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 Ancient Dutch forts and castles in Ghana


Fort Crevecoeur
Fort Ussher (Crevecoeur) by Bosman ca 1700

Some notes on Fort Patience (Apam) and Ussher Fort (Accra)

A special contribution to the official home page of

the Netherlands Embassy in Accra


Michel R. Doortmont and Michel van den Nieuwenhof



Feel free to click on any of the "thumbnail" illustrations in this article to obtain a larger and more detailed image.



The Dutch-Ghanaian historian Professor Albert van Dantzig once wrote: "The coat of arms of the Republic of Ghana shows among other things a little fort. This is not without significance: the numerous forts and castles along Ghana's shores have played an important role in her history. These structures, built by various European nations to protect their trade on the 'Guinea Coast', are still today one of Ghana's most striking features."


On 30 July 1998, celebrations marking Emancipation Day, which commemorates the abolition of slavery in British colonies in 1834, were opened at the International Conference Centre in Accra. This was the first time Emancipation Day was celebrated outside the Caribbean, and it brought together people of African descent from the United States, Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean. In the transatlantic slave trade, which had its heyday in the eighteenth century, the forts were a crucial factor. They were the strongholds that defended the European merchants and their local allies and trading partners against competition; they were used as entrepots for slaves and trade-goods, and they were the centres of European administration on the Gold Coast.


One must add, however, that these castles and forts do not only symbolize the long-standing presence of Europeans in Ghana in connection with the slave trade. They are as much symbols of the symbiotic relationship that existed between European traders and administrators and the surrounding Ghanaian societies. In a sense they played an important role in the shaping of Ghana's unique cosmopolitan character. Although the Dutch left their possessions on the Gold Coast in 1872 to the British, the Dutch legacy is still very much part of Ghanaian society. Not only in the form of (ruins of) forts and the castle of St. George d'Elmina, but also through the off-spring of Dutch-Ghanaian marriages from centuries past, often recognizable by their Dutch or Dutch-sounding names. Many of these descendants played an important role in the modernization of the country during and after the colonial period, both within the colonial administration and as actors in the independence movement.


We will look here at two of the smaller Dutch forts, Fort Leitsaemheyt, now Fort Patience at Apam, and Fort Crêvecoeur, now Ussher Fort in Accra, which both celebrate a jubilee in 1998 and 1999.


Fort Patience at Apam

Fort Patience, formerly known by the Dutch name Fort Leitsaemheyt, at Apam this year celebrates the 300th anniversary of its establishment. Fort PatienceIn 1697 or 1698, the Dutch started to build Fort Patience in order to establish a trade post in the small coastal state of 'Acron'. The initiative for the project was taken by the Dutch governor at Elmina, and was at first opposed by his superiors in Holland, the Board of the Dutch West India Company (WIC). The project was eventually approved, albeit with a minimum budget. This resulted in the miniature fort crowning the rock that overlooks the town and bay of Apam. Van Dantzig points out that the people of 'Acron' were strongly against the Dutch plan to make Apam merely one of their smallest strongholds. The Akan state of 'Acron' was hemmed in by the much more powerful state of Agona on the east, and the Fante states on the West, and it had been their objective to form a powerful defence against these neighbours by inviting the Dutch to their town. As a result of these quarrels, the construction of the fort was finally finished after a relatively long five years; hence the name 'Patience'.


In later years, the atmosphere along the coast became more peaceful, and the Dutch added two service yards and some additional buildings to the fort, which were not defended by bastions. They are still visible on a plan dating from 1790-1791. The smaller of the two yards is still a part of the fort today.


Rear viewThe Dutch lost Fort Leitsaemheyt to the British in 1782, when the latter occupied the fort during the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War. They returned it at the end of the war, in 1785, where after the Dutch remained in possession of the fort until 1868. In that year the Dutch and the English swapped some of their possessions on the Gold Coast, including the forts at Apam and Accra (see below). The fort was restored in the 1950's, and now functions as a rest house with very basic amenities.


During the eighteenth century a series of Dutch WIC commanders ('commandants') ruled over Fort Leitsaemheyt, two of whom were rather colourful, and left a lasting inheritance. The first one is Pieter Woortman, who first came to the Gold Coast as a sailor for the Company in 1741, at the age of forty. Woortman was of German origin, but had settled in the Dutch town of Groningen around 1730, where he married and established a small business. Probably because this business went bankrupt, he enrolled into the WIC, and started a whole new career. After some years, two of his sons followed him to the Gold Coast, where they were active in the administration and in the slave trade. Pieter Woortman was appointed commander of Apam in 1744, a position he would hold until 1761, possibly 1767. As such he had ample opportunity to forge a bond with the local population. In 1754 it was reported that he was extremely successful as a slave trader for the WIC, especially in competition with the much stronger British presence in the region. Pieter Woortman married a local lady called Aphodewa, who was most likely a member of an important Apam family. This marriage seemed very much an economic and political alliance, something one saw quite often. Together they had several children, of whom a son was sent to Holland to receive his education. These children bore the surname Plange, and therefore were the immediate ancestors of the well-known Plange and Bart Plange families of Ghana.


