The Ashante Kingdom: Gold Coast

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Origin of the Akan people

The Asante kingdom is a state created by members of the Akan people. One oral tradition of the Aduana clan claims the Akan people came from a place called Ancient Ghana. They went north to Egypt, settled in Nubia, and left Nubia when in the 5th century Axum grew to 1.25 million square kilometres conquering Nubia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti, northern modern-day Sudan, and most of Arabian Peninsula including Saudi Arabia and Yemen. They scattered west from Nubia.

The next destination was modern day southeast Mauritania and western Mali where they founded the Ghana empire lasting from 750 AD until 1,200 AD. The tradition of Ghana empire refers to a founder called Dingha Cisse, a man “from the east”, from the “place of Wago” in the legend of Wagadu. The empire of Ghana grew through trade and intermarriage alliances. This theory fits a society where power and wealth transferred through matrilineality, as was described by Al-Bakri when he wrote about the Kings of Ancient Ghana.

Written records about the empire first appeared in 830 AD from Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, over a hundred years before the Domesday book ordered by William the Conqueror, and shortly after the death of Charlesmagne in the Kingdom of the Franks.

Al-Bakri claims the empire of Ghana traded in salt, kola nuts, gold and ivory. Trade mostly took place in Koumbi Saleh. The king held rights over nuggets of gold within his kingdom discovered or mined but left gold dust to all his subjects, which eliminated poverty. The kingdom had a sophisticated hierarchy comprised of the king, advised by ministers, interpreters and a treasurer, with a core region divided into cities run by governor appointees and the core region surrounded by vassal kingdoms. The vassal kings were the rulers of territorial units called kafu in Mandinka. (al-Ya’qubi in Levtzion and Hopkins, eds. and trans. Corpus, p. 21.) The kingdom charged import and export duties.

Camels were used as beasts of burden and for transport over long distances.

The timing of the decline of the empire of Ghana is uncertain. Although we know that following the spread of Islam by diffusion of ideas, violence or both, some of his subjects began to identify as Muslim above nationality, at a time when the power of the Almoravid dynasty in Morocco was growing to the north. Also, Al-Bakri claimed the military might of the king of Ghana was matched by the military strength of Sila, a vassal king on the Senegalese River. By 1154, al-Idrisi claims the whole state was fully Muslim.

The switch in religion eroded the religious authority of the king of Ghana and eventually another dynasty was able to subdue Ghana and annex its goldfields, the source of its wealth.

yaa asantewaa - Ghana_successor_map_1200
Successor states of the Ghana Empire, on the upper Niger river valley, West Africa, c. 1200 AD, Image rights: public domain

The ancestors of the Akan, reportedly, this time left for Kong, in the region of the Ivory Coast of today. Around the 14th century they moved south eastwards from Dorma to Twifo-Hemang in the North West Cape Coast. The ancestors of Akan migrated in waves, over time, between the 12th and 14th century to areas around modern day Ghana (not to be confused with the empire of Ghana of 750-1200AD) and the Ivory Coast.

Ghana means “warrior king” in Soninke, a language from the region of the empire of Ghana.

Various states were created all mostly trading in gold mining products and cash crops. These included the Kingdom of Bonoman (also known as the Kingdom of Brong-Ahafo) which lasted from the 11th century until it was absorbed into the Ashanti empire in the 19th century. Another kingdom, the Akwamu empire also emerged from 1550 to 1650 AD.

The most lucrative gold fields of the time were located between the Komoe and Volta rivers, and the top three included the Akan goldfields, the Bambuk goldfield and the Bure goldfield.

The Rise of Britain

Protestant Reformation and Breaking Portugal’s Monopoly

After the split between Rome and England under Henry the Eighth, England felt free to disregard a papal bull written to King Afonso V of Portugal in 1454 by Pope Nicholas V. This papal bull granted Portugal a monopoly over trade in Sub-Saharan Africa by virtue of dominion over all lands south of Cape Bojador (a Moroccan territory) in Africa.

maparchive - Africa, Culture and Trade 1500–1800

yaa asantewaa - 800px-Habsburg_Map_1547
Depiction of 1547 Hasburg-Spain, by The Cambridge Modern History Atlas (1912) (source)

While Portugal held a monopoly on trade along the coast of Sub-Sahara Africa, many European states at this time lagged behind Hasburg-Spain by numbers of ships, possessions in Europe, geographic knowledge and access to wealth. England (Protestants), the Dutch (Protestants) and the Ottomans (Muslims) linked up to frustrate the international trade carried on by Catholic states of Portugal and Spain, through piracy.

