In the old age of European empires and imperialism, colonies were often filled with vices and filths. The Danish Gold Coast in Africa was hardly different. Cunning slave traders, devious mercenaries, and ambitious bureaucrats operated above the laws. Why did a botanist come here, and what did he want?
History of the Gold Coast
Portuguese explorers were the first Europeans to voyage out to Africa. When they arrived in the Gulf of Guinea, they found an area (present-day southwestern Ghana) rich in gold. They named it the “Gold Coast” and set up a colony in 1482 for the gold trade. They dominated trade in the region until the Dutch arrived in the late 16th century.
By the 17th century, the major Scandinavian powers, Sweden and Denmark-Norway, each had their own ambitions for the area. Their rivalry would extend from Europe to Africa.
It started with a Dutchman by the name of Hendrik Carloff, who was an adventurer and served his early years with the Dutch West India Company in Dutch Brazil. He later moved to Africa, and there he learned about the indigenous power structure in the Gold Coast Area.
When Carloff eventually returned to Europe, he offered his service to the Swedish Africa Company, under a mandate from Queen Christina of Sweden to explore Africa. So, in 1650, Carloff sailed to the Gold Coast and concluded a treaty with the local Akan people. The Akan king sold some land to the Swedes, and Swedish Gold Coast was founded.
Carloff was a real force behind the expansion of the Swedish Gold Coast. He was not only paid a salary, but he had also invested his money into the Swedish company. More importantly for Carloff, he had a smuggling operation on the side, bring gold and other goods from Africa back to Europe on the vessels sailing under the Swedish flag.
But this smuggling operation came under threat when the Swedish Africa Company appointed a new governor to the Gold Coast in 1656. Carloff was annoyed, so the next year, he resigned and instead offered his service to Sweden's rival, Denmark-Norway. The Danish king, Frederick III, gave Carloff a ship, 18 cannons and 48 crew members to capture the Swedish Gold Coast.
Carloff did not disappoint. In 1658, he attacked and seized Fort Carlsborg and Fort Christiansborg from Sweden, establishing the Danish Gold Coast, whilst effectively ending Sweden's African ambitions.
Over time, the Danish Gold Coast grew to include five main forts along a one-hundred-mile stretch between Accra and the Volta River:
Fort Christiansborg (present-day Accra)
Fort Fredensborg (present-day Old Ningo)
Fort Prinsensten (present-day Keta)
Fort Kongensten (present-day Ada)
Fort Augustaborg (present-day Teshie)
Fort Christiansborg was captured from the Swedes in 1658, followed by other forts that were built in the 1700s. And unlike the early arrivers, the Danes were in the Gold Coast for the people.
Building the golden triangle
Fourteen years after the establishment of the Danish Gold Coast, Denmark established a new colony in the Caribbean called the Danish West Indies. Colonists arrived on the island of St Thomas in 1672 to set up plantations, and with that, there was now a desire for African slaves.
The following year, the first Danish ships arrived in St. Thomas with 102 enslaved Africans. They would be the first of more than 120,000 Africans to be shipped across the Atlantic in Danish ships, marking the start of Denmark's Golden Triangle trade between Copenhagen, the Danish Gold Coast, and the Danish West Indies. Over time, the slave trade grew and Danish West Indies became a transit point for some slaves, rather than the final destination. Many slaves arrived in St. Thomas before they were sent off to other Caribbean islands.
Even though relatively few Danes settled in their African colony during this period, it was perhaps in Africa that they left behind the deepest scars. The slave trade was not the same as the sugar or textile trade. Most slaves were victims of kidnaps, families were broken up, and some of the Africans did not even survive the trip across the Atlantic.
In many ways, the local Africans are as guilty as the Europeans. Ghanaians, in particular, participated in the slave trade through intermarriage with Europeans. Powerful elite families married off their daughters to the Europeans, in forming powerful syndicates to dominate the slave trades. African tribes also raided, captured, and sold off people from different ethnic groups to European slave traders. When war broke out between the Akwamu and the Akyem kingdoms in 1729, many of the defeated Akwamu were sold by the Akyem and found themselves in the Danish West Indies.
