The term ‘Akan’ covers an ethnic or linguistic and culturally linked group of people in Ghana and the Ivory Coast with a well defined political and social organisation, based originally on a military model. The most powerful were the Asante. Powerful chiefs of the vanguard, left wing, right wing, bodyguard, etc. bore allegiance to the Asantehene, the paramount chief. Numerous independent Akan states existed in Southern Ghana, some calling themselves ‘Fante’ rather than Asante, but organised on a similar model. They all shared a tradition of migration from further north.
The kingdom confederacy of Asante emerged as a political entity under the first king or Asantehene, at the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries. The 18th century saw a great extension of Asante power throughout the most of central and southern Ghana. Political administration was on an efficient military model with responsibility delegated for providing components of the military force. A network of roads was maintained for military and trading use, radiating from Kumase, the capital. Gold, ivory and slaves were traded to the coast in exchange for arms.
Delegated civil and legal authority was given out to outlying states. In the second half of the 19th century disputes over major matters of policy weakened the Asantehene’s power. This was accentuated by British suppression of the slave trade, an important source of Asante wealth. Wars with the British culminated in the exile of the Asantehene and the capture by the British of Kumase in 1900. The confederacy was restored in 1933 under the Asantehene’s successor.
The Asante lived in villages comprised of up to 5 or 6 family groups. Inheritance was through the matrilineal bloodline, men inheriting from maternal uncles, women from maternal aunts. Chiefs were chosen from the senior members of the family who first settled in the village. The working of the Asante social system depended in part on allegiance to a chief and his administration of justice, and in part on the privileges derived from belonging to an extended family group.
The Asante believed in one supreme god, ‘Onyame’, the sky god, who created the world. Beneath him was a pantheon of lesser gods and spirits, particularly ancestor spirits, who acted as Onyame’s intermediaries with man. Onyame sent his children to earth to confer his beliefs upon it. These bore the names of what are now rivers and lakes, revered and worshiped as containing the power and the spirit of the great Creator. Ancestor spirits resided in the stools the Asante had used in their lifetime. Stools were thus part of an Asante’s life spirit and greatly honoured. Their designs were hierarchical; certain types were reserved for the holders of specific high offices.
Gold was a principal source of wealth and status for Asante. The Asantehene and his court officials were traditionally bedecked with a profusion of gold ornaments and insignia of office. Cast gold ornaments were made by highly skilled craftsmen answerable directly to the Asantehene, who could veto their manufacture for persons who were not entitled to them. Gold dust was used as currency for trade and payment of fines. It was weighed on special scales with bronze weights, many of these in figurative form made by the lost wax technique The Asante made a very considerable variety of woodcarvings
in human form, some for ritual, some for every day use. One extremely numerous class were stylised dolls, their form representing ideal beauty, which were carried by women in the belief the image would aid fertility. The Asante admired a smooth unblemished appearance and a fineness of line in their carved artefacts, with attention to balance and symmetry. There was no masking tradition.
Surface decoration, designs and even shape itself in Asante art have symbolic significance and may carry specific names which should properly be known to the wearer or user. Examples are the various designs which go to form the component strips of Asante cloth worn by chiefs on important occasions or funerals. Some of these designs are subject to licensing by the Asantehene and convey status. Weaving was generally done by men. Women made terracotta pots for everyday use, but only men were allowed to make the pottery figurines which were used during the funeral rites to represent the deceased.
John Heron Dickson | Dec 1997