Africa's Past Was Paved In Gold

By Sana Butler | November 15, 2021

Black people have been historically excluded from the high-end jewelry space when, in essence, the concept began in various African regions—the original signifiers of luxury.

An Ashanti speaker holding his staff of office, a local adaptation of staffs introduced by European traders on the Gold Coast since the 16th century PHOTO BY WERNER FORMAN/UNIVERSAL IMAGES GROUP/GETTY IMAGES

An Ashanti speaker holding his staff of office, a local adaptation of staffs introduced by European traders on the Gold Coast since the 16th-century PHOTO BY WERNER FORMAN/UNIVERSAL IMAGES GROUP/GETTY IMAGES


Royal ceremonial sword, late 19th or early 20th century, from the Akan people in Ghana and Ivory Coast SWORD PHOTO BY SEPIA TIMES/UNIVERSAL IMAGES GROUP VIA GETTY IMAGES
Royal ceremonial sword, late 19th or early 20th century, from the Akan people in Ghana and Ivory Coast SWORD PHOTO BY SEPIA TIMES/UNIVERSAL IMAGES GROUP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Once upon a time, Africa’s past was paved in gold. From Egypt (north) to Zimbabwe (south), Ethiopia (east) to Mali (west). In the forests, in the deserts, and in the rivers. Starved on almost every other continent, gold was designed to run through Africa like water. In many respects, to call ancient Africa a continent of luxury is misleading because it unfairly assumes a reference point that can be or has been replicated in the world today. Despite images of wealth and excess unsustainably celebrated by the 1 percenters, the history of the world has never seen a time of such profound abundance. Generally speaking, it’s like paying cash for a Maybach Exelero and buying a bus pass when neither have anything to prove to themselves or the world around them.


Kirina, one of the three Malinke towns that formed the foundation of Sundiata Keita’s empire of Mali MALI PHOTO BY WERNER FORMAN/UNIVERSAL IMAGES GROUP/GETTY IMAGES
Kirina, one of the three Malinke towns that formed the foundation of Sundiata Keita’s empire of Mali MALI PHOTO BY WERNER FORMAN/UNIVERSAL IMAGES GROUP/GETTY IMAGES

In Zimbabwe, children played with diamonds like we would rocks. In Egypt, where children adorned gold bracelets and chains to ward off evil, women wore gold flip-flops and took milk baths for soft skin. Servants in Mali owned solid gold walking sticks. Dogs walked the streets with gold collars in present-day Ghana where everyone who lived in the forest “knew how to find tiny grains of gold sparkling in the river beds after a rainfall,” according to the Smithsonian.


Great Mosque, Timbuktu, the oldest mosque south of the Sahara MOSQUE PHOTO BY WERNER FORMAN/UNIVERSAL IMAGES GROUP/GETTY IMAGES
Great Mosque, Timbuktu, the oldest mosque south of the Sahara MOSQUE PHOTO BY WERNER FORMAN/UNIVERSAL IMAGES GROUP/GETTY IMAGES

If you are reading this and shaking your head, I was there too once. On assignment to Ethiopia to write about the origin of the coffee bean, I learned of the gold mine discovery in the north of the Hebrew Bible legend Queen of Sheba, who used her wealth to transport the Ark of the Covenant from Israel to Abyssinia (present-day Ethiopia) upon the request of King Solomon. It was a trip in every sense of the word—across the chasm of “Whatchutalkinabout?” and “Can I get an amen?”


A trio of Akan chief’s gold rings, 1900/1950 RING PHOTO BY SEPIA TIMES/UNIVERSAL IMAGES GROUP VIA GETTY IMAGES
A trio of Akan chief’s gold rings, 1900/1950 RING PHOTO BY SEPIA TIMES/UNIVERSAL IMAGES GROUP VIA GETTY IMAGES

It was also a reminder that so much of what we know about the continent of Africa—and its 55 countries—is also a matter of how much we don’t.

There is really no combination quite like unlimited wealth and an unbridled sense of benevolence, and there is no place in history where the two have come together as completely as they do in the life stories of the rulers of the fabled Mali empire. Their dominion spanned present-day Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, the Ivory Coast, and parts of Ghana, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. From 1235 C.E., Sundiata Keita laid the foundation for a powerful and wealthy gold empire that would be known not only for its riches but its progressive values, creating the first charter of human rights, the Manden Charter, also known as the Kouroukan Fouga. His successor was Mansa Musa, who used to say gold grew like a plant in his kingdom and whose reign is described best in the record of a pilgrimage to Mecca where he made a pit stop in Cairo to spend and give away—just because—so much gold that the gold markets crashed by 20%, taking 12 years to recover. While he built his legacy on gold, historians today say he was the wealthiest man who has ever lived. He used it to build, what he considered, his greatest achievement: Timbuktu. Thanks to the rumors of that trip to Egypt that reached Europe, we know and understand what happened next. “That is the gold that you see in southern Europe, in the courts of northern Europe, and that you see in parts of South Asia. This was a huge network that spread across the ancient world that radiated out from this single state,” says Gus Casely-Hayford, former director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C.

“IN SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA, GOLD WAS SEEN AS AN EARTHLY COUNTERPART TO THE SUN AND THE PHYSICAL MANIFESTATION OF OUR SOULS.” –SANA BUTLER


Nana Owusu Sampa III, Omanhene of Akrokerri
Nana Owusu Sampa III, Omanhene of Akrokerri, wearing a cloth robe and gold jewelry in Ghana, 1964 PHOTO BY WERNER FORMAN/UNIVERSAL IMAGES GROUP/GETTY IMAGES

In sub-Saharan Africa, gold was seen as an earthly counterpart to the sun and the physical manifestation of our souls. It is our patrimony and we are its custodians. This connection has nothing to do with materialism or greed, vanity or vulgarity, exclusivity or excess, price or privilege, the search for happiness, or everything else that has been wrongfully defined by others who failed over centuries to see peace in its power. Like the way plants always bend to the sun, it is sufficient to know to understand. Our connection is blood and beauty. And it dates back thousands and thousands of years. Don’t underestimate that timeline. The fact that we lived in abundance for so long matters. In the same way, paying off a mortgage gives financial freedom to pursue other ventures, early Africans became intellectuals in math, science, philosophy, medicine, and arts because they were born debt-free.

So when Fauvism-era artist Henri Matisse exposed modernist painter Picasso to African sculptures from the Democratic Republic of Congo, the art culture light years ahead of its time in Europe, it allowed Picasso to re-imagine his craft, writes Denise Murrell, formerly of the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University, and now an associate curator at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. “The African sculptures, Picasso said, had helped him to understand his purpose as a painter, which was not to entertain with decorative images, but to mediate between perceived reality and the creativity of the human mind—to be freed.”

Photography by: (Images credited above)