The Kingdom of Asante Lost Kingdoms of Africa


The Kingdom of Asante

Asante in West Africa was a kingdom that was built on gold and slaves, which ensured its important place in an economy that linked three continents.


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The kingdom of Asante once ruled supreme in West Africa.

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It was a kingdom that became an empire.

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It played a pivotal role in commerce,

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linking three continents, and it was built on slaves and gold.

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This is just a selection of the Asante crown jewels.

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It gives a real sense of the power

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and the sophistication of this kingdom.

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Africa's history isn't always revealed in written records

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it's found instead in artefacts,

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culture and the traditions of the people.

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We know less about Africa's distant past

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than almost anywhere else on Earth

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but the history of this continent is as important and valuable

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as any other.

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In this series I'm exploring some of the richest

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and most vibrant histories in the world.

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I've come to Ghana, in West Africa, to explore the kingdom of Asante.

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It's just one of the continent's many historic

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and often over looked kingdoms.

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Asante was among the most impressive,

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there was found deep in the tropical forest which raises some questions.

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How did a sophisticated society

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emerge from some of the toughest conditions on the planet?

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How was the Asante kingdom created and what happened to it?

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Kumasi, Ghana's second city.

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Today it's home to one-and-a-half million people.

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In the 18th and 19th centuries

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Kumasi was the centre of power of the Asante kingdom.

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A British visitor named Thomas Bowditch came here in 1817.

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He wrote a remarkable account of the Royal court he encountered.

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"The king, his tributes and his captains

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"were resplendent in the distance

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"surrounded by attendants of every description.

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"At least a hundred umbrellas or canopies,

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"which could shelter 30 persons,

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"were sprung up and down by the bearers with brilliant effect,

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"being made with the most showy cloths and silks

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"and crowned on top with crescents, pelicans, elephants, barrels

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"and arms and swords of gold."

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Wow, it sounds quite something.

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Yes, and there is a pictorial depiction of this scene

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in this book itself so I could show that to you.

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Historian Mary Owusu is an expert in the Asante kingdom.

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Here it is.

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Luckily it's in colour, you know.

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It's truly spectacular,

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and when one talks about kings and courts you have, a kind of,

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certain idea of the extravagance and bright cloths and everything

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and this fulfils all of that.

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You can see... is this figure here?

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That would be the Asantehene, the king, you see?

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And he has a lot more gold on him

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and then the people, but that's also what power is about.

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It's about human beings,

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the number of people you control

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as well as having the wealth to go with that control.

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There's a real display of power

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and I guess the most significant sign of that

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is just how much gold is in evidence just everywhere.

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It's pretty obvious looking at these, Mary,

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they're trying to send a message.

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The Asanthene's right at the centre.

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The British who've come to visit, all of his different subjects.

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There's something you are seeing but not seeing properly.

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What aren't I seeing?

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-See these people here.

-Yes.

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They are holding skulls, human skulls.

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Skulls of important individuals who have been overpowered,

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to show how much control the king had.

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This illustration shows a wealthy state

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with an uncompromising grip on the kingdom.

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Fascinating though the account is,

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Bowditch only really got a snapshot of the Asante,

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and it doesn't reflect one of the most remarkable things

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about this kingdom.

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How it came into being in the first place.

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Asante emerged a little over 300 years ago,

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in territory now occupied by the Republic of Ghana

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in the heart of West Africa's forest zone.

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Dense forest is an unusual place for large civilisations to establish.

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The heat and humidity are relentless.

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Despite the conditions,

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a complex and sophisticated kingdom emerged here,

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that dominated a vast area for more than 200 years.

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The vegetation seems so impenetrable

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that the scale of the achievement is hard to comprehend.

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Discovering how they did it

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and where they started,

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has preoccupied historians for decades.

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In 2010, archaeology carried out by the University of Ghana

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made some important, new discoveries

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about ancient life in this part of Africa.

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These are fired clay figurines,

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recovered from a site in Northern Ghana

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dating to the 9 and 10th centuries.

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Dr Benjamin Campiere and his colleagues

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found some 80 terracotta figures,

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perhaps a 1,000 years old,

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in savannah north of the forest depicting animals and humans.

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He believes they were part of a shrine.

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What this points to is a very complex culture.

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I mean, even if you look at these

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as depictions of the world that surrounded the people that made them

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you can see that they're wearing jewellery, body adornments,

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that this is obviously a very complex culture.

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For sure, yeah.

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As far as we know, one of the markers of civilised society

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are ritual complexity, possibly marked by these artistic figures,

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quality ones, as well.

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The figurines indicate sophistication among the peoples

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who lived in this region of West Africa.

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But so far, archaeologists haven't proven any link

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between these objects and Asante.

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In fact, conclusive evidence has yet to be found of the precise

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origins of the Asante people, for good reason.

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It's challenging for archaeologists looking for ancient sites

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in this thick vegetation that thrives in heat and humidity.

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They simply don't know where the early Asante came from.

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The forest is yet to give up the physical evidence

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that might reveal what happened many centuries ago.

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Asante's history isn't as elusive as it might seem, however.

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Evidence does exist but it appears in different forms

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which are still incredibly valuable.

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Narrative, oral history, stories of the past,

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they're all important here

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and knowing why is essential in understanding

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how the Asante kingdom came about and what held it together.

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These people are heading to the most hallowed spot in Asante territory.

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This is oral history in action.

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Their destination is a sacred site,

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within a forest called Asanti Mansa

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where a seldom held ceremony is taking place.

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It celebrates the seven clans

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who first established communities in the forest,

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and in so doing, laid the foundations of the Asante kingdom.

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According to legend,

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they emerged from holes in the ground within the forest.

