On March 6th 1957, the former Gold Coast gained independence from the British and became the Republic of Ghana. The name Ghana, which means “Warrior King”, was actually taken from the Ancient Empire of Ghana. This Empire, somewhat confusingly, lay completely to the north of the land we now associate with the Ghana of today. The capital of Ancient Ghana was located in what we now refer to as Mauritania and the lands of the Empire spread into modern day Mail. Founded sometime between 300 and 700 AD, Ancient Ghana reached the height of its powers around 900 AD. At this time the Empire spread roughly 300km North to South and 500km East to West. It was powerful during this time, controlling the important Saharan trade route until the decline of the Empire in the 12th century. In the early 13th century the Mail Empire began taking over parts of Ancient Ghana. Although the Empire of Ancient Ghana did not stretch to the land of its modern day namesake, trade was certainly taking place between the regions. The lands now enclosed in Ghana’s border were trading kola nuts, ivory and gold across the Saharan trade route.
So why, in 1957, did the first President and Prime Minister, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, choose the name Ghana? The choice was rather more symbolic than literal. The former Gold Coast was arguably the first state in sub-Saharan Africa to gain political independence from a European colonial power. Nkrumah saw himself as a spokesman, not just representing Ghana, but representing the liberation of Africa from colonial rule. He later became a founding member of the Organisation of African Unity and was an influencing advocate for Pan Africanism. On the eve of independence he made a speech in which he famously said “The independence of Ghana is meaningless unless it is linked up to the total liberation of Africa”. Ghana’s independence did indeed kick of a chain reaction across Africa with 16 nations gaining independence in 1960 alone. That’s not to say Ghanas post independence journey was smooth, by 1966 Nkrumah was overthrown by a military coup and several difficult decades of power struggles followed.
Some historians also claim the countries name is attributed to the fact that the Akan people of modern day Ghana descend from the Ancient Empire, although this is disputed by others. Interestingly in a 1925 map of the Gold Coast four areas are identified which later became Ghana: The Gold Coast; Ashanti; Northern Territories and the Trust Territory of Togoland. Similar administrative divisions still exist today, although further subdivided into a total of 10 regions.
So, What is in a name? Quite a lot in this case!