Finding Gold in Ashanti (The Collapse of a Kingdom)
Gold Mining in Ashanti.
“Early European attempts at mining were failures because they were based on assumptions that indigenous production methods could be improved upon. As experience showed, this was just not true.”
The story of gold in Ghana, at least up until the final decade of the 19th century, was largely the story of the rise and fall of the kingdom of Ashanti.
The collapse of that kingdom and its incorporation into the British Colonial System in 1896 marked a major turning point, opening up the way for the introduction of new, European mining methods. But the history of gold exploitation in the region goes back many centuries before Ashanti achieved dominance.
Finding gold probably developed from haphazard collecting, perhaps from river banks, into deliberate seeking out of new sources of gold and investing time and labour extracting it. As long distance traders from the north were drawn into the forest zone, by the lure of the metal, they would have brought with them knowledge of more efficient and productive methods of extracting gold. And the enormous demand for gold that reached across the Sahara and Europe led to a revolution in local gold production, setting in motion profound changes in society, ultimately leading to the rise of the Ashanti Empire and the splendours of its kings and courts.
Although it is not known exactly when mining for gold was first practised in the forest, it is certain that mines were being worked in the interior well before the closing decades of the 15th century.
The great kingdom of Ashanti was built largely upon the golden riches that lay beneath its soil. Gold production and the growth of centralized states in the forest region went hand in hand, and alluvial and mined gold were crucial sources of wealth and power for the new kingdoms that developed from the mid-16th century onwards. By the start of the 17th century, Ashanti was beginning to establish itself as an expanding power and by the middle of the 19th century it controlled most of the area that forms present-day Ghana. Over the last 100 years, a further revolution has taken place with the introduction of deep mining and industrial scale gold production in the Ashanti region, a development that has tied the Ashanti gold fields more closely to world economy.
Although vast quantities of gold dust and nuggets flowed into their hands, there was never enough for the Europeans whose goal was to gain control of at least some of the gold production. Their various attempts at mining however were doomed to failure for a variety of reasons. One was that they flew in the face of the obvious fact that it was not in the interest of the local people and their rulers that Europeans should succeed in setting up independent ventures. In addition, most of them succumbed to malaria and other tropical diseases within two or three years of their arrival. Thus they rarely, if ever had the manpower to engage in mining operations.
Ultimately, however, the main reason for the failure of their mining attempts was the false assumption that indigenous methods of mining could be improved upon. In fact, local gold production methods were highly effective. Local societies had evolved suitable gold-winning techniques, they controlled the gold bearing areas and they were able to provide the necessary labour to exploit them.
COLLASPE OF A KINGDOM.
The three last decades of the 19th century were troubled times for the Ashanti, who eventually found themselves at war with the British. When the British took over Kumasi in 1874 it was disaster of the worst kind for the Ashanti kingdom, leading to a period of civil dispute and uncertainty during which the Asantehene Kofi Karikari was destooled.
Prempeh I his successor, strove to reconsolidate the state but was seized by the British in 1896 and with some senior chiefs and household staff, taken into exile.
In the same year, the kingdom of Ashanti was incorporated into the British Colonial system. After a bitter battle over the golden stool, the symbol and soul of political sovereignty of the Ashanti, the proud people were defeated and their kingdom was eventually annexed to the British crown in 1901.
The weakening of central control in Ashanti opened up the way for new European gold mining enterprises. This had already been paved to some extent by the French trader and explorer Marie Joseph Bonnat, the “father” of modern gold mining on the Gold Coast. In 1877 he became the first European to obtain a concession – at Tarkwa.
Keen to learn all they could about local gold sources, early European observers noted how women and children worked along the river banks and coastal shorelines panning for gold. Some would plunge beneath the surface of rivers and streams to scoop up gold-bearing materials from the river beds; others would dig pits in the sand and gravels that were exposed as the river level dropped.
The pan used was usually a flat-bottomed vessel, with a wide mouth and a mixture of gold-bearing sand or gravel and water was swirled around inside it. By using a swirling and tilting action, the panner gradually separated the lighter materials, such as the sand and grit from the heavier gold. These materials were tipped over the edge of the pan, and at each stage, the remaining mixture was transferred to smaller and smaller pans as the separating process continued. Usually, a panner had a set of four (4) or six (6) of these wooded bowls of graded sizes ranging from about 60cm (2feet) to 15cm (6inches) in diameter. Sometimes, a smaller pan was used inside a much larger one to ensure that not even a speck of gold was accidentally lost: panning requires great skill and is very hard work.
The final bowl was sometimes dyed black so that the remaining gold dust was easier to find. Usually this was done with the aid of a feather and the particles of gold were then carefully placed in some handy container such as a snail shell or quill. The Ashanti were certainly very expert at panning and they extracted vast quantities of gold by this method.
In fact they astounded highly experienced European miners with their skill in recovering even the tiniest of grain. We do not now know all the ways the local people used to locate gold. They were obviously adept at detecting even the slightest trace of the metal in river sands and surface soils, but it seems that they were also aware that certain types of vegetation were associated with the sorts of soil likely to contain gold.
Earth of a blue-black or grey appearance along river beds and banks was known to lie over auriferous strata. In addition, some of them claimed that they could detect gold in mystical ways, such as in dreams, or by seeing a mist or glow over the place where it lay. However they did it, they were masters at finding gold.