Land of the Golden Trade - John Lang

Portuguese and Dutch on the Gold Coast

Portugal, as we have seen, had been successful practically in expelling the English and French from the choicest of her West African preserves, or at least she had succeeded in establishing there a state of affairs which to these nations made the risk incurred by poaching outweigh the profits thereby to be gained. Few English or French vessels now attempted to trade along the Gold Coast. But as the Sixteenth Century drew to a close, another rival started up to harass the Portuguese in those parts, a rival whose trading instincts were keener by far than those of either English or French, one not to be daunted by severities however great, one who flew at the throat of the enemy and there clung tenaciously, till, in the end, life was shaken out of him.

The shrewd business eye of the Dutch Nation had been attracted by the profits to be made in the Guinea Trade. A certain Ericksen, a Dutchman, captured at sea, had been carried by the Portuguese to the Bight of Biafra and there long detained prisoner on the island of San Thorne. Whilst in captivity Ericksen gleaned sufficient information regarding Portuguese trading matters to convince him that they were of an extremely profitable nature, and having by good fortune escaped and reached his native land, he had little difficulty in persuading merchants there to fit out a vessel for a venture to the Gold Coast, and to give him the command. In 1595 Ericksen brought his voyage to a successful end, and from that date, in spite of all that Portugal could do, Dutch trade with the Guinea Coast prospered and increased.

A nation of Traders, the business sagacity and acute commercial instincts of the Dutch would have made them rivals to be dreaded even had they been less formidable as fighters; the combination of business ability with naval and military skill—though doubtless other causes were also at work—caused them eventually to be to the Portuguese irresistible.

Portugal since 1580 had become but a province of Spain, and Spain was more intent on her own West Indian possessions than concerned in the welfare of settlements which to her were of no interest except as they might affect the labour supply of the Spanish West Indian islands. Hence, the Portuguese establishments on the Gold Coast had been greatly reduced, and of this fact in due time the Dutch took full advantage. Before the close of the first quarter of the Seventeenth Century, the Hollanders, underselling their rivals everywhere, had practically swept Portuguese trade out of existence. Instead of making any attempt to recover that trade, Philip IV., finding that income hardly met expenditure, curtailed the latter by further reducing the already weakened garrison of San Jorge da Mina and by shortening their supplies. The natural result followed; more and more, as time passed, the Dutch ousted the Portuguese, and very soon, except Elmina and Axim, nothing remained to the latter of the old-time monopoly which Papal Bulls had delivered into their hands. In the beginning, indeed, Portugal had employed against the Dutch the same tactics which against the English and the French had been found so efficacious. She offered rewards for the heads of Dutchmen; and wherever a Hollander was captured his death-sentence and execution speedily followed, or he was consigned to the galleys. To such an end—death or the galleys—came many a gallant Dutchman in the closing years of the Sixteenth Century. But the result was not to drive the Dutch from the field, as English and French had been driven.

In 1599 five Dutchmen, lying becalmed in a boat off Elmina, were taken by the Portuguese, in cold blood beheaded, and their heads stuck on spikes on the ramparts of San Jorge. In revenge, the Dutch stirred up the neighbouring tribes to rebel, and by supplying arms and ammunition helped the rebels not only to inflict severe losses on the Portuguese, but enabled them also finally to cast off the Portuguese yoke. As a farther consequence of this revolt, the Hollanders were enabled to make yet another forward movement and to establish a fresh trading post on the Coast at Commenda. Cautiously, and with characteristic business ability, did Holland make her initial steps. To walk before she ran,—"first to creep and then to go," as at a later date the Council of Seventeen of the great Dutch East India Company instructed their representatives at the Cape of Good Hope,—was ever her motto. In this instance, the island of Goree, to the north of the Gambia, had been bought, and thus a base secured from which to work. Thence, from place to place she crept, ever widening her sphere of influence, steadily plodding onward.

