Elmina existed as a town before this, and was a tribal capital. The name comes from the Arabic el mina meaning the harbour.
Elmina or St Georges Castle, is the oldest European building in Ghana.
It was the first European slave-trading post in all of sub-saharan Africa. Located on the western coast of present-day Ghana, it was originally built to protect the gold trade. It was a much smaller rectangular fortress than the castle we see today, which today covers around 10 times the area of the first one.
The Portuguese first arrived in 1471 to buy gold. Elmina castle was built in 1482 by Portuguese traders as the castle of St George. Within five years, a number of traders were based there and Elmina was given city status by the king of Portugal. It was the centre of Portuguese operations for over 150 years.
In August 1837, the nearby St Jago hill was taken by the Dutch, who then pounded the castle with canons. The resulting Portuguese surrender ended Portuguese influence in West Africa.
Shortly after its capture, by the Dutch, it was expanded and in 1665, a second fort on St Jago hill was built, so no one could repeat the attack they had made upon the castle.
Following its capture by the Dutch in 1637, it came to serve the Dutch slave trade with Brazil and the Caribbean. What had been a central chapel for the Portuguese became the auction room to sell slaves under Dutch ownership. Today this houses a museum and display boards showing the history.
Elmina, like other West African slave fortresses, housed more luxury suites for the Europeans in the upper levels. The slave dungeons below were cramped and filthy, with each cell often housing as many as 200 people at a time, without enough space to even lie down on the floor of the dungeon. Outbreaks of malaria and yellow fever were common. Staircases led directly from the Governor 's chambers to the women's dungeons below, making it easy for him to select personal concubines from amongst the women.
At the seaboard side of the castle was the 'Door of No Return', the portal through which slaves boarded the ships that would take them on the treacherous journey across the Atlantic known as the Middle Passage. By the 18th century, 30,000 slaves on their way to North and South America passed through Elmina's Door of No Return each year.
The castle was sold to the British in 1872, together with all other Dutch castles on the Gold Coast. As slavery was outlawed in Britain in 1807, it would not have been used to transfer slaves while owned by the British.
Under British Ownership, it was used to imprison the King of the Kumasi-based Ashanti in 1896-97 before he and his followers were exiled to Freetown, Sierra Leone and in 1900 to Maha in the Seychelles, retuning in 1924. In 1926, he gained a ceremonial role and in 1936 regained the role as leader of the Ashanti People. While they were held at Elmina, the King was held in one of the large rooms on the roof of the castle, on the seaward side and his main supporters in the second one on the landward side.
The castle has had many uses since including being the training centre for the police at a point.
Today, Elmina's economy is sustained by tourism and fishing. Elmina Castle is preserved as a Ghanaian national museum and monument and designated as a World Heritage Monument under UNESCO. It offers daily historical tours and is an extremely popular destination for African American tourists seeking to connect with their heritage.
Most of the current castle is four storey's high and from the top you have good views in all directions, including over the fishing boats in the harbour next to it.
When you visit, you get a guide, either on your own or join a group, and they take you around explaining the various parts, from the slave holding ground flour rooms to the palatial rooms of the officer in charge. You see rooms for prisoners and those condemned to die, where the King of Ashanti was held. You also see where women were selected, the routes slaves passed down and through the doorway of no return to the ships, and get a great view from the top. You get, at each point, to find out about the history and function of various parts.
From the top you also get a good view and opportunity to photograph the fishing boats and port as well as St Jago Fort.
Outside before you enter and when you leave, you may come across a number of younger people running different scams, they are not threatening but offering friendship and have sponsorship forms and the like, the advice is that you don't give them anything, so as to discourage this practice.