Kingdoms of West Africa

Before arriving in West Africa, I knew almost nothing about its history or its kingdoms. I’d heard little bits in passing, but my only reference point to one of them, the Ashanti Kingdom in Ghana, was from the existence of a role-playing game called ‘Ashanti High Lightning’. Which I never played. This is what happens when you’re English, middle-class, and white.

It’s quite interesting to analyse my education with hindsight. Growing up in England in the 80s/90s, our history lessons were very much centred around, well, England. The history of England, the invaders of England, some of the soco-economic history of England, a bit about the Kings and Queens (but surprisingly little about The Wars Of The Roses), and of course industrialisation. What little we were taught about the rest of the world was limited to specific economic and political events that concerned English interests abroad (The South Sea Bubble, The War of Jenkins’ Ear), or was otherwise very European-focussed. I thus know considerably more about 19th Century French political history than about the British Empire. [And don’t get me started on World War II – there’s a reason I don’t get into those discussions on Twitter.]

Obviously, therefore, the kingdoms of Africa were completely off my radar growing up, and anything I’d learned since was largely … accidental. This made my visiting them all the more fascinating. Also, while I made notes at the time, and have followed this up with subsequent research, this is not my area of expertise so there may well be unintentional errors in this blog post – for a complete overview you would be best off speaking with a local historian in Ghana or Benin.

Having already mentioned them, let’s start with the Ashanti.

The Ashanti Empire

One of the towns I visited early on my adventure across West Africa was Kumasi, considered the second largest city in Ghana. It’s famous for timber manufacturing, but also for Kejetia Market – with over 10,000 stalls it’s considered one of the largest in the whole of West Africa.

Kumasi Market, Ghana
Overview of Kumasi Market in Ghana. It’s much bigger, louder, and messier than this picture gives justice to.

However Kumasi is most noted for being the capital of the Ashanti Empire, a kingdom founded in the late 17th Century as a result of merging (willingly or unwillingly) of several smaller chieftainships, and which grew over the next couple of centuries to cover most of what is now southern Ghana.

There have been (to date) sixteen kings of the Ashanti Kingdom, along with a handful of regents and interregnums, as well as a period of civil war between 1883-1888 partly caused, as far as I can tell, by the overthrowing of the 10th King (Mensa Bonsu) by his sister after he was seen to be a bit too fond of women and money, and a feeling he was getting a little too friendly with the British (he’d come to power following the previous king being overthrown after losing a war against them). His sister put her son on the throne but he died after two months of what’s believed to have been Chicken Pox; her other son took the throne but he was only 15 and seen as ‘weak’ – he eventually won but the kingdom never really recovered; within 10 years the entire kingdom had been conquered by the British.

Statue of Ashanti King Prempeh II
Statue of King Prempeh II, who reigned from 1931 to 1970 and oversaw Ghanain independence.

What you may be interested to read is that the kingdom still exists; self-rule for the Ashanti was restored in 1937, and upon Ghanaian independence in 1957, the Ashanti Kingdom was merged into political union with the Dominion (later Republic) of Ghana, as one of the fundamental administrative regions. The King (Osei Tuti II, at the time of writing) still lives in a palace in Kumasi, albeit a much smaller one than in the height of the kingdom’s power. This is because the British burned the original one down in 1875. There are in fact two new palaces; the first was built in 1925 by the British to house the now-vassal King; this became a museum in 1995 once an even newer palace had been built. The role of the King now is twofold – as well as being still the leader of the Ashanti people, he is also seen as an important commentator on political and social issues in Ghana – while nowhere near the same job role, his presence is similar in style and impact as someone like the Archbishop of Canterbury would be in the UK system.

Statues of Ashanti people
Statues in Kumasi of Ashanti.

The Ashanti King’s symbol is a stool, a very literal ‘seat of power’. Each King has his own stool, and only that King is allowed to sit on it. There is a particular tradition around the coronation of a new King – stools from previous Kings are stored in a special room and the stool for the new king is added. Upon coming to the, er, ‘throne’, each new King is blindfolded and taken into this room full of stools. The stool he picks out belongs to the previous King whose name the new King will now use as a Regal Name. It is possible for the new King to pick out his own stool. (In British terms, if a new King had the name Charles, but picked out the stool of a King called Henry, he’d now be known as Henry IX.)

