Kola & Gold | The Asante Empire

In this new series named The Loot Archives, I talk about Cultural Objects with reference to their complete human stories. The uncomfortable topic of Colonisation will be discussed, as the trade of Antiques & Collectibles has been intrinsically shaped by these systems.

I believe that it is our responsibility as people (specifically non-indigenous), working in the field of Antiques & Collectables, to educate ourselves and our community. We must strive to understand the complete historical landscape of Cultural Objects within our line of vision. In order to recognise the long term impacts of Colonisation and the real weight of carrying Cultural Artefacts, we must look at the complex and disturbing past.

Loot – Verb – To steal goods from (a place), typically during a war or riot.

Ashanti family. Image from Vintagetopia, via Pinterest.

The Asante (Ashanti) people, a major Ethnic Group of the Akan-speaking area, have a population of 20,000,000 within the Republic of Ghana. Occupying a region which, up until 50 years ago was referred to as The Gold Coast (Côte D’or).

Akan language, also known as Tri or Akan Kasa is a combination of dialects spoken over much of the Southern area of Ghana. As well as their language, The Akans have a distinct religion which is largely centred around Asante Mythology. Prescribing to both spiritual and supernatural ideologies; the Akans believe that every living entity contains a soul and that the Earth is protected by divine deities. The highest of these deities is called Nyame (also Nyankopon), the omniscient, sky god.

Ethno-linguists have studied language patterns of the Akans, with the intent of fully explaining the Asante migrations. These studies have determined that 800 years ago, Ancient Asante migrated their vicinity on the Northwestern Niger River, after the fall of the Ghanaian Empire in the 13th century. Whilst Etymological Studies and consequent evidence are limited, the studies available have certainly contributed to Anthropological Theory.

Their migration in the 13th century, took the Asante people to the tropical-rainforest belt of the Akan lands. An area of hills extending north from the West African coastline which are heavily forested and have abundant natural freshwater streams and rivers (a wild landscape that is currently deteriorating at a rapid rate). This terrain gifted the Asante Peoples with a wealth of abundant natural resources. The area was to be known as The Asante Empire.

Image from Pinterest. I do not own.

You can donate to the Ghana Rainforest Alliance, to help with conservation efforts.

Earthed in the depths of the rivers of the Asante territories was a most valuable resource, a precious metal which would carve the way to a powerful Kingdom –alluvial gold. Elders of the Asante group have recalled in interview, how areas of potential gold finds were indicated during rain fall. Pebbles to which gold was attached would be washed out, the gold would be revealed gleaming in the sun.
Over time and with experience, gold prospectors in the community would come to recognise the streams which reliably contained gold.

Along with experience came the invention of various, adaptable mining techniques . The most common method was washing or “panning” for alluvial gold in rivers and in the ocean shallows, at the start of the rainy season. Possibly the most important form of mining in terms of the employment it generated, was shallow-pit surface mining on the sides of hills or in the valleys which could take place all year round. Finally there was deep-shaft mining for reef gold, which was mostly reserved for the dry season.

The territories were also rich in Kola nuts, the seeds of the Kola tree and a stimulant with high levels of caffeine content. A valued staple in the regions of West Africa , the nuts are used (chewed) as a central nervous system stimulant. Kola nuts are an important part of some ritualistic, traditional, spiritual practices in West Africa and are also used in the management of chronic illness. They were historically traded as currency in some regions. The Ashanti began trading Kola with the Hausa states of (present-day) Niger. In the 1890s, a pharmacist in the United States extracted caffeine from Kola nuts and Cocaine extracts from Coca leaves. He mixed these extracts with sugar, flavourings and carbonated water to invent Coca-Cola, which up until 2016 contained the stimulating Kola nut ingredient.

Raw Kola nuts.

Gold however, was the most foremost lucrative material resource in the establishment of the Asante Empire. In around 1350, the Asante people were mining and trading gold with neighbouring Kingdoms. By the late 1600s the gold-rich Asanteman had a steadily growing Empire, with the capital city of Kumasi in a strategic situation at the crossroads of Trans-Saharan trade.

In the 1400s Portuguese colonisers reached the shores of the Akan lands. Upon witnessing the mining of gold, they called it Costo do Ouro (Gold Coast). In the timeline of The Asante Empire, this was also when gold was allocated with capital value and equity. For the Asanteman, the connection to gold had been a predominantly spiritual one, but the Portuguese colonisers demonstrated a measurable economic interest in the precious metal. From 1400 to the end of the 19th century, gold dust (Sika) was used as currency in the main cities of the Asante Empire. Gold-weights were formed from European brass likely supplied by or traded with Portugal, which could be weighed against gold dust to quantify it’s transaction value.

