Ashanti Empire of West Africa
A Historical & Cultural
The Ashanti established their state in its
historically known location shortly after their first encounter
with Europeans. Some of its features -- military and economic --
evolved directly out of its wars and dislocations caused by
Europeans, who greedily sought the famous gold deposits, which
gave this coastal region its name, Gold Coast. During the 16th
century when the Portuguese were active in West Africa, the
Ashanti manifested themselves merely as small independent
chiefdoms, each with its own capital town and political
institutions. European intrusion initiated, however, economic
competition and political unrest.
Osei Tutu and his priest Komfo Anokye unifed the independent
chiefdoms into a powerful political and military power in the
region. The new national spirit and dynasty developed through
the invention of the Golden Stool, which Komfo Anokye brought
down from the heavens represented the ancestors of all the
Ashanti. And upon that Stool Osei Tutu established his rule and
the Empire. His new state extended its power, territory, and
strength. The Empire buckled only in 1874 before the military
and imperialistic might British. By that time the Ashanti had
become one people and have remained so firmly until today.
Geography, Demography, & Housing
The former Gold Coast (now Ghana) has a variable terrain --
coasts and mountains; forests and grasslands, fertile
agricultural areas and near deserts. The Ashanti territory is
inland and located centrally -- mostly fertile and partly
mountainous. There are two seasons -- the rainy (April to
November) and the dry. The land is well-drained by numerous
streams; the dry season, however is very dry. It is hot all year
Ashanti is a bit more healthy than the coast. But like West
Africa in general malaria remains a scourge and there are
numerous fevers -- backwater, yellow, relapsing, typhoid,
typhus, cholera, and others. Leprosy, elephantiasis, and
sleeping sickness are the more spectacular diseases; intestinal
and skin parasites, however occur more frequently.
In the mid 1970s the Ashanti numbered more than 200,000,
speaking Twi, a member of the Niger-Congo language group. (The
Ashanti are now about 28% of a Ghana population of between 5 and
7 million people. There political power has waxed and waned since
Ghana become the first modern independent African nation.) They
lived in scattered villages and larger towns, with some more
The houses of the poor are plastered wattle-and-daub
construction domed by a thatched roof of grass, formed in
compounds of connected buildings arranged around a court. The
larger towns have palaces, whose walls are of sun-baked clay,
enclosing many rooms. Artistic scroll designs adorn the walls
and posts and wide verandas encircle the house. The roofs of the
larger house use leaves sewn together, shingle like.
The Ashanti are an agricultural people and the land so
extensively farmed that hunting with large animals scarce plays
a negligible role in economic activity. They obtain fish usually
through trade from coastal groups specialized as fishermen.
Dogs, goats, and fowl are frequently found; especially chicken,
for the Ashanti us them in sacrifices and divination as well as
food. In some districts, sheep, pigs, and cattle are kept.
The Ashanti prepare the fields by burning before the onset of
the rainy season and cultivated with an iron hoe. Fields are
fallowed for several years after two to four years of
cultivation. Plants cultivated include plantains, yams, manioc,
corn; sweet potatoes, millet, beans, onions, peanuts, tomatoes,
and many fruits. Of course, manioc and corn are New World
transplants introduced during the Atlantic European trade.
Many of these vegetables crops can be harvested twice a year
and the cassava (manioc), after a two-year growth, provides a
starchy roots daily. The Ashanti transform at times palm wine,
maize and millet into beer, a favorite drink; and make use of
the oil from palm for many culinary and domestic uses.
