The historical definitions of the socalled “Guinea” region vary alot according to time period and also depending on the different cartographic traditions of each slave trading European country (Portugal, Netherlands, France, England). The most widest ranging interpretation (by the Portuguese in the 1500’s) might have been all of the western African coastline, starting in Senegal and ending in South Africa but more often the maximum extent to the south seems to have been Gabon/Cape Lopez, after which the socalled “Angola” or Loango coast began. The modernday country of Equatorial Guinea pretty much demarcating the boundaries. Also the Gulf of Guinea is a geographical legacy of this interpretation.
(click on maps to enlarge)
To the north the Guinea region was originally considered to start at the Senegal river at the border with Mauritania. The Portuguese having an early concept of the socalled “Guiné do Cabo Verde” or “Rivers of Guinea” referring to their trading area in between Senegal and Sierra Leone during the 1500’s. The modernday country names of Guinea Bissau & Guinea Conakry being a legacy of that Portuguese interpretation.
However for most North Europeans in the 1600’s/1700’s the Guinea coast instead seems to have started not in Senegal but rather somewhere in Liberia, as shown in the first two maps. Reflecting different trading patterns and cartographic traditions and perhaps also in line with the changing vegetation zones, of mainly savannah or Sahellian landscape instead of tropical rainforest. Confusingly these contrasting interpretations lead the Portuguese to label the coastal area in between Ghana and Nigeria as the “Mina Coast” during the 1600’s/1700’s after their main fortress “El Mina”, while for the Dutch, English and French this entire coastline was simply known as “Guinea”.
Given the different interpretations described above it’s always advisable to be very careful and look for the proper context whenever you encounter the term “Guinea” in historical documentation or slave trade literature. Generally speaking though “Guinea” seems to have been used mostly as a synonym for the coastal areas of West Africa proper. And as described in the Upper Guinea section there’s usually a distinction being made between Lower Guinea and Upper Guinea. This was done early on for several reasons, incl. purely nautical ones (ocean currents and sailing winds). Again many different definitions but unless specified otherwise i will generally go by the map shown to the right. Eventhough the region shown as “Upper Guinea” in this map was known under various other names historically as well (see also first two maps above). Including “Negroland” or “Nigritia“, and for the interior parts even “Aethiopia” and “Sudan“.The last two not to be confused of course with the modernday countries located rather in Northeast Africa, they are strictly to be understood in the proper historical context 😉
To add to the confusion the region shown as “Lower Guinea” on the last map was sometimes also known as Upper Guinea in the late colonial period (1800’s), with Lower Guinea being the area around modernday Gabon.
On this blog i will nonetheless maintain the distinction because i think it can still be useful, aside from corresponding with the old historical slave trade areas there seems to be a (very approximate) ethnolinguistical divide between Upper and Lower Guinea, if you go by the bigger clustered language groups. Which might also correlate with ancestral clusters as defined by DNA research.
Very generalizingly you could say Upper Guinea is being populated mostly by Atlantic and Mande speakers (darkblue & red), while for Lower Guinea it’s mostly Kwa (incl. Yoruba & Igbo) and Gur speakers (orange and lightblue in map to the left). Of course there’s much more variety than this schematic overview allows for and also plenty of mutual overlap. Especially for Liberia and Ivory Coast, combined also known formerly as the Wind Ward Coast. These countries having significant numbers of Mande speakers in common with Upper Guinea. And therefore perhaps forming a bit of an intermediate zone, but i will count them as Lower Guinean on this page.
Liberia & Ivory Coast
As mentioned above these two countries combined used to be known as the Windward Coast during the Slave Trade period. Other names specific to Liberia being the “Grain Coast”, “Pepper Coast” or “Malaguetta Coast” while Côte d’Ivoire has kept its historical name “Ivory Coast” obviously deriving from the major trading goods available locally for Europeans at that time. These names are in themselves already indicating that this area was of minor significance for European slave traders compared with the Gold Coast and especially the Slave Coast and the Bight of Biafra to the east. This was caused partially by unfavourable sailing conditions on the Liberian/Ivorian coastline as well as many local populations being hostile to foreign trade. Still the real extent of slave exports might be obscured by the practice of European slave traders visiting several slave ports during one voyage, picking up a few slaves on the Windward Coast for example but buying most slaves in either Benin or Bight of Biafra. Also for some selected destinations in the Americas, this area might still be of considerable significance as an ancestral location. Especially Surinam and Guyana (both former Dutch colonies) might have received a disproportionate number of captives from this area because of slave trade patterns specific to the Dutch. Also the area of western Liberia bordering southern Sierra Leone is known to have been heavily frequented by especially the Spanish after slave trade officially was already abolished in the 1800’s. People from this area being known as Cangá or Ganga in Puerto Rico/Cuba.
Demographically speaking Liberia is made up of Kru speakers in the south and Atlantic plus Mande speakers to the north. The last two groups seemingly connecting Liberia with Upper Guinea, while the Kru speakers, shared with Ivory Coast, appear to make it more Lower Guinean. The Mande speakers being the most recent to arrive and perhaps also absorbing many of the previous inhabitants in their settlement process (see this link for a brief historical overview).
(click on maps to enlarge)
The Ivory Coast is even more so divided between 4 major ethnolinguistical groups of West Africa. Making it more diverse than most Lower Guinean countries (first map shows it most clearly). Most of the slave trade activities (which got started relatively late and were never really large scale) seem to have been concentrated in the southeast region though and quite possibly only Akan and Kru speakers were involved.