The importance of the stool cannot be downplayed. The centrepoint of the entire kingdom is the Golden Stool – this is considered the literal embodiment of the Ashanti soul, and was believed to have descended from Heaven to the first Ashanti King. The truth is probably more mundane (Ghana was known in colonial times as the ‘Gold Coast’ after all, but regardless of its origin, the the stool itself was fundamental to the creation of the Ashanti state. Even more so than, say, “The Crown” embodies the British royal family, the “Golden Stool” doesn’t just symbolise the King, but the entire Ashanti Kingdom – it’s even on the flag of the empire. It goes without saying the stools of the Kings are designed as specific replicas of this Golden Stool.

Statue of an Ashanti King holding his stool
Statue in suburban Kumasi of an Ashanti King holding his stool aloft.

Another thing to note about the Golden Stool is due to its reverential state, only the King is allowed to touch it; indeed very few people outside the inner circle have ever seen it. This is taken to an absolute extreme – the Stool is never allowed to touch the ground, and must be carried on a pillow or, when not in use, laid on a blanket.

There was a war in 1900, between the British (obviously) and the Ashanti which was given the name ‘The War of the Golden Stool’; in a nutshell, the British demanded that the Ashanti Kingdom subjected themselves to British rule and, as a symbol of this, commanded that they hand over the Golden Stool. Although the Ashanti lost the war and the royals were exiled (to the Seychelles, of all bizarre places), the spirit of the Ashanti was preserved as the British were fooled into accepting a replica of the stool rather than the real thing – having never seen the original, it was an easy switch.

Lion and backpackpacker outside the Ashanti Museum in Kumasi
Outside the palace that holds the Ashanti museum in Kumasi. Yes I’m wearing sandals. Bite me.

As a side note, there’s another replica of the Golden Stool in a museum in the west of the city dedicated to the Ashanti Kings and the 20th Century King Prempeh II in particular. You are not allowed to take pictures of it, as even that replica is a powerful symbol and spiritual to the people.

The Kingdom of Dahomey

A little way to the east, two countries away in Benin, lies the city of Abomey. It’s not that big, and its importance has declined over the last couple of centuries, but it was once a well-known and much-feared name in West Africa, so much so in fact that both the railway and main road through the centre of Benin pass some 10km to the East, into the ‘new town’ of Bohicon, seemingly to prevent it becoming a significant town during the period of colonial rule, preventing the local people from using it as an efficient and effective morale-boosting resistance base.

Abomey is the ancient capital of the Dahomey kingdom, one of the larger kingdoms in the area, and which gave its name to the subsequent French colony until 1975, when the Marxist government under Mathieu Kérékou deemed the name too ‘colonial’ and decided to rename itself ‘Benin’, after the large gentle ‘bay’ of the ocean to the south, known as the ‘Bight of Benin’. The problem is that this itself was named after another recent African Kingdom, that of the Kingdom of Benin, which was located in what is now neighbouring Nigeria, and whose capital was Benin City. Confused, yet? Interestingly, Kérékou chose the name as it was deemed ‘neutral’ in a country with many cultures and smaller historical kingdoms – and I guess pinching a name from somewhere else is quite neutral. It’d be a bit like Æthelstan, having unified England (and assumed at least nominal control over the whole of Great Britain), deciding to call the new country ‘Gaul’, or ‘Italia’ …

There’s an interesting, surely apocryphal, tale about the founding and naming of the kingdom (around 1620), that an early King (Dakodnu), when he asked permission to expand his land onto that of a neighbouring chieftan (Dan), was refused with the famous line: “Should I open up my belly and build you a house in it?”. This … didn’t go down well, ‘Matty Groves’ style, and Dakodnu did pretty much exactly that – founding a city where the chieftain fell. The name ‘Dahomey’ is believed by some to derive from this incident (it means ‘inside the chief’s stomach’), though most dismiss the story as a bit of re-writing of history for political expediency in the mid 19th Century, which is a shame because as country names go, it’s better than ‘Southern Land’ or ‘Lower Countries’. (Not quite as good as ‘Behold! The Coconut!” though…)

Zewa Temple in Abomey, with symbols of the Kings of Dahomey on the wall outside.
Zewa Temple in Abomey, with symbols of the Kings of Dahomey on the wall outside.