Then in 1621 the Netherlands West India Company was incorporated, and to this Company was granted by the States General sole right of trade on the West Coast of Africa, as well as a similar right in the West Indies. The Dutch did not fritter away their strength in isolated efforts, they combined; they concentrated their energies on a definite object, and that object, so far as concerned West Africa, was the overthrow of Portuguese power and influence in those regions and the establishment of their own supremacy. Portugal and her colonies were now but dependencies of Spain, and by Spain had Holland been long and cruelly ground down. Now at last the yoke was thrown oft Holland was already supreme at sea, and after her long and bitter struggle against a relentless and bloodthirsty foe, she was carrying the war into that foe's dominions.

In 1623 a Dutch squadron sailed for the west with the object of seizing the Portuguese colonies in Brazil, and the conflict in those parts necessarily lent added bitterness to the struggle in West Africa, whence came the labour supply for the Brazilian sugar-mills and plantations.

In 1624 the Dutch built, or at least completed, at Mouree, near Cape Coast Castle, a fort which they named Fort Nassau, and being now in their own estimation sufficiently strong to strike a decisive blow, in the following year they attacked San Jorge da Mina, being under the impression that sickness had greatly enfeebled the garrison of that stronghold. With twelve hundred of their own men and a force of native auxiliaries, a landing was made a little to the west of San Jorge. But Dutch calculations had this time been premature; the policy of "creeping" before "going" had been too soon abandoned. The expedition proved a disastrous failure. Before the force had time to deploy and take up position, while, indeed, they were yet in the confusion consequent on landing, they were sharply attacked by the Portuguese and driven back into their boats with heavy slaughter. And we may be certain that not much quarter was given to the wounded during that rout.

Deterred by this repulse, checked but not discouraged, the stubborn Dutch bided their time, embittered, and rendered but the more determined by the recollection of their losses. San Jorge was a formidable stronghold, as strongholds went in those days; Barbot describes it as having "no equal on all the coasts of Guinea. It is built square, with very high walls of a dark brown rock stone so very firm that it may be said to be cannon proof."

There must be no mistake in the Dutch second venture. Accordingly, years passed, years which perhaps lulled the Portuguese into fancied security, causing them still further to slacken in their precautions. To "let things slide" is an easy doctrine enough, but it is one for which payment, heavy payment, must be made in the end—as Great Britain herself has found more than once even in our own day. And so Portugal now found it. To van Ypren, the Dutch Director General in Africa, it seemed at last that the time to strike had come. Nor did he delay. The Company at home was informed by him that now was their chance to succeed, and he suggested that a sufficient force should be sent to the Coast without loss of time. It chanced that Count Maurice of Nassau, with a fleet of thirty-two sail and a considerable body of troops, was at that very time on the Brazilian coast harassing the Portuguese there. To him instructions were sent, and Count Maurice at once detached nine sail, with eight hundred soldiers under Colonel Hans Coine, for service on the Gold Coast.

On June 25, 1637, the expedition arrived off the Ivory Coast, and having sent word to van Ypren, proceeded to Cape Coast Castle, where, on being joined by a large native contingent under the Director General himself, the whole force—eight hundred soldiers and five hundred seamen, exclusive of natives—landed and marched towards da Mina. The action did not begin very favourably for the Dutch, for a strong detachment sent to seize a hill which commanded the fort of San Jorge was cut to pieces by the Portuguese native auxiliaries, slaughtered almost to a man. But with this the Portuguese successes ended. The native levies, satisfied for the moment with the victory, in order to celebrate their triumph and desirous to display in the town the heads taken, withdrew from the position to which they should have clung at whatever cost, and it was at once, and almost without loss, seized by a second Dutch detachment. The Portuguese, hastily reassembling their native allies, twice made desperate attempts to retake this all-important position, but without success. It is easy to make a blunder, not so easy to repair it. On each occasion they were repulsed with heavy loss, and finally they were driven back on a second position near the summit of the hill, a redoubt which they had prepared beforehand. But out of this, too, they were quickly forced, and very soon from the top of the hill Dutch guns were playing on San Jorge.

