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When Gold Was Gold

News & Analysis

When Gold Was Gold

A glistening new book entitled African Gold celebrates the enormous range of gold ornamental objects and jewellery of West Africa. Major gold fields had existed in West Africa for at least 1,500 years, but, as Juliet Highet reports, between the 11th and 17th centuries one corner of the sub-region became the leading supplier of gold in the world. Consequently, this African El Dorado became known as the Gold Coast (later Ghana).

Africa generally is a land of gold, but not all African kingdoms valued or indeed were sources of gold. Most of it, in those bygone days, came from two broad zones – the central West African forest area of Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire; and the Sahel, extending from Senegal to Mali and Niger.

The stunning pieces in the generously illustrated new book African Gold, published by Prestel, date from the 19th and 20th centuries, from a collection begun in 1922 by a Swiss art collector and originally held in Geneva. The collection returned to Africa when it was bought by AngloGold Ashanti, a gold mining company based in South Africa, who installed it in a purpose-built Gold of Africa Museum in Cape Town, opening in 2001.

This was a significant event in bringing back cultural artefacts to the continent of their origin. Around 350 items give an insight into the significance of gold objects – their power, wealth and splendour within their cultural context.

Their diversity of aesthetic artistry is an inspiration for contemporary designers, artisans and historians. In effect the Museum and book preserve the traditions and knowledge of gold-smithing techniques and the extraordinarily rich heritage of the region, both decorative and philosophical. The desirability of gold has motivated humanity to spectacular heights of creativity, and awesome depths of depravity and destruction.

As we know in the current parlous global monetary situation, the value of gold never goes down – quite the reverse. In fact throughout history it has often been the only commodity on which to depend financially. Its non-tarnishing glittering allure and ability to be transformed into objects of beauty and desire ensured that it was carried along the many trade routes across Africa.

The tragic truth today is that all but a tiny fraction of West Africa’s gold, whether in the form of objects, nuggets, jewellery, coins or gold dust, has eventually been exported.

From AD 800 to 1600, gold imported into North Africa enabled Berber and Arab dynasties to strike coins in mints as far afield as Marrakesh and Cairo. The dinars of the Almoravids and Merinids were among the most superb produced in the Islamic world – and almost all were made from West African bullion.

Early medieval Arab geographers and travellers reported on the spectacular gold regalia, weapons, and horse-trappings owned by the kings of ancient Ghana and Mali. A publication of 1756 illustrates a Kulango gold spirit-figure pendant that turned up in Egypt, and another hoard in Libya.

A report of 1809 mentions that an “immense quantity of gold trinkets of the manufacture of Jinni” in Mali was exported from there and Timbuktu to the Middle East.

Warfare and recycling have also been responsible for the destruction or loss of most of the heritage of West African gold ornaments and jewellery. Over the centuries royal treasures were ransacked by the victors of conflict, the loot rarely surviving in identifiable form, melted down into gold dust, or bars and ingots.

Even in peaceful periods, since gold jewellery was a form of wealth, it was not kept if it had been damaged or become unfashionable, the owner taking it to a goldsmith to be melted down and made into new ornaments, at least serving to preserve the goldsmith’s craft and inspire fresh creativity. This process continues to this day in Senegal and Ghana, where hardly any pre-colonial jewellery has survived.

Ironically, the golden regalia of the 14th century kings of Mali and the “gold sceptres and plates” of the rulers of Timbuktu, as well as hundreds of items of Asante goldwork seized by British military expeditions to Kumasi in 1874 and again in 1896, have been preserved in their original form by being looted to Europe, ending up in forlorn splendour in the glass cases of museums.

From the 15th century onwards, Portuguese, Dutch and other Europeans had noted the abundance of gold body ornaments worn by some of the people they encountered on the West African coast, and established forts there on what became the Gold Coast before Ghana became independent in 1957.

Gold is still commonly worn in some parts of the region, and magnificent displays are to be seen on ceremonial occasions, particularly those of the Akan people of Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire.

In 1817, a British envoy to Kumasi, witnessed a Yam Festival, describing the king, the Asantehene Osei Bonsu as wearing: “A necklace of gold cockspur shells… his bracelets were the richest mixture of beads and gold, and his fingers covered with rings… and around his ankles [were] strings of gold ornaments of the most delicate workmanship. He wore a pair of gold castanets which he clapped to enforce silence.”

His attendants were no less of a superb sight: “The belts of the guards behind his chair were cased in gold… his eunuch wore only one massy piece of gold about his neck.” Even his executioner wore “a massy gold hatchet” on his chest.

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