To do this, private naval entrepreneurs, called Privateers, were given letters of authority and investment to sail to the Coast of West Africa and attempt to trade illegally with African states in wood, gold, pepper and ivory. These privateers set up forts and trading posts along the West Coast of Africa.

These activities led to England producing machine-struck gold coins for the first time in 27 March 1663, based on gold procured from the West Coast of Africa. This gave birth to unit of measure called the Guinea, representing one pound, the equivalent of 12 shillings and a weight of one quarter ounce of gold. Prior to this, 1 pound was 12 shillings, and each shilling was 20 pence of silver – 1 pound was 240 pennies.

In the Dutch corners of  Europe, discontent with foreign rule and growth of Protestant Christianity due to Luther, Anabaptism and Calvanism led to the Dutch War of Independence, otherwise known as the Eighty Years War, against Catholic Hasburg Spain. Seventeen Dutch provinces covering the areas of modern-day Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg were abetted by England, the Kingdom of Scotland and France in creating the Dutch Republic. One of the theatres of war was the West Coast of Africa where the Dutch West India Company and the Dutch East India Company fought Portugal, a vassal of Hasburg Spain under the Iberian Union, around Elmina to get a piece of the Triangular Slave trade in slaves, guns, gunpowder, ivory, pepper and gold. Elmina was captured in 1637 AD from the Portuguese by the Dutch, who retained control until Elmina was sold to Britain in 1872.

At this point, I will speculate that the battle in 1637 AD may have involved the Denkyira kingdom on the Portuguese side while the Dutch may have fostered rebellion against the Denkyira kingdom by the Asantes.

Famous privateers between 14th and 16th century

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Klaus Störtebeker, Wismar, (leader of the Likedeelers), 1360–1401

Didrik Pining, German, c. 1428–1491

Paul Beneke, German, born in Hanseatic City of Danzig, Pomerelia c. 1440s–1490s

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Murat Reis the Older, Turkish, c. 1506–1609

Sir Francis Drake, English, c. 1540–1596

Sir George Somers, English 1554–1610

Captain Christopher Newport, English, c. 1561–1617

Magnus Heinason, Faroese, c. 1568–1578 privateer in Dutch service under the Dutch revolt and 1580s, and privateer and merchant in Danish service on the Faroe Islands c. 1578–1589

Piet Hein, Dutch, 1577–1629

Alonso de Contreras, Spanish, 1582–1641, privateer against the Turks under the banner of the Order of Malta and later commanded Spanish ships

James Erisey, English, 1585–1590s

Discovery of Potosi and the New World

To the east, Portugal discovered a direct sea route from Europe to India via the Atlantic Ocean, cutting out the Ottoman Empire control of the land route to India, under an expedition led by Vasco da Gamma during the reign of King Manuel I in 1497 to 1499.

To the west, Christopher Columbus, an Italian merchant and navigator, commissioned by Spain discovered the Americas in 1492, paving the way for subsequent major world changes. Over the course of 4 trips, he established colonies in Cuba (Spanish rule: 1492 to 1898 AD), Hispaniola (today known as Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Puerto Rico (Spanish rule: 1493-1898 AD), the Lesser Antilles and Jamaica (Spanish rule: 1494 to 1655 AD, British Rule: 1655 – 1962).

Spain later established the colonies of the Viceroyalty of Peru, Florida, Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo, Captaincy General of Guatemala, El Salvador, near Vancouver Island Canada, Las Californias, Nuevo Reino de León, Nuevo Santander Mexico, Nueva Vizcaya Mexico, Santa Fe de Nuevo México, Nueva Extremadura, Nueva Galicia. France would claim Haiti and Portugal Brazil. The Viceroyalty of Peru was an important geography project, covering modern-day Peru, Chile, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina, Guyana and Venezuela.

yaa asantewaa - Map_of_the_Viceroyalty_of_Peru.svg
Location of Viceroy of Peru: Light green and dark green highlight territories controlled from 1542 to 1718. Dark green highlights remaining territories from 1718 to 1824.

The discovery of Cerro Rico (“Rich mountain”), also known as Cerro Potosi (“Potosi mountain”), by the Spanish in the 16th century had a long-lasting global impact. It became 60% of the world supply of silver during the second half of the 16th century alone. For two centuries Spain would lead the world in economic consumption, silver production, blowing money on unnecessary wars and failing to invest in the future. Half the silver from the Americas would go east back to Spain to be minted into coins, called “Spanish Dollars”, the origin of the “Dollar” in US Dollars. Half the silver from the Americas would go west across the Pacific to China and India, as theft from the Spanish treasury and undeclared black-market production of silver; to buy china, silk, spices and other commodities, to be laundered on its way back to Spain.

yaa asantewaa - potosi
Location of Potosi, Image rights: public domain

Between 1500 and 1800, 80% of the world supply of silver came from Mexico and Peru.(i) This attracted pirates such as Sir Francis Drake to the Caribbean and the Americas from England, France and the Netherlands.

