African Gold-weights in the British Museum

Fiona Sheales

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The origins and history of gold-weights

The sub-Saharan trade in gold is documented in Arab histories as having originated between the 9th and 16th centuries AD in the medieval empires of Ghana (located between the Senegal and Niger rivers) and Mali (located around the lower part of the Niger river) (Levtzion and Spaulding 2013).

Gold was naturally occurring in this region as well as further south in the tropical rainforests that are located in modern-day Ghana. Contemporary Ghana should not be confused with the historical empire of the same name, as it is located geographically in a different part of West Africa. Before independence in 1957, the country was known to Europeans as the Gold Coast owing to the fact that large quantities of gold-dust (sika futura) and cast gold could be obtained there through trade.

The southern and central areas of modern-day Ghana are currently populated by various groups such as the Akyem, Akwapem, Asante, Brong, Fante, Kwahu, Sefwi and Wassa. They speak virtually identical tonal languages (the Akan language group) and are closely related, sharing many elements of culture and probably a single origin. Travel accounts written at different times during the pre-colonial period by European visitors to the Gold Coast as well as colonial (1898–1957) and post-colonial (after 1957) ethnographic studies provide anecdotal, historical and scholarly evidence that these Akan-speaking groups share beliefs and cultural practices that extend into the prehistoric past (Barbot 1992; Bowdich 1819; Freeman 1844; Rattray 1923, 1927; McLeod 1981).


Map of Ghana

Cultural historians and ethnographers (Rattray 1923, 1927; Wilks 1961, 1993; Garrard 1980; McCaskie 1995) have recorded a number of oral histories in towns and villages in the Volta Basin area that recount migration episodes from the northern savannah lands around Mali into the forest region. These oral accounts in all probability record many separate historical events that occurred between the 12th and 15th centuries, but some may specifically recall the migration of ancestors who up until this time had inhabited the area around Timbuktu. The savannah lands of northern Ghana are criss-crossed by trade routes which fan out from the forest region where gold, kola nuts, ivory and slaves were sourced (Austen 1979; Garrard 1980; Law 1980; Wilks 1993 and Levtzion 2003). The migration of people from the north-west to the south-east was prompted partially by the development of markets in these products and by the southern expansion of the trans-Saharan trade network. This growth was also driven by the desire to integrate the regional trade that existed in the forest region to the distant markets of Timbuktu and Jenne in the north-west and Bornu, Hausaland and Songhay in the north-east. The migration of Mande-speaking Dyula traders, also known as the Wangara, coincides with the introduction of Islam into this region in the second half of the 14th century.

During the late 14th and early 15th centuries the trade in gold steadily increased, resulting in the permanent establishment of entrepôts and markets along the northern rainforest fringe. Archaeological and anthropological evidence suggests that Akan-speaking communities such as the Brong were significantly influenced by Dyula traders who came from the Western Sudan (a broad expanse of savannah situated south of the Sahara Desert, which extends from the Atlantic Ocean on the Guinea Coast to the basin of Lake Chad). Contact with Sudanese culture during this period resulted in the introduction of Islamic architectural styles, talismanic amulets and metal-working technologies including lost wax casting. The casting of brass post-dates iron-working on the Gold Coast although it is unclear when this practice began. Gold-weight production, which involved casting brass using the lost wax process, suggests that the indigenous industry was first established in the northern forest region sometime around AD 1400 (Garrard 1980, 294). Oral accounts from places such as Ejisu, east of Kumase, and archaeological evidence both support the view that the Brong were experts in brass-casting before the emergence of the Asante state in 1700–1 (Anquandah 1982, 92–3). The introduction of brass-casting may also have been stimulated by the importation of brass vessels that were manufactured in Egypt, Morocco and Muslim Spain. These vessels were traded south from North Africa by Dyula merchants who are also credited with introducing the first gold-weighing system into the forest region during this period. The weight system was based on the Islamic units of mithqal, which was used in northern Africa and Western Sudan for weighing gold, and uqiya for silver.

