Type of Government
The Ashanti Empire was ruled by a centralized monarchy headed by an asantehene (king). The Ashanti government comprised four levels: state, district, village, and lineage. A large imperial bureaucracy handled every aspect of state business.
The Ashanti Empire was a powerful kingdom located in the area of present-day Ghana on the coast of West Africa and centered on the capital of Kumasi. Because of its vast deposits of gold, which were highly sought after by European traders, this area became known as the Gold Coast. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Ashanti was the largest and most powerful of the states formed by the Akan peoples of West Africa.
In about 1680 the Ashanti Empire was established by Osei Tutu (d. 1712), who became its first asantehene. Until this time, Ashanti had been a tributary (subordinate) chiefdom of Denkyira, one of the dominant Akan states of the seventeenth century. Denkyira had gained control of the West African gold market and trade routes by subjugating its neighbors. Osei Tutu rallied the forces of Ashanti, Kumasi, and other independent chiefdoms against Denkyira, leading a successful war from 1698 to 1699 that eventually toppled the state in 1701 and positioned Ashanti as the leading power in the region.
Osei Tutu’s authority as asantehene—and that of succeeding rulers—was symbolized by the Golden Stool. The stool had long been a symbol of power among local chiefs in Ashanti culture. According to legend, the Golden Stool was conjured from the heavens and descended directly into the lap of Osei Tutu, thereby legitimizing his authority as asantehene. The Golden Stool became a powerful symbol of national unity, and it was thought to embody the soul of the Ashanti people.
In the eighteenth century Osei Tutu and his successors embarked on a campaign of military conquest, incorporating more than twenty kingdoms into the burgeoning Ashanti Empire and enslaving a large share of the population. By the end of the century the Ashanti Empire was at its peak, ruling three to four million people and controlling nearly five hundred miles of coastline. Though the Ashanti state was created by military force, its rulers recognized that it would have to be maintained by diplomacy and effective political structures. Thus, Ashanti rulers set out to create a strong, centralized system of governance based on allegiance to the asantehene. Under Osei Tutu the odwira (a traditional yam festival) was institutionalized as an annual celebration of national patriotism during which local chiefs reaffirmed their allegiance to the asantehene.
During this time European entrepreneurs were establishing trading posts along the Gold Coast. The Ashanti took advantage of this opportunity to sell their valuable resources of gold and slaves in exchange for firearms and gunpowder, which they used to bolster their military power. The Ashanti had long employed slave labor for their own use, but now they found a ready and lucrative export market among the Europeans. Indeed, the Ashanti became an important supplier of African laborers to the transatlantic slave trade.
The government of the Ashanti Empire comprised four levels—state, district, village, and lineage—each of which was headed by a chief and an advisory council of elders who collaborated to conduct the business of government. At each level, chiefs were required to pledge allegiance to their superiors. Women played a significant role in Ashanti political culture, as social organization was based on matrilineage (descent from a common maternal ancestor).
At the top of the hierarchy the empire was ruled by a centralized monarchy headed by the asantehene. The asantehene served as the government’s chief executive, commander in chief of the army, and judge in the highest court, and he held the sole authority to order public executions. The asantehene was also the paramount chief of the Kumasi district, the empire’s capital and most important region. All asantehenes were enthroned on the Golden Stool, the ultimate symbol of political authority. Serving at the asantehene’s side was the asantehemaa (queen mother), who shared responsibility for state affairs and advised the asantehene on his conduct. Notably, she nominated candidates for succession to the kingship; the chosen candidate, once approved by the district chiefs, was elected by the assembled people.
The asantehene shared considerable decision-making power with a national assembly called the Asantemanhyiamu, which was composed of about two hundred senior chiefs and provincial rulers who deliberated the business of government and resolved disputes. This body met once a year, typically during the odwira, when subordinate chiefs were required to visit the capital to reaffirm their allegiance to the asantehene. The asantehene was also advised by an inner council of eighteen wealthy and powerful nobles commonly known as the Ashanti Kotoko (literally the Ashanti porcupine), so called because its members were believed to be untouchable. This council served both judicial and legislative functions and had exclusive access to the asantehene.
The Ashanti state was organized into many administrative districts. Each district was composed of several villages and was governed by an amanhene (paramount chief) and a district council of elders drawn from the capital village. This structure was repeated in the villages, which were, in turn, composed of several lineages (groups of families sharing a common female ancestor). District and local chiefs and lineage heads were elected in the same manner as the asantehene.
The Ashanti Empire was distinguished by its development of a skilled, professional bureaucracy centered in metropolitan Ashanti, the districts in and around Kumasi. The imperial bureaucracy handled every aspect of state business, including foreign relations, trade, and tax collection. Two of the largest agencies in this apparatus were the Foreign Office, which negotiated treaties and managed trade relations (it had separate offices to deal with the British, Dutch, Arabs, and other nations), and the treasury, a particularly important function because of the empire’s vast stores of gold. The professionalization of the bureaucracy, which largely took place under the asantehene Osei Kwadwo (fl. eighteenth century), shifted the basis for advancement in government from lineage to merit.
Political Parties and Factions
During the nineteenth century two political factions emerged that historians refer to loosely as the peace party and the war party. The peace party, which dominated Ashanti government from the 1830s to the 1860s, advocated the pursuit of trade relations and mercantilist interests rather than military expansion. During this time the Ashanti experienced nearly thirty years of peace. By contrast, the war party advocated imperial expansion and opposed giving up control of any territories. These policies led to a decisive war with the British that ultimately stripped the Ashanti of their autonomy.
From 1824 to 1902 the Ashanti engaged in a series of military conflicts with the British, who sought to impose colonial rule on the Gold Coast. During this time the Ashanti gradually ceded their autonomy to the British. According to the terms of a peace treaty signed in 1831, the Ashanti were forced to relinquish control of their southern coastal provinces. In 1874 forces led by the British general Sir Garnet Wolseley (1833–1913) took the capital of Kumasi; later that year the southern provinces were constituted as the Gold Coast colony by the British and the asantehene was deposed. The final war, known as the War of the Golden Stool, took place in 1900. On January 1, 1902, Ashanti was declared a British Crown colony, and the former northern provinces were made a British protectorate. Their war against the British was notable because it was the longest military resistance to European colonial rule in all of West Africa
Under British colonial rule the Ashanti Confederacy Council was formed and the position of the asantehene was restored, even though the asantehene served only as a symbolic figure. The modern nation of Ghana became a self-governing dominion of the British Commonwealth in 1957 and an independent republic in 1960. In the twenty-first century, the Ashanti are the largest ethnic group in Ghana, and the Ashanti state, which is still centered on Kumasi, is the most populous in the nation.
Edgerton, Robert B. The Fall of the Asante Empire: The Hundred-Year War for Africa’s Gold Coast. New York: Free Press, 1995.
Wilks, Ivor. Forests of Gold: Essays on the Akan and the Kingdom of Asante. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1993.