The production of silver, in the quantities of 190,000 tons spent by Spain(ii)(iii), was only possible by enslaving the Native Americans under the Encomienda system and forcing them to mine silver at high altitudes in unsafe environments. Factory systems and plantation formats were trialled in the South Americas in conditions that would not have been accepted in Europe. Prior to this, Europe produced goods and services using a craft system, regulated by guilds. From the 16th to 17th century a policy began to emerge of producing raw materials in the colonies and finished goods in Europe.

The acquisition of huge tracts of land created a massive demand for cheap manpower to work them. The supply of free labourers was insufficient. Initially, Europeans sold textiles gunpowder and guns (a product with very little African producers) in exchange for gold, ivory, slaves, wood and pepper.

Slaves were shipped to the Americas to work the newly acquired land, in lower numbers than the later vast numbers of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Slaves became commodity currency and assets suitable for collateralised loans. The raw materials produced by slaves were shipped to Europe. Between 1750 and 1776, 50 percent of total annual British cotton exports went to the west coast of Africa.

The supply of cotton, gunpowder and guns to Africa had three effects: 1/ a local arms race to procure guns by every powerful state, 2/ competition amongst Europeans and the Ottomans to sell guns and 3/ an increase in exports of slaves (captives of wars). It took time for Europeans to realise that selling more gunpowder and guns to Africa increased warfare, man-hunting as a trade, and slave exports.

In 1730, Dutch Director-General at Elmina observed:

The great quantity of guns and powder which the Europeans have brought have caused terrible wars between the Kings and Princes and Caboceers of these lands, who made their prisoners of war slaves; these slaves were immediately bought up by Europeans at steadily increasing prices, which in turn, animates again and again these people to renew their facilities, and their hope of gain and easy profits makes them forget all about, using all sorts of pretexts to attack each other for reviving old disputes.” (v)

This became a vicious cycle with disastrous consequences for the African population. While Europe’s population grew at 1-4%, Africa’s population stayed flat, and profits from the Triangular Transatlantic Slave trade accrued to England, France, Brazil, the US, Portugal and the Netherlands. Spain blew its riches on wars and architecture. A confusing series of alliances and betrayals occurred over a series of centuries within Africa, as various states and forts, both African and European, played off one against another for control of various trades.

Industries developed to support the new world trade flows. Shipbuilding, cotton manufacturing, gun manufacturing, and the manufacture of slavery-related technology became important industries in Bristol, Lancashire, London, Liverpool and other European cities. The most important British ports for the slave trade were London (1660-1720s), Liverpool (1740s-1807) and Bristol (1720s-1740) under Slave Trade regulations.

Portugal and Britain were responsible for 70% of all Africans transported to the Americas. By itself Britain transported 3.1 million Africans to the New World and other countries (of which only 2.7 million arrived). From Britain, the Royal African Company and interlopers (illegal traders) supplied the Americas. To South Africa, East Africa, India and Asia, the East India Company supplied slaves collected from the West coast of Africa. (iv)

At the time of discovering Potosi, West Africa and China were major world producers of gold. When the New world gold and silver flooded the world market, this would have led to a crash in gold and silver prices, resulting in inflation and increasing the cost of goods priced in bi-metallic commodities. At this time, the Lira (pound in Italian), Dutch pond, Swedish pund, German Pfund and the Sterling (pound in England) were commodity money, copied from the Charlemagne’s Livre and the Roman libra, not fiat currencies (confidence-based money).

Other discoveries from the New World included the cure to Malaria, potatoes, maize, sweet potato, weed, cacao and coca. The Native Americans had perfected 3,000 varieties of potatoes. Spain bringing back 20 varieties of potatoes to Europe would reduce the frequency of famines in Europe and change the nature of warfare, as an efficient meal to provide to soldiers. Potatoes could be produced in less time and using less acreage than many of the previous foods eaten in the Europe. Potatoes could survive in many hostile or awkward environments.

The Rise of the Asante

These world events weakened a powerful nation called Denkyira, which before 1620 was known as Agona. The Denkyirahene, the ruler of Denkyira, had his seat of power at Jukwa, before moving it to Abankeseso (Dunkwa-on-Offin of today). The Denkyira kingdom ruled by hegemony.

