The experience of the Portuguese along the coast of West Africa involved an initial period of activity north of modern day Senegal in the early fourteen hundreds, where the Portuguese sought to continue their experiences in Morocco and frequently raided the African coast. After repeated confrontations with African counterattacks, the Portuguese switched policy and began to attempt to follow some African trading customs. By the late 1460s, the Portuguese had established several island bases of settlement by force on the Cape Verde islands and Araguim, near today’s Senegal.
However, establishing settlements on mainland Africa first required dialogue with coastal rulers. The voyages of the Portuguese in the 1460s and early 1470s represented a turning point in their approach, as they sought to establish friendly trading contacts with the coastal rulers. The history of the fortress of São Jorge da Mina (later called simply Elmina) offers a prime example. In 1481 Dom Diogo D’Azambuja was appointed by John II as captain of a fleet consisting of nine caravels and two ships with 600 soldiers and 100 masons and carpenters. They were sent, along with the necessary stone and other materials, to construct a fortress called São Jorge da Mina at the Gulf of Guinea. This became the best-known exploit of his long life. Portuguese settlers on the coast of today’s Ghana sought permission to build a fortress to monopolize the lucrative gold trade. On January 20, 1482, Diogo D’Azambuja went ashore to meet with the local ruler, Kwamina Ansa [known as Caramança in Portuguese records] to get his permission. Their famous meeting was related by royal chroniclers Ruy da Pina and his successor João de Barros, as well as contemporaries such as Pacheco Perreira, and it is widely quoted in studies of Ghana’s coast. Although some details vary, the essence remains the same. According to Barros, writing a half century after the foundation of São Jorge da Mina, the Portuguese under Captain Diogo de Azambuja and his men were received well: “When Caramança was among our people, he went to meet him and Caramança took the hand of Diogo de Azambuja, and letting it go again said “bere, bere”, which means ‘peace, ‘peace.’” Although surprised by the Portuguese request to live on his shores, Kwamina Ansa eventually agreed to grant permission to build a fort: “He would be pleased to permit him to build the house as he wished, warning him that peace in truth must be kept, for should our men act otherwise they would cause more harm to themselves than to him, because the land was great and he and his men could build another abode there with a thatch and timber, of which they had plenty.”
The foundation stone for the construction of St. George’s Castle was laid on January 21, 1482. Initial Portuguese attempts to keep the peace failed rather dramatically when they inadvertently chose the site of the most holy shrine in the area for construction of their fort, and were attacked by the local militia, but later relations were more stable. The decisions of rulers such as Kwamina Ansa, who allowed the Portuguese to establish a fort provided they followed Fante trading customs, gave frequent tribute and advantageous trading terms, demonstrated an astute combination of economic motives and political control. At this time the Fante occupied many autonomous states along the central part of modern Ghana’s coast. These states had a common culture and language but remained politically independent. Leaders would cooperate in times of crisis or to regulate advantageous trade. Most of the people were traders and farmers, uniquely situated on the coast between two valuable commodities, salt and inland sources of gold.
Thus, these states soon expanded in influence due to their lucrative role as trade middlemen. The Fante mostly sought trading relationships with the arriving Europeans (over more elaborate political alliances) and permitted them to construct costal forts. Their relationship was unique in that it continued on good terms well into the eighteen hundreds, without the Europeans gaining territorial control or local Fante rulers deciding to break ties. The Europeans were unable to penetrate the interior to discover the sources of gold, and thus had to trade for it on Fante terms. As the number of European traders grew to include the Dutch, Spanish, British, French, and briefly the Prussians, the Fante became adept at refusing various monopolies aimed at controlling trade terms to their advantage. This strategy allowed the Fante both to increase their own trade profits and also to maintain their political leverage through these encounters. The coastal Fante case is illustrative of some of the trading politics of other coastal African states. However, when the Portuguese encountered the kingdoms of Benin, the Kongo, or later Ethiopia, their relationships with these more centralized kingdoms were more elaborate and entailed more than mutually profitable trade.
AMBASSADORS, EXPLORERS, AND ALLIES: A STUDY OF AFRICAN-EUROPEAN DIPLOMATIC RELATIONSHIPS, 1400-1600 by Andrea Felber Seligman 2007
Accounts by Pino (1482) and Barros (1552) of the first meeting between Azambuja and Kwamina Ansa