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Africa Today 47.1 (2000) 136-138

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Dumett, Raymond E. 1998. El Dorado in West Africa: The Gold-mining Frontier, African Labor, and Colonial Capitalism in the Gold Coast, 1875-1900. Athens: Ohio University Press and Oxford: James Currey. 396 pp. $44.95 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).

For centuries West Africa has had the image of the land of gold, as the name Gold Coast demonstrates. Both myth and reality about the region's gold resources have attracted Africans and non-Africans, including Arabs and Europeans, in search of this precious mineral. In this excellent book focusing on the Wassa area of the Southwestern Gold Coast, now present-day Ghana, Raymond Dumett provides an account of the first modern mechanized gold rush in West Africa and its consequences. He brings to this work many years of study and writing on the economic history of colonial Ghana. In addition, he enriches the book with oral interviews, [End Page 136] extensive archival documentation, and photographs depicting both expatriate and indigenous gold mining.

After providing a background account of the geological structures and the location of gold in Ghana, Dumett explores the process of traditional gold mining in the Southwestern Akan region. In providing details about the laborious processes of excavation, crushing, and washing, the author also dispels commonly held assumptions about gold mining in precolonial West Africa, including the Gold Coast. He argues that indigenous miners were not inefficient and backward. Instead, they 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 locates traditional gold mining mainly in households, with husbands, wives, and other household members forming the basic work unit. Although some slaves worked in the Wassa mines, most of the work was done by free individuals and family groups. The discussion of free labor is enriched by a critical examination of the various roles of women in gold mining.

The author also traces the history of gold mining in Southwestern Akan region, beginning with the first gold rush in Wassa that lasted from about 1877 to 1885. The first group of prospectors were West Africans from other mining areas, followed later by Europeans who introduced modern mechanized mining. Despite the arrival of new mechanized companies, traditional methods of production by Akan farmer-miners persisted and operated simultaneously with European gold mining methods. The author also discusses the transformation of the initial gold rush into a long-term mining business with its attendant problems for African entrepreneurs, European companies, and African labor. These challenges included inadequate transportation facilities, insufficient capitalization, inexperienced management personnel, technological difficulties, ethnic violence, deplorable living conditions, and high mortality of workers, which led to the recruitment of a large number of unskilled Liberian Kru and Bassa workers.

One of the strengths of the study is Dumett's detailed, integrated discussion of land, labor, capital, technology, transport, management, and cultural divisions within a colonial context. In particular, he examines European capitalistic gold mining, traditional African mining, and the relationship between gold mining and colonialism. The author discusses the British colonial administration's neglect of the needs of both the European mining companies and African workers. Despite several complaints, the colonial administration did not address the problems of poor living conditions for African workers and inadequate rail transportation to link Wassa with the coast.

From a cost-benefit perspective, Dumett argues that both Africans and Europeans were beneficiaries in the gold mining business, and that the European companies were not mere exploiters of African gold and labor. Instead, he maintains that the mining companies had substantial investments [End Page 137] in the Southwestern Akan region and contributed to the long-term development of this area through infrastructural improvements and skills transfer. Despite the introduction of mechanized production by Europeans, it did not destroy traditional methods of gold mining. In fact, Dumett concludes that African export of gold through traditional production was far greater than exports from the European sector until 1893...


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