Willem Bosman, A New and Accurate Description of the Coast of Guinea (1702)

Because the "Gold Coast" was relatively open to international gold trade (Portuguese, English, French, Dutch, Prussians, Swedes, and Danes had at least 26 "factories" there, aka forts), and almost no other gold-producing places in the world were, West Africa drew much interest from European elites. In addition, as Bosman was beginning to write his book, a war for succession of the Spanish throne had broken out, whose prize included all the wealth of the Americas and the right to license slave sales to Spanish colonies. (The throne stood vacant after years of the Habsburg royal family intermarrying and the resultant infertility.) Bosman himself had worked for the Dutch West India Company (WIC), a joint-stock company similar to the VOC, though with far less capital, and concerned with Atlantic Ocean affairs and supplying slaves to Dutch, French, and English plantations on the Carribean. The author had lived in West Africa for more than a decade, having arrived as a sixteen-year-old in 1688. The late seventeenth century saw European powers get involved in local African states' wars and intra-European wars (this map is emblematic of the conflict: see the cluster of flags on the Gold Coast), driving up the cost of trading and the prices of gold and slaves in particular (and, of course, killing many people). A New and Accurate Description was an eighteenth-century best-seller, and translated into multiple languages.

Source: Willem Bosman, A New and Accurate Description of the Coast of Guinea(1702); Albert van Dantzig, "Willem Bosman's 'New and Accurate Description of the Coast of Guinea': How Accurate Is It?" History in Africa vol. 1 (1974), pp 101-108. Note: The last letter below was actually written by a Euro-Indian named David van Nyendael, who also served as the first "European" ambassador to the Asante kingdom.

Map: Place Names

What sort of evidence do you see for state-building in the letters below? What kind of institutions existed in West African states (especially Fante, Oyo, Benin, and Asante)? What was the connection between the Trans-Atlantic Economic System and these West African states?


Letter IV
Containing a Description of Fetu, and our Fort, together with the Chief Place of Residence of the English, and another Fort there Situated. A Description of Saboe and Fort Nassau there; of Fantyn and the Places possessed by us and the English: The great Power and Perverse Nature of the Fantynean Blacks, by which we as well as the English suffer very much.

Sir, I wrote to you--my Last, which though it met with a tedious Passage I hope did not prove disagreeable when it reach'd your hands, and since I sent that I am honoured with your [letter] of the 24th brought to the Coast by a Zeeland Interloper. ....

Fetu is situate upon a high Hill called St. Jago our Fortress of Conraadsburg, which is a Beautiful Quadrangular Fort, strengthened as most of ours are with four good Batteries [of cannon], besides four lesser, which it hath in the Out-Wall that encompasses it. ... if it were well Stored with Provisions, and well Garrison'd, it would do very good Service. ...

[A nearby country] was formerly so powerful and Populous that it struck Terror into all its Neighbour-Nations, especially that of Commany which it Subjected to its Government. But 'tis at present so drained by continual Wars, that it is intirely Ruin'd, and almost owns the Commanians its Masters; The King of Fetu nor his Nobles not daring to stir without permission of the King of Commany. ...[there are not enough inhabitants now] to give this fine Country its proper Tillage, though it is so fruitful and pleasant .... [B]efore the last War, I have seen it abound with fine well-built and populous Towns so agreeably enrich'd with vast quantities of Grain and Cattle, Palm-Wine, and Oyl [oil] ... covered with smooth streight Paths, and Trees standing so thick together from Elmina [the fort] to Simbe Village.... The Inhabitants all apply themselves without any distinciton to Agriculture, some sow Grain, others prefs Oyl and raw Wine rom the Palm-Tree ....

[The English Fort at Cape Coast] built a high Turret to secure the Lives of the People of the Town, in case of an Invasion of Hostile Blacks. The Fort is strengthened with four very large Batteries ... thirteen Pieces of heavy Cannon; and these being pointed at the Water Passage, can easily prevent any Ships ... anchoring; besides which a great Rock lies just before the Fort; so that it is impossble to shoot it from the Sea.

The worst of all is, that here is generally but a very weak Garrison; ... the Soldiers consist of such miserable poor Wretches, that the very fight of them excites Pity. They look as awkward and wrifled as an old Company of Spaniards; ... they greedily entertain those [soldiers] who quit or desert our Service. ... the English never being better pleased than when the Soldier spends his Money in Drink, especially in Punch: A Liquor made of Brandy, Water, Lime-Juice and Sugar, which make altogether an unwholesome Mixture. ....

