Since February 2013, the RCE has been involved in a major research project in Ghana: the 'Ghana Maritime Archaeology Project'. This research will have particular relevance for Dutch heritage, as the Dutch were major players in coastal Ghana from early in its international history, and therefore have a shared history with the people there. Maritime trade provided the Dutch with a market for selling and buying goods, including human captives, and the record of this maritime past is indelibly recorded on the seafloor of coastal Ghana.
Earlier research in the context of this project was mainly focused on two Dutch shipwrecks discovered at Elmina. Elmina is the oldest European establishment in West Africa and the long-time premier establishment of the Dutch in West Africa. The harbour of Elmina was in Dutch hands in the period 1637-1872 and was considered the hub of the Gold Coast and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The fortress of Elmina was taken from the Portuguese in 1637 and became the most important WIC foothold in West Africa. Elmina was an important slave depot where African slaves were kept before being shipped to America. To commemorate this dark period, the fort is included on the UNESCO list of World Heritage.
The most likely candidate for the identity of the Elmina Wreck is the WIC vessel Nieuw Groningen, which sank in front of Elmina Castle in 1647. A more complete investigation of the site is the only means presently available of confirming or refuting this identity, as well as providing completely unique insights into trade in coastal Ghana, as no other shipwreck has yet been identified or excavated in the region to date. The story goes that the Nieuw Groningen fired a salute on arrival at Elmina, when unfortunately the cannon exploded. The ship then caught fire and sank. During excavations in 2007, the location was scattered with various Dutch goods and historical African currencies.
Benja river wreck
The remnants of a second shipwreck surfaced during dredging of the river-bed of the Benya, which ends at Elmina. Despite the fact that not much of the ship survived, it could be established that the ship was built in early 18th century Netherlands. It may be the shipwreck of the Zwarte Arend; a private slave ship that benefited from the trading network of the WIC until it was demolished at Elmina in 1715.
The Ghana Maritime Archaeology Project
Investigations at Elmina have demonstrated the presence of Dutch heritage in this region, but Elmina was only one location in which they were active – an expanded survey holds immense potential to provide a more complete picture of both Ghana and the Netherland’s shared past in a way that has only begun to be investigated. That is why the research area has been extended to other places on the coastline that are associated with the historic Dutch trade network, such as the Nassau fort in Mouri. Nassau is the oldest Dutch settlement on the Goudskust founded between 1595-1600. Investigations will provide insights into the vessels and cargoes that were used as part of the Atlantic trade along the coast, into international relations in the region, and into the specific maritime signatures of individual nations, including the Dutch.