The Trials of Asante Empire

The OmanbaPa Research Group

to Grandpa

Asante Fordjour


The story of the Asante Empire after the first three decades of the nineteenth century when she attained the peak of her power and greatness, according to Professor Albert Adu Boahen (1975), is one of sad decline and disintegration. “By 1874 the empire has lost its vassalstates north of the Volta as well as south of the River Pra and had shrunk into the area of the present day Asante and Bono-Ahafo regions.” In the words of Boahen the fall of this once famous empire between 1824 and 1874 could be attributed to three principal reasons behind the decline and disintegration: The first was the weak structure of the empire itself. The second was the incompetence of the kings of Asante during that period and the third, and most decisive, was the defeats that the empire suffered in the wars it fought with the British during that period. Ever since, Asante, though continues to wield significant political and economic might and influence in Ghana its glories, as contemporary historians attempt to suggest, had been discriminatory tendencies towards its traditional cousins, dispersed by history and succession disputes.


Over the past weeks, the Asante Kingdom- perhaps, the only undiluted traditional authority whose strategic location and foresight in enduring state formation swayed the ravages of “imperial walkovers” in pre-date Gold Coast states, and has become a test case of the long debated issues over the realities of tradition and modernity in contemporary governance, has come under immense focus. Thus recent Directives from Manshyia over Takyiman chieftaincy squabbles is yet to resolve the constitutional hypocrisy that attempts to shelve the powers of traditional authorities- custodians of the Oman which predates Parliament. But is history on the side of Otumfuor Nana Osei Tutu II? JusticeGhana had been on historical expedition and has this to share with readers.

The Asante Empire: Allegiance and Loyalty

By virtue of valid history facts and indeed odds, we begin that there existed an Asante Empire which once consisted of metropolitan and provincial regions. Yes, a story is told that it was only the metropolitan members who were inextricably knit together by their common allegiance to and reverence for the Golden Stool and who were treated as first class citizens. Thus, the members of provincial Asante, Boahen argues, did not have direct access to the Asantehene but had to pass through one of the divisional chiefs to Kumase or the other paramount chiefs, while frequently being made to pay exorbitant tributes. With this, the Sikagwa Kofi became meaningless to them. So notwithstanding the invincibility of the Asante army they longed to break away- a drive that was further encouraged by the fact that their own laws, customs and even armies were left intact.

The empirical findings from Boahen of the Asante-and-Akyem stalk, suggest that the sources of survival of the Asante empire came to depend not on voluntary allegiance and loyalty of the vassal States but rather on the military might. So when this source of control was weakened, the Empire fell apart. By this Boahen attempts to imprint in our minds that whereas the ancient kings and probably the Asante empire sparked boldness, courage, assertiveness and skilful in warfare, generally, diplomacy and sensitivity were scarce in Asante’s armoury. “Had the Asante king been able to integrate the vassal states fully into metropolitan Asante or convinced them to recognise the Golden Stool as the soul of the nation, the empire would possibly have survived despite the weakening of Asante military power. But since the administration of provincial Asante remained based mainly on force, it broke up as soon as this force was destroyed,” says the late historian.

That is to say, had it not been local Allies who were indeed dispersed cousins of the Asante, the invading European forces, as the demise of Brigadier General ((Governor)) Sir Charles McCarthy ((15 February 1764 – 21 January 1824)) in the Battle of Nsamankow(1824) suggests, would have had it extremely challenging at the frontlines? We intend not to discuss the rise of the empire but mention in passing that Asante- an empire born out of repeated defeats and mutual survival in the face of wars, forgot its past with Denkyira. Boahen’s talks of “integration” that sounds more perfect than the phrase ‘to convince’ that appears one-sided and misleading? The answer probably lies in our history. The ancient animosities of Asante-Akyem are glaring to us all but in our judgement, the “ancient groaning” of the Fantes and others, ought also to be addressed.