Pieter Woortman remained in Africa until his death in 1780. In 1767 he became the governor ('director-general') of all Dutch possessions on the Gold Coast. Pieter's eldest Dutch son Jan Woortman was commander at Kormantin, Boutre, and Accra, before he died on the Gold Coast in his late forties. He also married a local lady, named Acoua, from an established family (abusua). With her, and with his slave Apousie, he had several children, some of whom were also sent to Holland to be educated. One daughter even stayed in Holland and married a Dutchman. The youngest son of Pieter Woortman, Hendrik, was at one time (1773) himself commander of Fort Leitsaemheyt at Apam. He too had a family, and he took his two daughters back with him to Holland, when he repatriated in 1778. The elder of the two, like her cousin, married a Dutchman. Together, father, sons, and their local relations in Apam, Elmina and elsewhere, ran a very profitable private trade in slaves and ivory. Descendants of the sons, bearing the name Woortman, appear in documents throughout the nineteenth century, but the name now seems to have disappeared.


The second colourful Dutch commander of Apam in the eighteenth century is Nicolaas van Bakergem. He was in charge for just one year, after the return of the fort by the British in 1785. Van Bakergem was the son of a Dutch WIC official, Nicolaas Mattheus van der Noot de Gietere and an unidentified Akan mother. His father had come to the Gold Coast in 1730, where he had a long career until 1748. In 1754 Nicolaas Mattheus van der Noot de Gietere returned to Elmina as the Dutch governor, accompanied by his son Nicolaas, his Dutch wife, and a stepson. Van der Noot de Gietere's second tour was short and ill fated. His wife died only months after their arrival, the governor himself within a year. A memorial or grave-stone in marble for Nicolaas Mattheus van der Noot de Gietere can still be seen outside the main gate of Elmina Castle.


After a long period in Holland, Nicolaas van Bakergem came to the Gold Coast in 1754, where he had a number of postings. His father first appointed him as governor of Fort Crêvecoeur in Accra when he was only about twenty years old (1754-1755), but after his father's death he was recalled and given the less prestigious and powerful job of accountant in Elmina. In 1776 he went to Holland, where he married a Dutch lady. During his years on the Gold Coast he was married too and had several children. When he returned to the Gold Coast in 1785, he was appointed commander of Apam, and his two African sons Isaac and Hendrik van Bakergem were appointed second and third man on the same post. For a short period, the running of the fort became a family affair. Some time after his father's death, Isaac was himself appointed commander of Fort Leitsaemheyt (1788-1791).


The younger son Hendrik eventually became commander of Fort Nassau at Moure, but was mainly involved in private trade, for some time with a partner, Pierre Bernasco, another now well-known Ghanaian name. View from FortThe three generations of the Van der Noot de Gietere / Van Bakergem family, as described here, together with other family members, were all involved in private trade in slaves, ivory and general merchandise. The family, moreover, had interests in Surinam, where they owned a plantation, named 'De Guineesche Vriendschap' (The Guinean Friendship). As far as can be established, the name Van Bakergem has disappeared in Ghana, though in Holland it identifies a large family-group, all descendants of Nicolaas van Bakergem.


Ussher Fort in Accra

Ussher Fort is one of three European forts in Accra which have survived the times, the others being Christiansborg Castle - locally known as The Castle - the former Danish headquarters on the Gold Coast, and since the transfer of the Gold Coast capital from Cape Coast to Accra in 1876, the seat of government, and James Fort, the former British trade fort at Accra.


Ussher's entranceUssher Fort was built as Fort Crêvecoeur by the Dutch in 1649, and will therefore celebrate its 350th birthday next year. The fort at Accra was of a very different nature than the fort at Apam. In Accra, competition between the different European states was strong. Moreover, having a fort at Accra was of great strategic value, as Accra was at the end of an important inland trade route, first from the kingdom of Akwamu, and later from Kumasi, capital of the kingdom of Asante. In the eighteenth century Fort Crêvecoeur played an important role in the slave trade, not only because Accra was an important outlet, but also because the Dutch used it as their headquarters for slave-trading activities to the east, in Keta, Adda, Popo, and Whydah. It is significant in this respect that the commander of the fort had the title of Governor, and was always a member of the Advisory Council to the Dutch director-general in Elmina.


In 1782, during the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War, the British from nearby James Fort took the fort. The Dutch did not give in without a fight, though. The small garrison of twenty men received support from a local chief, by name of Otto, who bought gunpowder from the Danes, and came to the rescue. After 17 days, however, the British proved too strong and the commander and his men abandoned the fort. After taking the fort, the British brought the canons to James Fort, and blew up Fort Crêvecoeur. It was returned to the Dutch in 1786, and eventually rebuilt.


