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Elmina Castle, trading outpost and "slave factory"

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Forty years after Prince Henry's expeditions first acquired gold dust and twenty-one years after the Prince's death, Portugal began constructing a trading outpost on Africa's Guinea coast, near a region that had been mined by natives for many years. Permission to build the outpost had been reluctantly given by the chief of a nearby village, on the condition that peace and trust be maintained.

Called "São Jorge da Mina" (Saint George's of the mine), or simply "Elmina" (the mine), it was the first permanent structure south of the Sahara built by Europeans -- and for centuries it was the largest. It also had the distinction of being the first of many permanent "slave factories" (trading posts that dealt in slaves) that would be built along Africa's western coast.

The purpose of Elmina Castle, as well as the future outposts, was to give support to captains by providing their vessels with a secure harbor. The outposts were heavily armed against assault from the sea. Interestingly, the forts were not so heavily armed against attack from inland. An assault from a European foe (including pirates) was more likely than one from Africans. To fend off attacks from the sea, cannons were needed, whereas light gunfire was usually enough to deter an assault from the interior.

Slaves were typically captured inland, then brought to the outpost on an arduous journey that often lasted many days -- half of all captives did not even make it to the coast. Once there, the slaves would wait, often for a long period of time, until a ship arrived. They were traded for cowrie shells, iron bars, guns, basins, mirrors, knives, linens, silk, and beads.

Elmina Castle saw several owners during the course of the slave trade, including the Portuguese, Dutch, and English. By the 18th century, 30,000 slaves on their way to the Americas passed through Elmina each year.6 Deportation through outposts like Elmina continued for nearly three hundred years.

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