The tribal people on the West African coast were organized into numerous small chiefdoms that were drawn according to kinship lines. Family was extremely important in society, and family heads were united in communities under a recognized chief. Along the Gold Coast alone, more than twenty independent kingdom-states existed. Elmina lay between two different Fante kingdoms, Fetu and Eguafo. While there was a relative degree of interstate rivalry, tribes generally intermingled freely. Trade between chiefdoms was important for the economy. The coastal people also had strong trade relations with the Sudanese empire to the north.
West Africans nurtured ancient connections to other parts of the world. Common metals trade, iconic artistic forms, and agricultural borrowing show that trans-Saharn and regional coastal connections thrived. The Portuguese in 1471 were the first Europeans to "discover" the Gold Coast as such, but not necessarily the first sailors to reach the port.
These motives prompted the Portuguese to form the Guinea Trade. They made gradual progress down the African coast, each voyage reaching a subsequently farther point. After fifty years of coastal exploration, the Portuguese finally reached Elmina in 1471 during the reign of King Afonso V. However, because royalty had lost interest in African exploration as a result of delayed returns, the Guinea Trade was put under the possession of the Portuguese trader Fernão Gomes. Upon reaching present day Elmina, Gomes discovered a strong gold trade. He established a trading post, and the point on the coast where it resided hence became known to the Portuguese as “A Mina” (the Mine) because of the gold that could be found there.
Trade between Elmina and Portugal grew throughout the decade following the establishment of the trading post under Gomes. In 1481, the recently crowned King John II decided to build a fort on the coast in order to ensure the protection of this trade, which was once again held as a royal monopoly. King John sent all materials needed to build this fort from Portugal to the Gold Coast on ten caravels and two transport ships. The supplies, which included everything from heavy foundation stones to roof tiles, were sent in ready-made form along with provisions for six hundred men. Under the command of Diogo de Azambuja, the fleet set sail on December 11, 1481 and arrived at Elmina a little over a month later on January 19, 1482. Some historians note that Christopher Columbus was among those to make the voyage to the Gold Coast on this fleet.
Upon the fleet’s arrival, Azambuja contracted a Portuguese trader who had lived at Elmina for some time to arrange and interpret an official meeting with the local chief, Kwamin Ansa (interpreted from the Portuguese “Caramansa”). Concealing his self-serving interests with elegant presentation and friendliness, Azambuja imparted to the chief the great advantages of building a fort, including protection from the very powerful King of Portugal.
Chief Kwamin Ansa, while accepting Azambuja as he had any other Portuguese trader who arrived on his coast, was wary of a permanent settlement. However, with plans of great financial investment, the Portuguese could not be deterred. After offering gifts, making promises, and hinting at consequences of noncompliance, the Portuguese finally gained the reluctant agreement of Chief Kwamin Ansa.
When construction began the next morning, the chief’s qualms were immediately proved to be well-founded. In order to build the fort in the most defensible position on a peninsula, the Portuguese had to demolish some of the homes of the villagers, who consented only upon the payment of gifts in return. The Portuguese also tried to quarry a nearby rock that the people of Elmina believed to be the home of the god of the nearby River Benya. In response to this, the local people forged an attack that resulted in several Portuguese deaths before an understanding could be met. Continued opposition led the Portuguese to burn the local village in retaliation. Even amidst this tension, the first story of the tower was completed after only twenty days, as a result of the great amount of prepared materials. The rest of the fort and an accompanying church were completed soon after despite resistance.
The fort was the first pre-cast building to have been planned and executed in Sub-Saharan Africa. Upon its completion, Elmina was established as a proper city. Azambuja was named governor, and King John added the title “Lord of Guinea” to his noble classifications. São Jorge da Mina took on the military and economic importance that had previously been held by the Portuguese factory of Arguim Island on the southern border of the African Arab world. At the height of the gold trade in the early sixteenth century, 24,000 ounces of gold were exported from the Gold Coast, accounting for one-tenth of the world’s supply.
The new fort, signifying the permanent involvement of Europeans in West Africa, had a considerable effect on Africans living on the coast. Elmina declared itself an independent state at the urging of the Portuguese, whose Governor then took control of the town’s affairs. The people of Elmina were offered Portuguese protection against attacks from neighboring coastal tribes, with whom the Portuguese had much less genial relations, even while they were friendly with the powerful trading nations in the African interior. If any tribe attempted to trade with a nation other than Portugal, the Portuguese reacted with aggressive force, often forming alliances with the betraying nation’s enemy states. Hostility between tribes thus increased, and the traditional organization of society suffered, especially with the introduction of guns which made easier the domination of stronger kingdoms over weaker states.
Trade with the Europeans helped make certain goods such as cloth and beads more available to the coastal people, but European involvement also disrupted traditional trade routes between coastal people and northern tribes by cutting out the African middlemen. The population of Elmina swelled with traders from other towns hoping to trade with the Europeans, who gradually established a West African monopoly.