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Sacrifice emphasises the significance and rarity

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of the ritual.

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I may find it uncomfortable viewing,

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but it's an important part of the ceremony,

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celebrating the origin of the Asante people.

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It doesn't really matter whether we believe

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the Asante came from a hole in the ground or not.

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These myths are every bit as important today as they ever were.

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Many things decay in the heat and humidity of the forest,

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but folk memory lasts.

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Archaeologists can't be certain that Asante's ancestors

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came from exactly this spot,

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but the belief in forest origins

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does chime with what historians have established.

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The ancestors of Asante were Akan people,

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whose language is still spoken.

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The Akan hunted and foraged for food around 600 years ago.

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But 300 years later a sophisticated kingdom had emerged.

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In between, the Akan people and their environment

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went through a significant and rapid transformation.

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Before a community could establish itself in one place

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a major obstacle had to be overcome,

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the forest.

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Just unbelievable.

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If you think, the original Asante,

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that they cleared this forest, trees of that size, by hand.

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During the peak of the forest clearance 500 years ago,

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the Akan used axes to weaken the trunks

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and then pulled the trees down with twine.

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Clearing the forest was a vital precondition for settled society.

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Before that Akan people were part of the hunter gatherer society.

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With the forest cleared, agriculture could happen.

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Only with the space to cultivate land and grow food crops

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could groups of Akan people expand their populations.

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Today in a forest in the West of Ghana

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machinery makes short work of ancient trees.

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Hardwood timber, such as mahogany and teak,

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is among Ghana's most important exports.

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Licensing regulations attempt to protect the environment,

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but there's an understanding among forestry workers

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that Ghana's history is worth safeguarding too.

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The forest, it's important to the people, to the Akan,

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the forests are important, are they?

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Yes, it means something to the people.

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We have some areas we don't enter.

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We name the place,

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maybe this is the place where the Asante people come from.

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Yes, so the forest is very important to us.

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For the Akan people in the 15th and 16th centuries

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forest clearance was mind boggling work.

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Researchers have calculated that for one man to clear one hectare

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it would take him 500 days to remove more than 1,200 tonnes of vegetation.

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Since the fertility of the soil deteriorates so quickly,

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he would have to rotate his crops,

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meaning he would need to clear six hectares to feed his family.

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Faced with such an enormous task

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the Akan people needed additional labour.

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There weren't enough of their own people to do the job,

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so they used slaves.

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An expert in the earlier Akan societies,

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that were the foundation of the Asante kingdom,

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is Dr Wilhelmina Donkell.

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Yes, I mean, importing people from outside

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was a really useful venture for them.

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Traders from outside coming in.

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At different times, they must have brought in people...

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even from possibly as far afield as maybe Nigeria,

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the Sierra-Gambian areas and so on.

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How did this early kind of slavery differ from transatlantic slavery,

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which comes slightly later?

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The system that operated here was quite different,

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in the sense that all unfree people,

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or people of unfree descent, could marry, have offspring of their own,

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could accumulate property, and all that.

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And sometimes they could even marry into the lineages of their,

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shall I say, their masters,

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or the people who had initially procured them.

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So, it wasn't very hostile.

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It did not remove the basic humanity of those who had lost their freedom

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but still, it's a loss of freedom,

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in the sense that you were removed from your own kinsmen

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to join a different set of people.

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With the help of unfree labour the Akan made clearances in the forest

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on an unprecedented scale.

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For the first time, the forest was a viable place

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to have organised, settled societies.

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It was still 200-300 years before the Asante kingdom

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but this achievement had a long lasting effect.

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The act of clearing the forest shaped Akan identity.

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There was a great sense of pride

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for this effort against the forest had been successful

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but that only drove the imperative to do more.

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Farmers settled in the clear areas and grew crops

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needed to support an expanding population.

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Today, cultivation still happens among the dense undergrowth.

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-This is your farm is it?

-This is my farm.

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And can you tell me, what sort of produce do you farm here?

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Here, I do produce this type of food, it is plantain.

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I planted this and it takes one year to harvest.

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This is called cocoyam and I planted cocoyam.

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-It's like a potato it's a starchy...

-Yeah, it's starchy like a potato.

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How do you keep back all of the weeds and the big trees

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that seem to be growing so voraciously

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on the edge of your farm?

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We use this cutlass, so all of them will come once weed everything.

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Having cleared space for agriculture,

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the ancestors of Asante were determined to make the most of it.

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The pursuit of abundance

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quickly became ingrained in the Akan society.

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The productiveness of the forest required a lot of hard work.

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Much of it carried out by slaves,

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but none of that could have happened without a commodity

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that the Akan exchanged for slaves in the first place.

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Still found deep within the forest is the precious resource

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that paid for labour, and transformed the Akan people.

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I'm on my way to one of the ten largest gold mines in the world.

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This is the Abwassi gold mine.

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Today, gold bearing rock is extracted from shafts

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that reach 1,500 metres under ground.

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The chemical process separated the precious metal from the ore

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and smelting results in gold bullion.

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The heat is so intense, I've never felt anything like it.

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It's unbelievable!

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Gold worth over £6 billion at today's prices

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has been extracted from here since the end of the 19th century.

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But it's been mined in this region for a lot longer than that.

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No-one now knows when the Akan people discovered gold,

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but it is clear that they were mining it

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when they were clearing the forest in the 15th century.

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In those days the gold was found much nearer the surface

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and it was smelted by the Akan using iron age technology.

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The precious resource was critical to the transformation of the forest

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and to the foundations of the Asanti kingdom.

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And gold provided by the forest,

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gave the people a significant place in the much wider economy.

