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Agbanga Karite

History of Bassar

Bassar is a town situated in east-central Togo. It is located on the western periphery of the Atokara Mountains, just north of the equator. Bassar has a tropical climate, with six months of rain and six months without. The rain reaches up to 1400 mm per year. During the dry season, the area is subjected to Harmattan winds from the north. The name Bassar is derived from that of a deity, which in turn was named for the Mountain Bassar (de Barros 2001). The mountain rises up to 460 meters and acted as a defended of Bassar from the invasion of the other powers of West Africa before the 1800s.

The Bassar people called themselves the Bi-Thambe, which means metalworker, and makes the Bassar people unique from the other societies of sub-Saharan Africa. Since, Bassar was the site of massive iron production since AD500, it has drawn other African groups who migrated to Bassar for work and trade. This leads to the present Bassar, which is an amalgamated society. However, the original inhabitants of Bassar are from the Kibre sacred forest, located northwest of the current town of Bassar (de Barros 2001)

Archeological data indicated that the earliest habitation was small. According to de Barros, the late Stone Age inhabitants may have practiced a combination of hunting and gathering and rudimentary horticulture or vegeculture (Barros 2001). He also noticed later settlements were as large as one hectare in size, which he inferred as the period of farming leading to a specialization of Bassar life, setting the stage for the industrial production of iron (de Barros 63).According to de Barros (2001), archeological studies conclude that iron production began in Bassar around AD 500. In fact, these studies indicated that Bassar was the largest industrial iron producer in West Africa between AD500 and 1800. When Germans first came into contact with the Bassar people in the 1890s, they documented that there were more than 500 furnaces still operating. The Bassar then had the industrial capacity of producing 10 to 20 metric tones of iron per year. This amount far exceeded local consumption, which implied that Bassar traded with other societies in Western Africa (de Barros 2001). In fact, in the 15th and 16th centuries, the Mamprusi and Gonja (Ghana) emerged as political states, which lead to increased demand for iron to use as military weaponry and protection, including spears, swords, and horse equipment (de Barros 2001).

The iron production had a major impact on the economy of the area. The iron technology increased food production through the use of more efficient bush clearing tools, which permitted the clearing of forest and increased productivity. In turn, increased food production allowed population density to grow, which allowed specialization and social differentiation, especially the formation of iron working castes or classes. Larger and more stable communities were the result of both increased specialization and food surpluses. Specialization also led to increased trade due and the "embryonic rise" of modern politics (de Barros 2001:467). In turn, the increased agricultural productivity and food supply allowed the Bassar iron production to increase between 400 and 600 percent between AD500 and 1750. It also dramatically increased the standard of living, making it attractive to neighboring migration. As a result, the population increased 100 to 200 percent (de Barros 2001).

The iron industry also impacted the political, economic, and sociocultural structures of Bassar. Bassar's iron industrial power made it a stable chiefdom. The Bassar communities were either "made up of a single localized exogamous kin group or class or, more frequently, an amalgam of several residence of lineages belonging to one or more clans" (de Barros 2001: 60). The majority of these clans were split up according to their specific geographic location within Bassar. Also, each clan specialized in a particular aspect of the iron making process. For example, the Bissibe were primarily smelters, while the Koli were mainly smiths. This implied that there were of political and social interdependencies among the clans.

As documented by the first Europeans to reach Bassar in 1890, there were two political organizations, consisting of chiefdoms (Bassar and Kabu) and the "relatively autonomous western region running from Bandjeli to Bitchabe to Dimuri." Elders and the headman, known also as the earth priest, governed the western region (de Barros 63). The earth priest was not necessarily the one that gave orders; instead the priest was a descendant of the first settler, who was elected according to his or her knowledge of the history of the town and its boundaries. The earth priest was also responsible for solving internal land conflicts and acted as an ambassador to the neighboring town in case of intergroup land disputes. The elders worked with the earth priest to make sure that everybody got a fair share of land when needed. This system promoted fairness and stability of Bassar internal social institutions. The oldest member of the extended family solved problems within the family institution. However, when the problem involved other families, the headman was brought into finding the solution.

Furthermore, Bassar's economy was not only limited to smelting, smithing and charcoal production; it also consisted of potting, cattle raising and farming. Even today, Bassar is known to be one of the largest yam producing regions of Togo (Decalo 1996 63). It is also one of the major shea nut producing areas in central Togo, which contributes to the economy of the region.


De Barros, Philip Lynton. 2001. The effect of the slave trade on the Bassar ironworking society, Togo. In Christopher R. DeCorse (editor) West Africa during the Atlantic Slave trade: Archaeological Perspectives. New York: Leicester University Press.

Decalo, S. 1996. Historical Dictionary of Togo, 6th ed. (African Historical Dictionaries, No. 9). Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.

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