Portuguese Gold Coast

The Portuguese Gold Coast was a Portuguese colony on the West African Gold Coast (present-day Ghana) along the Gulf of Guinea.[1] Established in 1482, the colony was officially incorporated into Dutch territory in 1642 following Portugal’s defeat in the Dutch-Portuguese War.[2] From their seat of power at the fortress of São Jorge da Mina (located in modern Elmina), the Portuguese commanded a vast internal slave trade, creating a slave network that would expand after the end of Portuguese colonialism in the region.[3] The primary export of the colony was gold, which was obtained through barter with the local population.[4] Portuguese presence along the Gold Coast increased seamanship and trade in the Gulf, introduced American crops (such as maize and cassava) into the African agricultural landscape, and made Portuguese an enduring language of trade in the area.[5]

Portuguese Gold Coast
Costa do Ouro
Coat of arms
of the Portuguese Empire
CapitalSão Jorge da Mina
Common languagesPortuguese
Roman Catholicism
Head of state 
   1482–1495 (first)
John II of Portugal
   1640–1642 (last)
John IV of Portugal
Donatary captains 
 1482–1484 (first)
Diogo de Azambuja
 1634–1642 (last)
António da Rocha Magalhães
21 January 1482
9 January 1642
Succeeded by
Dutch Gold Coast
Elmina Castle (São Jorge da Mina): the primary stronghold of the Portuguese in the Gold Coast, situated on a peninsula where the Benya River meets the Gulf of Guinea.


Portuguese arrival on the Gold Coast

In 1471, Portuguese explorers encountered fishing villages rich with ivory and gold along the Atlantic coast of modern-day Ghana, which the Portuguese called the Gold Coast.[4] The prospect of trade in the Gold Coast region helped spur the construction of the fortress São Jorge da Mina (St. George of the Mine) in 1482, which soon came to be known as Elmina Castle, derived from the Portuguese term "el mina" ("the mine").[6] The castle was erected near a populated African town which was also called Elmina.[7] The Other major Portuguese settlements on the Gold Coast included the following:[4]

  • Fort Santo António de Axim, modern Axim: established 1515
  • Fort São Francisco Xavier, modern Osu, a district of Accra: established c.1557—c.1578
  • Fort São Sebastião, modern Shama: established 1558
Map of the Gold Coast c.1729.

The Portuguese decision to construct the fortress at Elmina was influenced by a pre-established trade system between native Elminans and Portuguese merchants in the area. A natural peninsula, enclosed by the Atlantic and the Benya river, was chosen as the site of construction for Elmina Castle to maximize defensibility. A nobleman named Diogo de Azambuja was appointed by the Portuguese king, John II, to construct the coastal fortress.[4] To maintain peace with the native peoples of Elmina, Azambuja entered into negotiations with the native leader Caramansa over their plans to construct Elmina Castle. In a discussion facilitated by a Portuguese merchant and aided by a native translator, Caramansa reacted skeptically to the proposition, as several African homes would have to be destroyed for construction on the castle to begin.[8] After the Portuguese threatened violence, Caramansa met Portuguese demands. However, he prohibited the use of sacred local rock, known to the native Elminans as Kokobo, and forbid the Portuguese from accessing the natives’ freshwater supply.[4] Portuguese settlers, defying Caramansa's demands, mined Kokobo rock for construction purposes. Doing so upset the local population, yet conflict was avoided after the Portuguese bestowed gifts upon the native Elminans.[8] Once constructed, Elmina Castle represented the first major European construction in sub-Saharn Africa and is currently recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.[9]