In total, 12 successive kings ruled over Dahomey, before the French finally conquered it. They’re quite proud to say, however, that none of these kings died in battle – demonstrating the apparent success and longevity of the Dahomeyan kings, although this is at odds with other historical empires, such as the Vikings of Scandinavia who actively tried to die in battle as it gave them a more prestigious afterlife. They were also, it must be said, one of the empires who seemed to profit greatly from the Slave Trade; a history of bloodthirsty wars against local empires and taking captives as slaves anyway put them in a good position to profit from the incoming colonial powers. At its height the kingdom covered most of the southern third of what is now Benin, although they were regularly in (losing) conflict with the neighbouring Oyo Kingdom to the east (mostly in what is now Nigeria). My research hasn’t brought to light any conflict between Dahomey and Ashanti, but I assume they would have at least traded.

Statue of King Behanzin, second-to-last effective King of Dahomey.
King Béhanzin, King of Dahomey, overthrown by the French in 1894 and replaced with a more compliant ruler.

The 12th and last King was effectively deposed in 1900 when the French took over complete rule of the colony; the lineage continues but in an almost entirely spiritual and ceremonial role – unlike the King of Ashanti, the King of Dahomey holds no power and very little influence in Benin.

Each of the 12 kings built their own palace somewhere Abomey; these and the many voodoo temples the kings built to satisfy the local spirits are still quite ‘interestingly’ decorated on the outside, with a wide variety of caricatures, symbols, and fetishes, most of them seem to be being used for other things – storage units, makeshift houses, etc.

Entranceway to the Glele Temple, Abomey
Temple of King Glele, who ruled in the second half of the 19th Century.

A couple of the palaces now make up the Musée Historique D’Abomey, a large walled enclosure in the centre of the older part of town, and home to all manner of weird and wonderful exhibits on details on the history of the Dahomeyan kings, including the thrones, some period weaponry, and a number of works of art detailing the slightly bloodthirsty nature of the kings – one in particular is noted for having used someone (else’s) leg to kill an enemy – hence his symbol on the wall. Although a museum, in typical West African fashion they don’t let you go gallivanting around it on your own; you’re required to take a guide. Who only speaks French. Nonetheless I found him quite easy to understand and pretty jovial – the accent here isn’t as ‘heavy’ nor do the locals speak as ‘quick’ as in France. Or maybe they could just tell I was British. Who knows.

Entranceway to the Kpengla Temple, Abomey
Temple of King Kpengla, who ruled towards the end of the 18th Century. His temple is now an art gallery.

Another of the old palaces (that of the king called Kpengla) is now an art gallery. This is not, however, your normal European art gallery; endless 17th century paintings of religious figures that shimmer in the light. Nor is it even typical for Africa – no displays of tribal masks, no shields, no farm implements. Rather, it’s a collection of contemporary art from a local artist and designer called Arolando. His main work is ‘sculptures’, present along the roads outside his house and stretching to the old palace where he works; these sculptures are made not from clay or stone, but from tree branches, tin cans, unwanted rags … pretty much anything and everything he has to hand or can find on the streets. A form of recycling, one could say.

Arolango's art at the Kpengla Temple, Abomey
An example of Arolango’s art at the Kpengla Temple, Abomey.

While the art in and around his house is varied – with animals, people, masks, and even a motorbike – what he’s tried to do in the palace is recreate typical regal scenes; of a king sitting on his throne, his attendants standing by etc, but putting several modern twists on it. So, for instance, he has one member of the ‘royal family’ sitting with a radio, another in a school uniform, and the ‘palace’ itself has several (empty!) bottles of wine in convenient places.

Dahomey Kings in a modern setting, by Arolando
Dahomey Kings in a modern setting.

