Opinion

The Oracle: Historical Reminiscences: Great Empires of Yore (Pt 13)

By Chief Mike Ozekhome

ASHANTI EMPIRE (continues)

INTRODUCTION

On 4th June, 2021, we introduced Ashantes Empire as one of the great Empires that lit up the dark crevices of history. We considered some of the workings of this great empire, such as, the British’s annexation of Ashanti, the Ashanti’s resistance and the “war of the golden stool”. We discussed the checks and balances and the mode of elections in the empire. Today, we shall further explore the theocratic system of government of the Ashantes.

THE ASHANTI EMPIRE AND ITS THEOCRATIC SYSTEM OF GOVERNMENT

The Ashanti state, in effect, practised theocracy. It invoked religious, rather than secular-legal postulates. What the modern state views as crimes, Ashanti viewed practically as sins. Anti-social acts were regarded as disrespect to ancestors, and were only secondarily harmful to the community. If the Chief or King failed to punish such acts, he invoked the anger of the ancestors and the gods, and was therefore in danger of impeachment. The penalty for some crimes (sins) was death, but this was seldom imposed. A more readily employed penalty was banishment or imprisonment.

The King typically exacted or commuted all capital offences. These commuted sentences by the King and Chiefs sometimes occurred by ransom or bribe. They were regulated in such a way that they would not be mistaken for fines, but were considered as generating revenue to the state. Thus, for the most part, the state welcomed quarrels and litigation. Commutations tended to be far more frequent than executions.

The Ashantis were repulsed by murder; and suicide was considered murder. They decapitated those who committed suicide, the very conventional punishment for murder. Thus suicide had contempt for the courts, as only the King may kill an Ashanti.

In a murder trial, intent was important and must be established. If the homicide were accidental, the murderer paid compensation to the lineage of the deceased. The insane could be executed because of the absence of responsible intent – except for murder, or cursing the King. In situation where the king was cursed, drunkenness was a valid defence. Capital crimes included murder; incest within the female or male line; and intercourse with a menstruating woman, rape of a married woman; and adultery with any of the wives of a chief or the King. Assaults or insults of a chief or the court or the King also carried capital punishment.

Cursing the King, or calling down ancestral powers to harm the King wasis considered an unspeakable act which carries the full weight of the death penalty. Anyone found to have instigated or aided another to commit such an act was subjected to payment of a heavy indemnity. Practitioners of harmful (evil) forms of sorcery and witchcraft received instant death; but not by decapitation, for their blood must not be shed. They received execution by strangling, burning, or drowning.

Ordinarily, families or lineages settled disputes between individuals. Nevertheless, such disputes could also be brought to trial before a Chief by uttering the taboo oath of a Chief or the King. In the end, the King’s Court was the sentencing court; because only the King could order the death penalty. Before the Council of Elders and the King’s Court, the litigants were comprehensively given opportunity to state their case. Anyone present could cross-examine the defendant or the accuser, and if the proceedings could not lead to a verdict, a special witness was called to provide additional testimony. If there was only one witness, his sworn oath assures the truth was told. It was unthinkable for a witness to favour or be hostile to either litigant. Cases with no witness, such as sorcery or adultery, were settled by trial by ordeals, such as drinking poison.

Ancestral Veneration established the Ashanti moral systemand ethical compass. This provided the principal foundation for governmental sanctions. The link between mother and child bound together the entire family network, which included ancestors as well as fellow men. The Ashanti judicial system emphasized the Ashanti conception of rectitude and good behavior, which favoured harmony amongst the Ashanti people. The rules were made and laid down by Nyame (Supreme God) and the ancestors, and one must behave accordingly.

THE ASHANTIS AND THEIR MEANS OF LIVELIHOOD

The Ashanti Empire was one long list of a series of kingdoms along the coast including Dahomey, Benin, and Oyo. The Kingdom had mountains and large agricultural surpluses. The southern part of the Ashanti Kingdom was covered with moist semi-deciduous forest whilst the Guinea savannah covered the northern part of the Ashanti Kingdom. The Guinea Savanna consisted of short deciduous and fire resistant trees. Riparian forests also occurred along the Afram River and streams of the savanna zone. Soils in the Ashanti Kingdom were mainly of two types: forest ochrosols in the southern Ashanti Kingdom; whilst the savanna ochrosols were confined to the northern the Ashanti Kingdom.

