Five Rings of Gold – But Where Did It Come From?
When the Gold Coast gained independence from Britain in 1957 the anti-colonial nationalists proudly renamed the country Ghana. Their first head of stead, Kwame Nkrumah, a committed Pan-Africanist, and his government set a clear sign that colonialism ended for his country and that it was taking its last gasps, as the British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan confirmed in his famous speech in South Africa in 1960, when he proclaimed: ‘The wind of change is blowing through this continent, and whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact. We must all accept it as a fact, and our national policies must take account of it.’
What then was the newly formed government distancing itself from by dropping the name Gold Coast? From the fifteenth to the seventeenth century Twi speaking societies developed a sophisticated agrarian system that allowed for urban population density, for political centralization, division of labour, and for the export of gold. That gold was traded across the Sahara Desert to Europe. With the arrival of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the first slave castle in Africa, Elmira, built by the Portuguese in 1482 on what is now the Ghanaian coast, gold was sold to European traders directly. The result is the rise of the Asante Confederacy, with the capital Kumasi, a ruler, the asantehene, a female co-regent, the asantehemaa, dated by Asante historians to 1701.
The accumulation of wealth and political centralization was only possible with the use of mostly male slaves raided by the Asante army or bought with gold. At times when the local labour demand was met, these unfree African men were then in turn sold either into the trans-Sahara or the trans-Atlantic trade which allowed Asante rulers to negotiate prices favourably.
Kente cloth was and is woven by men, originally from silk cloth imported across the Sahara Desert from Europe which in turn acquired the silk in Asia. The cloth was unraveled, the threads then newly died, and woven into a talking cloth, as the combination of colours and patterns provide an explanation about the wearer and at times the occasion.
[Image credit: ‘Brass, bronze antelope weight used for gold dust and gold nuggets in trade’, 1800s, Cleveland Museum of Art. Image from Wikimedia Commons.]
Gold in Asante was part of everyday life. Swiss missionaries Kühnle and Ramseyer, the latter with his wife and toddler son, were captured by the Asante army in 1879 and became prisoners of war in Kumasi. The men observed food shopping at the local market where, to their great surprise, everybody around them was buying food with gold dust, using scales with highly ornamented brass and bronze weights.
[Image credit: ‘Asante gold breast plate’, early 20th century, Ethnological Museum, Berlin, Germany. Image from Wikimedia Commons.]
At the same time, gold also served to signify status of individual members of the political elite and their following, as well as the confederacy. When the ruler had his morning bath, a servant stood by and rattled the keys to the treasury. In fact, circa 1850 a death tax was introduced which meant that all gold of a deceased person had to be handed over to the ruler, who then had it melted down and redistributed the gold. This not only showed that the remarkable goldsmith skills could be casually destroyed because of the tremendous wealth, including the availability of labour and craftsmenship, this also allowed the Asantehene to reinforce or build new patronage networks.
[Image credit: Architecture of Ashantis drawn by Thomas Edward Bowdich in 1817. Original picture in Joseph Dupois: Journal of a residence in Ashantee, London 1824. Image from Wikimedia Commons.]
The gold further has symbolic meaning. According to Asante historians, the confederacy came into place in 1701 when the golden stool descended from the sky, called upon by ritual experts, and Osei Tutu became the first asantehene. The stool is the symbolic site of the Asante nation, past, present, and future. Furthermore, wood carved stools with gold ornamentation signify both male and female political office holders in Asante from the asantehene to the local communities. On special occasions, such as the annual Yam festival, celebrated to this day, in a public procession the rulers, male and female, are carried in dug out canoes, decorated with silks, wearing their gold ornaments, shaded by silk umbrellas.
[Image credit: Ashanti Yam Ceremony 1817 by Thomas E. Bowdich Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee (London, 1819). Image from Wikimedia Commons.]
Britain conquered Asante in 1896 with an expeditionary force sent to Kumasi under the command of the Boy Scout founder Robert Baden-Powell. This not only ended any political power with the colonization of the territory and surrounding area to establish the British colony of the Gold Coast. Many artifacts, such as those shown in this blog, were taken, regardless of their symbolic, spiritual, cultural, historical, and material meaning to their owners and Asante society.