Opinion

The Oracle: Historical Reminiscences: Great Empires of Yore (Pt 11)

By Chief Mike Ozekhome

ASHANTI EMPIRE 

INTRODUCTION

The Ashanti Empire (Twi: Asanteman) was an Akan empire and kingdom from 1670 to 1957, in what is now modern-day Ghana. It expanded from Ashanti to include the Brong-Ahafo Region, Central Region, Eastern Region, Greater Accra Region and Western Region of present-day Ghana. Due to the empire’s military prowess, wealth, architecture, sophisticated hierarchy and culture, the Ashanti Kingdom has been extensively studied and has more historiographies by European, primarily British, authors than any other indigenous culture of Sub-Saharan Africa.

ORIGIN

Starting in the late 17th century, the Ashanti king, Osei Tutu (1695 – 1717) and his Adviser, Okomfo Anokye, established the Ashanti Kingdom, with the Golden Stool of Asante as a sole unifying symbol. Osei Tutu oversaw a massive Ashanti territorial expansion, building up the army by introducing new organization and turning a disciplined royal and paramilitary army into an effective fighting machine. In 1701, the Ashanti army conquered Denkyira, giving the Ashanti access to the Gulf of Guinea and the Atlantic Ocean coastal trade with Europeans, notably the Dutch.

Today, the Ashanti Kingdom survives as a constitutionally protected, sub-national proto-state and traditional state in union with the Republic of Ghana. The current king of the Ashanti Kingdom is Otumfuo Osei Tutu II Asantehene. The Ashanti Kingdom is the home to Lake Bosumtwi, Ghana’s only natural lake. The state’s current economic revenue is derived mainly from trading in gold bars, cocoa, kola nuts and agriculture; Forest has also always been cleared to plant cassava, maize and yams.

MEANING OF ASHANTE

The name Asante” means “because of war”. The word derives from the Twi words meaning “war” and nti meaning “because of”. This name comes from the Asante’s origin as a kingdom created to fight the Denkyira kingdom.

The variant name “Ashanti” comes from British reports while transcribing “Asante” as the British heard it pronounced “as-hanti”. The hyphenation was subsequently dropped and the name Ashanti remained, with various spellings including Ashantee, common into the early 20th century.

CONTRACT WITH EUROPEANS

Between the 10th and 12th centuries AD the ethnic Akan people migrated into the forest belt of Southern Ghana and established several Akan states:

Before the Ashanti Kingdom had contact with Europeans, it had a flourishing trade with other African states due to the Ashanti gold wealth. Trade with European states began after contact with the Portuguese in the 15th century AD. When the gold mines in the Sahel started to play out, the Ashanti Kingdom rose to prominence as the major player in the gold trade. At the height of the Ashanti Kingdom, the Ashanti people became wealthy through the trading of gold mined from their territory.

POLITICAL ORGANISATION OF THE ASHANTES

Ashanti’s political organization was originally centred on clans headed by a paramount chief or Amanhene. One particular clan, the Oyoko, had settled in the Ashanti’s sub-tropical forest region, establishing a centre at Kumasi. The Ashanti became tributaries of another Akan state, Denkyira but in the mid-17th century the Oyoko under Chief Oti Akenten started consolidating the Ashanti clans into a loose confederation against the Denkyira. Golden Stool (Sika dwa) in the Ashanti Kingdom, 1935.

THE GOLDEN STOOL

The introduction of the Golden Stool (Sika dwa) was a means of centralization under Osei Tutu. According to legend, a meeting of all the clan heads of each of the Ashanti settlements was called just prior to declaring independence from Denkyira. In this meeting the Golden Stool was commanded down from the heavens by Okomfo Anokye, chief-priest or sage Advisor to Asantehene Osei Tutu 1.

In the 1670s, the head of the Oyoko clan, Osei Kofi Tutu I, began another rapid consolidation of Akan peoples via diplomacy and warfare. King Osei Kofu, Tutu I and his Chief Advisor, Okomfo Kwame Frimpong Anokye, led a coalition of influential Ashanti city-states against their mutual oppressor, the Denkyira, who held the Ashanti Kingdom in its thrall. The Ashanti Kingdom utterly defeated them at the Battle of Feyiase, proclaiming its independence in 1701. Subsequently, through hard line force of arms and savoir-faire diplomacy, the duo induced the leaders of the other Ashanti city-states to declare allegiance and adherence to Kumasi, the Ashanti capital. From the beginning, King Osei Tutu and priest Anokye, followed an expansionist and an imperialistic provincial foreign policy. According to folklore, Okomfo Anokye is believed to have visited Agona-Akrofonso.

