Updated: Jan 11, 2021
During August-September 2013, I was in Ghana researching illegal gold mining in that country as I prepare to write the fourth Inspector Darko Dawson novel, Gold of Our Fathers (title only tentative). The current fever over gold in Ghana has been heightened and complicated by the influx of Chinese gold-seekers with no legal standing to conduct mining in Ghana. To put the chaos in context, a brief historical look is in order. It’s not an exhaustive review by any means.
History of gold in Ghana*
Ghana was called the Gold Coast until it became independent in 1957 and assumed its modern name. In the fifteenth century, Europeans knew the West African coastal area as the source of the gold that reached North Africa via the trans-Saharan trade roots. Gold had been traded to Europe at least as early as the tenth century. When the Portuguese arrived at the Gold Coast in 1471, they called their landing area La Mina, or The Mine, a pointed reference to the gold they discovered. That name became corrupted to Elmina.
For centuries, gold was panned and mined from the quartz reefs of Ashanti by local gold seekers called galamsey. In the 1870s, a Frenchman Marie Joseph Bonnat exploited gold concessions on the Ankobra River, but he died in 1882, and it was only toward the end of the 19th century that the idea of organized, large-scale mining began to gain strength. By 1890, three Ghanaian entrepreneurs with the same first name of Joseph–Biney, Ellis, and Brown–had founded the Ashanti Goldfields Corporation (AGC). In November of 1897, about 44 tons of heavy mining machinery arrived at Cape Coast Castle. Using laborers to carry backbreaking machine parts through forbidding forests and across powerful rivers, the company transported all the equipment from the coast some 120 miles north to begin work in the Obuasi district. Biney, Ellis and Brown thus opened the modern era of Ashanti gold.
Obviously the British, who made the Gold Coast a crown colony in 1874, coveted all that gold. With the overthrow of the Ashanti king in 1896, the Ashanti protectorate was brought directly under British control, and the London-based firm Smith & Cade was given approval to mine the region for gold. From March 1898 to June 1899, 3,426 tons of ore yielded 2,544 ounces of gold, and the yield was even greater the following year.
Initially, gold futures appeared very bright, but the War of the Golden Stool, the 1900 uprising led by the Ashanti Queen Mother against the British, drove operations to a crashing halt. By 1904-5, there was much disappointment over the diminishing reserves of gold, and a leading chemist and mining engineer commissioned to independently assess the mines condemned the then method of mining shallow, easily accessible ore.
Post-war and modern developments
After the two world wars, many Ashanti gold mines had closed down and the industry was in a state of stagnation. By then, the AGC was headed by an autocratic Sir Edward Spears, who lived abroad and rarely visited the company’s operations, treating it as “a personal fiefdom,” according to AGC company history.
During the tumultuous years from the 1966 military toppling of Dr. Kwame Nkrumah to the 1982 military regime of Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings, Spears was deposed from his position by the London and Rhodesia Mining and Land Company (Lonrho.) During Rawlings’s rule, the AGC began to do better, and Sam Jonah, the new managing director and first Ghanaian chief executive, oversaw a radical improvement starting in 1986. AGC’s most productive mine is Obuasi, which, despite over 100 years of continuous operation, is still one of the top-producing mines in the world and the largest mine in Africa outside South Africa.
PREVIOUSLY MINED MOUNTAINTOP AREA NEAR OBUASI (Photo Kwei Quartey)
Over a century after its incorporation, AGC, Ltd of Accra remains one of the largest producers of gold in the world, achieving an annual gold production of 1.74 million ounces in 2000. It is also one of Ghana’s largest earners of foreign funds and the only mining operation on the New York and London stock exchanges run by black Africans. AngloGold Ashanti Limited is a global gold-mining company formed in 2004 by the merger of Anglo Gold and the Ashanti Goldfields Corporation.
NEXT: Gold fever in modern Ghana and the Chinese invasion.
*Much of this information taken from History of the Ashanti Goldfields Company