The first Europeans who set foot on the coast of present-day Ghana were the Portuguese in 1471. They discovered a land rich in gold, which later became known as the Gold Coast. To protect their trade from European competitors, they built their first trading post on the coast in 1482, the castle of Elmina, which later became one of the most infamous settings of the transatlantic slave trade: Africans captured inland were kept imprisoned in the castle before they had to leave their home forever by walking through the “door of no return”.
A century after the arrival of the Portuguese, traders from other European countries such as Great Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Prussia and Sweden invaded the coast, attracted by the lucrative trade, and consolidated their power by building forts along the coast. Eventually more than 30 castles dotted the so desired coastline of Ghana.
The British seize power
In the 19th century the British gradually expanded their influence by seizing privately owned land and taking over the remaining interests of other European countries. They successively annexed the Danish and the Dutch Gold Coast, including Fort Elmina (which the Dutch had captured from the Portuguese in 1637) and finally, in 1874, proclaimed the coastal area a British Crown Colony.
The British didn’t only have to compete with other European powers, they also encountered problems from within the country: The Asante, seeking to expand their power and to protect their trade, invaded the coastal area in 1807, 1811 and 1814, disrupting European trade and threatening the security of the people inhabiting the coast. The struggle for power resulted in four Anglo-Asante wars taking place during the 19th century.
Under British rule: the Gold Coast
However, on the long run the Asante couldn’t persist against the well-equipped British soldiers and were finally defeated. The same year the British declared the Northern Territories a British protectorate. Together with the coast and the Asante region these Northern Territories now formed a single political unit under British control, the Gold Coast.
The coastal inhabitants such as the Fante, relying on British protection against the Asante, were much quicker to accept Great Britain’s hegemony. The British introduced an effective system of indirect rule which minimized resistance to British domination and maintained law and order.
Thriving trade with coffee and cacao
After having consolidated their power, the British invested in railroads, communications, social services and schools. The continuing trade of gold and timber thrived and crops from the New World such as coffee and cacao beans were introduced. Especially the cacao production turned out to be a profitable business and played a mayor role in the Gold Coast’s economy. Today, Ghana is the second largest cocoa exporting country in the world, just behind Ivory Coast: Together they supply about 75 percent of the world’s cacao.
Sadly, the production of cacao in West Africa today is related to child labor, slavery and human trafficking. In recent years, several NGOs and journalists have revealed that children are forced to work on cacao plantations – exposed to hard, dangerous working conditions, deprived of education and far away from their families. Some children are even abducted from neighbouring countries and hold against their will in slave-like conditions, suffering beatings and without receiving any money.
The chocolate industry still hasn’t introduced any adequate measures to end this modern form of slavery (for more information check out the documentary “The Dark Side of Chocolate”).
Early nationalist movements
By the late 19th century, the educated African elite expressed increasing discontent with the arbitrariness of the political system – a system that placed almost all power in the hands of the governor who was the only one having the right to appoint council members.
The call for elected representation grew louder and a delegation of Africans was sent to London to demand democratic structures. The delegation was denied access to the Colonial Office in London, but it was an important sign of solidarity between African intellectuals as the group claimed to speak for all colonies of British West Africa and received support from intellectuals at home.
However, the British government didn’t consider a real change in politics and continued to treat its colonies as sources of raw materials that were needed for their economy.
1945 – 1957 Fight for Independence
World War II did not only change the order of the world as it was known before, but also the future of the Gold Coast. 40.000 Africans from the Gold Coast had fought for the British, mainly in Southeast Asia, and came back to their country with a new self-confidence. They had seen the Indian struggle for independence which inspired their own desire for freedom. Together with a general dissatisfaction of the people due to shortages, unemployment and inflation, this formed an explosive mixture of malcontents ready to fight for their rights.
In 1948 the protest of Ghanaian ex-soldiers in Accra who had been refused their pay led to riots that soon spread to Kumasi and other cities. The British reacted by brutally beating down the protest, many Ghanaians were shot or put in prison without trial. One of the imprisoned protesters was a young Ghanaian who had just come back to his home country from England: Kwame Nkrumah.
Nkrumah founded the radical Convention People’s Party (CPP) which demanded immediate self-government for the Gold Coast, and soon became the leader of a nationwide independent movement: Not only intellectuals, but also workers, farmers, young people and market women supported the cause and participated in widespread strikes and nonviolent resistance initiated by Nkrumah and his CPP.
Nkrumah was imprisoned a second time, but while he was serving his sentence, the first elections for the Legislative Assembly the British had allowed when faced with the protests were held. The CCP carried off a victory with a two-thirds majority and the authorities had to release Nkrumah to form a government.
In 1956, the new assembly voted unanimously for independence (with the opposition abstaining from voting) and on March 6, 1957, the Gold Coast became the first independent black African nation. The new nation-state Ghana stayed a member of the Commonwealth until 1960 when it eventually became a republic.
Click here to read Ghana’s History Part 3: Four Republics.