Akan brass gold weights – Image via OlivernWokedi blog.

As the Empire grew, the demand for gold increased and generated requirement for more abundant mining. A hierarchal system of gold equity was developing. Roles as miners and blacksmiths in creating tools for mining, were primarily assigned to migrant workers from poorer, neighbouring communities. The Asantehene was entitled to all extracted gold, minus the permitted share to be issued to the local ruler of the mining district. Migrant and Indigenous miners paid annual and war tax. Despite the politics around distribution of gold shares, The Asante Peoples maintained a spiritual view of gold – believing that the precious metal had been bestowed upon them by The Spirit of The Earth (Asase Yaa – meaning Old Woman).

The spiritual beliefs surrounding gold as well as it’s impact on societal wealth, influenced fashion in the Asante Empire. Wearable and ornamental gold became symbolic of social status, good-fortune and creativity. So symbolic had gold become, that it was used to gild the bodies of dignitaries before burial. Asante goldsmiths were commissioned by members of high society, to create masterful designs featuring talismanic properties. Gold adornment came in the form of bracelets, anklets, headdresses, pectoral discs, rings, foot decorations, necklaces and pendants. The armour, weaponry and Royal regalia of the Asante also featured gold gilt detailing. The powerful talismans featured in the designs, come from Adinkra symbols which represent various Ghanaian proverbs. The symbols and their meanings are expansive, it is my opinion that without complete assimilation into Asante culture and religion we might never truly understand their significance. For a detailed overview and index of Adinkra symbolism, you can download this 2019 article by Philip Owusu (student of The University of Ghana).

The most historically renowned, gold-creation of the Ashanti Empire is the Sika ‘dwa Kofi ( The Golden Stool). The assigned royal throne of the Asante monarchy, introduced by Asantehene Osei Tutu. The Golden Stool is surrounded by myth and legend, told to contain the very essence of the Asante spirit. The story goes that the Golden Stool was commanded down from the heavens by Okomfo Anokye, the Priest to Asantehene Osei Tutu l. It landed straight into the lap of the monarch during a meeting of clan heads from the Asante settlements. Allegiance was sworn by all clan heads to the Golden Stool and the Asantehene whom sat upon it.

Above, a selection of images from various Pinterest sources. I do not own these images.
Top left to bottom right; An Adioukrou Queen Mother 1995 – Angela Fisher via NY times, Ashanti gold rings with protective fish symbolism – source unknown, Ashanti elder displays adornment of talismanic gold jewellery -source unknown, regalia of an Ashanti Chiefvia VICE magazine, Collection of Ashanti gold talismanic rings, Ashanti Royal Sword Bearer – Angela Fisher.

Perhaps it was the stories of Asante gold told by Portuguese salesmen, that seduced their European neighbours and lured them to the shores of The Gold Coast. By means of European trade, the word had spread and from the 16th century the English, Dutch, Danish & French colonisers arrived – ready to dig for gold. The colonisers docked along the coastline & built trading ports in strategic locations. Locations were chosen based on a variety of factors, for the purpose of import/export. Colonists paid no consideration for their impact on the wild, natural environment or for the Indigenous Peoples when establishing colonies and ports. Land and shorelines were taken without consent or negotiation and exclusive trading rights were created, so that the colonising nations had complete control of capital. The colonisers brought with them a whole host of infectious diseases to introduce to the Indigenous community, and the subsequent trade facilitated in the expansive spread of parasites and viruses, including Falciprum Malaria which is still a leading cause of death in Africa today (killed 4.6% of Africans in 2016).

European colonisers also brought in their boats, enticing tradable goods. Not least of these, new weaponry in the form of guns and gunpowder. In the early 18th century, the majority of trade was dominated by deals with Europe. Goods traded between Europe and Africa included cloth, salt, weaponry, ivory, alcohol, kola nuts, gold and up until 1807, humans (slaves). Some historians theorise that it was this trade with Europe which further elevated the wealth of the Asante Empire and facilitated the expansion of their domain and their military, during the rule of Osei Tutu.

It is my opinion that the process of periodisation in the analysis of history, can be minimising. Theories of historical developments born from a process of periodisation, are most often biased towards a Eurasian viewpoint. I tend to critique this viewpoint of European trade in Africa, because it is barely inclusive of the experiences of cultures which exist outside of the “evolutionary mainstream”. It seems obvious to me now that the perceived idea of Africa in pre-colonial era, is one which is born out of ignorance and reliance on biased resources. When we study using resources which are available largely outside of mainstream education establishments, we are exposed to bountiful evidence which contradicts what we know to be true. There is enough permissible evidence to indicate that African states had established their own important trading relations with India, China and various parts of Asia before the disruption by European intrusion. Europeans did not invent trans-oceanic travel and it is very feasible that Ancient Africans participated in international trading networks.

