First Ashanti War, 1823

The British presence on the Gold Coast in modern-day Ghana resulted in several armed conflicts with the powerful inland Ashanti (or Asante) empire in the 19th century over control of the coastal Fanti (or Fante) tribe who lived in close proximity to the British fort at Elmina.  In 1823, British commander Sir Charles MacCarthy had refused to accept Ashanti claims to Fanti areas of the coast and marched a force through the jungle in an effort to defeat the Ashanti in their capital city of Kumasi (or Coomasie); he was defeated, executed, and his decapitated head was put on display by the Ashanti emperor. Emboldened by their victory, the Ashanti marched to the coast where they met and defeated superior numbers of British troops in open battle. Ultimately however, disease and new innovations in British cannon fire drove the Ashanti back behind the Pra River in 1831, where they settled a truce with the British which would last for thirty years.

Ashanti War

“Defeat of the Ashantees,” July 1824

Sir C. McCarthy to Earl Bathurst, Cape Coast Castle, 18 May 1822 Top

Source: G.E. Metcalfe. 1964. Great Britain and Ghana: Documents of Ghana History 1807-1957. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd.

[Since the death of Governor Daendels, in 1818, the Dutch have reduced their Gold Coast establishments, now keeping up only Elmina and Axim]…

General Daendels…fomented the hatred of the King of Ashantee against the British merchants of the coast, and the two embassies of Messrs. Bowdich and Dupuis did not remove the strong prejudice of that chief. [Especially harmful was was] the imbecility of the measure of the latter (Mr. Dupuis) who, in opposition to the evident policy of declaring the natives living immediately under the protection of the forts entitled to our support and not liable to the endless claims and impositions of the King, gave them up en masse as subjects of the Ashantees, conceiving that he had done a great deal by the declaration of the King and his oath of allegiance, which he never understood and none of his subjects would have dared to explain to him.

At present, however, as the Ashantee King is not so violent against the English in general, but merely reserves his hatred against this castle and people of Cape Coast, he permits his subjects to carry on their trade to Annamaboe and Accra, and these two places derive perhaps a larger share of the profits than even Elmina. He has strictly forbidden them to deal with our people at Cape Coast, and though they frequently take his path as the shortest cut to and from Elmina, our merchants have not been able to remove the injunction against them.

Some messengers with an insolent message to the late governor were here in January last. They wanted him to swear that they were the good friends of the Kings. They were sent back to settle their palaver on my arrival but have not returned, nor have I received any message.

From the circumstance of the Dutch not deriving any benefit from the trade on this coast and the whole advantage being engrossed by Americans, who pay no duties, it has been supposed that the Government of the Netherlands were disposed to sell or exchange their African possessions, and the Americans have spread the report of their Government being negotiating for that purpose…. Although Elmina and Axim in the hands of the government of the Netherlands is not very prejudicial to our commerce, I have no doubt they would prove highly so if occupied by the Americans. The fortress of Elmina and its situation near a river which, though small, allows of the entrance of boats and canoes at all times of the year, and of the repairs of small craft, is itself superior to all our establishments… [The Dutch still supply canoes to slavers.]

With regard to Danish Accra (Christiansborg), I am satisfied from its present state and, indeed, from what I understood from Count B[ourke] … the Danish ambassador in Paris … that the Danish Government are disposed to give it to any Power that will take charge of it. In our hands it would become of importance, the fortress being much superior to our Accra…. The Dances keep their pretensions to some forts on the Volta. With that acquisition, and abandoning British Accra, – the Dutch fort being in ruins and the flag left to the charge of a black soldier, – a considerable extent of commerce would be obtained, and all ideas of traffic in slaves given up …. In the hands of the Americans, Christiansborg might become very troublesome.


Major Chisholm to Sir Charles MacCarthy, Cape Coast Castle, 30 September, 1823 Top

Source: G.E. Metcalfe. 1964. Great Britain and Ghana: Documents of Ghana History 1807-1957. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd.

Sir,

I am extremely concerned to have to report to you that the serjeant stationed at Annamaboe was seized on the 16th ultimo by a party of Fantees at the instigation of the King of the Ashantee, and brought to the principal town, Abrah, in the Fantee country, where he was confined in irons and placed at the disposal of an Ashantee chief.

