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Anglo-Ashanti War of 1822-1831

During most of the nineteenth century, Asante, the most powerful state of the Akan interior, sought to expand its rule and to promote and protect its trade. The first Asante invasion of the coastal regions took place in 1807; the Asante moved south again in 1811 and in 1814. These invasions, though not decisive, disrupted trade in such products as gold, timber, and palm oil, and threatened the security of the European forts. Local British, Dutch, and Danish authorities were all forced to come to terms with Asante, and in 1817 the African Company of Merchants signed a treaty of friendship that recognized Asante claims to sovereignty over large areas of the coast and its peoples.

The West African intertribal wars partook of the character of raids rather than invasions, and assumed the more serious aspect of persistent campaigns only after continued occupation or repeated incursions into the territory attacked. The beginning was made with reckless promptitude and unthinking haste, and upon this first venture depended the success or defeat of the impudent aggressor. But the same course of conduct was not pursued in the case of complications with European Powers, before whose superior strength, the Africans shrank instinctively, putting forth the while its cunning and snake-like characteristics, and feeling its way softly and coilingly at every approach.

And not unfrequently has it happened, that after thus pushing forward slowly but surely in furtherance of some deep laid scheme of aggression, an accidental obstacle or unconscious move by the devoted quarry has opportunely turned aside and even absolutely prevented a nearer advance.

It was not pleasant for those who were responsible for the lives and property of merchants and other settlers in West Africa to be thus perpetually suspicious of the native chiefs in their neighborhood, nor was it a satisfactory state of things to contemplate by those who lived at home at ease in the latter portion of the 19th century. But until the philanthropist, the missionary, the merchant and the soldier, had united to bring about a thorough change of habits, occupation, and even disposition in the African constitution, one may despond indeed.

Prior to the mid-seventeenth century, several Asante leaders, one of them Oti Akenten (r. ca. 1630-60), embarked on a program of military expansion that enabled the Asante to dominate surrounding groups, establish the most powerful state in the central forest zone, and form an alliance with neighboring states known as the Asante confederation.

In the late seventeenth century, Osei Tutu (d. 1712 or 1717) became asantehene (king of Asante). During his reign, the Asante confederation destroyed the influence of Denkyira, which had been the strongest state in the coastal hinterland and which had been exacting tribute from most of the other Akan groups in the central forest. Asante authorities then moved the confederation's capital to Kumasi and continued their policy of military expansion. During one southern expedition, rebels ambushed and killed Osei Tutu and most of his generals.

The Asante confederation, which allowed newly conquered territories to retain their customs and chiefs, survived this catastrophe and continued to expand its boundaries, in the process transforming itself into an empire. Under succeeding leaders, Asante armies extended the empire's frontier southward. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Asante governed a territory as large as modern-day Ghana and were challenging the Fante states for control of the coast, where European traders had established a network of posts and fortifications.

The rapid growth of the Asante empire aroused the suspicions of the Fante, who believed that the Asante sought to subjugate the coastal states. Asante-Fante relations, therefore, remained hostile for most of the second half of the eighteenth century. Specific problems between the two Akan states included the Fante refusal to allow Asante traders direct access to the coast; a Fante law that prohibited the sale of firearms and ammunition to the Asante army; Fante support of Denkyira, Akyem, and other states in their revolts against Asante authority; and the Fante practice of granting sanctuary to refugees from the Asante empire. To resolve these problems, the Asante launched three successful military expeditions (in 1807, 1811, and 1816) against the Fante and by 1820 had become the strongest power in West Africa.

The Asante army, which achieved these and numerous other victories, relied on troops mobilized for specific campaigns rather than on a standing, professional force. Evasion of military service was punishable by death. The army, which lacked cavalry, possessed superior infantry comprising musketeers, bowmen, and spearsmen. The armed force also included scouts (akwansrafo); an advance guard (twafo); a main force (adonten); the king's personal bodyguard (gyase); a rear guard (kyidom); and two wings, the left (benkum) and the right {nifa). Additionally, the Asante army had a medical corps (esumankwafo) that treated the army's wounded and removed the dead from the battlefield.

The Asante army's success against the Fante, coupled with the Asante's determination to preserve their empire, posed a threat to the British, who also wanted to control the coast for strategic, political, and economic reasons. Britain's commitment to stopping the slave trade made it impossible for the British to maintain good relations with the Asante, who, by 1820, had become the main source of slaves on the coast. Many British policy makers believed, moreover, that it was their duty to promote Christianity and Western civilization. Some British merchants also believed that if Asante power could be destroyed, a vast market would be opened to them.

The coastal people, primarily some of the Fante and the inhabitants of the new town of Accra, who were chiefly Ga, came to rely on British protection against Asante incursions, but the ability of the merchant companies to provide this security was limited. The British Crown dissolved the company in 1821, giving authority over British forts on the Gold Coast to Governor Charles MacCarthy, governor of Sierra Leone. The British forts and Sierra Leone remained under common administration for the first half of the century. MacCarthy's mandate was to impose peace and to end the slave trade. He sought to do this by encouraging the coastal peoples to oppose Kumasi rule and by closing the great roads to the coast. Incidents and sporadic warfare continued, however.

When the British government allowed control of the Gold Coast settlements to revert to the British African Company of Merchants in the late 1820s, relations with Asante were still problematic. From the Asante point of view, the British had failed to control the activities of their local coastal allies. Had this been done, Asante might not have found it necessary to attempt to impose peace on the coastal peoples.

After the Asante executed a Fante soldier who served in a British garrison for insulting their king, the British launched a military expedition against a 10,000-member Asante force near the village of Bonsaso. Given the differences between the British and the Asante, a military clash between them was inevitable. MacCarthy's encouragement of coastal opposition to Asante and the subsequent 1824 British military attack further indicated to Asante authorities that the Europeans, especially the British, did not respect Asante.

The Asante not only outnumbered the British but also used superior tactics. The fighting, which began on January 22, 1824, initially favored the Asante, who encircled the British force. The British forces were lightly supplied; the bearers bringing the supplies up in the rear, which included most of the gunpowder and ammunition, mostly fled after hearing the firing in the distance and encountering deserters straggling back. Governor Charles MacCarthy was killed, and most of his force was wiped out in the battle with Asante forces. His heart was eaten that they might imbibe his valour, and his dried flesh and bones divided among his conquerors as charms. McCarthy's gold-rimmed skull was later used as a drinking-cup by the Ashanti rulers.

Eventually, however, the British drove the Asante back to Kumasi. After reorganizing and re-equipping, the Asante in 1826 again invaded the coast, attacking the British and their allies. An Asante invasion of the coast in 1826 was defeated by British and local forces, including the Fante and the people of Accra. During the fighting on the open plains of Accra, the British used Congreve rockets, which frightened Asante warriors who believed the enemy was using thunder and lightning against them. The Asante panicked and fled to Kumasi.

According to a peace treaty concluded in 1831, the asantehene recognized the independence of the coastal states and agreed to refer all future disputes to the British for adjudication. In exchange, the coastal states promised to allow the Asante to engage in legal trade on the coast and to respect the asantehene. During much of the following two decades, Captain George Maclean, president of a local council of British merchants, used tact and diplomacy to enforce the peace treaty.

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Page last modified: 16-03-2017 19:04:30 ZULU