Location, Location, Location: the Ashanti Lay Roots in the Gold Coast
The powerful sense of cultural identity that the Ashanti maintain on both sides of the ocean speaks to the strength of the Ashanti nation itself. This strength is a direct result of the religious practices and folklore of the Ashanti, the nature of its beginnings as a nation, and a number of other attributes that make the Ashanti people a unique West African nation. The spiritual traditions, reinforced by Ashanti folklore, helped to bring this derivative of the Akan people together as they spread their influence throughout the Gold Coast – current-day Ghana – and became the cultural and economic hub of West Africa. These attributes of the general strength of the Ashanti all draw influence from the benefits granted to them by the land where the Ashanti reside.
The Ashanti people’s homeland of West Africa is a desirable portion of land that is seated within what was once referred to as the Gold Coast for good reason. Gold is a resource that brought other countries from all around the world to trade with this derivative of the Akan people; and this precious metal kept them invested in Africa for centuries, even after they had overstayed their welcome. The gold fields of the Gold Coast prompted the Europeans to grant the West African region its auspicious name.
“Asante was a great trading nation… rich in gold, ivory, salt, and kola nuts.”1 The
1J K Fyn, Asante and Its Neighbors 1700-1807, (Northwestern University Press, 1971), 153
people of the Asante had a great deal of control in the way that the gold trade was conducted in Kumase. Routes connecting the city to the coast as well as the rest of West Africa and Sudan allowed the Ashanti to spread their gold to the corners of the known world in the 18th century from their landlocked capital city.
West Africa is well-known for its gold fields. The mining site near the Ashanti region of the GoldCoast is Tarkwa. The extent of Asante influence in 1842 reached all the way from Kumasi to Tarkwa, so that the Asante people, which belong to the Ashanti nation, are situated above this gold field, which has unearthed hundreds of millions of ounces gold since the advent of metallurgy in Western Africa. The gold fields of the Ashanti and Akan people are massive and fruitful; it shows no signs of letting up, even today. This golden spoon that the Ashanti have been born with is a vital part of their economy. The subsequent economic stability that the Ashanti enjoyed was a direct result of the favorable conditions that came with the land they held; it mirrored the subsequent strength of the people as well.
The Gold Coast is not just physically rich with precious metals and fertile soil, it is home to one of the most powerful and influential peoples to emerge from the West African region; it is culturally rich. The Ashanti people took up residence in the sub-Saharan region of Western African in an ideal position just west of the extensive river chain that now includes Lake Volta, the largest reservoir in the world. That speaks to the size of the Volta river valley itself, (pre-Lake Volta) and the amount of fertile land that accompanies a region with the potential for a source of a water of this size. The Volta river system lets out into the Gulf of Guinea after its 2 part stint as the Black and White Volta River, or the Mouhoun and the Nakambe River, respectively.2 Since the advent of societal development and seafaring in West Africa, this waterway has been used by landlocked nations to easily traverse Western Africa and the adjacent coasts of the continent. Similarly, the Volta was used as a main port for trade between the remainder of Africa, and subsequently the world, with the peoples situated further inland. It is a major port on the Slave Coast and Gold Coast, and a major factor that led to the success and affluence of the Ashanti people.
The Ashanti were once considered a coastal people. Their influence once spread from the Gulf of Guinea, northward, into a sizeable section of West Africa during the mid-nineteenth century. This section includes gold fields, forests, rivers, and lakes that support a very fertile land, capable of effortlessly cradling the Ashanti people for ages. Because the “nineteenth-century kingdom of Asante [the main derivative of the Ashanti people] was one of the most elaborate social and political organizations to flourish in the West African forest zone”,3 peoples would come to stop in the Ashanti region and trade with the Akan people along the Volta or the Gulf of Guinea, and trade with other nearby states as well, so that the Ashanti experienced the benefits of being situated in this highly favorable coastal region.