Asantehene’s Royal Palace – Kumasi – circa 1800s – Source Unknown

To counter this type of periodisation, I refer to the works of integrative historians and theorists. For example renowned Black Historian and Activist Walter Rodney, made studies on the coast of Upper Guinea and West Coast Africa in the 1960s. From his studies he offered a contrary view of how European trade (particularly slave trade), impacted development within West Africa. Whilst some historians discredit his linkage of events as generalisations, it is evident that most of his ideas are applicable to the majority of slave-trading regions in West Africa.

Rodney discussed the way in which European and slave trade paid into underdevelopment within Africa, by several strategies. Slavery made way for European domination of the African market, with but not limited to the creation of exclusive trading laws. Slavery and the trade of weaponry in return for human souls incited violence. The demand for slaves and the violent means of extracting human beings from their communities, destroyed legitimacy of trade such as gold mining. A loss of humans in great numbers, diminished food production and farming. On top of this, Rodney witnessed that trade with Europe wasn’t really beneficial for the African economy in any long term sense. In return for lost labour, African’s gained cheaply produced goods and trinkets – particularly cheaply produced clothes which undermined the native Kente cloth production.

Additionally Rodney evidenced in his studies, social changes connected to slave trade. Wars commenced due to tensions around the trading of human beings, resulting in a further loss of lives. A deficit of male population, created need for polygyny to counteract the declining Indigenous population. Via his research, Rodney was able to confidently affirm his conclusion that European presence in West Africa, was only detrimental to development within communities. On top of this the inciting of violence and use of guns, made way for the harsh model of slavery and subjection which was adopted by some African Empires from the nineteenth century onwards.

“Many guilty consciences have been created by the slave trade. Europeans know that they carried on the slave trade, and Africans are aware that the trade would have been impossible if certain Africans did not cooperate with slave ships. To ease their guilty consciences, Europeans try to throw the major responsibility for the slave trade on to the Africans. One major author on the slave trade (appropriately titled Sins of Our Fathers) explained how many white people urged him to state that the trade was the responsibility of African chiefs, and that Europeans merely turned up to buy captives- as though without European demand there would have been captives sitting on the beach by the millions! Issues such as those are not the principal concern of this study, but they can be correctly approached only after understanding that Europe became the center of a world-wide system and that it was European capitalism which set slavery and the Atlantic slave trade in motion.”

Walter Rodney

From the 1700’s and up until the outlawing of British Atlantic Slave Trade in the early nineteenth century, colonial ports on The Gold Coast were home to fortresses. These structures were designed to imprison before export, in the region of 10,000 Slaves per year. This number made up just 20% of total slave trade in all of West Africa. After the “abolition” of this slave trade, the primary focus of European colonisers was once again on gold mining and gaining control of the gold encrusted lands.

British Port on The Gold Coast (Ghana) – Circa 1800s – Source Unknown

During the height of the Asante Empire, their military was renowned for it’s strength and resilience. A military force which was tens of thousands of men strong. In truth, the military had experienced fluctuations in it’s internal unification over time. Much of the military was made up of soldiers taken by force from previously conquered settlements, thus making way for tensions between soldiers and a constant threat of revolt. The Asante monarchy made great efforts and put on political performances (e.g. the ceremony of The Golden Stool) to raise morale within it’s military and to forge unity between the clans. It is safe to imagine that slave trade had impacted numbers of military men too, whilst the trade of European weapons changed the fighting style and war tactics of the Asante forces – interrupting their connection to some traditional practices.

For most of the nineteenth century, the Asante Union was in an incessant state of war over the expansion and defence of it’s domain. Over the course of 73 years, The Asante Empire fought a total of 4 Anglo-Asante Wars with The British Empire. The first of these wars took place in 1823, over disputes around European Trade domination on The Gold Coast. The Asante defeated an invading troop led by British Colonial Govenor, Sir Charles Macarthy and took the decapitated head of Macarthy as a trophy of their success.

