Third Ashanti War, 1873

Violence between the Ashanti empire and the British colonial forces on Africa’s Gold Coast had been largely subdued since the First Ashanti War ended in 1831, with a brief flare-up in 1863. Two events precipitated the third clash from 1873-1874, also known as the Sargenti War. In 1869, a group of European missionaries, including Germans and Swiss, were taken captive by the Ashanti who demanded ransom for them from the locally stationed British forces. In 1871, the Dutch sold their territories and trade interests on the Gold Coast to the British, including the fort at Cape Coast castle and neighboring port of Elmina which had historically been claimed as Ashanti territory. The Ashanti king, Kofi Karlkari soon thereafter led an invasion of Elmina. Thanks to the introduction of the steamship and telegraph, the conflict was one of the earliest examples of war correspondence and embedded journalism. The British commander, General Wolseley, quickly became a household name in England thanks to reporting in publications such as The London Gazette and The Graphic. Wolseley succeeded in pushing the Ashanti forces back, and early in 1873 led the colonial force, which including British, Fanti, and West Indian troops, into the Ashanti capital at Kumasi. The King Kofi Karlkari signed a harsh peace treaty in  July of 1874 which revoked Ashanti claims to Elmina and required a large tribute of gold to reimburse the Crown for its expenses in fighting the war. The Ashanti king was forced into abdication shortly after. Two more major conflicts would erupt in the next 30 years, in 1895 and 1900, before the Ashanti empire was finally incorporated into the British Gold Coast colony.


Illustration of a bush fight published in The Graphic, 1874

King Kofi Kalkaree’s letter to Governor Harley, 20 March 1873 Top

Source: G.E. Metcalfe. 1964. Great Britain and Ghana: Documents of Ghana History, 1807-1957. Edinburgh: Nelson for the University of Ghana.

…His Majesty states that he, being the grandson of Ossai Tutu, he owns the Elminas to be his relatives, and consequently the fort at Elmina and its dependencies being his, he could not understand the Administrator-in-Chief’s sending Attah, alias Mr. H Plange, to tell him of his having taken possession of them for Quake Fram, and notifying him also that in four months he, the Administrator, would come to Ashantee to take away power from him.

He states that he has been made angry by this, and it was this which led to his sending his great captains and forces to bring him Quake Fram of Denkerah, who dares to take his Elmina for etc., and also the Assins and Akims who are his own slaves, and who have united with the Denkerahs to take power from him.

His Majesty further states that your Honour’s restoring him these tribes, viz., former position as his subjects, and also restoring the Elmina fort and people back in the same manner as they were before, will be the only thing or way to appease him, for he has no quarrel with white men: but should your Honour come in to interfere, as he hears you are, that you have to not blame him, because he will then start himself.

That his Majesty having heard of some false information being brought to your Honour respecting your messengers and the white captives he has requested their attesting this letter with their own signatures of their being in health….

The Earl of Kimberley’s letter to Captain J.H. Glover, 18 August 1873 Top

Source: G.E. Metcalfe. 1964. Great Britain and Ghana: Documents of Ghana History, 1807-1957. Edinburgh: Nelson for the University of Ghana.


Her Majesty’s Government have determined to accept the offer made in your letter of the 30th ultimo, and a commission will be transmitted to you, appointing you Special Commissioner to the native chiefs of the eastern districts of the Gold Coast, who, it is hoped, will resort to energetic measures for driving the Ashantee invaders from the protected territory. You will be subject to the general control of the officer administering the Government of the Gold Coast.

The general object which you will keep in view is to create such a diversion in the flank and rear of the Ashantees as may force them to retreat from the Protectorate, or al all events, to so far harass and alarm them as to enable an attack to be made on them in front with better prospect of success.

The facilities which are afforded by a river navigable as the Volta is, to a long distance from the coast, for carrying the war into the Ashantee territory, are unquestionable, and it is stated that the country in the neighbourhood of that river is comparatively free from bush, and is therefore less unhealthy, and can more easily be penetrated than the district lying directly between the Gold Coast and the Ashantee country.

It would be impossible to suggest any particular line of operations…and…it must be left to you to judge for yourself, on the spot, according to circumstances, how far it may be prudent to attempt to penetrate into the Ashantee territory in the territory in the direction Coomassie, and whether it may be practicable to march upon Coomassie itself. You will, of course, bear in mind, that the resources of the Ashantees are said to be very considerable, and that an advance to a great distance from the Volta must necessarily be attended with much risk, unless, indeed, you should succeed in obtaining assistance from the tribes in the eastern part of the Ashantee dominions. So little is known of that part of Africa, that opinions on this point amount to little more than conjecture. If it be true, however, that the population is to a considerable extent Mahommedan, decisive successes gained against the Ashantees might cause some disruption to the ties which unite it to the government of Coomassie. But her Majesty’s government…must not be understood as giving an opinion that a march upon Coomassie is an operation which it would in any case be prudent to take. It will be advisable that you should seize any opportunity which may present itself, of opening communications with the tribes on the north of Ashantee. It is known that from time to time, severe wars have been carried on between those tribes and the Ashantees, and news of an invasion of Ashantee from the east might possibly cause some movement to be made from the north.

