Monday, May 9, 2022

S3E21: The Rise of Kofi Kakari


Ashanti Royal Executioner in Traditional Garb

 In 1867, the city of Kumasi experienced the bloodiest week it had yet seen. Following the death of Asantehene Kwaku Dua, who had ruled the Ashanti Empire for more than four decades, the city fell into a state of mourning. Parades of mourners gathered around the city to showcase their sadness caused by the king's passing.

However, the head royal executioner, or adumhene, decided to make a power play. The death of the asanthene was traditionally accompanied by the mass execution of his personal slaves, or Akyere. However, the unexpected nature of Kwaku Dua's death meant that nobody had prepared the Akyere for execution, and that they were spread throughout the city, going about their usual tasks. The adumhene lured many back to the palace, by informing them of a "special cleaning assignment." Once they arrived, they were promptly locked in the palace and killed by the royal executioners. The executioners began roving around the city, killing any other Akyere who had not fallen for his ruse. The confused citizens of Kumasi, not aware of what was happening, went into a panic. Many fled the city, while many others assumed that civil war was starting, and decided to fight back. Soon, the executioners were killing not only Akyere, but ordinary civilians as well. The massacre continued for several more days, until Kwaku Dua's body was finally buried and the official mourning period ended.

The massacre was a power play by the adumhene, allowing him to showcase his strength in Kumasi. As the massacre ended, the various nobility, bureaucrats, and other notables convened in Kumasi to choose Kwaku Dua's replacement. With the backing of the Adumhene, the convened Ashanti elected Kofi Kakari, the son of the Asantehemaa Afua Kobi

Kobi, pictured many years after the events of this episode
Kobi had been selected as Asantehemaa due to her weak ties to the royal dynasty. However, with the support of the adumhene and a few military generals, she managed to place her son, Kofi Kakari on the golden stool, ostensibly to act as a placeholder for the paternal grandson of Kwaku Dua, a young man named Kwaku Dua II. To secure his position of power, Kofi Kakari decided to undo many of Kwaku Dua's unpopular but necessary policies, including the unpopular estate taxes he had levied to fund an enormous debt relief program to help rural peasants escape debt peonage.

Monday, April 25, 2022

S3E20: The Second Anglo-Ashanti War


Afro-Caribbean soldier in British service during the Second Anglo-Ashanti War
In 1863, the Ashanti and British armies once again met on the field of battle. That year, the British colonial government in the Cape Coast decided to harbor two Ashanti fugitives: a runaway slave and an amanhene under trial for hoarding state funds. This frightened the Ashanti authorities, then under the rule of the long-time Asantehene Kwaku Dua. By harboring the fugitives, the British were violating the agreement hatched between the nations at the conclusion of the first Anglo-Ashanti war. Kwaku Dua worried that, since the British were willing to violate this stipulation of the agreement, they would violate other, more important stipulations in the future. So, that year, the previously pacific rule of Kwaku Dua erupted into its first major external war.
The Ashanti and their Neighbors (1850)

The war saw many early victories for the Ashanti. Particularly, at the battle of Barikuma, the Ashanti army defeated and inflicted heavy losses on a British regiment. Throughout the conflict, the British struggled to organize a resistance to the invading Ashanti. However, the onset of the rainy season combined with outbreaks of malaria and smallpox in both armies caused the Ashanti offensive to grind to a halt. The war eventually became a deadly stalemate, with the Ashanti losing many soldiers to disease, and the British losing even more. Eventually, after a year and a half of fighting, the British relented. They returned the fugitives, granted the Ashanti control over disputed regions north of the Birim River, and announced that, for the foreseeable future, the British protectorates in southern Ghana would be on their own. Angry at this announcement, the Fante and Ga of southern Ghana pushed for greater autonomy from British rule, forming two new semi-independent states, the Republic of Accra and the Fante Confederation.

Map of Ghana in 1868

Monday, April 11, 2022

S3 E19 - Kwaku Dua Fixes a Broken Empire


Kwaku Dua's son Kwasi Boakye during his education in the Netherlands
From 1834 until 1867, the Ashanti Empire underwent a remarkable transformation. Still recovering from the disastrous rule of the alcoholic and unpredictable Osei Yaw Akoto, the empire received a new king. The new king, an obscure bureaucrat turned war-hero with only a vague connection to the royal family, would prove to be the opposite of his predecessor in every way. His name was Kwaku Dua, and he would lead the Ashanti longer than any king before him.

