. Azambuja arrived in January, 1482, with an armada of ten ships and five hundred soldiers and servants, as well as one hundred stonemasons, carpenters, and craftsmen. The ships carried pre-cut stone from Portugal for the foundations, arches, and windows. The rest of the stone was to come from the nearby quarries.

Azambuja secured permission to build the fortress by pledging to protect the Akan village from its neighbors, the large states of Eguafo and Fetu that both claimed the territory surrounding the Benya lagoon. The fortress resembled a krak, a Middle Eastern crusader castle. It was rectangular with rounded turrets at the corners. Curtain walls were high enough to protect two-story buildings inside that included a chapel, a refectory, living quarters, and administrative space. Azambuja named the fortress after the soldier-martyr who was the patron saint of Portugal: Castelo de São Jorge da Mina, or St. George’s Castle of the Mine.


Elmina became the major entrepôt for trade on the Gold Coast. From Portugal came cloth, brass goods, glass beads, spiced wine, knives, swords, hatchets, iron bars, copper rods, trumpets, striped wool, and candles. The Portuguese neither raided for slaves nor purchased slaves from the region to the north. By 1500, every thirty days a ship with 100 to 120 slaves on board would leave the island of São Tomé for Elmina. As the demand for labor in the Americas grew in the sixteenth century, Elmina became a collection point for slaves from the Niger delta and regions south. Slaves not sold for the northbound caravans became destined for the New World empires. Slave trade

The little community nestled next to the castle quickly grew to be the largest of the Portuguese trade communities. The prosperity of Elmina angered the Eguafo and Fetu rulers. They regarded the Portuguese as trespassers who were strengthening their formerly weak neighbors. The Akan-speaking peoples who gravitated to the fort acted first as an autonomous state and then as a kingship. The already numerous Asante farther north expanded their territory, as new slaves absorbed into their communities made them stronger yet. The Eguafo and Fetu did not recognize the Portuguese claim to a monopoly on African trade with Europe, and they welcomed smugglers as trade partners and allies, especially the Dutch.

In the sixteenth century, Portugal encountered more problems than it could overcome. Diseases in its tropical empire in Africa, Asia, and the Americas decimated soldiers, merchants, missionaries, and bureaucrats who moved there. Portuguese craftspeople could not meet the imperial demand for goods, and the Portuguese became retailers of European goods competing with other nations’ merchants. After 1530, French, Dutch, and English pirates took a terrible toll on Portugal’s commercial shipping interests along A Mina. The pirates also doubled as smugglers, circumventing Portugal’s monopoly by clandestinely importing African commodities back into Europe.

By the end of the century, illegitimate trade surpassed the volume of Portuguese commerce. The Dutch built a fort at Mori, just 10 miles (16 kilometers) east of Elmina. With African allies, the Dutch launched unsuccessful attacks on Elmina in 1596, 1603, 1606, 1615, and 1625. In 1637, the Dutch attacked with an army of eight hundred Dutch soldiers and fourteen hundred men from the states of Eguafo and Asebu. The Portuguese, with a garrison of only thirty-five officials and soldiers, were forced to surrender. Elmina became the jewel of the Dutch empire in Africa.

Further Reading

  • DeCorse, Christopher R. An Archaeology of Elmina: Africans and Europeans on the Gold Coast, 1400-1900. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001. Fascinating blend of document, ethnographic, and artifact sources of Elmina.
  • Fage, J. D. A History of Africa. 4th ed. New York: Routledge, 2001. Devotes three chapters to the expansion of Europeans into Africa and the slave trade.
  • Thomas, Hugh. The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440-1870. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997. Careful attention to Portugal’s role in the origins of the slave trade by a great student of all things Iberian.
  • Vogt, John. Portuguese Rule on the Gold Coast, 1469-1682. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1979. Survey of the history of Portugal’s colonization and exploitation of the Gold Coast, with particular attention to the role of Elmina. Includes bibliography and index.

1460-1600: Rise of the Akan Kingdoms

Late 15th cent.: Mombasa, Malindi, and Kilwa Reach Their Height

c. 1485: Portuguese Establish a Foothold in Africa

Aug., 1487-Dec., 1488: Dias Rounds the Cape of Good Hope

1491-1545: Christianity Is Established in the Kingdom of Kongo

Jan., 1498: Portuguese Reach the Swahili Coast

16th century: Trans-Saharan Trade Enriches Akan Kingdoms

1502: Beginning of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

1505-1515: Portuguese Viceroys Establish Overseas Trade Empire