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Africa During the Scramble: The Kings of the Golden Stool

By Gary Oswald

Defeat of the Ashantees, by the British forces under the command of Coll. Sutherland, July 11th 1824

The Machine Gun more than anything else is the iconic weapon of the Scramble for Africa, the thing that made European conquest possible. Early versions of it often jammed in combat, allowing European forces to be defeated, which meant it was often unpopular by soldiers on the grounds, but by the 1890s it was much more reliable and so a killing machine, something that would be demonstrated time and time again. Prior to the introduction of the Gatling Gun in the 1860s and then the Maxim Gun in the 1890s, there was a balance of power between a lot of African and European armies. The Europeans had better weapons but the Africans had greater numbers and so there was broad parity. And both armies had guns and cannons of some description, the technological advantage existed but it wasn't telling. The Machine Gun changed that, because it allowed relatively small numbers of European soldiers to destroy much larger African armies. While some African polities did manage to acquire machine guns, this was rare, especially in Sub Saharan Africa. For the vast majority of battles in the Scramble, to quote Hilaire Belloc from the European perspective 'Whatever happens, we have got, the Maxim, and they have not'.

Nowhere was this shift in power more apparent than in the wars between the British Empire and the Ashanti Confederation. The Ashanti had faced off against the British in five conflicts between 1806 and 1864 and had held their own in all of them and then came the Machine Gun and suddenly the balance changed.

The Ashanti state had been formed by a union of Akan speaking people in the late 17th century. The symbol of that union was the Golden Stool, a throne made of gold, that represented power in the Ashanti nation and the soul of the Kingdom. It was an object that was only moved via cushions so it could never touch the ground or the hands of a non King and was never sat in. The Mampong rulers, the most important vassal of the Ashanti, had their own silver Stool, to represent their position as chief lieutenant, each vassal village leader had a smaller and less holy Chiefly stool and each subject had their own entirely plain stool. These stools were a centralising and unifying instrument which symbolised the Ashanti hierarchy.

The history of the Ashanti state is not that different to that of the Dahomey, as both were subject to the same pressures of the Atlantic Slave Trade. The Ashanti state became increasingly militarised due to the slave raids, with female power structures side-lined in favour of war kings, and then expanded to take control of the trade routes, which ran both north into Mali and south to the coast. This military expansion was successful enough that by the end of the 18th century they controlled an area larger than modern Ghana. They also, like Dahomey, pushed towards the coast, as they were eager to trade slaves with European to obtain guns, which gave them further advantages in their wars and like Dahomey were opposed by the coastal merchants who were worried about losing their positions as middlemen.

There were however significant differences. While Dahomey was centralised, the Ashanti were a federated state, much like pre civil war USA, with their newly conquered provinces having broad autonomy under vassal kings. The Ashanti King also had much less power generally, ruling even his central land by a constitution and through councils. And his vassal kings in the provinces owned their land outright, they merely swore oaths of Alliance to the Ashanti and had to attend annual fests in his honour. The King's courts could overrule the courts of his vassals when it comes to justice, if an injured subject appealed to the Ashanti capital of Kumasi, but otherwise the provinces could set their own laws. Even taxes were only collected centrally on occasions of war or national emergency. And while the Ashanti did have a centralised Army, smaller local militia were raised by the provinces.

This, obviously, is to speak in generalities. The Ashanti state persisted for over 200 years and the power of the provinces versus the central government waxed and waned over those years due to rebellions and the nature of the men in question but generally the provinces were far stronger than in an absolute monarchy like Dahomey or Russia. At certain times, the vassal Kings could not even be deposed by the Ashanti leadership but rather only by the councils of elders who elected them, though at certain other times the Ashanti King was able to remove disloyal vassals. And even within the core territories the King was, often, at the mercy of aristocrats in his court who could veto his decisions though strong Kings resisted this and there was a consistent pattern of growth of a centralised Royal bureaucracy, albeit one which was strongly aristocratic in character.

The other significant difference was that the coastal states of Ghana were much more organised and unified in their opposition to the Ashanti then their counterparts were in Benin. The Fante polities (both Kingdoms and Republics as the Fante had a history of pre colonial democracy through village councils) on the Ghanaian coast forbade the sales of guns to Ashanti traders by law in order to keep their military advantage and refused to allow Ashanti traders access to Europeans directly by banning them from their lands. They also attempted to provoke rebellion amongst the Ashanti vassal kings and regularly gave asylum to criminals, rebels and escaped slaves from the Ashanti nations.

