Clash of Empires: The Anglo-Ashanti Wars

Oliver Webb-Carter

The decision by the V&A and BM to return items of interest to Ghana has brought to light a series of conflicts during the 19th century.
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The Anglo-Ashanti Wars

The news that both the British Museum and the V&A are to return a number of artefacts ‘acquired’ from the Ashanti, the people native to the northern part of modern day Ghana, is of great interest to me. Throughout the 19th century the Ashanti Empire proved to be a stubborn adversary for the increasingly resource hungry British Empire, and war first broke out between the two as early as 1823. There had been much bad blood before that, with European rivals the Dutch taking the Ashanti side in the war with the Fante, a confederacy of states supported by Britain. Of course historically the reason for British interest in the area was economic, as both gold and slaves were abundant. With the 1807 act restricting the trade, and the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 banning the practice, so came the enforcement of British values.

The first Anglo- Ashanti War saw the coastal Fante join Brigadier Charles McCarthy’s Royal African Colonial Corps to limit Ashanti raids on British interests on the Gold Coast including the kidnap and murder of British troops. In employing the strategy of dividing his force into columns, to be repeated in disastrous fashion by Lord Chelmsford against the Zulu exactly 50 years later, McCarthy’s 500 strong army was annihilated by a superior force of 10,000 at the Battle of Nsamankow on the 22nd January 1824. In what reads like a precursor to Isandlwana, the supply of ammunition was a problem for those in the British lines, as the quartermaster mistakenly sent food instead of bullets. When all was hopeless, McCarthy killed himself, but that’s not the last we see of him. His skull was retained by the Ashanti, converted into a drinking vessel, and festooned with gold decoration. Happily, in a move pre-empting the V&A’s kindness, this item was returned in 1829 and now lies at St. Saviour’s in Dartmouth.

After an inconclusive, and frankly small-scale, Second Anglo-Ashanti War was fought over breaches of agreed boundaries, the two empires clashed again between 1873 and 1874 when the Ashanti invaded the Gold Coast once again. This time the British Army arrived with a number of Victorian era celebrities including its commander, General Garnet Wolseley, along with explorer Henry Stanley (he of ‘Dr. Livingstone I presume?’ fame) and the writer G.A.Henty. This time the British had more success, and after two conclusive victories, the Ashanti signed a peace treaty which included the requirement to provide 50,000 ounces of gold (to make up for the Crown’s expenses) and to end the practice of human sacrifice. One unfortunate casualty of the Ashanti was Chief Amankwatia, killed at the Battle of Amoaful, a well regarded general who earned the following epitaph from Wolsley, ‘Admirable skill was shown in the position selected by Amanquatia [sic], and the determination and generalship he displayed in the defence, fully bore out his reputation as an able tactician and gallant soldier.’

Garnet Wolsleley in 1859. Victorian moustache rating: 4/5

The fourth war took place over a few months beginning in December 1895. The Ashanti had rather disappointingly refused an offer to become a protectorate of the Empire. Despite proposed trade concessions, the British, fearful of negotiations with the ever-detested French, decided enough was enough and moved into Ashanti territory, ostensibly to end slavery, but gold deposits had provided an additional motivating factor. The invasion was a success, and resulted in the dismantling of the Ashanti royal family, however one fly in the ointment for Queen Victoria was the loss of her son-in-law Prince Henry of Battenberg to disease. Amusingly a senior participant of the expedition was Robert Baden-Powell, later founder and Chief Scout of the Scout Movement; but the Scout story does not end there as King Prempeh I, after his exile to the Seychelles, returned as Chief Scout of the Gold Coast – quite the promotion.

Old habits die hard and a fifth broke out in almost farcical circumstances. At the very least the name deserves to be remembered alongside the War of Jenkins’ Ear as among the most ludicrous in history. The War of the Golden Stool began in 1900 when a bungling colonial administrator, Frederick Hodgson, had illusions of grandeur and decided he should sit on the aforementioned furniture, revered by the Ashanti not only as a symbol of power, but also of spiritual importance. This arrogant display of idiocy by yet another Brit abroad led to full scale war and more than 3,000 casualties on both sides but defeat once again for the Ashanti, who this time were now finally absorbed into the Empire.

On the 6th March 1957 the new country of Ghana emerged from the Ashanti, Gold Coast, Togoland and Northern Territories as an independent nation, and in 1960 declared a republic. The items on their way back to Kumasi include a Mpomponsou sword and ceremonial cap, which to my mind is the very least we can do after Hodgson’s behaviour. These pieces had originally been requested for return by King Opoku Ware II in 1974. The British Museum itself is currently in the doghouse. Unable to correctly catalogue many of its pieces after the discovery of serious theft, the retention of the Parthenon Marbles is more painful by the day, and Greece, one of our oldest allies, first made representations for their homecoming in 1836 – and to my knowledge had no involvement in the slave trade whatsoever. One hopes common sense will prevail.

Oliver Webb-Carter is the Editor of Aspects of History. Book recommendation for the period: Victoria’s Wars, by Saul David.