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Because of War
The Ashanti Empire (also spelled Asante) was an Akan empire and kingdom in what is now modern-day Ghana from 1670 to 1957. The Ashanti Empire expanded from Asante to include the Brong-Ahafo
Region, Central Region, Eastern Region, Greater Accra Region and Western Region of present-day Ghana. The empire also encompassed parts of modern day Cote d’Ivoire and Togo. Due to the empire’s military prowess, wealth, architecture, sophisticated hierarchy and culture, the Asante Kingdom has been extensively studied and has more historiographies by European, primarily British authors than any other indigenous culture of Sub-Saharan Africa.
Starting in the late 17th century, the Ashanti king Osei Tutu (c. 1695 – 1717) and his adviser Okomfo Anokye established the Asante Kingdom, with the Golden Stool of Asante as a sole unifying symbol. Osei Tutu oversaw a massive Ashanti territorial expansion, building up the army by introducing new organization and turning a disciplined royal and paramilitary army into an effective fighting machine. In 1701, the Asante army conquered Denkyira, giving the Asante access to the Gulf of Guinea and the Atlantic Ocean coastal trade with Europeans, notably the Dutch.
The name Asante means ‘because of war’. The word derives from the Twi words *sa meaning ‘war’ and nti meaning ‘because of’. This name comes from the Asante’s origin as a kingdom created to fight the Denkyira kingdom. The variant name ‘Ashanti’ comes from British reports that transcribing ‘Asante’ as the British heard it pronounced, as-hanti. The hyphenation was subsequently dropped and the name Ashanti
remained, with various spellings including Ashantee common into the early 20th century.
Between the 10th and 12th centuries AD the ethnic Akan people migrated into the forest belt of Southern Ghana and established several Akan states:
- Assin-Denkyira-Fante Confederacy-Mankessim Kingdom (present-day Central region)
- Akyem-Akwamu-Akuapem-Kwahu (present-day Eastern region and Greater Accra)
- Ahanta-Aowin-Sefwi-Wassa (present-day Western region)
Before the Asante Kingdom had contact with Europeans, it had a flourishing trade with other African states due to the Asante gold wealth. Trade with European states began after contact with the Portuguese in the 15th century AD. When the gold mines in the Sahel started to play out, the Ashanti Kingdom rose to prominence as the major player in the gold trade. At the height of the Asante Kingdom, the Asante people became wealthy through the trading of gold mined from their territory.
Ceremonial in the Asante Kingdom
The greatest and most frequent ceremonies of the Asante recalled the spirits of departed rulers with an offering of food and drink, asking their favor for the common good, called the Adae. The day before the Adae, Akan drums broadcast the approaching ceremonies. The stool treasurer gathers sheep and liquor that will be offered. The chief priest officiates the Adae in the stool house where the ancestors came. The priest offers each food and a beverage. The public ceremony occurs outdoors, where all the people joined the dancing. Minstrels chant ritual phrases; the talking drums extol the chief and the ancestors in traditional phrases. The Odwera, the other large ceremony, occurs in September and typically lasted for a week or two. It is a time of cleansing of sin from society the defilement, and for the purification of shrines of ancestors and the gods. After the sacrifice and feast of a black hen—of which both the living and the dead share—a new year begins in which all are clean, strong, and healthy.
Death in the Asante Kingdom
Sickness and death were major events in the kingdom. The ordinary herbalist divined the supernatural cause of the illness and treated it with herbal medicines.
People loathed being alone for long without someone available to perform this rite before the sick collapsed. The family dressed the deceased in their best clothes, and adorned them with packets of gold dust (money for the after-life), ornaments, and food for the journey ‘up the hill’. The body was normally buried within 24 hours. Until that time the funeral party engage in dancing, drumming, shooting of guns, all accompanied by the wailing of relatives. This was done because the Asante typically believed that death was not something to be sad about, but rather a part of life.
As the Asante believed in an after-life, families felt they would be reunited with their ancestors upon death. Funeral rites for the death of a king involved the whole kingdom and were a much more elaborate affair.