Illustration of British Officers with Asanteman in the 19th century – via Science History Images – Artist Unknown

Their victory in 1823 gave the Asante military confidence to take on the colonised coastline once more in 1826. This time the British Allied Forces had been allocated explosive rockets, which forced the Asanteman to withdraw. In the years to follow came numerous wars between both Empires, which ultimately ended in either stalemate or treaty. The Asante army had consistently inferior numbers of soldiers and a relatively outdated supply of weapons, yet were ultimately victorious in protecting their land and people from The British Empire, until the fourth and final Anglo-Asante war in 1891. During this war the Asantehene was forced to sign a Treaty of Protection and the most influential Asante Leaders were exacted into exile in the Seychelles.

In 1900 a final resistance was led by Queen-Mother Yaa Asantewaa, resulting in what would become known as ‘The War of the Golden Stool’. The attacks were mounted against the British residents at the Kumasi Fort and fighting continued for 6 months. Finally, Asantewaa and the remaining Asante Leaders were also sent to the Seychelles for exile. In January 1902, Britain formally annexed Asante to it’s protectorates on the Gold Coast, giving them full control of gold-mining in the region.

Queen-Mother Nana Yaa Asantewaa, who led Asante resistance resulting in The War of the Golden Stool in 1900.

Throughout the wars and the years of European trade, thousands of Asante folk were displaced and a great number of Cultural Artefacts removed without permission (or permission granted in undesirable circumstances). Large quantities of Asante regalia was looted by The British Empire, as trophies of their colonial advancements in the region. In a forced treaty, imposed on the Asante by the British Government- the restoring of peace in the region was promised in exchange for 50,000 ounces of approved gold to be paid in instalments, as indemnity for the expenses he (The King of Asante) had occasioned to her Majesty the Queen of England by the late war (a war which he did not start).

Those Cultural Artefacts can be found today, mostly in displays at museums in the United Kingdom and Europe. When you remove Cultural Artefacts such as Ashanti gold from their human context, they are reduced to an impressive object. No real indication of their impact on our historical or present social issues is given. The information available at these exhibits is limited, and most often not inclusive of the traumatic and undeniably racist colonial history. This is how the erasure of unsavoury history happens over time. It is noted that there is no existing, comprehensive, digital archive or catalogue of these items, which could be accessed by Ghanaians today. In recent years, Ghanaians have publicly called for the return of looted Cultural Artefacts to Ghana’s inventory, where they would be a valued and educative piece of their social history. Thus far museums have not been obliged to return Cultural Artefacts, to the lands that they were stolen from.

Ashanti Gold helmet on display at The British Museum.

Apart from in museums, occasionally small pieces of antique Ashanti gold adornment appear in the African jewellery market. These too eventually find their way into the hands of collectors, scholars and museums in “The Global West”. This happens when pieces of jewellery which remained with their original owners, are then passed down through generations. Now disconnected from the traditional relationship and practices associated with Asante gold (post-colonial damage), and often without knowledge of it’s monetary value outside of West Africa, people sell their gold for a relatively minimal sum. Traders with some idea of the monetary value, buy the gold pieces from the families to which they are heirlooms. The gold is passed through many hands and usually multiple African countries (increasing in price as it moves) until it reaches North Africa – where it can be more easily sold into Europe for a higher price. Once it reaches Europe, folks with access to the necessary education and resources are able to appraise the pieces so that they are legitimised in the Antiques market. Museums and galleries most often buy from the European market at high prices, where they can feel reassured by the appraisal of these pieces.

Kente-cloth and Asante gold adornment are mostly reserved as ceremonial attire or costume, in contemporary Ashanti culture. A visual expression of political, religious and philosophical belief. A nod to the history of their culture and their royal lineage.

Modern Akan bride and groom – Ivory Coast – Source unknown.
Modern Ghanaian Bride & Groom – Ashanti Wedding – Source unknown.

Much of the contemporary jewellery crafted by goldsmiths in Ghana, is heavily influenced by the international market it is entering. Other artists are inspired by tradition and the story of Africa, to reimagine fashion which connects the wearer to their African roots. Typical, traditional styles of gold jewellery are still donned by Ashanti royalty and those attending ceremonies; such as weddings, funerals, religious festivals and naming ceremonies.

Designed by Ghanaian jewellery designer Aphia Sakyi.

The Republic of Ghana is still the largest gold-producer in Africa. Today the industry of gold-mining, creates tens of thousands of jobs and brings in almost half of the country’s revenue. There exists 23 large-scale gold mines & in excess of 300 registered, small-scale mining groups.

