Rise of the Akan Kingdoms Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The emergence of kingdoms in Akan began a process of political development in the region that would culminate in the creation of the Asante empire.

Summary of Event

The ancestors of the Akan people migrated to Ghana from various parts of northern Africa as a result of social and political upheavals in the area. For example, communities such as Badu, Seikwa, and Nkorankwagya, found in the northwest of Bono in central Guinea, were the result of the Kulamo people moving into the Akan region. The various northern ethnic groups who came to Akan shared a set of related languages known collectively as Twi. In the fourteenth century, the town of Bighu was founded and subsequently became a major center of commerce. By the end of the fifteenth century, the Akan states had organized themselves into ten major states: Adanse, Akyem, Assin, Denkyira, Asante, Bono-Tekyiman, Banda, Twifo, Fante, and Akwamu. Adanse was considered the most significant state, and it was held to be the place where the founders of the five states originated. Akan kingdoms

The Akan states gave rise to some of the earliest major urban centers in West Africa. At first, they were principally an agricultural people, cultivating staple food crops like millet and sorghum in the coastal areas and yams, plantains, and rice in the forested interior. Vegetables, legumes, and spices were grown as supplementary crops. Once gold was discovered in the Akan forest region, the society’s agricultural endeavors were supplemented by a significant mining industry.

The fifteenth century saw an increasing movement of Mandinke traders known as the Wangara Wangara from Mali to the gold-producing fields of the northern Akan kingdoms. The Akan traded in gold Trade;gold with the Wangara and later with European colonial nations, such as the Portuguese in the 1470’. Bono was founded as a consequence of the expansion of the gold trade. Additionally, the tropical forest where the Akan lived held vast plantations of kola nut trees. The kola possessed thirst-quenching properties and contained a stimulant similar to caffeine. Trade;kola

The Wangara, interested in the trade in kola and gold, traveled south to the forest belt. All extractions of gold from the southern tip of the Black Volta goldfields and from goldfields at Bambuk and Bure, west of Akan land, passed through Bighu. Bighu became the transition point for trade highways connecting minor states and towns like Kong and Bobo-Dioulasso to Djenné and Timbuktu in the northwest, to the Hausa states in the northeast, and to Elmina and Accra on the southeastern coast.

In addition to trading in raw materials, Wangara blacksmiths and goldsmiths from such groups as the Bamba, Kamaghatay, Jabaghatay, Timitay, Kurubario, and Gbanic fashioned jewelry and other commodities that gave further impetus to trade and commerce in the region. Oral traditions from Kommenda and Elmina describe the local manufacturing of salt from salt water retrieved from estuaries and boiled dry to leave the salt, as well as the export of roasted fish by merchants (batafo) to Fante states and to Adanse, Wassa, and Brong Ahafo. Evidence of a thriving textile industry in the Bighu area has also been found, along with remnants of ivory industries, which attained their peak in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when Akan ivory workers carved finely crafted trumpets. Trade;Akan kingdoms

At the height of their commercial development, the Akan exported gold, kola nuts, ivory, honey, corn, hides and skins, and palm oil. In return, they received cloth, glassware, weapons, copper, glass beads, brocades, dried figs, dates, cowrie shells, pottery, smoking pipes, tobacco, drinks, books, horses, firearms, and cutlery. Their thriving trade network provided the basis for the centralization and consolidation of the Akan kingdoms, which would later facilitate the formation of the powerful Asante Empire of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Akan also imported enslaved people who had been captured by the Portuguese in Benin along the West African coast. The Akan used these captives as forced labor in the gold mines and the palm and kola nut plantations.

Ghanaian archaeologist James Anquandah notes that iron-extractive industries flourished in Akan towns and villages between 1000 and 1500. Akan farming towns in Adanse constructed iron furnaces and utilized indigenous iron sources called atwetweboo in iron smelting. Ironsmiths made agricultural tools, weapons, and other implements.

In the sixteenth century, brass casting developed alongside this iron-smelting tradition, particularly in northern Ghana, and resulted in the manufacture of brass bracelets, amulets, anklets, rings, and other jewelry. Brass casters in Brong Ahafo and Asante were skilled in melting down European metals, and they produced gold weights, brass caskets for storing gold dust, gold dust spoons, and jewel boxes.

There is historical documentation of gold mining and goldsmithing in Ghana dating back to at least 1471, when Portuguese explorer Pedro Escobar recorded the practice. In southern Ghana, gold dust (sika futuro) became the principal currency, preceded by iron, brass, and cowries. Since gold was so highly valued, trade involved meticulous measurements of the quantities involved, leading to the development of the Asante system of weights. Gold dust was stored in a ceremonial bowl, the kuduo, which was an exquisite and finely engraved brass vessel used during both religious and civic ceremonies.

