The Taino people who lived in Haiti for about 1,000 years before the arrival of Christopher Columbus, used to dig for gold and extracted the mineral from rocks along riverbeds. They wore gold earrings which attracted Columbus’ attention. On his second voyage, he returned to Haiti with an arsenal of seventeen ships equipped with 1,500 soldiers, dogs, and ammunition. This invading force enslaved the Tainos, and made them work in mines in an attempt to find gold. Columbus brought back to Europe gold and Tainos which he sold to pay his creditors.
Spanish leaders needed a source of revenue to finance their wars in Europe. By 1520, not finding adequate amounts of gold in Haiti, the Spanish turned to sugar cane plantations to generate wealth for King Charles V of Spain who desperately needed money to finance his attempt to rule Western Europe. After decimating the Taino population, the Spaniards turned to West Africans for free labor. People were kidnapped from Ginen, the west coast of Africa, and taken to Haiti, which the Spaniards renamed Hispaniola, the Spanish island.
The Africans who arrived in Haiti brought their own knowledge of gold mining to the island. Gold had been mined in West Africa for centuries. From the 12th century through the 19th century, the Akan people of today’s Ghana had an economy that depended on their mining of gold. During the 13th century, the Akan people sold gold to the Mali Kingdom which then exported it to regions north of the Sahara. In 1324, King Kango Musa of Nanchon Banbara of the Mali Empire, remembered in Haiti as Lwa Kankan Mousa, visited Mecca and distributed so much gold that the price of gold fell for several years following his visit. News of the gold distribution reached Europe and fueled European interest in exploring Africa for gold. Over time, the gold producing region of West Africa became known as the Gold Coast.
When the Portuguese arrived in the Gold Coast in 1471, they found an active gold trading business. In 1481, the Akan King, Kwamin Ansah, reluctantly granted the Portuguese permission to build a fortress to secure their participation in the gold trade. This fortress became known as Elmina, meaning the mine. Elmina was later converted to a fortress for the sole purpose of exporting a commodity even more precious than gold, people who were captured and exported to the Americas.
Perhaps because of the stressful experience of African people with gold mining and with Elmina, when a Haitian person wants to tell a person to go to hell, he says, “lan min” meaning, to the mines. The Akan people are known to have dug tunnels as deep as 100 feet for mining. On occasion, these mines would collapse and miners would lose their lives. Although mining was risky, it was widely practiced and Akan rulers taxed miners 33% on the gold they extracted.
The Akan are remembered in Haiti for their mining skills. They are called Nanchon Anmin or Nanchon Anminan which means the people of the mines or simply, miners.