I remember hearing in church over ten years ago a rather disparaging account of the Ashanti’s devotion to a golden stool that they went as far as to go to war over. I guess that the purpose was to ridicule the allure of ‘idol worship’ that Ghanaian culture had before our colonial masters showed us the light and emancipated us from such primitive beliefs in favour of their god, for the price of our labour and material wealth. Even then, I wondered why following Christianity – True Christianity, meant that an ancient object of national heritage had to be denounced. It was only later that I realised that the younger Abrahamic religions, at least in the fundamentalist interpretations, demand that other spiritual traditions, and even some cultural ones be demonized in favour of the righteous path. From the Pentecostal outlook – the whole affair was a matter of foolishness – specifically when it came to the worship of gold. Of course, the colonizers, for all their preaching, worshipped gold as well. Or at least, the influence it brought. The fact that inspired the name the Gold Coast testifies to this.
In any case, being a second-generation immigrant here, I do wonder if this view of “The War Of the Golden Stool” is quite widespread in my parent’s homeland. It would certainly be quite interesting to investigate in future. But to me, it does smack of an ignorance largely through a lens of colonialism. It is not simply a stool: It’s the symbol of a nation’s continuity and legitimacy. The war was a literal resistance to white supremacy.
By 1900, the Ashanti had at least three wars with the British, who at that point controlled most of the territories of what was to become Ghana. Four years prior, the Ashanti king Prempeh I was exiled to the Seychelles, when the threat of a massacre or the capture of the Golden Stool became a reality. Yet on the 25th March 1900, Governor Frederick Mithcell Hodgson arrived in Kumasi, greeted with honours as the face of the British monarchy. Yet unsatisfied, he demanded the Golden Stool so that he many sit on it as a show of power. A lot has been made over whether Governor Hodgson understood the full significance of him, a foreigner, sitting on the stool meant. The Golden Stool is believed to house the souls of the Ashanti people – living, dead, or yet to be born, and so constituted an absolute sacrilege. Indeed, the stool itself isn’t even meant to touch the ground, and is held upwards over a purple cloth, and only allowed to handled by the Ashanti king. Nevertheless, in all likelihood, Governor Marshall demanded he be seated on it to symbolise that they answer to a British authority now. The Ashanti leaders who attended were infuriated, and it lead to a secret meeting with the aim of securing the release of Prempeh I. One such representative, Yaa Asantewaa, the Queen Mother of the Ejisu, called upon the leaders not to take the Governor’s disrespect lying down.
Now I have seen that some of you fear to go forward to fight for our king. If it were the brave days of Osei Tutu, Okomfo Anokye and Opuki Ware, chiefs would not sit down to see their king taken without firing a shot. No white man could have dared to speak to the Chief of Asante in the way the governor spoke to you chiefs this morning. Is it true that the bravery of Asante is no more? I cannot believe it. It cannot be! I must say this: if you, the men of Asante, will not go forward, then we will. I shall call upon my fellow women. We will fight the white men. We will fight till the last of us falls on the battlefield.
Soon afterwards, Yaa Asantewaa was appointed as war-leader of the Ashanti forces, and the rebellion went underway. Locals angered by what had taken place became volunteers for the forces against the British. The latter’s search for the stool was stymied by the Ashanti as they forced them into retreat towards their bases in Kumasi, and began a long siege – cutting off wires and entrapping them within the city so that there would be no escape. Governor Hodgson and his men did eventually make a break for it, and made it to the coastline, as reinforcements arrived – bringing with them Yoruba soldiers from Nigeria. In September of 1900, the Ashanti had been driven back, and Yaa Asantewaa, along with several other leaders were captured and exiled to the Seychelles, where she remained until her death in 1921.
The war was the last of the British-Ashanti conflicts and ended with the British and allies receiving over 1,000 fatalities and the Ashanti over 2,000. The Ashanti Empire was annexed as part of the Gold Coast. Several more leaders including Yaa Asantewaa herself met the same fate as their king, and unlike the latter never survived to return to their land. However, the Golden Stool was never taken by the British even as they spent the following decades in search of it. In that respect, the Ashanti were successful in their aim to preserve the sanctity of the stool, and thereby the spirit of their people. The autonomy in which they governed themselves even after annexation reflected this. The stool, however was later found by a team of labourers in 1921, and they stripped the stool of most of the gold it was adorned with. The British intervened, and although mindful of another war breaking out petitioned the Ashanti leaders to be content with their exile, instead of their initial judgement – that they be put to death. The tribe leaders agreed. Prempeh I returned to his homeland in 1926, and in 1935, the kingdom attained self-rule again. On 6 March, 1957, The former Gold Coast achieved independence, the newly named Ghana. The Ashanti Kingdom was unified into the new state, and today exists as a protected substate within Ghana.
So there you have it. The War of the Golden Stool was a war to preserve national independence and an identity. And to be honest, symbols of cultural and anthropological significance could only be serious business even without putting the situation of colonialism into it. The stool is a throne. I live in a country that has torn itself apart over cushy seats itself several times. Here and abroad, you can be arrested for burning the national flag, which is far more reproducible than the Golden Stool. I guess the lens of Eurocentrism is so overbearing people succumb to it without even realising it.