The Ashanti are expert craftsmen. Ironworking by bellows and
charcoal fire is a specialized craft. Their blacksmiths make
work tools such as ax and hoe blades, knives, daggers,
projectiles, nails, hammers; in addition to many ornaments --
bells, chains, etc. Handmade pottery is also a specialized
craft, as well as woodcarving, which in many cases approaches
high art in figurines and stools and collected in both Europe
Initially, the Ashanti made clothing from bark. But in the
17th century, they learned the art of weaving. Clothing
production is also gender specialized. Women grown and pick the
cotton and spin it into thread. The weaving performed along
family lines is men's work. Traditionally the Ashanti weaver
uses a small horizontal loom and produces a narrow bolt. They
weave artistic designs into the fabric or stamp it with dye. The
great ceremonial umbrellas that shelter chiefs receive special
attention from these craftsmen. Related to the Golden Stool, the
umbrella called Katamanso, "The Covering of the
Nation," is made of camel's hair and wool. A ornamental
figurine, plated with gold or silver, tops all ceremonial
The Ashanti invented also a "talking drum." They
drum messages to the extent of 200 miles, as rapid as a
telegraph. Ashanti language is tonal and more meaning is
generate by tone than in English. The drums reproduce these
tones, punctuation, and the accents of a phrase so that the
cultivated ear hears the phrase itself. The Ashanti readily hear
and understand whole phrases produced by the drum. Stock phrases
call for meetings of the chiefs and to arms, warn of danger, and
transmit notice of the death of important personages Some drums
are used for proverbs and ritual performance.
* * * *
* * * *
Family, Females, and Children
The household, the basis of economic and social life, is
often polygynous. In Ashanti the female line (matrilineality) is
of great significance. Through the mother, male or female are
related by blood to others and this kinship determines land
rights, inheritance of property, offices and titles. One derives
also from this line social and political status, and the focus
of ancestor cult, upon which religious activity is based. The
blood produces emotional ties, for it is the mother's blood that
creates the child's body.
The father catalyzes the conception and provides the spirit (ntoro)
to the child, that is, the child receives its life force from
the father. Its character and personality reflects that of the
father. Though not considered as important as the mother, the
male fine continues in the place of birth after marriage, that
is, the wife leaves her family home. The male line thus create a
patrilineal village. In a sense, every person has two lines --
one provides the blood, land, and inheritance, and the other,
The female line also establishes the clan, abusua, all
who descend from a common female ancestor. The ntoro and abusua
lines are totemic (associated with plant or animal that worked
with or helped the ancestors) and practice food taboos and
prohibit marriages with fellow members.
The abusua ancestors own the land and are buried in
it. No individual Ashanti owns land, but rather occupies that
which came down from an ancestor. The products produced from the
land can be owned individually. But the occupier cannot be
removed from the land nor can the land be sold, nor determine
which of his descendants get a major share. Because the land is
matrilineal, a man's good are passed to his brother, if he dies
young, or passed to his sister's sons.. Certain goods, if agreed
by the abusua, can be passed from father to son.
Property made or acquired by individual efforts can be
possessed by both and women. Heirlooms and carved stools -- all
possessions of family and lineage property -- can be disposed of
Trade occurs at both the state and local levels.
The state runs the import-export business and other local trade
takes place in local market towns, where handicrafts and food
products are exchanged. This minor trade tends to be conducted
by women, though in the interest of the household.
Traditionally, local trade involves much haggling whether
exchanges occur through barter directly or cowrie shells as a
medium. State representative regulate these local markets and
Also, by tradition, Ashanti bought and sold
slaves. This trade in slaves tended to occur not in the market
but through personal transactions. Those enslaved included
prisoners of war and criminals, but also those place in
servitude as pawns for debt. Pawn work was interest on a loan.
When possible the debtors redeemed these pawns and the pawns
retained their clan affiliations and their offspring suffered no
Slaves, the Ashanti report, were seldom
cruelly used. A person who abuses a slave was held as
contemptible. They further demonstrate the humanity of Ashanti
slavery ( in relation to that slavery in the Americas) by
pointing out that slaves were allowed to marry, though the
children belonged to the master, rather than the mother's clan.
If found desirable a female slave became a wife; the master
preferred such a status to that of a free woman in a usual
marriage. This marriage allowed the children to inherit some of
the father's property and status.
This preferred arrangement with pawn wife
occurred because of conflict with the matrilineal system. The
Ashanti slave master felt more comfortable with a slave or pawn
wife who had no abusua to intercede on her behalf every
time the couple argued. With the wife's slave status, the man
controlled his children absolutely with the mother isolated from
her own kin.
In the Ashanti pattern of kinship, those of
the same generation are all siblings. A woman refers to them as child,
and a man, sister's child. Those of the parent's
generation, women are all called mother, and men, mother's
brother (The actual father, of course, is not a member of
the female line.) In the male line, all male members are called father,
and females, female father.