I received a report of the occurrence from ensign Erskine on the following morning, but understanding that there was a large body of armed men at Abrah, I did not think it prudent to attempt a rescue. Nothing, therefore, remained to be done but to endeavour to procure his liberation by negotiation, and as I considered Mr. Williams, the Colonial Secretary, the best qualified person to conduct one, I dispatched him immediately to Annamaboe. My orders to him were, to convene the town’s people in the public hall, and to demand from them a full disclosure of whatever they knew of the views by which the Ashantees were actuated in their violent proceedings towards the serjeant; to select one of the most respectable inhabitants to be sent to Abrah to treat in my name with the authorities at that place for the serjeant’s release, and to give him instructions to the following effect – viz:

To state to the Ashantee chief and Fante caboceers that he was sent by me to learn their reasons for committing so unjustifiable an act of aggression as the seizure of the serjeant:

To represent to them that he (the serjeant) was a subject of the King of England and was consequently amenable to the laws of that country only, and, therefore, that any complaints they might have to prefer against him ought to have been addressed to me:

To demand his immediate release, and to assure them that in the event of his being permitted to return to Annamaboe, I should be most ready (as I had always been) to listen to any complaints they might have to make, and to give them every justice.

Lastly, to say that if my communication was disregarded, I could not look on the proceedings in any other light than as a declaration of war against the King of England, and that under that impression I should keep in custody nine Ashantees who were secured by the officer commanding at Annamaboe on his hearing of the serjeant’s detention.

In addition to this public action, I recommended to Mr. Williams to endeavour to interest the messenger to get information on other points by means of any influence he might possess amongst the Fantees, and as an inducement to act zealously, I authorised him to promise a reward proportionate to the advantages he should derive from any discovery he might make.

I was told by the linguist and others, that a messenger from Elmina had declared to the King of Ashantee that it was your intention, with the assistance of the Fantees, to destroy Coomassie, and that the attack was to be made on your return from Sierra Leone with troops. He stated that you had been refused aid by the Dutch with the expected reinforcement. And it also appearing, from conversations I had with some of the merchants, that the purchases of ammunition made by the Ashantees during the previous three or four weeks were unusually great, I thought an attack was mediated, and, supposing they would esteem Accra our weakest post, from its great distance from the other settlements, the decayed state of the fort and the smallness of its garrison, I calculated on their attempting its conquest first, and therefore directed Captain Blenkarne to make every possible preparation for its defence.

Mr. Williams reported on his arrival from Annamaboe that my message had been delivered to the Ashantee chief and Fantee caboceers, and that the former had declined to restore the serjeant to me, observing that he was given into his hands by the Fantees for the purpose of being sent to Coomassie and that he would forfeit his existence by disposing of him otherwise. He hinted that he thought it probable I would wish to send a person to intercede with the King, and gave it out to be his intention to defer his departure for three or four days to enable him to join his party.

The Fantees told the messenger that they had apprehended the serjeant solely to avert a severe chastisement the King of Ashantee threatened to inflict on them because an obnoxious and forbidden expression had been used during an inquiry into a dispute between the serjeant and an Ashantee trader, in May last. the stated to him that the King considered the serjeant his subject, having ascertained that he was born in the Fantee country, and that the circumstance of his being in the British service could not screen him from punishment as the very ground upon which our forts stood belonged to the King and our jurisdiction in them was merely by sufferance. They would not permit him to see the serjeant and he was too narrowly…. [last line on page 78]…

He saw at Abrah representatives from the Elminas, Accras, Wassaws, Assins and some other states tributary to Ashantee. The caboceers of Annamaboe were invited to join the, but they had declined doing so. It was understood that this assembly was convened to receive the commands of the King on various important points. One was said to be a demand of an additional tribute, and an alteration in the mode of payment. The slave trade was at its height when these states were brought under the Ashantee yoke, and the taxes imposed on them were receivable in slaves. The great reduction in the value of human beings ad the want of purchasers for them of late years, have determined the King not to take them in payment hereafter. He requires gold or European goods in their stead, and as the quantities fixed by him are unreasonable in the extreme, the people have no hopes of being able to pay them, and consequently cannot be prevailed upon to accede to the proposed change. The chiefs have not yet dispersed, and the serjeant still continues at Abrah. Numerous reasons are assigned for his not being sent to Coomassie, but they are too contradictory and inconsistent to be worthy of credit. It was rumoured throughout the country until last week that his case had been inquired into by the chief and that a favourable report having been made to the King, he had ordered him to be liberated, and that as soon as some matters under discussion at Abrah should be settled, he would be brought to Annamaboe or here. A subsequent account made it appear that a day was fixed for the purpose, but that a difference of opinion arose as to who (whether Ashantee or Fantees) should accompany him; the Ashantee being understood to entertain an idea that he would be arrested and detained, I thought it right to set his mind at ease on that point, and a promise of security was given.

