In the 1810s, the British Empire’s domain in Africa consisted of coastal enclaves on the continent’s west and south. Having previously profited off the Transatlantic Slave Trade, British officials of Sierra Leone and the Gold Coast (modern Ghana) were now tasked with controlling it while continuing to exploit the region. Their continued presence in the region was complicated by the African Company of Merchants, a corrupt consortium which discreetly continued the slave trade while expanding their interests, and dealing with local peoples like the Fanti and Ashanti who were powers in their own right.
The Ashanti Empire, the largest polity in western Africa, was the subject of both fascination and contempt by Europeans. Formed from a confederation of Akan tribes, the Ashanti provided the British and other Europeans with gold, ivory and slaves, while their military strength made them a formidable opponent. Their society revolved around trade, agriculture and gold, establishing an elaborate economy that enabled them to obtain autonomy from foreign nations and power over their neighbors.
While a crucial trading partner, Europeans spoke with horror of Ashanti “barbarism” and their customs. They were baffled, amused or repulsed by rituals like the Golden Stool that represented the King’s authority, mass executions of criminals and rebellious slaves (one Ashanti soldier boasted to an Englishman of executing eighty men before his 18th birthday) and even the elaborate Yam ceremony celebrating their yearly harvest. Certainly the Ashanti’s reputation as merciless warriors, spread by hostile subjects that sought help from the Europeans, did them no favors. One British envoy was offered a gift of two leopards and fifty young children as servants. He politely declined the latter.
Yet the Ashanti mastered a far more complex society than most Western imperialists allowed. They were ruled by a King (Asanteheni) who presided in a massive palace at the capital of Kumasi, described by Winwood Reade as “Moorish in its style … with a flat roof and a parapet, and suites of apartments on the first floor,” sitting under a massive umbrella and drinking wine as he greeted visitors. Such opulence came complete with slaves and concubines that white visitors frequently (if hypocritically) bemoaned. The city itself was subdivided into seventy-seven wards, with a thriving marketplace, “scrupulously clean” houses and government buildings made from clay, public garbage collection and even flush toilets.
Kumasi was merely the apex of a well-organized society. Even small villages usually had a main street and market square, far more elaborate than standard tribal hutments. Historian Robert Edgerton observes that “many a small English or American city of that time was less well-provisioned.” Besides a small police force that maintained internal order, the Army traded with Europeans for modern weapons to augment spears and swords, and even produced its own blunderbusses that, if less powerful than the standard British musket, were more than adequate for local warfare.
Further, the Empire was divided into administrative districts, allowing for an almost federalist degree of local autonomy. Although the monarchy was a hereditary position occupied by the Oyoko clan, the King was subject to a “rational, civilian-led bureaucratic state” as Edgerton explains. A council of eighteen elders advised, and could overrule the King, while village and district leaders were allowed a short leash. Further, meritocratic advancement within Ashanti bureaucracy ensured that commoners had say and influence in government. If not a free society by modern standards, neither could the Empire be dismissed as “savage” except by the most benighted racists.
The immediate source of conflict between the Ashanti and the British came with their rivalry with the Fanti Confederation. The Fanti had early on befriended the British, using their alliance to enhance their own territory at the expense of the Ashanti and their allies. The Ashanti initially sided with the Dutch, but as that country’s influence in the region waned found themselves alone. War broke out in 1806, when Ashanti King Osei Bonsu (“The Whale”) demanded that the Fanti return fugitive criminals. Despite British intervention, the Ashanti won the war and expanded their territory, ensuring future conflict with the Britain.
Over the next decade, the British and Ashanti skirmished and argued over the frontiers of their territory. The Ashanti prevented the British from pushing into the interior and captured Accra from the Fanti, but were stymied at the gates of Cape Coast, the colony’s central port. Armed with modern muskets and artillery, the British were too strong to dislodge. Osei Bonsu negotiated a series of treaties with the British, despite the resistance of the Company of Merchants. Joseph Dupuis, sent from London in 1818 to negotiate with the Ashanti efforts, found his negotiations undercut by “servants of a mercantile board.”
After Dupuis’ failure, Parliament stepped in to avert war. In 1821, after hearing testimony from Dupuis and Royal Navy officers attesting to their corruption, the Company was disbanded and the Gold Coast placed under Crown control. John Hope Smith, the Colony’s intransigent governor who antagonized Osei Bonsu by inviting him to conquer Cape Coast “in forty days, or in twenty, or as soon as he thought proper,” was sacked and replaced with Sir Charles MacCarthy, an Irish-born soldier of fortune. Unfortunately, London succeeded merely in replacing one troublemaker with another.