The Europeans, who owned or rented various slave buying forts on the coast, had mixed reactions to this cold war between the Ashanti and Fante. The Dutch and Danes saw the Ashanti as the bigger market and encouraged their advances, such as in 1766 where they forced their way to the coast through superior numbers after having been cut off from it entirely, so that they could buy more slaves from a larger Kingdom. The British however feared the idea of Ashanti control of the coast, partly because they felt the Ashanti king was allied with their rivals the Dutch and partly because they worried that if the Ashanti conquered the Fante they would be powerful enough to remove the British from the country entirely if they wished. Better, they thought, to have a weaker less powerful neighbour to deal with. As a result Britain, somewhat reluctantly, became committed to a policy of defending the Fante people against any attempt by the Ashanti to conquer them.

Between 1807 and 1816 the Ashanti, having acquired many guns as rent and in return for slaves from Denmark and the Netherlands, smashed through Fante and British defences, conquered most of the independent Fante polities and, most notably, captured the town of Anomabo with what was described as the strongest cannons in Africa. During those nine years of warfare, they quickly earned a reputation as the greatest power in western Africa and the British were set firmly on the back foot, losing several forts. The British, beyond their commitments to the Fante, were still in the Gold Coast after they had banned participating in the Atlantic Slave Trade in 1807 both because they wished to open up trade in ivory and minerals with the peoples of the interior and because they wanted to end the slave trade entirely rather than see other European states take over the missing share. The rise of the Ashanti state, and its new position as the largest supplier of slaves in West Africa, meant both these goals would be significantly harder to achieve.

In 1822, a Fante sergeant in a British garrison took the name of the Ashanti King in vain and was put to death by the Ashanti authorities. This happened in the town of Anomabo, which as far as the Ashanti was concerned was now an Ashanti town, with the British there only tenants who paid their rent in gunpowder and as such should be expected to obey Ashanti laws. The British were not willing to accept that and sent a force out to raid the Ashanti lands in punishment for killing a British soldier. This force was ambushed and destroyed and the Ashanti King then announced that he would destroy all the British fortifications in Ghana in retaliation.

Flag of the Ashanti people depicting the Golden Stool in the middle.

Charles MacCarthy, the British governor who had started this mess, reacted by forming a political alliance of all the coastal peoples, whether they had been conquered the Ashanti yet or not. Britain would support their independence and would reinforce their fight against the Ashanti with British soldiers and weapons. These British Soldiers were mostly either West Indians or Africans from Freetown because the vast majority of troops the British used in West Africa were black due to the belief that white people died faster of diseases there.

The war did not go brilliantly for the British and their Fante allies, despite them quickly driving the Ashanti out of the coastal areas. In January 1824, at Nsamankow a British column was wiped out and MacCarthy himself was killed, with his skull used as a drinking goblet. The British won battles elsewhere but by July 1824 they had been pushed back to their stronghold of Accra, where the Ashanti advance was halted by British marines.

In 1826, two years later, the Ashanti attacked the British again and broke the British lines in hand to hand fighting in a major set piece battle in the plains outside Accra. When the Ashanti looked like they were about to win the day, however, the British bought up their reserves who opened fire with rocket artillery and scattered the Ashanti army. The coastal possessions were unthreatened for the rest of the war, though Kumasi and the Ashanti homelands were also peaceful with fighting restricted to border skirmishes. But this new status quo was itself de facto independence for the Fante.

The British however were worried about the prospect of having a major military commitment in the Gold Coast, which due to the fact Britain was no longer buying slaves, wouldn't even be worth it in trade. In 1828, they prepared to evacuate and dismantle their forts but were convinced otherwise by the merchants of London who, for a grant of 4,000 pounds a year, agreed to govern the Gold Coast forts as dependencies of Sierra Leone and prevent any duties being charged on British ships visiting those harbours.