After two days' fighting—the Dutch being unable to carry and hold the town of Elmina owing to the heavy fire of the fort's guns—Colonel Coine summoned San Jorge to surrender, threatening with death the entire garrrison if the summons should be disregarded. Time to consider the question was demanded by the Portuguese commandant; in three days he would be prepared to answer "Yea" or "Nay." But this by no means suited the Dutch, who had left their ships carrying with them but a bare three days' rations. Here already was the third day. It must be now or never; either they must have the castle that day, or a retreat to the ships was inevitable. Accordingly Colonel Hans Coine ordered an immediate assault. But even as the men began to move forward on their desperate and Uncertain task, above the frowning ramparts rose heavily in the stagnant air a white flag, and the roll of Portuguese drums beating the "chamade" announced that the garrison was prepared to discuss terms of surrender.

It was, after all, no great feat to capture this stronghold, for (leaving out of account the native levies on either side) there were no more than thirty-eight or forty Portuguese in the castle to withstand the thirteen hundred Dutch soldiers and sailors; and of this slender Portuguese garrison, the entire European rank and file were "banisht men," persons sent out of their country for crime. Not that it is an unknown thing for convicts to do loyal service,—our own annals in Australia have shown that,—but the average Portuguese official of the time was little likely to have gained either the affection or the confidence of those under his command. We know from Andrew Battell and from others the material of which both officers and men were composed. Of this particular garrison Barbot says that it was "commonly composed of leud and debauch'd persons, as well officers as soldiers, both of them used to commit outrages and to plunder, or of such as were banish'd Portugal for heinous crimes and misdemeanors. No wonder therefore that the histories of those times give an account of unparalleled violence, and inhumanities committed there by those insatiable Portuguese during the time that place was under their subjection, not only against the natives of the country and such European nations as resorted hither, but even among themselves." A successful, or even a prolonged, resistance, under such circumstances was not within the realms of possibility. Van Ypren had made no mistake in his estimate.

The Dutch were now virtually masters of the Gold Coast. Of important posts there was but Fort S. Anthony at Axim remaining in Portuguese hands, and ere long that too followed the example of San Jorge. It is not easy to understand why Holland did not seize Fort S. Anthony before Coine returned to Brazil. Van Ypren did indeed then demand that it should be surrendered, but he took no action after the Portuguese commandant's spirited rejection of his summons. Perhaps he thought that, like an over-ripe pear, it must soon drop of its own weight, and that bloodshed might thereby be saved. In any case, it was not until January 1642 that the Dutch laid hands on Fort S. Anthony, some considerable time indeed after a treaty had been signed between Holland and the now restored King of Portugal, a treaty whereby her conquests in West Africa were secured to the former. Unless there is some confusion of dates, the Netherlanders were here acting in most high-handed fashion.

Whatever the facts of the case, however, the Portuguese, after an occupation of one hundred and sixty years, were now finally ejected from the Gold Coast. Traces of that occupation are still to be found in the language of the native tribes, and, in certain instances, in place-names. Amongst the words mentioned by Colonel Ellis in his History of the Gold Coast as being still in use are "palaver," from the Portuguese "palabra"; "caboccer," from "eabeceiro "; "picanniny," from "picania"; and "fetish," from "feitico." Colonel Ellis also says that although the Dutch remained on the Gold Coast for two hundred and thirty-two years, there are no similar traces of their occupation, nor are even now in general use many words derived from our own language. From all accounts it would seem that the Portuguese mingled with the native population in much more intimate fashion than did either Dutch or English.

Of the place-names a good many survive, though either translated into English or corrupted. As instances may be mentioned Cape Three Points (Cabo de Tres Puntas), Gold Coast (Costa del Oro), Ancobra (Rio Cobre), Elmina (La Mina), Cape Coast (Cabo Corso).