Women King and Asante History
Updated: Oct 12, 2022
Photo Cred: Dorothy Attakora-Gyan
YouTube video and Soundcloud audio available.
Disclaimer: I get my dates and times all wrong sometimes because I’m bad with dates overall. But it’s especially tragic when you’re talking about history and literal dates in time. Please feel free to correct me if any of this information is wrong, inaccurate, or outdated.
I also sometimes have it written right but will say it wrong when I make a video. If you notice from watching my videos, I sometimes mix up my words. So, for instance in a previous video, I said “Woman Film,” instead of Woman King. That’s part of my neurodiversity that may come off as wrong messages or misinformation, although that happens too every now and then.
I also wanted to be very clear about who I am speaking about when I get into the conversation on narcissism in the Asante community, past and present: I am speaking about so called Asante royalty, the Akan elites, and those in positions of power who used their power for violence. I am critiquing myself and my family, and those like us. I speak of the Kings, like in Women King, who ruled with an element of arrogance that assumed that certain tribes were beneath them. Or that people from their own tribe were of a lower class. Like thinking that their staff and servants were below them.
I am not speaking of all Asante people, and certainly not those with little to no power.
I do not mean the everyday village person. I am not talking about everyday farmers or servants. The context here is looking at the upper-class. Those who had and still maintain power.
Lastly, please understand I’m working with words and concepts like narcissism, masculinity, femininity, etc., with the understand that they are limiting, English-words, and from a very particular context that isn’t actually to be applied or compared to our own context.
There is nothing revolutionary about talking about African people will still centering whiteness and white themes that only make us look bad. I get it. Trust me, I do. It’s counter intuitive to an extent. However, I do so anyway because I think it is important to address the nature of power and violence in my community, and from a western lens. Narcissism is the framework psychiatry uses to pathologize those with a superiority complex actually rooted in inferiority complex. I want to draw parallels between Asante elites, or Black male elites with whiteness to also show that how we/they are moving is in many ways, like the white European man. It’s the element of white supremacy that underlies narcissism. (Obviously I’m homogenizing and over-generalizing here, If that’s not obvious to you, I know what I’m doing).
To me, a narcissists is anyone of any gender who feels small about themselves, senses a level of powerlessness within, and uses that lack to control others. They feel small, even when they have power and are powerful. They need others to feel even more small so they continue to feel grandiose. It is all about exerting power and domination through violent and abusive means. Abuse here defined as “harm that happens repeatedly,” as I’ve seen others use online. The idea of narcissism is all about power abuse and imbalance. It’s a conversation about how we negotiate shame maladaptively, and it’s about dominance.
The movie Woman King in many ways helped me make sense of my paternal side, and maybe even my maternal side. Somewhere in my family tree, you will arrive at people like in Women King. I come from women like Viola Davis’ character.
While this story is made up and fictional, it is based on a lot of actual West African history. The Dahomey empire in what is now known as modern day Mali ruled West Africa once. So did the Asante’s, my people. These next few blogs are about the rulers specifically, not those they ruled.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive in Ghana at 1471. Later, the Dutch, Danes, British, and Germans would set up bases along the coastal regions by 1685. Ghana is situated in West Africa. Togo is to the East, Ivory Coast on the West, Burkina Faso borders the North, and shorelines leading to the Gulf of Guinea and the Atlantic Ocean can be found to the South. It is estimated that 29.46 million people live in the region.
According to author Robert Edgerton (1995), as early as 800 A.D. the ancient kingdom of what is now known as Ghana ruled much of West Africa before its collapse and disappearance during the middle of the 13th Century. Edgerton adds that at the time, the capital of the region was called Kumbi Saleh and comprised of roughly fifteen thousand people.
The Empire was opulent, like you see in Women King of the Dahomey. I’m thinking of doing a class analysis later. Thinking through those who did not have power. Would the everyday Asante want to “eat the rich?”. I keep thinking about that. So rarely do we hear the voices of poor people pre-contact that doesn’t frame them as wholly marginalized or oppressed.
Our wealth and riches astonished even Europeans. Ghana was known by Arab traders as ‘the land of gold’ (14). For this reason, the region would later be called the ‘Gold Coast’ by the Portuguese who upon arrival were “so impressed by the flecks of gold that sparkled in the streams” (Edgerton, 1995, 14).
Edgerton (1995) writes: “Most of these men wore heavy silks thrown over the left shoulder like a Roman toga, (we call it ntuma) and they displayed so much gold and silver that the British visitors continued to be dazzled. Some wore ornamental lumps of gold attached to their wrists that were so heavy they had to be supported by boy attendants. […] When they were invited to dine with the king and members of the court, they were first served what they referred to as a “Relish…sufficient for an army” consisting of soups, stews, plantains, yams, rice, wine, spirits, oranges, and “Every fruit”.
Next, dinner was served on a large table under four scarlet umbrellas. The plates were gold, the knives, forks, and spoons were silver. The table held an entire pig, roasted ducks, chickens, stews, vegetables, and fruit, accompanied by port and Madeira wine, gin, and Dutch cordials served in glasses. An Englishman once said of the place, “we never saw a dinner more handsomely served, and never ate a better” (20- 23). [This example shows that we already had some contact with Europeans at this point]. In any case, these are the men I’m speaking about later when I insert the conversation of narcissism. The type to want to impress Europeans and show off for validation and acceptance.
The Asante people derive from the Akan group. According to Pashington Obeng (1996), the Akan form two-thirds of the population in Ghana, occupying the greater part of Southern Ghana. Obeng notes that Akans are not located in Ghana alone but can also be found in Ivory Coast.
