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The Castle of Saint George at Elmina

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ImageSaint George’s Castle at Elmina, the first major stone structure built by Europeans south of the Sahara

In 1306, a delegation of Ethiopian clerics met with Pope Clement V in Avignon, France. We don’t know what they talked about, but we do know that within a year, the order was outlawed, its substantial assets seized, its members tortured and put to death. Soon the Order of the Knights Templar had ceased to exist – everywhere except in Portugal, where the Order was officially outlawed but where it quietly re-formed a few years later under the name of the Knights of Christ.

Under the auspices of Enrique the Navigator, Grandmaster of the Order, the Portuguese began looking for a way around the southern tip of Africa to Ethiopia, in search of its leader, the legendary Preste Joao (Joao apparently being a corruption of Jan, one of the titles given to the Ethiopian emperor, and also the name of the ceremonial purple cloak he wore) – and, perhaps, the Holy Ark of the Covenant.

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By 1460, Portuguese explorers had journeyed as far as the modern-day nation of Sierra Leone – so-called because of the lion-like roar of the thunderstorms there. In 1480, a Portuguese fleet under the command of Dom Diego de Azambuja set anchor at the little village of Edina (modern-day Elmina) at the mouth of the Benya River. The area came to be known to Europeans as the “Gold Coast,” due to the presence of nearby mines.

The spot Dom Diego chose was ideal for building a castle – a rocky promontory next to one of the best natural harbors on the coast, where ships could be docked directly instead of being unloaded and loaded via canoes and surf-boats, and where the refreshing sea breezes would keep away the disease-transmitting mosquitoes which elsewhere along the Gold Coast were the source of so much mortality it became known as the “White Man’s Grave.”

Dom Diego arrived with a force of 400 men, including 100 masons and 100 carpenters, along with large quantities of brick, timber, stone, and other building materials. The men worked every day for two years to build the castle, which they named after the patron saint of Portugal. It was occupied by the Portuguese for some 275 years.

In 1637, the Dutch dragged four cannons and a mortar up to the top of nearby Saint Iago Hill and pounded the Portuguese into submission. Then, to prevent anyone from doing the same thing to them, they built Fort Cooenradsburg atop the same hill.

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View of Fort Coenraadsburg from Saint George’s Castle. The bridge over the Benya River is visible in the lower left-hand corner.

The Dutch were to occupy the castle for the next 135 years. In 1872, they sold out all their remaining holdings to the British for a nominal sum.

Over the centuries European colonial powers were to build some 50 forts and castles along the Gold Coast, but Saint George’s Castle remains at once the oldest, the largest, and historically the most important. For centuries, it served as a nexus of the slave trade. It is right here, on this very spot, that the long history of the European colonization of Africa began. It is here, also, that we see the beginnings of the Global Economy, with the transfer on a huge scale of people and capital across borders – something which worked out very well indeed for a few folks, and not so well for others.

At first the slave trade was a mere sideline – the Europeans were more interested in gold, as well as a route to the land of the fabled Preste Joao and beyond. All this changed when the Portuguese and Spanish colonized the New World, and came into possession of plantations and gold and silver mines which demanded abundant supplies of cheap labor. Soon the trickle changed into a flood.

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Interior of the female slave dungeon

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The condemned cell where rebellious slaves were imprisoned and left to die of thirst

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Slave exit to the waiting boats

How many Africans made the journey? The fact is, we just don’t know, although estimates run as high as sixty million. The slave trade continued for centuries, across huge expanses of the African continent, with records kept by several different nations, in several different languages. There was no centralized agency keeping track.

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More people are enslaved right now than at any previous time in history. To find out what you can do to help, click Here.

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As for the Knights of Christ: in 1497, Vasco de Gama, another knight of the Order, sailed around the southern tip of Africa. He landed in Mozambique and was overjoyed to learn that the land of the fabled Preste Joao lay to the north, although his ultimate destination was not Ethiopia but India. In 1520, his son, Cristoforo de Gama, also a knight of the Order, arrived in Ethiopia – just in time to save its civilization from complete and utter destruction.

This is the sixth of eight parts

All photos by author

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1 Comment

  1. meliponula says:

    Coming up next: we travel to Harar, watch our daughter get up close and personal with some hyenas, and get in some face time with Obama.

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