The lucrative coastal trades with Europe along the West Coast of Africa and the Ottomans through the Trans-Sahara trade routes resulted in wars for absolute control between the Denkyira, the Asen, and the Twifo-Heman. Within Ashantiland, Denkyira controlled trade with Europeans in the West while the Akwamu controlled trade with Europe in Eastern Ashantiland. The Ashanti kingdom at this time was a tributary to Denkyira.

From the smoke of war in 1701 AD, the Ashanti emerged the new hegemony after the Battle of Feyiase, in which Denkyira ruler Ntim Gyakari was killed.


Although the Ashanti could raise an army of 200,000, over time it suffered various initially un-successful revolts from tributary states which provided auxiliaries to its armed forces. In one revolt of 1868, the Ashanti in league with the Dutch met and defeated in battle an alliance of the British, the Denkyira, and the Fante confederacy. In other cases, such as the defeat of the Fante by the Ashanti and Ga coalition, sometimes the Ashanti were unable to maintain their control of the conquered region due to guerrilla tactics and unconventional warfare.

The Ashanti standing army had 80,000 to 100,000 men, making it similar in size to Ethiopia, Africa’s largest army, in the 19th century. The Ashanti armed forces had modern guns, spears, bows, arrows, swords and cavalry. Cavalry, though, were not an effective instrument of war in forest regions.

Appointing Heads of state

The head of the Ashanti was called the Asantehene. The king was the administrative governor of the capital, Kumasi. All other territories of the confederacy had their own leaders. The position of Asantehene was based purely on merit and did not hold absolute power. All leaders from chief up to king had to be elected based on merit. The only unique power of the Asantehene was the ability to invoke a death sentence. During warfare, in the early periods of the Ashanti confederacy, the Asantehene acted as the Supreme Commander of the Army. Later, fighting was led by a Minister of War.

ashanti_kumasi 19th century
Sketch of Kumasi

During each term, the Asantehene swore fealty to the state. All chiefs from members of the confederacy down to divisions, subdivisions and villages swore fealty to the Asantehene. The chiefs of the confederacy held the authority to check the power of the king. The king was respected ritually and viewed as the embodiment of all Ashanti living, dead, or yet to be born. This was symbolised by the Golden Stool on which only the king could seat.

To ensure power and decisions were not concentrated in the hands of old people only, an organisation of young men existed called the nmerante. Chiefs had to consult the nmerante to be effective in their posts.

Government and administration

The Ashanti kingdom was formed from a confederation of Ashanti clans and large city-states. The Ashanti kingdom had police called “ankobia”. The kingdom covered 250,000 square kilometres and ruled a population of 3 million. In comparison, the modern-day United Kingdom (not to be confused with the British Empire) covered 242,000 square kilometres and had a population of 10 million in 1800 AD.

The Ashanti had a local calendar through which society arranged government, commercial and religious affairs. Certain roles existed in the civil service relating to diplomacy, the armed forces and trade.

Certain families were eligible to provide chiefs to govern units of the confederacy. The female line provided chiefs in each chiefdom. A committee of eligible men then voted for candidates into the position of “chief”.

Ashanti Districts
ashanti the Aban within the Manhyia palace complex
The original residence of the Asantehene, The Aban and Manhyia Palace Complex, before being looted and blown up by Britain in the 19th Century

Technology and infrastructure

The Ashanti used the talking drum to communicate distances of 300 kilometres or more at the same speeds as the telegraph. The language of state was Twi, a tonal language. The Ashanti had road networks, transport and communication systems.


Fields were cultivated for two to four and left to fallow for two years after. The Ashanti produced gold, cocoa, kola nuts, iron tools, plantains, yams, manioc, corn, sweet potatoes, millet, beans, onions, peanuts, tomatoes, palm wine, maize, beer, oil, reared various animals and had fisheries. Manioc and corn were introduced from trade with the New World.

Childhood and education

Children were not responsible for their social and spiritual actions before puberty. Education was available and provided by either indigenes or foreign scholars. The Ashanti travelled to Europe for their higher education.


Legal system

The Ashanti kingdom was in effect a theocracy. Rules were ordained by Nyame (the Supreme God) and the cumulative ordinances of the ancestors.

Violations of law were viewed as sins, not crimes. Sins offended the ancestors and gods first, and then the community. Failure of any chief or Asantehene to punish anti-social acts could result in impeachment. Some crimes could be settled by paying fines or revenue to the state. The King and chiefs could use judgement to commute sentences. Only the king could commute or exact capital sentences.