The Kingdom of Porto-Novo

One of the smaller kingdoms in the area that was dominated by its larger neighbours was that of Porto-Novo. Historically they were often at war with Dahomey, tending to act as a client state for the Oyo Kingdom to the east.

I’m mentioning the kingdom, not because it was terribly influential or even because much of the culture has survived into the present day – aside from Porto-Novo traditionally having a large Yoruba population there’s little evidence left of its might – but rather because its existence explains something odd about the modern state of Benin.

The city of Porto-Novo as seen from the viaduct on the way in.
The city of Porto-Novo as seen from the viaduct on the way in. Sorry, I don’t have anything more interesting.

At the end of the 19th Century, the British, having already based themselves in what is now Nigeria, launched an invasion of Porto-Novo. In response, Porto-Novo, uhm, ‘invited’ the French to ‘protect’ them. Dahomey, to the northwest, was unimpressed with this, and declared war. Over the next 25 years the French expanded out from Porto-Novo, eventually conquering Dahomey. Since the French base had been Porto-Novo, this by default became the capital of the new colonial state, despite the French co-opting the name Dahomey for the colony. Porto-Novo is still the official capital of the Republic of Benin, despite pretty much everything happening along the coast in the city of Cotonou.

The Somba People in Natitingou

While the kingdoms near the sea were large and cohesive units, the further north you go in West Africa the smaller and more nomadic the local fiefdoms tend to become, until you reach the southern edges of the Sahara and the lands of the old Mali Kingdom, which had covered a vast area but which had quickly collapsed and reverted to smaller chieftainships around the time the empires of Ashanti and Dahomey were starting out much further south.

Natitingou Town Centre, Benin.
Natitingou Town Centre, Benin.

In the north of Benin is the town of Natitingou. The area is known as the “Atakora Region”, and is mostly noted for its traditional village architecture. While I never managed to get out there on this trip, unfortunately (maybe I’ll be back one day?!), there is a museum in Natitingou (the “Musée d’Arts et de Traditions Populaires) dedicated to the local Somba (or Batammariba) people who’ve been living and working the land here for centuries, and includes details about where and how they live. It’s mainly an agricultural rather than urban or industrial culture, concentrating on hunting, fishing, and some arable farming, with some limited functional ironwork as deemed necessary.

Models of Tata Somba Houses on display at the Museum in Natitingou, Benin
A couple of examples of the traditional houses, as seen in the museum.

The famous houses (“Tata Somba”) are … they reminded me a little of small castles; they look like they’re built to be easily defended, often with turreted towers, gates, and a tiered structure, where people live on the upper levels while the ground floor is for storage, livestock, and defence. The upper floor is both a good lookout point, and easy to protect from below. Traditionally, construction of the houses need to take into consideration three fundamentals: i) Stability & with a good aesthetic, ii) Solidity & be well-decorated, and iii) Be easy to defend. Since 2004 they’ve been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The museum also goes into detail about tribal culture, with a large section devoted to initiation rites. These are, as you might expect, largely symbolic, especially with their use of the number ‘9’, which is deemed to bring luck, but also with some application of masochism (including scarification) – many of the rituals last 9 days, for instance, including being held in a cell for nine days eating only millet porridge (to ensure they become accustomed to frugality and improve their endurance), and there’s often 9 days between different parts of the initiation ceremony.

Somba Initiation Objects
Some objects used in Somba initiation rites. Nothing that can hurt you, don’t worry.

With regards to religion, no one colonial religion dominates (unlike nearer the coast) – Christianity and Islam seem to coexist in reasonable harmony, and adherents of both are wary of doing anything to anger or otherwise disturb the spirits present in the tribal religions, including not pounding millet grains in the evening. Apparently the hammering makes similar sounds to those of the local spirits, and woe betide anyone who attracts their attention. This is largely because the traditional religion of the Samba people is still a very important and fundamental part of life, despite the best efforts of foreign powers. It’s centred on spirit worship, with both spirits (deities) representing concepts like fertility and luck, and ancestral spirits that watch over them, which I guess makes it similar to the Vodoun religion further south.

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An overview and introduction to a couple of the kingdoms of West Africa

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