By Nick Richwagen
Today the Ashanti (Asante) people number about 7 million, and inhabit central Ghana centered around the city of Kumasi. Their king, the Asantehene, continues to exert powerful social and cultural influence within Ghana, and his position is protected within the Ghanaian constitution. Ashanti kingship is similar in many respects to the chieftaincy system practiced by other Akan peoples, however the Ashanti distinguish themselves in their historical importance in the region. From the 17th to 19th centuries the Ashanti Kingdom was one of the most prominent states in the African continent, controlling territory outside the sphere of modern Ghana; at its peak the Asantehene ruled around 3 million people. Understanding the history of Ashanti is necessary for understanding the Gold Coast region and the broader history of Africa.
In the 19th century, the Asante came into conflict with the British, and after a series of brutal wars the Asante Empire was annexed by the British Empire in 1902 as a protectorate. Like the Zulu, the Asante were one of the few African kingdoms able to exert effective resistance against colonial European powers. This article discusses the origins of the Asante and their rise to dominance among the Akan peoples of West Africa.
The Akan Peoples of the Gold Coast and Their Origins
Roughly 20 million people speak Akan languages and reside in the Gold Coast region, today split between Ghana and the Ivory Coast. Though subdivided into multiple peoples, the Akan share matrilineal descent, a system of powerful chiefs (the chieftaincy), and related folklore.
The earliest Akan migrated from the Sahel region to the forests of the Gold Coast during the 11th century. Akan folklore suggests that their ancestors came from East Africa, even Abyssinia/Ethiopia. It is likely that the ancestors of the Akan played a role in the society of the Ghana Empire (c. 300 – 1200 AD), though much about ethnicity in that state remains uncertain. Much Akan migration southward only occurred after the collapse of the Ghana, and may have been in response to Islamic incursions in the region. The traditional Akan practice of ancestor-veneration would not have meshed well with Islamic monotheism.
Early Tropical West Africa
At the time of Akan migration, and after, tropical West Africa south of the Sahel was very sparsely populated. The tropical rainforests that dominated the coastal regions had poor soil unsuited for grain agriculture, and were unable to sustain large numbers of people. However, the crops that were grown (yams, tree crops, and palm oil) were eventually able to sustain state-level societies after the introduction of iron technology in the 1st millennium AD. The first states to survive in the forests of West Africa were likely Igbo-Ukwu (fl. 9th century) in modern Nigeria, and remarkable Benin, which was founded c. 900 and lasted until the end of the 19th century. These were exceptions to the rule, however, and for the most part states did not begin to emerge until the 17th century, largely due to the sociopolitical changes that accompanied the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
This situation was in contrast to the Sahel region to the north, which sustained several large empires after the fall of Ghana. The great Sahel gold mines of the Mali Empire (1235-1670) started to decline in the 13th century, which allowed the forest dwelling Akan people to rise to prominence.
First Akan States
The first significant Akan country was Bonoman, founded in the 12th century. Bonoman became a regional trading power after Mali’s decline, making use of its own rich gold deposits. Other Akan peoples spread out from Bonoman and centralized political structures formed around other gold mines in the region. In the 17th century, a number of small Akan kingdoms emerged, including Denkyira, Akyme, Akwamu.
The Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Denkyira Kingdom
In the mid 1400’s, the Portuguese came into direct contact with West Africans. In 1434, the first Portuguese ships rounded Cape Bojador in Morocco, and in 1441 the caravel ship led by Antão Gonçalves returned to Lisbon with slaves and gold. It was the first time Europeans had directly taken slaves from sub-Saharan Africa. The Portuguese started trading in a small scale which grew over time, with slaves being secondary to other goods. However, by the end of the 15th century, the Portuguese were directly taking captured slaves to their colonies on Atlantic Islands, particularly São Tomé, to grow sugar.
The Portuguese, and other Europeans as they arrived, could not penetrate far into the African interior, and so formed coastal forts with which to trade with the locals. An early Portuguese explorer described the African jungle as being protected by “an angel with of a flaming sword” of tropical fevers that hindered Europeans (until the 19th century, 25-75% of Europeans in West Africa would fall and sick and die from diseases like dengue fever). In 1482, the Portuguese established Castelo Sao Jorge da Mina, or Mina Castle (Elmina), to trade with the Akan peoples in what is now Ghana (it would be seized by the Dutch in 1637). European forts, which came to be known as factories, would become the processing and loading points for millions of slaves as human cargo.