The distance between the Ashanti capital city – Kumasi – and the shore of the Gold Coast is so great for a people that trade so often with seafaring nations that it bears mentioning. It is 112 miles from Kumasi to Cape Coast, the closest coastal town, but the Ashanti capital was still considered a social hub for trade and travel. Kumase overcame this obstacle because it was a major turning point for inland traders travelling to other areas like Kormantsi, Elmina, and European trading ports that were scattered along the Gold Coast;
2 Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. "Volta River”
3Thomas J. Lewin, Asante Before the British: The Prempean Years, 1875 – 1900, (The Regents Press of Kansas), 9
“Thomas Edward Bowdich, who visited Asante… found that Kumasi, the Asante capital, was linked with all parts of the country by a number of these trading paths. The four most important routes linking Kumasi with the coast were the Aowin path; the Wassa path; the Assin path and the Akyem path.”4
It was advantageous in the sense that it gave the Ashanti access to a method of transportation and communication that provided them with a distinct advantage over the coastal towns – many of which did not have paths along the coast for travelling. “[Those] wishing to travel… had to walk for the most part on the sandy beach.”5
Throughout their history, the Ashanti have been active traders with the peoples along the Western coast of Africa as well as the rest of the Atlantic. The Ashanti region is centered around the capital city of Kumase – also spelled Kumasi. The immediate state surrounding the city of Kumase is called Asante. It is the name of one of the regions of Ashanti that make up the region of current-day Ghana, and the title of one of the mightiest derivatives of the Ashanti people. The movements of this group of people are largely representative of the interests of the majority of the Ashanti people. The ancestors of the Asante conquered the weaker peoples of the northern Akan region when they migrated north from their coastal home in response to the oppressive nature of region after the recent fall of the Adansi kingdom. The Asante immigrants were bound by language and a desire for land; they united
4Thomas J. Lewin, Asante Before the British: The Prempean Years, 1875 – 1900, (The Regents Press of Kansas), 9
5Thomas J. Lewin, Asante Before the British: The Prempean Years, 1875 – 1900, (The Regents Press of Kansas), 182
to confront the peoplesof the lands that they were conquering. Within the humble beginnings of this alliance, the way was made for the rise of the Asante nation, and subsequently, the Ashanti.6
This meant that the Asante, fleeing from a broken government into a new land, could plant roots in this new area. As they pushed out and overcame the native people of said land, they firmly established themselves as the dominant power in that region. 5 Because they were bound as one by language, a common goal, and a common ancestry, their attitude and spirit embodied the essence of the phrase “United, we stand. Divided, we fall.” Thanks to the consistency of the water and food sources in this tropical ecosystem of Western Africa, the Ashanti prospered, and eventually swept in an attempt to back to claim their disorganized kin to the south in the early eighteenth century that would have spread their empire to most of the Gold Coast.
The attitude of the Ashanti, at this point in time, is understandably of the “can-do” variety. W. Walton Claridge puts it succinctly; he says that they are from “small beginnings,”7 as one can clearly see, and yet, they managed to grow into a startlingly powerful group of people. He briefly mentions that dealings in gold, the chief export at the time, in that region, were conducted by the Ashanti. With respect to their humble beginnings, Mr. Claridge corroborates an assumption of Ashanti behavior made by many others before him, and many more since; he says “…Nor can there be the least doubt that that kingdom would, before the
6Fynn, Asante and its Neighbors: 1900 – 1807, (Northwestern University Press), 27
7W. Walton Claridge, A History of the Gold Coast and Ashanti, (Barnes & Noble), 181
close of the nineteenth century, have included the whole Gold Coast, had not the seaboard tribes been assisted and protected by the Europeans, who feared [the Ashanti].”7
The gold trade brought a cornucopia of European nations to the city of Kumasi to trade in not only gold, but people. Slaves were captured from inland and brought to the European slave ports, or coast towns like Cape Coast. The Ashanti were the victims of the slave trade. It was often the coastal peoples that would abduct Ashanti and take them to slave ports to trade them for gunpowder, rum, and beads.8 Other times, they would go and buy them outright from other villages, which would do the stealing. In this way, the Ashanti people were involved in the slave trade to a certain extent.
