Building Africa: The Golden Stool (Exploring the Old Ashanti Kingdom)
The second entry in our Building Africa blog series on pre-colonial urban development in Africa.
To most people, a stool might be an ordinary item; an everyday tool for sitting, supporting objects, or just decoration. But to the Old Ashanti people, their Golden Stool, or “Sika Dwa Kofi,” was the very item that held together their entire civilization. The stool was believed to harbor all the souls of the Ashanti people and was a symbol of their unity. They fought many wars against native clans and British colonizers to preserve their identity and protect the Golden Stool.
Members of the old Ashanti kingdom were a cultural people, governed by monarchical and pseudo-spiritual rule. The kingdom was formed from an agglomeration of Akan lineages in the 1670s, who decided their leadership based on the choice of the “gods,” with the Golden Stool serving as the official seal of rulership. It was initially a tributary state to the Denkyira kingdom, however, they formed a strong empire empowered by a strong army and conquered many other kingdoms, including the Denkyira in 1701. Their empire expanded to over 250,000 sq km, with an approximate population of 3 million people. Being a former tributary state, the growth of Ashanti into its own empire was a significant reference point in the development of other West African empires. They founded Kumasi in 1680 to be the capital city and centre for transnational trade.
The Ashanti economy was largely driven by trading gold, as well as agricultural products, ivory, and slaves, with neighboring states and European colonizers. The capital city Kumasi occupied a strategic position as it was situated along Trans-Saharan trade routes, which further grew Ashanti’s influence and strength throughout West Africa. This influence also attracted attention from Europe, as many nations, including Britain, were interested in gaining access to the region’s gold.
The Ashanti people were largely autonomous and enjoyed an independent rule. As a collection of different clans, they had created a complex governance system broken down into state, district, village, and lineage levels. Each unit had a designated leader who reported upward to the supreme leader known as the “Asantehene.” This governance and judiciary system sustained the organization of the empire and positioned it as one of the strongest and most organized clans in Africa. They also created some of the most sophisticated structures and architecture in the African region with advanced innovations such as indoor plumbing and hieroglyphics.
With years of European trade came European influence, especially in the Ashanti army. The army was fully equipped with firearms, including Dane guns and other types of rifles, which had been acquired in exchange for gold from European merchants. With these modern weapons, Ashanti created a formidable fighting force that successfully defeated British forces in 1824. The British led another attack into Ashanti territory in 1874 and defeated the empire, through the use of advanced military technology. The Southern Ashanti province was captured and converted to a British Gold Coast colony.
This attack significantly weakened the Ashanti forces and caused strife within the different leadership ranks, making it easier for the British to conquer the entire kingdom. The Ashanti launched their last recorded uprising against the British in 1900 in a series of conflicts regarded as “The War of The Golden Stool.” Despite being unsuccessful, the brave Ashanti people held on to the most precious symbol of their majestic empire; The Golden Stool.
Although eventually conquered and annexed as a British colony, the Ashanti empire is a brilliant showcase of the rich civilizations found in pre-colonial Africa. Today, it exists as a region in modern-day Ghana and retains the Asantehene as its absolute monarch at a sub-national level. This monarchical rule is recognized and protected by the Ghanaian constitution.
City-states with autonomous rules like Ashanti existed across several African regions and provide many lessons that can support the creation and governance of future cities. Many cultures and systems established in pre-colonial times remain a bedrock of modern-day governance in Africa and across the globe.