The Asante are one of about a dozen groups that make up the Akan people located in the modern state of Ghana, West Africa. They are believed to have migrated from the area of the old empire of Ghana after the spread of Islam in the North and parts of West Africa during the 13th century. The Asante settled in the Adanse region probably in the 14th century before spreading out and, in the process, creating more towns during the 15th century. This entry discusses their history and religious beliefs.
The Asante Nation was composed of several clans ruled by individual kings. There were many petty wars between the various states, which weakened the Asante Nation. As a result, the neighboring Denkyira Nation conquered the Asante and forced them to pay tribute to her until 1701. The Denkyira controlled vast amounts of gold mines. This helped establish the nation's power.
Under the leadership of the Asantebene (king of the Asante) Nana Osei Tutu, several Asante clans were consolidated through conquest, and the Asante Nation eventually defeated its Denkyira overlords. The Asante nation was on its way to becoming a powerful force in the region. It was now in control of what would soon be called by the British, the “Gold Coast.” Through diplomacy and conquest, the Asante defeated other kingdoms, further expanding the Asante Empire.
Osei Tutu's celebrated priest, Anokye, created the Golden Stool, which was believed to possess the spirit of the nation. The Golden Stool became the symbol of Asante national unity and remains so to this day. Kumasi became the center of the Asante Nation. Nana Opoku Ware succeeded Osei Tutu in 1719. Opoku Ware reigned for 30 years and was responsible for expanding Asante boundaries even farther.
The Asante nation was so powerful that, during the early part of the 19th century, European powers that occupied forts along the coast paid rent to the Asante king. European visitors were immensely impressed with the Asante Nation's size, wealth, and the complexity of its government and social systems. After developing an economic and military alliance with the British, the Asante came into conflict with these “friends” in 1806 for the first time. The Asante and the British would engage in several wars that became known as the 100-Year War.
On January 17, 1895, under the leadership of Nana Prempeh I, the Asante prepared to submit to British rule. To the surprise of the Asantehene, he, the Asantehema (queen mother), several members of the royal family, and several chiefs were arrested and sent into exile. Adding to this insult, in 1900, the British governor demanded to occupy the Golden Stool, the soul of the Asante nation. Already shamed by allowing their king to be arrested, the Asante were strengthened by this arrogant and disrespectful demand.
Nana Yaa Asantewa, who was a queen mother, assumed the leadership of the Asante because no male chief was willing to do so. Nana Yaa Asantewa led the Asante army in what became known as the Yaa Asantewa War. The British governor, his soldiers, and their families were held up in the fort at Kumase until their escape in June of that year. After 3 months of fighting, British reinforcements arrived and subdued Nana Yaa Asantewa and her army. In March 1901, Nana Yaa Asantewa and 15 others were sent into exile and joined Nana Prempeh at the Seychelles Island. Thirty-one others were imprisoned in Elmina Castle. The British officially annexed the Asante Nation in 1902.
Nana Prempeh returned from exile in 1924 as a private citizen, but was nonetheless received by the Asante as their king. In 1935, the British government restored the Asante confederacy. This confederacy would remain strong and agitated for self-rule.
For the Asante, like all Akan peoples (or all African peoples for that matter), religion is at the center of their existence. The Asante involve religion in all aspects of life. Religion is deeply embedded in Akan culture because there is no dichotomy between the sacred and the secular. Life is a profoundly religious experience and phenomenon. Religion, in the Akan context, is also characterized as being communal and not individual.
Well before the arrival of Europeans and their Christian religion, the Akan developed a belief in a supreme, omnipresent being. The Asante believe in a single God that created everything in the universe, including the lesser deities. They call the supreme god “Nyame.” The creator is referred to by using many titles: the Great One, the Great Spirit, the Great Ancestor, Omnipotent, Infinite, and so on. The spiritual presence of Nyame is in all things. As such, the Asante venerate the spiritual presence in rivers, trees, rocks, and so on. However, they do not worship those objects, but only the spiritual entities that use those objects as their abode.
The Asante-Akan, like most Africans, do not believe in proselytizing. A child, when placed on his or her back, discovers Nyame's existence, they believe. They will see the sky, which is the Creator's abode. Nyame resides far away, outside of the reach of humans. The Akan also believe that goodness is the chief characteristic of the All Powerful One. It is believed that Nyame did not create evil, but rather deities and human beings. Nyame's creations created evil.
Africans believe that the soul is an immaterial part of their existence. The soul survives death. It is the soul that must account to Nyame in the afterlife. The soul is the Creator's spark of life. Therefore, there is a divine essence in all human beings.
It is no exaggeration to state that religion is present in all things. Religion dictates the value that the Akan people place on the collective over the individual. It further informs the Akan of their morals and values as they relate to human interaction with each other as well as the universe. Even aesthetics, the Asante perception of beauty, rests on the Asante's religious beliefs. Kinship ties and marriage are predicated on the religious values of the Akan as well.
The role of ancestors is also prominently featured in Akan religion. Ancestors are profoundly important for the Asante. They represent the link between human beings and the spiritual world. In fact, their ancestors reside in the spiritual world. Ancestors are honored and revered, but not worshipped, although they are believed to possess spiritual power and to be interested in the welfare of their descendants. They are ever present and willing to assist in human society.
- Buah, F. K. (1998). A History of Ghana. London: Macmillan Education.
- Gyekye, K. (1996). African Cultural Values: An Introduction. Accra, Ghana: Sankofa.
- Kwadwo, O. (1994). An Outline of Asante History. Kumasi, Ghana: Design Press.
- Kwadwo, O. (2002). A Handbook on Asante Culture. Kumasi, Ghana: CITA Press.