Anglo-Ashanti Wars: Origins, Causes & Aftermath
The Anglo-Ashanti Wars were a series of conflicts that occurred in the 19th and early 20th centuries between the British and the Ashanti Empire of Gold Coast (modern-day Ghana). At that time, much of Gold Coast’s coastal regions were under British control. Simultaneously, the Ashanti Empire was on a mission to also expand its territories and gain control of those coastal areas.
As expected, neither party, both powerful in their own ways, was prepared to give up what they owned. This resulted in a near-century long history of wars and unrest, which in turn had a giant effect, not just on Ghana’s hard-fought independence but on other sub-Saharan African countries’.
Below, World History Edu takes an in-depth look at the story of the Anglo-Ashanti Wars and how it might have played a role in reshaping Africa’s destiny.
History of Wars in the Gold Coast
Prior to the onslaught of the Anglo-Ashanti Wars, the British had already been caught up in a series of conflicts involving the locals.
The first war was the Ashanti-Fante War (1806-1807), which started after the Fantes and the British granted refuge to accused grave robbers from Assin (located in modern-day Central Region, Ghana). The grave robbers had been charged by the Ashanti King Asantehene Osei Bonsu (also known as Osei Tutu Kwame Asiba). With the backing of the British and the Fantes, the robbers were housed in the Cape Coast fort. The circumstance, as expected, led to a conflict that was later resolved with a treaty between the British and the Ashantis. Per the treaty, an old Assin king that had been living under British protection was returned to the latter.
The second war was the Ga-Fante War, which took place in 1811. This war involved several battles between the Ashanti-Ga allies and the Fante-Akim-Akwapim allies. The Ashantis won the war but lost two forts to the Akwapim in the towns of Apam and Tantamkweri.
From 1814-1816, the Ashantis decided to expand their empire, resulting in the break out of the Ashanti-Akyem-Akuapem War. Led by Asantehene Osei Bonsu, the Ashantis defeated their enemies and decided to raid the coastal town of Accra, the home of the Ga people. The siege left a bad taste among the Ga people, especially since they had once been allies. As a result, the Gas decided to form an alliance with the British, who were bent on pushing through with their expansionism in the Gold Coast.
In the last year of the war, the Ashantis continued their campaign into Fante land. Boasting of many competent commanders and brave Ashanti warriors, the Ashanti campaigns against the Fantes proved to be very successful. They captured and killed many of their Akim-Akwapim enemies before proceeding to take control over certain key coastal lands. This was the first war that the Ashantis won, and the Europeans (British, Dutch, and Danish) were compelled to agree to the terms of the victors. They signed a treaty in 1817, making the Ashantis secure unfettered control over most of Fante land.
How the Ashanti Kingdom benefited from the very lucrative trade ties with Europe
Between the 17th and 19th centuries, the Ashanti Empire benefited a great deal from their trade with the Europeans. Undoubtedly the mightiest kingdom in what was then Gold Coast, the Ashanti leaders were known for raking in lot of money from gold and slave trade. Ashanti warriors, after bringing a rival tribe to heel, would sell off their captives as slaves to the Europeans.
However, the friendship that existed between British merchants and the Ashantis was short-lived as the British Crown took control of many merchant operations in the region. The British then set out to build stronger alliances with the various Fante chiefs, whom they considered less antagonistic than the Ashantis. Britain’s goal was to use those local alliances to permanently drive out the Ashantis from the coastal areas.
This and many more other reasons sparked the First Anglo-Ashanti War, which lasted from 1823 to 1831.
Events that led to the Anglo-Ashanti Wars
There were two main causes of the Anglo-Ashanti Wars: First, the abolition of slavery; and second, the British involvement in the local affairs of the Gold Coast.
In 1807, the British parliament passed The Act to Abolish the Transatlantic Slave Trade (also known as the Slave Trade Act of 1807). The act, which received Royal assent from then-King George III on March 25, 1807, made it illegal to engage in slave trade in the British Empire or any of its territories worldwide.
With slave trade gone, the British looked for other economic activities. As a result, they gained a new interest in the economic affairs of the Gold Coast. They wanted to have full control of the territory’s trade and tap into the natural resources of the locals, including cotton, palm oil, and rubber.
As Britain’s attempts to gain control intensified so did their propensity to be drawn into local conflicts, especially between the Ashanti and Fante. But it wasn’t because they necessarily cared about the Fantes, who had for many years played second fiddle to the Ashanti Empire.
Instead, the British wanted to control the trade routes from the hinterlands to the coast. They took advantage of those inter-tribal conflicts and decided to form a military alliance with the Fantes against the Ashantis.
The First Anglo-Ashanti War (1823-1831)
Before the start of the First Anglo-Ashanti War, given the history between the Ashanti and the coastal tribes, there was already a lot of tension between the ethnic groups. It all boiled over when in 1823, the Ashanti captured and killed an African member of the Royal African Corps, which was a unit of the British Army.