As Boahen points out, the greatest single cause of the collapse of the Asante Empire was the outcome of the series of wars that broke out between the Asante and the British and its Allies as the British changed their role as mediators in the wars between for example, the Fante and the Asante, and in 1824, 1826…1873, took the field themselves against the Asante. “The British directly entered the battlefield for several reasons: anxiety that the Asante should not control the entire coastline of Ghana, to establish peace and order with a view to promoting legitimate trade and evangelical activities, and contempt for the Asante, their laws and customs.” Thus had the British recognised the Asante claim to the Fante areas by right of conquest and cooperated with the Asante commissioners in Fanteland, wars would have been avoided. The argument here is that to understand our individual position on the Takyiman chieftaincy dispute vis-à-vis Asante, probably, it might not be enough to scratch the surface of history as we might be misled by politics.

Political Interpretation

In politicising the fall of Asante Empire, Boahen submits that there would have been no doubt that the course of Ghanaian history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries would have been different had the empire survived and for good or ill, Republic of Ghana today might very well be a monarchical state with the Asantehene as the head of State. But to the surprise of Boahen the Governor of the British forts who welcomed the Asante at the time of the first defeat of Fante in 1807 and adopted a policy of cooperation, died only a year later. Successive Governors abandoned this policy in favour of the eighteenth century principle of preventing an Asante domination of the Ghanaian Coastline. So in 1817, when the Asantehene claimed that ‘all Fantes are (his) slaves by virtue of conquest and subsequently by acts of homage, presents and tribute´, Governor Hope Smith, instructed the British Resident in Kumase, William Hutchison, with this message:

“You will expressly state to the king and in the most decided terms that the Cape coast people are not his slaves nor have they ever been acknowledged as such; neither can they nor any of the natives residing under the British protection be included in that most degrading title. I have in a former letter mentioned that any interference on the part of the king in matters concerning the people residing under the protection of the Forts simply cannot be allowed.” Thus the Treaty of Amity and Peace concluded between the Asante and the British in 1820 by Dupuis- the British emissary to Kumasi, was rejected out of hand by the Governor and his Council in Cape Coast and also by the British Government. With this the Asante’s conquest and annexation of Fanteland between 1807 and 1823, resulted in a clash and inevitably, a forgotten relationship until this century.

So, Kwesi Pratt and Ato Kwamina may probably be understood when they said that they are no longer under ‘historical bondage’ but rather freedmen under the Republic. But had there ever been a situation where for example, an Oyokoni in Oguaa been a slave to his kindred in Kumase or can an Aduana in Dormaa Ahenkro claim blood superiority over his kinsmen in Akwamufie? For the benefit of Akan tradition, the Okyenhen- Asonaba Nana Amoatia Ofori Panin II in Akyem Abuakwa, might err in custom, if he were to claim that he is more of royal to Asonaba Nana Wiafe Akenten- the Paramount Chief of Offinso in the Asante. As Boahen notes, the another factor that ignited a clash between Asante and the British almost inevitable was the impact of the abolition of the slave trade, which had serious repercussions. Thus, in 1807, the very year that the Asante invaded and defeated the Fante, the British abolished this trade, which had been the dominant economic activity of both white and black on the coast of Ghana in the 18th century.

The Under-Secretary for the Colonies, Knatchbull-Hugesson is quoted to have noted that in 1873 the British were out to give the Asante ‘a severe lesson; the more severe and effectual it is, the better chance of avoiding future inroads.’ The empire, on the other hand, was, in the words of Boahen, quite anxious to carry on the slave trade as this was one of the ways by which it disposed of numerous prisoners of war whom they could not integrate into the Asante society. But Boahen reveals that the empire simply could not understand why the British who in the previous century had been the greatest buyers of slaves had suddenly abolished that trade, and why its appeals through Bowdich and Dupuis for its revival failed. So who were the empire’s war captives- the local Allies? The captives of Anglo-Asante wars such as Nsamankow (1824) and the second clash in 1826 at Ddowa that was won decisively by the British and their Allies or the third confrontation that occurred in 1863 when the Asante-British armies faced each other across the Pra?