It is no wonder that the Ashanti people were so resilient when they were taken to be unwilling participants in the slave trade. The history of their people is one that they can be extremely proud of. The leaders of many slave rebellions, being held at various points in the slave trading process, were mostly belonging to the Ashanti nation. “The Spanish and French colonists shunned them on account of their ferocious tendencies… they were the instigators and leaders of every rebellion.”9 Tales like those reinforce the belief in the Ashanti people’s fortitude, which comes from their sense of cultural identity, which is a derivative of their unity as a nation and their wealth in people. This, in turn was made possible by the location of their mother-land.
Fishing life as an Ashanti in the mother-land was fruitful for a few select peoples; and
7W. Walton Claridge, A History of the Gold Coast and Ashanti, (Barnes & Noble), 181
8Fynn, Asante and its Neighbors: 1900 – 1807, (Northwestern University Press), 27
9Ashanti Influence in Jamaica, (The Journal of American Folklore), 392
for those among that group, it was attributed to divine intervention. There is a plentiful supply of fish in Lake Bosumtwi, which is located just southeast of Kumase. The fish are small, but abundantly present in the waters of Bosumtwi. According to legend, the discovery of Lake Bosumtwi is accredited to an Asaman. The story goes, that he stumbled across it one day and brought back fish until the others in his village came to know of it, and began taking advantage of this new source of food. The chief of another village had already laid claim to the lake, and so he entered a dispute with the Asaman. The war that followed ended in victory for the Asaman, and the lake became controlled by that village.10
The lake is sacred to the people that fish it and traverse it. A number of techniques for fishing are forbidden. Essentially, all conventional techniques and methods of water propulsion are taboo, except for a technique in which the fishermen paddle through the water on wooden logs and drag nets between them to gather their catch. This unique worship of a remote food source is one of the things that preach the corollary effect of food security on time management and unity of cultural identity. This gave the Ashanti time for other activities that lent to the cultural identity that makes the nation so strong. There are a myriad of other stories that preach to the effect that the Ashanti deities and folk heroes have on the people.
For example, Anansi, who is seen as the mighty, strong and clever spider of legend, is known as the trickster in Ashanti folk tales. He has performed great feats, often overcoming stronger opponents through his cunning and innovation. Anansi influences travelled across the Atlantic with the Ashanti who were captured as slaves; the majority of which reside in
10Malcolm MacLaren, Lake Bosumtwi, Ashanti (The Geographical Journal), 270-276
Jamaica. It is stories like these that show how enduring the sense of cultural identity, which is a derivative of the effect that food security and land security had on the Ashanti people.
With food security and a heightened standard of living, the Ashanti began to allocate their time towards other endeavors. For example, less labor was now needed to provide food for the same amount of people as before. Villages grew bigger, families grew larger, and people had a wealth of extra time on their hands. They utilized this time to socialize, to contemplate, and to innovate. This is a story told across the globe by every civilization known to man at least once in its lifetime. This is the tale of the development of a society through the advancement of spirituality and community.
The Ashanti have shared their gifts of gold, wisdom, and folklore with the adjacent region of Africa, and the involved European nations, over the years. Gifts of gold were returned for other goods as well, like tools, knowledge, and sometimes, people. Ashanti became the hub for social development in a substantial chunk of Western Africa, particularly the Volta river system and its tributaries, with the help of the Volta and the a road system leading out of Kumasi with ancient origins, as well as the wealth in people that was made possible by the food security provided by the geographic circumstances of the Gold Coast.
There was a wealth in people that the Ashanti benefited from during the extension of their kingdom and lands. As the conquering Asante nation, they assimilated the cultures of the peoples that they overtook on their march inland, and adopted their traditions. The Akan people learned from their neighbors and coupled this newfound knowledge with the experience of what not to do – from their failed government – to bring about the creation of the Ashanti state. This wealth in knowledge led to the product of this situation becoming one of the most influential nations in Gold Coast, and subsequently, West Africa. The success of the Ashanti state is an example of how one can come from “small beginnings”, excel, and take pride in the achieved growth. That pride is the strength of the Ashanti state.