Slaves who arrived in the new world faced terrible conditions, and many perished as a result of hard labour, diseases, or simply from abuse. Thus, for decades, the Danish Gold Coast served an important role. Local Africans in the Danish Gold Coast were enslaved and sent to the Caribbean to keep the sugar plantations running.
But by the late 18th century, there was an increased movement in Europe, including Denmark, to re-consider the slave trade. In Denmark, the Great Negro Trade Commission was formed to look into the slave trade, and it concluded that the transatlantic slave trade should be banned as it was unethical and nor economically profitable (margins of less than 3%).
But what to do with the important sugar plantations and processing industry in the Danish West Indies once the trading of slaves was banned?.
So even though King Christian II signed a decree to ban the transatlantic slave trade in 1792, making Denmark the first country to announce its intention, this ban only came into effect in 1803. It allowed for a 10-year grace period where Danish plantation owners can "stock up their inventory". Extra financing was even provided by the state to help the plantation owners through this “hardship”.
What happened to Danish Gold Coast after the slave trade ban?
Beyond the anti-slavery movement, the late 18th century was also a time when European governments and natural scientists conducted scientific experiments around the globe. Breadfruit plants were moved from Tahiti to the Caribbean. Nutmeg from Spice Island of Indonesia to the West Indies. Cotton, coffee, and other cash crops were grown all over the world.
And that was one man's vision for the Danish Gold Coast, now that the value of Denmark’s African colony was being called into question, following the ban on the transatlantic slave trade.
Peter Thonning was a Danish physician and botanist, who spent four years between 1799 and 1803 in the Gulf of Guinea studying indigenous plants. Later on, he served in the colonial office, and using his knowledge, he advocated for the government to introduce large-scale production of coffee, cotton, and sugarcane in the Danish Gold Coast.
Thonning believed that the lands in Africa were much richer than ones in the Caribbean. But more importantly, he believed that through real colonization, or in other words, the settlement of Europeans in Africa, the Europeans would be able to nudge the indigenous people onto a better path.
"Just as Denmark gave Europe the example of the abolition of the slave trade, thus might Denmark also possibly be destined to show the rest of Europe the way [to the civilization of Africa]."
Thonning argued that the government should send skilled Danish settlers, such as masons, carpenters, smiths, to Africa. These first settlers would be the driving force to set up a series of plantations. The plantations would be ready after three years, upon which agricultural colonists would then take over the operations. Africans would be purchased for hard labour, but they would be emancipated after 15 years.
According to Thonning, the Danish Gold Coast would be a life of "expatriate affluence" for the Danish settlers, as well as a promise of emancipation for the Africans.
That was the plan in the 1830s.
Gold Coast, the movie
In 1836, Danish biologist Wulff Frederik Wulff received a mandate from his King to set up a coffee plantation in the Danish Gold Coast. Wulff had the big vision to turn the colony into a Danish garden in Africa. He was under no illustration and expected lots of difficulties along the way. But little did he expect that there are bigger challenges than simply getting the coffee plants to grow in West Africa.
Gold Coast was an attempt by award-winning director Daniel Dencik to reveal to the world what happened in the Danish Gold Coast. The Dane’s colonial past is rarely discussed in mainstream media. But Dencik’s movie is a reckoning by the Danes that, even they, had committed some terrible crimes in their colonial possessions, and there are a lot of lessons to be learned from this brutal history.
The movie was not made to be a Hollywood-style blockbuster, but rather an artistic, if somewhat fictional, expression of the challenges faced by the kind-hearted protagonist.
To find out what happened in the Danish Gold Coast, you can get a copy of the movie here on Amazon.
Guldkysten / Gold Coast
Director: Daniel Dencik
Starring: Jakob Oftebro, Danica Curcic, John Aggrey
Release date: July 2, 2015
Running Time: 114 minutes You can get a copy of the movie here through Amazon. I will receive a small commission for your purchase made through this link at no extra cost to you.
This article is part of the Tracing the Vikings' Footsteps series.