In order to establish good trade relationships with neighboring African nations, the Portuguese frequently extended gifts to the leaders of interior states, including to the Eguafo state to which Elmina belonged.[4] Their strategy along the coast, however, entailed using force against Africans to prevent them from trading with European competitors.[10] Portuguese violence along the coast soured their relations with neighboring African states; as such, the Portuguese lacked sufficient manpower to enforce their rule across the entire Gulf of Guinea. Portuguese influence along the Gold Coast extended from an area near modern-day New Town, Ghana, in the west to the historic settlement of Adda (near modern-day Denu, Ghana) in the east.[11] Other European nations conducting trade in the Gulf, including the English and Dutch, offered lower-priced commodities than the Portuguese, driving many Africans to accept the risk of Portuguese retaliation in order to yield a larger profit from trade.[4]

Dutch competition

Competition with European powers coupled with the decline of Portugal’s economic might in the early 1600s led to a waning of Portuguese influence in the Gold Coast region. Spurred by reports of the successful Portuguese gold trade in the Gulf of Guinea, Dutch forces began mobilizing against the Portuguese in an effort to wrest control of the region and monopolize the gold trade.[10] In 1625, the Dutch West India Company initiated an attack on São Jorge da Mina, which stood as the trading hub for the Portuguese in West Africa. The Dutch fleet was made up of the combined forces of Captain Jan Dircksz Lam and the remaining ships from Boudewijn Hendricksz’s failed venture in Salvador against the Spanish.[2] On October 25, 1625, the Dutch were ambushed by Portuguese forces and their African allies, which were persuaded to join the fight after the Portuguese promised them compensation. After incurring heavy losses, the Dutch were expelled from the area in what became known as the Battle of Elmina (1625).[2][10]

In August of 1637, the Dutch West India Company again targeted Elmina, which they saw as both the seat of Portuguese power in the Gulf of Guinea and a potential foothold into the African slave trade.[2] To aid in the conflict, known as the second Battle of Elmina (1637), the Dutch encouraged members of the Elmina, Komenda, and Efutu states to turn against the Portuguese.[12] After gaining some local support, the Dutch were better equipped to take on the opposing Portuguese forces and succeeded in capturing a hill facing the fort of Elmina. After enduring days of cannon fire, the Portuguese conceded, and Elmina castle officially came under Dutch control on August 29, 1637. Without their stronghold in Elmina, the Portuguese were completely expelled from the region by 1642.[2]

Donatary captains

Donatary captain (donatário, or Captain-major) was a designation given by the Portuguese Crown to an official tasked with overseeing colonial territory.[13] The following is a list of the known donatary captaincies in São Jorge da Mina:[14]

