Elmina, Ghana; Mombasa, Kenya; Cape Town, South Africa
When explorers and conquistadors began pouring out of Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries, the coast of Africa was one of their first targets. Europeans began arriving in large numbers in the 1500s. In order to provide easier access to the wealth of the interior, the Europeans set up many way-stations, leaving behind an architecturally legacy of massive fortresses all along the African coast. Many of these forts and castles, the largest ever built in Sub-Saharan Africa, were torn down in the post-colonial years. But a few remain, and are now popular tourist attractions. A few are even still used by local governments and militaries. Among the largest and best preserved are Elmina Castle in Ghana, Fort Jesus in Kenya and the Castle of Good Hope in South Africa.
North Africa had long been a part of the common Mediterranean world shared by Europe and the Middle East, becoming closely tied under the domination of the Roman Empire and later a succession of Muslim states. Similarly, East Africa was part of vast seaborne trade network of the Indian Ocean. But the considerable majority of Western Africa, Southern Africa and the mysterious interior were long unknown to either the European West or the Middle East. Everything changed dramatically in the 15th century, when European merchants began seeking alternate trade routes to the east in order to bypass the Ottoman Empire.
The great age of African exploration began in the early 1400s under Portugal’s Prince Henry the Navigator. Eager to try out new ships and navigational technology, and desirous to acquire access to trans-Saharan trade routes, Henry sent expeditions south, exploring much of the coast from Morocco to Mauritania and beyond. By 1488 Portuguese explorers had reached as far as the Cape of Good Hope on the southern tip of Africa. A string of forts were established from what is now Senegal to Angola in order to supply ships that would soon be heading for India and the Far East.
For most of the 15th and early 16th centuries, the forts built by the Europeans along Africa’s coasts were primarily to support trade between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. But with demand for raw materials from the Americas growing at a feverish pace, the European forts in Africa took on a much more dark and sinister role: the slave trade. By the end of the 1500s, all of the major European maritime powers had established massive, brooding fortresses along the west coast of Africa in order to collect and ship unwilling slaves to the Americas. This continued well into the 18th and even 19th centuries.
Finally, as slavery became abolished in the new World, the roll of the colonial forts changed again. Now they became bases from which to exploit Africa’s other resources. Beginning in the 1800s, these forts were the hubs around which the true European colonization of Africa began. This culminated in the famous Scramble for Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, with the advent of modern warfare and the decolonization process, Africa’s forts fell into disuse by the 1950s, and most were abandoned or pulled down. The surviving forts now represent a mixed legacy of the great European imperial period and the exploitation of the Third World.
Elmina Castle in Elmina, Ghana is one of the oldest European fortifications in Africa. First founded by the Portuguese in 1482, the castle is currently receiving a badly needed facelift. Nevertheless it is still an awe-inspiring site. Built on a rocky peninsula that juts out into a sizeable harbor, the towering white ramparts are among the most daunting and impressive in West Africa. Neverheless it has been under assault by construction workers for well over a decade.
Fort Jesus in Mombasa, Kenya was also established by the Portuguese. Built over a century later, it was the first major European fortress established on Africa’s east coast. It was also hotly contested by both European and Islamic powers, and changed hands frequently. Because of this it is one of the largest and strongest fortresses in Africa. The outer walls tower at nearly 100 feet in height in some places, and appear nearly impregnable from the seaward side. Fort Jesus’ interior is typical of colonial military architecture. The fort now houses an archaeology museum.
The Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town, South Africa was built in the late 17th century by the Dutch as a way-station for the Dutch East India Company and is the oldest building in South Africa. It was expanded several times by both the Dutch and later the British. The overall fort layout is that of a massive five-pointed star which has been partially truncated by a major highway. The inner fortress is pentagonal in shape, with each side facing one of the points of the outer star. The barracks, courtyard and parade ground are all located inside the pentagon. The Castle of Good Hope now houses a military museum. It is also periodically used for military ceremonies.
Elmina Castle is open every day except Sundays from 8:00am-4:00pm. Admission is US $0.30. Fort Jesus is open every day except Wednesdays from 8:30am-6:00pm. Admission is Sh20. The Castle of Good Hope is open every day except for December 25 and January 1 from 9:00am-5:00pm. Admission is R20.00. Web: www.elminacastle.info (official website of Elmina Castle); www.museums.or.ke (official website of Fort Jesus); www.castleofgoodhope.co.za (official website of the Castle of Good Hope).
Virtually the entire coast of Sub-Saharan Africa was ringed with forts at the height of the colonial era. Many are worth mentioning. Here are some of the best, beginning in West Africa: Fort Patience, Cape Coast Fort and Senya Beraku Fort, all in Ghana; Fortaleza de Sao Miguel in Angola; Fort Namutoni, Duwisib Castle, Sanderberg Castle and Schwerinsburg Castle, all in Namibia; Fort Sesfontein, Fort Rastaq and Fort KlapperKop in South Africa; and two Portuguese citadels known as Fort Sao Sebastio, one in Mozambique and one in Madagascar
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