Under the English Fort you may observe a House, not unlike a small Fort, with a Flag on it and some Cannon; this is inhabited by and English Mulatto, by Name Edward Barter, who hath greater Power on the Coast, than all the three English Agents together.... so little acquanted with the Affairs of this Coast, that they suffer themselves to be guided by him (Ed Barter), who very well knows how to make his Advantage of them: He is become so considerable that he can raise a large number of Armed Men; some whereof are his own Slaves, and the rest Free-Men that adhere to him.... This Mulatto pretends to be a Christian; and ... might very well pass for one; but his Course of Life is utterly contradictory: For though he is Lawfully married in England, he hath above eight Wives, and as many Mistresses. ...

The English here are so horribly plagued by the Fantyean Blacks [Fante], that they are sometimes even confined to their Fort, not being permitted to stir about. And if the Blacks dislike the Governour of the Fort they usually [temporarily imprison him, and the English] are obliged to make their Peace by a Present. The Town Annamabo may very well pass for the strongest on the whole Coast, affording as many Armed Men as the Whole Kingdom of Saboe or Commany; yet in proportion just a fifth part of Fantyn.

If the Fante were not in perpetual Civil Divisions, the circumjacent Countries would soon find their Power by the Irruptions into their Territories. Besides this land is so populous, it is very rich in Gold, Slaves, and all forts of Necessaries of Life; but more especially Grain, which they sell in large Quantities to the English Ships: This great Opulency has rendered [the Fante] so Arrogant and Haughty, that an European who would traffick [trade] with 'em is obliged to stand bare to them. [Doff their hats.]

Here is no King, the Government being in the Hands of a Chief Commander ... Brasso.... He .... has the greatest Power of any in the whole Land, but is somewhat closely restrained by the old Men, who are a sort of National Councellors, not unlike some European Parliament, acting ... without consulting the Brasso; besides these every part of Fantyn hath also its particular Chief, who will sometimes scarce own himself Subject to the Brasso ....

When these villanous People are enclined to it, they shut up all the Passes so close that not one Merchant can possibly come from the In-land Country trade with us, and sometimes ... they prevent the bringing of Provisions to us [the Fante cut off food], till we have made Peace with them.

Letter VI
Treating of the Countries where the Gold is digged; the cruel Wars and utter Destruction of some of them....

The first Country which produces Gold is Dinkira, situate so far In-land that our Servants are commonly five [or ten] Days going [there from the coast] ... because of the badness of the roads ... and that the Blacks, either cannot or will not help.

This Country, formerly restrained to a small compass of Land [a small territory], and containing but an inconsiderable number of Inhabitants, is, by their Valour, so improved in Power, that they are respected and honoured by all their Neighbouring Nations; all which they have taught to fear them, except Asante... yet stronger than they.

They are possessed of vast Treasures of Gold, besides what their own Mines supply them with; either by Plunder ... or their own Commerce .... [T]hey have three Countries in subjection to them. ... since our Peace with the Commanians, the Roads being free and open to the Merchants.... [Sometimes they adulter gold with other metals to cheat the Europeans.]

By what has been said, you may imagine how Rich and Potent the Kingdom of Dinkira was. But a few Months past it was so entirely destroy'd, that it lies at present desolate and waste. ... I am obliged to take ... the Report of some of the Blacks; and ... believe they told the Truth.

Dinkira elevated by its great Riches and Power, became so arrogant, that it looked on all other Blacks with contemptible Eye, esteeming them no more than its Slaves; which rendered it the Object of their common Hatred, each impatiently wishing its downfal; tho' no Nation was foolhardy as to attack it, till the King of Asante, injured and affronted by its Governour, adventured to revenge himself on this Nation in a signal manner. [The Dinkira monarch raped one of the Asante king's wives, Bosman hears.] The inraged [Asante leader] prepar'd himself for a vigorous War, by raising a strong Army, in order to make a Descent on Dinkira: And not being sufficiently stored with Gunpowder, he bought up great quantities on the Coast. The Dinkirans being foolish enough to assist him themselves, suffered his Subjects to pass with it uninterrupted through their Country.... the King of Dinkira died [coincidentally] ....And about the beginning of this Year, being compleatly ready, [the Asante leader] came with a terrible Army into the field; ... he beat them .... The Blacks report, that in these two Battles above a hundred thousand Men were killed. ... The Plunder after this Victory took up the Asantes fifteen days time ... amounting to several thousand Marks of Gold, as is affirmed by one of our European Officers, who was sent on some Embassy [to Kumasi]. ....