Kwaku Dua's reign was mostly filled with trying to patch up Asanteman's numerous problems that had appeared during his predecessor's rule. First, he invited the people of Juaben to return to their city. The people of Juaben had been forced to flee their home after a long-standing feud between Osei Yaw Akoto and the king of Juaben escalated into a minor military conflict. Had it not been for the fortunately timed ascension of Kwaku Dua, the conflict likely would have escalated into a full blown civil war. To end the conflict, Kwaku Dua invited the refugees to return to their home. He also criminally charged and executed many of the old asantehene's associates, including the rapist Kotiako and the troublemaking Ata twins.

Most controversially, he radically transformed the Ashanti economy. To prevent a mounting deflation crisis, Kwaku Dua imported a great number of cowries, the primary currency of the empire. He also instituted debt-relief policies to help the peasantry more easily escape debt slavery. These policies were paid for with an unpopular progressive estate tax, or tax on inheritance. These reforms were successful at righting the Ashanti economy.

He also sought to update and improve Ashanti mining engineering and prospecting. To do this, he struck a deal with the Dutch to allow his son and nephew, Kwasi Boakye and Kwame Opoku, to study engineering in the Netherlands and return to teach others of their methods. This plan would ultimately fail. Kwasi Boakye became attached to life in the Netherlands and refused to return to Asanteman. Meanwhile, Kwame Opoku returned to Ghana, only to realize that he had become so estranged from his own culture that he couldn't even speak to fellow Akans. He suffered an identity crisis and later committed suicide. We will cover their lives in greater detail on the latest premium episode of the show, available at

However, they also represented a growing authoritarianism among the Asantehene. Throughout his rule, Kwaku Dua often ignored the constitutional limits of the asantehene. He passed legislation without the consent of the national assembly, and gave numerous positions of power to his allies in the military. 

His rule was mostly peaceful, with the only major wars being a war against the Dagbon Kingdom to the north, and the Second Anglo-Ashanti War of 1863. Our next episode will focus on the latter conflict, the least famous entry in the saga of the Anglo-Ashanti Wars, but perhaps one of the most impactful wars in Ghana's hsitory.

Monday, March 28, 2022

S3 E18: Osei Yaw Akoto's Troubles with Palm Wine

During this episode, we explored the crisis-filled reign of Osei Yaw Akoto, and how his unstable behavior brought the Ashanti Empire to the verge of civil war. The king, a notorious alcoholic, often acted rashly and outside of acceptable behavior by the standards of Ashanti culture. He drank aktepeshie, a highly potent beverage associated with the empire's lower classes, and spent most of his days partying with his sycophantic followers at the royal resort. 
Akpeteshie is so strong that, in addition to serving as a drink, Akan cultures traditionally used the substance as a sanitization agent.

Particularly, Osei Yaw Akoto's long-term feud with Kwaku Boaten, the Juabenhene, caused a great deal of unrest within the empire. This culminated in the New Juaben crisis. Juaben was an important city within the Ashanti Empire, and its king was one of the most powerful noblemen in Asanteman. This crisis was ignited when the asantehene requested for one of his friends, a man named Kotiako, to disguise himself as the Juabenhene and sexually assault Boaten's wives. When the king of Juaben found out about this plot, he began preparing to revolt against Akoto. This revolt failed. Boaten and his followers were forced to flee into the predominantly Akyem regions surrounding Kyebi. The new Ashanti migrants would eventually name this area New Juaben.
The modern amanhene of New Juaben
Tensions with the locals almost escalated into a war, which would inevitably suck in the Ashanti, British, and Danish. Fortunately, however, Osei Akoto died before the situation could deteriorate further. Next episode, we'll see how his successor, the first asantehene in decades to not derive from the line of Konadu's descendants, handles the growing crises within the empire.

Monday, March 14, 2022

S3E17: The First Anglo-Ashanti War Part 2: The Rockets' Red Glare

Painting depicting the battle of Katamanso
After the Battle of Nsamankow, Osei Bonsu passed away in 1824. He left control of the kingdom to his younger brother Osei Yaw, better known by his nickname Osei Yaw Akoto. This nickname pokes fun at the king's skin condition that made his face glow with a reddish hue, as well as his insecure demeanor, as akoto refers to both a tree used for red dye manufacturing and the verb "to beg for approval" in Twi. 

