In the late 17th century, the Akan people of modern Ghana started to transform their small chiefdom into an empire which they called Ashanti (Ashante or Asante). They expanded their territories by waging war with neighboring peoples and soon captured many prisoners of war. These captives were then sold off to European slave traders who would take them to the plantations in the Americas and West Indies. Starting in the early 18th century, however, the Ashanti Empire started to accept guns in lieu of gold as payment for every slave they sold to European traders. These events are recorded on the Biblical Timeline Poster with World History around this time.
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The Rise of the Ashanti Empire
During the 1670s, groups of Akan people from northern Ghana escaped strife in their homeland and flocked to the fertile region around Kumasi. Two of the most powerful clans that migrated to Kumasi were the Bretuo and the Oyoko. At that time, however, the refugees were forced to submit to the powerful Denkyira nation.To assure the Denkyira of his people’s submission, the Oyoko chief Obiri Yeboa sent his nephew Osei Tutu to live with and serve them.
Osei Tutu served as a shield bearer to Boa Amponsem, the chief of the Denkyira. He later fled to the territory of the Akwamu because of the cruelty of the people he served. He worked for the Akwamu chief and quickly rose to prominence there. He also befriended the priest Okomfo Anokye who soon became his firm ally. His uncle, chief Obiri Yeboa, later died in battle, so Osei Tutu was summoned back to his homeland to rule. He continued the conquests made by his uncle and even subdued other groups of Akan people in the area.
Osei Tutu, with the help of Okomfo Anokye and his Akwamu allies, slowly built the Ashanti kingdom. During the 1690s, Osei Tutu and his people declared their independence from the Denkyira. Full-scale war flared out between the Denkyira and the Ashanti in 1699, but the Ashanti emerged victorious in 1701 in the Battle of Feyiase.
Slaves, Gold, and Guns
In the middle of the 15th century, the first slave ships sailed from Lisbon and docked off the coast of northwestern Africa. The crew then came to land and captured unsuspecting natives which were then sold off as slaves in the markets of Lisbon. The slave trade turned out to be so profitable that Spanish, English, and Dutch ships soon followed Portugal’s lead.
As the years passed, European trade ships sailed deeper into the coast of western Africa to acquire more slaves and gold. The coast of modern Ghana became one of the chief ports of these trades that it was soon divided into the Gold and Slave Coasts. Dutch slave traders outdid the Portuguese in the 17th century, but they were replaced by the English by the time the Ashanti were building their empire.
The Ashanti’s long-time ally, the Akwamu, were among the first ones to profit from the slave trade with the Europeans. Their captives were almost always prisoners of war, but they were not above to selling Akwamu men who offended the chief. They also kidnapped able-bodied men from other tribes and sold them in the coastal slave markets.
The Ashanti soon joined in the slave trade by kidnapping traveling men or even those who were just working on their farms. They also went to war with neighboring peoples (especially in the Black Volta and savanna regions) not only to expand their territory but also to acquire more slaves which they then sold to Dutch and English traders. This practice had become so profitable that by 1720 the Slave Coast of Ghana had eclipsed the Gold Coast.
A vicious cycle soon emerged from this business. The Ashanti initially accepted gold as payment for slaves, but soon preferred flintlocks, muskets, and gunpowder as payment. With these weapons in hand, Ashanti warriors would then subdue another group of people and sell the captives of war to the European as slaves. By 1730, as much as 180,000 European-made firearms had been shipped to the Slave Coast and handed to the natives.
Harms, Robert W. The Diligent: A Voyage Through the Worlds of the Slave Trade. New York: Basic Books, 2002.
Rodney, Walter. The Cambridge History of Africa: From c. 1600 to c. 1790. Edited by Richard Gray. Vol. 4. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975.
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