For nearly 3 centuries, flourished in present-day Ghana, the golden empire of the Gulf of Guinea…The Ashanti belong to the great Akan ethnic group, who make up between one-third and one-half of the population of Ghana, and one-third of that of Côte d’Ivoire. The Akan trace their origin in Ancient Egypt. In a migration from East to West like many African peoples, Soninkés – ancestors of the Akan – arrived in Mali Mauritania. It was the Soninke who were at the origin of the empire of Wagadou – or former Ghana – the most powerful state of Africa and possibly the richest in the world in his time.
Remains of the Soninké Empire of Wagadou in present-day Mauritania.
At the fall of ancient Ghana in the 12th century, a fraction of its population descended to its current territory, absorbing local people encountered on its way. This is how the Akan were born. The Akan, like Malinké and possibly also Wolof, are of Soninke origin.
Osei Tutu, The Founder
In Ghana and Ivory Coast, the Akan were divided into a multitude of nations (Denkyira, Fanti, Bron, Aowin etc …). All these kingdoms were, according to the African tradition, of matriarchal essence. It was women who held the legitimacy of power. The wars between Akan nations were numerous and in the 17th century rose two prosperous empires: Denkyira and Akwamu. The tyrannical domination of the Denkyira earned them the resentment of the people under their administration, who united behind the founder of the most venerable empire of the region: Nana Kofi Osei Tutu.
Succeeding his maternal uncle Obiri Yeboa, Osei Tutu was Kumasihene, i.e. king of the city of Kumasi. He led the resistance against Denkyira and, after many wars, defeated former masters of the region. Okomfo Anyoke, an animist priest assisting the new king, deified Aida Dwa Kofi, a golden throne representing the soul and unity of the new Ashanti nation. Osei Tutu and Okomfo Anyoke also created the Odwira Festival, a periodic celebration of the unity of the peoples of the new empire, to strengthen its cohesion.
Asantehene Nana Kofi Osei Tutu (Illustration by Alfred Smith)
Thus in 5937 of the African era – that is to say 1701 – the Ashanti Empire was born with Osei Tutu as the first Asantehene (Emperor of the Ashanti). The Ashanti will federate 38 nations, from north to south of Ghana, and from Togo to the east to Ivory Coast in the west. The land of Ashanti was larger than Great Britain.
The Organization Of The Empire Ashanti
The political structure of Ashanti, completely deep-rooted in the African tradition, is a model of sophistication. It was a model of that of Denkyira. At the very top of the hierarchy was Asantehemaa, that is, the Queen Mother, equivalent of Isis. Surrounded by counsellors, she had her court and it was she who designated the Emperor. This one would execute the power of which it held the legitimacy. She named Asantehene, the equivalent of Horus, who was most often his son. She bequeathed the legitimacy of power to her daughter, who in turn would become Asantehemaa. As practically everywhere in authentic Africa, the king gave allegiance to the matriarch and thus reigned with his sister. He was impregnated with the spirit of Sika Dwa Kofi, who had his own servants. The sovereign was to give up all his personal wealth before serving the country. He had to finish his reign without accumulating material properties. He could not transmit anything to his heirs. This strict control was done to avoid corruption and misappropriation. Ashanti was divided into two main areas: the inner-city Ashanti, a 50-km area around the capital Kumasi; and the great Ashanti, rest of the country. In the inner-city Ashanti, apart from Kumasi, were 10 nations conquered by Osei Tutu (Dwaben, Mampong, Adansi etc …). The council assisting the Asantehene in the administration of the country was composed of the kings and queens of these 10 nations. The roles of ministers were divided between these kings and queens. This council acted as a counter-power. Each of the nations of Greater Ashanti was under the authority of one of these 10 nations. Thus Krakye and Bassa were under the sovereignty of the Dwabenhene (King of Dwaben); Gonja under the Mamponghene (king of Mampong) etc…
The area of the empire was equivalent to present-day Ghana
Each nation, both in inner city Ashanti and Great Ashanti, preserved its culture and political control over its territory, while recognizing Asantehene as supreme leader. Ashanti was therefore, according to African philosophy, a confederation. Vitalism was the state religion and the clergy were powerful. Asantehene Osei Kwame was thus removed from the throne because he had adhered to Islam. The king held the function of first priest. Osei Tutu developed the new empire so much that it is said that Kumasi was covered with gold. The wealth of the country was coming from the exploitation of gold mines whose abundance exceeded the understanding. The gold nuggets belonged to the royal treasury and the powder was distributed to the people. It is because of this abundance of gold that Ghana was called by the Europeans Gold Coast.
