#5 Law and Constitution: A Suicide’s Trial
     (Capt. R. S. Rattray, 1929)

The offences set out [below] were known in Ashantias Oman Akyiwadie, which, translated literally, means, ‘Things hateful to the Tribe’. These acts were looked upon as sins of which the central authority was bound to take immediate official notice, lest certain supernatural powers, to whom the deeds were regarded as peculiarly offensive, should wreak their vengeance, upon those whose paramount duty it was to protect their interests and to punish breaches of immemorial law or custom…



Suicide, except under certain peculiar circumstances, was formerly regarded in Ashantias a capital sin. It was a sin of which the central authority took immediate cognizance. These two statements of fact exhibit at once the difference and the similarity between our laws and theirs. Suicide and attempted suicide result, in our own country [England], in both legal and ecclesiastical consequences, but to state that suicide was ‘a capital offence’ must at first sight appear somewhat curious. Not all forms of what we would tern ‘suicide’ were regarded as sins; in fact, under certain circumstances, the action of taking one’s own life was considered as honourable and acclaimed as praiseworthy; e.g. to kill oneself in war by taking poison, or sitting on a keg of gunpowder to which a light was applied, rather than fall into the hands of the enemy or return home to tell of a defeat; to take one’s own life in order to accompany a beloved masters or mistress to the land of the spirits; and finally, those especially interesting cases, where a man commits suicide to wipe out what he considers his dishonour and because he cannot stand the ridicule of his companions. Suicide was considered a sin when it was carried out to avoid the consequences of some wrongful deed, or when, after investigation, it was not possible to ascribe any motive for the act. In the latter case there was always a legal presumption that the motive for self-destruction had been evil. In the disfavour with which the central authority seemed always to have regarded this offence, it is rather difficult to trace any other cause than the desire rigorously to maintain its prerogative as the sole dispenser of capital punishment. It is just possible, however, that the State, i.e. the tribal authority, may have placed suicide in the category of sins, owing to a dislike of having an evilly disposed disembodied spirit wandering about in its midst. The spirit of the suicide became a saman twetwe, a ghost wandering about in search of its head, for it was debarred from entering the Samandow (land of spirits) until the expiration of its destined time upon earth, which it had itself wrongfully curtailed. Moreover, when eventually reincarnated, it would return to this world as a tofo sasa—the spirit of one who had died an unholy death—with a cruel and murderous nature which would lead it again to meet a similar end in its next incarnation. The man who had committed an offence, the penalty for which he well knew was death, had not any right to balk the central authority of its right to execute him. The central authority indeed refused to be cheated thus, and the long arm of the law followed the suicide to the grave, from which, if kinsmen should have dared to bury him, he was dragged to stand his trial before the council of Elders. The result of the trial was almost a foregone conclusion, for the dead man would either have been found to have committed some offence, and fearing the consequences (which might have been more terrible than any self-inflicted death, i.e. the Atopere) have taken his own life, or if it were not found possible to trace any motive for the deed, then the commission of some wicked act was presumed, and he was equally judged guilty. In the latter case his dead body was addressed by the Okyeame in the following words:

(Addressing the Chief.) ‘This is your slave, (i.e. subject). No one knows what he had done, and to-day he has hanged himself. (Then addressing the corpse.) No man knows a single thing that came into your head (i.e. your motives), but, because you did not bring your case here that we might take good ears to hear it, but took a club and struck the Akyeame—and when you kill us (thus) you regard us as brute beasts—therefore you are guilty.’

In the case of a murderer who had afterwards committed suicide the final summing up was as follows:

(Addressing the Chief.) ‘This is your slave. (Addressing the corpse of the suicide.) Since it has come about that you have killed your fellow man, and when he had done a bad thing to you, you did not come to tell the Akyeame in order that we might have told the Chief and caused him to investigate the case for you, but instead, you went and killed him and also killed yourself, then because you did not bring your case here that we might have brought good ears to hear it, but instead raised a club and struck the Akyeame—and when you kill thus you treat us as if we were brute beasts—therefore you are guilty.’

As soon as the Okyeame had delivered this oration, the Chief’s executioners would step forward and decapitate the dead body. Here we have the explanation of the sentence ‘Suicide was a capital offence’. The plaintiff in the case had been the murdered man. The sentence and ‘execution’ of the murderer implied his innocence. The party in a trial who is judged innocent pays Aseda, a thank-offering, to the Chief… really a fee to ensure that witnesses would be forthcoming on a possible future occasion to testify to the result of the trial). The murdered man could not claim exemption to this rule. He (i.e. his kinsmen) therefore paid Aseda and the kinsmen claimed the body of their murdered relation without further formality. Not so the blood relations of the murderer and suicide. They might not on any account remove his body for burial in the clan sacred burial-ground; they might not even mourn for him. His headless trunk was cast into the bush, to wander, as we have seen, an unhappy headless ghost. Not only so, but his kinsmen could not themselves entirely escape the evil consequences of his deeds, a responsibility, that was even sometimes shared by the Chief himself. The kinsmen of the suicide had ‘to drink to the gods’ and to produce every bit of his (the suicide’s) personal private property, which was then confiscated by the Chief…

The immediate superior (if himself a Chief under a greater Chief) of a subject who had violated any of the great tribal or national taboos, and thereby incurred the death penalty, appears to have been held responsible that his subject did not escape punishment by committing suicide…

At a later date the custom arose of permitting the kindred of a person found guilty of many of these capitol sins ‘to buy the head’ of their clansman. It is very doubtful if this privilege was ever really extended to cases of deliberate murder, even at a late period when the majesty of law and the administration of justice were disregarded. By paying this price the confiscation of the offender’s private property was avoided, and if, as in the case of a suicide, the guilty party were already dead, his kindred also obtained the body, the head of which was not cut off; they might mourn for him, and hold the usual funeral custom.

[#5] Ashanti: “Law and Constitution: A Suicide’s Trial,” from Capt. R. S. Rattray, Ashanti Law and Constitution, Kumasi: Basel Mission Book Depot, and London: Oxford University Press, 1929, pp. 294, 299-302 [field date 1921ff.].

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#5 Law and Constitution: A Suicide’s Trial
     (Capt. R. S. Rattray, 1929)

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