In 1471 Juan de Santarem and Pedro de Escobar, two Portuguese explorers, anchored their ships off a small Eguafo village at the mouth of the river Pra, which is situated approximately 90 miles from the modern-day capital of Ghana, Accra. The first exchanges with villagers produced a small quantity of gold. During the eight years that followed a slow but steady trade in cast gold ornaments, gold-dust and ivory was conducted between the Portuguese and the Eguafo residents. In 1480 the Portuguese began work on building the fortress of Sao Jorge da Mina, which later became known as Elmina (the mine). This name reflects the fact that the Portuguese originally believed that all the gold came from a single mine that was located somewhere in the interior. By this point in time gold was being exchanged on the coast for a wide range of commodities, some of which came directly from Europe while others were trans-shipped from Portuguese factories and forts along the north and east African coasts.

The accounts of Elmina Castle record that from 1504 in a period of less than two and a half years, Estevao de Barradas, the Portuguese agent, took delivery of 287,813 manillas (trade bracelets made of brass), tens of thousands of iron bars, kettles, basins, chamber pots, bells, beads and trinkets together with small leather purses for storing gold, wooden chests, small copper boxes and weights for weighing gold (probably the nested cup variety that could be stacked one inside another for easy transport) (Garrard 1980, 73). Evidence suggests that during this period Akan-speaking communities began to conduct trade using weights that derived from four external weight-systems, namely the Islamic mithqal standard, the Islamic ounce standard, the Portuguese ounce standard and the troy ounce standard (a standard unit customarily used throughout Europe for weighing gold). Portuguese, and later Dutch, terminology referring to the values of specific amounts of gold appears to have been widely adopted, with terms such as banda (on the Gold Coast: benda), meaning a flat metal currency bar, remaining in use until modern times.

By 1530 the Portuguese mercantile monopoly had been broken by the illegitimate trade of other European nations such as Castilian Spain, England and Holland. All of the European trading companies built at least one castle or fort on the coast to provide shelter and protection for merchants and ships’ crews and for the permanent occupants who coordinated the trade. In 1630 the Portuguese were eventually ousted from the Gold Coast by the Dutch, whose economy became wholly dependent on West African gold for the minting of its Republican coinage.

During the 17th century gold continued to be the most important trade commodity, but its significance for Gold Coast communities extended beyond its economic value. Besides functioning as a medium of exchange, it was increasingly used by Akan chiefs to adorn themselves and their retainers to signify their authority and status as well as their access to and control over gold. However, the supply of gold for trading purposes was not always reliable or steady, especially when routes from the interior were blocked during disputes between rival communities. Control of the trade routes to the north and to the south became the focus of intense rivalry between communities and stimulated the emergence of several successive powerful polities (a group of communities organized under a system of government led by an overlord or paramount chief) including those of Adanse, Denkyira, Akwamu, Akyem and Asante, which were all located in the forested coastal hinterlands. Political and social developments were therefore intimately linked to the growth of the trans-Saharan and trans-Atlantic trade and the demand and supply of certain commodities such as gold-dust, and increasingly, slaves.

The most long-lived and dominant polity to emerge at the end of this period was that of the Asante who, under the leadership of Osei Tutu (d.1717), successfully defeated the Denkyira at the battle of Feyiase in 1701. This victory enabled the Asante to control some of the main supply routes from the interior to the coast, which gave them increased access to the firearms and gunpowder that facilitated state expansion. During a 30-year period they defeated the neighbouring polities of Wankyi (1711–12), Takyiman (1722–3) and Akyem (1742) all of whom contributed skilled personnel as well as portable wealth to the Asante and gave them access to more resources and trading opportunities.

Traditionally Akan communities subsisted by agriculture and hunting and most of them lived in small settlements in forest clearings. Every village or town had its own head-man (odikro) or chief (ohene) who was assisted by a number of elders or counsellors. Society was internally structured around the family, that is to say, all persons who were descendants of a given ancestor in the matrilineal line. As such, matriclans (abusua kese) in general, and matrilineages (abusua) in particular, formed the basic unit of social organization in the pre-colonial and colonial periods. In 1923 the Asante were recorded by Robert Sutherland Rattray, a Gold Coast official working as an anthropologist, as being organized into seven matriclans, but evidence suggests that in the pre-colonial past there may once have been as many as nine. Members of the same abusua generally lived close to each other, often forming a discrete neighbourhood within settlements, and held collective rights to land and particular offices (Rattray 1923, 35–7). The abusua is united by sharing a common bloodline (mogya) which is passed on from women to their children, but not from fathers. As a group, the abusua ideally works together to acquire resources and to help its members; property and leadership are traditionally passed down from maternal uncle to sister’s son.