No Ashanti could kill another Ashanti, except for the king. Suicide was therefore punishable with decapitation because it was considered murder and offended the legal system.

The law covered how to hold trials, murder, intentional murder, manslaughter, incest, rape, adultery, the limits of responsibility of the insane, sorcery, litigation, cursing and sentencing. Forms of punishment included financial charges, imprisonment, banishment, and the death penalty (by strangulation, drowning, burning or decapitation).


The Ashanti are experts at using the lost wax technique and making gold ornaments.

Ashanti Gold_ornaments_(mask_and_shield),_American_Museum_of_Natural_History
Ashanti Mask and Shield ornaments, American Museum of Natural History
ashanti lost wax mask
Lost wax mask

The Anglo-Asante Wars

Britain gained a foot-hold in West Africa first through piracy and in-land slave raids during the 16th century by Sir John Hawkins (in Spanish Sir Juan Haquines), then due to investments in the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa (1660-1752) establishing a navy and forts on the West Coast of Africa, and lastly as a result of buying Dutch forts on the Gold Coast in the 19th century.

After the abolition of the slave trade by the Slave Trade Act of 1807, Britain sent two war ships to the West Coast of Africa, called the West Africa Squadron, to blockade all British ships operating in West Africa to trade in slaves. The West Africa Squadron also had a remit to seize French slave ships during the Napoleonic Wars (1803 – 1815). France had to sell 2.1 million square kilometres of Louisiana to the United States to fund fighting Britain and the Haitian revolution at the same time. The culmination of the defeat of Napoleonic France was a Congress of Vienna to re-draw the European map and set the future rules of international trade for Europe.

The Congress of Vienna was the first time so many European states sent national representatives to attend a series of group sessions and face-to-face sessions between Prussia, Austria, Britain, Russia, France, the Dutch, Portugal and Spain to conduct international politics and sign treaties instead of sending a complex web of letters to each other. This resulted in the limited abolition of the slave trade north of the equator by Spain, Portugal, the Dutch, and France (the loser from the Napoleonic wars).

The actions of Britain bankrupted certain planters in the Caribbean, the British African Company of Merchants and certain forts along the Gold Coast. This provided the opportunity for Britain to take over certain forts for its anti-slave trade compaign.

These international initiatives were coupled with Britain fuelling instability in the region of modern-day Ghana by siding with vassal states of the Ashantiland – Denkyira and the Fante Federation – to wage wars against the Ashante. The Ashante kingdom had profited from the slave trade as its wars to expand its empire resulted in captives from subjugated kingdoms being sold into slavery across the Atlantic. Now its European trading partners were one by one banning the slave trade and abolishing slavery.

The Asante-Wars were a series of four battles between the Asante and the British, in which other kingdoms acted as auxiliaries to the armies of both sides. Initially the Dutch backed the Asante and the Denkyira and the Fante backed the British. Also, the British West India Regiment (BWIR) were sent to the Gold Coast along with the penial regiment, the Royal African Corps, and British Regulars. The Asante won the first war lasting eight years between 1823 and 1831.

Later in 1834 Britain outlawed slavery – slave-ownership by Britons not only the trade in slaves as it did in 1807 – but also had to pay plantation owners 25% of its GDP by statue, equivalent to £300 billion in 2017, but amounting to £20m in 1834. It did not stop paying this amount until 2015. Britain law-making and diplomatic efforts dealt a major blow to the Asante Kingdom whose coast line was used to sell 10,000 slaves a year. Although the Dutch, trade partners with the Asante, did not abolish slavery – slave ownership – until 30 years later in 1863.

Yaa Asanteewaa Asante_map19th century
Asante boundaries, 19th century. Image rights: public domain

The second war against the Asante was a draw during 1863-1864. The third battle was settled with a peace treaty in 1874, after which the Dutch sold out their forts and possessions on the Gold Coast to Britain. This peace treaty was violated by a fourth war in 1894-1896 that Britain won, turning Ashanti-land into part of the Gold Coast protectorate of Britain.

The spark for the fourth war was the Scramble for Africa. Fearing that Germany or France may conquer the Asante, Britain asked the Asante to join their Gold Coast protectorate which the Asante refused offering to pay Britain in gold, rubber and cocoa to stay away. After choosing to go to war and defeating the Asante, Britain sent the Asantehene (their ruler) into exile in the Seychelles, where he would be joined by the Kabaka of Buganda (from modern-day Uganda) in 1899.

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The Ashante Kingdom: Gold Coast

by Editorial Team time to read: 16 min