Three years later, in 1831, a peace deal was finally brokered by the British in which the independence of the Fante people of Coast was recognised, but Ashante merchants won the rights to trade throughout the Fante polities and could buy guns and gunpowder within them if they could pay. Moreover the Fante polities made it illegal for their own subjects to insult the Ashanti King, to avoid another situation like that which had started this war, and both sides agreed to end human sacrifice and the new enslavement of debtors (though these laws were more theoretical than observed in reality). All sides essentially got what they wanted, the Fante states regained their independence, the Ashanti broke the Fante boycott on trade with them and Britain got a balance of power which meant they could trade with both sides. Moreover, in the aftermath of the treaty the Fante increasingly became de facto British Vassals. The British governors, there theoretically only to oversee the British trading forts, began to extend their power in terms of enforcing laws and collecting taxes into the neighbouring Fante towns.

In 1844, this was formalised in the form of the Gold Coast Bond, in which the Fante leaders swore an oath of friendship to the British, but this was not fealty so much as an alliance, albeit one in which Britain was recognised as the more powerful partner. The British Parliament, having retook control of the Gold Coast from their traders in 1843, had wished for the Fante to adapt British laws entirely, and had recommended that the Bond include humanist obligations. These would be that the Fante should reemphasise their commitment to ending human sacrifice and the new enslavement of debtors, should also pledge to immediately stop trading in slaves and should aim to work towards full abolition and an adoption of the British justice system. In practice, the Fante refused to pledge to immediately stop trading in slaves and also rejected the aim to work towards full abolition. The actual Bond only included the much vaguer idea that the customs of the Fante countries should be modelled on the general principles of British Law. The Bond therefore gave the Fante leaders the option to allow British law to be enacted there, but not any obligation as such.

In practice however, keeping the British on side was of such importance that there was little resistance to British officials claiming jurisdiction in their lands. In 1852 for instance Britain passed a poll tax through out the lands of the Bond. The Fante leaders objected and were quieted by being given a stipend of cash. As far as the Fante were concerned the British had bought the rights to collect taxes and if the money was no longer coming (as it would stop during the next Anglo-Ashanti war), those rights would also be stopped.

The Peace with the Ashanti lasted until 1863, when a runaway slave took refuge with the British followed by a rebel chief. The unofficial rule had been that the British would return criminals to the Ashanti but by doing so they had come under criticism for aiding and abetting the slave trade and so the British governor felt unwilling to return the runaways to the Ashanti. The Ashanti King, on the other hand, had heard increasing stories of abuses and insults aimed at Ashanti traders by the Fante (such as the imprisonment of multiple traders in 1862) and viewed this refusal as another such insult.

In 1863, Ashanti forces crossed into Fante territory and burned more than 30 towns and villages, taking their inhabitants as slaves. Two British forces that attempted to intersect them were defeated and an attempted counter attack was a disaster with the British/Fante troops defeated by diseases before they even managed to bring the Ashanti to battle.

In the aftermath of that war, in 1865, a Parliamentary Committee set up to investigate the situation advised that Britain pull out of the Gold Coast entirely and indeed that they should retreat from all of West Africa except perhaps Freetown. And in this they had the agreement of the Fante people themselves who had increasingly soured of their British partners after the stipends had stopped, the war had been a disaster and the Gold Coast volunteer rifles corps had been disbanded and now wanted nothing more than for the British to go home.

In 1866 the Fante signed a petition against British claims of jurisdiction in their lands, which the bond made clear the Fante had no obligation to accept and in 1868 the Fante signed a constitution which formed the Fante Confederacy into a self sufficient state, allied to the British but with clear independence. This would be run by a King-President with a national assembly, a standing army, a poll tax and, crucially, it's own justice system, which was not that of the British. Accra itself, the centre of European trade in the Gold Coast, also had a movement to become run by a native confederation. The general agreement between both the Fante and London was now that the UK should pull out, and stop spending money there, and the Fante should run their own affairs.

But, like whenever the UK tried to pull back from Empire, it ran up against its own invested interests. The British traders were not willing to just go gently into the good night. They had purchased the Danish forts, as a long term investment, in 1850 and while they theoretically could remain as trading exclaves within a Fante state, they knew they would be there as foreign guests rather than rulers. Faced with this major threat to their power, they pushed back.

In 1867 the British agreed a trade of forts with the Netherlands, at the behest of the Dutch, who were losing money in the region, and which the British traders agreed to largely in the hopes of distracting the Fante protest movement. Forts in Ashanti territory would become British and forts in Fante Territory became Dutch. Like the British had anticipated, this was received incredibly poorly by the local powers, with the Fante immediately going to war with the Dutch rather than letting them take a foothold in their land. The Dutch, faced with an expensive and brutal war that lasted several years, withdrew entirely from the area, selling their remaining forts to the British in 1872.

