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Dr. William "Para" Riviere
Dr. William "Para" Riviere

By Dr. William Riviere, Historian

When the Gold Coast acquired constitutional independence from "Mother Country" Britain in 1957, it was re-christened Ghana in honour of the great West African empire that held sway between 500 and 1250 A.D. in the region between the bend of the river Niger and the middle sections of the Senegal and Gambia rivers.

Rise of the Empire

A number of factors explain why ancient Ghana emerged as an empire and reached the peak of development before the emergence of other West African states (1). First was the presence of a settled population as early as 1,000 B.C. The inhabitants originated in the region of the Sahara Desert and, to escape the material poverty caused by the year-round extreme dryness of the area, a substantial number had moved northwards into the Maghreb region and southwards into the savannah region. The availability there of accessible fertile lands and good climatic conditions led to a radical change in the use of land, whereby the gathering of food gave way to the cultivation and harvesting of crops.

This change was greatly influenced by the use of iron tools. Such tools were known to the savannah region by about 500 B.C. and were widely used 500 years later, that is to say, by the beginning of the first century A.D. As news of this new methodology of economic production spread to the west and south more settlers were attracted to the area, causing a further concentration of population, there. Among the peoples who migrated, many were Mande-speaking. And most northerly, in the area where the Sahara meets the savannah region, were the Soninke peoples. Notably, it is the Soninke who established the empire of Ghana, and not Europeans as it was previously supposed.

Another factor which contributed to the rise and dominance of the empire of Ghana was its engagement in trade. The empire engaged in local and regional trade, on one hand, and inter-regional trade, namely, the trade across the Sahara desert, on the other. As early as 500 A.D. such trade was being conducted between inhabitants of the Sahara and those of the savannah region, among which Old Jenne, a large urban center of ancient Ghana, stood out. Further, the Soninke peoples, because of their central location geographically, functioned as middleman in that exchange. Commodities traded included salt and copper from the Sahara, and gold, rice and dried fish, from Ghana.

Metropolitan Ghana

At the moment of the European encounter with West Africa the empire of Ghana was administered along the lines of a decentralization of power from the Center to subordinate states and provinces. It embraced two components, namely, metropolitan Ghana, that is to say, the seat of the empire and provincial Ghana, comprising states that had been annexed through conquest.

At the Center, the empire's political and administrative structure was headed by the King or Emperor, called a Tunkka. His subjects believed him to be divine, and treated him accordingly. In administering his domain, the Tunkka engaged the assistance of a Council of Ministers, the Governor of the empire's capital city named Kumbi Saleh, and other functionaries, among whom were a Director of the Treasury, an Interpreter, a number of Imams and Muezzins (criers who proclaimed the hours of prayer). Also engaged in the administration process were scholars and jurists.

Provincial Ghana

The administration of states annexed to metropolitan Ghana by conquest constituted provincial Ghana. They were left in the hands of their kings and, to ensure allegiance, the son of each such king, known as a vassal king because he was a vassal of the Tunkka, was bound to attend at the sovereign court summoned by the Tunkka.

Rise of the Empire

A number of factors explain why ancient Ghana emerged as an empire and reached the peak of development before the emergence of other West African states (1). First was the presence of a settled population as early as 1,000 B.C. The inhabitants originated in the region of the Sahara Desert and, to escape the material poverty caused by the year-round extreme dryness of the area, a substantial number had moved northwards into the Maghreb region and southwards into the savannah region. The availability there of accessible fertile lands and good climatic conditions led to a radical change in the use of land, whereby the gathering of food gave way to the cultivation and harvesting of crops.

This change was greatly influenced by the use of iron tools. Such tools were known to the savannah region by about 500 B.C. and were widely used 500 years later, that is to say, by the beginning of the first century A.D. As news of this new methodology of economic production spread to the west and south more settlers were attracted to the area, causing a further concentration of population, there. Among the peoples who migrated, many were Mande-speaking. And most northerly, in the area where the Sahara meets the savannah region, were the Soninke peoples. Notably, it is the Soninke who established the empire of Ghana, and not Europeans as it was previously supposed.

Another factor which contributed to the rise and dominance of the empire of Ghana was its engagement in trade. The empire engaged in local and regional trade, on one hand, and inter-regional trade, namely, the trade across the Sahara desert, on the other. As early as 500 A.D. such trade was being conducted between inhabitants of the Sahara and those of the savannah region, among which Old Jenne, a large urban center of ancient Ghana, stood out. Further, the Soninke peoples, because of their central location geographically, functioned as middleman in that exchange. Commodities traded included salt and copper from the Sahara, and gold, rice and dried fish, from Ghana.