Letter XIX
Which briefly treats concering the Government of Whydah. ... How he came to the Throne.

The Government ... is vested in the King and his principal great Men; but in Criminal Cases the King assembles his Council composed of certain Persons, opens the Indictment to them, and requires each Person to declare his Sentiments what Punishment the Criminal deserves. ... if he dislikes [a judgment] he obliges the Council to retire, and punishes the Malefactor according to his Royal Will and Pleasure. [For example, two convicted murderers were] cut open alive, their Intrails taken out of their Bodies and burned; after which their Corpses were filled with Salt and fixed on a Stake in the middle of the Market-place, where I saw them in my first Voyage thither. ...

The Posts or Offices which this King bestows are of three sorts: First, ... Fidalgos [the Portuguese word for noble lord] or Governadors ... these in the King's absence ... command as Arbitrarily and keep up as great State as the King himself. The second... Grand-Captains, though most of them are withal Vice-roys over some Country or other. The third are the common Captains; of which there are a great number; and each of these has a particular Character: He to whom the care of the Market is entrusted, is Captain of the Market; ... Captain of the Slaves, a third of the ... Prisons, another of the Shore. In short, for every Affair that can be thought of, the King has appointed a Captain Overseer.

Besides which there are a great number of Honorary Captains without any Offices; for each of all which Posts ... is obliged to pay the King a good Summ of Money....

This King's Revenue ... is very large; of which, I believe, he as above one Thousand Collectors, who disperse themselves throughout the whole Land, in all Market-roads and Passages in order to gather the King's Toll.... for there is nothing so mean [puny] sold in the whole Kingdom, that the King has not Toll for it. ... the Gentlemen Collectors so largely fleece [this tax], that the King scarce receives 1/4 part of the whole. ...

To the foregoing Revenues [a tax on all slaving traffic on two rivers] of the King may be added that from each Ship which comes [to Whydah] to trade ... which comes to about 400 pounds Sterling [unskilled labor--at least in the Thirteen Colonies in 1700 CE--made about 15 pounds annually in wages, so you could very roughly translate a pound to 1000$US today]; and sometimes fifty Ships come hither in a year, though at other times not above half so many. ... compared with the Oriental or other kings, he makes indeed but a wretched figure. ...

[L]arge Summs ... daily furnishes for the Destruction of [enemies] ... the necessary Expences of his Houshold, together with the rich Offerings he is obliged to make his Idol-Gods, he is daily obliged to keep four Thousand Men, and to provide them with Meat and Drink.... His principal great Men eat with him daily [but] no Man is permitted to see him eat, nor any Woman beside his Wives. ...

Our Lodging here, which the King caused to be built for me, is very large, containing three Warehouses and seven Chambers, besides a beautiful Court within adorned on each side with a covered Gallery. ... All [the King's children] are very handsome, especially the eldest, who is the most beautiful Black I ever yet saw in my Life; but it is a pity so agreeable a Body should be inhabited by such a villanous Soul.

Letter XX
...The Wars and Force of the Whydians. Their Arms. ...

The Black Women are very well skill'd in brewing good [sorghum] Beer, one sort of which is so strong [it's like] strong Beers in Holland. And the Price of this is much higher than the common sort; for instead of Three Cents a Bottle for the common sort, you are oblig'd to pay a Rijksdaalder for the same Quantity of this [this seems pretty unlikely, since a Rijksdaalder--"kingdom's dollar"--was 250 cents]. All People here, the Slaves not excepted, drink only Beer; for Water they will not drink, because it is drawn out of [deep] Wells ... which renders [the water] raw and cold ... and consequently very unwholsome in this hot Country. ... the Blacks never use [ovens], but always boil their Bread. ...

... [The state] can easily bring two hundred Thousand Men into the field; notwithstanding which they are so weak and heartless, that they would not venture on five Thousand well Armed Men, tho' but Blacks of the Gold-Coast, nor scarce stand before them. ... their common fear of Death renders them so incredibly Cowardly....

The Arms ... consist in a few Muskets, Bows and Arrows ... strong and beautiful Assaguays [spears]; but the principle Weapons ... Clubs about a Yard long ...These Clubs are made of very heavy Wood; and they are so dexterous in the throwing of them, that they can fling them several Paces and hit their Enemy; [bruising and breaking] Limbs: ... the Gold-Coast Blacks are almost as much afraid of these Devilish weapons as of a Musket itself. ...

Farther In-Land are yet more potent Kingdoms than this; but I know nothing, or at most very little of them....