One historian pegs MacCarthy as “a decent, proud and stupid man” which isn’t entirely fair. A native of Cork and son of a Jacobite officer, he served in the French Army’s Irish Brigade, then transferred allegiances to the Dutch (being wounded in action against the French Republic) and the British. He served with some ability as the Governor of Sierra Leone, playing an active role in suppressing the slave trade, providing education and resettlement to freed slaves and negotiating treaties with local peoples. There was some reason to believe that, after the corrupt African Company of Merchants had been abolished, MacCarthy could turn the colony’s fortunes around.
Thus MacCarthy, a stocky, grizzled figure in a scarlet dress uniform, received a rapturous welcome in Cape Coast from the local merchants, who threw him a gala celebration and saluted him with cannon. But MacCarthy quickly fell under sway of the merchants, who had no interest in peaceuful coexistence. From the first he antagonized Osei Bonsu, refusing to notify the King of his appointment as Governor, then building up Cape Coast’s fortifications in defiance of the treaty. He also landed three companies of British regulars while organizing regiments of freed slaves and Gold Coast colonists. With such bellicosity, MacCarthy made war with the Ashanti inevitable.
The spark came in May 1822 when an African militia sergeant, after insulting the Ashanti King in a row with traders, was kidnapped by Ashanti warriors. Osei Bonsu, who believed that “the English [were] my friends, because I saw their object was trade only,” pardoned the Sergeant and ordered his release; one of his subordinates, however, disobeyed the order and executed the man. Governor MacCarthy responded by launching a punitive expedition into the bush, leading to a violent skirmish which left ten of his men dead. Osei Bonsu expressed apologies and a desire to negotiate; MacCarthy brushed him off, taunting that he hoped “to see how the Ashanti liked our balls.”
After a year and a half of skirmishes, MacCarthy received word in January 1824 that Ashanti warriors were marching on Cape Coast. In response, without consulting London, he declared war on the Ashanti and organized a massive force of nearly 6,000 men for a full-scale war. His force, a mixture of regulars, colonial troops, African levies and Fantis hostile to the Ashanti, was a ragtag bunch but were well-armed and led by competent officers. Unbeknownst to the British, the moderate Osei Bonsu had died weeks earlier; his successor, Osei Yaw, promised to “water the grave of [my] brother” with the blood of the British.
In face of this fearsome foe, the British commander made a series of elementary military mistakes. First, MacCarthy divided his main force into two columns, despite reports that Osei Bonsu could boast some 10,000 warriors, many armed with muskets bought from Gold Coast traders. Secondly, he insisted upon leading an advance column of about 500 (including British officers, African infantry, colonial officers and a full brass band) away from his main force. Outnumbered nearly 20-to-1, MacCarthy attempted to compensate with bluster and bombast, wearing a scarlet uniform and plume hat and ordering his band to play martial tunes.
On January 21st, the British could hear the sounds of war drums and blaring horns as the main Ashanti force, led by Osei Bonsu’s favorite general Amankwaita, approached. Encamping near the Pra River at the village of Nsamankow, MacCarthy executed a novel strategy: he ordered his band to play “God Save the Queen,” apparently thinking this would either scare the Ashanti or inspire them to defect. Neither occurred: instead, Amankwaita’s warriors responded by doubling their own music. A desultory battle of the bands occurred over the next hour, until the Ashanti finally tired of this game and closed for combat.
Heavily outnumbered, MacCarthy’s force had one major advantage. Their encampment overlooked a large stream which was in flood, and shot down dozens of Ashanti warriors as they attempted to ford the river. Amankwaita deployed sharpshooters to pin down the British while his warriors worked to fell trees as a makeshift bridge. Unfortunately for the Ashanti, this tactic only left their men more vulnerable. For a brief time, the battle seemed to justify MacCarthy’s confidence.
Until, after about an hour, his men started running low on ammunition. MacCarthy had only outfitted the main body of his men with twenty rounds each; the shooting gallery on the Pra caused them to expend their ammunition quickly. The Ashanti could absorb these casualties, dreadful though they were, and one of Amankwaita’s captains soon found a ford which allowed them to cross the stream more or less dry shod, flanking the British. The black powder from the British muskets further hindered visibility even as their fire slackened.