King Prempeh of Asante and his attendants

The Ashanti were even more hostile, they felt firmly that they had only ever allowed the Dutch to remain in their forts as tenants and so the British had no right to buy the land from people who did not own it (the Dutch did manage to produce a treaty 'proving' otherwise but it was obviously faked). They were also worried about being cut off once again from the sea and European trade and this led to increased border clashes with the Fante. They also attempted in 1869 to conquer the Volta region (on the modern day border with Togo where the Ewe people held power not the Fante), thus both giving them a second port but also further isolating the British who traded regularly there. The Ashanti hoped to drive off the British entirely, wherein the Fante, without their European allies, would be easy prey.

The Fante Confederacy found themselves having to fight both the Dutch and the Ashanti and were struggling to fund both wars. They also found themselves increasingly opposed by the British traders who had all the executive officers of the Confederacy arrested on trumped up charges in 1871 when they visited a British fort. The Colonial Office ordered the release of the officers and an apology but the damage had been done to the executives credibility. From 1871, Fante enthusiasm for the cause declined, with much less tax being paid and while the wealthy Ghartey Brothers kept the government going for several more years by single handily funding the administration, the Confederacy slowly collapsed. In 1874, faced with a full Ashanti invasion, the Fante peoples were ultimately relatively peacefully annexed into the British Gold Coast as subjects.

But Francis Agbodeka, the first person to obtain a doctorate degree from the University of Ghana, has argued the Fante were a lot closer to success than has been realised. In 1868, the Fante had the chance to wipe out the Dutch forces at Komeda but their Colonel withdrew to their fortress at Elmina and from then on held out under siege. Had Colonel Boers held his ground, Agbodeka argued, then the Fante would have defeated the Dutch a lot quicker and thus managed to hold their country together to the extent that the British would follow the advice of the 1865 Parliamentary Committee and withdraw.

This would almost certainly then result in a Fante-Ashanti War as the Ashanti sought to reconquer the coastal regions but a newly independent Fante would at least have enthusiasm for that fight. Whereas in OTL, when the Ashanti invaded in 1873, the British had trouble getting volunteers from the rather sullen newly annexed Fante, and while Fante independence might change things, in OTL the Ashanti were there to punish more than conquer. In 1873, much like they had ten years earlier, the invading army burned down Fante villages, looted them for both goods and slaves and then pulled back entirely into Ashanti territory due to losses to disease and attrition, without attempting to hold any of the land they'd despoiled.

The British, by this point with clear plans to claim control over the Fante Confederacy and newly armed with Gatling Machine Guns, prepared themselves for a major campaign against the Ashanti with the aim of removing them as a threat entirely. They spent late 1873 building bridges and roads and in 1874 began the march to Kumasi, the Ashanti Capital, using the machine guns to destroy the Ashanti army in two pitched battles, before entering the Capital unopposed.

The Capital was not defended because the royal family had already fled and most of the citizens would soon join them. The British freed Fante prisoners and slaves who then joined the British in looting the town. The royal palaces were destroyed and the town lit on fire, at which point the British left. But upon their exit, they met messengers from the Ashanti King agreeing to surrender.

The destruction of the royal mausoleum under the palace and so the ancestors the Ashanti worshipped was a humiliation the King could not survive.

The burning of Kumasi led to the Ashanti signing the Treaty of Fomena in which they made further promises to ban human sacrifice and slave trading, renounced all ambitions to the coastal areas and promised to pay a huge indemnity to the UK, which the British used as a source of control. It also weakened the Ashanti enough that the state began to disintegrate, first many of the vassal Kingdoms broke away from the main state and, having regained their independence, often asked for British aid to keep it. Secondly many of the independent traders who, as Ashanti moved from primarily selling slaves to primarily selling kola nuts, cocoa and rubber, were growing increasingly powerful, led a rebellion against the King's protectionism and when defeated, fled to the British Gold Coast, the first of many refugees fleeing the fighting in the Ashanti lands. This disintegration originally took the British authorities by surprise but they were quick to take advantage of it to weaken their rivals in Kumasi further, offering protection and support to any province wishing to switch alliance from Kumasi to Accra, such as the Adansi and the Sefwi.