Osei Yaw Akoto attempted to finish his brother's war against the British, despite Osei Bonsu's dying wish for his brother to arrange for a peace settlement. At first, the war went well for Osei Akoto, as he led his armies to multiple victories and even captured the British colonial capital at Cape Coast. However, the aggressiveness of Osei Akoto's campaigns southward, as well as his decision to pursue a retreating British army east to Anomabu, frightened one of the Ashanti's allies. The city state of Accra, long an Ashanti ally, feared that the Ashanti would try to conquer their city if they won the war. So, they sided with the British. The British army was also joined by fresh reinforcements from their Caribbean colonies, as well as local militias from the Akwapim, Akyem, Denkyira, Wasa and Fante people.

During the Battle of Katamanso in 1826, the Ashanti initially appeared to be winning. The Ashanti's initial encirclement attempt was stonewalled, but the Ashanti forward guard successfully pushed the British back, pushing them into a vulnerable position. Ammunition began to run low on both sides, and the British started to rely on bayonet charges as the Ashanti began to make use of their akrafena. The turning point of the battle occurred when the British launched a battery of Congreve rockets at the Ashanti. Congreve rockets were a technology that the British first encountered several decades earlier. The Indian kingdom of Mysore invented the rockets to use against the British during the Anglo-Mysorean War. The British adopted the weapon's design and began to use it in their own army. The loud screech of the rockets shattered the remaining morale in the embattled Ashanti forward guard, and the Ashanti soldiers began to flee. Morale dissolved completely when Osei Yaw Akoto himself began retreating from the battlefield, resulting in an Ashanti defeat.
src="" width="124" />Mysorean soldier using an iron rocket as a flagpoleAfter the defeat at Katamanso, the Ashanti recovered and maintained an occupation over much of the southwestern coast. However, both the British and Ashanti were hit with deadly smallpox outbreaks, and a peace agreement was signed in 1831. Both the British and Ashanti were forced to make concessions to the other. The Ashanti withdrew their armies north of the Pra and Birim rivers. Meanwhile, the British recognized the Ashanti's independence, pledged to give the Ashanti merchants unimpeded access to the coast during peacetime, and pledged to extradite Ashanti fugitives. 

You could argue that the British and Ashanti both emerged from this war as victors. The true losers of the conflict were the British's African allies, the Denkyira, Akyem, Ga, and Fante. In exchange for their sacrifices in the war, these people and kingdoms saw their autonomy eroded and incorporated into either the Ashanti Empire or as a British protectorate. While, in theory, British protectorates remained independent in domestic affairs, the British commanded their foreign policy in entirety and dictated a creeping degree of influence in these countries' economies. 
Map of Ghana after the First-Anglo Ashanti War
The First-Anglo Ashanti War also devastated the kingdoms of the Ghanaian coast. These weakened kingdoms became easy pickings for the British's rivals in the region. Eager not to let the British monopolize the region, the Danish negotiated a deal with the Ashanti in which they'd receive territories in the southeast, while the Dutch engaged in a gruesome war of conquest over the Ahanta people of the southwest. The asanthene endorsed this conquest, as it would further ensure easy Ashanti access to their Dutch allies, and even offered to send soldiers to militarily support the Dutch.

Osei Yaw Akoto has had a mixed record in his early reign, but it will get much worse from here. Scarred from his traumatic defeat at Katamanso, the asantehene will fall down a rabbit hole of depression and alcoholism, and will prove himself as one of the worst asantehenes of all time.

Monday, February 28, 2022

S3E16: The First Anglo-Ashanti War


Map of the Ashanti Empire, its clients, and its road networks in 1820
Prior to 1821, relations between the British and Ashanti Empires had been complicated. From the empire's birth until 1807, the empires had been peaceful trading partners, engaging in the immoral but profitable trade of enslaved people, as well as gold, kola nuts, finished goods, rum, firearms, and other goods. Tension between the empires first erupted in a brief spat in 1808, during the battle of Anomabu and again in 1811 at the Battle of Winnebah. Both of these conflicts were small theaters of larger conflicts between the Ashanti and their southern neighbor, the Fante confederation, and started due to the generally strong relationship between the Fante and British. However, by the resolution of these conflicts, the Ashanti emerged the victor. The Company of African Merchants signed humiliating treaties of submission in order to maintain trading rights in the region.

