Elmina

One of the first strongholds of the Portuguese fifteenth century explorations was São Jorge da Mina, on Africa’s west coast. From 1468 onward, the Lusitanian push down the African coast intensified, driven by the concession of a monopoly for trade in the Gulf of Guinea to the merchant Fernão Gomes.

King Afonso V of Portugal (Afonso the African) granted Gomes his business on the following terms: an annual rent of 200,000 Portuguese reais, and the exploration of one hundred leagues of new African coast per year.

The castle at São Jorge da Mina (Elmina), built in 1482. It later became an infamous emblem of the slave trade.

How much would 200k reais have been worth then? One of my first stops was the historical currency converter, but it only goes back to the Portuguese escudo in 1800.

A scientific paper explains the Lusitanian monetary system, but it also provides additional gems: between 1480 and 1520, Portugal received about 700 kg, or over 1500 pounds, of gold from Africa every year, worth thirty million dollars at today’s prices—much of that will have come through Elmina.

In my quest, I browsed some interesting sites, and marveled at how rich the digital world is now; how I can do all this research on a sunny Saturday morning without leaving my home, while the birds celebrate what looks like the first day of spring—but to find what I wanted I had to delve into other languages—the linguistic dark web, if you will.

One escudo, the pre-euro coin, was worth a thousand reais, which means that the king’s rent was… one euro. Inflation-adjusted, in 1470 ten reais were worth one euro, so Afonso granted the monopoly for an annual income of twenty thousand euros.

As the Portuguese sailed east in the Gulf of Guinea they reached Accra, and twenty-five nautical miles further, the estuary of the Volta river. It had never stuck me that the river was named by the Portuguese, but volta means ‘return’, or ‘turnaround’, and it was there that the caravels tacked and headed for home.

To the north, the great river leads into Burkina Faso, which was called Alto Volta, or ‘high Volta’, when I studied geography—I suspect that too was named by the Portuguese, who no doubt sailed upriver in their explorations.

The castle at São Jorge da Mina was superbly sited, with a navigable inlet to its north where numerous fishing boats are visible on the satellite image. The fort was thus almost impregnable, with sea defenses to the south and east. One of the Portuguese caravels that explored the area in the late XVth century brought along a foreigner who in the next decade would sail for Castile—a young man by all accounts rather inept at ‘weighing the sun‘, who went by the name of Christopher Columbus.

The link between Ghana and gold had been known for centuries—the country’s name may be a corruption of the Arabic word  Ghinaa, meaning golden, although there are alternative theories—particularly that the name originates from ‘warrior king’ in a local dialect. It’s a tricky one, because by the tenth century the whole region was known as bilad-as-sudan, or ‘lands of the blacks’, and the Arabs were undoubtedly aware of the goldmines—despite nationalist objections, I side with the Arab origin.

Ghana suffered colonial abuse in a systematic manner. First by the Portuguese, who stayed for one hundred and fifty years, then the Dutch, then an avalanche of others: Swedes, Danes and Norwegians, and finally the British. Nowadays, Ghana has everything to thrive and develop—it is Africa’s second-largest gold producer, and has the fifth largest oil reserves. It has diamonds in abundance, as well as many other resources—predictably, this has aroused the interest of the Middle Kingdom, to the extent that the Chinese yuan is now hard currency.

A couple of examples of a proper Ghanaian sendoff.

And it has one other fascinating singularity—funerals. Every country, region, or tribe has its own way of dealing with death, expressing grief, and bidding farewell, but Ghana has an astonishing penchant for elaborate coffins.  We’re talking of first-rate African art, as part of a ritual that has an average cost of fifteen to twenty thousand dollars, ten times Ghanaian per capita GDP, and includes giant street billboards.

The tradition is that the deceased is buried in an allegory—a receptacle that reflects his profession or predilection. A shoemaker may be interred in a gigantic sneaker, and someone with a hankering for sodas may go to ground inside a coke bottle.

As for me, lay me down inside a good bottle of Douro red.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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