Late events fully convince me that the […..last line on page 78….] use every means in his power to injure the British establishments. I have been informed by a number of persons, some of whom are on intimate terms and in close correspondence with men of consideration at Coomassie, that he purposes attacking the town, and that, on the return of a part of his army employed on the banks of the Volta in subduing a small state which has revolted, the necessary dispositions will be made. A message he sent to the caboceers at Annamaboe on the 24th instant gives a countenance similar to these reports. He required them to declare whether they considered themselves his subjects or were disposed to take part with the Cape Coast people against him, and signified to them that the most acceptable proof of their fidelity would be their uniting themselves to the chiefs at Abrah. This they declined to do, and as their answer to the question respecting the people of this town was evasive, they expect nothing short of the severest vengeance at his hands.

I learn his preent enmity proceeds from his not having received a present at thechange of government similar to that given him by Mr. Dupuis on his arrival at his court as British consul. The homage paid to him by the late Compant, and the uncontrolled authority they allowed him to exercise in their possessions, even to the extent of levying excessive fines in the towns protected by this and other forts, have given him a very unfavourable opinion of our national character. The immense presents he has at different times received, and the readiness with which mr. Dupuis made an addition to his annual stipend and yielded several other important points, has led him to imagine that the commerce which he controls is absolutely necessary to our existence as a nation, and that we will ultimately concede dignity and every other consideration for the advantage of participating in it. His Conduct to the Dutch who really have not either the means or inclination to make presents [….last line on page 79….] most effectual means to remove this impression would be to appear very indifferent as to his views, I have not adopted the measures which, under other circumstances I would have pursued, to get the serjeant back. There is no necessity for immediate interference in his behalf, as I am assured his life is in no danger.

You were here when the dispute at Annamaboe occurred and the particulars were made known to you by Mr. James Swanzy, but so ridiculous and unworthy of consideration must they have appeared to you that I conclude they have long ere this escaped your recollection, and I therefore proceed to detail them. The Ashantee trader, having got into an altercation with some person in Annamaboe fort, and the noise he made being very great, the serjeant desired him to be more ruly, observing that he was instructed by his master (meaning the officer) to preserve order and tranquility, and that he could not permit him to violate these orders. The Ashantee immediately damned his (the serjeant’s) master and said he did not care whether he was pleased or otherwise. The serjeant retorted in the same language, and his words being understood to apply to the King of Ashantee, the matter was made known to two of his captains then at Annamaboe. Mr. Swanzy heard of the affair and he caused it to be signified to the captains that a regular investigation would take place on the following day. They intimated it to be their intention to assist at the inquiry and accordingly attended at the appointed hour. The statements on both sides having been heard, the Ashantee was declared by all parties to be in fault, and being greatly irritated at the decision, he swore by the terms ‘Cormantine and Saturday’ that the serjeant was guilty to the extent he had asserted. The Ashantee chiefs, as if terror-struck by these expressions, declined to interfere further, saying that none but their King could now settle the business.


Sir C. McCarthy to Earl Bathurst, Cape Coast Castle, 7 April 1823 Top

Source: G.E. Metcalfe. 1964. Great Britain and Ghana: Documents of Ghana History 1807-1957. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd.

…Having ascertained that the intentions of the chief of the Ashantees were to follow up the murder which he had ordered to be committed on a sergeant of the Royal African Colonial Light Infantry, by sending messengers not only to the whole of the Fantees, Accras, and Winnebahs and other native chiefs, but even to those residing under the protection of the British forts, for the purpose of persuading them to take his ‘fetish’ (a supposedly indissoluble charm, which binds the person who drinks it to the interest of the giver); having further ascertained that his messengers had actually been for some days at Agar, a small native town within less than two miles of, and depending upon Annomaboe, … that they had held conferences with the chiefs and attempted to frighten them into a coalition against us, holding forth the murder committed on the unfortunate sergeant as a proof of the irresistible power of their chief who could soon destroy the British forts, that we were defenceless and therefore unable to protect them or ourselves: I deemed it my duty, in order to support in this part of Africa the undisputed character for honour and courage our country has for so many years maintained in Europe and elsewhere, not to delay any longer to carry into effect the only measures left to me.

It was not in my power to prevent the commission of a crime, but I was satisfied that if I could, by sending a military force to Dunquah, make prisoners of those Ashantees caboceers who had been the principal instruments in the whole transaction, it would give an example as would prevent a similar occurrence…. [The expedition nearly miscarried, owing to the doubtful behaviour of the guides, but, after a stiff action, the Ashantees were put to flight.]

Being the first enterprise of that nature by British soldiers it has had the happiest effects. It has dispelled the terror of the Fantee and other native tribes, who had, for several years, been held under the most abject state of oppression by the Ashantees and, in hopeless despair, considered them as invincible. Those very Fantees who … were compelled … to fight with the Ashantees at Dunquah, have seen those caboceers who had been foremost in tyranny and crime run away from the fire, and (although possessing every advantage of ground) leave … the Fantees and the lower class of Ashantees to bear the brunt of the action.