    However, the decline of Anglo-Ashanti relations was closely tied to the failure of the British Company of African Merchants. After Britain abolished their participation in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in 1807, the company struggled to make a profit. Many within the company continued to illegally participate in the trade, eventually leading the frustrated government to nationalize the company. The problem with this was that the Ashanti had signed their treaties not with the British government, but with the now non-existent British Company of African Merchants. One of the most important stipulations of the treaty was that the British recognize Ashanti overlordship over the Fante peoples. The British government, however, did not honor these agreements, and instead disembarked soldiers in coastal Ghana to begin signing protectorate treaties with Fante kings. This came much to the chagrin of Osei Bonsu and the Ashanti. An Ashanti army, seeking to force the holding of a conference before British expansion could continue. The army invaded the town of Abura, captured a local Fante military leader, and demanded that the British reaffirm their old treaty obligations. The British sent no response, and the Fante man was executed. The British governor of Sierra Leone and the Gold Coast, Charles MacCarthy, decided that this execution amounted to a declaration of war, and convened his Fante allies assemble an army to fight the Ashanti.
MacCarthy had led wars in Africa before, but only again small kingdoms in Sierra Leone, never an empire of the scale or military modernity of the Ashanti. He vastly underestimated the capability of the Ashanti as a result, and figured that a small group of Fante militiamen and British officers was sufficient to crush the Ashanti at Abura. At first, the British and their allies tried to attack the Ashanti at their base at Abura. However, poor logistics and superior Ashanti mobility allowed the Ashanti army to ambush and crush this invasion column. 
Ashanti Talking Drum, used for long-distance communication in both civilian and military contexts

So, MacCarthy devised a new plan. He ordered the creation of a new, much larger army. This army was divided into three columns. One would head west, attempt to provoke an anti-Ashanti uprising against the Wasa people of the Ashanti's western provinces. Another column in the east would try to do the same with the region's Akyem and Akuapem people. Finally, the largest column in the center would march straight towards Kumasi.
Map of Ashanti and British troop movements in the Nsamankow campaign of 1822-1823
The plan ended in disaster. MacCarthy's army was met by a larger Ashanti force almost immediately and forced into an orderly but costly retreat. They tried to meet with the western column for reinforcements. However, simultaneously, another Ashanti army to the west routed a group of Wasa rebels before continuing south towards the British western column. The British and Wasa dug out defensive positions at a village called Nsamankow, and were put under intense pressure. When MacCarthy met his western column, he did not encounter needed reserves, but rather a group of tired and nearly-beaten allies. Soon after, the two Ashanti armies converged and encircled the British. The Ashanti general, Amankwatia, ordered conservative probing attacks against the British, drawing their fire and forcing them to waste ammunition with no hope of resupplying. Once the British began to run out of ammunition, Amankwatia ordered his army to advance. The British were defenseless without ammunition and peppered by the better-supplied Ashanti gunmen. Of the roughly 5,000 British and Fante soldiers at Abura, less than 800 escaped the battle without being killed or captured. Even Charles MacCarthy himself was beheaded after being struck with an Ashanti musketball. His head was infamously hollowed out and kept as a trophy in the Ashanti royal palace.
Modern Illustration of Ashanti Soldiers
However, Osei Bonsu would not live long to enjoy the prestige of his victory. A few months after the battle of Nsamankow, the Ashanti king Osei Bonsu passed away. The responsibility to finish the war with the British fell to his younger brother, Osei Yaw Akoto. As we'll see in two weeks, Osei Yaw's performance would not live up to his brother's example.

Monday, February 14, 2022

S3E15: Daily life in the Ashanti Empire

A sad reality of the study of history is that comparatively little time and effort is dedicated to documenting the lives of the vast majority of the population of past periods. Typically, great effort is dedicated to understanding the attitudes, preferences, psychology, deeds, and achievements of rulers, nobles, artists, generals, and philosophers. As a result, few testimonies of the historical working classes reach modern eyes. In this episode, we attempt to shed some light on what life was like for the everymen of the Ashanti Empire and get a better sense of the life and routine of working Ashanti men and women.
A compound of shrines outside Kumasi: an example of traditional Ashanti architecture
Ashanti family life did not revolve around the nuclear family (that is, a family composed of two parents and their child. Rather, Ashanti family units were extended, composed of the child's parents, aunties, uncles, grandparents, great aunts, cousins, nephews, nieces, etc. In Ashanti daily life, the family unit was the most important institution, as it was responsible for not only the distribution of resources and wider social standing, but also the education of children. Families typically lived together in housing compounds composing four or more houses connected by a shared courtyard.
Ashanti people outside of a housing compound, taken in the early 20th Century
For an Ashanti subject to advance into a middle-class position, usually some degree of higher education was necessary. Ashanti higher education took the form of an apprenticeship, in which the apprentice would learn from an experienced bureaucrat, craftsman, artist, linguist, military leader, or other skilled work position.

