Friday, 15 July 2016

Elmina in 1865: New photographs discovered

Pictures of Elmina

Photographs of the town of Elmina in the Dutch period, i.e before 1872, are quite rare. There are some, and there are depictions of the town in the form of drawings and lithographs, but on the whole, one does not find many clear pictures.

You can imagine my surprise and elation therefore, when my colleague and friend, and comrade in arms in the Dutch history of Elmina, Natalie Everts, pointed me towards a fantastic find this morning.

The website of Mystic Seaport: The museum of America and the sea harbours a large collection of historical photographs, mainly of ships. However, hidden in the long list of ships called "Elmina", there are three photographs of the Ghanaian town of Elmina. They were taken by a man called John F. Brooks, whom I believe to be one of the American ship's captains that frequented Elmina, dated circa 1865, and made in the photographic technique called ambrotype.

With this firm date of 1865 attached to them, these images of Elmina are among the oldest surviving photographic townscapes on record.

I have ordered high resolution scans of the images, but found this discovery too important to let it wait. So here are the low resolution small-sized reproductions as they can be found on the Mystic Seaport website, with a brief description of what we see.

When the high resolutions scans become available, I will return here with a more complete description and analysis.


View from St. Jago Hill

The first two pictures, identical or almost identical, show a familiar sight: the Castle of St. George d'Elmina taken from Fort Coenraadsburg on St. Jago Hill opposite. The castle flies the Dutch flag from a very tall mast, and stands out brightly whitewashed. In addition to the castle we see the roadstead with three merchant ships, the Benya Lagoon with bridge, a part of the old town of Elmina with stone houses, all destroyed by the British in 1873, and part of Liverpool Street to the left and centre, with the row of new, flat-roofed, luxurious merchant's houses dating from the 1840s.

What is special here is that the photograph shows, more than any other known picture, a fair part of the old town of Elmina.

These images link here.

Reference: Mystic Seaport Image ID m024429
Reference: Mystic Seaport Image ID m024429-01

View of High Street

The second picture is a view of what is now called the High Street in Elmina, from an elevated point, overlooking the bay on the left, with a clear view of the castle, and with Fort Coenraadsburg on St. Jago Hill dominating the right-hand side of the picture. We see the white houses in Liverpool Street in the middle, as well as some other buildings. And below the vantage point we see the street, not much more than a sandy path, some mottle and swish houses, a larger building on the opposite side of the street which seems under construction, and a walled yard of some sort in the middle, right below where the photographer stood.

Although this needs more research, my first guess would be that the photographer stood inside the house known as Mount Pleasant, built by the Elmina merchant Carel Bartels in the early 1850s.

This image links here.

Reference: Mystic Seaport Image ID m024428


A thorough search of the Mystic Seaport database brought to light one other image from the Gold Coast, namely of the British fort at Dixcove, dated 1862. The entry has no image attached to it. Th picture is also an Ambrotype by John F. Brooks, which may mean that the date for the Elmina pictures has to be pushed back three years too, to 1862.

See the link here.