Duration of Term Donatary Captain
1482 —1485 Diogo de Azambuja
1485 —1486 Álvaro Vaz Pestano
c.mid-1480s — n.d Álvaro Mascarenhas
c.1487 — n.d João Fogaça
1495 — 1499 Lopo Soares de Albergaria
c.1499 — c.1503 Fernão Lopes Correia
c.1503 — c.1506 Diogo Lopes de Sequeira
c.1506 — c.1509 António de Bobadilha
c.1510 — n.d Manuel de Góis
1513 — n.d Afonso Caldeira
c.1513 — n.d António Fróis
1514 — c.1516 Nuno Vaz de Castelo Branco
c.1516 — 1519 Fernão Lopes Correia
1519 — 1522 Duarte Pacheco Pereira
1522 — 1524 Afonso de Albuquerque
1524 — 1525 João de Barros
1526 — 1529 João Vaz de Almada
1529 — 1532 Estêvão da Gama
1536 — 1537 Manuel de Albuquerque
1537 — c.1540 unknown
1540 — 1543 António de Miranda de Azevedo
1541 — c.1545 Lopo de Sousa Coutinho
1545 — n.d Diogo Soares de Albergaria
1545 — 1548 António de Brito
1548 — 1550 Lopo de Sousa Coutinho
c.1550 — n.d Martim de Castro
c.1550 — c.1552 Diogo Soares de Albergaria
c.1552 — n.d Filipe Lobo
c.1552 — c.1556 Rui de Melo
1556 — c.mid-1550s Afonso Gonçalves de Botafogo
c.mid-1550s — 1559 António de Melo
1559 — n.d Manuel da Fonseca
1559 — 1562 Rui Gomes de Azevedo
1562 — n.d Manuel de Mesquita Perestrelo
c.1562 — n.d João Vaz de Almada Falcão
c.mid-1560s — n.d Francisco de Barros de Paiva
1564 — n.d Fernando Cardoso
n.d. — 1570 unknown
1570 — 1573 António de Sá
c.1573 — n.d Martim Afonso
c.1574 — n.d Mendio da Mota
n.d. — c.1579 unknown
1579 — c.1583 Vasco Fernandes Pimentel
1583 — 1586 João Rodrigues Pessanha
1586 — n.d Bernardinho Ribeiro Pacheco
n.d. — 1586 unknown
1586 —1594 João Róis Coutinho
c.1595 —c.1596 Duarte Lôbo da Gama
1596 — 1608 Cristóvão de Melo
1608 — 1610 Duarte de Lima
1610 — 1613 João de Castro
1613 — 1616 Pedro da Silva
c.1616 — 1624 Manuel da Cunha de Teive
1624 — c.1625 Francisco de Souto-Maior
c.mid-1620s — c.mid-1620s Luís Tomé de Castro
c.mid-1620s — 1629 João da Serra de Morais
1629 — c.1632 unknown
1632 — 1634 Pedro de Mascarenhas
1634 — 1634 Duarte Borges (acting)
1634 — 1642 André da Rocha Magalhães
1642 — 1642 Francisco de Sotte


The Portuguese imported slaves to Elmina throughout the sixteenth century, using them primarily to transport goods to and from interior African states,[7] but also to exchange with local Elminans for gold.[3] The main supply of Gold Coast slaves came from the trade route between Benin and Elmina, which also supplied the Portuguese with important commodities such as cotton, cloth, and beads.[3] The slave trade was later expanded to encompass the Niger River delta and the island of São Tome. Cloth, linens, beads, copper and brass pots, pans, bracelets, and slaves were all used as bartering tools to obtain gold from the native merchants of Elmina.[4] Elmina's gold originated from the Asante and Denkyira regions of modern-day Ghana and became the dominant export from the colony along with, to a lesser extent, ivory.[5][4] Additionally, the inflow of foreign crops into the Gold Coast region globalized the region's agricultural practices and output, introducing sugar, maize, guava, sweet potatoes, coconut, yams, and cassava to the African agricultural landscape.[5] Further, the dominance of the Portuguese trade route along the Gulf Coast in the sixteenth century led to Portuguese becoming the principal language of exchange in the Gulf of Guinea. The language has endured in the area despite the presence of other European powers in the Gulf after the colony was ceded in 1642.[15]


The internal African slave trade established by the Portuguese laid the groundwork for the vast networks of human trafficking that would flourish in the region during the centuries to come, as the Dutch and, later, the British capitalized on pre-established trade routes during the Atlantic slave trade.[3] Further, the shipping might of the Portuguese encouraged new, long-distance river trading amidst West African states, and the volume of trade along the Gulf of Guinea increased as a result of Portuguese presence.[5] Boatbuilding became an important craft that accompanied an increase in coastal trade and seamanship in the Gulf.[16] After generations of intimate contact with local African dialects, Portuguese creole emerged as an important language of trade along the Gulf Coast, second only to Portuguese itself.[15] Further, interbreeding between Portuguese and Africans led to a sizable mixed-race population along the Gold Coast.[5]

Urbanization occurred around Elmina, spurred partly by Portuguese attempts to establish a municipality in the area. Native governors, known as braffos, were given authority by the Portuguese, and migration from the interior to coastal regions increased. The cultivation of maize and cassava, first introduced to the region by the Portuguese through trans-Atlantic trade, flourished in the Gold Coast and became dietary staples throughout West Africa.[5] Further, Portuguese contact and activity along the Gold Coast integrated the region into the global economy. The larger trade volume in the region centralized the small, distinct states that existed prior to Portuguese contact into larger political entities.[7] The advent of global trade in the Gold Coast also consolidated commercial activity in coastal cities, which connected inland African communities with European trade.[17]


