The gold of Africa has been a constant source of supply to goldsmiths around the
Mediterranean world for over 3000 years. The Egyptians got gold from Sudan and
Ethiopia and perhaps even Zimbabwe before 1500 BC. Gold from West Africa was carried
by caravans across the Sahara desert to Egypt,
Morocco and other North African countries at least by 400 AD, probably earlier.
But what of the goldsmiths' art in Africa itself? Although gold was long regarded
as precious for trade in exchange for salt and other goods, its relative abundance
at home, especially in West Africa, also nourished the local goldsmiths' trade.
The best known tradition is that of the Asante people in Ghana (long known as
the 'Gold Coast') which reached its peak between 1700 and 1900 AD.
The roots of their art, however, go back much earlier and embrace not just modern
Ghana, but Mali, Cote d'Ivoire and Senegal. The gold
deposits of West Africa knew no boundaries; placer
deposits in river gravels were dispersed throughout the whole region. Indeed,
unofficial alluvial mining is still widely dispersed today, providing plenty of
gold for local goldsmiths or export through the town of Bammako in Burkina Faso.
The only modern difference is that the gold dust goes by plane instead of camel
caravan. There are also now major gold mines in West Africa (see Mining Section:
Guinea), but the informal trade
is as it has been for centuries.
The origins are in Mali where the towns of Jenne-Jeno and Timbukto became commercial
centres by 500 AD as the focus of trans-Sahara trade. Goldsmiths established themselves
there for, although the caravans took mainly gold dust, ornaments went too. Not
much remains of this work, although a delicate golden pendant earring dating from
around 900 AD has been excavated at Jenne-Jeno. Most gold seems to have crossed
the Sahara to the North African coast where local rulers minted it into dinars,
which served widely as currency around the Mediterranean after 800 AD.
The reputation of Mali was enhanced by a famous pilgrimage in 1324 by Sultan Mansa
Mas of Mali to Mecca by way of Egypt, who took along a treasure trove of ornaments
and gold dust for his expenses. Few early ornaments, however, have survived, not
least because there was a tradition of melting old ornaments for new that goes
back hundreds of years. And if one local ruler overthrew another, he had fresh
ornaments made from any looted gold.
Mali's status faded after 1400 to be replaced by more flourishing gold economies
on the 'Gold Coast', Ghana, Cote d'Ivoire and Senegal, stimulated by the first
Portuguese voyage around West Africa, not least in search of direct gold supplies.
Soon, the Portuguese, then the Dutch and the English, were taking gold dust and
ornaments directly back to Europe, bypassing the historic Sahara overland route.
The traders were amazed by the ornaments, especially among the Akan people on
the south coast of Ghana, where gold mining expanded from the 14th century. A
Portuguese expedition in 1482 was met by an Akan chief whose arms, legs and neck
were "covered with chains and trinkets of gold in many shapes, and countless
bells and large beads of gold were hanging from the hair of his beard and his
head". An English trader, John Lok, in 1554, found Akan women "laden
with collars, bracelets, hoops and chains
wear on their bare
arms certain foresleeves made of plates of beaten gold and on their fingers rings
made of golden wires with a knot or wreath".
Within the Akan culture was the small kingdom of the Asante, somewhat inland but
much closer to the richest gold mines controlled by the Denkyira kingdom. In 1701
the Asante defeated the Denkyira and put together a loose confederation of mini-kingdoms
who pledged allegiance to the Asante king, styled as Asantehene. For the next
200 years the Asante empire ruled the gold trade, even requiring all goldsmiths
to work in their capital, Kumasi, so that their activities could be closely monitored.
They produced some spectacular gold objects from the gold supplied to them by
the Asantehene, normally using the lost-wax
casting method which had been known in West Africa for centuries. The wearing
of these ornaments and the accompanying regalia of a golden throne or stool, multi-coloured
umbrellas with gold handles, gold helmets and sandals was very much the prerogative
of the Asante king and local chiefs. Gold was the symbol of status and wealth,
which meant power. The gold objects could also be a source of revenue, because
at least for a while the kings required old ornaments to be melted for new before
a great festival each year - and then levied a tax on the goldsmiths' earnings.
For that reason, older objects tend not to have survived.
What was on show at ceremonies or to greet foreign visitors was dazzling. A British
envoy, T. E. Bowditch, who visited Kumasi in 1817, reported "The sun was
from the massy gold ornaments
some wore necklaces reaching
to the navel entirely of aggry beads; a band of gold and beads encircled the knee,
from which several strings of the same depended; small circles of gold like guineas,
rings and casts of animals were strung round their ankles". He also observed
that the Asantehen "Wore a pair of gold castanets on his finger and thumb,
which he clapped to enforce silence
the belts of the guards were cased
in gold and covered in small jaw bones of the same metal". Bowditch collected
a number of gold objects, which now form the basis of the Brtish
Museum's collection of Asante gold.
Further Asante gold treasures came to London in 1874, when a British military
force attacked Kumasi after threats to trading posts on the coast and demanded
50,000 ounces (1.55 tonnes) indemnity, which was largely in gold beads and ornaments,
of which some of the best are now in the Brtish Museum. Gold indemnity was demanded
by the British again in 1896 after more confrontations. This imperial 'looting'
of Asante's finest gold made the Asante more cautious in the use of solid gold.
Although they resiliently re-made much of the regalia in the late 19th century
and maintained it through the 20th century, thin gold sheet or foil was increasingly
used over wood carving. Such objects still look splendid when displayed on ceremonial
occasions in Ghana today and are a reminder of the skills of Africa's goldsmiths
that stretch back nearly 2000 years.
See also: library/history