Ghana Table of Contents
Historically, the Asante, who are members of the Twi-speaking branch of the Akan people, have exercised considerable influence. The groups that constituted the core of the Asante confederacy moved north and settled in the vicinity of Lake Bosumtwi. Prior to the mid-seventeenth century, several Asante leaders, one of them Oti Akenten (r. ca. 1630-60), embarked on a program of military expansion that enabled the Asante to dominate surrounding tribes, establish the most powerful state in the central forest zone, and form an alliance with neighboring states known as the Asante confederation.
In the late seventeenth century, Osei Tutu (d. 1712 or 1717) became asantehen (king of Asante). During his reign, the Asante confederation destroyed the influence of Dankyera, which had been the strongest state in the coastal hinterland and which had been exacting tribute from most of the other Akan groups in the central forest. Asante authorities then moved the confederation's capital to Kumasi and continued their policy of military expansion. During one southern expedition, rebels ambushed and killed Osei Tutu and most of his generals. The Asante confederation, which allowed newly conquered territories to retain their customs and chiefs, survived this catastrophe and continued to expand its boundaries, in the process transforming itself into an empire. Under succeeding leaders, Asante armies extended the empire's frontier southward. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Asante governed a territory as large as modern-day Ghana and were challenging the Fante states for control of the coast, where European traders had established a network of posts and fortifications.
The rapid growth of the Asante empire aroused the suspicions of the Fante, who believed that the Asante sought to subjugate the coastal states. Asante-Fante relations, therefore, remained hostile for most of the second half of the eighteenth century. Specific problems between the two Akan states included the Fante refusal to allow Asante traders direct access to the coast; a Fante law that prohibited the sale of firearms and ammunition to the Asante national army; Fante support of Dankyera, Akyem, and other states in their revolts against Asante authority; and the Fante practice of granting sanctuary to refugees from the Asante empire. To resolve these problems, the Asante launched three successful military expeditions (in 1807, 1811, and 1816) against the Fante and by 1820 had become the strongest power in West Africa.
The Asante national army, which achieved these and numerous other victories, relied on troops mobilized for specific campaigns rather than on a standing, professional force. Evasion of military service was punishable by death. The army, which lacked cavalry, possessed superior infantry comprising musketeers, bowmen, and spearsmen. The armed force also included scouts (akwansraf); an advance guard (twaf); a main force (adonte); the king's personal bodyguard (gyas); a rear guard (kyido); and two wings, the left (benku) and the right (nif). Additionally, the Asante army had a medical corps (esumankwaf) that treated the army's wounded and removed the dead from the battlefield.
The Asante army's success against the Fante, coupled with the Asante's determination to preserve their empire, posed a threat to the British, who also wanted to control Ghana's coast for strategic, political, and economic reasons. Britain's commitment to stopping the slave trade made it impossible for the British to maintain good relations with the Asante, who, by 1820, had become the main source of slaves on the coast. Many British policymakers believed, moreover, that it was their duty to promote Christianity and Western civilization. Some British merchants also believed that if Asante power could be destroyed, a vast market would be opened to them.
Given the differences between the British and the Asante, a military clash between them was inevitable. After the Asante executed a Fante soldier who served in a British garrison for insulting their king, the British launched a military expedition against a 10,000-member Asante force near the village of Bonsaso. The Asante not only outnumbered the British but also used superior tactics. The fighting, which began on January 22, 1824, initially favored the Asante, who encircled the British force and killed Governor Charles MacCarthy. Eventually, however, the British drove the Asante back to Kumasi.
After reorganizing and reequipping, the Asante in 1826 again invaded the coast, attacking the British and their allies. During the fighting on the open plains of Accra, the British used Congreve rockets, which frightened Asante warriors who believed the enemy was using thunder and lightning against them. The Asante panicked and fled to Kumasi. According to a peace treaty concluded in 1831, the asantehen recognized the independence of the coastal states and agreed to refer all future disputes to the British for adjudication. In exchange, the coastal states promised to allow the Asante to engage in legal trade on the coast and to respect the asantehen. During much of the following two decades, Captain George Maclean, president of a local council of British merchants, used tact and diplomacy to enforce the peace treaty.
After the British government resumed responsibility for the administration of the coastal forts in 1843, relations with the Asante gradually deteriorated. In addition to assaults on Asante traders, the asantehen believed that the British and their Fante allies no longer treated him with respect. When British Governor Richard Pine refused to return an Asante chief and a runaway slave to the asantehen, the Asante prepared for war. In April 1863 they invaded the coast and burned thirty villages. Pine responded by deploying six companies along the Pra River, the border between states allied with the British and the Asante. The deployed force built a network of stockades and a bridge, but it returned home without engaging the enemy after inexplicably having lost its guns, ammunition, and supplies.
The Second Asante War (1873-74) began as a result of the asantehene' attempt to preserve his empire's last trade outlet to the sea at the old coastal fort of Elmina, which had come into British possession in 1872. In early 1873, a 12,000-member Asante army crossed the Pra River and invaded the coastal area but suffered a defeat at Elmina. The British government then appointed Major General Garnet Wolseley administrator and commander in chief and ordered him to drive the Asante from the coastal region. In December 1873, Wolseley's African levies were reinforced by the arrival of several British units.
Approximately one month later, Wolseley sent an advance party across the Pra, warning the asantehen that he intended to begin hostilities. Wolseley, however, also offered an armistice. When negotiations failed, both sides prepared for war.
The most significant battle of the Second Asante War occurred at Amoafo, near the village of Bekwai. Although the Asante performed admirably, superior weapons allowed the British to carry the day. Asante losses were unknown; the British lost four men and had 194 wounded. In the following days, Wolseley captured Bekwai and then Kumasi. On March 14, 1874, the two sides signed the Treaty of Fomena, which required the Asante to pay an indemnity of 50,000 ounces of gold, to renounce claims to Elmina and to all payments from the British for the use of forts, and to terminate their alliances with several other states, including Denkyera and Akyem. Additionally, the asantehen agreed to withdraw his troops from the coast, to keep the trade routes open, and to halt the practice of human sacrifice.
The British victory and the Treaty of Fomena ended the Asante dream of bringing the coastal states under their power. The northern states of Brong, Gonja, and Dagomba also took advantage of the Asante defeat by asserting their independence. The Asante empire was near collapse. In 1896 the British declared a protectorate over Asante and exiled the asantehen, Prempeh, his immediate family, and several close advisers to the Seychelles Islands.
The last Anglo-Asante war occurred in 1899-1900, when the British twice tried to take possession of the asantehen's Golden Stool, symbol of Asante power and independence. In April 1900, the Asante reacted to these attempts by launching an armed rebellion and by laying siege to the Kumasi fort, where the British governor and his party had sought refuge. The British eventually defeated the Asante, both capturing and exiling the rebellion's leader, Yaa Asantewaa, and fifteen of her closest advisers. The conclusion of the last Anglo-Asante war resulted in the formal annexation of the Asante empire as a British possession.
Data as of November 1994
Ghana Table of Contents