The Asante Empire of Ghana and the Anglo-Asante Wars
The Asante Empire (also known as the Ashanti Empire) was an African state that existed between the 18th and 20th centuries. This empire occupied the area of modern-day Ghana and benefitted greatly from the trade routes that passed through its territory. The Asante Empire prospered from the trade in two particular products - gold and slaves. Thanks to their location along the coast, the Asante Empire was able to engage in trade with the Europeans. In time, however, the Asante and their British trade partners came into conflict, which ultimately destroyed the Asante Empire.
Asante yam ceremony from the 19th-century Asante Empire period, by Thomas E. Bowdich. (Thomas E. Bowdich / Public domain)
The Origins of the Asante Empire Go Back to 13th Century
The Asante Empire, also spelled as Ashanti, was an African empire established by the Asante people in the region of modern-day Ghana, who are a part of the Akan ethnic group. The rise of early Akan centralized states can be traced all the way back to the 13th century. It is hypothesized that this may have been stimulated by the opening of trade routes that served to move gold around that region. Nevertheless, it was only towards the end of the 17th century that the Asante Empire came into being.
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During the 17th century, the Denkyira, another people of the Akan ethnic group, were the dominant power in the region. The Asante, along with the other Akan peoples, had to pay tribute to the Denkyira. During the 1680s, however, a powerful chief emerged amongst the Asante. He managed to unite several small states to oppose the Denkyira, and ultimately succeeded in overthrowing them.
The founder of the Asante Empire was Osei Tutu, who was born around 1660. He was the chief of Kumasi and was held as a hostage for some time by the Denkyira. Osei Tutu managed to escape, however, and arrived at Akwamu, a powerful state to the east. There, Osei Tutu was exposed to new ideas of political and military organization, which he put to good use when he returned to Kumasi. Additionally, some of the Akwamu returned with Osei Tutu to Kumasi, one of whom was Okomfo Anokye.
And early photograph from 1935 of the Asante Empire’s famous Golden Stool. (The National Archives UK v / 1.0OGL v1.0)
Okomfo Anokye is another major figure in the establishment of the Asante Empire. He was a priest and considered as the empire’s co-founder. Okomfo Anokye’s lineage is unclear. One tradition, for instance, states that he was born in Akwamu. An alternate version of the story, provided by the Asante, claims that his mother was an Asante, whilst his father was an Adansi. A third version of the story states that the priest was a relative of Osei Tutu.
In any event, Okomfo Anokye contributed greatly to the founding of the Asante Empire. For instance, he is believed to have used his natural talent for oration, as well as his intellectual and psychological abilities, to influence the smaller states to unite under Osei Tutu. More importantly, Okomfo Anokye is credited with the introduction of the Golden Stool, a legendary object closely associated with kingship in the Asante Empire.
According to Asante tradition, the Golden Stool was brought down from heaven by Okomfo Anokye. The stool descended in a cloud of white dust and landed in the lap of Osei Tutu. The priest then declared that the strength and unity of the Asante people would from then on be tied to the safety of the Golden Stool. Thus, the Golden Stool, which is believed to possess the sunsum (soul) of the Asante people, became their sacred symbol. Moreover, the stool served to legitimize Osei Tutu’s kingship, and that of his successors. This is reflected in the enthronement of all subsequent Asante kings on the Golden Stool.
Kente royal cloth (see top image) weaver on Adum Street in Kumasi, Ghana, 1819. (Thomas Edward Bowdich / Public domain)
Kumasi Becomes the Asante Empire’s Military Capital
By 1695, Osei Tutu and Okomfo Anokye had turned Kumasi into a formidable capital. They had organized the state councils, reorganized the army according to a new martial philosophy, and sworn unity with all the minor chiefs of the area.
Four years later, Osei Tutu and his allies went to war with the Denkyira. This war lasted for two years, and at one point in time, it seemed that Osei Tutu was about to lose it all. On one occasion, the Denkyira made it to the very gates of Kumasi, and the Asante had to fight hard to push the enemy back. Indeed, the war was going badly for the Asante. Once again, Okomfo Anokye is credited with saving the day. The priest is said to have shouted incantations at the Denkyira, which resulted in many of their generals defecting to the Asante.
Although the Denkyira were defeated by 1701, Osei Tutu’s military campaigns were far from over. The Asante king waged many more wars to consolidate his territorial gains, as well as to expand his empire. By the time of Osei Tutu’s death, in either 1712 or 1717, the area controlled by the Asante had increased approximately threefold. The expansionist policy of Osei Tutu was continued by his successor, Opoku Ware, and by the beginning of the 19th century, the Asante Empire was in control of nearly the whole of modern-day Ghana.
For the Asante, the control of this area of land had two important implications. The first is that they were in control of the gold fields. Needless to say, gold was (and still is) considered a valuable commodity and was traded by the Asante for other products. The second is that the Asante were in control of the coast. This meant that they were able to establish trade relations beyond Africa, in particular, with Europe.
In return for their gold, the Asante received European goods, in particular firearms. This relates to the other trade commodity the Asante Empire was famous (or infamous) for slaves. The Asante were a warlike people, and the slaves they sold to the Europeans were often captives of war. European firearms no doubt contributed to their success in these wars. The Asante also received slaves as tribute from the peoples they conquered. Again, the European firearms would have contributed to the Asante’s ability to keep these peoples in submission.
An Asante Empire mask made of solid gold, property of the Asantehene, Kofi Karikari. (Miguel Ángel Palermo and Ana María Dupey / Public domain)
The Gold & Slave Trade Made the Asante Empire Rich
The slave trade brought great wealth to the Asante Empire, and it is estimated that by the end of the 18th century, the number of slaves being exported was as high as 6,000–7,000 a year. Most of these slaves would cross the Atlantic Ocean, ending up as workers on European plantations in the New World. As long as there was a demand for slaves on the part of the Europeans, the Asante Empire was able to reap its rewards.