According to Boahen, in 1862, the refusal of Governor Richard Pine to hand over a fugitive called Kwasi Gyani mainly because he could not believe that in spite of his oath, the Asantehene- described by the British as ‘ruffian’ and a ‘barbarian’ would give the fugitive a fair trial, and partly rebellion of the Akyem Kotoku under their King Agyeman led to the Asante invasion of the coast and a British counter-move in 1863. Boahen observes that had the British recognised the fact that they were not dealing with a ‘ruffian’ and a ‘barbarian’ but a king who administered his empire in accordance with established law and custom and who had respect for his oath, some of the wars, could have been avoided. The final and most probably, the decisive of all the wars- the Sagrenti War- began in 1869 and ended in 1874 with the mass invasion of the southern states by the Asante army. Asante won its early wars but in 1874 the British army under the command of Sir Garnet Wolseley succeeded not only in repulsing the invasion but in counter-invading Asante and entering, sacking and inflaming Kumasi in February 1874.

While in the 1873-4 war the British used Enfield rifles- the latest guns in the field, as well as seven-pounder guns, Boahen says that the Asante on both occasions used completely outmoded muzzle-loading guns- firing slugs, clubs and stones. So in a speech in the House of Lords on the war in May 1874 the Earl of Caernarvon himself admitted this and had this to say about their success: “But how different it would have been if, instead of Birmingham guns, they (the Asante) had been supplied with breechloaders and arms of precision, which they must have employed in the bush with deadly effect.”

The first consequence of these wars and the one which proved most landing was the disintegration of the Empire. As a result of the defeat in 1826 and the Maclean Treaty of 1831, the Asante lost all their vassal states south of the River Pra. Following the second defeat in 1874, and the complete destruction of the Asante army, the states to the north of the Volta, according to Boahen, also broke away and unilaterally proclaimed their independence, and for obvious reasons were never reconquered. “The second effect was the British withdrawal from Ghana between 1828 and 1842 and later their conversion of the southern states into a British protectorate in 1874. The defeat of the Asante did bring about a long period of peace between 1828 and 1860 and after 1874. Certainly, the Asante Empire never invaded southern Ghana again after their defeat in 1874.”

Whereas the 1874 defeat proved to be the landmark reason for the demise of the Asante Empire, it worth also noting that the fall and the disintegration of the empire could also be traced to the incompetence of most of the Asante kings who according to Boahen, lacked delicate diplomacy, tact and statesmanship which in the opinion of JusticeGhana, are crucial in nation building. The first on the list, according to Boahen, was Osei Yaw Akoto, who was rash, tactless, an excessive drunkard and a king who had no respect for Asante customs and constitution. “Not only did he plunge his army into the Battle of Dodowa without adequate preparations but he also declared war on Dwaben in 1832.” As Boahen put it, this resulted in civil war and the migration of the Dwaben into Akyem Abuakwa for eight years and the consequent weakening of the empire that since the time of Nana Osei Tutu I, had been the most powerful of the states of the confederacy. “When Kwaku Dua I succeeded Osei Yaw Akoto (1834-1867), he also turned out to be a great pacifist at a time when war was needed to win back the lost southern provinces.”

According to Boahen the trend did not change as his successor, Kofi KariKari (1867-74), though a brave ruler; not only lost the 1874 war but he was also a great spendthrift. “He was in fact deposed in 1874 for rifling the mausoleum and stealing precious ornaments and gold buried with some of his predecessors. With such a line of inadequate rulers, it was not surprising that the empire declined.” Against this backdrop, one might argue that the Empire waged war on her own siblings and cousins and indeed captured them into slavery. But if Germans and Jews could honestly forgive another other, why can’t we? The hypocrisy of this century is that with much focus on politics of numbers of which strategically, Asante appears not only as counterforce to the Republic but also, serves as a conserving and reservoir of Akan, if not Ghanaian traditions and customs, its historical trials- diplomatic deficiencies, ill-treatment her immediate and distant cousins such as the Bonos, Akyems and the Fantes, will always be invoked. So what ought to be learnt?

The Historical Lesson

In this study, we have learnt about once a great empire whose demise appears to us like the mystical story of the porcupine child whose weaknesses, as illustrated by Nana Kwame Ampadu I in one of his songs, was betrayed by the annoyance of its own mother to her playmates whom it dominated in strength. The demise of Asante was occasioned by her own cousins who collaborated with ‘foreign agents’ for its eventual doom in the 1900s and the captivity of her royals and prominent folks into exile. Perhaps the greatest historical guide to Asante is the drive that initiated its own unity of purpose and self-rule.

Written by

Gina is the Director of Health and Publisher, JusticeGhana Group.

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