The Anglo-Asante Wars: ‘Hundred Years’ War’ for Africa's Gold Coast

Of the many scattered imperial conflicts which comprise the martial history of Africa, most certainly the longest and drawn out conquests & military actions were the wars waged in the Gold Coast, by the British Empire in what is now the Republic of Ghana in West Africa.

Of the most powerful tribes and cultures, the Asante Empire (alternatively Ashanti or Ashantee) becomes arguably the most powerful military power in all of Africa’s history, perhaps only challenged by the Zulu of South Africa and maybe even the Mahdist warriors of Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia in the late 1890's.

Starting in the early 1700’s with King Osei Tutu and continuing with his successor Opoku Ware, the Asante Empire with its capital at Kumasi, were unquestionably the strongest military presence in West Africa in the 1700’s and 1800’s. Eventually they would only be rivaled by a modern British Army who campaigned in 1873-1874.

One major factor in the Asante’s dominance over their Empire was the amount of muskets that they were able to trade for with their countries great wealth in gold, which was used as a status symbol amongst the royalty and upper classes of the Asante. Trading with Europeans, Arabs, and Asians (Malaysians, Indians, Chinese) who came to West Africa in search of slaves, gold, and plunder beginning in the late 1400’s with the Portuguese and continuing with the Dutch and the later the British, who established a protectorate in 1821 in part due to the Act of Parliament which outlawed the Slave Trade in 1807 (outlawing slavery in 1833).

Britain’s long standing war with the Asante came about in the midst of the great imperial age in which most of Europe brutally carved up Africa for colonial-economic interests. The Gold Coast was no exception and the British were careful to appease the Asante Empire with treaties of ‘friendship’ in 1817 and open trade into the 1860’s. To highlight the scale of the Gold Coast musket trade, Britain alone sold over 52,000 guns plus 2 million pounds of gunpowder in just 1829, in the 1830’s the Asante empire place orders for tens of thousands of muskets to the Dutch to further their advantage against their neighboring enemies in the Gold Coast. The advantage the possessed was remarkable by any standard. Together with the slave trade and the world’s appetite for gold, firearms sales in Africa and along the Gold Coast would prove pivotal to the growing conflicts that developed between Queen Victoria’s Empire and the Empire of the Asante Kings (and to a lesser extent the other Empires & great tribes of Africa.

Militarily speaking the Asante dominated their native African foes to the northern tribes and the Fante tribal confederacy to the south because of their firearms. They became the only African empire of the 1800’s to employ large numbers of musket/rifle firing soldiers who could fire in volley or at least bring sustained fire at enemies very close when commanded to by their tribal officers and royal generals.

Though renowned for their discipline, and for their fighting prowess & courage like the Zulu of 1879, the Asante of 1873-1874 like the Zulu fives years later were dreadfully inaccurate with their firearms seeing as most were outdated. Even worse they fired antique musket balls ignited by inferior and sometimes volatile cheap gunpowder sold to them by opportunistic European traders.

Fight in the Bush, 1874

Opposing force, British Army 1823-1874

Throughout the most critical and major uprisings of the Anglo-Asante Wars 1823 to 1874, the British army as a case study of imperial armies is nothing short of fascinating. Just as the Asante warriors are fascinating for their unique cultural and social identities as they relate to warfare, the British army was a product of its own diverse and somewhat close knit military system that held the queen, the regiment, the officers, and then lastly the enlisted man in highest esteem.

The British Army of the first Anglo-Asante War was essentially a Napoleonic force under the governor general of Sierra Leone Sir Charles McCarthy. Later in the Third Anglo-Asante War and into the Zulu War, the British army, at least its land forces were markedly different institutions, beginning to modernize and move away from the old way of military thinking that dominated the English military branches from 1799-c.1855. Still however "old ways die hard" and the change was moderate, only completely changing into middle of the Great War in 1915-1916.

One very ironic commonality which can be found in the history of the British Army throughout the imperial age is that very few of the fighting men were indeed British by birth in many of the regiments on campaign. The majority were Welsh, Scots, Irish, Canadian, Australian, New Zealanders, Indian, Sikh, West Indian, or any number of differing cultural and ethnic backgrounds recruited as levies, private soldiers, and commissioned & career officers for service in Her Majesties armed forces, during the many campaigns of Queen Victoria’s reign 1837-1901.

Sir Charles McCarthy (b.1764-1824), an Irishman, killed in the first great Asante victory over the British near the Pra River in 1824, represents the two separate, unequal, and markedly different groups of the British army during the imperial age. He was both a gentleman officer but somewhat of an outsider since he was Irish born. Regardless he was a well respected officer who had served a number of positions in Africa before being elected Governor of Sierra Leon.

Having supreme confidence that his numerically inferior forces could defeat the Asante in the field, Sir Charles divided his forces (the great equalizer in imperialist/colonialist conflicts from 1800-1900) then blundered into an ambush trying to find his other columns. In a bloody assault which showcased the signature battle tactic of the Asante Empire’s forces, over 180 British army soldiers lay dead, more than 80 were wounded many dieing of wounds later.

With few of his men escaping the carnage, Sir Charles shot himself rather than be taken alive, the Asante apparently beheading him and then cutting out his heart and consuming it. (H.J. Ricketts, Narrative of the Ashantee (Asante) War, London: 1831). As was the tradition in many African warrior cultures of the era if a slain enemy had fought bravely an organ was consumed from the courageous warrior to imbibe the living with power, a frightful image then as it is now, an important part of the battlefield psyche of this era. It was however an exaggerated practice but it did put fear into the white man who fought in this era.