Fort UssherThe Dutch had a strong relationship with the townspeople around the fort. This becomes evident from the actions of Otto, who was offered to settle in Osu after the Dutch defeat, but refused because he then had to fly the Danish, instead of the Dutch flag from his headquarters. Afterwards, the history of Fort Crêvecoeur remained closely linked to the history of what was formerly known as Dutch Accra, nowadays Ussher Town, just north of the fort.


Merchants of African and European descent built their impressive and charming family houses here, some of which are still visible today. These houses give this part of Accra its typical character. The relationship is also visible in the names of some Ghanaian families.


Best known of these is the Vanderpuye family, which can trace its ancestry to Jacobus van der Puije, Dutch Governor of Accra in the second half of the eighteenth century. Van Hien Street in Ussher Town can be traced to the nineteenth century Dutch official, Carel Hendrik David van Hien, one of two brothers who served for several years on the Gold Coast. He was commander of Dutch Accra between 1857 and 1861, and later became governor at Elmina. His marriage to a local lady, Elizabeth Matteer, produced a son, Henry van Hien, who was to become a wealthy merchant, and a leading figure in the Gold Coast nationalist movement in the early twentieth century.


Fort Crêvecoeur was once more destroyed in 1862, when an earthquake hit Accra. Partly reconstructed, the fort was handed over to the British in 1868, and renamed Ussher Fort, after the British administrator who had been instrumental in the Exchange of Territories of that year. Soon after, the British started using Ussher Fort, as well as the nearby James Fort, as a prison. They enlarged the fort considerably, and the original Dutch fort is now almost invisible. In the annals of twentieth-century Ghanaian history the building achieved certain fame as the place where - before as well as after Independence - politicians were detained for various lengths of time.

View from Fort

In 1993, the fort ceased to function as a prison, when it was taken over by the Ghana Museums and Monuments Board (GMMB), who now uses part of the building as offices. It is important to note that the building, together with the other forts and castles of Ghana, is listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List of Monuments and that it is the policy of the GMMB to make all the monuments that are under its responsibility fully accessible to the public and to restore them in the most authentic style. Ussher Fort is located at High Street, which parallels the coastline. With a restored Ussher Fort, together with the Arts Centre and the Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum and museum, High Street and its extension towards Independence Square, running from Christiansborg Castle to James Fort, is a potential cultural axis of Accra. With various banks, office buildings, shops and one of the biggest markets in Accra nearby, Ussher Fort also borders the economic heart of Accra.



Building history:


Albert van Dantzig, Forts and Castles of Ghana (Accra: Sedco Publishing Ltd 1980).


A.W. Lawrence, Trade Castles and Forts of West Africa (London: Jonathan Cape 1963), esp. pp. 333-336.


Family histories and Dutch officials:


Michel R. Doortmont and Natalie Everts, 'Vrouwen, familie en eigendom op de Goudkust. Afrikaanse en Europese systemen van erfrecht in Elmina, 1760-1860' in: Geld & Goed. Jaarboek voor Vrouwengeschiedenis 17 (Amsterdam: Stichting beheer IISG 1997), pp.114-130. ['Women, family, and property on the Gold Coast. African women and European systems of inheritance in Elmina, 1760-1860']


Michel R. Doortmont, Th. van Bakergem, and A.E.M. Landheer-Roelants, 'Van Bakergem -St. George d'Elmina (Goudkust, West Afrika)' in: Nederlandse Genealogieën 12 (1998), in press. [Genealogical study of the Ghanaian-Dutch Van Bakergem family.]


Michel R. Doortmont, Natalie Everts and Jean-Jacques Vrij, 'Tussen de Goudkust, Nederland en Suriname. De Euro-Afrikaanse families Van Bakergem, Woortman, Rühle en Huydecoper', forthcoming. ['Between the Gold Coast, the Netherlands and Surinam: The Euro-African families Van Bakergem, Woortman, Rühle, and Huydecoper'; a family history and genealogy of four Dutch-Ghanaian families from the 18th and 19th centuries.]


D.P.H.J. Weijtingh, 'Achttien jaren aan de Goudkust, door Brodie Cruickshank; uit het Engels vertaald en met eene inleiding vermeerderd' (Amsterdam 1855). [This book is a translation in Dutch of the book by the British official Brodie Cruickshank, Eighteen Years on the Gold Coast, first published in 1853. Weijtingh's new introduction to the book deals with the history and organization of the Dutch possessions.]


For information on Dutch officials from the 18th and especially the 19th century, who served on the Gold Coast, and their Ghanaian descendants, one can contact the address below. Momentarily, a database of officials and their families is being developed. On the other hand, additional information on families with a Dutch-Ghanaian background will be most welcome.


Further information

Dr. Michel R. Doortmont, Dept. of History / International Relations, University of Groningen P.O. Box 716, 9700 AS Groningen, The Netherlands

© 2001


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Last changed: Tuesday, 11 December 2001