At the start of the conflict, the Ashanti warriors managed to set a trap for the British, which resulted in some casualties suffered by the British. As a result, the British retreated, but when the Ashantis attempted to enter into an agreement over control of certain parts of Fanti land, the British governor Sir Charles MacCarthy rejected those claims.
Instead, MacCarthy led British troops to invade the Ashanti Empire. But it would end up disastrous for the British. The second group of troops lost contact with the first group that MacCarthy was in and faced about 10,000 men from the Ashanti army. The British were outnumbered and had insufficient weapons to fight back. Only 20 British soldiers survived the encounter.
Upon hearing what had happened to his troops, MacCarthy and his remaining men attempted to retreat, but he was killed by the Ashantis at the Battle of Nsamankow in January 1824. One of MacCarthy’s trusted lieutenants – a man named Wetherell – was also captured and killed.
The Ashantis beheaded both MacCarthy and Wetherell and used the former’s skull as a drinking cup. It’s said that they carried the preserved head of MacCarthy to battle in hopes that it will make them secure victory.
Regarded as possessing the fiercest fighting force in Gold Coast at the time, the Ashanti troops were unstoppable and also defeated Fante and Denkyiras that same year at the Battle of Efutu.
With the British troops subdued, the Ashanti nation continued their coastal campaign. However, they were forced to retreat after an illness struck their camp. At the same time, a new British governor called John Hope Smith started forming a new army, which included many Fantes and other anit-Ashanti groups. The British also received word that the Ashantis were planning to raid Accra; hence, they prepared for the attack.
This time around, the British were more prepared to face the Ashantis. On August 7, 1826, the two sides met in battle. Despite having weapons, the battle quickly turned into a fist fight.
For a while, it appeared the Ashantis had the upper hand, but the British quickly deployed heavy artillery. The effects of those weapons caused the Ashanti troops to retreat.
The conflict continued until 1831 after the Ashantis and the British signed a peace treaty, which marked the River Pra as the border between the Ashanti Empire and Fante territories.
The Second Anglo-Ashanti War (1863-1864)
The second war between the British and Ashantis took place in 1863 after the Ashantis crossed the River Pra while searching for a fugitive, a man named Kwesi Gyana.
Incensed by this act, the British, together with their African allies, waged war against the Ashantis. However, as a result of a disease outbreak, which claimed many lives in both camps, the two warring sides were forced to retreat; hence the war ended in a stalemate.
The Third Anglo-Ashanti War (1873-1874)
During the 1800s, there were many European settlers in the Gold Coast, including the Dutch. These settlers controlled portions of lands in the territory. In 1871, the British bought the Dutch-controlled lands and expanded their territory. The Fante town of Elmina, which was under the control of the Ashantis, fell into the hands of the British.
Fearful that it would negatively impact their trading activities, the Ashantis invaded those lands and kidnapped some European missionaries. This time, the British troops were led by General Garnet Wolseley. They were about 2,400 in number and comprised African, British, and West Indian soldiers.
Compared to the previous skirmishes and wars, the Third Anglo-Ashanti War witnessed a well-prepared British troops. They had big machine guns, well-trained soldiers, and stocked up on quinine to help combat any diseases, especially malaria.
For his gallantry during the war, General Wolseley received incredible praise back in London. The general was praised for properly preparing and equipping his troops, providing them with more lose-fitting clothes ideal for warm climates.
On January 31 1873, the Ashanti nation was comprehensively defeated by the British in the Battle of Amoaful. British troops then stormed into Kumasi (in today’s Ashanti Region, Ghana), the heartland of the Ashantis, and took over the place for a short while.
In July 1874, the two parties signed the Treaty of Fomena. According to the terms of the treaty, the reigning Asantehene at the time, Kofi Karikari, was required to pay 50,000 ounces of gold to the British monarch, Queen Victoria.
The treaty also instructed the Ashantis to put an end to a number of barbaric practices, especially human sacrifice. Per the peace treaty, the Ashantis were required to open up trade routes for all, from the coastal areas to Kumasi.
Did you know…?
- At the Battle of Amoaful, the Ashantis lost a number of important warriors and chiefs, including Chief Amankwatia. The British, on the other hand, suffered less than 200 casualties. It is said that majority of those casualties were caused by diseases.
- To the people of Gold Coast, the Third Anglo-Ashante War was referred to as the Sagrenti War – an obvious reference the famous leader of the British troops, Sir Garnet Wolseley. It’s said that the natives struggled to pronounce the name of the British general.
- British soldier by the name of Sergeant Samuel McGaw was honored with a Victoria Cross for his bravery during the battle. An additional three Victoria Cross honors were issued to other soldiers. All in all, six Victoria Cross honors were issued in the entirety of the Anglo-Ashanti Wars.
