In the West, pre-colonial societies are often portrayed as both simple and peaceful. For instance, prior to the arrival of the Columbus, it seems that all those “Indian” tribes simply hunted buffalo and peacefully coexisted. As Charles Mann describes in his book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, this myth is due to mistaken conclusions made in 1950 by anthropologist, Allan Holmberg.
For two years, Holmberg lived with 150 people of the Siriono tribe – located in modern day Bolivia — and concluded that they “were an unimpressive people who had existed for thousands of years without innovation or progress.” The people he had lived among and observed were one generation removed from a culture that had been destroyed by epidemics that had reduced the population of 3,000 by 95 percent. Mann suggests Holmberg’s conclusions would be akin to observing the survivors of Nazi concentration camps and making assessments Jewish culture.
I would wager that assumptions of African societies suffer from the same simplified assumptions inherent to “Holmberg’s mistake.” Unfortunately, it seems many Sub-Saharan African societies do not have well-preserved nor well-publicized records of how their societies operated, their religious beliefs, nor notable events. Though the local population are aware they come from a long ancestral line, it seems “history” didn’t start until the European colonists appeared.
Last year I traveled to the Elmina Castle in Cape Coast. Built by the Portugese in 1482 as a trading fort, Elmina Castle eventually became a holding cell for slaves destined for the New World. The Dutch seized the fort in 1637 and the British bought the fort in 1872. Listening to the Ghanaian tour guide describe how the fort was used in the slave trade, I was surprised that all culpability for how one group of humans can treat another so shamefully fell to the British. Maybe he didn’t know that the slaves were actually prisoners of war between rival African tribes. Perhaps he didn’t know that one of the most dominant tribes in the area of modern day Ghana was the Ashanti tribe of Kumasi.
Kumasi. To me, it’s a famous city because it’s one of a handful of cities in Africa that I had heard of. I bet most people cannot name more than three capitals of Sub-Saharan African countries. (I live here and I count eight.)
Last month, I read Robert B. Edgerton’s Fall of the Asante Empire. Most of the book is devoted to how the British conquered the Asante starting in 1807 to 1905. (Note: this suggests the colonial period was 55 years.) He describes successive campaigns, the characters of different Asante chiefs, and the things that the British officers had to overcome.
“In several of these [small and large battles against the British] they were the clear victors, the only West African army to defeat a European army in more than one major engagement,” Edgerton wrote. On several occasions, Edgerton writes that British officers were impressed by Ashanti bravery.
Edgerton paints a colorful and complex portrait of Asante (Ashanti) society prior to colonialization. For instance, when a British expedition visited Kumasi in 1817, one person gave the following description of how the Ashanti military officers were dressed:
“Each officer wore an immense cap topped by three-foot-long plumes of eagle feathers, with gilded ram’s horns thrusting out to the front. On their chests they wore red cloth vests covered with amulets of gold and silver, as well as various small brass bells, shells, and knives that jangled as they moved. Three or four animals’ tails hung down from each arm, and long leopards’ tails dangled down their backs, covering a small bow. A quiver of poisoned arrows hung from their right wrists, and each man brandished a small spear covered with red cloth and silk tassels in his left hand. They wore loose cotton trousers that were stuffed into soft, red leather boots reaching to mid-thigh, where they were attached by small chains to cartridge belts worn around the waist. Finally, each man held between his teeth a two-foot-long iron chain that had a scrap of paper covered with Arabic writing attached to the end.”
Regarding the upper classes, Bowdich was quite impressed by them:
“They were not only wealthy — some owned vast estates and thousands of slaves and lent huge sums to the government from time to time — they were courteous, well-mannered, dignified, and proud of their honor to such an extent that a social disgrace including something as unintended as public flatulence, could drive a man to commit suicide.”
Society seemed complex with several economic classes. While the upper classes bathed daily with soap and warm water and wore “scrupulously clean clothes”, the lower classes were “small in stature, filthy, ungrateful, insolent, and licentious.” Many poor people were free but there were also at least five classes of slaves.
It seems many slaves came from the northern tribes. They were easily distinguished from the Ashantis because they did not speak any of the Akan dialects and had notable physical features. Ashanti slaves seem not to have been treated much better than those who ended up in the New World.
“Most slaves could be sent away as human sacrifices by their masters at any time, and many were compelled to perform onerous labor clearing fields or mining gold, while others were forced into military service.” Many slaves were unworthy of proper burial; instead, most were thrown into a river where they were consumed by fish.
Edgerton makes it clear that slaves did all the dirty work. By the 17th century, slaves were used exclusively by the Ashanti state to mine for gold — “perhaps because shafts collapsed by heavy rains and rising groundwater made mining such a dangerous activity…Slaves slept and ate in these pits.”
In addition to mining, the Asante also used slaves for the cultivation of food including cassava, peanuts, maize, oranges, avocados, tomatos, and yams.
The demand was so great for slaves that “the Portuguese actually imported slaves to the Asante from as far away as Angola!”
From the outside, it appeared that the Ashanti king or Asantehene was the government’s leader and highest judge, his power did not come from a deity like in Europe, Japan, or China. In fact, the Asantehene “shared power with a national assembly of some two hundred men, representing all regions of the empire, that regularly managed the affairs of government and decided all disputes as a supreme tribunal.” Sounds a lot like a Greek republic. Furthermore, “the king was advised — and sometimes dominated — by an inner council of eighteen nobles: powerful military commanders, some princes, major govenrment officials… two of the king’s chamberlains, the head physician, senior priest, and often most influential of all, the queen mother.” Sounds like modern day China.
This inner council was known as the Asante Kotoko or Asante porcupine. Like MC Hammer, “no one dares touch them.” (Only after reading this did I finally understand why the Kumasi-based football team is called “Asante Kotoko”.)
Thus, the Asantehene was not a king or emperor as in Europe or East Asia, respectively. His power laid with his political faction and “he had to retain their favor to survive, while doing as little as possible not to offend other powerful factions.”
The state was operated by hundreds of bureaucrats. The primary threat that the Asantehene and his government was concerned with was a powerful and wealthy merchant class. While a man could accumulate vast wealth in his lifetime, Edgerton points out that upon his death, the Ashanti estate tax collectors would take the great majority of his wealth and return it to the king. His heirs would only receive a small fraction of his wealth.
But the Asantes did not derive power from organic growth alone. In the first half of the 18th century, they became powerful because they conquered or intimidated the 20 neighboring tribes to rule an area larger than modern day Ghana. These conquered areas paid annual tribute in the form of slaves, livestock, skilled laborers, and gold.
In summary, Edgerton offers a colorful portrait of Asante/Ashanti culture prior to colonialization. I encourage anyone interested in Ghana to read the first few chapters. I think the book helps explain why many things are the way they are in modern Ghana.