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Akan gold found its way to North Africa and beyond

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via trans-Saharan trade routes,

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and gold paid for not just slaves,

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but textiles, brass, copper and salt.

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From the 1470's Akan gold had a direct route to Europe

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via Portuguese merchants on the coast

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in exchange for gold they sold guns.

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A map made by a merchant in the 16th century

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shows who the Portuguese were dealing with.

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The most successful Akan were amassing power.

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The developing entrepreneurial spirit

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would have a major impact on culture in the kingdom of Asante.

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The Akan businessmen had accumulated gold,

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slaves and land and they were known as "beren pon", big men.

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And they shared one thing in common, one ultimate symbol of authority.

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It wasn't a crown or even gold regalia.

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It was a small, wooden stool.

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The village of Oweir is a centre of stool craftsmanship.

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Every stool is carved from a single piece of sese wood.

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The finest stools made here

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are used by senior figures in Ghanaian society.

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Less ornate stools are for everyday use and tourist souvenirs.

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According to leading Asante scholar, Professor Kwame Ahima,

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the stool was more than a seat to the Akan big men.

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It was a symbol of citels.

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Citels in the sense of authority, power

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and standing in society.

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It begins with the earliest village family unit.

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The eldest had to have a symbol of authority over everybody,

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so, then he had the stool made for him.

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And why is the stool the symbol?

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I suppose the material used for it was durable,

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because you see you wanted it to last.

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Now, a stool is a way of remembering,

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a means of remembering.

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So, in a way, the stools actually became symbols of the history...

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That's right

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..and also at the same time?

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The symbols of office, symbols of authority, symbols of a power

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and also reminders of their particular achievements.

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'The experience of literally hacking their culture out of the forest

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'was bound up in Akan stools.

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'They helped to emphasise the roots of their organised society

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'and much more.'

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It's not just about rootedness, it's also about power,

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about lineage, about family.

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They actually have, in the centre of them,

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an empty space where people could put things that they treasured,

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that brought this object to life,

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made it more than just a seat.

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It became, in a way, a vessel that carried history.

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'The stool's authority translated into political power for its chief.

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'As the communities around each stool grew,

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'they became less a collection of farmers and workers

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'and more like highly centralised states.

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'By the mid-1600s,

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'dozens of independent village communities

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'had turned into a patchwork of Akan states.

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'The most powerful was Denkyira.

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'It controlled some of the richest gold mines in the forest.

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'For decades, its neighbours sent tribute by way of slaves

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'and other gifts to keep the peace.

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'But Denkyira's position as the most powerful of the Akan states was not to last.'

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I'm on my way to the birthplace of the man who challenged Denkyria

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and in the process, founded the Asante kingdom.

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'Denkyira's demands on its neighbours

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'left it with few friends and many enemies.

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'In 1701, an alliance of states defeated Denkyira in battle.

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'The leader of the alliance was Osei Tutu,

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'the first Asantehene or King of Asante.

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'According to legend, this village is where it all started.'

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This is a beautiful place.

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'I've been offered a guided tour by the chief of the nearby town.'

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This place is particularly special, though, isn't it?

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So, Osei Tutu was born here?

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'Osei Tutu is thought to have been born sometime during the 1640s.

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'There are very few certainties known about him,

0:25:080:25:11

'but I find it peculiar that there aren't many artistic impressions

0:25:110:25:15

'of what he might have looked like.

0:25:150:25:17

'The chief is taking me to see one of the very few.'

0:25:170:25:20

'This little shrine shows an infant Osei Tutu in his mother's arms.

0:25:330:25:39

'It doesn't give much of an idea of what the man was like.'

0:25:390:25:43

What kind of person was he?

0:25:450:25:47

'The sculpture's strikingly western in its appearance

0:26:130:26:16

'and I think the use of Christian iconography's deliberate.

0:26:160:26:20

'If Osei Tutu is to be remembered as a messiah,

0:26:200:26:24

'it makes sense in this now very Christian country,

0:26:240:26:27

'to remind people of Mary and Jesus.

0:26:270:26:31

'I was keen to see the place where, according to legend,

0:26:310:26:34

'Osei Tutu's mother gave birth.'

0:26:340:26:37

'It's in a wooded area just outside the village.'

0:26:420:26:46

I would love to.

0:26:490:26:51

I have to take my shoes off?

0:26:560:26:58

'Unfortunately, the site is regarded as so sacred,

0:27:040:27:07

'not even the chief has the authority to cross its boundary.

0:27:070:27:12

'There's genuine reverence for the stories of the past,

0:27:120:27:15

'whether provable or not.'

0:27:150:27:18

Can I ask you about the importance of history to the Asante people?

0:27:180:27:23

'The notion of modifying history to suit the present

0:27:580:28:01

'is an intriguing idea, but not a new one.

0:28:010:28:06

'It's exactly what happened when the Asante kingdom was created over 300 years ago,

0:28:060:28:11

'an event commemorated in its capital, Kumasi.

0:28:110:28:15

'This was the seat of Osei Tutu's power

0:28:230:28:27

'and it's where a particular reading of the history is displayed.

0:28:270:28:31

'This modern statue commemorates the most significant

0:28:360:28:40

'and legendary moment in the creation of Asante.

0:28:400:28:44

'The figure isn't Osei Tutu,

0:28:440:28:46

'but his adviser, Okomfo Anokye.

0:28:460:28:49

'He's seen summoning a golden stool down from the heavens.'

0:28:490:28:53

According to folklore,

0:28:550:28:56

the Golden Stool is the spirit of the Asante nation.

0:28:560:29:00

When Okomfo Anokye summoned it from the sky,

0:29:000:29:03

it settled gently on Osei Tutu's knees,

0:29:030:29:06

anointing him the great leader of the Asante kingdom.