Political Order & Status
Status among families is political. The royal
family tops the hierarchy, followed by the families of chiefs of
territorial divisions. In each chiefdom, a particular female
line provides the chief. That chief is chosen from among several
men eligible for the post.
The election of chiefs follows a
pattern. The senior female of the chiefly lineage
nominates from eligible males. This senior female then
consults the elders, male and female, of that line. The
final candidate is then selected. That nomination is
then sent to a council of elders, who represent other
lineages in the town or district. The Elders then
present the nomination to the assembled people.
If they disprove of the nominee, the
process begins again. Chosen, the new chief is enstooled
by the Elders, who admonish him with expectations.
The chosen chief swears a solemn oath to the Earth Goddess
and to his ancestors to fulfill his duties honorably
This elected and enstooled chief enjoys a great regal
ceremony with much pomp and celebration. He reigns with much
despotic power, including to make judgments of life and death on
his subjects. Upon the stool, the chief is sacred, the holy
intermediary between people and ancestors. His powers
theoretically are more apparent than real. His powers hinge on
his attention to the advice and decisions of the Council of
Elders The chief can be impeached, destooled, if the Elders and
the people turn against him. He can be reduced to man, subject
to derision for his failure.
The Ashantihene (King of al all Ashanti) reigns
over all and chief of the division of Kumasi, the nation's
capital. He is appointed in the same manner as all other chiefs.
In this hierarchical structure, chiefs swear fealty to the one
above him -- from village and subdivision to division to the
chief of Kumasi.
The elders and the people (public opinion) circumscribe the
power of the Ashantihene, and the chiefs of other divisions
considerably check the power of the King. Nevertheless, as the
symbol of the nation, the Ashantihene receives substantial
deference ritually for the context is religious in that he
represents the ancestors in the flesh. The land belongs to the
King means that it belongs to the tribal ancestors whom he
represents. The King cannot alienate the land or indulge
any arbitrary act not agreed upon by the people.
The existence of aristocratic clans and the council of elders
evidence an oligarchical tendency in Ashanti political life.
Though older men tend to monopolize political power, Ashanti
instituted an organization of young men, the nmerante,
that tend to democratize the political process. The council
elders undertake actions only after consulting a representative
of the Young Men. Their views must be added to all meetings.
The Ashanti state, in effect, is thus a theocracy. It invokes
religious rather than secular-legal postulates. What the modern
state views as crimes, Ashanti view as sins. Antisocial acts
disrespect the ancestors, and only secondarily harmful to the
community. If the chief or King fail to punish such acts, he
invokes the anger of the ancestors. The penalty for all crimes
(sins) is death.
The King exacts or commutes all capital cases. These commuted
sentences by King and chiefs sometimes occur by ransom or bribe;
they are regulated in such a way that they should not be
mistaken for fines, but are considered as revenue to the state,
which welcomes quarrels and litigation. Commutations tend to be
more frequent than executions.
Ashanti abhor most murder and suicide is considered murder.
They decapitate the suicide, the standard punishment for murder.
The suicide thus had contempt for the court, for only the King
can kill and Ashanti.
In a murder trial intent must be established. If the homicide
is accidental, the murderer pays compensation to the lineage of
the deceased. The insane cannot be executed because of the
absence of responsible intent. Except for murder or cursing the
King, drunkenness is a valid defense. Capital crimes include
incest within the female or male line, 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 or a woman calling a man a fool
carried the death penalty.
Cursing (or blessing) the King, calling down powers to
harm the King, -- a horrid act -- also carries the weight of
death. One who invokes another to commit such an act must pay a
heavy indemnity. Practitioners of sorcery and witchcraft receive
death but not by decapitation, for their blood must not be shed.
They receive execution by clubbing, strangling, burning, or
Ordinarily, families or lineages settle disputes between
individuals. But such disputes can be brought to trial before a
chief by uttering the tabooed oath of a chief or the King. In
the end the King's Court is the sentencing court, for only the
King orders the death penalty. Before the Council of
Elders and the King's Court the litigants orate extensively. Any
present can cross-examine and if the proceedings do not lead to
a verdict, a special witness is called to provide additional
testimony. And there is only one witness, whose oath sworn
assures the truth told. That he favors or is hostile to either
litigant is unthinkable. Cases with no witness, like sorcery or
adultery are settled by ordeals, like drinking poison.
