History of the Ashanti: Empire and Colonization

Illustration of two Ashanti chiefs sitting.
“Grand Chefs”, Ashanti chiefs.
Source: Jules Gros, Voyages, aventures et captivité de J. Bonnat chez les Ashantis, 1884. (Image source)

Oral histories all agree that the Ashanti were originally part of a unified Akan clan that included the Fante, Wassaw and other Twi-speaking people. But it is in the specifics of its subsequent division that stories begin to diverge.

In one legend, it is Fulani invaders, destroying the Akan’s crops and forcing them to forage for edible plants, that spurs this division. One group collected fan while the other gathered shan in order to survive. They drifted apart and came to be called the Fan-dti and Shan-dti (dti meaning “to eat”).

Another story points to a dispute with a local king. A group of loyal subjects gifted fan to the king out of tribute, while the rebellious subjects attempted to poison him with the deadly herb asun. The groups were then described as the Fan-ti and Asun-ti.

Yet another history describes a different dispute between two factions of the Akan clan. One group left the kingdom and became known as the Fa-tsiw-fu (people who cut themselves from the main body). The Akan who stayed behind rejected a request by the king to restore peace among the two groups. As a result, the remaining people were called the Asua-tsiw-fu (people who refused to listen).

Migration and First Akan States

Map of the Akan migrations, showing the first migration to be from the regions around Lake Chad.
Map of Akan migrations (click to expand).
Source: General History of Africa, Vol IV.

The ancestors of most coastal peoples, the Ashanti and Fante included, migrated west from lands possibly as far as Lake Chad and the Benue river. After crossing the lower Niger river, they made their way through the forests of modern-day Benin and Togo before reaching the Ghanaian coast.

In these lands, rich in gold and kola nuts, mainstays of trade, the Ashanti, as well as their other Akan cousins, prospered.

By the 16th century, with the affluent trade economy of the region, a number of highly developed Akan states had emerged: The Bono in the north, the Denkyira, Akwamu, Fante and Ashanti to the south. Over the 16th and 17th centuries, the Denkyira quickly grew to dominate and exercise control over the smaller southern states.

Map showing the Akan states in the 18th century (present-day Ghana).
Map of the Akan and other states circa 1700.
Source: General History of Africa, Vol V

Ashanti Empire

Situate this empire on the timeline and in the History of West Africa as a whole.

The Oyoko clan of the Ashanti had settled around lake Bosomtwe near Kumasi, a rich, inland area at the junction of trade routes that would become the future empire’s capital. Under Denkyiran dominance, this clan nevertheless rose to prominence.

Unification of the Ashanti Kingdoms

Obiri Yeboa (r. c. 1660 – 1680) of the Oyokos never saw his ambitions for the future of the Ashanti, united and free from Denkyira come to fruition. But during his reign, he planted the seeds for unification that his nephew and successor Osei Tutu (r. c. 1680 – 1717) would use.

Sharing his uncle’s dreams, Osei Tutu had a carefully thought-out plan to overthrow the Denkyira. The first step was uniting the other Ashanti clans, and for that, he would need an air of authority. He took the title of asantehene, or “king of the Ashanti” — a lofty title, for people who had had, until this point, only clan kings —, and started the tradition of the Sika ‘dwa, “golden stool”.

According to the legend, Okomfo Anokye, Tutu’s chief priest and advisor, called a meeting of all the heads of each Ashanti clan. In this meeting, the priest conjured a golden stool down from the heavens and into Osei Tutu’s lap. Such seats were traditionally symbolic of a chief’s leadership, but this one embodied the spirit of the Ashanti people as a whole. The Ashanti chiefs immediately swore allegiance to the stool and Osei Tutu as the Asantehene, forming the Ashanti Union around 1700.

Asantehene Otumfuo Opoku Ware II (r. 1970 - 1999) sits next to the Ashanti golden stool.
Asantehene Otumfuo Opoku Ware II (r. 1970 – 1999) on the left and the golden stool on a throne on the right.
Photo by Frank Fournier, in Kumase, Ghana, 1995. (Source)

The city Kumasi — so named because Osei Tutu sat under the Kum tree during territorial negotiations —, a crossroads of trade routes on land rich in gold and kola nuts, became the empire’s capital. The first asantehene designed a new constitution and formed a council of the heads of the states. The annual Odwira festival cemented the union.

With those alliances firmly secured, Osei Tutu led his new army to defeat the Denkyira. Their victory allowed the Ashanti access to the European trade spilling in from the coast. Due to that, the empire tripled in size, becoming a strong, war-focused nation. Osei Tutu died in battle during a campain against Akyem, another Akan state.

Growth of the Empire

Osei Tutu’s chosen successor, Opoku Ware (r. c. 1717 – 1750) created the Great Oath of the Ashanti as a means to further unify his people. The words “Koromante ne memeneda” — referring to the day (Sunday) and place (Koromante) of Osei Tutu’s death — made binding and unrecantable any pledge with which it was uttered. The oath played an important role in pledges of allegiance because it bound the chiefs and their asantehene together forever.