Ghana was known as the Gold Coast during the slave trade period and many of its (in)famous slave castles were originally built to accomodate gold exports rather than slave exports. Compared with the socalled Slave Coast or the Bight of Benin and also the Bight of Biafra, the Trans Atlantic slave trade in this area got started relatively late while it also ended relatively earlier. The heavy fortification enabling the English to mostly prevent any illegal slave exports after 1807 while gold exports instead of slave exports seem to have been predominant till the late 1600’s.
Ghana’s history is often associated with the rise and expansion of the Akan speaking Ashanti empire. Accordingly most or even all captives exported from the various slave castles are often thought to have been Akan speakers even when Ghana hosts several other ethnolinguistical groups. In the Americas, especially the English colonies, people from this area were unfortunately often labeled not with any recognizably ethnic labels but rather with geographical blanket terms referring to the Gold Coast or any of the slave ports, most often El Mina or Coromantee. There was however often a distinction being made for people from the Gur speaking interior, they were called “Chamba”. This still leaves open the question to which degree also many non-Akan speaking groups from near the coast (Ewe, Ga, Guang etc.) were among the Africans shipped over via the Gold Coast.
First two maps taken from the Abina and the Important Men website.
The Ewe are probably less known among the general public than the Akan. They are a Gbe speaking ethnicity that’s also found in neighbouring Togo. Despite their relatively small area within Ghana they are quite numerous, being almost 15% of total population (source). Historically it’s known they were frequently targetted by slave raiding warriors. Also through concubinage and modernday intermarriage partial Ewe ancestry might have been absorbed, genetically speaking, by neighbouring Akan speaking peoples.
Benin & Togo
These two countries together with the southwestern part of Nigeria make up the socalled Slave Coast from the slave trade period. As the name suggests the Slave Coast has been known for its export of human merchandise already since the 1500’s when it was first frequented by the Portuguese. Other Europeans would follow in the late 1600’s, incl. the Dutch, English and especially the French, the Portuguese maintaining their presence all the while. Even after slave trade officially got abolished in the 1800’s, illegal slave exports continued, bolstered by the collapse of the neighbouring Oyo empire.
The names given to the slaves exported from this area and/or the names they aproppriated for themselves seem to have been more wildranging than those from the Gold Coast and also the ones from the Bight of Biafra. Aside from the socalled “Nago” or “Lucumi”, referring to the Yoruba, the ones specific to modernday Benin/Togo seem to have been “Ardra”, “Papa/Popo”, “Quiddah”, “Mina” (confusingly used by the Portuguese in the 1700’s to designate slaves bought in Benin, they had lost the El Mina fortress in Ghana already in 1642). A big majority of these slaves would have been Gbe speakers from near the coastal area which seems to have been more densely populated then already as it is also nowadays (see first map of Benin).
The way these 2 countries have been shaped by artificial borders drawn by colonial powers is very apparent. Especially Togo is an extreme example of a wider pattern within Lower Guinea of borders generally running from south to north delineating sometimes very narrow landstrips or otherwise rectangular shapes. Throwing together coastal areas that have been christianized for the most part with interior areas that are muslim mostly. It’s the opposite in Upper Guinea, where borders seem to run first from west to east, Gambia being the perfect counterexample of Togo.
In Benin/Togo’s case it also means that there’s a great deal of ethnolinguistical overlap with neighbouring countries to the west (Ghana) and to the east (Nigeria), probably reinforced by deeper ancestral connections hiding under current day ethnic designations. This shared ancestry being the result of ancient migrations, mostly originating in the east (southern Nigeria) and also possibly being reflected by the wider linguistical group of Kwa speakers. The Yoruba and Igbo languages nowadays grouped separately but originally being considered part of a socalled “eastern Kwa” subgroup, distinct but closely related to the Kwa languages spoken in southern parts of Benin/Togo, Ghana and Ivory Coast.
Nigeria is the biggest country of the region and also the most ethnically diverse and most densly populated country of not only Lower Guinea but the whole of Africa! In absolute numbers it’s likely that aside from Angola most African captives that got caught up in the Trans Atlantic Slave trade originated from within Nigeria. It’s therefore hard to categorize and easy generalizations should be avoided when possible. Still when it comes to slave trade it is usually recognized that there were two separate slave trading circuits centered in southwestern Nigeria, involving mostly Yoruba people and to some minor extent also Hausa and Nupe and southeastern Nigeria where mostly Igbo captives were sold along with Ijaw, Efik, Ibibio and related peoples. In between there’s an area nowadays inhabited mainly by the Edo or Bini people. In former days it was home to one of West Africa’s most famous kingdoms, the empire of Benin, not to be confused by the modernday country of Benin (which was formerly known as Dahomey rather). However this area seems to have renounced major slave trading after its first contact with the Portuguese already in the late 1400’s.
I will provide more historical & demographic context later on, but for now here’s already these maps, clearly showing the vast array of ethnic groups as well as overlap with neighbouring countries of Benin and Cameroon.
(click on map to enlarge)
Western Cameroon, incl. parts of the interior, is considered to be part of the socalled Bight of Biafra region. Judging from documented slave exports from its few slave ports Cameroon’s role in the Trans Atlantic slave trade was rather minor compared with southwestern Nigeria. Yet modernday borders did not exist back then and it’s quite possible that peope residing in modernday Cameroon, especially the highlands, were often routed through ports in modernday Nigeria (like Calabar or Bonny) instead. Evidence collected by Koelle around 1850 seems to be in support, eventhough it might reflect a situation more representative for (illegal) slave trade in the 1800’s rather than during the 1700’s. Either way it’s very likely that despite a seemingly very fragmented ethnic composition there are many deep ancestral connections between people living across the border between western Cameroon and eastern Nigeria. Something which might result in misleading DNA results, for example when based on haplogroups which date back thousands of years and are widely spread among various ethnic groups and not exclusive or unique to just one sampled ethnicity.
(click on maps to enlarge)