The Republic of Ghana is bordered by the modern states of Côte d’Ivoire in the west, Togo in the east and Burkina Faso in the north and by the Atlantic Ocean to the south (Pl. 1). Historically, its northern hinterlands were orientated towards the Sahel, Sudan and Sahara while its southern territories inclined towards the coastline and the Atlantic Ocean. Due to its relative proximity to the equator, it enjoys a tropical climate which is characteristically dry in the north and humid in the south. Geographically, Ghana is characterized by a diverse range of vegetation zones, which run horizontally in broad bands across the country. The southwest is dominated by lush tropical rainforest, while the southern Accra coastal plain, which extends as far as the Atlantic seaboard, is covered by grass and scrubland. At the heart of the country is the Volta Basin, home to Ghana’s three great rivers: the Black Volta, the White Volta and the Oti. The Volta Basin is flanked on either side by the eastern and western highlands, which are covered in savannah woodland.
The southern and central parts of Ghana are currently populated by a number of ethnic groups collectively known as the Akan. They share beliefs, language and cultural practices which include matrilineal descent, a calendar system organized around a 42-day cycle and the worship of ancestors and spirits. Archaeological evidence and oral histories indicate that these communities migrated to their current location over several centuries and were joined by others, including Muslim merchants from the Sahel who established themselves in northern settlements such as Bonduku during the 14th century ad (Anquandah 1982, 69–79, Garrard 1980, 24–5).
In 1471 two Portuguese explorers, Juan de Santarem and Pedro de Escobar, sailed for the first time around this part of the West African coastline and traded with local inhabitants for supplies, which included a small quantity of gold. Within 10 years of this encounter a steady trade between the Portuguese and the coastal Akan communities had been established. Cast gold trinkets, gold dust, ivory and slaves were exchanged for commodities such as cast brass, copper and iron, textiles and beads. Some of these items came directly from Europe while others were trans-shipped from Portuguese factories along the North and East African coasts as well as from trading posts in China and India. In 1482 Don Diego d’Azambuja negotiated the building of the fortress of Sao Jorge da Mina, which later became known as Elmina (‘the mine’). The name given to this coastal fort reflects the fact that the Portuguese originally believed that all the gold was coming from a single mine located somewhere in the interior. In time this part of the Guinea Coast became known to Europeans as the Gold Coast.
By ad 1530 the Portuguese trade monopoly was under threat from other European states such as Castilian Spain, England and the Netherlands, and in ad 1630 they were ousted from their forts by the Dutch. It is probable that the majority of the cast gold and gold dust that was exported to Europe during this period was either melted down and re-used for coinage or sold for scrap. The intensification of trade with Europeans encouraged the emergence of several powerful indigenous Akan polities (a group of communities organized under a system of government led by an overlord) including those of Adanse, Denkyira, Akwamu and Akyem, which were all located in the forested coastal hinterlands. These polities came to prominence as a result of facilitating and mediating trade with the European merchants on the coast. Control of trade routes was extremely important and increasingly became the focus of intense rivalry between communities as they sought to monopolize them. By ad 1659 the Denkyira had succeeded in becoming the dominant power in the western part of the Ofin-Pra river basin. The Asante royal Oyoko oral tradition recounts how, during this period, the Kwaman (ancestors of the Asante) became the vassals of the Denkyira (Prempeh 2003, 91–3). Ever-increasing demands for gold by Ntim Gyakari (c. 1694–1701) the King of Denkyira, eventually provoked a full-scale revolt by the Kwaman and their allies who, under the leadership of Osei Tutu (d.1717), successfully defeated their overlord at the battle of Feyiase in 1700–1. This victory enabled the Asante to gain access to European trade goods on a large scale, possibly for the first time.
Following their success, the Kwaman quickly organized themselves into a centralized political power and introduced new institutions such as an exchequer (Gyasewa fekuo), and new official posts such as the Keeper of the Leather Bag containing the royal gold-weights (Fotosanfohene) and the Ahwerewamuhene, Keeper of the Golden Elephant’s Tail (sika mmera), the symbol of Asante wealth. Oral histories suggest that similar administrative posts may also have existed in the courts of Denkyira or Takyiman prior to being adopted by the Asante (Garrard 1980, 193). Therefore, many of the splendid objects that are associated with the Asante probably originated in earlier courts that developed them as a means of identifying and facilitating the roles of officials in largely non-literate governmental systems.
One item of regalia, the Sika Dwa Kofi, (the ‘Golden Stool born on a Friday’) encapsulates, more than any other, Asante notions of statehood. The creation of this stool has become enshrined in a legend that relates how Osei Tutu was helped in his defeat of the Denkyira by Okomfo Anokye, his chief priest. It is said that after the victory Anokye summoned from the sky the Golden Stool, which came to rest on Osei Tutu’s knees, an act that validated his right to rule. Anokye proclaimed that the stool contained the spirit (sunsum) of the whole nation and demanded that all the regalia and stools of the lesser chiefs be handed over and buried (Fraser 1972, 139–40). From this point on the life-force of the Asante nation was tied to that of the Golden Stool. This action had the added effect of ensuring that the newly forged political identity and unity of the Asante was not only rooted in its military victories, but was also bound up with complex social and spiritual engineering that created a sense of shared identity and destiny. This included the creation of new national oaths and national festivals which revolved around the worship of the Asantehene’s ancestors and accepted national gods. However, the concept of unity was given its ultimate physical and symbolic expression in the form of the Golden Stool.