Wolseley's campaign marked the change from the  Napoleonic style army of Sir Charles era, to a more professional and prepared force led by younger, more ambitious officers who had studied military tactics and strategy scientifically as opposed to classically. These read histories of more modern conflicts like the American Civil War 1861-1865, and former accounts of explorers and scouts to familiarize themselves with the Gold Coast specifically in 1872-1873.

 However the men and officers of the Imperial Age still looked down on the warriors of Africa during this era, known by imperialist officers and veterans at home in the years after as 'Dark' or 'Darkest' Africa for the imagery of savagery and violence conjured up by the sometimes blatant racist attitudes taken towards African enemies and allies (native levies, trained volunteers) during the Imperial Age.

 Well bred men, British officers of the Victorian Age

Officers of the imperial era were quintessentially upper class Anglo’s of moderate to affluent background, many lords or of the gentry. With very, very few exceptions the officers were gentleman, “well bred” men of Anglo-Scot-Irish stock who had attended at least basic upper-level boarding school and perhaps university later, studying some vague discipline of warfare. Though their were many officers who were rather blood thirsty martial sorts, many others were leisurely gentleman not suited to the rigors of campaign, the stress, mortal danger, and responsibility that an officer must endure in the field. Ironically aristocratic officers with no battle experience still were preferable in the eyes of their generals and officer peers as better than the “lower” class of officer who earned their commission through promotion, perhaps by serving in India or the North-Western Frontier (Pakistan-Afghanistan) from 1803-1857.

Fight in the bush, as portrayed by a London newspaper 1874

The oft repeated jape, totally cliche in modern usage, in reference to the British army as “lions led by donkeys”, is perhaps not hyperbole when reviewing the many errors and serious blunders of many British officers during the imperial age. The purchase of commissions for wealthy officers was certainly a hindrance, and was in part to blame, its phasing out into the 1870's and 1880’s greatly improved the British military’s officer corps top to bottom.

Officer of an Indian cavalry regiment during the Third Anglo-Asante War 

End of the Anglo-Asante Wars

The campaign of 1873-1874 was led by the English (Irish-born) Imperial Age legend, Sir Garnet Wolseley (b.1833-1913), who is today arguably the most famous veteran of the Anglo-Asante Wars and one of the most respected Imperial officers of his age (and class). Wolseley was an officer of great renown for his active service on numerous campaign, wounds received in combat in the Crimea and in India, and for his prowess as a commander of men on campaign. He was reformer a battlefield tactician and a "great judge of talent" himself. (Edgerton, Robert B. The Fall of the Asante Empire). He was at times cut throat and demanding of his soldiers and enemies alike whilst on campaign. 

Though war with the Asante Empire would continue with the notable end to major Anglo-Asante conflict in 1900 during the poetically named War of the Golden Stool. Eventually the Gold Coast would loose its protectorate status and become the modern day independent state of Ghana, proclaiming independence in 1957.

Anglo-Asante Wars 1824-1906

First Anglo-Asante War 1823-1824-Sierra Leone’s governor Sir Charles McCarthy raises a combined force of British Redcoats and African levies to meet the Asante threat to England’s interests in the South as allies of the Fante. McCarthy is defeated and his force slaughtered after marching on the Asante in 1824.

Second Anglo-Asante War 1863-1864

Third Anglo Asante War 1873-1874- General Wolseley’s campaign in the Gold Coast against King Kofi Kakari

Fourth Anglo Asante War 1895-1896- Last major war of the conflict, British conquer most of the Gold Coast colony.

War of the Golden Stool 1900-Governor Frederick Hodgson attempts to find and sit on the Golden Stool, therefore ending the Asante dynasty's influence and power over the Gold Coast

Rebellion of 1921

Asante Empire's War 1698-1874

Scattered conflicts with the Arab Portuguese, Dutch, Chinese, and Malay traders c.1500-1670's

First Wars of Osei Tutu-Fought against Akan speaking tribes and later the powerful Denkyira 1698-c.1705.

King Opoku Ware I d.1750-Conquers many rival tribes, over twenty major groups including Dagomba and Gonja peoples.

Wars with Northern tribes-sweeping victory for the Asante Empire.

Ashanti-Fante War 1806-1807-Instigated over alleged grave robbing practices-Asante crush the Fante Confederacy annexing the land to the coast of what is modern Ghana.

First Anglo-Asante War 1823-1824- Sierra Leone’s governor Sir Charles McCarthy raises a combined force of British Redcoats and African levies to meet the Asante threat to England’s interests in the South as allies of the Fante.

1 comment:

  1. Just an addition to say that the Ashanti did not fight the Fante Confederacy over 'grave robbing', and that the heart-eating bit about the Asantehene is all a tad throwback to the image of the savage African, right? Simply put, all the sources outline the Asante-Fante conflict as a classic war of frontier-keeping. The Fante organized local chiefs along their coastal regions to control trade with the many European fortresses leading to the 1807 so-called abolition of slavery. Coincidently, in that same year, the Asante pursued their claim over the Fante as member states in the Asante Federation, which drew the British into an increasingly militarized position on the Gold Coast. They backed the Fante against the Asante Empire during the early decades, and later, as you show above, invaded Kumasi in 1874, allowing the snowball of British Empire building to continue in the forested and savannah northern regions.