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Ashanti / Asante

Of the components that would later make up Ghana, the state of Asante was to have the most cohesive history and would exercise the greatest influence. The Asante are members of the Twi-speaking branch of the Akan people. The groups that came to constitute the core of the Asante confederacy moved north to settle in the vicinity of Lake Bosumtwi. Before the mid-seventeenth century, the Asante began an expansion under a series of militant leaders that led to the domination of surrounding peoples and to the formation of the most powerful of the states of the central forest zone.

One hundred years or more before the rise of democracy in North America, the Asante governed themselves through a constitution and assembly. Commercially the Asante-dominated region straddled the African trade routes that carried ivory, gold and grain. As a result, Europeans called various parts of the region the Ivory Coast, Grain Coast and Gold Coast.

The Ashanti Uplands lie just to the north of the Akan Low-lands area and extend from the Ivory Coast border, through western and part of northern Brong-Ahafo Region and the Ashanti Region (excluding its eastern section), to the easternend of the Kwahu Plateau. The uplands lie across the rain-bearing winds, andthe entireregion receives substantial amounts of rainfall. The uplands were originally covered by deciduous forests; however, many areas have been cleared for cocoa farms, and in the 1960s the region was the country's most importantcocoa producer. It also has important mineral deposits; for instance, Obuasi, in the southern part, has long been considered the richest gold-mining town in the country. Kumasi, the country's second largest city and formerly the capital of the Ashanti Confederation, is located in this region.

Although the rulers were not themselves usually Muslims, they either brought with them or welcomed Muslims as scribes, traders, and medicinemen. Beginning in the fifteenth century or earlier and through the eighteenth century, Islam had substantial influence in the north and even to some extent in the Akan states, particulary Ashanti. Actual conversion of the mass of northern Ghanaians did not go as far as it did in the Sudan, but the Muslims brought with them certain skills, including writing, and beliefs and practices that became part of the culture of the peoples among whom they settled. Muslims also played a significant role in the trade that linked southern with northern Ghanaians and both with the peoples of the Sudan.

Of the components that make up modern Ghana, Ashanti had the most cohesive history and exercised an influence on Ghana out of proportion to its size or present position. The Ashanti are members of the Twi-speaking branch of the Akan people. The groups who came to constitute the core of the Ashanti confederacy moved north to settle in the vicinity of Lake Bosumtwi. Before the mid-seventeenth century, under a series of militant leaders, they undertook an aggressive policy that led them to dominate surrounding tribes and form the most powerful of the states of the central forest zone.

In the course of a war, fetish ceremonies, associated with circumstances of unmingled horror and savage brutality, were employed by the Ashantis to fortify themselves against evil, and to obtain fresh inspirations of vigor and courage. Several of the hearts of the slain are taken out by the fetishmen or priests who attend the army, and having been cut to pieces, are mixed with blood and various consecrated herbs, while the accustomed ceremonies and incantations were performed. All who have ever before killed an enemy eat of the preparation, it being believed that if they did not, their energy would be secretly wasted by the haunting spirits of their deceased foes.

The virtues ascribed to amulets were of the most extraordinary character. Some of the Ashanti wore them to guard themselves against the bite of snakes or alligators; and in this case the saphie was commonly enclosed in a snake's or alligator's skin, and tied round the ankle. Others had recourse to them in time of war to protect their person against hostile weapons. But the common use to which they were applied was to prevent bodily diseases, to preserve from hunger and thirst, and generally to conciliate the favor of superior powers under all the circumstances and occurrences of life. A chief who was "loaded with them" stated that "God protected the white man, but the black man could not do without grigris, as they protected him from evil and danger, the same as a fence protected a garden from the wild beasts of prey."

One amulet would preserve against being cut if anyone struck with a knife or sword, and another would save the wearer if he was shot at with a musket. Such was the confidence which the warriors of that nation generally reposed in these mystical defences, that they rushed fearlessly and headlong into the midst of the greatest dangers.

