Since the late Middle Ages the Akan region of west Africa has held a special place in European imaginations. The pioneering 15th‑century Portuguese traders called the coastline where they first weighed anchor, El Mina (the Mine). Subsequent waves of European merchants were attracted by the same substance that lured the Portuguese, and had long drawn north African traders down across the Sahara desert: an abundant supply of the highest quality, buttery-yellow gold.
Later, as the centre of the Guinea Coast, the Akan region gave its name to an English coin minted in pure gold, and when its European agents began to build substantial settlements, they renamed the region the Gold Coast. It was a place that lived up to its name, an African El Dorado. Unbelievable amounts of gold emerged from the interior forests in the hands of local middlemen and traders. Some historians have suggested that more than 11m crude ounces of gold were annually exported from the coast during that early period.
The European merchants knew that this supply was only a tantalising hint of the richness of the great inland gold deposits. They saw the flecks and nuggets that were washed down along rivers to collect on the sandy banks of the coastal plains, and they heard stories of the wealth of the indigenous aristocracy and merchants. But there was little that they could do. For more than a century after their arrival, Europeans fought for greater control of the gold supply lines, but the dense forests, the intolerable humidity and strategically evasive locals combined to create a near impenetrable barrier between the European-controlled coast and the gold-rich interior.
The forested region was made up of a number of chiefdoms that had forged economic and military alliances to form a formidable, but geographically diffuse, super-state: Denkyira. In a vast region of dozens of communities, many isolated by the dense forests, the Denkyirahene (or king) held a complex and unwieldy alliance together through fear and an uncompromising strategy of constant expansion. The vassal states were offered a precarious security, and paid handsomely in gold and manpower, which was used to further enrich and secure the king.
But among the Denkyira vassals was a young dynamic sub-state, Asante (or Ashanti), ruled by an ambitious, innovative and tactically exceptional leader, Osei Tutu. He knew his dislike of the Denkyira was shared by his neighbours, but unlike them, he was not afraid to act. In the late 17th century Osei Tutu began a diplomatic and selectively targeted military campaign, drawing the constituent kingdoms of the old Denkyira empire under his control, isolating and economically stifling the old king, before toppling and replacing him in 1701.
Osei Tutu, Asantehene, king of a vast, unwieldy region, was not going to fall into the trap of the old regime. With his closest lieutenant, Okomfo Anokye, (part priest, part communications mandarin) he set about building the necessary infrastructure to make their new kingdom truly viable. They developed roads to aid communication and trade, created laws and built armies to enforce security, and perhaps most importantly began a state-sponsored programme of forest clearance.
The new land recovered from the forest would be used for farming and settlement to further secure this burgeoning new kingdom. This was more ambitious than anything the region had ever seen – the sheer scale of the project, clearing thousands of acres of forest and reshaping geography, was shockingly audacious. It has been estimated that it would have taken one man almost 18 months to clear a hectare of forest. Because the soil was so thin and of such poor quality, a single family would have needed at least six hectares to make life viable.
The Asante were undaunted by the scale of the task, working at temperatures often in the mid‑30s centigrade, and at 90 per cent humidity, as they pushed relentlessly forward with forest clearance. Their plan was compromised by one thing: a lack of labour. There were simply not enough people in this relatively sparsely populated region to carry out these vast programmes at the speed and scale that the new regime demanded.
Forms of forced labour had always been a part of Asante culture. However for a culture that was relatively isolated, insecure and had no system of money, indentured labour felt profoundly different to the industrial scale slavery that began to develop in this period of expansion. Significant numbers of people were captured in raids and wars on neighbouring territories and then put to work at clearing the forest.
With the gold from the mines and the labour of slaves the Asante state grew, attracting merchants and intellectuals to the royal court at Kumase. They forged trading and diplomatic links with communities across the region, built an unchallengeable army, imported a significant arsenal of weaponry from the coast and began recalibrating their economic energies as much around slavery as gold. While the Europeans fought among themselves for their attention, the Asante were able to continue to dictate the terms.
The increasingly confident Asante state needed a new set of totems around which to rally. While banning the promotion of discrete cultures over which he ruled, Osei Tutu began utilising the craft skills of the region to create the symbols of his new kingdom. He adopted kente, a local strip-woven cloth, as a state fabric and invested in new state drum regiments, led by a fraternity of percussion specialists who were tasked with using talking drums to augment intra-state communication and build social cohesion.
The Asante created new myths of origin and instituted a tradition of making symbolic stools to represent the new political order. Sub chiefs sat upon stools that were symbolic of their jurisdiction and they answered to men who sat on paramount stools who in turn sat beneath a new symbol of the Asante state: the Golden Stool of Asante. Okomfo Anokye wove a beautiful narrative that is still repeated by children in Asante today about the golden stool that came down from heaven and settled gently on Osei Tutu’s knees – showing the gathered court that he was the unquestioned authority. It was a visual analogue for how the Asante state worked; driven by gold but with all its wealth and power invested not in the head of state, but in the stool itself.
When in 1717 Osei Tutu was killed while leading an attack against neighbouring Akyem, he left behind a kingdom that was many times bigger than the one ruled by the Denkyira. With the model he had so successfully established, the Asante kingdom continued to grow for much of the 18th century, not just in scale and influence, but also in effectiveness.
The Asante state grew so efficient that they found themselves with a surfeit of labour. They had already begun to commodify forced labour, and saw on the coast a new market for their excess slaves. As the British consolidated their coastal power base they fell into a strained symbiotic trading relationship based upon guns, gold and slaves. Over the course of the 18th century millions of people were transported to the coast onto ships and into a life of slavery in the new world.
Then in 1807 everything changed. The British abolished slavery and halted the Asante economic machine in its tracks. After decades of slave trading the Asante were left reeling. The export of so much labour had stripped the region of a significant proportion of its manpower. With less income to employ a legitimate labour force or to engage in new wars, the Asante found themselves increasingly vulnerable to internal disputes and the encroachments of rivals. In the days of Osei Tutu, the Asante would have sold prisoners of war on the coast to replenish the state treasury, but that option was now closed. Without slavery, the Asante machine began to unravel.
The Asante state fell into a sustained period of decline leaving the British free to consolidate their position by declaring a protectorate. What the Asante needed was another Osei Tutu, but they found themselves led by consecutive poor Asantehenes who played further into the hands of the British by mismanaging the state and attempting to continue to trade slaves.
Eventually in 1874 the British attacked Kumase, burning the royal palace to the ground. Although the British withdrew, they declared their coastal protectorate a crown colony. Over the following decades of the 19th century, there were unsuccessful Asante attempts to reinvest power in the royal court, but the state was profoundly weakened.
Yet, even when the British eventually banished the Asantehene in 1896, and later incorporated Asante into the Gold Coast colony, the people of Asante never gave up the golden stool – it endured as Osei Tutu instituted it, and as it remains today as the true symbol of the Asante kingdom.
Dr Gus Casely-Hayford is a curator, cultural historian and broadcaster. He presented the first series of Lost Kingdoms of Africa on BBC Two and BBC Four in 2010