Ancestor worship establishes the Ashanti moral system, and it
provides thus the fundamental foundation for governmental
sanctions. The link between mother and child centers the entire
network, which includes ancestors and fellow men as well. Its
judicial system emphasizes the Ashanti conception of rectitude
and good behavior, which favors harmony among the people. The
rules were made by the gods and the ancestors and one must
* * * *
* * * *
Conception, Marriage & Death
The mingling during intercourse of the male spirit (ntoro)
with the female blood causes conception. In the eighth month the
mother goes to her mother's house. The period of childbirth
excludes males. The mother assisted by four midwives gives birth
in a sitting position. The child receives its name at birth,
given the name of the particular day of its birth. The midwives
cut the umbilical cord against a piece of wood and the infant is
then bathed. Unlike other cultures, the afterbirth is discarded
without ritual burial.
During the first eight days, the Ashanti consider the baby a ghost
child, uncertain whether the child will live or die. A ghost
mother in the spirit world lost this child and will make an
attempt to get it back, it is believed. If the child still
lives, the family holds a ceremony to affirm that the child is a
true human baby and the child receives a patronym of a paternal
grandfather or grandmother and thus binds it to its fathers
line, the ntoro. The day name remains important
and is used more frequently.
The Ashanti kill twins only in the royal family. Ordinarily,
boy twins become fly switchers at court and twin girls potential
wives of the King. If the twins are a boy and girl no particular
career awaits them. Women who bear triplets are greatly honored
because three is regarded as a lucky number. Special rituals
ensue for the third, sixth, and ninth child. The fifth child
(unlucky five) can expect misfortune. Families with many
children are respected and barren women derided.
Indulgent parents are typical among the Ashanti. Childhood is
a happy time and children are not responsible for their actions.
the child has not power to do good or evil until after puberty.
the death of a child does not require a funeral. Though there is
no lack of sentiment, they bury these pot children (named
for the receptacle used for burial) in the refuse dump without
ceremony. A child is harmless and there is no worry for the
control of its soul, the original purpose of all funeral rites.
The Ashanti hold puberty rites only for girls. Fathers
instruct their sons without public observance. As menstruation
approaches, a girl goes to her mother's house. When the the
girl's menstruation is disclosed, the mother announces the good
news in the village beating an iron how with a stone. Old women
come out and sing bara (menstrual) songs. The mother
spills a libation of palm wine on the earth and recites the
Supreme Sky God, who alone
upon whom men lean and do
receive this wine and
Earth Goddess, whose
of worship is Thursday
receive this wine and drink
Spirit of our ancestors
receive this wine and
O Ghost Mother do not come
and take her away
and do not permit her
to menstruate only to die.
Five days after menstruation begins, the mother's party
bedecks the girl with finery and display her publicly. The girl
engages in ritual bathing and eating, which lifts observed
taboos. The ceremony completed younger children address the girl
as mother. Old women regard this new state in
sadness, for the death of one of them approaches. As a birth
occurs in this world and a death in the spirit world, the
"birth" of a girl into full womanhood signals one
shall be taken away.
Menstruating women suffer many restrictions. The Ashanti view
them as ritually unclean. They cook for no male, nor eat any
food cooked for a man. If a menstruating woman enters the
ancestral stool house, she suffers death instantly. If this
punishment is not exacted, the Ashanti believe, the ghost of the
ancestors would strangle the chief. She crosses the threshold of
no man's house and thus she lives in a special house during
these periods. She swears no oath and none swears an oath
against her. She visits no sacred places.
The Ashanti betroth a girl, if not in childhood, immediately
after the puberty ceremony. They do not regard marriage as an
important ritual event, but as a state that follows soon and
normally after the puberty ritual. A man marries a cross cousin
-- his father's sister's daughter or his mother's brother's
daughter. Parallel cousins are members of the same abusua
group and hence prohibited as marriage partners. Sometimes
marriage arrangement are arranged before the birth of the
couple. Parents allow the boy some initiative, but he must
receive the consent of the households, the only formalities
required. The Ashanti require a bride price, various good give
by the boy's family to that of the girl.