0:29:060:29:10

'Okomfo Anokye was Merlin to Osei Tutu's King Arthur.

0:29:120:29:17

'Historians aren't even certain that he ever existed

0:29:170:29:19

'but by promoting the myth,

0:29:190:29:22

'the Asante state deliberately mixed belief with fact.

0:29:220:29:26

'The Golden Stool gave Osei Tutu spiritual power

0:29:260:29:29

'to bolster the military leadership he'd already shown.

0:29:290:29:33

'The Golden Stool was displayed periodically

0:29:330:29:37

'to reinforce the legend.

0:29:370:29:40

'The rarity of its public appearances adds to its mystique.

0:29:400:29:45

'The faith in the stool's supernatural origins

0:29:450:29:48

'gave its owner authority

0:29:480:29:50

'and gave the Asante people a strong sense of belonging.'

0:29:500:29:56

Nothing lasts forever in the forest. Even kings.

0:29:560:30:00

But if the Golden Stool contained the spirit of the Asante nation,

0:30:000:30:03

then the kingdom could last forever.

0:30:030:30:05

THEY DRUM

0:30:050:30:09

'Asante royalty follow the ancient Akan tradition

0:30:110:30:15

'of succession on the mother's line.

0:30:150:30:17

'With the spiritual authority of the Golden Stool

0:30:170:30:21

'and with the help of European firearms,

0:30:210:30:23

'Osei Tutu and his successors embarked on campaigns of expansion.

0:30:230:30:29

'Drums were vital to the kingdom's ambitions.

0:30:290:30:33

'Long distance communication meant Asante's imperialism

0:30:330:30:36

'could be fast and effective.'

0:30:360:30:39

These are the atompan drums - the talking drums of Asante.

0:30:450:30:49

They're a means of communication,

0:30:490:30:51

but perhaps not in the way you might imagine.

0:30:510:30:54

'These drums don't just beat out a rhythm, they speak.

0:30:590:31:03

'And if you know the language, you can hear words and phrases.'

0:31:070:31:12

That was great.

0:31:140:31:16

Thank you so much. That was just amazing.

0:31:160:31:19

You don't just hear it, you feel it. It's absolutely wonderful.

0:31:190:31:23

Each one of these drums have a different sound, is that right?

0:31:230:31:27

'To get an idea of drum language, I've come to speak to drum-maker James Acheampong.'

0:31:370:31:44

-And these drums speak, is that right?

-Yes.

0:31:440:31:47

How do they actually communicate? I'm fascinated by that.

0:31:470:31:51

There is a certain basic drum language

0:31:510:31:55

which is very familiar to anybody within the community.

0:31:550:32:00

Such like, maybe we are going to war, someone is lost in the forest

0:32:000:32:06

and we are going to communal labour,

0:32:060:32:09

the king is calling everyone - we have to come report at the palace,

0:32:090:32:14

those are the basic things.

0:32:140:32:17

Everyone within the community knows that.

0:32:170:32:20

'Drum language is possible because it doesn't simply imitate the syllables of spoken words,

0:32:220:32:28

'but their tone, as well,

0:32:280:32:30

'thanks to the combinations of sounds the drums can produce.'

0:32:300:32:34

I see. So, together, they make a full sound?

0:32:340:32:38

If you hear the rhythm, I can call you.

0:32:430:32:46

-You can call me?

-What is your name?

-My name? My name is Gus.

0:32:460:32:50

-How would you do that? How would you call me?

-He shall call you.

0:32:500:32:54

-Amatar, you call me.

-Amatar.

0:32:540:32:57

HE BANGS DRUM

0:32:570:32:58

I'm not... I don't... I apologise for my stupidity.

0:32:580:33:03

But I just can't see the relationship. Do Gus again.

0:33:030:33:06

No, no, no. Do Gus again, please. Do Gus.

0:33:060:33:10

See? A-ta-ta-ta. Come.

0:33:150:33:20

The talking drum, in the olden days, was the only means

0:33:230:33:26

to communicate from a village to another village.

0:33:260:33:31

So, there was no telephone then,

0:33:310:33:34

so, normally, the community use the talking drum

0:33:340:33:39

to send messages from village to other village.

0:33:390:33:45

If you kill a thousand, a thousand will come. Asante Kotoko.

0:33:480:33:51

So, that's the great Asante saying, isn't it?

0:33:510:33:55

-Asante Kotoko.

-Asante Kotoko.

0:33:550:33:58

So, that one's saying,

0:34:010:34:03

-when you kill a thousand, a thousand will come.

-Yes.

0:34:030:34:06

'The common language of the region

0:34:090:34:11

'made this form of communication extremely effective.

0:34:110:34:14

'Asante had no standing army.

0:34:170:34:19

'Instead, every village was expected to contribute soldiers

0:34:190:34:23

'to campaigns ordered by the Asantehene.

0:34:230:34:26

'The reservists responded to the drummer's call to war

0:34:260:34:30

'and the kingdom expanded rapidly in the first half of the 18th century.

0:34:300:34:35

'Asante soon dominated territory

0:34:350:34:38

'that stretched beyond the borders of modern Ghana.

0:34:380:34:42

'Previously independent states were coerced into a federation

0:34:420:34:46

'with power centralised in Kumasi.

0:34:460:34:49

'States were either forcibly conquered or submitted to Asante's power.

0:34:510:34:55

'They became provinces of the kingdom.

0:34:570:34:59

'Their chiefs became vessels of the Asante king - the Asantehene.

0:34:590:35:05

'As the kingdom expanded,

0:35:110:35:13

'Asante grew rich from the proceeds of warfare.'

