Ashanti People: History & Ethnic Group

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Ghana, like many African nations, is composed of several ethnic groups. In this lesson, we'll explore the history and traditions of the Ashanti people, and see what they mean to Ghana today.

The Ashanti People

How did Britain decide upon its borders? Well, that's actually pretty easy -- Britain's an island. But beyond that, Britain was the home of the British people. Not every nation can say that their borders are defined by the people who live there. Many places, particularly those in Africa, were former colonies of European empires. Their borders were made by someone else, for political reasons, and aren't actually determined by a specific ethnic or linguistic group. That means that many of these nations contain multiple ethnic groups, or groups that didn't see themselves as one people.

A great example is Ghana, on Africa's west coast. Ghana is home to a number of ethnic groups, each of which actually has its own king. One of these groups is the Ashanti, sometimes written as Asante. They may live in Africa, but don't just call them Africans. Their identity is a little more complex than that.

Ghana (in dark green)
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History of the Ashanti

The Ashanti people first appear in the historical record around the 13th century. By the 17th century, they had built themselves into a great kingdom. According to Ashanti tradition, their rise to power occurred when a Golden Stool came down from Heaven to rest upon the knees of the first Ashanti king, whose title was Asantehene. The Golden Stool has remained a major icon of the Ashanti people, and is believed to hold the souls of their nation.

In practical terms, the Ashanti rose to prominence through economic trade. They first became wealthy by participating in Africa's slave trade, which by the 17th century was a major priority for European nations settling in the Caribbean. Ghana, right on the coast, was an easy access point for traders both in Africa and Europe to sell slaves. The other trade that the Ashanti were deeply involved in was gold. As anybody who's ever studied any history knows, gold holds an important place in human history. Not only were the Ashanti well connected to the gold trade, but they were also notable goldsmiths.

To Europeans, Ghana was the place to go for African gold. In fact, they actually called it the Gold Coast. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to interact with the Ashanti, and soon Spanish, Dutch and British merchants made their way to the Gold Coast, as well. In 1867, the British formally colonized the Gold Coast, and within a few decades had conquered the Ashanti kingdoms, as well as others in the region. The British and Ashanti fought for control of the territory until about 1901, when the last of the Ashanti lands were formally incorporated into Britain's Gold Coast colony. The Ashanti would be British subjects until Ghana was finally granted independence in 1957.

Ashanti in Ghana

So, Ghana as a nation is the historic home of the Ashanti people, but of others as well, and this is something that Ghana has had to deal with. The nation is divided into four principal sections, although within those are a total of ten districts, with the Ashanti in control of the central principal region. The Ashanti still recognize their own Asantehene, their own king, and the Golden Stool is still the most sacred object of the people. This object, by the way, was almost lost after Ashanti citizens hid it from the British during the wars of the 19th century. However, it was recovered, and it is still carefully guarded. The Golden Stool may never be sat upon, and may never touch the ground.

An Ashanti Asantehene in 1980.
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