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The situation changed, however, during the 19th century, and the slave trade, which once brought the Asante Empire great wealth, became a liability. In the late 18th century, the campaign to abolish slavery had begun in Great Britain, one of the Asante Empire’s European trade partners. In 1807, the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was passed, which prohibited the slave trade in the British Empire.
This Act led to the bankruptcy of the African Company of Merchants; a British chartered company engaged in the slave trade. Following the company’s bankruptcy, its slave forts along Ghana’s Gold Coast came under British control. This marks the beginning of British colonial rule in the area.
At the same time, the prohibition of the slave trade by the British was a blow to the economy of the Asante Empire, as it was still highly dependent on it. Additionally, the British were supposedly concerned with the Asante’s continued involvement in the slave trade and attempted to put a stop to it.
Moreover, the British got involved in local politics, supporting the Fante, who were living along the coast, and were suffering from Asante incursions. To complicate the situation even further, there was an element of imperial rivalry involved as well, since the Dutch, who were the rivals of the British, were supporters of the Asante.
The Asante Empire’s army engaged with British forces under the command of Col. Sutherland, July 11, 1824. (Public domain)
Tensions Between the Asante Empire and the British Grow
Tensions between the British and the Asante Empire culminated in the First Anglo-Asante War, which broke out in 1823. The rejection of Asante claims to the Fante areas of the coast by the British, and the refusal of the British to negotiate were the immediate causes of the conflict. The British governor, Sir Charles MacCarthy, led an invading force against the Asante. On 21 January 1824, the Battle of Nsamankow was fought, during which MacCarthy’s expedition force was wiped out by the Asanti. The governor himself lost his life in the battle, and his skull was kept as a trophy, to be used by later Asante kings as a drinking cup.
Following this victory, the Asante attacked the coast, and inflicted another defeat on the British, this time at Efutu. The Asante, however, were not able to sustain their momentum, as they were forced to withdraw due to disease. As the First Anglo-Asante War progressed, the British realized that it was an unprofitable conflict. Therefore, in 1828, the British withdrew to Sierra Leone, and paid the London Committee of Merchants to maintain the forts along the Gold Coast. This eased the tense relations between the British and Asante, leading to the end of the conflict with the signing of a peace treaty in 1831.
The peaceful relations between the British and Asante only lasted 30 years. In 1863, the Second Anglo-Asante War broke out. This war, however, lasted only till 1864, and ended in a stalemate. Ten years later, in 1864, another war, the Third Anglo-Asante War, erupted. This time, the Asante were defeated by the British, and the Treaty of Fomena was signed in 1874. Naturally, the terms of the treaty were highly unfavorable towards the Asante. Apart from that, the British also occupied Kumasi, the capital, briefly, looted it, and then burnt it down.
British troops ransacking the palace of a lower level chief in Fomena, Ghana, at the point when the Asante Empire became a part of the British Empire. (Illustrated London News / Public domain)
The Final Anglo-Asante War Leaves Asante A British Colony
The Fourth Anglo-Asante War was fought between the end of 1895 and the beginning of 1896. The pretext for the war was the failure of the Asante to pay the indemnity as agreed in the Treaty of Fomena. In reality, however, the British wanted to take control of Asante lands once and for all. This was because the Germans and French were also expanding their empires in Africa, and the British were afraid that the Asante lands would fall into their hands first. The Asante were quickly defeated, and their leaders, including the king, Prempeh I, were sent into exile on the island of Seychelles.
The Fifth Anglo-Asante War, known also as the War of the Golden Stool, was the final conflict between the two powers. This war was provoked by Sir Frederick Hodgson, the Governor of the Gold Coast, who demanded that he be given the Golden Stool to sit on. Hodgson was not ignorant of the sacred nature of the stool and was planning to humiliate the Asante. Consequently, the Asante, led by the remaining elites who were not sent to Seychelles, revolted against the British Resident at Kumasi Fort. The revolt, however, ended in failure, and its leaders were also exiled to the Seychelles.
Following the last Anglo-Asante War, the Asante Empire became part of Britain’s Gold Coast colony. It was only in 1935 that the Asante monarchy was restored, and self-rule returned to the kingdom. When Ghana received its independence in 1957, the Asante Kingdom became part of this new country.
Today, there is still an Asante king, whose office is recognized by the Constitution of Ghana. The current holder of this office is Osei Tutu II, who has been on the throne since 1999.
Manhyia Palace in Kumasi, Ghana, which is the home of the remaining members of the Asantehene royal family. (Nkansahrexford / CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Asante People: From Minor Power to Empire to Colony
To conclude, the Asante Empire started off as an insignificant power in the area of modern-day Ghana during the 17th century. Thanks to the skilled leadership of its first ruler, Osei Tutu, and Okomfo Anokye, the Asante became a formidable power, and prospered from trade.
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This trade, however, eventually became a liability, as the Asante came into conflict with the British. Although the Asante defeated the British during the First Anglo-Asante War, they were ultimately defeated in the subsequent wars, and their empire became nothing more than another colony of the British Empire.
Although the Asante Empire came to an end, its monarchy was never completely wiped out, and was eventually restored. When Ghana gained its independence, the Asante Kingdom became part of the new nation.
Some of the material culture left behind by the Asante, can be seen today in western museums, such as the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Apart from that, in the Asante region itself, there is a UNESCO World Heritage called the “Traditional Buildings,” which is described as “the last material remains of the great Asante civilization.”
Top image: Asantehene Otumfuo Osei Tutu II is the current king of what is left of the Asante Empire. Source: Asante Kingdom
By Wu Mingren
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