0:35:130:35:17

The wars of expansion resulted in the accumulation of vast numbers of slaves -

0:35:190:35:25

far more than they could possibly use,

0:35:250:35:27

but this also raised an opportunity.

0:35:270:35:29

'110 miles south of Kumasi is Ghana's coast...

0:35:340:35:38

'..and a poignant reminder of African history.

0:35:390:35:43

'After the Portuguese began trading in the 1470s,

0:35:460:35:50

'other Europeans followed to what became known as the Gold Coast.

0:35:500:35:54

'Cape Coast Castle was originally a base for Swedish merchants,

0:35:560:36:00

'but by the mid-1660s,

0:36:000:36:02

'it had been taken over by the British.

0:36:020:36:05

'As Asante rose to prominence,

0:36:070:36:09

'the white men were less interested in gold

0:36:090:36:11

'than in another valuable commodity - labour.'

0:36:110:36:16

The Asante captured slaves in the interior

0:36:160:36:19

and sold them to the British and other European powers.

0:36:190:36:22

'Gold had once connected the Akan to the economies of Europe.

0:36:220:36:28

'Now, slavery entwined West Africa

0:36:280:36:30

'in a system that linked it to Europe and the Americas.'

0:36:300:36:34

More than a million Africans were sold off of this coast

0:36:360:36:39

to a life of slavery in the New World.

0:36:390:36:42

'And they were captured and sold by their fellow Africans.

0:36:430:36:48

'The institution of slavery had been part of the economic normality of West Africa

0:36:500:36:55

'for hundreds of years.

0:36:550:36:57

'Selling slaves to Europeans for use in the Americas

0:36:580:37:02

'was a lucrative new business

0:37:020:37:04

'not exclusive to the Asante, but used by them for their own advantage.

0:37:040:37:09

'Dr Kwabena Adu-Boahen is an expert on the Asante

0:37:090:37:12

'and the slave trade.'

0:37:120:37:14

After it had been established as a kingdom,

0:37:160:37:19

for economic reasons and for other reasons,

0:37:190:37:21

Asante began to expand beyond the boundaries of the whole kingdom

0:37:210:37:26

and that is where the issue of acquiring slaves for sale came in.

0:37:260:37:31

Under normal circumstances,

0:37:310:37:33

when you are fighting, you kill your enemies, you see,

0:37:330:37:36

but the slave trade had already emerged as an economic system.

0:37:360:37:40

So, as Asante was expanding, it was getting a lot of war captives

0:37:400:37:45

and constant warfare

0:37:450:37:48

meant constant production of war captives

0:37:480:37:51

and while there was a marketing system on the coast,

0:37:510:37:54

logically and rationally, that was going to make them rich.

0:37:540:37:59

So, it's a formidable model that they expand,

0:37:590:38:02

they capture more people, those people are then sold as slaves

0:38:020:38:06

-which then feeds the economy and allows them to expand even more.

-Expand even more.

0:38:060:38:10

Acquire the instruments for their expansion, that is firearms.

0:38:100:38:13

And can I ask you a very 21st century question -

0:38:130:38:17

how did the Asante deal with the morality of slavery?

0:38:170:38:21

Of selling human beings?

0:38:210:38:24

We, in the 21st century, look back

0:38:240:38:27

and look at it from the moral perspective,

0:38:270:38:30

but then, morality was not too important.

0:38:300:38:34

It was business.

0:38:340:38:35

It was business of the day

0:38:350:38:38

and the resources were organised and invested in that business.

0:38:380:38:44

So, yes, in our time, it was immoral.

0:38:440:38:48

It's a terrible kind of situation in our thinking and in our estimation,

0:38:480:38:53

but at that time, I don't think morality was a fact at all.

0:38:530:38:58

'For many years in Africa and Europe,

0:39:010:39:03

'slavery was simply a means to an end.

0:39:030:39:06

'Just as their Akan ancestors had used un-free labour

0:39:080:39:11

'to make clearings in the forest,

0:39:110:39:14

'the Asante kings used the proceeds of slavery

0:39:140:39:17

'to create a powerful kingdom.

0:39:170:39:20

'But having created an empire of provinces,

0:39:200:39:23

'the Asantehenes all faced a major challenge -

0:39:230:39:27

'how to keep them together?

0:39:270:39:28

'The Asante kings recognised the value

0:39:320:39:34

'of a traditional culture of storytelling.

0:39:340:39:38

'They understood that the old ways of recording history

0:39:390:39:43

'could be made to work for them.

0:39:430:39:44

'In the heart of the historic kingdom is evidence to show

0:39:440:39:49

'how the Asante state deliberately created a sense of nationalism.'

0:39:490:39:53

Surrounding Kumasi, communities developed a range

0:39:550:39:59

of skills and crafts, places like this, Bonwire.

0:39:590:40:03

They may not have been big or powerful,

0:40:030:40:05

but they played a crucial role in binding the kingdom of Asante together.

0:40:050:40:09

'I've come here to see kente - Ghana's famous patterned cloth.

0:40:130:40:19

'To many people, this is simply brightly coloured material

0:40:200:40:24

'used to make clothes, but there's a lot more to it than that.'

0:40:240:40:29

What's amazing about kente cloth

0:40:320:40:35

is every single one of these patterns has a different meaning

0:40:350:40:38

and these are meanings that are used

0:40:380:40:40

to weave the Asante community together.

0:40:400:40:43

'Even the textile itself is symbolic.

0:40:440:40:48

'Made by joining individual strips of material,

0:40:480:40:51

'the word kente means whatever happens to it,

0:40:510:40:54

'it will not tear and each pattern represents a proverb.'

0:40:540:40:59

They call this My Heart's Desire.

