I. The history, significance and usage of Asante royal regalia continued

During the 18th and early 19th centuries the Asante waged successive military campaigns against their neighbours in order to consolidate power and expand their sphere of influence. During a 30-year period they defeated the Wankyi (1711–12), Takyiman (1722–3) and Akyem (1742), all of whom contributed skilled personnel as well as portable wealth to Asante and gave them access to more resources and trading opportunities. Integration of defeated communities was partly achieved through the physical relocation of specialist craftsmen who were often resettled in Kumase, the Asante capital. Goldsmiths could only cast ornaments and regalia for other chiefs with the permission of the Asantehene, who exacted a payment in gold dust for the manufacture of each item. Control such as this indicates the importance and value that was placed on gold as a substance and to the products that were created using it.

In 1817 the British Company of Merchants Trading to Africa took the decision to send a diplomatic delegation to Kumase. This decision had been influenced by several factors. Firstly, during the previous 30 years Asante had firmly established itself as the new political power on the Gold Coast. Repeated incursions by its armies into neighbouring Assin and Fante coastal states in 1807, 1811 and again in 1816 gave cause for concern, as they adversely affected trade and had resulted on one occasion in an attack on a British fort. The Africa Company was therefore keen to limit conflicts, protect the communities living under the walls of its forts and establish diplomatic relations with the Asantehene and his court. Secondly, the abolition of trans-Atlantic slavery in 1807 had necessitated a rapid switch to new and legitimate commodities such as gold, ivory and palm oil. Finally, the British, Danish and Dutch trading companies were competing with one another to secure trade monopolies with the Asantehene, who controlled the lucrative interior markets to the north, east and west of Kumase.

On his return to England Thomas Edward Bowdich, the conductor of the first British Mission, published an illustrated account (1819) of his experiences which provides the first detailed descriptions and images of the Asante (Pl. 2).

In a passage devoted to describing the Mission’s official reception in Kumase, Bowdich comments on the appearance of Asantehene Osei Tutu Kwame Asibey Bonsu (r.1800–24):

He wore a fillet of aggrey beads round his temples, a necklace of gold cock-spur shells strung by their largest ends and over his right shoulder a red silk cord, suspending three saphies cased in gold; his bracelets were the richest mixtures of beads and gold, and his fingers covered with rings, […] his knee-bands were of aggrey beads and his ancle [sic] strings of gold ornaments of the most delicate workmanship, small drums, sankos, stools, swords, guns and birds, clustered together; his sandals of a soft white leather were embossed across the instep band with small gold and silver cases of saphies; […] he wore a pair of gold castanets on his finger and thumb, which he clapped to enforce silence (Bowdich 1819, 38–9).

This passage accurately relates how the Asantehene’s gold ornaments were concentrated principally around his neck, elbows, wrists, knees and ankles in order to provide physical and spiritual protection and deflect harm from potential sources of weakness. It also helped to define the margins of his being and emphasized every gesture he made as well as serving to place physical and metaphysical constraints and controls on the power he generated and wielded. The virtual encasement of the Asantehene in gold has parallels with the containment of other sources of power in Akan communities, such as amulets that are enclosed in coverings of precious materials in order to protect the secret elements at their core and to concentrate the efficacious effects such a confinement induces. The wearing of large amounts of gold also ensures that the Asantehene is physically weighed down and kept literally in his place at the heart of the Asante state.

In his account Bowdich also describes in great detail the organization of the Asante court and the royal insignia that the courtiers displayed during public ceremonies. He noted that those officials situated to the left of the Asantehene included trusted advisors and powerful ritual specialists who were the sons and grandsons of former kings. These office-holders were closely identified with the Asantehene and his ancestors, whereas those situated on his right, which included the heads of the non-royal clans, were identified with the state and political authority. In front of the Asantehene, in two diagonally flanking rows, were arranged those personnel who represented extensions of his own inner spiritual nature. Seated on the ground nearest to him were young boys (akrafo) who carried gold-hilted swords and beyond them were stationed the linguists (akyeame) who held gold and silver-topped canes and mediated in all verbal exchanges between the Asantehene and his people. Also positioned in front of the Asantehene were the heralds (esene) who kept order in the palace. Beyond these officials stood the drummers and horn-blowers who communicated directly, via their instruments, with the ancestors and the populace and next to these were stationed the executioners (abrafo) who dispatched transgressors on the orders of the Asantehene. In this way, royal familial and political relationships were, and continue to be, expressed through a combination of the prescribed spatial arrangement of personnel and the display of regalia during public events.