The Ashanti require a girl to be a virgin at marriage and
punish adultery severely.
If a wife is caught or confesses, her parents must make the
husband a compensatory payment and the seducer pays an amount
commensurate with his social status. Adultery with any of the
King's wives result in torture of the seducer and death for the
guilty wife and close relatives of both. The Ashanti allow a man
a divorce for a wife's adultery, as well as barrenness,
drunkenness, quarrelsomeness, witchcraft, and mother-in-law
The Ashanti also allow a woman a divorce for impotence,
adultery, laziness, witchcraft, desertion, or for taking a wife
without her permission, if she is a senior wife.Among the
Ashanti, polygyny is very common and legal. But the
senior wife must be consulted. Seemingly, in this
agricultural society, jealousy is infrequent, for the
woman likes to have a co-wife to lighten the work.
Additional wives add to the husband's prestige and
Sickness and death are major events. The ordinary herbalist
divines the supernatural cause of the illness and treats it with
herbal medicines. The witch doctor, a person possessed by a
spirit, combats pure witchcraft . A witch uses power as black
magic for malevolent or antisocial purposes.
If the cure fails, the family perform the last rites. The a
member of the family pour a little water down the throat of the
dying person when it is believed the soul is leaving the body
and recite the following prayer:
Your clansmen [naming them] say: Receive
this water and drink, and do not permit any evil to come
whence you are setting out, and permit all the women of
the household to bear children.
People loath being alone for long without someone available
to perform this rite before the ill collapse. The family washes
the corpse and dress it in its best clothes and adorn it with
packets of gold dust (soul money), ornaments, and food for the
journey "up the hill." The body is buried within 24
hours. Until that time the funeral party engage in dancing,
drumming, shooting of guns, and much drunkenness, all
accompanied by the wailing of relatives.
The Day of Rising occurs the sixth day after death when the
soul is finally dispatched from the vicinity. the blood
relatives shave their heads and put the hair into a pot. They
sacrifice and cook a sheep. They carry the food, utensils, and
the pot of hair to a special place in the cemetery where the
ghost of the deceased will find them and take them for his
journey. They then resume normal life, except the resume
mourning on the eighth, fifteenth, fortieth, and eightieth days,
and at one year.
Of course, funeral rites for the death of a King involve the
whole kingdom and are much more of an elaborate affair. The
Ashanti, like other west coast kingdom, are known for human
sacrifices at the death of a King. A number of the King's wives
are strangled, the aristocratic method of death, in order
to accompany the King into the afterworld, along with
representatives of the palace staff. These victims are expected
to enjoy this honor and sometimes volunteer. Throughout the
districts of the kingdom sacrifices of slaves, criminals, and
waylaid strangers occur while the King lies in state.
The greatest and most frequent ceremonies of the Ashanti
recall the spirits of departed rulers with an offering of food
and drink, asking their favor for the good of all the people.
Called the Adae, these ceremonies occur every 21 days The
day before the Adae, talking drums announce the
approaching ceremonies. The stool treasurer gathers sheep and
liquor which will be offered. The priest chief officiates the Adae
in the stool house where the ancestors come The priest
offers each food and drink. The public ceremony occurs outdoors,
where all join the dancing. Minstrels chant tribal traditions;
the talking drums extoll the chief and the ancestors in
The Odwera, the other large ceremony, occurs in
September and lasts for a week or two. It is a time of cleansing
the society of sin and defilement and for the purification of
shrines of ancestors and gods. After the sacrifice and feast of
a black hen -- of which both the living and the dead share, a
new year begins in which all are clean, strong, and healthy.