The inheritance of ego and personality is believed to occur through the male line of descent and, in the past, formed the basis of a patrilineal grouping (ntoro) whose members were united by the common possession of a particle of their father’s ntoro spirit (bosom). As such, ntoro members are obliged to observe the holy days and the prescribed dietary and behavioural taboos which are associated with their bosom. In effect, the inheritance of ntoro made the father responsible for the moral and religious conduct of his children. The number of ntoro groups is sometimes given as seven, sometimes as nine, which suggests that in the pre-colonial past they probably correlated to the number of matriclans. As such, they may have functioned to offset the inherited social limitations that were determined by birth (McLeod 1981, 16). In this way, ntoro groups were probably responsible for the organization of such activities as defence and other military concerns, as these were not prescribed by birth (ibid., 19).

During the 17th and 18th centuries successive Akan polities had developed methods for administering and controlling conquered peoples and territories. Following his victory at the battle of Feyiase, Osei Tutu was proclaimed Asantehene (paramount chief of the Asante) and, tradition has it, created administrative institutions which included an exchequer (Gyasewa fekuo), as well as official posts such as Fotosanfohene (keeper of the leather bag containing the Asantehene’s weights) and sika mmera (the golden elephant tail, symbol of wealth). As a result of these developments many young men were trained in the newly established treasuries as fotosanfo (weighers), togyefo (tax collectors) or batafo (state traders) who were responsible for revenue collection in the expanding Asante territories.

State regalia such as swords, umbrellas and staffs of office which were used by official spokesmen were also created and distributed by the Asantehene as a way of incorporating and integrating defeated peoples into the wider Asante state. New national ceremonies, oaths and rituals, which took as their focus the ancestors of the Asantehene, were also widely adopted. Political and social integration was also achieved by the physical relocation of specialist craftsmen. Evidence in the form of numerous oral accounts recalls the removal of artisans, including goldsmiths (sikadwumfo or sikananfo), from Bono Manso, Dagomba and Takyiman (Bravmann 1972; Garrard 1980; Posnansky 1975, 76). These highly skilled craftsmen were housed in a separate quarter of the royal palace complex (dwinfour) in Kumase. They worked exclusively for the Asantehene, creating items of state regalia for the court and on private commissions for ornaments and jewellery that were granted royal approval.

By 1817, when Thomas Bowdich, a young British officer of The Company of Merchants Trading to Africa, and his three companions arrived in Kumase, the Asante had extended their political and economic dominance to the point where they were the major power in the region. Following the signing of the first Anglo–Asante trade treaty in September 1817, relations between the two sovereign states continued to be a source of both conflict and wealth. Over the course of the next 80 years diplomatic relations became increasingly strained as a result of the adoption of overtly aggressive policies by the British towards indigenous African states. This hardening of attitudes is marked, in the case of the Asante, by a succession of armed conflicts which occurred in 1824, 1874, 1896 and 1900. The Asante state was finally annexed by the British following the war of 1896, after which it became subsumed into the new Gold Coast Protectorate.

One of the ways in which the newly established Gold Coast colonial government chose to impose its authority over Akan communities was to abolish the use of gold-dust as a currency on 12 April 1899 and replace it with the British pound Sterling. As a result, the indigenous use and manufacture of gold-weights declined rapidly during the period between 1899 and 1905. However, the knowledge and skills used to make them were not lost; within a few years weights were being cast again almost solely for sale to Europeans who had begun to collect them (see part IV).

2. The manufacture and use of gold-weights 
3. Gold-weights and proverbs 
4. Gold-weights at the British Museum 
5. A guide to weight types