Now MacCarthy relied on his commissary officer, a Mr. Brandon from Cape Coast, who failed him in every conceivable way. First, he dashed forward with only a handful of bearers, mostly Fanti. The bearers he’d left behind, not wanting to get caught in a losing battle, dropped their bundles and fled, leaving valuable ammunition behind in the forest. MacCarthy was already on the verge of hanging Brandon when his men broke up the few crates that he had brought forward. To the Governor’s bafflement, the ammunition boxes were carefully packed with hundreds of shells of macaroni pasta.
Within minutes of this discovery, the battle was decided. The Ashanti finally managed to cross the river in numbers; most of the Fanti and African troops fled at their approach, only to be cut down by their opponents. MacCarthy and his immediate entourage continued fighting in desperate, hand-to-hand combat, but were swiftly overwhelmed. MacCarthy himself fought with sword and pistol until a spear thrust broke his arm; a soldier blocked a second, potentially killing blow with his chest. Badly wounded and anxious to avoid capture, MacCarthy loaded his pistol and shot himself in the head.
In this misbegotten battle 186 of MacCarthy’s column died, along with an unknown number of Ashanti. A handful of British officers were taken captive, but most were executed soon afterwards. MacCarthy himself, in a grim detail much obsessed over by Victorians, was beheaded and his heart eaten by the Ashanti; his skull was decorated with gold and used as a fetish by Osei Yaw. Gruesome to European eyes, these actions were a mark of respect: Osei Yaw paid tribute to MacCarthy’s courage by keeping his skull alongside that of Osei Bonsu. If MacCarthy failed as a diplomat and a general, at least he had died a soldier’s death.
Osei Yaw’s warriors soon menaced Cape Coast, but an outbreak of disease and continued resistance from the Fanti forced him to pull back after a desultory siege. Still, fighting continued for years, with attacks on Accra and other cities; one Ashanti taunted that “the white men bring cannon to the bush, but the bush is stronger than the cannon.” This was true enough, though the cannon (and Congreve rockets) were effective in fighting outside Accra where in 1826 the Ashantis were slaughtered in droves. Still, the war MacCarthy initiated dragged on desultorily until 1831, after which a fractious peace recognized the Pra as a national boundary.
Despite Britain’s continued expansion, it took four more wars and 72 years until the Ashanti finally surrendered. In 1873 Sir Garnet Wolseley, Victorian England’s imperial troubleshooter, launched a brutal campaign “leaving our mark of victory stamped in the country” with burned villages, plundered cities and thousands of dead Ashanti. Despite Wolseley’s assurances that the Ashanti, led by King Kofi Karikari (mockingly called “King Coffee” by the British), wouldn’t dare fight against white soldiers, they fought with desperate courage. But Wolseley, that most scientific of soldiers, equipped his men with breach-loading rifles, artillery and Gatling guns that made bloody work of the Ashanti.
Wolseley’s campaign mingled savagery and tropical morass: the British suffered heavy losses to animal attacks and disease, with Wolseley himself suffering from malaria throughout the expedition. Surprisingly, amidst the fighting were fleeting moments of chivalry. One of Wolseley’s staff officers, encountering a wounded Ashanti being tormented by Hausa recruits, saved the Ashanti’s life by punching one of the Hausa in the head. Similarly, a wounded Englishman was being beheaded by an Ashanti when an Ashanti officer, who recognized him from a friendly prewar acquaintance, intervened to rescue him.
Individual gallantry did not prevent the British from destroying Kumasi with explosives, or leveling an indemnity on the humiliated King Kofi. Nor did even this war, or a succession of conflicts between Kofi’s successors, end hostility between the two empires. A short-lived rebellion in 1895 resulted in King Prempeh’s exile to the Seychelles and the desecration of the royal family’s graves. When a British envoy insisted upon sitting on the Golden Stool in 1900, he triggered a two year war that cost thousands more lives. Defeated Ashanti leaders were forced to humiliate themselves by kissing the feet of their conquerors; but they retained control of their Golden Stool.
In the 1930s the British granted the Ashanti conditional autonomy within the Empire. Today 11 million Ashanti live in Ghana, forming its largest distinct ethnic group. While many African nations resisted European rule, few did so long as long or successfully as the Ashanti, who taught the British that it takes more than prejudice, puffery and pasta to conquer a proud people.
Note: This article draws mostly upon Robert B. Edgerton, The Fall of the Asante Empire: The Hundred Year War for Africa’s Gold Coast (1995).