As well as this external threat, the Ashanti royal family bickered internally. Mensa Bonsu, blamed for the disasters of the last decade, was overthrown by his sister Yaa Akyaa with his nephews taking the throne. But, as she was from the south, this was bitterly contested by the northern towns. The result was five years of civil war and the complete retreat of Ashanti power from its frontiers to its heartlands.

In 1891, less than twenty years after a complete British abandonment of the Gold Coast had been seriously considered, the British were so clearly the dominant power that they openly plotted to extend their control entirely over the newly weakened Ashanti state. They asked the Ashanti King, Prempeh I, to agree to become a British protectorate with a garrison in Kumasi. The Ashanti refused but the British were worried that if they did not conquer North Ghana, France or Germany would and emphasised the still unpaid indemnity from the previous war as a casus belli. Attempted diplomacy by Prempeh, who offered concessions on the Ashanti gold, cocoa and rubber trades, were ignored and British West Indian troops armed with Maxim guns marched on Kumasi in 1895, arriving in 1896. They encountered no enemy resistance, the Ashanti knew they could not win a war against an enemy with Machine guns. Prempeh I surrendered and signalled his willingness to serve as a vassal and then was deposed anyway and sent to exile in the Seychelles, despite giving the British no reason to distrust him. The Ashanti, who had built their power around maintaining vassal Kings who would serve them, found this decision baffling, but it would only be the first sign of the arrogance and complacency of the British occupying troops, who no longer felt the need to consider the sensibilities of the conquered.

In December 1899 Frederick Hodgson, the British governor, told the Ashanti that the power and authority of Prempeh had been taken over by the Representative of the Queen of Britain. And so he demanded they hand over the Golden Stool for him to sit upon.

Given what the stool represented and that no one had ever sat on it, this was, though Hodgson didn't seem to have realised it, a declaration of war. And the Ashanti, led by Yaa Asantewaa, a queen mother from one of the remaining loyal provinces, certainly took it as such. The result was the last Anglo-Ashanti War, the War of the Golden Stool.

Yaa's forces laid siege to the British fort in Kumasi and mauled a relief column sent from Lagos, fighting until the British machine gun jammed and they had to retreat. Shortly after this Hodgson led a break out from the fort in Kumasi where he and his troops fled to a pro-British area.

Two further armies, marching from Nigeria and Sierra Leone were also driven back, but eventually the British reinforcements broke through. In September 1900, for the third and final time, British troops captured Kumasi. Yaa Asantewaa fought her last stand a little later at Aboaso and was soon sent to join Prempeh in the Seychelles.

Could the Ashanti have won? They certainly could win battles but, by 1900, the British had a decently sized army already in West Africa and no other local conflicts. They also had a significant number of loyal locals and vastly superior weapons. By that time, the odds were very much against the rebels. A guerrilla war could have dragged it out longer but that wasn't how the Ashanti fought. Their legitimacy came from holding land and, as had been proven decades earlier, they couldn't survive abandoning Kumasi to fight from the bush.

The Golden Stool itself was hidden from the British in a series of villages until it was accidentally unearthed by a road gang led by Kwasi Nsenie Agya in 1921. Agya was one of the independent traders who had opposed the Ashanti royalty, converted to Christianity and collaborated with the British in the War of the Golden Stool. But he had been unable to make his fortune in the British colonial regime either and had been cut out of the privileges the chosen few enjoyed. Here was both a chance for him to quickly gain the riches to allow him access to that elite and also spit in the face of the old regime he had hated. He quickly and brutally stripped the stool of gold with a hammer, melted the gold down and sold it for cash. The stool itself, however was left intact, now no longer any different to the one Agya himself will have owned. It was a potent metaphor for the destruction of the Ashanti Hierarchy.

In 1816 the Ashanti had conquered an area larger than Ghana, in 1824 their King used the skull of a British Governor who opposed them as a drinking vessel and as late as 1868, the chance was there for a complete withdrawal of both the British and the Dutch, an Ashanti conquest of the Fante and a reunified Ghana under the Ashanti King. But it didn't happen and soon the combination of the Machine Gun and a changing political situation meant they were instead conquered themselves. By 1921, Prempeh I was imprisoned on an island nearly 4,000 miles away from Kumasi and the symbol of his power had been melted down for money by a former subject. Few paragraphs sum up Africa's 19th century and the decisive effect of the Machine Gun better.


Gary Oswald is the editor of the 'Grapeshot and Guillotines' and 'Emerald Isles' Anthologies.


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