0:41:010:41:03

My Heart's Desire.

0:41:030:41:05

'Isaac, one of the weavers of the workshop,

0:41:050:41:08

'is showing me how messages can be found in the material,

0:41:080:41:12

'many of them reinforcing a single basic idea -

0:41:120:41:15

'we're better together than apart.'

0:41:150:41:18

So, there's kind of a sense of narrative?

0:41:300:41:33

Yeah, and is there a particular reason for the colours?

0:41:370:41:40

They have particular meanings in particular configurations?

0:41:400:41:44

I can understand how those tones...

0:42:080:42:10

That they weave together a sense of community,

0:42:100:42:13

but also, as you say, they represent something within the environment.

0:42:130:42:19

It's wonderful.

0:42:190:42:21

'Kente, rich with symbolism, was promoted by the Asantehenes.

0:42:210:42:27

'By wearing the cloth of Bonwire,

0:42:270:42:29

'the monarch recognised the contribution of Bonwire's craftsmen

0:42:290:42:33

'to the Asante kingdom, while also advertising the kingdom's benefits.'

0:42:330:42:37

I know these objects, but only from a distance, really.

0:42:390:42:43

But to see them up close, you can see why the Asantehene wanted to invest in them.

0:42:430:42:47

He wanted them to be a metaphor for the Asante nation

0:42:470:42:51

and he chose alongside them drums, he chose gold,

0:42:510:42:55

he chose a variety of different kinds of crafts

0:42:550:42:58

that would bind the Asante together.

0:42:580:43:00

'The people were proud to see their traditions being used by the king,

0:43:020:43:06

'but the state's appropriation of local customs

0:43:060:43:08

'revealed how determined it was to shape the kingdom as it saw fit.'

0:43:080:43:13

The Asante nation wasn't just about weaving peoples together.

0:43:160:43:20

Whilst there was consent, there was also control.

0:43:200:43:24

'In 100 years, the kingdom had grown significantly.

0:43:270:43:32

'At its largest extent in the early 1800s,

0:43:320:43:36

'it included outlying provinces as far as 16 days journey from Kumasi.

0:43:360:43:42

'Its population was over 2 million -

0:43:420:43:45

'20 times more than South Africa in the same period.

0:43:450:43:50

'A kingdom of this size required careful government.

0:43:500:43:55

'I've been given permission to enter the Royal Palace in Kumasi

0:43:550:43:58

'and to see some of the instruments of control

0:43:580:44:01

'used by the state at the height of its power.

0:44:010:44:03

'The original palace was the centre of Asante government.

0:44:060:44:09

'From Kumasi, civil servants were sent all over the kingdom

0:44:090:44:14

'to implement its policies and to apply its laws.

0:44:140:44:18

'I've arrived just as the palace gunbearers

0:44:190:44:23

'have come to remove historic weapons from the museum.'

0:44:230:44:27

So, you carry the guns during ceremonies?

0:44:300:44:32

Yeah and during the sitting of the king.

0:44:320:44:37

Any time the king sits in state.

0:44:370:44:41

The guards and their swords have to come out to signify that is the king.

0:44:410:44:45

So, who did that belong to?

0:44:450:44:47

-That is the first king of Asante - Osei Tutu I.

-Oh, really?

0:44:470:44:53

This is Osei Tutu's gun?

0:44:530:44:56

How amazing!

0:44:560:44:59

European firearms had been instrumental in creating

0:45:010:45:05

and expanding the Asante kingdom during the 1700s.

0:45:050:45:08

Threat of force was one way the kingdom maintained control

0:45:120:45:16

but other methods were just as effective.

0:45:160:45:19

The royal palace once housed the most important part of the kingdom's bureaucracy...

0:45:200:45:26

..the Treasury.

0:45:260:45:27

Since gold was first mined in the forest,

0:45:270:45:30

the currency of this area of West Africa was gold dust.

0:45:300:45:34

Scales and counterweights were used for precise measurements.

0:45:360:45:40

even gold nuggets and ingots were smelted down

0:45:400:45:43

and turned into gold dust so they could be accurately measured.

0:45:430:45:49

Every transaction was in gold dust, including taxation.

0:45:490:45:52

Look at that exquisite little object, a tiny little stool.

0:45:540:45:59

It's actually a gold weight.

0:45:590:46:01

You can imagine them weighing gold against something like this.

0:46:010:46:04

It's an indication of just how important taxation

0:46:040:46:10

and financial control actually was.

0:46:100:46:12

And the treasury - it was a mechanism for administering

0:46:120:46:18

all of the Asante bureaucracy.

0:46:180:46:20

It's just another one of those institutions that was core

0:46:200:46:25

to consolidating Asante power.

0:46:250:46:28

Taxation didn't simply fund the government,

0:46:300:46:33

it ensured that no individual could become significantly wealthy.

0:46:330:46:38

Gold was not just money, it was power.

0:46:410:46:44

And it was vital that power was held by the state.

0:46:440:46:47

The regalia of the Asantehene had to be the very best.

0:46:470:46:52

And the quality is just mindblowing.

0:46:530:46:57

Exquisite work.

0:46:570:46:59

Ostentatious demonstrations of wealth by the king

0:47:020:47:05

reminded everyone of their history, of how the gold found in the forest

0:47:050:47:10

had been instrumental in creating the kingdom.

0:47:100:47:13

The Asante people had long accepted that the kingdom was

0:47:130:47:17

safeguarded if the state was rich.

0:47:170:47:20

But those assumptions were to be severely challenged.

0:47:200:47:23

Asante had become wealthy and powerful in part because of

0:47:330:47:37

the trade in slaves with Europeans on the coast,

0:47:370:47:39

a trade controlled by the state.