Under Chief Oti Akenten (r. ca. 1630-60), a series of successful military operations against neighboring Akan states brought a larger surrounding territory under subjugationand into alliance with Asante. This was the beginning of an alliance of states that was to be known as the Ashanti Confederation.

At the end of the seventeenth century Osei Tutu (ca. 1697-1731) became asantehene (king) of Ashanti. Under Osei Tutu's rule, the confederacy of Asante states was transformed into an empire with its capital at Kumasi. Political and military consolidation ensued, resulting in firmly established centralized authority.

Osei-Tutu was strongly influenced by Okomfo Anokye, Ashanti high priest. Anokyewas credited with magical powers. Ashanti tradition asserts that, at a council of Ashanti chiefs, he caused a stool of gold to descend from the sky and settle gently on the knees of Osei Tutu. Stools were already firmly established as traditional symbols of chieftainship, but the Golden Stool of Ashanti was accepted as representing the united spirit of all the allied states and established a dual allegiance that superimposed the confederacy over the individual component states.

The Golden Stool remains a respected national symbol of the traditional past and figures extensively in Asante ritual. Osei Tutu permitted newly conquered territories that joined the confederation to retain their own customs and chiefs, who were given seats on the Asante state council. It remained a respected national symbol of the traditional past and figures extensively in tribal ritual and ceremony.

Osei Tutu's gesture made the process relatively easy and non-disruptive because most of the earlier conquests had subjugated other Akan peoples. Within the Asante portions of the confederacy, each minor state continued to exercise internal self-rule, and its chief jealously guarded the state's prerogatives against encroachment by the central authority. A strong unity developed, however, as the various communities subordinated their individual interests to central authority in matters of national concern.

Osei Tutu permitted newly conquered territories that joined the confederation to retain their own customs, and their chiefs were generally retained and given seats on the national state council. As most of the earlier conquests were over other Akan peoples, this was a relatively easy and non-disruptive process. A strong unity developed as the various communities sublimated their individual interests to the central authority.

Under the rule of Osei Tutu the alliance of Ashanti states threw off the domination of Dankyira, which had been the most powerful state in the coastal hinterland area and had been exacting tribute from most of the other Akan groups in the central forest. The capital of the confederation was moved to Kumasi, and consolidation of further conquests continued under a firmly established centralized authority.

In 1731 Osei Tutu and most of his generals were ambushed and killed while on a military expedition to the south. The state had by this time become so firmly welded together that it survived this disaster and continued its expansion. Under succeeding chiefs, boundaries were extended southward, and by the beginning of the nineteenth century the Ashanti were invading and struggling for control of the Fante coastal states, on whose shores the European traders had by this time established extensive posts and fortifications.

By the mid-eighteenth century Ashanti was a highly organized state. Although it was still known as a confederation, since the institution of the golden stool the members had given up many of their individual sovereign rights; each subordinate element owed allegiance to the asantehene, and chiefs of the separate divisions were required to seek recognition by the asantehene. Although this arrangement was limited somewhat by the jealously guarded prerogatives of subordinate chiefs, it was a potent force.

The wars of expansion that brought the northern states of Mamprusi, Dagomba, and Gonja under Asante influence were won during the reign of Asantehene Opoku Ware I (d. 1750), successor to Osei Tutu. By the 1820s, successive rulers had extended Asante boundaries southward. Although the northern expansions linked Asante with trade networks across the desert and in Hausaland to the east, movements into the south brought the Asante into contact, sometimes antagonistic, with the coastal Fante, Ga-Adangbe, and Ewe peoples, as well as with the various European merchants whose fortresses dotted the Gold Coast.

The Ashanti wars started as movements of national resistance to the encroaching migrations of alien tribes from the outside, but in the course of the eighteenth century they developed largely into an instrument of political expansion and aggrandizement. Ashanti expansion during the eighteenth century led to greater or lesser control over trade both to the south and the north. Northern as well as southern states paid tribute to Ashanti, and most important trade routes came to a focus in Kumasi, a pattern that has prevailed since. The steady expansion southward brought the Ashanti into contact with the European traders of the Gold Coast, and the conquest of the peoples between Ashanti and the sea was inspired principally by the desire to control the profitable commerce with the coastal establishments of the Europeans.