[when a coastal king, who ruled over Whydah, insulted the Alafin, head of Oyo] upon which he [the Alafin] was so violently as well as justly Enraged, that with utmost Expedition he caused an Army to fall into their Country; and these being all Horsed and a warlike Nation, in a short time Mastered half the King['s] Territories, and made such a Slaughter amongst his Subjects, that the Number of the Dead ... was commonly express'd by saying they were like the Grains of Wheat in the Field. The Whydians reported to me ... that it was customary in their Wars to Cut off all the Privities of slaughtered Enemies, and carry them off with them.... This looks very fabulous [exaggerated], insomuch that tho' it is confirmed to me by Oaths, I don't not affirm it for Truth....

Letter XXI
...The King of Benin's great Opinion of himself. ... Who are the King of Benin's Vassals. ... Benin not very Populous. ... The Benin Inhabitants generally good Natured, Civil, and very conversible People; who are not to be treated foricbly, but gently: Are very pertinacious [tenacious] in their old Customs. ... Their Governors very Covetous. There are three Estates [social classes] besides the King; concering the first, and their Power: Of the second ... Knighthood. ... The Third State. The manual of Arts and Trades of the Commonality. The Rich live very well and are very Charitable to the Poor. ... A Description of the Town of Benin.

The River [of Benin, location of the "Kingdom of Great Benin"] sprouts itself into innumerable Branches ... and the Banks of each of them are inhabited by a particular Nation, govern'd by its own King. The Multitude of its Branches render the sailing up this River so difficult that a Pilot is absolutely necessary. ...

Robbers, or Pyrates, live just at the Mouth of the River, and are called the Pyrates of Ufa. They are very poor, and live only on Robbery ... and seize all that lights their way, whether Men, Beasts or Goods.... The River it self is very pleasant, but very unwholsome, as most of the Rivers on the Coast seem to be naturally, which I am apt to think is occasioned by the continual contagious Exhalations that hover about them; more especially those in low Ground and Morasses. To which may be added another, and not less Plague: The innumerable Millions of Gnats, which the Portuguese call Musquito's [yes, apostrophes mis-used in the past, too!]: For the Land ... is insupportably pestered with these Vermin, especially in the Nights, when they attack us in whole Legions, and sting so severely, that several Persons have been so marked with Pustules, that it was impossible to know them. This Torment ... continually occasions a great Mortality amongst our Men. ... Bating the said Contagion of the Climate, this is a very desirable place of Trade ... the most agreeable prospect in the World. ...

The inhabitants of this River ... have several Princes: and indeed, each small Nation is governed by his own King, tho all of them are Vassals to the King of Benin, except [Warri and the Ufa "pyrates"] whom would never submit to his Yoak. They are all Free-Men .... a prodigious Number of People .... The Towns are widely distant from each other. [The three principal trading sites include "fifty Houses or Cottages, built with Reed and Leaves."]

[When a Dutch factor (warehouse boss) raped or had an affair with an African headman's wife, he was chased away and mortally wounded. The West India Company's Director General on the Coast sent a punitive mission to kill "every Person of the Village."] The King of Great Benin being informed of this ... was not content with the Revenge which our Director had taken, but commanded [the headman] to come to him: and though he had defended the Honor of his Family ... yet the King caused him and his whole [family], to the third and fourth Generation, to be cut to pieces; which Cruelty was executed .... The dead Corpses of these miserable Wretches were thrown upon the Dunghill as a Spectacle, to be devoured by the Wild Beasts; and their Houses were razed to the Ground.... We finding the King so zealously interested for us [the Dutch], have ever since continued our Trade there. ....

[The people of Benin] are very prompt in Business .... But ... very tedious in Dealing. Many times they have a stock of Elephant's Teeth [ivory] by them, which we are generally eight or ten Days before we can agree [on a price]. ... we are obliged to pay some sorts of Customs to ... Brokers [who can "speak a miserable sort of Portuguese; This is their only Excellency, without which they would be look'd on as the very Scum of their Country-Men"] and the Governors....

I have observed here three States, besides the King [Oba], which governs absolutely, his Will being a Law and Bridle to his Subjects, which none of them dare oppose. ... the first and highest State is composed of three Persons, ... Lords.... Any Person that wants to apply to his Majesty, is oblig'd to address himself first to them, and they undertake to acquaint him iwth it, and return his Answer. ... in reality the whole Government depends solely on them ... because... no Persons are admitted into the King's Presence, much less allowed to speak with him.