The ever-present concern with ancestors is the strongest
motif of all ceremonies. But Ashanti religion and cosmology
extend beyond the ancestors. The universe is peopled with many
kinds of spirits, the greatest of which is the Supreme One, who
heads a pantheon of gods and spirits, all are descendants of
their Creator. These intermediaries act as patrons of villages,
districts, and household. Others are gods of a place, a
geographic features, such as the gods of rivers. Many myths
describe how the Supreme One and the other gods acquired their
Each god has a temporary abode on earth. The shrine may be as
simple as a stone or a more elaborate image. Trained priests
look after these objects and shrines. Their knowledge consists
in how to call the god to come and speak, using the priest
himself as a medium. there are minor spirits who abide in beads
and other small objects which are carried by ordinary people as
charms and fetishes. The Ashanti believe all animals and plants
have souls to which appeals can be made. Some spirits, of
course, are hostile and are found in the forests and from them
black magic and witchcraft may be learned. In any event, all are
related and descend from the Supreme One.
Among the Ashanti, Christianity and Islam have modified some
of these traditional practices. The ancestors, as well as
matrilineal descent, bride price, and the concept of the descent
of the spirit from the Supreme One through males, however,
continue as an important aspects of identity and group
Abusua The family in Akan
Adae Akan sacred day.
According to the traditional lunar calendar, an Adae
day occurs every fortnight.
Asafo Traditional Akan
men's association and originally fighting companies.
Asante/Ashanti/Ashantee Akan group,
geographically located to the central part of the country.
Founders of the Asante Empire, and speakers of Asante-Twi
Asantehene King of Asante.
Bosomtwi (Lake) The only natural
lake in Ghana. It is located about 32 km to the south-east of
Kumasi, the Asante capital.
Odwira Annual Akan festival
for the propitiation of the ancestors.
Source: Elman R.
Service. Profiles in Ethnology. NY
Harper & Row, 1978. Editor's note: For readability or clarity, I
rewrote and revised Service's chapter titled "The Ashanti of West
* * *
Frantz Fanon Documentary—Black Skin, White Mask
Explores the life
and work of the psychoanalytic theorist and activist Frantz Fanon who
was born in Martinique, educated in Paris and worked in Algeria.
Examines Fanon's theories of identity and race, and traces his
involvement in the anti-colonial struggle in Algeria and throughout the
* * *
Kwame Nkrumah (21 September
1909 - 27 April 1972) was the leader of
Ghana and its predecessor state, the
Gold Coast, from 1952 to 1966. Overseeing the nation's independence
from British colonial rule in 1957, Nkrumah was the first
President of Ghana and the first
Prime Minister of Ghana. An influential 20th century advocate of
Pan-Africanism, he was a founding member of the
Organization of African Unity and was the winner of the
Lenin Peace Prize in 1963. . . . Nkrumah's advocacy of industrial
development at any cost, with help of longtime friend and Minister of
Komla Agbeli Gbedema, led to the construction of a hydroelectric
power plant, the
Akosombo Dam on the
Volta River in eastern Ghana.
Kaiser Aluminum agreed to build the dam for Nkrumah, but restricted
what could be produced using the power generated. Nkrumah borrowed money
to build the dam, and placed Ghana in debt. To finance the debt, he
raised taxes on the cocoa farmers in the south. This accentuated
regional differences and jealousy. The dam was completed and opened by
Nkrumah amidst world publicity on 22 January 1966. Nkrumah appeared to
be at the zenith of his power, but the end of his regime was only days
Nkrumah wanted Ghana to have modern
armed forces, so he acquired aircraft and ships, and introduced
conscription.He also gave military support to those fighting the
Smith administration in
Zimbabwe, then called
Rhodesia. In February 1966, while Nkrumah was on a state visit to
North Vietnam and
China, his government was overthrown in a military
coup led by
Emmanuel Kwasi Kotoka and the
National Liberation Council. Several commentators, such as
John Stockwell, have claimed the coup received support from the
CIA. . . .
Nkrumah never returned to
Ghana, but he continued to push for his vision of African unity. He
lived in exile in
Guinea, as the guest of President
Ahmed Sékou Touré, who made him honorary co-president of the
country. He read, wrote, corresponded, gardened, and entertained guests.
Despite retirement from public office, he was still frightened of
western intelligence agencies. When his cook died, he feared that
someone would poison him, and began hoarding food in his room. He
suspected that foreign agents were going through his mail, and lived in
constant fear of abduction and assassination. In failing health, he flew
Romania, for medical treatment in August 1971. He died of
skin cancer in April 1972 at the age of 62.—Wikipedia
* * *
posted 29 September 2007