In the 19th century, Bowdich described the style of life of the royal court in these words: “A hundred large umbrellas or sunshades, each of which could shelter at least thirty people…… They were of yellow scarlet silk and other bright colours, and topped with croissants, pelicans, elephants, swords and other weapons, all in solid gold … The emissaries of the king carried on their breasts large plates Golden; chiefs and aristocrats wore solid gold necklaces worked with care…”. This description is almost identical to that made by Bekri from ancient Ghana 8 centuries earlier or from Ibn Battuta of the Mali Empire 5 centuries earlier.
The kola nuts, salt and fabrics were also traded in international trade. Ashanti king had commercial relations with the Hausa country, the cities of the loop of Niger, and even with Libya. He had ambassadors among the Peuls of Fouta Djalon in Guinea, Dahomey, in the mandated kingdoms, or in the Hausa city-states. Ancient Africa thus had a diplomacy.
Architecture And Knowledge
Royal mansions and administrative and religious buildings had been built with mud, wood or bamboos. They were arranged around an inner courtyard and covered with thatch. On the walls were carved totemic emblem, Adinkra religious symbols in connection with the journey of the deceased to the hereafter, or the spiral of divine creation common to all African peoples.
An Ashanti residence
A ruler of Ashanti and his officers
The palace of Asantehene in the 1870s
From their conquests, the Ashanti kings, Osei Tutu first, brought many Akan craftsmen back to Kumasi. They installed them in quarters of the capital according to their specializations, giving them the means to bring the Empire to its artistic peak. Potters, weavers, goldsmiths, founders, wood carvers, ivory etc. have produced absolutely remarkable pieces.
19th century Ashanti gold mask
Gold sculpture representing God’s Messenger Sun
Pectoral disk – Victoria and Albert Museum
19th century gold scales, depicting Adinkra figures
The seat and the stool in Asantehene gold
Ashanti And Slavery
Akan societies, like all black societies – except blacks in the Maghreb under Arab influence – did not recourse to forced labour for the functioning of their economies. War captives and litigants were under the control of owners, but were not at all maltreated. The Ghanaian historian Albert Adu Boahen said slaves “(They had) the right to own property and to marry free citizens. Some were even appointed to positions of responsibility and could inherit property from their owners. They were considered as full members of the family (…) Most of them were perfectly integrated into the society in which they lived and not disclosing their ethnic origin was (…) a sacred rule”. This way of treating slaves was common in ancient Africa. The contact with the Europeans changed the fate of the war captives and many war captives were sold. If there has been resistance to the slave trade from the Akan people, the Ashanti kings have – in exchange for guns mainly – collaborated with the slave traders. African empires which firmly resisted slave trade (the Kongo Empire, the Swahili kingdoms, the Somali kingdoms, the Mwene Mutapa Empire) were instantly destroyed by the Europeans. Those who collaborated globally (Ashanti, Dahomey) went through the trade to be destroyed during the colonial invasion. In any historical event of this kind, there is resistance and collaboration.
The End Of Ashanti
At the beginning of the 19th century, Ashanti expansionism is stopped by Fanti people who were supported by the English. The Ashanti Empire is now in direct confrontation with the Europeans. Osei Bonsu, Osei Yao Akoto and Kwaku Dwa 1st inflict memorable defeats on the British. Anglo-Ashanti wars that would last 73 years. The Ashantis will succeed in keeping the English away from the coveted gold mines.
At the end of the 20th century, the British decided to make the Gold Coast a colony. Asantehene Prempeh categorically opposes it. He is captured and deported to Sierra Leone. The English then demanded to be given the Holy of Holies: Sika Dwa Kofi. Faced with the hesitation of the leaders in the face of this sacrilege, Yaa Asantewaa, Queen-Mother of the locality of Ejisu took the leadership of the armed resistance of the Ashantis. Kumasi eventually fell under English assault and was destroyed in 1896. Yaa Asantewaa was captured and deported to Seychelles. Ashanti civilization ended after 295 years of existence.
Ejisuhemaa Nana Yaa Asantewaa
Kente, this Akan colored fabric
The Fontomfrom, the giant and sculpted drums