The Ashanti civilization

For nearly three centuries, the golden empire of the Gulf of Guinea flourished in present-day Ghana…

At the origins

The Asante or Ashanti belong to the great Akan people, who make up between a third and a half of the population of Ghana, and a third of that of Côte d’Ivoire. The Akan trace their origins to Egypt. In a migration from East to West like many African peoples, the Soninke – ancestors of the Akan – arrived in Mali-Mauritania.

It was the Soninke who were at the origin of the Wagadu Empire – or ancient Ghana – the most powerful State in Africa and possibly the richest in the world at the time.

Remnants of the Soninke Empire of Wagadu in present-day Mauritania. It is in homage to this prestigious State that Kwame Nkrumah named present-day Ghana.

With the fall of ancient Ghana in the 12th century, a fraction of its population descended to its present territory, absorbing local peoples who had crossed its path. This is how the Akan were born. The Akan, like the Malinke, and possibly the Wolof as well, would therefore be of Soninke origin.

Osei Tutu, the founder

In Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, the Akan were going to divide into a multitude of nations (Denkyira, Fanti, Bron, Aowin etc…). All these kingdoms were, in accordance with African tradition, matriarchal in essence. It was women who held the legitimacy of power.

Wars between Akan nations were numerous and in the 17th century, two rich kingdoms arose: Denkyira and Akwamu. The domination of the Denkyira earned them the enmity of the people under their administration, who united behind the founder of the most venerable empire in the region: Kofi Osei Tutu.

Succeeding his maternal uncle Obiri Yeboa, Osei Tutu was Kumasihene, i.e. ruler of the city of Kumasi. He was appointed king by his maternal grandmother and approved by the clan council. Osei Tutu led the resistance against Denkyira and defeated the former masters of the region after many wars.

Okomfo Anyoke, a vitalist (animist) priest assisting the new king, deified the Sika Dwa Kofi, a golden stool 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 Kofi Osei Tutu (Illustration by Alfred Smith)

Thus in 5937 of the African era – 1701 AD – the Ashanti was born with Osei Tutu as the first Asantehene (Emperor of the Ashanti). The Ashanti would eventually, until the conquests of Osei Bonsu, federate 38 nations, from the north to the south of Ghana, and from Togo in the east to Cote d’Ivoire in the west. Ashanti was larger than Great Britain.

The organization of the Ashanti Empire

The political structure of Ashanti, completely ingrained in African tradition, is a model of sophistication. It was a replica of that of Denkyira.

At the very top of the hierarchy was the Asantehemaa, the Royal Mother, the equivalent of Isis. Surrounded by advisers, she had her court and it was she who designated the Emperor. The Emperor would execute the power she held in her own right. She therefore appointed the Asantehene, the equivalent of Horus, who was most often her son. She bequeathed the legitimacy of power to her daughter, who in turn would become Asantehemaa.

As almost everywhere in authentic Africa, the king pledged allegiance to the matriarch and thus reigned with his sister. He was imbued with the spirit of the Sika Dwa Kofi, who had his own servants. The sovereign had to get rid of all his personal wealth before he could put himself at the service of the country. He had to end his reign without accumulating material goods. He could not pass on anything to his heirs. This strict control was done to avoid corruption and embezzlement.

Ashanti was divided into two main areas: the metropolitan Ashanti, an area of 50 km around the capital Kumasi; and the greater Ashanti, the rest of the country. In the Metropolitan Ashanti, apart from Kumasi, there were 10 nations conquered by Osei Tutu (Dwaben, Mampong, Adansi etc.). The council assisting Asantehene in the management of the country was composed of the kings and queens of these 10 nations. The posts of ministers were divided among these kings and queens.

The council acted as a counter-power. Each of the nations of the 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 that of present-day Ghana

Each nation, both in Metropolitan Ashanti and Greater Ashanti, was respected in its identity, retained its culture and political control over its territory, while recognizing Asantehene as the supreme ruler. The Ashanti was therefore, in accordance with African thought, a confederation, known as Ekolo in Lingala.

Vitalism was the state religion and the clergy was powerful. The Asantehene Osei Kwame was thus removed from the throne, because he had adhered to Islam. The king was the first of the priests. The Abasuapuanin was the head of the families that made up the population, and he led the worship of one form of God (water, earth, air, etc.).

Osei Tutu developed the new empire to such an extent that it is said that Kumasi was covered with gold. The wealth of the country was based on the exploitation of gold mines which abundance was beyond comprehension. The nuggets belonged to the royal treasury and the powder was distributed to the people. The practice is reminiscent of ancient Ghana. It is this abundance that explains why today’s Ghana, before its independence, was called the Gold Coast by the Europeans.

In the 19th century, Bowdich described the pomp of court life in these words: “A hundred large umbrellas or canopies, each of which could shelter at least thirty people, were constantly waved by those who carried them. They were made of yellow scarlet silk and other bright colours, and surmounted by crescents, pelicans, elephants, swords and other weapons, all made of solid gold.

