So why is gold so significant in West Africa? It was believed that the king or chief, in his bearing and appearance, embodied the power, prestige and wealth of the community. The more opulent his regalia, the more important he was considered to be.
At traditional Ghanaian weddings, the bride and her attendants would be decked out in their Kente cloth and finest gold jewellery, and sometimes they still are. Another description of 1817 tells us that “the girl’s hair was combed in the form of a cone to the top of her head and profusely decorated with gold butterflies… on her girdle hung golden lions.”
To this day Wolof jewellers in Senegal and The Gambia create exquisite filigree butterfly pendants and brooches. Their work is always African in spirit, original and inventive, of an astonishing variety and complexity.
With the spread of Islam south from the late 18th century onwards, most men (with the exception of kings, chiefs and their attendants) abandoned wearing gold jewellery. But for women it continued to be an essential sign of wealth and prestige. Jewels for the hair were displayed in large, elaborate coiffures, like the 19th century bride, the whole ensemble involving earrings, necklaces, chokers, chains, pendants, brooches, bangles, finger and toe rings.
One of the most striking features of Akan gold rings and weights is its wealth of proverbial imagery. Most depict an object – animal, bird, fish, insect, fruit, seed, etc – that is associated with an Akan proverb or aphorism, so that they convey a message. Frequently this message emphasises the wealth and invincibility of the king or an individual, serving as a warning to enemies, or the indication is a moral one, emphasising decent conduct.
Gold beads were made in the form of cowry shells (once used as currency), drums, padlocks, amulets and talismans. Some of the most exquisite and evocative examples of Akan gold-work and cultural values are “soul discs” or “soul-washers’ badges”, with the intention of purifying the chief’s soul.
However, linguists and war leaders, as well as young women at their puberty ceremonies, could also wear them. Today, they can indicate the principle mourner at a funeral. Some Akan queen-mothers wear gold bracelets in the form of a babadua plant, which spreads very rapidly, and is therefore a potent symbol of female fertility.
The passion for gold jewellery shown by the Akan is shared by women further north in the Sahara, the Sahel and the region of the Senegalese and Gambian rivers. But in the past, particularly the 19th century, some men also adorned themselves with gold hair ornaments, earrings, bracelets and rings, especially the more important kings of the Sahel. Until very recently, copious amounts were worn by women, notably in Senegal and southern Mali, whose Peul women of Mopti on the River Niger, were famous for their magnificent jewellery.
One of the most spectacular examples of this is their earrings of gold, hammered into a four-lobed shape, often engraved with elaborate designs. Some were of an enormous size, weighing up to 300 grams. To avoid laceration of the earlobe, a thong passing over the crown of the head sensibly supported them. They also wore superb bicone pendants as the centrepiece of a necklace of openwork gold beads. One of the most graceful of gold pieces, found in all Sahelian countries, is a choker occurring in two main forms. One of these is a swastika, known as “the claws of the lion”, another is a quatrefoil surmounted by a stylised flower.
Along with the Peul and Wolof peoples, others most noted for their fine jewellery in the Sahara, Sahel and Senegambia, include the Maures, the Tuareg, the Sarakole, the Tukulor and the Mande.
One could sigh that a collection of West African gold objects and jewellery is now on display in South Africa, but at least it has returned to its own continent.
(African Gold by Timothy F. Garrard is published by Prestel. ISBN 978-3-7913-4119-4.)