It was the discovery of the New World and the establishment of colonies in North and South America that would see the real birth of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. After 1500, Spanish, French, Dutch, and English traders arrived and began taking slaves in huge numbers. Portugal tried resisting the expansion of other European powers into their West African trading sphere, but had little success. In 1518, the first slaves were taken and shipped directly to Spanish colonies in the Caribbean. This was the birth of the Triangular Slave Trade, a new global market that integrated West Africa into the global sphere.
Because Europeans did not have resistance to deadly tropical diseases, they rarely were able to directly capture slaves from the West African coast. Instead, they formed trading relationships with native African tribes, cities, and kingdoms who would capture and sell slaves to the Europeans in exchange for manufactured goods. The influx of European muskets dramatically changed the balance of power in West Africa, as those African states which incorporated muskets into their armies became powerful and ascendant over their neighbors.
A series of devastating conflicts soon shook West Africa as new leaders emerged and many peoples were conquered. As the 16th century lead into the 17th, millions of slaves would be taken from their homes as a violent new order characterized West African life. Traditional social hierarchies often collapsed. By the mid-17th century, new states had emerged which were able to grow rich and powerful off of the new system and through trade with Europe. The nation of Dahomey (founded c. 1600) was a slave-trading state that made best use of new weapons technology, having a standing army with cannon artillery by the end of the 17th century.
Denkyira established the first great Akan Empire, seizing and controlling all of the Gold Coast Region by 1660. However, other Akan peoples were able to establish direct trade with the Europeans and form powerful states of their own. Akwamu formed north of modern Accra, which they conquered in 1681, and shortly after 1700 they controlled much the eastern seaboard of the Gold Coast.
War broke out between Denkyira and Akwamu, resulting in the fracturing of Akan peoples in the region. Denkyira continued to fight other Akan tribal states, such as Asen and Twifo-Heman. Denkyira’s empire was very decentralized, with subordinate chiefs being allowed to continue their rule as long as they payed tribute to the Denkyira king as vassals. As Denkyira continued in its many conflicts, subordinate vassal-chiefs were able to exert their independence and shrug off the authority of their nominal overlords.
The Early Asante
Fleeing Denkyira’s hegemony, many smaller Akan tribes moved eastward and settled around the city of Kumase (Kumasi). By the late 17th century, these Akan peoples were drawn together and were ruled by a single leader, called the Kumasehene. Eventually, the Kumasehene became the Asantehene, and the Asante saw themselves as a single, united people.
Obiri Yeboa was the first prominent Kumasehene, and he enlarged the power of his Oyoko clan (yeboa) by incorporating other local Akan nobility into his family, through a combination of force and diplomacy.
The Reign of Osei Tutu and the Golden Stool
Osei Tutu (r. 1680-1717) was the first king of Kumasi to claim the title Asantehene; he would lead the people of Asante and Kumase to become the dominant power of the Gold Coast. Osei Tutu had the vision and statesmanship to transform the Asante from a subordinate vassal of Denkirya to the paramount Akan kingdom.
Osei Tutu had spent some time as a resident prince of the Akwamu court, learned of their military tactics, and was able to forge an alliance with that tribe. With support of the Akwamu king, Osei Tutu revolted against Denkyira. In battle, the Asante developed pincher formation that aimed to flank the enemy force from the sides and rear. The revolt met with success.
In 1698, the favorite wife of Osei was sent to negotiate at the Denkyira court as a sign of goodwill; instead of receiving her honorably the enemy king raped her. After that, the war between the two kingdoms became much more savage.
At the Battle of Feyiase (1701), the Asante triumphed decisively over Denkyira, bringing total victory. The Denkyirahene was killed, and that nation would persist only as a shadow of its former self. The Asante Empire was now the dominant Akan kingdom, and soon monopolized trade in the Gold Coast region.
Osei used a consultative body- the Kotoko Council– to integrate the leadership of new peoples into the Asante State. As the empire expanded, incorporated peoples were allowed to join the Asante union directly or exist as semi-autonomous client states.
