Raymond E. Dumett. El Dorado in West Africa: The Gold-Mining Frontier, African Labor, and Colonial Capitalism in the Gold Coast, 1875-1900. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1999. xviii + 396 pp. $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8214-1198-8.
Reviewed by Andrew F. Clark (Department of History, University of North Carolina at Wilmington)
Published on H-Africa (August, 1999)
Gold, Labor and Colonialism in the Late-Nineteenth Century Gold Coast
The later nineteenth century witnessed the most extensive and famous series of gold migrations in modern history. Gold rushes occurred in different parts of the world, including California, Southern Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Alaska, and the southwestern Gold Coast of West Africa. Each of the gold discoveries caused large migrations of prospectors, skilled laborers, engineers, land speculators, share pushers and con artists who moved from one find to the next, bringing with them various skills but all with one goal, profit. In this excellent account focused on the Wassa area of the southwestern Gold Coast, Raymond Dumett, who has published extensively on the colonial period and on gold mining, explores the first modern mechanized gold rush in West Africa and its aftermath.
He discusses land, labor, capital, technology, transport, management, culture clash, and colonial rule. Drawing on abundant archives and some oral interviews, Dumett's book examines in particular the relationship between mining and colonialism as well as the continuity of traditional African mining and the beginnings of European capitalistic gold mining. He examines various historiographical questions and provides considerable new information on the topics of mining, labor relations, capitalism, and colonialism in southwestern Ghana. The high quality photographs at the end of each chapter depicting both indigenous and expatriate gold mining are a valuable addition to the book.
Gold mining and trading predated the arrival of Europeans. The Akan region was one of West Africa's major gold sources, along with Bambuhu on the upper Senegal and Bure on the upper Niger, for the trans-Saharan trade. West African gold made its way to medieval and Renaissance Europe. Gold initially attracted Europeans to the area, beginning with the Portuguese in the fifteenth century, who were followed by the Dutch, the British and several other West European powers, all seeking an El Dorado on the Guinea coast. While the El Dorado of European myth never fully materialized, the gold trade flourished before and during the trans-Atlantic slave trade which it outlasted as well. The imposing forts and castles along the coast were built for participation in the gold, rather than trans-Atlantic slave trade.
The Akan societies that engaged in the Atlantic trade also produced gold for their own use and exchange with other African groups. The Akan were expert gold miners and artisans as well as careful protectors of the deposit sources from outsiders. Traditional methods of gold mining had been developed over the centuries and they persisted well after the arrival and encroachment of Europeans into the gold fields.
After a scientific and highly detailed account of the geological structures and the location of gold in Ghana, Dumett turns to a discussion of traditional gold mining in the Southwestern Akan region. In addition to providing insight into the difficult and arduous processes of excavation, crushing, and washing, the author argues against some commonly held assumptions about gold mining in precolonial West Africa and especially in the Gold Coast region. Local miners were not inefficient and backward but demonstrated remarkable innovation and adaptability in terms of tools and techniques in both shallow-pit mining, the most common type, and deep-level reef mining.
Dumett also posits that traditional gold mining occurred primarily within the family group, with husbands, wives and other household members forming the basic work unit and that, contrary to the findings of Emmnual Terray for the centralized states such as Asante and Gyaman, slaves were not the primary laborers in Wassa. Some slaves worked in the mines but the majority of mined gold was the work of free individuals and family groups. Thus, he argues against a slave mode of production in favor of several types of labor organization, including kin-based relations of production. The author declares that the Dumett-Terray debate over the dominant mode of production is unresolvable because there was in reality no single dominant mode and no unified set of labor relations in mineral production on the Gold Coast.
Dumett also discusses the critical roles of women and concludes that it is highly likely more women than men participated in mining operations in any given year. Strict gender division of labor did not exist on the mines. Finally, the author concludes that, despite the observations of some contemporary Europeans, mining made economic sense to local inhabitants. During the dry season when they would be generally idle, farmers mined for gold, expecting and sometimes achieving a lucky strike. The potential benefits outweighed the costs. Akan farmer-miners continued to mine in traditional fashion and seasonally well after the introduction of full-time mechanized European mining.
