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Akan Drum, the Oldest African Object in the British Museum

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Fashioned in Ghana in the 1700’s, the Akan Drum is one of the oldest surviving African object in the British Museum.

Akan Drum the Oldest African Object in the British Museum

The Akan drum as it is called, was made in the Akan region in Ghana, West Africa, where it would have been played during religious ceremonies and on social occasions. Using the drum, Skilled drummers were also known to replicate the tones, punctuation and accents of the Akan language in order to send messages from village to village.

The drum which is said to have been made in the early-18th century is made from carved wood with animal skin stretched over.

Akan Drum in the British Museum
Chief of Abetifi’s orchestra, c.1890, showing a similar drum

The Drum in America

It is thought that the Akan drum was taken to Virginia on a slave ship, but not by an enslaved African, as slaves were not allowed to carry possessions with them. So it is presumed that the drum was either brought by a member of the crew or possibly by a son of the African chief who accompanied a voyage.

The middle passage of the transatlantic slave trade from West Africa to North America took around six weeks. During that time the enslaved Africans were shackled below deck in the hold of the ship. Since it was in the economic interests of the slave traders to keep their human property in good health & shape, the slave traders would sometimes bring the enslaved Africans up on deck and force them to dance. It is believed that this was why the drum was transported.

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The drum which is made of wood (Cordia and Baphia varieties, both native to Africa), vegetable fibre and deer-skin had its original skin replaced in North America and so it is likely that the drum was used there.

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The Drum in Britain

The Akan drum was collected by Reverend Mr Clerk probably between 1730 and 1745 on behalf of Sir Hans Sloane, founder of the British Museum. Sir Hans Sloane entered it in his catalogue as “drum made of a hollowed tree carved the top being brac’d wt. peggs & thongs wt. the bottom hollow from Virginia“. Clerk and Sloane erroneously believed that the drum was made by Native Americans.

Sloane’s collection which included the tools of slavery and other artefacts which included the Akan drum would later become a founding collection of the British Museum.

In 1906, curators at the British Museum realised that the drum could not have been by Native Americans, but must have been made in West Africa. In the 1970s, it became possible to use expertise from Kew Gardens, — a botanic garden in London that houses the “largest and most diverse botanical and mycological collections in the world — to determine that the wood from whence the Drum was made from was grown in Akan, Ghana.

Akan drum on display in British museum

Today the drum is the oldest African-American object in the British Museum.

In September 2020, the Akan Drum was selected to be featured in the British Museum’s “Objects of Crisis” series on YouTube by former deputy chair of the Museum trustees Bonnie Greer. The series intended to highlight objects in the British Museum collection that show how people of the past faced major challenges.

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