0:47:390:47:42

But in 1807 the slave trade was abolished in the British Empire,

0:47:430:47:47

with far reaching consequences for the Asante.

0:47:470:47:52

The economy shifted and the state's control over it weakened.

0:47:520:47:56

People began to trade in new things with the British on the coast

0:47:560:47:59

and with traders from across the desert.

0:47:590:48:02

The people of Asante had always believed in the state's control

0:48:050:48:09

over wealth, but now they were increasingly in contact

0:48:090:48:13

with people from beyond the kingdom

0:48:130:48:15

who were making money for themselves.

0:48:150:48:18

Many abandoned Kumasi and migrated to the southern provinces

0:48:180:48:21

for a piece of the action.

0:48:210:48:23

Their ancestral entrepreneurial spirit re-awakened.

0:48:230:48:27

At the same time, the sudden drop in the European demand for slaves

0:48:270:48:32

meant that all goods had to be paid for in gold dust.

0:48:320:48:35

It rapidly became scarce.

0:48:350:48:38

These new influences had a profound effect.

0:48:390:48:42

People started hoarding gold, they buried it to avoid paying tax.

0:48:420:48:47

This was a direct assault on the power of the Asante state.

0:48:470:48:51

These internal problems plagued the kingdom in the first half of the 19th century,

0:48:530:48:58

and they were made worse by a fractious relationship

0:48:580:49:02

with an international trading partner.

0:49:020:49:05

The military museum in Kumasi was built as a fort by the British.

0:49:080:49:13

This collection of photographs is testament to British involvement here from the late 19th century.

0:49:150:49:22

But the British influence on the coast had been growing steadily

0:49:220:49:26

for many decades before then.

0:49:260:49:28

There were disagreements and outbreaks of hostilities

0:49:300:49:33

between the British and the Asante,

0:49:330:49:34

but, for the most part,

0:49:340:49:36

relations between them were of two co-operative trading states.

0:49:360:49:40

But then, in the late 1860s, everything changed.

0:49:400:49:44

Asante wanted to restore its domination over

0:49:460:49:49

its southern provinces, to tighten its grip on coastal trade.

0:49:490:49:53

but some of those provinces had turned to the British for protection

0:49:560:50:00

and an Asante trade monopoly was not in British commercial interests.

0:50:000:50:05

The two powers were on a collision course.

0:50:050:50:08

As tempers flared, the Asante took a number of Europeans as prisoners,

0:50:090:50:13

an act that the British would cite as a justification for war,

0:50:130:50:17

a war that would allow the British

0:50:170:50:19

to consolidate their trading position on the coast.

0:50:190:50:22

In February 1874, British forces marched into Kumasi,

0:50:250:50:29

the first foreign troops to do so.

0:50:290:50:33

They burned it to the ground, then returned to their base on the coast.

0:50:360:50:43

The destruction of Kumasi was a shock to this previously undefeated kingdom,

0:50:430:50:49

but the impact was more than psychological.

0:50:490:50:51

As Kumasi lay in ruins,

0:50:530:50:55

Asante was forced to accept the loss of its southern provinces.

0:50:550:51:00

In August 1874, they became the British Gold Coast.

0:51:000:51:05

100 years after Asante's empire building,

0:51:070:51:11

the Europeans were gaining foreign lands.

0:51:110:51:15

The authority of the Asante Kingdom

0:51:150:51:17

had failed to withstand the challenges of the British,

0:51:170:51:21

or the changing economic realities affecting its people.

0:51:210:51:25

The kingdom's other provinces began asserting their power

0:51:250:51:29

and in the 1880s, civil war threatened to tear Asante apart.

0:51:290:51:34

The violence ended in 1888

0:51:340:51:37

when the factions agreed to a new Asantehene,

0:51:370:51:40

a 16-year-old named Prempeh I.

0:51:400:51:43

'Professor Irene Odotei has explored his effect on a kingdom

0:51:450:51:49

'on the verge of destruction.'

0:51:490:51:51

So here was this young man, having come to power,

0:51:510:51:55

the question was how was he going to manage?

0:51:550:51:59

Manage to bring all these forces,

0:51:590:52:02

the insiders who defected and all these other people,

0:52:020:52:06

bringing them together to build a strong Asante nation once more

0:52:060:52:12

that was his challenge - peaceful Asante nation.

0:52:120:52:15

So what he did was to re-establish the importance of the Golden Stool

0:52:150:52:21

as a unifying factor for the Asantes.

0:52:210:52:24

So the Golden Stool, it's the rallying point for the whole nation.

0:52:240:52:28

Yes, but at that time, we're talking about the British too,

0:52:280:52:33

also saying, "Hey, wait a minute.

0:52:330:52:35

"If this man succeeds in reuniting Asante

0:52:350:52:39

"to make a strong Asante nation,

0:52:390:52:41

"we will be in trouble because that's the last thing we want."

0:52:410:52:44

Because the British were determined now

0:52:440:52:46

to get hold of a Asante and make Asante a colony.

0:52:460:52:50

So the governor comes to Kumasi

0:52:500:52:55

and when he came to Kumasi, then he made demands on Prempeh I.

0:52:550:52:59

I think by the time the British came to make their demands,

0:52:590:53:03

he had decided, "I'm not going to fight any more wars.

0:53:030:53:06

"Let me see if I can compromise.

0:53:060:53:09

"If I compromise, one, I will save my nation,

0:53:090:53:14

"and also probably I'll save myself." So that was the thing,

0:53:140:53:18

but the British were so determined, so in spite of all that,

0:53:180:53:22

they decided, "Hey, we are taking you and your mother

0:53:220:53:26

"and some of the chiefs and then send them to Sierra Leone for three years,

0:53:260:53:32

"and from there send them to the Seychelle islands."