From that period to the present, not a day has elapsed without the arrival of messengers from all the native chiefs residing near the water-side as far down as Accra, requesting to be sworn on white man’s book (the bible) that they would fight with us … [against] the Ashantees. Those Fantee chiefs who live near Dunquah and Abrah, being more exposed to an attack from the Ashantees, have also either come in person or sent confidential men to assure me that I had their best wishes. They have, however, been more reserved in their expressions, two of them being desirous, if possible, to stand neutral, whilst the others have declared that if the Ashantees should march towards the coast, they would instantly join our forces at Annamaboe.

The Ashantees retired to Coomassie, and their chief, after uttering the most extravagant expressions of rage, and declaring, with repeated oaths to his captains, that he would kill every white and black man at Cape Coast and Annamaboe, he despatched messengers in all directions to claim the aid of the different chiefs. Those who came to Dunquah were received with great coldness by the Fantees, who advised the king to make up his difference, as they knew that he was wrong. Those sent to the English, Dutch and Danish Accras met with a worse reception. The caboceers told them that the king, who was pleased to call them his friends, had begun the war without their advice, that they wish him to sue for peace, and that, until his palaver with the English was made up, they would not permit any Ashantees to come to the Accras for the purpose of trade, or to purchase arms and powder. They have sent to me to say that when I fired they would fire.

I have reason to believe that, although the commandant of Elmina states, in a letter to me, that he is desirous to maintain a neutrality between us and the Ashantees, yet he avails himself, as the principal merchant of that fort, of what he considers a favourable opportunity to dispose of his powder and muskets.

With regard to the intended operations of the Ashantees, I have, at present, no means to give your Lordship a well-grounded opinion. It appears evident that though they have been blustering and threatening our forts, without any just cause, since last August, they were not prepared for war, but depended solely upon the terror of their name to bring us to seek a compromise, and, I suppose, to extort from the native people under our fort, as they had done in the year 1809, under some false pretence, a contribution of six hundred ounces of gold (£2,400)….I do not suppose they can move before what they term their Christmas (August).

Finding myself in a situation of extreme difficulty, having no option left between seeking to make peace with a ruffian who had committed an atrocious act, or to show to him and all the other African chiefs, that we would not leave such a deed unpunished, I preferred the last, in the persuasion that it would meet with our most gracious sovereign’s approbation.

It is not unknown to your Lordship, that during the longer period I have been employed on the coast of Africa (from 1812) it has been my most anxious desire to promote the civilisation and happiness of the people by persuading them to be at peace, encouraging them to agriculture and commerce, and, above other measures, impressing upon their minds the advantages they would acquire by embracing Christianity. The present case appeared to demand, with the same views a different conduct, and by chastisement to render the commission of crime hideous in their eyes. I scarcely need to mention that I shall embrace, with great pleasure, every opportunity which may lead to an honourable peace, and that I have declared so to all those chiefs who may make it known to the Ashantees….


The Oath-Taking at Nyankumasi Top

Source: G.E. Metcalfe. 1964. Great Britain and Ghana: Documents of Ghana History 1807-1957. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd.


The whole of the native chiefs who joined…against the Ashantees were not satisfied until they had evinced their sincerity by swearing allegiance in their fashion, as follows. The person about to swear took a sword in his right hand and with great animation, whilst expressing his determination, called heaven to witness that he would be faithful to the cause, continually putting the sword upwards at the Governor’s head, and flourishing it round his own, so near at times that His Excellency’s eyes were frequently in imminent danger. The would also swing on […last line on page 88 …] consent to join the war against the Ashantees, Sir Charles was obliged to assure them that he would never make peace with that tribe without acquainting them with his intentions, and that their interest would ever be considered.The reason which they gave for this stipulation was that … in 1807 … [the Asin fugitives] arrived at Cape Coast, expecting to find protection, but on the contrary the governor, colonel Torrane, seized Chebboo their king, an old, infirm and blind man, and delivered him over to the Ashantees … at Annamaboe, where he was put to death with the most excruciating torture. Those of his people who had remained at Cape Coast … were taken prisoner, … lingered out a painful existence in the dungeons of the castle, many of them died, and the few that remained were brought to the hammer and sold as slaves to the best bidder. At Annamaboe, the treatment of the natives was equally dreadful. Even those who had found protection in the fort were claimed by Colonel Torrane, on the pretence that the king of Ashantee had made a present of them to him, and many of them were actually sold and put on board of slave vessels….

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