Due to colonialism and the introduction of modern, scientific mining in Ghana towards the end of the nineteenth century, mining operations in the region are predominantly controlled by European mining companies. The industry is largely exclusive of Africans, except for low-waged roles as labourers and goldsmiths. Traditional methods of gold mining are still in effect in Ghana, but are usually carried out in small-scale “galamsey” mines which are illegally established. Miners operating in illegal mines are able to make in the region of (equivalent to) $100 USD per day, which is a higher wage than they might make as labourers in a modern mining company. Social injustice and consequent poverty are what usually drive workers into this often deadly industry, where despite their work being illegal they are still able to influence decisions within the formal mining sector.

Gold miners in illegal galamsey mine – Republic of Ghana

In countries which have been active in the colonisation of Africa, we tend to only talk about the timeline of colonisation with an end date somewhere in the 1950s. Between the years of 1945 and 1960 many African states claimed their independence and autonomy, but it is unrealistic to imagine that the story ends there. We cannot truly expect that within the past 70 years, the complex and destructive meddling of the colonisers has been reversed. Learning about colonialism as only a historical event is reductive, as it ignores the way those systems are responsible for social and economic injustice in Africa (and Asia) today.

When we organise and connect the events, we can visualise how it is impossible to disconnect colonial history and the present-day, socio-economic climate within Africa. When we educate ourselves on history outside of “The Western Perspective”, we are more able to measure our capacity for impacting change. Where does your responsibility begin and end? How can we use our platforms and our knowledge to influence social change?

Written by Amber Zitouni. Partner at The Store Maroc. Independent Researcher in the field of African Artefacts and their Human Stories. Daughter of renowned Specialist in the Material Culture of Adornment & Editor of Ethnic Jewels Magazine & Consultant at Michael Backman Gallery Ltd, Sarah Corbett.

I accredit all that I continue to learn to Black and Indigenous Folks; historians, activists, scholars and friends whom have shown us a great kindness in their dedication and patience. The education and information they share is not something we are simply entitled to. I am constantly grateful for the opportunities to learn. In this article and the ones to follow, I refer mostly to studies and resources from Black and Indigenous scholars. It is they who are the true visionaries, it is they who will lead the way to equality.

Gold-mining and Trading Among the Ashanti of Ghana – Kwame Arhin, 1978; Christianity, Modernity and the Weight of Tradition in the Life of “Asantehene” Agyeman Prempeh I, – Emmanuel Akyeampong, 1888-1931; Ashanti Empire PDF and it’s 200 contributors ; Ashanti Empire/Asante Kingdom (18th to late 19th century) Black Past contribution, 2010 – Maria Quintana; How Europe Underdeveloped Africa – Walter Rodney, foreword by Angela Y. Davis; Historical Overview of Traditional and Modern Gold-mining in Africa, 2011 – Emmanuel Ofosu- Mensah Ababio (University of Ghana); African Diaspora ISPS, Asante Indigenous Goldsmithing: The Impact of Contemporary Culture on Akan Jewellery, 2002 – Dana Wilson; When Will Britain Return Looted Golden Ghanaian Artefacts?, 2011 – Kwame Opoku, Dr.; Ashanti Gold, Ethnic Jewels Magazine – Sarah Corbett.

Key words:
Ethno-linguistics – noun (used with a singular verb) – The study of language as an aspect of culture, especially the study of the influence of language on culture, and of culture on language.

Migrationnoun – Displacement of populations who move from one country to another to settle there.

Akansnoun – A West African population of Christian Majority, living mainly in Ghana.

Asantehene – noun – The absolute Ruler or Monarch of the Asante people and their Kingdom.

Etymologynoun – The study of the origin of words and the ways meanings change with time.

Anthropologynoun – The study of human societies and cultures and their development.

Alluvialadjective – Describes gold that is deposited by water movement, often found in rivers beds.

Trans-Saharan Trade – The transportation of people and goods, from Sub Saharan Africa across the Sahara Desert. Sometimes referred to as The Arab Trade.

Symbolismnoun – Representation by symbols, symbol system.

Talisman – noun- Object bearing signs, to which magical virtues are attributed.

Spiritualadjective – Relating to deep feelings and beliefs, especially religious beliefs.

Colonisertransitive verb – People whom create a colony or settlement on invaded land.

Slave Tradenoun – The procuring, transporting and selling of human beings as slaves.

Polygyny noun- Polygamy in which a man has more than one wife.

Clannoun- Ethnic group or tribe with commonly shared ideas.

Treatynoun- A formally concluded and ratified agreement between states.

Stalemate – noun – A situation in which further action or progress by opposing or competing parties seems impossible.

Protectoratenoun – A state which is controlled or protected by another.

Racistadjective – Prejudiced against or antagonistic towards a person or people on the basis of their membership of a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority or marginalised.

Social changeverb – Social change brings together lasting transformations in the social organization or culture of a society.

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