Dumett then turns to the first gold rush in Wassa in southwestern Gold Coast that lasted from approximately 1877 to 1885. The initial group of prospectors were West Africans from other mining areas, followed later by Europeans who brought in modern mechanized mining. Yet Akan farmer-miners were not displaced by new mechanized companies but competed alongside them on an equal basis. Traditional methods and relations of production persisted and operated simultaneously with European methods and advances. While discussing some of the leading European figures, Dumett also cites the vision and leadership of several pioneering African entrepeneurs. These men were not merely collaborators assisting encroaching European capitalism and imperialism but creators of an indigenous capitalist class for future economic development and self-government. They benefitted from the colonial presence and yet were also its harshest critics. They pursued their own agendas and interests.
Once the initial gold rush was transformed into long-term mining, the mining companies had to set about the business of making a profit from the prospecting. Dumett considers the complicated set of obstacles that companies had to overcome. Insufficient capitalization, inexperienced company directors, enormous technological difficulties at every step of the process, inadequate transportation facilities, and the poor health and high mortality of workers were all barriers to vast riches. Dumett discusses at length the recruitment and treatment of African labor in the 1880s and 1890s. Owing to the problems of recruiting local labor, European company officials concluded that local Akan either could not or would not work at the Wassa mines. The author demonstrates conclusively that the Akan had various reasons for their reluctance to work in the mines for the companies. Mining and porterage were considered dangerous, arduous and not worht the wages paid. The Akan preferred to remain in agriculture and work seasonally in the mines using traditional methods. In order to meet labor demands, companies recruited women as porters and carriers, and also brought in men from Liberia to work underground and in other unskilled positions. Almost seventy percent of the work force during this period was made up of Kru and Bassa men from Liberia. Dumett next turns his attention to the colonial government and its interactions with both European mining companies and African workers. The colonial government remained aloof and rather disinterested in the needs both of the companies and their laborers, pursuing a policy of neglect over action and intervention. For example, the Colonial Office never investigated miners' complaints about living conditions and never suggested administrative procedures that would benefit either Africans or Europeans. This indifference was most notable in the area of transportation with the government ignoring the companies' pleas for a railroad linking Wassa to the coast. Other examples of neglect include the Colonial Office's refusal to extend ordinances to the interior, severe limits on funds for infrastructural improvements, and the refusal to fund a geological survey or to validate leasing arrangements.
Dumett discusses especially well the conditions for miners on the frontier. There were in effect two simultaneously expanding mining frontiers, a traditional Akan farmer-miner gold-mining frontier, and an expatriate-controlled capitalistic mining frontier. The sudden influx of people into new mining centers caused numerous problems in the area, as it did in other frontier gold rush regions around the globe. One of the aggravating factors in Wassa was the presence of so many outsiders, some from traditionally hostile ethnic groups. Shantytowns sprung up with no regulation. Violence was commonplace as were substandard housing and sanitation. Abundant alcohol and firearms added to the volatile mix of destabilizing factors. An absent colonial government only contributed to the instability. Yet Dumett argues that, under the circumstances, it is revealing that there wasn't more violence and chaos. African resilience and initiative won out over colonial indifference and neglect.
Despite the odds, three mining companies, including the Tarkwa and Aboso, the Gie Appanto, and the Wassa (Gold Coast) Mining Companies, extracted substantial gold for export and posted profits, although not as high as predicted. Dumett examines in depth these three ventures which at their peak in 1896 employed a total of 1,200 workers. Even with the beginnings of mechanization, the Akan farmer-miners remained the backbone of the industry, and these three companies competently mobilized and handled African labor which contributed to their success. A fundamental issue concerns the economic benefits and costs of gold mining in the region. Dumett rejects the notion that the companies exploited the region for all it was worth and that they consciously tried to create an African proletariat. The mining companies most likely pumped more money into the area than they ever took out in direct profits. He points to several positive developments, mainly in the areas of infrastructure and skills transfer, that benefitted local people in the long term. Dumett also concludes that the exportation of gold from traditional African production far surpassed exports from the European sector until 1893 and held firm the next four years.
Mechanized production did not destroy traditional methods of mining. Right around the turn of the twentieth century, vast and important changes occurred in mining in the Gold Coast, and the author notes that he will publish on that period in the future. Like this work, that study will no doubt make a valuable and most welcome contribution to the literature on mining, labor, colonialism and African history in general.
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Andrew F. Clark. Review of Dumett, Raymond E., El Dorado in West Africa: The Gold-Mining Frontier, African Labor, and Colonial Capitalism in the Gold Coast, 1875-1900.
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