|Ashanti yam ceremony in the Ashanti Kingdom|
The Ashanti kingdom, or Asante, dominated much of the present-day state of Ghana during the period between the late 17th and early 20th centuries. It was ruled by an ethnic group called the Akan, which in turn was composed of up to 38 subgroups, such as the Bekiai, Adansi, Juabin, Kokofu, Kumasi, Mampon, Nsuta, Nkuwanta, Dadussi, Daniassi, Ofinsu, and Adjitai.
In the late 1500s, there were at least 30 small states, which corresponded to the subsections of the Akan people. By 1650, these groups had been reduced to nine, and by 1700, they united. Ultimately the groups formed a confederation headed by the chief of the Kunasi group.
The kingdom, formed by its legendary warrior Osei Tutu in 1691, was in fact a confederacy of both Akan and non-Akan people. The king’s symbol was the golden stool; equivalent to the throne, the stool became the symbol of kingship, so that a ruler was said to be enstooled or destooled.
The asantehene, or king, had authority when he was raised three times over the stool. Even after 1901, when Ashanti became a protectorate, and 1957, when it became part of the modern state of Ghana, the stool and the enstooling ceremony of the Asantehene were important ceremonies.
The Ashanti kingdom, although originally a confederacy, had three bases of power—administration, communications, and economics—and was located in what is now north Ghana. Osei Tutu took over the administration set up by Denkiyira, the former hegemon, and added to it.
Communities within 50 miles of the capital city of Kumasi were directly ruled by the asantehene. Under Osei Tutu and his successor, Osei Apoko (whose reign collectively lasted from approximately 1690 to 1750), the state expanded so much that by 1750, it encompassed about 100,000 square miles, with a population of 2 to 3 million.
All of present-day Ghana with the exception of areas directly on the coast with small adjacent areas in the contemporary states of Togo, Ivory Coast, and Burkino Faso were part of the Ashanti state.
In order to accommodate the new extent of the state, the administration divided itself into a metropolitan and a provincial area. The metropolitan area consisted of those towns within a 50-mile radius of Kumasi. The rulers of these towns were made up of the confederacy. Their only obligation was to pay annual tribute to Kumasi and troops in the event of war.
This practice was extended to newer members of the state. All towns elected a governing advisory council composed of powerful members of the community. The towns were considered part of the Kumasi sphere, as they paid taxes that supported a steady army in the early 20th century. After a revolt of a military chieftain in 1748, a palace guard was organized.
The rulers of the metropolitan spheres were members of the royal Oyoko clan and served on the royal council and had autonomy in nonfiscal and military matters. The Council for the Asantehene had gained substantial power; it occasionally destooled an incompetent ruler and formally helped to choose the new asantehene.
The provincial aspect of administration was subject to increased centralization as the centuries progressed. Outlying Akan districts did not participate in the royal selection process but were forced to pay taxes. By 1800, they were also forced to pay tribute.
They were subject to increasing bureaucratic control such as a state agency that controlled all internal and external trade. The non-Akan areas controlled until the mid-19th century also sent thousands of slaves annually to Kumasi.
The effectiveness of the Ashanti state relied on communication processes. The complex bureaucracy served as a conduit throughout the state. In addition both taxes and tribute were used to establish a well-maintained army throughout the century. Most famously were the talking drums.
Since the national language of Ashanti, called Twi, was polytonal, any military commander or administrator could send out messages by matching syllables to the tones of the drum in a fashion similar to Morse code.
The mainspring of the confederation was economic. It had fertile soil, forests, and mineral resources, most notably gold. The future state of Ashanti had two ecological zones. In the southern forest belt there were forests and fertile soil.
Original subsistence crops included yams, onions, and maize and, in the 19th century as farming became commercial, cola nuts and cocoa. In the northern savanna belt, there were yams and Guinea corn. The state was advantageously located for the importation of slaves from both the north and the west.
In this period, beginning in the 15th and 16th centuries and lasting until the 1830s when slavery was abolished, the Ashanti still used slave labor to plant more crops such as plantains, yams, rice, and new crops such as maize and cassava brought from the Americas. This led to an increase in population and a movement of the Akan peoples to the forest zones.
The use of slave labor was involved in its most important mineral product, gold. Akan enterprise utilized the labor of slaves for both trading with Europeans (Portuguese, Dutch, English) and in the state grassland belts first in clearing new land and then for the development of deep-level mining and placer mining.
The slave trade for gold brought more slaves to produce more gold, and slaves were also traded for firearms. The desire to exert control over gold production and the new farming communities in the forest helped facilitate state functions.
The desire to control access to labor pushed the Ashanti state in its attempt to control the coast inhabited by its Fanti peoples. The attempt to conquer the Fanti led to disputes and battles with the British, who had taken over the Gold Coast by 1815.
Earlier the Ashanti had played the Dutch and Portuguese against the British. However hostilities after 1800 erupted for control of its coast. After the Ashanti were able initially to defeat the British in 1807 and in 1824, they suffered setbacks and accepted the Prah River as a border.
Thereafter peace reigned for over 40 years. In 1872, a long-simmering dispute on the control of El Mina (the great Portuguese and Dutch post) saw a renewal of hostilities. After early Ashanti success, the British occupied Kumasi in 1874 until peace was concluded.
In the late 19th century, the state began a rapid decline. Other parts of the state broke away so that by 1900, the state had dwindled to approximately 25,000 square miles and a quarter of a million people. The British began to interfere in events in Ashanti.
In 1896, they deposed the asantehene and in 1900, a British demand for the golden stool resulted in an uprising that was put down in 1901, after which Ashanti was a protectorate. Incredibly, the golden stool was never surrendered and was restored to the nation after being “accidentally” found in 1921. In 1926, the asantehene was restored to the stool, and in 1935, its ceremonial role in Ashanti was formally restored.
During the colonial period, its population increased more than fourfold. The Ashanti peoples engaged in cocoa growing while also actively producing crafts such as weaving, wood carving, ceramics, and pottery making. The bronze and brass artifacts produced by the lostwax process became prominently displayed in museums throughout the globe. Since 1935, the kingdom, now part of Ghana, has been organized into 21 districts.
Throughout its golden age, the Ashanti state demonstrated impressive flexibility, often at the expense of neighbors whom it enslaved and whose tribute it exacted. It continued to increase production in the gold mines and to migrate and clear forest for agricultural production. It utilized the slave trade to increase its military might and diplomacy to key European allies.
After slavery was abolished, it found a new economic outlet in cola nuts, and in the 20th century, the production of cocoa, Ghana’s biggest export. Even in independent Ghana, the Ashanti kingdom still maintains a clear existence and the Ashanti people have retained their cultural identity.