There was predominant fauna, food, rich wildlife and animal species, in the form of hen, sheep, goat, duck, turkey, rabbit, guinea fowl, fish, and the porcupine, which became the national emblem of the Ashanti Kingdom. There were about thirty multipurpose flora species of trees and shrubs and over thirty-five ornamental plants, beautifying the Ashanti Kingdom environs. These trees/shrubs-crops -animals (hen/fish) components were intensively integrated spatially and/or sequentially on the same land unit of individual Asante houses.

The lands within the Ashanti Kingdom were also rich in river-gold, cocoa and kola nuts. The Ashanti soon started trading with the Portuguese at coastal fort Sao Jorge da Mina, later Elmina, the Songhai, and with the Hausa city states.

The Ashantis prepared the fields by burning before the onset of the rainy season and cultivated with an iron hoc. Fields were left fallow for a couple years, usually after two to four years of cultivation, before being re-cultivated. Plants cultivated included plantains, yams, cassava (manioc), corn, sweet potatoes, millet, beans, onions, peanuts, tomatoes, and assorted fruits. Manioc and corn were New World transplants were introduced during the Atlantic European trade. Many of these vegetable crops could be harvested twice a year and the cassava (manioc), after a two-year growth, provided a starchy root. The Ashantis transformed palm wine, maize and millet into beer, a favorite drink; and made use of the oil from palm for many culinary and domestic uses.

COMMUNICATION

Infrastructure, such as road transport and communication throughout the Ashanti Kingdom was maintained via a network of well-kept roads from the Ashanti Kingdom to the Niger river and other trade cities.

The Ashantis invented the Fontomfrom, an Asante talking drum, and they also invented the Akan Drum. They drummed messages to distances of over 300 kilometers (200 miles), as rapidly as a telegraph. Asante dialect (Twi) and Akan, the language of the Ashanti people is tonal and more meaning is generated by tone.

The drums reproduced these tones, punctuations, and the accents of a phrase so that the cultivated ear heard the entirety of the phrase itself.

The Ashanti readily heard and understood the phrases produced by these “talking drums”. Standard phrases called for meetings of the chiefs or to arms, warned of danger, and broadcast announcements of the death of important figures. Some drums were used for proverbs and ceremony

ASHANTIS’ POPULATION AND WAY OF LIFE

The population history of the Ashanti Kingdom was one of slow centralization. In the early 19th century, the Asantehene used the annual tribute to set up a permanent standing army armed with rifles, which allowed much closer control of the Ashanti Kingdom. The Ashanti Kingdom was one of the most centralized states in sub-Saharan Africa. Osei Tutu and his successors oversaw a policy of political and cultural unification and the union had reached its full extent by 1750. It remained an alliance of several large city-states which acknowledged the sovereignty of the ruler of Kumasi and the Ashanti Kingdom, known as the Asantehene. The Ashanti Kingdom had dense populations, allowing the creation of substantial urban centres. By 1874, the Ashanti kingdom stretches to control over 250,000 square kilometers, while ruling approximately 3 million people.

The Asantehene inherited his position from his Queen mother, and he was assisted at the capital, Kumasi, by a civil service of men talented in trade, diplomacy, and the military, with a head called the Gyaasehene. Men from the Arabian Peninsula, Sudan, and Europe were employed in the Ashanti Kingdom civil service. All of them were appointed by the Asantehene. At the capital, Kumasi and in other Ashanti towns, the ankobia or special Police, were used as the Ashanti Kingdom special forces and bodyguards to the Asantehene, as sources of the Ashanti Kingdom intelligence, and to suppress rebellion. For most of the 19th century and into the 20th century, the Ashanti Kingdom sovereign state remained powerful. (To be continued).

THOUGHT FOR THE WEEK

“The history of mankind is the history of ideas.” (Luigi Pirandello).

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