0:53:320:53:34

The enforced exile of Prempeh in 1896

0:53:360:53:40

stopped the kingdom's resurgence in its tracks.

0:53:400:53:44

Six years later, Asante was formally incorporated

0:53:440:53:47

into the British Gold Coast colony.

0:53:470:53:50

The Asante kingdom had been the result of centuries

0:53:570:54:00

of a canned state building in the forest.

0:54:000:54:03

Asante's pivotal position in an international economy

0:54:030:54:07

had brought it wealth and power.

0:54:070:54:09

In the final years of the 19th century,

0:54:090:54:13

weakness and instability had allowed Britain to add Asante

0:54:130:54:17

to its African possessions.

0:54:170:54:19

The Asante kingdom was crushed.

0:54:220:54:24

The British sought out

0:54:240:54:25

the last symbols of independence to be destroyed,

0:54:250:54:28

but something, something subtle, survived.

0:54:280:54:32

The British had failed to destroy the spirit of the Asante nation,

0:54:360:54:40

or its physical embodiment, the Golden Stool.

0:54:400:54:45

It was a significant error, as palace historian Osei Kwadwo explained.

0:54:450:54:51

Our spirit, our everything is in the Golden Stool.

0:54:510:54:55

So that when even the British tried to take the Golden Stool away,

0:54:550:55:00

we did our best to hide it and they never saw it.

0:55:000:55:03

So they later found that

0:55:030:55:06

it was not the occupant of the stool who mattered,

0:55:060:55:09

because we fought so that they could not take the Golden Stool away

0:55:090:55:12

and they never saw the Golden Stool.

0:55:120:55:15

So to us, I say we were victorious.

0:55:150:55:17

HE LAUGHS

0:55:170:55:19

In 1924, Prempeh was allowed to return from exile.

0:55:240:55:29

The Golden Stool reappeared at the Royal Palace.

0:55:290:55:32

The kingdom was restored after Ghana gained independence in 1957

0:55:330:55:39

and Asante's traditional festivals were revived.

0:55:390:55:42

The Akwasidae festival is held every 42 days.

0:55:430:55:46

It remembers the ancestors

0:55:460:55:50

and celebrates the history of the kingdom.

0:55:500:55:53

The same themes that were used to bind the kingdom together

0:55:530:55:56

300 years ago are everywhere.

0:55:560:55:58

The gold that was once mined deep in the forest,

0:56:030:56:06

the drums that beat out the proverbs of Asante,

0:56:060:56:09

the kente cloth that carries the slogans of unity,

0:56:090:56:13

all in stunning display.

0:56:130:56:16

You understand why they chose gold.

0:56:160:56:19

In this light with the kente, it just looks extraordinary.

0:56:190:56:26

All these symbols of power

0:56:260:56:28

and suddenly you understand that they're just dazzling in this light.

0:56:280:56:31

Provincial chiefs gather to pay homage to the current Asantehene,

0:56:350:56:39

Osei Tutu II.

0:56:390:56:41

He may not command an army or wield the power of his ancestors,

0:56:410:56:45

but there's no doubt about his importance to the Asante people.

0:56:450:56:49

Just amazing to get this close to the King of Asante

0:56:490:56:53

when all of that gold, that kente,

0:56:530:56:56

the story that we tried to tell is alive and well in this man,

0:56:560:57:01

the embodiment of our story.

0:57:010:57:03

This is a celebration of history,

0:57:040:57:08

but it's history with a purpose.

0:57:080:57:11

We dwell upon our history to improve upon our future.

0:57:110:57:16

That is why our history is very important for us.

0:57:160:57:19

And so for the future, do you feel that the kingdom is in good health?

0:57:190:57:24

Yes.

0:57:240:57:26

One thing I see is that our people are proud

0:57:260:57:30

to keep the culture,

0:57:300:57:32

and we are Asantes because of our culture.

0:57:320:57:36

The Asante state once used mythology and traditions

0:57:380:57:43

to assert its origins, reinterpret history and forge a kingdom.

0:57:430:57:47

Now these festivals use history to maintain Asante's identity

0:57:470:57:53

and its people sense of belonging within the Republic of Ghana.

0:57:530:57:58

I came in search of a lost kingdom,

0:57:580:58:00

but I found a kingdom which is very much alive,

0:58:000:58:04

which still finds a coherence around those central core themes

0:58:040:58:08

that were set up by Osei Tutu with the foundation of this empire -

0:58:080:58:12

gold, kente, drumming, the stool,

0:58:120:58:17

they still work for the Asante people

0:58:170:58:20

as much today as they ever did.

0:58:200:58:23

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:58:370:58:40

E-mail [email protected]

0:58:400:58:42

We know less about Africa's distant past than almost anywhere else on Earth. But the scarcity of written records doesn't mean that Africa lacks history - it is found instead in the culture, artefacts and traditions of the people. In this series, art historian Dr Gus Casely-Hayford explores some of the richest and most vibrant histories in the world, revealing fascinating stories of four complex and sophisticated civilisations: the Kingdom of Asante, the Zulu Kingdom, the Berber Kingdom of Morocco and the Kingdoms of Bunyoro & Buganda.

In this episode, Dr Casely-Hayford travels to Ghana in West Africa, where a powerful kingdom once dominated the region. Asante was built on gold and slaves, which ensured its important place in an economy that linked three continents. He reveals how this sophisticated kingdom emerged from the unlikely environment of dense tropical forest and how it was held together by a shared sense of tradition and history - one deliberately moulded by the kingdom's rulers.


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