- The Third Anglo-Ashanti War witnessed the first time a steam-powered tractor was used in battle. The tractor was made by the British manufacturing company Aveling and Porter.
The Fourth Anglo-Ashanti War (1895-1896)
Shortly after the third major war with the Ashantis, the European powers divided up African territories amongst themselves. It was known as the Partition of Africa. The British, in a bid to prevent the French or German forces from defeating the Ashantis and having access to the empire’s vast natural resources, especially gold, they made a proposal to the kingdom for it to become a protectorate.
However, the Asantehene King Prempeh I rejected the offer and refused to give up the empire’s independence. But the British were anxious and desperate.
Therefore, the British embarked on the “Second Ashanti Expedition.” They accused the Ashantis of not paying the 50,000 ounces of gold as stated in the Treaty of Fomena.
In December 1985, Colonel Sir Francis Scott and his troops left Cape Coast for Kumasi. They arrived in the Ashanti capital in 1896 and received support from other local allies who did not support the expansion of the Ashanti empire.
In the ensuing battle, the Ashanti forces were once again defeated.
After the victory, the British arrested a number of leaders of the Ashantis, including Prempeh I, who was exiled to the island of Seychelles. This act brought the Fourth Anglo-Ashanti War to an end.
Even though the Fourth Anglo-Ashanti War did not include the use of ammunition, there were still casualties. Prince Henry of Battenberg, who was the son-in-law (through his wife Princess Beatrice) of Queen Victoria, died on a ship while heading back to England. Battenberg, who had served as a military secretary to General Sir Francis Scott, succumbed to a malaria infection he picked up during the military expedition to the Ashanti nation.
Why did the British exile Prempeh I to the Seychelles?
After the Fourth Anglo-Ashanti War, British governor William Maxwell forced the Asantehene to sign an unfavorable treaty. King Prempeh and a number of important leaders of the kingdom were exiled to the Seychelles.
The British claimed that they took such drastic steps in a bid to end a number of barbaric practices of the Ashantis, including human sacrifice and slavery.
The annexation of the Ashanti kingdom
By 1897, the British had successfully incorporated the Ashanti Kingdom into its ever-expanding empire. The Ashantis therefore became a protectorate of the British Crown. The Ashantis were simply powerless to mount an effective resistance to British rule.
The War of the Golden Stool (1900)
The fifth major war between the Ashantis and the British is known as the “War of the Golden Stool” or the “Third Ashanti Expedition.”
It all started in March 1900 when the then-British governor, Sir Frederick Mitchell Hodgson insisted that he sit on the Golden Stool. As the Ashantis held the Golden Stool in the most utmost regard and reverence, they remained ever prepared to keep the stool away from the British. Basically, Sir Frederick’s actions infuriated the Ashantis who responded by attacking British soldiers.
The Ashantis were led by Yaa Asantewaa, the brave warrior-queen mother of Ejisu (located in today’s Ashanti Region, Ghana). The war was fierce, but Hodgson, his family, and some of his allies (which included Nigerian Hausas) managed to escape the Ashantis’ onslaught and take refuge at a fort in Kumasi.
After regrouping with a relief force of about 1100 men, the British managed to defeat the Ashantis, and Hodgson was able to effectively bring the situation under control.
Although lasting for only a brief period, the War of the Golden Stool claimed the lives of about 2,000 Ashantis and 1,000 British and allied troops.
For her part in the war, Queen Mother Yaa Asantewaa was also exiled to the Seychelles, and the British permanently incorporated the Ashanti Kingdom, as well other parts of the Gold Coast, into its vast empire. This lasted until Ghana gained independence in 1957.
Why did the Ashantis refuse to let a foreigner sit on the Golden Stool?
The Ashantis fought tooth and nail to prevent British colonial official Sir Frederick Mitchell Hodgson from sitting on the Golden Stool. They considered such an action to be sacrilegious as the royal throne is reserved only for the Asantehene.
A symbol of power and royalty, the Golden Stool is believed to have been “born” on a Friday; hence its name “Sika Dwa Kofi”. In Akan, the name Kofi is given to boys born on Friday.
According to legend, the Golden Stool was commanded from heaven by a very powerful high priest called Okomfo Anokye. The story goes on to say that the divine stool gently fell on the lap of Osei Tutu, one of the chiefs of the Asante Confederacy. From then onward, Osei Tutu came to reign as the king of Asantes.
Reasons why the Ashanti people lost the Wars to the Britsh
The Ashantis put up a good fight to protect their empire’s sovereignty, and while they were powerful, they were eventually no match for the British and their allies.
With the abolishment of the slave trade, the British, and other Europeans, took advantage of previous conflicts and broken relationships between various African tribes. The British were also better equipped largely thanks to all the inventions that took place during the Industrial Revolution.
