GeographyThe Ashanti Empire was one of a series of kingdoms along the coast including Dahomey, Benin, and Oyo. All of these states were based on trade...
The Ashanti Empire was one of a series of kingdoms along the coast including Dahomey, Benin, and Oyo. All of these states were based on trade, especially gold, ivory, and slaves, which were sold to first Portuguese and later Dutch and British traders. The region also had dense populations and large agricultural surpluses, allowing the creation of substantial urban centres. By 1874, the Ashanti controlled over 100,000 square kilometers while ruling approximately 3 million people.
The lands within Asanteman were also rich in river-gold and kola nuts, and they were soon trading with the Songhay Empire, the Hausa states and by 1482 with the Portuguese at the coastal fort Sao Jorge da Mina, later Elmina. Thanks largely to profits from the slave trade, the Ashanti had risen to be a major force in the area.
Ashanti yam ceremony, 19th Century by Thomas E. BowdichThe history of the confederacy was one of slow centralization. In the early nineteenth century the Asantehene used the annual tribute to set up a permanent standing army armed with rifles, which allowed much closer control of the confederacy. Despite still being called a confederacy it was one of the most centralised states in sub-Saharan Africa. Osei Tutu and his successors oversaw a policy of political and cultural unification and the union had reached its full extent by 1750. It remained an alliance of several large towns which acknowledged the sovereignty of the ruler of Kumasi, known as the Asantehene.
The Ashanti prepared the fields by burning before the onset of the rainy season and cultivated with an iron hoe. Fields are fallowed for a couple years, usually after two to four years of cultivation. Plants cultivated include plantains, yams, manioc, corn, sweet potatoes, millet, beans, onions, peanuts, tomatoes, and many fruits. Manioc and corn are New World transplants introduced during the Atlantic European trade. Many of these vegetable crops could be harvested twice a year and the cassava (manioc), after a two-year growth, provides a starchy root. The Ashanti transformed palm wine, maize and millet into beer, a favorite drink; and made use of the oil from palm for many culinary and domestic uses.
The main cloth of the Ashanti was the kente cloth, known locally as nwentoma. Clothing production was typically gender specialized. "The Covering of the State," is made of camel's hair and wool. An ornamental figurine, plated with gold or silver, topped all ceremonial umbrellas.
Standing among families was largely political. The royal family typically tops the hierarchy, followed by the families of the chiefs of territorial divisions. In each chiefdom, a particular female line provides the chief. A committee from among several men eligible for the post elects that chief.
Tolerant parents are typical among the Ashanti. Childhood is considered a happy time and children cannot be responsible for their actions. The child is not responsible for their actions until after puberty. A child is harmless and there is no worry for the control of its soul, the original purpose of all funeral rites, so the ritual funerals typically given to the deceased Ashanti are not as lavish for the children.
The Ashanti adored twins when they were born within the royal family because they were seen as a sign of impending fortune. Ordinarily, boy twins from outside of it became fly switchers at court and twin girl’s potential wives of the King. If the twins are a boy and girl, no particular career awaits them. Women who bear triplets are greatly honored because three is regarded as a lucky number. Special rituals ensue for the third, sixth, and ninth child. The fifth child (unlucky five) can expect misfortune. Families with many children are well respected and barren women scoffed.
Menstruation and impurity
The Ashanti held puberty rites only for females. Fathers instruct their sons without public observance. The privacy of boys was respected in the Ashanti kingdom. As menstruation approaches, a girl goes to her mother's house. When the girl's menstruation is disclosed, the mother announces the good news in the village beating an iron hoe with a stone. Old women came out and sang Bara (menstrual) songs. The mother spills a libation of palm wine on the earth and recites the following prayer:
“Supreme Sky God, who alone is great, Upon whom men lean and do not fall, Receive this wine and drink."
"Earth Goddess, whose day Of worship is Thursday, Receive this wine and drink, Spirit of our ancestors, Receive this wine and drink"
"O Spirit Mother do not come, And take her away, And do not permit her, To menstruate only to die.”
Menstruating women suffered numerous restrictions. The Ashanti viewed them as ritually unclean. They did not cook for men, nor did they eat any food cooked for a man. If a menstruating woman entered the ancestral stool house, she was arrested, and the punishment was typically death. If this punishment is not exacted, the Ashanti believe, the ghost of the ancestors would strangle the chief. Menstruating women lived in special houses during their periods as they were forbidden to cross the threshold men's houses. They swore no oaths and no oaths were sworn for or against them. They did not participate in any of the ceremonial observances and did not visit any sacred places.
Slavery in Asanteman
Slaves, the modern day Ashanti point out, were seldom abused. A person who abuses a slave was held in high contempt by society. They further demonstrate the “humanity” of Ashanti slavery (in relation to slavery in the Americas) by pointing out those slaves were allowed to marry, and the children of slaves were born free. If found desirable a female slave may become a wife, the master preferred such a status to that of a free woman in a conventional marriage, because this type of marriage allowed the children to inherit some of the father's property and status.
This favored arrangement occurred primarily because of conflict with the matrilineal system. The Ashanti slave master felt more comfortable with a slave girl or pawn wife who had no abusua(older male grand father, father, uncel or brother) to intercede on her behalf every time the couple argued. With the wife's slave status, the man controlled his children unquestionably with the mother isolated from her own kin.
Death in Asanteman
Sickness and death are major events in the kingdom. The ordinary herbalist divines the supernatural cause of the illness and treats it with herbal medicines. The medicine man, a person possessed by a spirit, combats pure witchcraft.
If the patient fails to respond to medicine, the family performed the last rites. Then a member of the family poured water down the throat of the dying person when it is believed the soul is leaving the body and recite the following prayer:
Your abusua [naming them] say: Receive this water and drink, and do not permit any evil to come whence you are setting out, and permit all the women of the household to bear children.
People loathed being alone for long without someone available to perform this rite before the sick collapsed. The family washes the corpse, dresses it in its best clothes, and adorns it 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, and much drunkenness, all accompanied by the wailing of relatives. This was done because the Ashanti typically believed that death was not something to be sad about, but rather a part of life. Of course, funeral rites for the death of a King involve the whole kingdom and are much more of an elaborate affair.
The greatest and most frequent ceremonies of the Ashanti 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, talking 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 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 were clean, strong, and healthy.