Metropolitan Ghana

At the moment of the European encounter with West Africa the empire of Ghana was administered along the lines of a decentralization of power from the Center to subordinate states and provinces. It embraced two components, namely, metropolitan Ghana, that is to say, the seat of the empire and provincial Ghana, comprising states that had been annexed through conquest.

At the Center, the empire's political and administrative structure was headed by the King or Emperor, called a Tunkka. His subjects believed him to be divine, and treated him accordingly. In administering his domain, the Tunkka engaged the assistance of a Council of Ministers, the Governor of the empire's capital city named Kumbi Saleh, and other functionaries, among whom were a Director of the Treasury, an Interpreter, a number of Imams and Muezzins (criers who proclaimed the hours of prayer). Also engaged in the administration process were scholars and jurists.

Provincial Ghana

The administration of states annexed to metropolitan Ghana by conquest constituted provincial Ghana. They were left in the hands of their kings and, to ensure allegiance, the son of each such king, known as a vassal king because he was a vassal of the Tunkka, was bound to attend at the sovereign court summoned by the Tunkka.

System of Justice

The judicial system is interesting. Needless to say, this was under the Tunkka's control and direction. And, as in respect of the administration of the empire, he was assisted by a Court of Justice of his choosing and advisers of high academic standing, preferably of Muslim faith.

Justice was dispensed like this. The Tunkka made it his duty to travel on horse-back daily to do so. All perceived perpetrators of wrongdoing, victims thereof, as well as supposed sufferers of misfortune were brought before him and the itinerant, that is to say, travelling Court of Justice. Proceedings were in accordance with the principles of what was inscribed as "trial of wood". It was described thus:

"When a man is accused of denying a debt or having shed blood, or some other crime, the official in charge takes a thin piece of wood, which is sour and bitter to taste, and pours upon it some water, which he then gives to the defendant to drink. If the man vomits, his innocence is recognized and he is congratulated. If he does not vomit and the drink remains in his stomach the accusation is accepted as justified" (3).

Public Income

The empire's income came from assured sources. A leading such source was gold nuggets dug from the country's mines. So insistent were the Soninke rulers on monopolizing this source that evidently "only the gold dust" was left to the public. Another source of state revenue was annual tribute paid by the empire's vassal kings. But probably the main source was customs duties. Taking account of the extent of the trans-Sahara caravan trade at the peak of Ghana's power, the income derived from customs duties must have been enormous. Little wonder the empire at its peak could the costs of a standing army of 200,000 men, of whom 40,000 were archers.

The Fall of Ghana

Despite the elements of wealth and opulence which enabled ancient Ghana to establish a strong monarchy, a workable system of administration, an effective judicial system, a civil service and a strong army, all of which were in evidence by the middle of the 11th century A.D, two hundred years later the empire collapsed.

There were four main reasons for this. To begin with the failure to absorb conquered states into the administrative and economic fabric of the country left the empire with a weak structure which at the appropriate time might cause it to break up into component parts. The temptation to do so was facilitated by the reality that while conquered states had cultural features that might be general and common to the African continent, each had its own specific mode of language and expressions of culture. Further, each state owed allegiance not to the Tunkka but to its vassal king, that is to say, its traditional ruler. Essentially, then, the empire was held together by military power which, if weakened, would provide occasion for vassal states to assert their independence and secede from the empire.

Ancient Ghana was weakened, further, by the advent of Islam about the middle of the 11th century. While its rulers and most of their subjects converted to the new faith, many of its vassal states clung to their traditional religious belief systems. The effect of this was to further divide the empire. Not only was there metropolitan Ghana and provincial Ghana; Muslin Ghana and non-Muslin Ghana now came into being.

The fall of the empire may partly be explained by the loss to the Almoravid peoples of its control over the trans Sahara trade and the corresponding decrease in revenue derived from the trade. Testimony to this was the severe decline in importance of Awdaghost, one of the empire's great centers of commerce. It is written that by 1154 A.D. the center was reduced to "a small town in the desert with little water. Its population is not numerous and there is no large trade." Quite obviously, the empire's economy and, most significantly, its military power would have been greatly affected.

In fact, the immediate cause of the demise of ancient Ghana was the military catastrophes it suffered in the first half of the 13th century. In 1203 it was conquered by the rulers of Susu, a vassal state within the empire. In the event, metropolitan Ghana was itself reduced to the level of vassal state paying tribute to Sumanguru Kante, King of the Susu. The final blow came in 1240 when the army of Mali totally destroyed Ghana's capital city. So ended the greatness of the empire of Ghana.

Copyright © William Riviere May 2017


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