With Osei Tutu began the tradition of the Golden Stool, a gold-glad ceremonial chair which was the physical embodiment of the entire Asante nation. It was an ancient Akan custom for each family to have a stool signifying the authority of elders, as well as stools indicating a chief’s authority in each tribe. The Golden Stool developed a spiritual and political significance beyond all proportion of this earlier tradition, and was said to have miraculous origin. It was so sacred that even the Asantehene could not sit on it.
The chief priest and spiritual leader of the Asante, Okomfo Anokye, was believed to have called the golden stool down from heaven. The stool houses the soul of the Asante nation and is believed to connect all Asante individuals- those dead, those living, and those yet to be born. As a political symbol, the Golden Stool was seen to transcend the power of all other stools in the Akan tradition. As Akan tribes were absorbed into the Asante union, they were made to bury their stools in a sign of deference.
Osei Tutu led a new campaign against the Akyem kingdom, hoping to bring them into his empire. In 1717, while crossing the river Pra in a canoe, Osei was struck by a bullet from an enemy sharpshooter and died. He left behind an effective military machine that would create the most powerful kingdom in West Africa.
Opoku Ware succeeded Osei Tutu, and turned his eye northwards. By 1730, the realms of Bonoman and the non-Akan peoples of Gonja and Dagomba were brought into the empire. By invading Bonoman, the Asante gained access to the Lobi gold fields, which remain today one of the world’s richest gold deposits. Combined with the gold mines of Kumasi, the Asante became enormously rich. Dagomba retained its independence as a client state, and supplied the Asante with over 1,000 slaves annually.
By the 18th century, the Asante had evolved into a highly stratified society. The nobility and courtiers of the king were the sikapo, meaning “people of wealth” in the Twi language. The king and the aristocracy often wore so much gold that they needed special servants to support their limbs. The Asante upper class owned vast estates and hundreds of slaves. Lower-class free people were known as ahiato, who were noticeably shorter than the aristocracy. For the most part, they lived single-story huts and engaged in agriculture.
Slavery was a fact of life in Asante society, and trading slaves with the Europeans was important to the Asante economy. Slaves could lead brutal lives, particularly those who worked in the gold mines or in agriculture. Slaves were rarely offered the dignity of a burial, but simply disposed of after passing.
However, not all slaves were of the same status, as there were many levels of servitude. Some individuals served as indentured laborers for specified periods of time. Liberated slaves could be perfectly integrated into Asante society, where it was often considered taboo to ask about one’s family origins. There was a proverb “Obi nkyere obi ase,” meaning that no one should disclose the origins of another person. Freemen could become influential persons in their community — this was the biggest distinction between European chattel slavery and the slavery practiced by Akan societies.
The majority of the gold in the kingdom was the personal property of the Asantehene, and when wealthy sikapo died only a small portion of their gold went to their heirs— the rest went to the king.
Asante law was enforced by a police force who monitored those who entered and left the kingdom. Punishment could be severe, and could involve mutilation or executions. Although the Ashante practiced traditional Akan religion, Muslim advisors from Sahel kingdoms and Arabs were common in court.
The Asante Empire in 1750
Asantehene Opoku Ware died in 1750, the same year of Bach’s passing in Leipzig. In this year the Asante Empire stretched far northwards into the Sahel region, encompassing 100,000 square miles and three million subjects (greater than the contemporary population of the 13 American colonies). No other state in West Africa possessed such wealth and power. However, trouble was brewing on the horizon. The Fante Federation of States had emerged on the immediate coastal region outside Elmina, and was moving to control coastal trade with the Europe. The Fante were allied to the British, who resented Asante’s move to interfere with Fante trade.
The millions of Asante subjects had varying degrees of loyalty to the Asantehene. Outside of the power base in Kumasi, various Akan peoples still held deep local loyalties, and client chiefs had much autonomy. In the north, the non-Akan peoples of Gonja and Dagomba deeply resented Asante rule. As European rulers became increasingly invested in local politics, there were many potential sources of trouble for the Asante King. At the same time, no other kingdom in Africa held so much power. When Osei Kwadro took the throne in 1764, the future of the Asante people looked bright.
- Eugene L. Mendosa, West Africa (2002)
- Eirk Gilbert and Jonathan Reynolds, Africa in World History (2004)
- Robert B. Edgerton, The Fall of the Asante Empire: The Hundred-Year War for Africa’s Gold Coast (1995)