The king’s messengers wore large gold plates on their chests; the captains and lords wore carefully crafted solid gold necklaces. Young girls wore golden basins; the interpreters stood behind bundles of gold-headed canes” [1]. This description is almost identical to that made by Bekri of ancient Ghana 8 centuries earlier or Ibn Battuta of the Mali Empire 5 centuries earlier.

Kola nuts, salt and cloth were also traded internationally. Ashanti had trade relations with the Hausa country, the cities of the Niger loop, and even with Libya. It had ambassadors to the Fulani of Fouta Djalon in Guinea, Danhomé, the Mande kingdoms, or the Hausa city states. Ancient Africa thus had a diplomacy.

Architecture and knowledge

The royal residences and administrative and religious buildings were built with raw earth, wood or bamboo. They were arranged around an inner courtyard and covered with thatch. On the walls were carved totemic insignia, Adinkra religious symbols related to the deceased’s journey to the afterlife, or the spiral of divine creation, common to all African peoples.

An Ashanti mansion photographed by the English after their annexation of the country

A sovereign of the Ashanti and his officers

The mausoleum of the kings in Kumasi, where the Asantehenes were buried, destroyed by the English

From their conquests, the Ashanti kings, Osei Tutu the first, brought many Akan craftsmen to Kumasi. They installed them according to their specializations in the districts of the capital, giving them the means to bring the Empire to its artistic peak. Potters, weavers, goldsmiths, founders, woodcarvers, ivory carvers, etc. produced absolutely remarkable pieces.

19th Century Ashanti Gold Mask
Golden sculpture representing the Sun messenger of God, a concept common to all Africans, and of course to the ancient Egyptians; New Orleans Museum of Art
Gold Spider Dallas
Museum of Art
Pectoral disk
Victoria and Albert Museum
Gold weights from the 19th century, on which are represented Adinkra figurines. We even see the swastika decades before the birth of Nazism. The swastika originated in the black world, probably in Africa. It was Hitler who turned it into a racist symbol.
The seat and golden stool of the Asantehene The shape of the stool, also found in the Danhomé is similar to that of one of the thrones of pharaoh Tuanga Imana (Tutankhamun).

The Ashanti and slavery

Akan societies, like all black societies – except for the black Maghreb under Arab influence – did not use forced labour for the functioning of their economies. Captives of war and the litigants were put under the control of masters, but were not mistreated in any way.

The Ghanaian historian Albert Adu Boahen said of slaves “(They had) the right to own property and to marry free citizens. Some were even appointed to positions of responsibility and could inherit their masters’ property. They were considered full members of the family … Most of them were fully integrated into the society in which they lived and not disclosing their origin was … a sacred rule” [2]. This way of treating dependents was general in ancient Africa.

It was when the Ashanti came into contact with the Europeans a few decades after the founding of the empire that the fate of the war captives would change and many would be sold. If there were resistance to the trade among the Akan, the Ashanti kings – mainly in exchange for rifles – generally collaborated with the slave traders.

It will be said that the African states that put up determined resistance (the Kongo Empire, the Swahili kingdoms, the Somali kingdoms, the Mwene Mutapa Empire) were destroyed by the Europeans from the very first hours of the slave trade. Those who globally collaborated (Ashanti, Danhomé) survived the trade to be destroyed during the colonial invasion.

In any historical event of this kind, there is resistance and collaboration. The Jews know about it, 150,000 of them were in Hitler’s army, up to the ranks of generals. The Jews and the West make sure that this fact remains unknown.

The end of Ashanti

At the beginning of the 19th century, Ashanti expansionism clashed with the Fanti, who were supported by the British. The empire went into direct confrontation with the Europeans. Osei Bonsu, Osei Yao Akoto then Kwaku Dwa 1st inflicted memorable defeats on the British. It was the first of the Anglo-Ashanti wars that lasted 73 years. The Ashanti will succeed in keeping the British 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 opposed it. He was captured and sent to Sierra Leone. The English demanded that the saint of saints, the Sika Dwa Kofi, be handed over to them.

Faced with the hesitation of the chiefs in the face of this sacrilege, Yaa Asantewaa, Royal Mother of the locality of Ejisu took the lead of the armed resistance of the Ashanti. Kumasi finally fell under English assaults and was destroyed in 1896. Yaa Asantewaa was captured and shipped to the Seychelles. That mark the end of the independent Ashanti after 295 years of existence.

Ejisuhemaa Yaa Asantewaa
The Kente, the colourful fabric of the Akan, is probably the most iconic African fabric in the world
Opoku Ware II, king of the Ashanti. Next to him is the Sika Dwa Kofi on its own throne. The Asantehene is one of the most prestigious kings in Africa to this day, even though he has lost much of his political power.


By : Lisapo ya Kama © (All rights reserved. Any copying or translation of the text of this article is strictly forbbiden without the written approval of Lisapo ya Kama)

Notes :

• General History of Africa, volume 4, Unesco
• Histoire de l’Afrique noire, Joseph Ki-Zerbo
• Black Past
• [1] Histoire de l’Afrique noire, Joseph Ki-Zerbo, page 274
• [2] Histoire Générale de l’Afrique (General History of Africa), volume 5, page 474 ; Unesco

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