But the resultant expansion, although profitable, sowed the seeds of eventual dissension; as newly conquered groups were brought into the union, many of whom did not share in Ashanti background or feeling of national unity, the basis was laid for a dangerous threat to the integrity of the confederation and the ultimate defeat of its armies.

When the first Europeans arrived in the late fifteenth century, the inhabitants of the Gold Coast area were striving to consolidate their newly acquired territories and settle into a secure and permanent pattern. Many of the migrant groups had still to establish their firm ascendancy over earlier occupants of their territories, and considerable displacement and secondary mass migrations were still in progress. The major groups along the coast, however; such as the Fante, Ewe, and Ga, were fairly well entrenched in their respective areas.

The Portuguese were the first to arrive. By 1471, under the patronage of Prince Henry the Navigator, they had reached the area that was to become known as the Gold Coast, so named because they saw it as the source of much of the gold that had been reaching Muslim north Africa by way of caravans across the Sahara. By 1482 the Portuguese built their first permanent fortification at Elmina, west of Cape Coast, to secure their trade against foreign competition or interruption by hostile Africans. The Portuguese position remained secure along the coast for almost a century. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries adventurers, first Protestant Dutch and later English, Danish, and Swedish, established trading posts along the coast to protect their individual interests. During this period there was fighting on the coast between the Europeans when their countries were at war in Europe or other parts of the world; the forts often passed from the hands of one nation to another and were frequently handed back at the conclusion of a peace treaty. The local inhabitants were often drawn into the fighting. The principal early struggle was between the Dutch and the Portuguese. The Dutch finally captured the fort at Elmina, and in 1642 the Portuguese were forced to leave the country.

The next 150 years saw kaleidoscopic change and uncerinty, marked by local strife and diplomatic maneuvering, during which various European powers struggled to establish or maintain a position of dominance in the profitable trade of the Gold Coast littoral. Forts were built, abandoned, attacked, captured, sold, and exchanged, and many sites were selected at one time or another for fortified positions by the contending European states.

Both the Dutch and the English formed companies to further their African ventures and protect their coastal establishments. The Dutch West India Company operated throughout most of th6 eighteenth century, and the British African Company of Merchants, founded in 1750, was the successor to several earlier organizations of this type. These enterprises, which built and manned new installations as they pursued their trading activities and defended their respective individual jurisdictions, were granted varying degrees of goverrmient backng. There were short-lived ventures by the Swedes and the Prussians. The Danes remained until the middle of the nineteenth century, when they sold their forts to the British.

As the eighteenth century came to a close, the English had gained possession of all the Dutch forts except Kormantin and were raiddily gaining a dominant position in the entire Gold Coast_ Although European adventurers who followed the Portuguese to the country occasionally carried away some slaves, they came to trade in ivory, spices and, above all, gold.

Beginning in the sixteenth century, however, the suddenly expanded demand for slaves in the Americas gave increasing impetus to the slave trade, and slaves soon overshadowed gold as the principal export of the area. The seemingly insatiable market and the substannal profits to be gained attracted adventurers from all over Europe, and much of the conflict among European groups on the coast and competing African kingdoms was the result of rivalry for control of this trade. The west coast of Africa became the principal source of slaves.

Slave trading was already firmly entrenched in West Africa. Captives in intertribal warfare had long been held as slaves; incursions from the outside carried slaves off to North Africa and Arabia. In general, however, slaves in African communities were well treated and often considered members of the fanally., and the institution was quite different from the brutalized commercial ventures that resulted from the profitable trade across the Atlantic.

The supply of slaves to the coast was entirely in African hands, mainly the Ashanti and the strong coastal tribes, including the Fante and Ahanta. The local merchants jealously guarded their monopoly of the trade. The weaker tribes of the interior were raided and in some cases decimated. The European coastal forts, originally established to dominate the coastal trade in gold, became depots where the slaves captured in the interior could be bought by European agents and held until they were shipped.

