Ghana’s History Part 1: West Africa in Precolonial Times

Ghana is named after the ancient kingdom of Gana, a legendary empire famous for its wealth and trade in gold. The kingdom was located about 800 kilometres to the Northwest of the territory of present-day Ghana and occupied a region between the two rivers Senegal and Niger. It was chosen as namesake as it was renowned for its gold riches – like today’s nation state Ghana. The difference in spelling is nothing more than a difference in language: Ghana is the Arabic spelling of the African name Gana.

The ancient empire of Gana was the first one of several great empires ruling large territories in West Africa between the 6th and 16th century. But despite their highly developed organizational and social structures, Western scientists long failed to acknowledge the ingenuity and uniqueness of African cultures.

The “Black Continent”

When the first foreign geographers and historians started to show interest in sub-Saharan Africa in the 7th century, they solely relied on reports written by outsiders. They neglected Africa’s rich oral testimonies, narratives and myths, thus creating a biased, one-sided image of a “black continent” inhabited by exotic animals and wild human beings who hadn’t been capable of developing their own, independent cultures. Any sign of “highly developed” cultures such as technological innovations or great architecture was ascribed to influences from outside.

Only in the second half of the 20th century, there was a change in assumptions which led to a rewriting of Africa’s history.

The Kingdom of Gana

The first one of the great empires in West Africa, the kingdom of Gana, was probably founded in the 6th century by the Sarakolé. The actual name of the kingdom was Wagadu while the word Gana was used to denominate its rulers. Wagadu based its wealth on its gold riches and the thriving trade with North Africa. The gold originated from gold mines at Bambuk, on the upper Senegal River. Another explanation is provided by the tale of the black snake Bida.

The citizens of Gana, the Soninke, traded gold, salt, copper and slaves in exchange of textiles and beads, and their capital city, Kumbi Saleh, became a flourishing trade centre. The lively exchange across the largest desert of the world also opened the door to Islamic influences in large parts of West Africa.

In the 11th century, Gana was in decline. Historians assume that it succumbed to attacks by the Almoravids, an Islamic Berber movement, trying to expand the influence of Islam and secure their share of the profitable trans-Saharan trade. The tale of Samba Gana suggests a different version.

The Kingdoms of Mali and Songhay

Gana was followed by the kingdom of Mali in the 13th century whose sphere of influence exceeded the borders of Gana by far. Mali was also the first kingdom that was based on an oral constitution regulating the succession of rulers and the socio-professional order of ethnic groups within its borders.

A century later, the kingdom of Mali was replaced by the kingdom of Songhay with its centre Gao, first ruled by the Sonni and later by the Askia. The kingdom extended its borders even further than the earlier kingdoms of Gana and Mali. With its centralized organization granting the ruler absolute power and the differentiated specialization of high officials, it became a cultural and intellectual centre. In 1591, Morocco invaded the kingdom, bringing its heydays to an end.

These are probably the best known early states in West Africa, but there were a number of smaller kingdoms and tribes existing simultaneously in the region.

The territory of modern-day Ghana can be divided into three different regions, each with a different climate and vegetation. In each of them settled different ethnic groups and their descendants are – in most cases – still living there today.

The Dagomba in the North of Ghana

In the North of modern-day Ghana, the Dagomba established a mighty kingdom at the beginning of the 15th century, followed by the Mamprusi and the Gonja. All three kingdoms were influenced by the Mossi in present-day Burkina Faso and adopted Islam while at the same time retaining their traditional beliefs. Their power was based on horsemen similar to European knights. But they failed to expand their influence beyond the borders of the tropical forests of Central Ghana where the famous empire of the Asante found space to develop.

The Ashanti Kingdom

Up until 1200 the forested region in the centre of present-day Ghana was hardly inhabited, but in the 13th century Akan tribes from the North started to migrate into Central Ghana. In 1695 the Ashanti unified the fragmented Akan tribes and established a mighty kingdom based on the trade with gold and slaves. They controlled large territories and were one of the few ethnic groups in Africa putting up resistance against the British. (This documentary gives a good insight into the cultural and social life of the Ashanti.)

Coastal Inhabitants

In the coastal region in the South lived different ethnic groups such as the Fante, Nzema, Ga and Ewe. They weren’t organized in centralized kingdoms, but had formed several small chiefdoms. When the British started to impose their rule upon the coastal region of Ghana, the inhabitants of the coast, relying on British protection against the Asante, cooperated and were soon governed by a system of indirect rule.

Click here to read Ghana’s History Part 2: From Colonization to Independence.

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