The Second State or Rank is composed of ... Street Kings. Some ... preside over the Commonalty, and others over the Slaves; some over Military Affairs, others over the Affairs relating to Cattle and the Fruits of the Earth, &c. And indeed here is a particular Supervisor over everything to be thought of. ... [They wear a coral necklace as the badge of office.] ...

[The third rank] Mercadors, or Merchants; Fulladors, or Intercessors [priests]; ... Elders....

Commonalty take place next; very few of which are laborious or industrious, unless it be those who are wretched poor: The others laying the whole of Burden of their Work on their Wives and Slaves, whether it be Tilling the Ground, Spinning of Cotton, Weaving of Cloaths or any other Handicraft.... Here are very few Manual Arts, besides Weaving, practiced or understood. The chief Workmen here are either Smiths, Carpenters, or Leather-Dressers; but all their Workmanship is so very clumsy, that a Boy that has been but one Month learning in Europe would out-do them. ["The Inhabitants are very well skill'd in making several sorts of Dyes, as Green, Blew, Black, Red, and Yellow. The Blew they prepare from Indigo, which grows here abundantly; but the remaining Colors are extracted from certain Trees by Friction and Decoction. The Blacks here make Soap, ... this washes very well...with Palm-Oil, Banana-Leaves, and the ashes of a sort of Wood. ... a prodigious quantity of Cotton-Trees must needs grow here.... they annual export Thousands of woven Cloths to other Places."]

The inhabitants of this Country, if possessed of any Riches, Eat and Drink very well.... The common Diet of the Rich is Beef, Mutton, or Chickens, and Jammes [Yams] for their Bread.... The meaner Sort [poor people] content themselves with smoak'd or dry'd Fish; which, if salted, is very like what we in Europe call Raf and Reekel. Their Bread is also Jammes [Yams], Banana's and Beans; their Drink Water, and Pardon-Wine, which is none of the best. The Richer Sort drink Water and Brandy, when they can get it.

The King, the great Lords, and every Governor who is but indifferently rich subsist several Poor at their Place of Residence on their Charity, employing those who are fit for any Work, in order to help them to a Maintainance; and the rest they keep for God's sake, and to obtain the Character of being Charitable ; so that here are no Beggars. And this necessary Care succeeds so well, that we do not see many remarkably poor amongst them. They are very liberal in all mutual Presents of all forts of Goods, and they give the Europe ans prodigious Quantities of refreshing Provisions, and more than they really want ... only in order to acquire a good Reputation a mongst Strangers.

The Habit [clothes] of the Blacks here is neat, or namental and much more magnificent than that of the Blacks of the Gold-Coast. The Rich amongst them wear first a white Calico [Indian] or Cotton Cloath about one Yard long, and half so broad, which serves them as Drawers ; over that they wear a finer white Cotton dress, that is com monly about sixteen or twenty Yards long, ... adorn'd with Fringe or Lace, which is fomewhat like the Female Blacks on the Gold- Coast, The upper Part of their Body is mostly naked. ...

The mean Sort go thus cloathed ; but the Stuff they wear is much coarser : And as to Fine or Coarse each Person is governed by his Circumstances.

The Wives of the great Lords wear Calico Paans Woven in this Country, which are very- fine and very beautifully Chequered with several Colours. These Paans or Cloaths are not very long, and are buckled together like those which are wore at Whydah.... Their Arms are dressed up with bright Copper or Iron- Arm rings ; as are also the Legs of some of them, and their Fingers are as thick crouded with Copper- Rings as they can possibly wear them. ...

Almost all the Children go Naked ; the Boys till they are ten or twelve Years old, and the Girls till Nature discovers their Maturity. Till then they wear nothing but fome Strings of Coral twifted about their Middles, which is not sfufficient to hide their Nudities. ...

The Men here Marry as many Women as their Circumstances will allow them to keep. ...

The Government of this Country is principally vested in the King and the three mentioned great Lords. ... Each Province has its particular Governor....

Their Weapons are Cutlaces or ... small Poniards, Assaguays [spears], together with Bows and Arrows.... They have also Shields ... made of small Bamboos, that they cannot ward off anything that is forcible....

[The City of Benin:] The Streets are prodigious long and broad ["by the Women kept very neat ...here, as well as in Holland"] in which continual Markets are kept, either of Kine [cattle], Cotton, Elephant's Teeth, European Wares ... in the Fore and Afternoon of each Day. ... The houses are large and handsome, with Clay Walls ... covered ... with Reed, Straw or Leaves. The Architecture is passable.... All Males Slaves here are Foreigners; for [locals] cannot be sold for Slaves, but are all free.... Nor is it allow'd to export any Male Slaves that are sold in this country.