Medicines like quinine could cure many tropical illnesses that had plagued the people of Gold Coast for many years. Because of this they were able to have a better fighting force than the Ashantis.
Impact and Significance of the Anglo-Ashanti Wars
The Anglo-Ashanti Wars were one of the earliest recorded events of locals resisting British influence in West Africa. The spirit and determination exhibited by the Ashantis certainly influenced future nationalists to fight for the Gold Coast’s independence. Many nationalist groups like the Gold Coast Aborigines’ Rights Protection Society and the Gold Coast Youth Conference were formed in the later years of the Anglo-Ashanti Wars. The aim of those groups was to protest against the British colonial government. The tireless works of such groups soon morphed into an all-out political action for Gold Coast’s independence.
Eventually, the Gold Coast gained independence from the British in 1957 and officially became a republic in 1960, with its first president being Kwame Nkrumah. The newly-formed country, which was renamed Ghana, became the first in sub-Saharan Africa to attain this incredible feat. This sparked a new wave for many other African countries like Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Angola, Kenya, and many others to become sovereign nations.
While it might not be the only reason behind Africa’s independence from European powers, the Anglo-Ashanti Wars certainly played a part.
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Frequently Asked Questions about the Anglo-Ashanti Wars
What triggered the Anglo-Ashanti Wars?
Perhaps the biggest cause of the confrontation between the British and the Ashantis was due to the latter’s expansionist policy into the coastal areas of Gold Coast (today’s Ghana). Boasting of fierce warriors and capable military commanders, the Ashantis encroached into areas that were held by the likes of the Ga-Dangbe and the Fante (i.e. Mfantsefo) ethnic groups – groups who had struck alliances with the British, perhaps to ward off the threat of the Ashantis.
The three major wars fought before the Anglo-Ashanti Wars
The Ashanti-Fante War, which was fought between 1806 and 1807, broke out when a group of tomb raiders from Kumasi were given safe haven in Assin, a Fante territory. After several failed attempts to get those robbers extradited back to the Ashanti kingdom, the Ashanti king Osei Bonsu declared war on the Fantes.
In the ensuing confrontation, Ashanti warriors, led by Appia Dunkwa, not only captured the chief of Assin but also push deeper into Fante territories. A Fante alliance, led by General Atta, successfully repelled the Ashanti attack and secured a well-fought victory for the Fantes.
In 1844, the Fante leaders signed what came to be known as the Bond of 1844 with the British. The pact in essence was a security pact which gave assurances to the Fantes that British forces would defend Fanteland in case of an Ashanti assault.
Having been slightly humiliated by Fantes and their British alliance in the 1806-07 war, the Asantehene secured an alliance with a number of Ga chiefs of Accra (located primarily in today’s Greater Accra, Ghana). The goal of the alliance was to derail efforts by the British to impose their rule in the coastal areas and beyond.
During the Ga-Fante War in 1811, the Ashanti warriors proved to be better prepared than their Fante rivals; as result, they were able to secure some vital victories over the Fante Confederacy even though the latter received reasonable support, in terms of weapons and other materials from the British.
The Fantes did however manage to avoid a total capitulation by using asymmetrical warfare, i.e. unconventional war tactics like disrupting logistics and guerrilla tactics. Those tactics proved successful in weakening the will of the Ashantis to continue their assault. By the end of the war, the Ashantis had captured an important British fort at Tantamkweri in today’s Central Region of Ghana.
Between 1814 and 1816, Asantehene Osei Bonsu once again led his mighty Ashanti warriors against an Akyem-Akwapim force (in today’s Eastern Region of Ghana). This was part of efforts by the Asantehene to expand the boundaries of his already large kingdom into the coastal areas of Ghana.
The Ashanti leaders simply wanted to gain greater access to those very lucrative trading regions on the Gulf of Guinea coast. Therefore, they saw the Akyem people as stumbling blocks. The war ultimately ended with a victory for the Ashantis, who were led by Asantehene Osei Bonsu.
The progress made following the Ashanti-Akyem-Akuapem War allowed the Ashantis to establish themselves as significant players in the affairs of the coastal areas. This was one of the reasons why British merchants (i.e. the African Company of Merchants) quickly struck a friendship treaty with Asantehene. The British agreed to operate side-by-side with the Ashantis in the coastal areas.
Who were some of the notable leaders and generals in the wars?
Some of the notable Ashanti Kingdom leaders that fought in the near century-long war against the British include, Osei Bonsu, Kwaku Dua I, Kofi Karikari, Yaa Asantewaa, and Prempeh I. The latter two were exiled to the Seychelles, an island in the Indian Ocean.
The British, on the other hand, had capable military commanders like Sir Charles MacCarthy, Francis Cunningham Scott, and Robert Baden-Powell.