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All objects have a story to tell. Some stories are well known and are easy to hear, but others are forgotten about, ignored or are difficult to share. Behind the labels for the objects in museums are untold stories, which we are seeking to reveal.

We recognise that our permanent displays do not fully represent the people of Colchester. Through an ongoing series of projects, displays and interventions we aim to uncover more diverse stories. Working with local people and schools this programme will give a voice to some of these hidden histories. 

Hidden Histories: West African Gold

Medieval Gold

Our first Hidden Histories project was inspired by the fact that during the medieval period, around 60% of the gold in Europe originated from West Africa – one of the world’s greatest producers of gold at the time. It was traded with salt, ivory, and spices and was eventually used to make coins in Europe. Due to shortages of the precious metal, goldsmiths melted-down old coins to make items of jewellery.

It is likely that some of the medieval gold objects in the museum collection are made from West African gold, so we asked local people from West Africa to help us tell the story of the great empires of West Africa, and their influence on medieval Europe.

Empires of West Africa

Between AD700 and 1600 there were three great empires in West Africa: Ancient Ghana, Mali, and Songhai. They all grew rich and powerful by trading in gold. These empires were located along the Trans-Saharan trade route – the main route from North Africa to West Africa across the Sahara Desert. Vital resources such as salt, for preserving food, were brought south from Europe and North Africa, while gold from the area around the Niger River went north.

One of the last great empires was Asante which began around 1680. The Asante were known internationally for their skills in making objects out of gold.

Mansa Musa

Mansa Musa was the leader of the empire of Mali from around 1280 to 1340. He became rich through trade in gold and salt and is still considered the richest person who ever lived. It is estimated that in modern terms he was worth over £300 billion – double the wealth of the richest person alive today.

Mansa Musa’s wealth was known across Europe and his image was included on the Catalan Atlas – a medieval map of the world created in 1375. The map depicts Asia, Europe, North Africa, and West Africa and includes illustrations of cities and ports. The inclusion of Mansa Musa on this map demonstrates his reputation and influence on the world at the time.

Meet our Partners

We recognise that we don’t have the lived experience to tell some of the stories behind the objects in the museum, so we would like to thank our project partners for shaping this display, writing text and loaning objects. The group includes representatives from Isedale Wa CIC (Our Heritage), AFiUK (African Families in the UK) CIC and Black History Month Colchester, some of whom are named below:

  • Onche Godwin Daudu, Director- Isedale Wa CIC, Community Ambassador- AFiUK CIC
  • Yetunde Odebiyi, Isedale Wa CIC (Our Heritage)
  • Grace Bedding
  • Lawrence Walker

West African Gold

 

When you think about the History of Africa, and particularly West Africa, what comes to mind is the greatest wealth creating machine the world has ever known – The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Did you know that gold has been at the core of wealth creation, history and commerce in West Africa, since antiquity? In fact, the trade in gold has shaped West African history and confirmed her previously equal status and interactions with the rest of the medieval world. 

 

  • In the 1400s and 1500s West Africa was the most important and prominent supplier of gold to the rest of the world. 
  • Gold bars and nuggets were the property of the Kings and rulers, stored in the great Palaces of these ancient Monarchs of the old West African Empires or kingdoms. These included Songhai, Ghana (not to be mistaken for the present-day country of Ghana) and Mali. It is believed that, at one time, these regions of West Africa were so famous for gold they were called the ‘Land of Gold’. So was the richest man to ever live, the Emperor of Mali, Mansa Musa. Gold accessories, like rings and bracelets, adorn these wealthy Kings to this day. 
  • Old ancient cities in present day Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Ghana were the locations where gold was mined. Ancient ethnic groups such as the Ghiyaru, Galam, Bure, Garamantes, Mandes and Bambuks, were at the centre of the goldmining and trade. Gold dust was used by West African commoners to barter for imported goods from foreign lands at costal trading posts. 
  • Gold dust was the currency used to barter for commodities from the indigenous North African people, who were the Berbers. They brought slabs of salt, used by the West Africans to preserve their meat, and the Berbers received gold and enslaved people. Unfortunately, these were mostly young men, prisoners of war who were sold into indentured servitude. 
  • Gold coins were a more recent addition to the use of gold. Merchant mariners, the Romans and other European conquerors got hold of this gold and were responsible for making coinage to pay their armies and for trade. 

 

Written by our project partners

 

African Storytelling

Talking Drums

More videos coming soon…

Medieval Gold Objects

Medieval Gold Jewellery

The gold coinage introduced in Italy, France, and England in the 1200s was as a result of trade – this gold was from West Africa. Around AD1250 there was only a relatively small amount of gold circulating in Europe, so a large proportion of the gold used for making jewellery was recycled. Goldsmiths melted-down coins, jewellery, and other gold objects to obtain the precious metal. 

Gold Dust

Gold dust is made up of tiny grains of gold. It was once used as currency in West Africa. The gold was kept in a twist of cloth and measured out using weights and a pair of scales. 

Medieval Gold Coins

During the medieval period around 60% of the gold in Europe originated from West Africa. It is likely that some of this African gold was used to make coins such as these. 

Gold Ore

Gold is usually found in its native or pure form in nature. The gold from West Africa was mostly panned, a way of extracting the grains of gold from the river gravel. Most of the gold was dust or grains but any nuggets found became property of the ruler at the time. 

The Golden Stool

 

 

The current Asantehene, chief of the Asante, is Otumfuo Nana Osei Tutu II. This position is sometimes known as the Sika ‘dwa or golden stool after the throne used by the Asantehene. Like many African countries, Ghana has a number of traditional chiefs whose role includes protecting, preserving and promoting traditional values. This chieftaincy or traditional leadership system still plays a significant role, particularly with land ownership and resolving disputes.

 

 

Share Your Stories

We recognise that our permanent displays do not fully represent the people of Colchester.

If you know a story behind an object or history that we are not currently telling, please get in contact with us. 

    About The Display

    When?

    Come and see Hidden Histories: West African Gold when we re-open

    Where?

    Colchester Castle

    Tickets

    The display is included as part of Castle admission.

     

    Click here to plan your visit

    Learning Resources

     

     

    A range of free learning resources relating to Hidden Histories: West African Gold will be available soon. Themes include the Catalan Atlas, Mansa Musa and the Asante Empire. These downloadable resources will be suitable for KS3.

    To find out more please email us at: collections@colchester.gov.uk 

     

     

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