At its inception, Akan society differed from the other societies in the region in that it was matrilineal. The Akan kingdoms were characterized by a centralized political structure, presided over by a queen mother (the ohemmaa) and a king (the omanhene). The oman, a major settlement with a significant political and administrative apparatus accompanied by smaller neighboring settlements, functioned as the center of the Akan political unit. The central apparatus of the oman consisted of a hierarchy of councils that connected the diverse kinship groups. The councils were responsible for passing laws, allocating land for public utility, performing religious rites, declaring war, and settling for peace.

The queen mother and the king sat at the helm of the administrative structure and, though supreme, ruled in conjunction with a council of elders (ahenfo). The king and the queen mother each sat on a stool (nnua) which signified reverence for royalty and assumed a sacral status within the Akan ruling structure. Female stools were complementary to male stools, and women actively participated within their respective councils in making legislative and judicial decisions affecting the community’s well-being.

Denkyira was one of most significant of the Akan kingdoms. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Denkyira became vassals of the Twifo and the Adanse of the region. Even though Adanse invaded Denkyira, the onslaught was repelled and Denkyira proclaimed its independence. Denkyira grew over the seventeenth century and prospered from its maritime trade and commercial enterprise, particularly following the capture of Elmina on the coast. The Denkyira were defeated in 1701, however, by the Asante, marking the beginning of the latter’s growth into an empire.

Significance

Francophone West African historians have described the Akan civilization as la civilization de l’or, the golden civilization, precisely because of its majesty and monumental success during the period prior to European penetration in West Africa. There is no question that the region the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries witnessed a golden age of Akan creativity, when the Akan were not satisfied with merely producing raw gold, but proceeded to establish manufacturing industries predicated upon that gold. The resulting period of industrialism and commerce paved the way for the emergence of the formidable Asante empire, which developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Akan civilization is also noteworthy in that, contrary to popular opinion, it established enduring indigenous social, economic, and political institutions and urban centers without Islamic intervention.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ajayi, J. F. A., and Michael Crowder, eds. History of West Africa. 2d ed. Vol. 1. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976. This comprehensive volume contains an informative chapter by Ivor Wilks, a scholar of West African history who has done extensive research on Akan history entitled, “The Mossi and Akan States to 1800.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anquandah, James. Rediscovering Ghana’s Past. Harlow, Essex, England: Longman, 1982. Critical work by a Ghanaian archaeologist who has engaged in excavations and studied oral traditions in Ghana meticulously and provides a very detailed exposition of Ghanaian history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boahen, Adu, with J. F. Ade Ajayi and Michael Tidy. Topics in West African History. 2d ed. London: Longman Group, 1986. Excellent account that spans the breadth of West African history—including illumination of the Sudanese states and empires and the Kingdoms of the Guinea Coast—and provides detailed treatment of West African history from the precolonial era through the late 1970’. Illustrations, map, bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chambers, Catherine. Looking Back: West African States Before Colonialism. London: Evans Brothers, 1999. Though this book is not an academic treatise, it is nevertheless valuable in that it provides a pre-colonial history of Akan and other West African civilizations, with well-selected educational themes and beautiful photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Falola, T., and A. Adebayo. A History of West Africa, A.D. 1000-1984. Lagos, Nigeria: Paico, 1985. Furnishes a concisely detailed chronology of West African history, particularly focusing on West African states over the past millennium, illuminating both medieval civilizations and the colonial period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Farrar, Tarikhu. Building Technology and Settlement Planning in a West African Civilization: Precolonial Akan Cities and Towns. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1996. Well-researched academic text that provides an introduction to Akan civilization with focus on origins, political organization, matrilineal clans, economics, and religion, and contains an excellent discussion of the technology of building and complex architectural expertise that the Akan possessed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nkansa Kyeremateng, K. The Akans of Ghana: Their History and Culture. Accra, Ghana: Sebewie, 1996. Brief monograph on the social customs and history of the Akan. Includes illustrations and maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilks, Ivor. “Wangara, Akan, and Portuguese in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries.” In Mines of Silver and Gold in the Americas, edited by Peter Bakewell. Brookfield, Vt.: Variorum, 1997. An analysis of the Akan gold trade with both the Wangara and the Portuguese. Includes illustrations, maps, bibliographic references, and index.

Late 15th cent.: Mombasa, Malindi, and Kilwa Reach Their Height

1481-1482: Founding of Elmina

c. 1485: Portuguese Establish a Foothold in Africa

16th century: Trans-Saharan Trade Enriches Akan Kingdoms

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