The Akan States and the Gold Trade
The Akan states emerged along the gold-rich coast of West Africa about 900 years ago, where they acted as ideal meeting points for European traders and Sub-Saharan merchants. Alluvial gold deposits are especially concentrated around Kumasi, the inland capital of the Kingdom of Ashanti. Miners sifted the metal out of surface soils, cracked open rocks with fire, and dug pit or shaft mines to collect dust. A certain portion of the gold they found was passed up to local chieftains and kings. Gold is associated with the sun in Akan worship, a symbol of divine energy as well as wealth. Artisans crafted gold jewelry for their rulers as well as brass gold-weights using the lost-wax method. These weights could be personalized to depict objects, people, and animals, all conforming to a standard weight system. Young men often received sets of these weights upon marriage.
Subsistence Economies of the Gold Coast
Local economies for the most part revolved around farming. Coastal peoples like the Fante, however, continue to rely heavily on fishing. Subsistence crops like cassava, yams, and plantains grew alongside more lucrative palm oil, kola nuts, and later cocoa. Forest farmers cleared land by burning, grew their crops for several years, and moved on when the soil depleted. Families also raised livestock, particularly chickens, and hunted as needed. Most of their land was held in common by matrilineal family groups, who divided it between households. This included farming, fishing, and gold mining rights. Many households kept slaves or servants to perform their manual labor.
Slavery Among the Akan States
The second stage of Akan economic history took root from the 16th to 19th centuries. Slavery in the region existed long prior to Europe’s Atlantic slave trade. The influx of wealth and constant demand, however, pushed many local Akan groups to expand their operations. They purchased prisoners from Sub-Saharan Africa to be sold at coastal slave forts or captured other Akan people in war. Larger kingdoms like the Ashanti developed productive trade relations with the Europeans. In exchange for slaves and gold, they received guns and other luxury items. This allowed them to maintain their hold on the region and take further prisoners for sale. Over time, however, these conflicts and the gradual end of the slave trade weakened the Ashanti. After a series of wars with the British, they fell under the control of the larger empire in 1902.
Modern Economics of Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire
Following Ghana’s independence in 1957, the Ashanti and other Akan states looked to other industries. Besides gold mining, they invested heavily in oil palm and cocoa production. Agriculture remains a major industry in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, along with oil, timber, mineral extraction, and manufacturing. The nations continue to see high levels of wealth inequality between its urban elites and working class and its rural farmers or laborers.
Learn More About Akan Culture
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Manoukian, Madeline. Akan and Ga-Adangme Peoples. Vol 1. Routledge. 2017.
McCaskie, T.C. State and Society in Pre-colonial Asante. Cambridge University Press. 2002.
Opokuwaa, Nana Akua Kyerewaa. Akan Protocol: Remembering the Traditions of Our Ancestors. Authors Choice Press. 2005.
“The World Factbook: Cote d’Ivoire.” Central Intelligence Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, 20 June 2018, www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/iv.html.
“The World Factbook: Ghana.” Central Intelligence Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, 8 June 2018, www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/gh.html.
Wilks, Ivor. Asante in the Nineteenth Century: The Structure and Evolution of a Political Order. Cambridge University Press. 1989.
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