One of the most important elements of Ashanti daily life is also one of the darkest elements of the empire's legacy. Slavery is, unfortunately, an institution that dominates outside perceptions of Ashanti history. In the United States, when people recognize the name of the state, typically its reputation is reduced to "one of the empires that sold slaves to European merchants." Ashanti participation in the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade is well documented, and something that we have covered in passing brief mentions in numerous episodes of the show. However, Ashanti slavery as an institution extended beyond the kingdom's role in the slave trade, also playing a major role in Ashanti domestic life.

"Slave" is an English word and therefore doesn't necessarily illuminate the complexity and nuances of various forms of slavery practiced by the Akan peoples, including the Ashanti. This has led to a great deal of confusion in evaluating the historical role of enslaved people and their treatment in the Ashanti Empire. In a few cases, it has led to exaggerations, as in the cases of European explorers who argued that all Ashanti slaves were executed en-masse upon their owner's death. On the other hand, and more commonly today, it has led to a nasty apologia for the institution in academia and beyond. Anecdotally, I specifically remember a professor during my undergrad studies uttering a phrase, "In West Africa, slaves didn't have it so bad." In my experience, these arguments emerge to dissuade comparisons between race-based, trans-Atlantic slavery and Ashanti slavery. However, the value of comparing the immorality of these institutions comes across to me personally as splitting hairs. Human beings suffered immensely under both systems.
Enslaved people (Domum class) in Kumasi pose with a pair of European missionaries, 1885.

However, trying to understand the life of "slaves" in the Ashanti Empire is difficult for multiple reasons. For starters, there are very few narratives written by enslaved people themselves. Almost all primary sources about Ashanti slavery are told either directly or indirectly from the perspective of slave owners, which obviously frames the institution in a more conciliatory tone. Ashanti society accepted the existence of multiple, very different classes of people who outsiders labeled under the catch-all term "slave." The first of these enslaved classes was the domum. Domum were people who were taken as slaves through war or as tribute. Their treatment resembled chattel slavery, regarded as property that could be used and abused as their owner pleased. For this reason, domum made the majority of enslaved people sold to European slave merchants on the coast. They were also typically assigned the most difficult and dangerous labor in mines and plantations.

Enslaved people bought from a slave merchant, rather than captured through war or acquired through tribute, were called odonko. The ideology which justified the enslavement of odonko argued that odonko were essentially a junior branch of their owner's family, as this would be a socially acceptable reason for odonko to do unpaid labor. Of course, odonko were not originally members of the family, but "adopted" through force. However, due to this familial justification, odonko status was typically not hereditary. Children were integrated into the families of their parent's owners as free people. While they were technically now free, the stigma of being descended from odonko often resulted in discrimination and being regarded as a social inferior. Odonko filled multiple labor positions, including plantation workers, domestic servants, miners, porters, and more.

Akyere is the term reserved for people enslaved as punishment for a serious crime. Typically, akyere slavery was a temporary status, a waiting period before the execution of criminals. Akyere acted as servants to the upper echelon of Ashanti society, especially the asantehene himself. This role of subservience to the asantehene prior to execution served an important symbolic role in Ashanti civic culture, symbolizing the dominant role of the asantehene as a protector of law and justice, and a master over those who would dare disrupt order. A few Akyere who showed considerable remorse or skill were spared from execution, but most were executed either at the end of their akyere sentence or during the death of the asantehene.

The final major form of Ashanti slavery was awowa, or debt peonage. Awowa were technically not enslaved, but more akin to the western concept of indentured servitude. They were free people who incured major debts, and would turn to wealthy Ashanti elites to pay off their debts in exchange for a period of unfree servitude. Awowa filled a major role as a backbone of the Ashanti labor system. As the Ashanti economy became more complex and integrated in the early 19th century, the population of awowa ballooned to form a major part of the Ashanti population. As we'll see in a future episode, future administrations will have to come up with solutions to the problem of an ever-expanding number of awowa.
T.E. Bowdich's illustration of Ashanti leisure, 1819.

Anyways, as we discussed at the end of this episode, the spare time of Ashanti workers was typically spent doing domestic chores, making music, and working on crafts. Perhaps the most unique type of Ashanti art is the use of the talking drum. This particular technology allowed Akan people to replicate the tones of the Akan language through drum beats. Talking drums could be used essentially as megaphones, allowing the drummer to send a loud message over long distances, while also used artistically to recite poetry or oral histories. Here is a demonstration of the instrument in use.