Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Bombardment of Elmina, 13 June 1873

On 13 June 2010 it was 127 years ago that the British army and navy bombarded the old town of Elmina. This was a momentous occasion, which returned a then still flourishing trading town of some 12,000 plus people to the status of a fishing village of circa 5,000. The impact of the bombardment and the ensuing fire was tremendous. It  completely destroyed the old town with all its contents, bereaving over half the population of the town of home and property. Thousands of people fled the town, some living in makeshift refugee camps in the countryside for years, some of the richer merchants permanently moving to neighbouring Cape Coast, while others moved even further away.

The bombardment changed the physical outlook of Elmina permanently. The area of the old town was transformed into a 'parade ground', resettlement being prohibited. When refugees started to return to Elmina in the late 1870s and early 1880s, they had to find living space on the other side of the lagoon. This area, the so-called Garden of Elmina, was already fairly crowded, while usuable space was limited due to the presence of several flood plains, salt marshes, and three hills. Eventually the people of Elmina found ways of accomodation, and by the 1920s the town had regained some of its former splendour, due to remittances from its sons and daughters aquiring wealth in the booming Gold Coast economy of that decade.

The bombardment of Elmina is a classic case of British 'gunboat diplomacy'. After the British took over the Dutch Possessions on the Gold Coast on 6 April 1872, the government of Elmina - at least part of it - refused to acknowledge British suzerainty. Traditionally, the Elmina were the allies of the powerful Asante state in the Gold Coast hinterland, which was in turn the archenemy of the British. During 1872 a stand-off between the British and the Asante developed, with a large Asante army camping out in the hills around Elmina. Reason for the British to demand the loyalty of the Elmina government with an ultimatum. When this was not met, the town was given a small space of time to evacuate, and was then bombed and burned. The king of Elmina, Omanhin Kobena Gyan, was exiled to Sierra Leone, where he stayed until 1894. Soon after the bombardment the British moved on the Asante with an attack on their capital Kumase.

Some years ago, sipping a beer with some historian-friends at a beach resort near Elmina, the importance of the bombardment for the history of Elmina came up as a topic of conversation. My friend Brenda, not a historian, remarked that as the impact of the event was seemingly so momentous, would it not be a necessity for all historians of Elmina to start each and every book they wrote with a reference to the bombardment.

In effect, I think she was right. The history of Elmina can be traced back to the 15th century, with archaeological evidence pointing to human settlement as far back as the 10th century. Throughout the centuries the history of the town was one of almost constant development and growth - obviously with cyclical ups and downs - until 13 July 1873, when this cosmopolitan, world-wise and outward-looking town was forcefully dimished to a fishing village. To date, the most important identity of the town is just that, a fishing village - albeit the largest traditional fishing port along the Ghanaian coast, and a town which still physically shows a much grander past.

The lithograph of the bombardment, or plan of attack as the caption reads, is one of several accompanying an article in The Illustrated London News of 26 July 1873. (Click on image to see full-size picture in Picasa.)