Realizing the strengths of a loose confederation of Akan states, Osei Tutu strengthened centralization of the surrounding Akan groups and expanded the powers of the judiciary system within the centralized government. This loose confederation of small city-states grew into a kingdom and eventually an empire looking to expand its borders. Newly conquered areas had the option of joining the empire or becoming tributary states. Osei Tutu’s successor extended the borders, embracing much of Ghana’s territory.

The Asante Ewer was made in England during the reign of Richard II (1377–1399) and was discovered in 1896 in the Asante kingdom. The front of the jug bears the royal arms of England and each of the facets of the lid contains a lion and a stag. These symbols date the jug to the last nine years of Richard’s reign, when he adopted the badge of the white hart. Two more English bronze jugs from the same period were found at Kumasi, the Asante capital, at the time as this example. Perhaps all there were a set from the household of Richard II. How they came to the west coast of Africa remains a mystery, but there was extensive trade between West Africa and Western Europe across the Sahara Desert in the middle Ages. Now, this could be found in the British Museum, London.

European contact with the Asante on the Gulf of Guinea coast region of Africa began in the 15th century. This led to trade in gold, ivory, slaves, and other goods with the Portuguese, which gave rise to kingdoms such as the Ashanti. On May 15, 1817, the Englishman, Thomas Bowdich, entered Kumasi. He remained there for several months. He was impressed; and on his return to England, wrote a book, Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee”. His praise of the kingdom was disbelieved as it contradicted prevailing prejudices that demeaned the people. Joseph Dupuis, the first British Consul in Kumasi, arrived on March 23, 1820. Both Bowdich and Dupuis secured a treaty with the Asantehene. But, the Governor, Hope Smith, did not meet Ashanti’s expectations.

THE ASHANTI EMPIRE AND SLAVERY

Slavery was historically a tradition in the Ashanti Empire, with slaves typically taken as captives from enemies in warfare. The welfare of their slaves varied from being able to acquire wealth and intermarry with the master’s family to being sacrificed in funeral ceremonies. The Ashanti believed that slaves would follow their masters into the afterlife. Slaves could sometimes own other slaves, and could also request a new master if the slave believed he or she was being severely mistreated.

The modern-day Ashanti claim that slaves were seldom abused, and that a person who abused a slave was held in high contempt by society. They defend the “humanity” of Ashanti slavery by noting that those slaves were allowed to marry, and that their children were born free. If a master found a female slave desirable, he might marry her. He preferred such an arrangement to that of a free woman in a conventional marriage, because marriage to an enslaved woman allowed the children to inherit some of the father’s property and status.

This favored arrangement occurred primarily because of what some men considered their conflict with the matrilineal system. Under this kinship system, children were considered born into the mother’s clan and took their status from her family. Generally, her eldest brother served as mentor to her children, particularly for the boys. She was protected by her family. Some Ashanti men felt more comfortable taking a slave girl or pawn wife in marriage, as she would have no abusua (older male grandfather, father, uncle or brother) to intercede on her behalf when the couple argued. With an enslaved wife, the master and husband had total control of their children, as she had no kin in the community.

THE BRITISH’S ANNEXATION OF ASHANTI

In December, 1895, the British left Cape Coast with an expeditionary force. It arrived in Kumasi in January 1896, under the command of Robert Baden-Powell. The Asantehene (king) directed the Ashanti not to resist, as he feared a genocide. Shortly thereafter, Governor William Maxwell arrived in Kumasi as well.

Britain annexed the territories of the Ashanti and the Fanti. Asantehene Agyeman Prempeh was deposed and arrested, and he and other Ashanti leaders were sent into exile in the Seychelles. The Asante Union was dissolved. The British formally declared the state of the Ashanti Kingdom and the coastal regions to be the Gold Coast colony. A British Resident was permanently placed in the city of Kumasi, and soon after a British fort was built there.

THE RESISTANCE AND THE “WAR OF THE GOLDEN STOOL”

As a final measure of resistance, the remaining Asante court not exiled to the Seychelles mounted an offensive against the British Residents at the Kumasi Fort. The resistance was led by Asante Queen Yaa Asantewaa, Queen-Mother of Ejisu. From March 28 to late September, 1900, the Asante and British were engaged in what would become known as the War of the Golden Stool”. In the end, the British were victorious; they exiled Asantewaa and other Asante leaders to the Seychelles to join Asante King Prempeh I.

In January 1902, Britain finally designated the Ashanti Kingdom as a protectorate. The Ashanti Kingdom was restored to self-rule on 31st January, 1935. Asante King Prempeh II was restored in 1957, and the Ashanti Kingdom entered a state union with Ghana at independence from the United Kingdom.

THOUGHT FOR THE WEEK

“Men make history and not the other way around. In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.” (Harry S Truman).

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