The British Empire

The Ashanti War of 1873/4

A test of British imperialism

The first of a number of colonial wars fought in the last quarter of the c19th was one fought in west Africa with the Ashanti people who lived in what is now Ghana. This war was very much a test of the British view of Imperialism. For many it was a clash between British Christianity and an Africa that was full of pagan illiterate peoples with childish customs and debased art.

The Ashanti had an advanced culture

The Ashanti though were people with an advanced culture. They were excellent  craftsmen in gold, silver and wood and had a capital city, Kumasi that was full of well designed  buildings in streets that were clean with avenues of trees and with houses that had toilets, boiling  water and with regular disposal of rubbish.

 The Ashanti though did practice human  sacrifice with hundreds slaughtered to provide a retinue for the King. To the British the Ashanti appeared murderous and backward and when they began to make raids on the coastal tribes where British trading forts were based, the British government decided to act. The Ashanti practised slavery at a time when the British wee determined to destroy the slave trade particularly along the west Africa coast. The Ashanti also controlled the trade routes from the  western Africa to the Gold Coast. Attempts to defeat the tribe in the 1820s and 1860s had failed leading to General Wolseley being chosen as the man to rid the area of slavery and practices regarded as pagan in Britain.

Wolseley was the man to bring Christianity to the Ashanti

The man  given command of the force sent against the Ashanti was  the classic  Victorian colonial soldier, Garnet Wolseley. Wolseley gathered together his force in late 1873 - 4,000 British regulars from the Black Watch and the Rifle Brigade with native artillery. Wolseley did all he could to minimise the possibility of  his men falling  ill through any of he tropical diseases which plagued that area of Africa. They had specially made uniforms and had various devices to combat the heat. They had respirators against the heat, veils for insects, cholera belts and quinine. Three hospital ships lay off the coast and a second army of 8,500 men were kept in reserve  in case of losses.

The Black Watch enter Kumasi, the Ashanti capital

An ultimatum was delivered to Kumasi but was ignored. Diversionary attacks were made and Wolseley had roads and bridges built through the thick rain forest. Despite being continually harried by the Ashanti, Wolseley steadily advanced until he arrived at the village of Ejiasi where the Ashanti were  virtually invisible but their muskets were no match for the British superior fire power. The advance continued and on February 3 1874 the Black Watch entered Kumasi, the Ashanti  having fled. Wolseley who had been at Peking in 1860, sent  an ultimatum to the Asantahene wanting them to agree to terms. Wolseley wanted to leave Kumasi as soon as possible concerned about the possibility of disease. With no word coming he ordered that  the city be destroyed. With that, messengers of peace were sent and Wolseley's terms were agreed to. Hostages were  released, claims to the coastal fortress of Elmina were renounced and the independence of certain coastal tribes were recognised. The campaign led to Wolseley being  hailed as 'Britain's only General' and the phrase 'All Sir Garnet' being introduced into the English language. He was given £20,000 by a grateful Parliament and made a Grand Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George.

The fires of Imperialism stoked up

The Ashanti War stoked the fires of Imperialism and excited the public imagination. In magazines, novels and newspapers, stories of Imperial victories would now appeal to owners who wanted  to boost sales figures. Yet the British public  understood little about the real nature of the war and of Ashanti society. This was to be characteristic of many of the succeeding campaigns in Africa. It  also gave reassurance to a British public that was becoming increasingly concerned about the nature of British power, particularly coming just after the Prussian armies had destroyed the French armies and occupied Paris. With this victory against the Ashanti, the British felt  they were quite capable of meeting the demands of empire. The war justified Britain's 'Imperial Mission', demonstrated that the army was capable of maintaining the Empire and was a uniting force in British politics. The Ashanti  War of 1874 was the first of many such colonial wars that were a feature of the last quarter of the century.

Further conflict

Despite the defeat of King Karikari, his successor Prempeh reverted to traditional Ashanti customs and when Colonial Secretary wanted to open up the area to British settlement in the 1890s there were further military expeditions. It was only when Prempeh was deposed in 1896 and Ashanti became a British protectorate that the British gained full control over the area although when a British governor insisted on being enthroned on the Golden Stool a further outbreak of violence ensued was quickly put down.

The taking of Kumasi, capital of the Ashanti

The Black Watch entered Kumasi on 3 February 1874