  1. Migeod, F. W. H. (1916). "A History of the Gold Coast and Ashanti". Journal of the Royal African Society. 15 (59): 234–243. ISSN 0368-4016. JSTOR 715346.
  2. Klooster, Wim (2016). The Dutch moment : war, trade, and settlement in the seventeenth-century Atlantic world. Ithaca. ISBN 978-1-5017-0612-7. OCLC 959554732.
  3. Rodney, Walter (1969). "Gold and Slaves on the Gold Coast". Transactions of the Historical Society of Ghana. 10: 13–28. ISSN 0855-3246. JSTOR 41406348.
  4. Feinberg, Harvey M. (1989). Africans and Europeans in West Africa: Elminans and Dutchmen on the Gold Coast During the Eighteenth Century. American Philosophical Society. ISBN 978-0-87169-797-4.
  5. Ijoma, J.O. (1982). "Portuguese Activities in West Africa Before 1600 the Consequences". Transafrican Journal of History. 11: 136–146. ISSN 0251-0391. JSTOR 24328537.
  6. Duncan, T. Bentley (1980). "Review of Portuguese Rule on the Gold Coast, 1469-1682". The American Historical Review. 85 (1): 183. doi:10.2307/1853568. ISSN 0002-8762. JSTOR 1853568.
  7. Decorse, Christopher R. (1992). "Culture Contact, Continuity, and Change on the Gold Coast, AD 1400-1900". The African Archaeological Review. 10: 163–196. doi:10.1007/BF01117700. ISSN 0263-0338. JSTOR 25130551. S2CID 162216492.
  8. Newitt, Malyn (2010-06-28). The Portuguese in West Africa, 1415–1670: A Documentary History. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-139-49129-7.
  9. Centre, UNESCO World Heritage. "Forts and Castles, Volta, Greater Accra, Central and Western Regions". UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Retrieved 2022-04-29.
  10. Ellis, A. B. (Alfred Burdon) (1893). A history of the Gold Coast of West Africa. University of California Libraries. London : Chapman and Hall.
  11. Scottish Geographical Magazine. Royal Scottish Geographical Society. 1896.
  12. Claridge, William Walton (2017). A History of the Gold Coast and Ashanti, Vol. 1 of 2: From the Earliest Times to the Commencement of the Twentieth Century. Forgotten Books. pp. 85–109. ISBN 978-1331342038.
  13. Johnson, H. B. (1972). "The Donatary Captaincy in Perspective: Portuguese Backgrounds to the Settlement of Brazil". The Hispanic American Historical Review. 52 (2): 203–214. doi:10.2307/2512427. ISSN 0018-2168. JSTOR 2512427.
  14. Mines of silver and gold in the Americas. P. J. Bakewell. Aldershot, Hampshire, Great Britain: Variorum. 1997. ISBN 0-86078-513-0. OCLC 34149859.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  15. Dakubu, M. E. K. (2012). "The Portuguese language on the Gold Coast, 1471-1807". Ghana Journal of Linguistics. 1 (1): 15–33. ISSN 2026-6596.
  16. NEWMAN, SIMON P. (2013). A New World of Labor: The Development of Plantation Slavery in the British Atlantic. University of Pennsylvania Press. doi:10.2307/j.ctt3fhj7n. ISBN 978-0-8122-4519-6. JSTOR j.ctt3fhj7n.
  17. Decorse, Christopher R.; Spiers, Sam (2009). "A tale of two polities: socio-political transformation on the Gold Coast in the Atlantic World" (PDF). Australian Historical Archaeology. 27: 29–38 via ASHA.

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