My Journey Along The Gold Coast
Written and Photographed by Harris Gaffin
We are walking along the Atlantic Ocean shoreline in Ghana, West Africa. I’m with my friend and guide, Daniel Yeboah.
We had just finished a three-week tour of the country, heading as far north as Tamale, and descending through the Ashanti region before returning to the port city of Tema where we started our journey.
The shore we are casually walking along appears not much different from walking along the shore of Cape Cod, Massachusetts where I often spend my summers. The waves gently lap at the beach.
But history is dramatically different. This is the famous “Gold Coast.” And all the world came here to barter and trade first for gold and later for slaves.
It’s easy to find history books saying that the first encounters between the Europeans and the locals began in the 1400s. But like most shorelines, it appears timeless and leaves no trace of any visitors.
On our tour, we had come upon a nondescript dusty road that stretches far into the distance, heading into the African continent.
“Where do you suppose this road leads?” I ask Daniel.
As if reciting from a school book text he immediately replies, “This was part of the gold trade route across Africa to Egypt.”
“Gold? Egypt?” I ask. Egypt today is one of the poorest countries. When could they afford gold? “With who? What? When?”
“With the Pharaohs,” Daniel answers patiently. “The gold came from here. All those gold relics you see in European museums.”
Gold. Trade. And slaves. Common throughout the world for thousands of years. The word “slave” comes from Sweden, named after the Viking raids into the Eastern European ethnic Slavic regions including Poland, Czech Republic, Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, and Serbia. Captives were taken back to Scandinavia.
Substantial European trading with the Gold Coast began in the 1400s. It started with the Spanish and Portuguese, then the Dutch, Swedes, Danes, Germans, French, and British.
Besides gold, other trade items included ivory in exchange for guns, gun-powder, and iron. The local Africans were also slave traders. Their slaves came from the Congo which they traded with the Portuguese who controlled the trade for almost 100 years. They built the first fort/trading post in 1482, the Elmina Castle.
Once the New World was discovered, the demand for slaves was almost insatiable. The Gold Coast became known as the Slave Coast.
During that time, the Kingdom of Portugal leased the right to establish trading posts to individuals or companies who wanted permission to align themselves with local chiefs and get slaves that the local chiefs would provide.
In the 1600-1700s the Dutch, English, Danes, Swedes, and Germans traded here.
Today, the Elmina Castle, located in Ghana is a major tourist destination. It will break your heart to visit it. With small claustrophobic rooms, stifling heat, a tiny window, you will shudder to imagine the countless prisoners crammed in, waiting to be boarded onto a slave ship to serve a life of misery. There are few other places in the world still standing where you can witness tourists breaking down and crying.
The notion that Europeans who simply get off a boat, march into a local tribe hunting groups or claimed property, and simply start rounding up locals is wrong. This was a well-organized conspiracy in which local tribal chiefs could capture and sell their enemies at first. But later with the demand so high, it’s easy to imagine anybody caught in the wrong place at the worn time being rounded up and forced into a life of servitude.
As Daniel and I are walking along the former Gold Coast, we come upon a fishing village where locals are waiting for the boats to come in.
I am taking pictures of the picturesque scene when I get a tap on my shoulder.
We are surrounded by a group of men. In a very polite manner, they invite us to meet the village chief. Even I can figure out that’s a friendly way of saying, “You’re going to get a chance to bribe your way out of this jam.”
We are taken before the village chief and we are welcome to introduce ourselves and to explain why we are trespassing on his beach without first offering him a gift.
Daniel had spent a few years in the military and fortunately had experience in “conflict management.”
“Your majesty,” he begins. “I come from the town of Tema just up the road. And I was showing our American guest our great county.
“But when we came to this area of exceptional beauty, I thought, for sure no one chief could possess all of this.
“I am truly humbled to have the opportunity to meet the chief who is. It is with great humility that we ask your forgiveness for not first paying our respects and ask what can we offer to show our appreciation to thank you for welcoming us here.
I’m trying to guess how much cash I have in my back pocket after this three-week trip. I figure it’s around $10.
Daniel and the chief negotiate and the chief indicates that a liter bottle of Danish Schnapps will do the trick.
Where can we find a liter of schnapps in a remote African fishing village on a Sunday and how much will it cost?
That’s easy to answer. The village chief owns the store which sells Danish schnapps at $35 a liter.
Keep negotiating, I tell Daniel. The chief counters with half a liter ($20). We’re getting closer.
Daniel works it down to a quarter liter which will cost us $7.50. I accept.
The chief's security team escorts us to the shop and opens the store. The tab comes to $7.50 for the schnapps and I invest another $2.50 to thank the security team for making our visit a safe one.
We present the gift to the chief. He graciously accepts it and permits us to take pictures for the rest of the afternoon.
This experience happened in 1994. Today, on Juneteenth, 2020, we should all be grateful for how much has been accomplished worldwide to end slavery yet we must remain vigilant that all cases are eliminated everywhere it still exists.