The Akan include the Asante, Fante, Brong, Akyem, Akwapim, Akwamu, Kwahu, Aowin, Wassa Assin, Denkyira, Sewhwi, and Adansi. Among these are some linguistic and cultural similarities.
Ghanaian mythology has it that the Asante’s rose out of the earth, deep in the forest zones. We are originally said to be of the forest, as Kumasi was once primarily forests. Pashington Obeng tells us that precisely when the Asante’s migrated to the Kumasi region is not clear to historians. However, what is recorded is that towards the end of the 17th century, the leader of the Asante people was Nana Osei Tutu who brought a number of smaller chiefdoms together by conquest.
It was in 1701 that Nana Osei Tutu founded Kumasi, the capital city of the region and where I was born.
Between the 17th and 19th century, the Asante’s were the symbol of power and authority.
Robert Edgerton (1995) said that most of the conquest was driven by Nana Osei Tutu’s successor Nana Opoku Ware, who came into power after Osei Tutu’s death, in 1719. Opoku Ware, who ruled for 31 years, led the expansion of the Empire through domination using war and slavery. These Asante rulers believed that “human sacrifice was a necessary measure for the maintenance of law and domestic slavery” (110), writes Obeng, who adds, “any egalitarianism undermined the pillars of Asante society at the time” (110).
This is disappointing to me. I love to tell myself that I came from a people who lived peacefully under egalitarianism where all were equal, like in some Native communities here, or in other places in Africa. But alas.
Specifically, Obeng goes on to claim that 19th century socio-economic life depended heavily on the use of slave labour. Slaves came from the Northern region and were exchanged for gold. Obeng cites that people were bought from non-Asante states to work Asante mines and land. Those who were taken as prisoners of war were also used for their labour. These slaves were used to mine gold and farm the lands of the rich (Obeng, 1996).
They worked as house servants and operated as bodyguards. Obeng argues that “most prominent families in Kumasi had slaves who cleared bushes, planted crops, and served their owners as houseslaves and bodyguards. Owning slaves was such a symbol of prestige that during official gatherings, officials displayed the number of slaves they had to show their wealth (111).
I had my own father tell me when I was in Ghana in 2019 that we once owned slaves. I can’t begin to tell you what this did to my spirit. Especially when it was framed as something of the past, when there were so called, “house boys,” who were made to sleep on mats on the hard ground as our house sat empty for most of the time with over 10 bedrooms, all with beds.
Again, these are the people I mean when I ask Asante’s to consider where we dominate others with brutal force.
Asante elites in a Ghana today still hire outside help. Servants who we call ‘house girls’ and ‘house boys’. The very language illustrates paternalism and superiority that are routine in cultures of narcissism. It reveals a sense of grandiosity that fuels subjugation. Many of these labourers are low-income individuals from small villages. Typically, from other tribes. It is not uncommon that Asantes believe ourselves to be more superior than others.
While tribalism is less an issue now than in the past, conflict between tribes has once posed a threat to any sense of Ghanaian solidarity, unity, or national identity (Obeng, 1996). Take the Golden Stool, which I have no clue how it ended up in the movie Women King.
Obeng shares that during the 1600’s, The Golden Stool was a symbol of unity. What we call nkabom. He says that it represented “the national spirit which cut across the local loyalties, linking them by a common mystical bond” (19). Obeng (1996) writes: “At a gathering of chiefs in Kumasi on a Friday, Okomfo Anonkye conjured the Golden Stool from the sky “with darkness and thunder, and in thick cloud of white dust, a wooden stool adorned with gold, floated to the earth” and landed on Osei Tutu’s knees. Okomfo Anonkye declared that the soul of the Asante nation, its strength and bravery, depended on the safety of the stool."
The Golden Stool provided a collective identity until 1832, when Nana Osei Akoto. the ruler at the time, went against the nkabom (unity) by declaring war on another tribe, resulting in a civil war.
Based on this history, to say that Asante’s have a sense of grandiosity is fair.
We have ruled much of the region for centuries. Asante domination and exploitation has worked in our favour. That we should continue to seek to exploit others means that in a sense, we have normalized these aspects of domination and power.
No one wants to talk about this history because it makes us look bad.
Most white people have a hard time addressing their awful histories or colonization and conquest. Conservatives in America right now are creating bans to wipe out this history. I don’t ever want to be like that. A person who denies the factual truths of reality because it’s too painful to look at. Because it’s too shameful to look at.
We can control that. Shame is just an emotion. It will pass. The pain will move to where it needs to move to. Or at the very least, become an illness we have to tend to in the physical. But we have to face these histories.
It's not fun. Its messy. It’s complicated. It’s painful. We have so much to be proud of, yes. We are an amazing group of people. Have you met Asante’s? We are incredibly phenomenal. We have done good. We were the first Black sub-Saharan nation to gain independence. Our land and home is like no other. I am so proud to be Ghanaian. To be Asante.
And also, I’m no longer afraid or ashamed to claim all the parts of me and my history, including the bad.
Most would rather deny or hide it. Aren’t we sick of lying to ourselves and the generations that come after us? Don’t they deserve to know the entire and full truth? That goes for all of us globally. Including the truth about residential schools, and apartheid, holocausts, and genocides, rape, and pillaging, stolen lands, and decapitated heads. I just think we can’t tell only the good parts. Look where that’s gotten us?
Please watch the video or listen to the SoundCloud audio. There are parts that were added in that are not here. Thanks for listening.
Until next time, in solidarity.
p.s. can you guess why I chose the photo cover I did?
Image Description: A clock with only the numbers 6 and 8.