Prempeh I, the king of the Ashanti, or the Asantehene as he was known in the Gold Coast, was exiled by the British to the Seychelles in 1896. He was a victim of the feverish acquisition of territory that later became known as the Scramble for Africa. But European exploitation of the area was by no means a new thing. Since the 15th century, traders from many European nations had been drawn to the west coast of Africa by the rich pickings that were to be had in gold and in slaves for the New World.
Life on the coast was usually short for these European traders, because West Africa was rife with malaria and yellow fever. Nevertheless, they managed to establish a chain of forts and castles in the Gold Coast (modern Ghana) that were both strongholds and trading posts. The local tribes acted as middle men supplying the slaves and gold from the interior, for the impenetrable rain forests of the interior were virtually unknown to the Europeans. These forests were the stronghold of the fierce and powerful Ashantis.
The Ashanti were a politically astute people at the centre of an empire formed from a confederation of linguistically related tribes and conquered vassals.
Their political and social systems were highly sophisticated and structured. In law, the death penalty was imposed for fewer crimes than in Victorian England and execution was by decapitation. In religion, the Ashanti were animists and heads literally rolled when a chief died, so that he could be accompanied in the after life by his retainers. Although they traded with the coastal tribes for gunpowder and other European goods, the Ashanti considered these tribes inferior and frequently raided them for slaves and other booty. In war, their fallen enemies were decapitated and their heads taken as trophies to adorn the Ashanti war drums.
By the beginning of the 19th century, Britain was the foremost maritime power in the world and British trading posts dominated the West African coast. The government decided to formalise its control by appointing a governor in 1822 to replace the committee of traders that had hitherto been in charge. The first incumbent, Sir Charles McCarthy, unfortunately believed that the Ashanti would render due respect to his exalted position. Two years later, as a result of this erroneous belief, he literally lost his head in an ill planned military expedition to deter Ashanti incursions into the coastal area.
The government then washed its hands of the country and control was handed back to the committee of merchants in 1828. Parliament even considered almost total withdrawal from West Africa on the grounds of cost. However, their reluctance to hand the trade to other European nations deterred it from taking this step.
Inevitably, when the Ashanti took some Swiss missionaries prisoner in 1874, Britain made it a cassus belli. But more importantly than this official reason for war, the British were already concerned by French colonial expansion in West Africa. Neighbouring Ivory Coast had been made a French Protectorate in 1868 and London feared that it was only a matter of time before the French invaded Ashanti in pursuit of its gold.
So, in 1874, Sir Garnet Wolseley was despatched with a force of British army regulars to bring the Ashanti to heel.
Racked by fevers and constantly ambushed by the disciplined Ashanti, the British fought their way doggedly through the forest.
Victory was only achieved because of the superiority of the British artillery and their Snyder rifles over the traditional muskets of the Ashanti.
But the invaders were on their last legs when they finally reached the Asantehene’s capital, Kumasi. The British hastily looted the royal palace and burned the town to the ground.
Wolseley and his battered force then beat a speedy retreat as the tropical rainy season commenced. The defeated Ashanti had already released their prisoners and subsequently agreed a treaty to give up claims on coastal territories, to cease the practice of human sacrifice and to pay a huge indemnity of 50,000 ounces of gold. The Gold Coast was now declared a Crown Colony and a new governor appointed. British control of the Gold Coast was not even an issue for discussion at the 1884 Berlin Conference that formalised the carve up of Africa amongst the European powers.
Meanwhile, having lost their invincibility in war, the Ashantis were unable to maintain their domination of the neighbouring tribes and the Ashanti confederation dissolved into civil war. So weak had the Ashanti become that, in 1888, they were obliged to ask the British governor to send an arbitrator from the coast to decide who, amongst rival claimants, should be the next Asantehene.
The governor’s delegate decided in favour of the 16 year old Prempeh and in 1894 he was finally installed as Asantehene. But Prempeh I turned out to be no yes-man and refused to agree that Ashanti should become a British Protectorate.
Indeed, he even sent demands to the coast for the return of f leeing Ashantis who had violated Ashanti law. Still wary of the French in Ivory Coast and alarmed by a resurgent Ashanti, the British now “remembered” that the Wolseley indemnity had never been paid. Prempeh, in his innocence, tried to appeal directly to a fellow sovereign, Queen Victoria, and sent an embassy to London to plead his cause. But the British government refused to give his delegates an audience and mounted another elaborate British army expedition to Kumasi. Prempeh refused to allow the Ashanti to fight, partly because of the memory of the Wolseley expedition and partly because of the British support for him during the succession dispute. Instead, he diplomatically greeted the troops as his guests when they marched into Kumasi.
The British governor then arrived and was surrounded by the troops drawn up in defensive formation in the main square. Here he received, coldly, Prempeh and his chiefs. Prempeh desperately tried to placate the invaders and to the horror of his people, he demeaned himself by prostrating himself before the governor in a sign of submission. The governor’s only response was to demand the gold promised to Wolseley. Prempeh could not provide such a huge indemnity at once but offered to pay in instalments starting with 680 ounces as a down payment. This was refused and then, to the astonishment of the Ashantis, Prempeh and some of his principle chiefs were suddenly arrested. Strangely, no attempt was made to rescue Prempeh and his chiefs as they were hurried away along forest paths to the coast. But the British took no chances and sent the royal party immediately by sea to Sierra Leone and shortly thereafter to exile in the Seychelles.
In Prempeh’s absence, Ashanti was annexed by the British, who set about pacifying the region. By 1925, the British had improved communications from the coast and were now certain that the Ashanti posed no threat beneath the guns of the British fort that they had built in Kumasi. So they finally allowed Prempeh to return and to be reinstated as Asantehene in 1926.