The coastal people, primarily the Fante, and the inhabitants of Accra, chiefly Ga, came to rely on British protection against the Ashanti incursions, but the ability of the merchant companies to provide this security was limited. The crown dissolved the company in 1821 and took over the forts in order to impose peace and end the slave trade. Incidents and sporadic warfare continued in various parts of the so ath. An Ashanti invasion in 1826 was defeated by a combined force of British, Fante, Akyem, and the people of Accra. A new treaty in 1831 resulted in a long period of peace and expanding trade.

The last Ashanti invasion of the coast took place in 1873. It followed the departure of the Dutch from the country in 1872 and the sale of their forts and possessions to the British. The Ashanti, who for vears had been friendly with the people of the former Dutch settlement at Elmina, thus lost their Fast foothold on the coast as well as their influence over its inhabitants.

After early successes in their attack; the Ashanti finally came up against well-trained British forces, which forced them to retreat and evacuate the area. They retired northward across the Pra River and never again returned to the coast in force.

In an effort to settle the Ashanti problem permanently, the British decided to invade the country with a sizable military force. The attack was launched in January 1874 with a carefully trained army of 2,500 British soldiers and large numbers of African auxiliaries. Although the Ashanti fought well, they were unable to stand up to the superior weapons of the British; their capital, Kumasi, was occupied and burned, and their forces were scattered.

The subsequent peace treaty impose an indemnity of 50,000 ounces of gold (which was never paid) and required the Ashanti to renounce claims to many southern territories. They were also required to keep the road to Kumasi open to trade and to abolish the practice of human sacrifice. From this point on, Ashanti's position as a power began a steady decline.

The confederation slowly disintegrated as subject territories broke away and protected regions defected to British rule. The warrior spirit of the nation was not entirely subdued, however, and enforcement of the terms of the treaty led to recurring difficulties and outbreaks of further fighting. In 1896 the British sent in an expedition that again occupied Kumasi and this time forced the Ashanti to accept the protection of the crown. The position of asantehene was done away with, and the incumbent, Agyemen Prempeh, was exiled.

The Ashanti accepted these terms with brooding rancor and a temporary political lethargy that was to be a contributing factor in the relatively slower development of nationalism in the region. They retained a strong feeling of local unity and an underlying independence of thought and action.

On January 1, 1902, Ashanti became a colony under the governor of the Gold Coast. The annexation was made with misgivings and recriminations on both sides.From the British point of view, annexation was the only way to stablize the country and ensure its security. Direct control seemed to them to be the only effective method for restoring order and dealing with the recurring disputes between rival groups that were con- stantly adding to the disruption of stability and trade.The general feeling was that the British action was based entirely on a desire to extort more money, and this attitude created ill will and distrust, which persisted for many years. The Ashanti believed that the British were guilty of sharp practices and treachery and had not given their leaders an opportunity to come to a mutually acceptable agreement.

By an Order in Council dated 22 October 1906, the boundaries between the Ashanti Protectorate and the Crown Colony of the Gold Coast, of which the former is the principal dependency, were readjusted and defined with due regard to tribal lands and natural features. For administrative purposes Ashanti has been divided into four provinces: the Central, the Southern, the Western and the Northern, each of which was under the charge of a provincial commissioner.

In his annual report for 1914, Mr. (afterwards Sir Francis) Fuller was able to record the unanimous and deep loyalty expressed by all the Ashanti chiefs towards their Sovereign and Government on the outbreak of war "; and so complete was the confidence felt in these sentiments that from August 1914 onward the Government of the Gold Coast was able almost totally to denude Ashanti of troops in order to dispatch expeditionary forces to take part successively in the Togoland, Cameroon and East African campaigns. Ashanti provided few recruits for these forces, the people disliking the military discipline which is so dissimilar to their own methods of warfare, and the spread of permanent cultivation (cocoa) having attached them to the soil to an extent unknown in former times. Their loyalty, however, remained unabated throughout, and the years of the war were marked by great local development.

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Page last modified: 15-03-2017 18:21:43 ZULU