During his rule, Opoku Ware expanded and consolidated the Empire’s reach and power. He quickly subjugated Sehwi, Gyaman, and even Akwamu. Incorporating these large areas into the Ashanti empire made the domain stretch to encompass most of modern-day Ghana. A notable challenge was a decade-long war with Akyem, whose defeat in 1742 spread the Ashanti’s political and economic domination to the coast. The empire became the Gold Coast’s largest trader of captives, gold and ivory.

Opoku Ware’s later years focused on the centralization of the administration. He weakened the power of provincial chiefs by increasing the number of subordinates who reported directly to the asantehene. This led to revolts by the provincial chiefs, as well as subjugated people like the Akyem and Wassaw, who siezed the chance to revolt for independence. By the time of his death, in 1750, Opoku Ware had ultimately forced the chiefs to accept his reorganization of the empire, preventing the nation from falling apart, for now.

Map showing the Ashanti Empire in the 1800s, in what is modern-day Ghana
Map of the Ashanti Empire in the 1800s.

Source: Encyclopedia of African History and Culture – Vol III, 2001.

Rebellions and Rivalries

When Kusi Obodum (r. c. 1750-1764) was deposed, Osei Kwadwo (r. 1764 – 1777) took the golden stool. Most of his reign was spent putting down rebellions — from the Twifo, Wassaw and Akyem — initially with the help of the Fante until their alliance broke down. Eventually, he managed to stabilize the realm. He even expanded it by conquering Dagomba to the north, where he acquired a large number of captives who were brought to the coast and sold to the Europeans.

Osei Kwadwo made some administrative changes to the empire, installing Ashanti nobles as administrators to oversee the provinces. He also sent representatives to the coast to ensure the European traders paid rent for their forts and castles, giving the Ashanti greater control over the coast.

Decline with the Anglo-Ashanti Wars

While the Ashanti were expanding their trade networks towards the interior, British merchants and expeditionary forces kept flooding the coast in ever increasing numbers, in hopes of monopolizing coastal trade. This would be the beginning of the empire’s decline in the 19th century. The ever-rising tensions would lead to a century of wars between the Ashanti and the British.

Some of the smaller African states, like the Fante and Denkyira, welcomed the British as potential allies against the powerful Ashanti. The root of their rivalry was their Ashanti masters’ habit of raiding their neighbors for captives which were sold for European goods or forced to work in the gold fields.

First Anglo-Ashanti War

Tensions rose until the Ashanti sent an estimated 10,000 warriors to expel a smaller force of British, Fante and Denkyira soldiers from their territory in 1824. They displayed the head of the defeated British governor Charles MacCarthy (1769 – 1824) in the capital of Kumasi as a warning to any who would have designs on their territory.

Second Anglo-Ashanti War

Two years later, the British avenged their loss, defeating the Ashanti at Kantamanto. The Ashanti were forced to relinquish their claims on many coastal people, including the Fante and Akyem.

Third Anglo-Ashanti War

The next few decades were relatively peaceful, until the British bought the remaining Dutch forts along the Gold Coast, making them the only European force in the region. Although the Ashanti were skilled bowmen, musketeers and spearsmen, they could not defeat the British artillery that marched on Kumasi. Once again the Ashanti had to renounce their claims to all territories south of the Pra river. Britain formally declared the Gold Coast Colony over the entire coast by 1874. Although the Ashanti’s influence declined over the next 15 years, they were not ready to give up just yet.

The Ashanti rebuilt their strength, but the British, threatened by the French colonial claims, decided to secure their claim to the interior regions of their colony. In 1895-96, they assailed Kumasi with cannon fire, forcing the asantehene Agyeman Prempeh (1870 – 1931) to accept exile in order to avoid full-scale war and the destruction of the capital.

Final Anglo-Ashanti War

Queen mother Yaa Asantewa in ceremonial war dress, carrying a rifle
Yaa Asantewa, queen mother of Ejisu in the Ashanti Empire.
Unknown photographer, unkown date. (Source)

By 1901, the Ashanti were no longer willing to tolerate the foreign occupation. Yaa Asantewa (1850 – 1912), the mother of a prominent chief, and a fierce military leader took leadership. She launched offensives to reclaim their capital. Despite early victories, the arrival of British reinforcements from Nigeria and Sierra Leone, combined with superior fire-power, was overwhelming. Witnesses claimed that Yaa Asantewa was the last Ashanti to lay down arms. The defeat cemented the British claim on the Gold Coast, marking the end of the Anglo-Ashanti wars, and the beginning of the colonial era in British West Africa.

The Empire Today

The empire never completely ceased to exist in the Ashanti region of Ghana. The line of Ashanti kings keeps on going, at least in a ceremonial sense, with the 16th and current ansantehene, Osei Tutu II, enstooled in 1999.

Sources and Further Reading

Books:

 

Comments

  1. Adinor Puplampu

    Just discovering this site. Interesting looking forward to seeing something also about my people the Dangmes of Ghana.

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