Lastly, I have strongly to impress upon you, the necessity of using your utmost efforts to prevent the natives who take part in the movements, from putting to death captives and unarmed men, and committing the other barbarities which are too often the concomitants of native warfare. Her Majesty’s Government, when furnishing the tribes of the Protectorate with effective means to defend themselves against their enemies, have  a right to require that those means shall not be used for purposes abhorrent to humanity and the usages of civilized nations….

Wolseley’s letter to Cardwell, 13 October 1873 Top

Source: G.E. Metcalfe. 1964. Great Britain and Ghana: Documents of Ghana History, 1807-1957. Edinburgh: Nelson for the University of Ghana.

…There is, Sir, but one method of freeing these settlements from the continued menace of Ashantee invasion, and this is to defeat the Ashantee army in the field, to drive it from the protected territories, and, if necessary, to pursue it into its own land, and to march victorious on the Ashantee capital, and show not only to the king, but to those chiefs who urge him on to constant war, that the arm of Her Majesty is powerful to punish, and can reach event to the very heart of their kingdom.

By no means short of this can lasting peace be insured; one truce after another may be made, but they will again and again be broken, for the Ashantees have learnt to believe that we may with impunity invade and lay waste the protected territory, and dwell there unmolested by the white man, till they arrive under the very walls of our forts.

If the history of former wars with the Ashantees be examined, it will be found that every sign of weakness, and every unsuccessful effort of ours, has been followed by renewed hostilities on their part; and on the other hand, that the show of military strength alone has brought peace. It was thus that the Ashantee advance to Annamaboe in 1807 was followed by the invasion of 1811, this again by the advance to Cape Coast Castle in 1817, when the Ashantees were bought off; and this by the insult and invasion of 1823. The sad failure of Sir Charles Macarthy’s expedition in 1824 brought the enemy to the walls of our forts, and again in 1826 they renewed their attacks. Now for the first time, they were not only defeated but routed, and the signal victory of Dodowah freed the country for many a long year….For twenty-five years…this lesson had its effect.

But in 1853 the restless chiefs again urged on the king to make war, and the perpetual dread of invasion was renewed. Tough happily staved off by the judicious measures of Governor Hill, and a show of strength, the invasion was kept hanging over the heads of the protected tribes…From that day to this there has been no peace between the Ashantees and England. No strength has been shown by England. …Our Fanti allies…have disbanded and become demoralised. They have lost their confidence in the English power of protection, and in proportion the Ashantees have grown bold and confident. Their forces lie in security within nine miles of our forts, and for six months they have lived on the produce of the land said to be protected by us.

Her Majesty has confided to me the task of insuring a lasting peace. Past history, the experiences of those who have watched the condition of the coast, and my own observation of the actual state of affairs, alike convince me that by no method but such signal chastisement as I have described can such peace be insured; and that such punishment cannot be inflicted without the assistance of British troops.

It cannot, I think, be doubted that under the influence of civilization and European protection, the Fanti tribes have grown less warlike and more peaceful than formerly. Yet even in their best times they were no match for the Ashantees….I have held interviews with the kings. I have seen the greedy mercantile split in which the war is viewed by them, and the excuses made to delay their departure for the field. They tell me they have little influence in raising their men; that their men prefer trading to fighting, and have gone into far countries to hide. The Cape Coast people actually claim the privilege of being the last to turn out to fight the invaders of their country.

In the face of these facts…and the hour having arrived when on account of the advancing season, my decision as to the need for European troops must be made, it is impossible for me to say that my prospects are such that I dare undertake to carry out my mission with native forces only, nor would the Government or the Country excused were the valuable lives of the British officers who have volunteered for this expedition sacrificed, and the prestige of our country lowered, by the desertion of those native forces, a result which I foresee is too likely were I to rely solely on them…Under no circumstances, it appears to me, could I rely on such native troops alone to pursue the war into the enemy’s country. Nor would their presence serve to show the power of Her Majesty as would that of a body of English soldiers….

But, Sir, I should still not apply for these troops…were it not that I am convinced that the service for which I demand the European soldiers can be performed by them without undue risk….

Two months, or nearly two months, must elapse before the troops can arrive off Cape Coast Castle. In that time, the road which is now complete to Yancoomassie, will, unless the Ashantees have been more successful than hitherto in preventing its construction, be complete, at least as far as the Prah; the native troops will have attained such organization as I can give them; the transport will be prepared for an advance; and I may even hope, with the aid of the Houssas and these forces, to have cleared the country on this side of the Prah.

I may therefore say that on the arrival of the troops in these roads, about the middle of December, all will be ready for their immediate advance into the enemy’s country, and that they shall not be kept inactive for one single day….The troops would arrive soon after the commencement of that season of the year which your instructions describe as the most healthy, viz., the months of December, January, February, and March; and as I guarantee that the operations in which they would be engaged would not last more than about six weeks, or at the most, two months, they might re-embark on board ship by the beginning or middle of February, and under no circumstances would they be required to remain on shore after the commencement of the unhealthy season….

It now remains for me only to repeat my request that as soon as possible after the receipt of this despatch, the troops…may be embarked for this station, and to add that I attach the greatest possible importance to the men being selected for this service, and to good accommodation being provided for them on board ship, so that they may arrive here in thoroughly health condition….

Wolseley’s correspondence to the Colonial Office, 15 October 1873 Top

Source: The London Gazette, 18 November 1873. Pp. 5022-5024

My Lord,

I have the honour to report the result of an operation which I yesterday undertook against hostile tribes in the neighbourhood of Elmina.

On arriving in this country I found that the Ashantees were established almost within gunshot of our forts near that place.

I ascertained, moreover, that they were drawing supplies from the immediate neighbourhood through the agency of a certain man, Boitoo, who is now in the Ashantee camp. Moreover, marauding parties did not fear to approach the town whenever, as frequently happened, special circumstances lend them to hope that they would be able to escape without serious loss. They had recently fired on my surveying parties within a few miles of the town itself; this state of things was mischievous in many ways.

At a time when we are endeavouring to inspire confidence in the natives we could not afford to have our flag insulted with impunity.

It was important to cut off from the Ashantees, and from the tribes along the coast with whom they had entered into an alliance, all means of obtaining munitions of war from Elmina.

I am most anxious, however, in all cases, to avoid hostile action against any tribes without giving them full opportunity for expressing contrition and for returning to the allegiance they have sworn to Her Majesty.

I therefore summoned to appear before me at Elmina the chiefs of the tribes round Elmina which had been conspiring with the Ashantees.

I received no official answer from them but ascertained that they had sent to the main camp of the Ashantees at Mampon to ask what they were to do. I knew further that the reply given to them had been that “the English might pretend to be very brave, but that the Ashantees were braver,” that “they need to have no fear of the English who would not dare to attack them in the bush whilst they were under protection of the Ashantee army.” They were in fine to ignore my summons.

It became evident to me that unless contempt for our threats or promises was to be allowed to spread throughout the country, and unless the kings and chiefs were to believe that punishment would never be inflicted upon those who broke their oaths of allegiance that all had so lately sworn, the emporiums of a secret and hostile traffic must be destroyed. The villages when attacked were not inhabited by women and children, but in all, especially in Essaman, were found large stores of powder, rum, and other supplies for the Ashantee army…

I have ever since my arrival here wished for an opportunity to strike a blow against the Ashantees in our neighbourhood, which should inspire confidence and the friendly and remove from the hostile the impression that our men cannot act in the bush….

The success with which the preparations for the enterprise were concealed has impressed, as I have been since assured, all the natives with a notion of our possessing just that kind of power which they most dread, the capacity for striking an unexpected clow.

The loss to the Ashantees of a source of supply on which they have hitherto relied will prove serious to them, and it will act all the more powerfully, because it will make other tribes along the coast much more cautious in supplying them.

It has been the open boast of the Ashantees ever since the fight at Elmina, that though the white men could beat them in the open, the white men would not dare to fight them in the bush.

Our fight yesterday was solely in the bush and they never once held their own against us.

The effect, as encouraging the Fantees and discouraging their enemies, will be, I am assured, very considerable. It is difficult to convey to your Lordship an impression of the extent to which every petty section of this country is divided between small tribes, apparently interlaced with one another in an almost inextricable territorial confusion. It is almost equally difficult to convey an idea of the native fickleness of which I have daily evidence. Hence it happens that in every part of the country the petty tribes are at any given moment the devoted allies of the Power which they believe to be the strongest on the Coast. I have every hope that in this way yesterday’s operation wills will exercise a beneficial effect in all directions.

I am positively assured that in another respect the action has been of the utmost importance. Hitherto many of the tribes have looked upon me simply as a new Governor. They did not realize that I had been sent out to undertake the direct and active conduct of military operations. They have all been crying out, as your Lordship is well aware, for some one to take command of their forces.

In part this has been a mere excuse for neglecting their own share of the work.

In part it has been the result of mutual jealousy.

It required no mere words, but something that should impress their imagination, to make them understood, that they had no longer this excuse, and that the difficulty was solved. Thus I have every reason to hope: 1st. That those tribes which have hitherto been wavering will now come in to our alliance.

2nd. That there will be an increase in the muster-rolls of the tribes which are friendly.

3rd. That a new spirit will be infused into the actual combatants.

4th. That the Ashantees will be proportionally discouraged.

I have the honour to enclose a Report by Lieutenant-Colonel Wood, V.C., on the whole of the Operations.


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