European influence in West Africa was negligible in the eighteenth century. However, this situation underwent a dramatic change in the nineteenth century as a result of the abolition of the slave trade and the adoption of so-called legitimate trade, which would only thrive in the wake of peace and stability. Under these circumstances, ongoing wars between the Asante (Ashanti) and Fante, two indigenous Gold Coast peoples, during the eighteenth century led to instability and impeded trade. Consequently, the British became involved in the Asante-Fante wars in the early nineteenth century to restore peace and stability and promote "legitimate" trade. This economic interpretation of British colonial policy is one of the multifaceted aspects of British-Asante relations, which resulted in a series of wars between 1824 and 1901.
The desire to drive the Asante people from the coastal Gold Coast so as to gain access to markets beyond Asante, coupled with misunderstandings between Asante and British perspectives, and a desire by the British to humble the Asante, underlie the Anglo-Asante wars of 1824 (Nsamankow), 1826 (Katamansu), 1863 (Dodowa), 1874 (Sagrenti), and 1900 to 1901 (Yaa Asantewaa). After Asante's annexation to the British Colony of the Gold Coast, the term Ashanti, as in Ashanti region, was often used to refer to both the Asante people and the core of what used to be the Asante empire.
From the third decade of the nineteenth century, the relationship of Britain vis-à-vis the Asante underwent a dramatic change. Instead of their old position as mediators of conflicts, the British assumed a more aggressive role on the Gold Coast. The period of informal control gradually gave way to invasion and occupation as the European scramble for African colonies intensified. Fear of Asante control of the entire coastline of the Gold Coast, thereby negating years of informal British control, fuelled British hostility towards the Asante.
J. K. Fynn (1971) gives three main reasons for this apprehension. First, British merchants believed that their Dutch counterparts would be the beneficiaries in the event of an Asante occupation of the coast. Second, the British regarded the Asante king as an absolute monarch, much like his counterpart in Dahomey (present-day Benin), and they therefore dreaded a situation whereby European traders on the coast would be dependent on this absolute monarch. Finally, British traders felt morally bound to help the Fante, whose assistance had been crucial to them during periods of commercial rivalry among the Europeans.
The desire to stop the slave trade and promote "legitimate" trade was a major British concern in the Gold Coast in the nineteenth century. The British were desirous to promote what they deemed legitimate products, such as palm oil, rubber, and cotton. This occurred at a time, by 1820, when Asante was a major source of slaves on the Gold Coast. Furthermore, in the context of the European civilizing mission, the British wanted to ensure peace and order as prerequisites for the introduction of "civilization," western education, and evangelization. British officials and merchants believed that only Asante defeat would make this possible and this led eventually to the assumption of crown responsibility for the administration of the Gold Coast forts and castles.
In the economic sphere, the British merchants on the coast were convinced by the third decade of the nineteenth century that if Asante power were broken, the interior of the Gold Coast would be open to them, making trade possible as far as Bonduku (in presentday Ivory Coast), Kong (Ghana), Timbuktu (Mali), and Hausaland (Nigeria). Thus, the policy of cooperation with Asante pursued by the British governor from 1807 was terminated by the new governor, John Hope Smith. Smith, who served as governor from 1817 to 1822, also rejected the treaty of amity and peace negotiated between the British and the Asante by Joseph Dupuis (resident from 1819–1820) in 1820.
The next governor of Sierra Leone, who had oversight over the Gold Coast, Charles MacCarthy (1822–1824), discarded Dupuis's advice to remain on friendly terms with the Asante. Rather, he organized an anti-Asante coalition between December 1822 and May 1823. MacCarthy's contempt for the Asante was exemplified in his failure to send a message to Kumasi, the Ashanti capital, on his arrival in the Gold Coast, as demanded by custom. He also rejected the overtures of accommodation from the Asantehene (ruler) Osei Bonsu (r. ca. 1801–1824).
Furthermore, MacCarthy used the trial and execution of an Anomabo man as the occasion to wage war against the Asante but he lost his life in the ensuing battle. Fear of Asante reaction after the defeat of 1824 led to the dissolution of crown rule, and control devolved on the British Company of Merchants. Company rule under George Maclean (1801–1847) from 1830 to 1841 witnessed a transformation in Anglo-Asante relations. Maclean worked for peace and encouraged the revival of agriculture and trade. In April 1831, he concluded a tripartite treaty by which the Asantehene recognized the independence of the coastal states and agreed to submit all disputes to the Cape Coast castle. In addition, the coastal states agreed to open the trade routes, thus ending the hostilities of 1824 and 1826. But Maclean's successors did not possess his tact and prudence, and Anglo-Asante relations soured.
The period of Governor H. W. Hill (1844–46) saw the resumption of crown rule on the Gold Coast. Following Maclean, Hill convinced the Fante chiefs to sign the celebrated Bond of 1844. The bond did not involve abdication of sovereignty, and the chiefs were to continue holding their courts. According to historian Thomas Lewin (1978), progressive deterioration in diplomatic contacts between Asante and Britain in the 1840s and 1850s reached a midpoint during Richard Pine's governorship (1862–1865). His refusal to recognize Asante laws and customs led to the Anglo-Asante war of 1863. Asante forces secured the release of hostages in 1863, and a British counteroffensive against Asante ended disastrously.
In 1873 the ministry of British prime minister William Gladstone (1809–1898) faced a crisis on the frontiers of British influence in West Africa, Malaya, and the South Pacific. Urged by Edward Knatchbull-Hugessen (1829–1893), Lord Kimberley (John Wodehouse, 1826–1902), the colonial secretary, attempted a firmer administration in the Gold Coast and intervened in force against Asante. W. David McIntyre (1967) argues that this "new imperialism" was the culmination of a period of tentative innovation rather than the beginning of a forward movement. By 1873, it was felt that the internal conditions of the adjacent states posed serious threats to the security of the Fante colony.
In 1874 British forces (and West Indian troops) commanded by Major General Garnet Wolseley (1833–1913) decisively defeated Asante, burnt Kumasi, and by the Fomena Treaty (1874) compelled the Asante to recognize the independence of all states south of the River Pra. This defeat led to secessionist wars by states that had been under Asante rule. However, a disintegrating Asante empire was gradually revived by Mensa Bonsu (r. 1874–83), Kwaku Dua II (r. 1884–1884), and Agyeman Prempe I (1888–1896).
Alarmed at the steady Franco-German encroachment from the Ivory Coast and Togo, and afraid of Asante revival, British prejudice against intervention gave way to a new determination in 1895 under Joseph Chamberlain (1836–1914) as colonial secretary. To protect the Gold Coast hinterland and stave off French encroachment, the British invited Prempe I to place his country under British protection. Prempe's rejection in 1894 of British protection culminated in a British expedition of 1896. Together with family members, Prempe was arrested and deported first to Sierra Leone, and later, to Seychelles. However, when Governor Frederick Hodgson (1897–1900) demanded the surrender of the Golden Stool in 1900 (The Golden Stool, according to Asante founding tradition, contained the "soul" of the Asante nation and only the Asantehene sat on the stool, usually at the time of enstoolment. Hodgson asked for the stool to sit on in his capacity as the representative of the victorious Queen of England.) Anglo-Asante hostilities were resumed. In response to his request, the Asante under the queen mother of Edweso, Yaa Asantewaa (ca. 1850–1921), fought a final battle (1900–1901) against the British, after which Asante was annexed to the British protectorate.
see also Britain's African Colonies.
Agbodeka, Francis. African Politics and British Policy in the Gold Coast, 1868–1900: A Study in the Forms and Force of Protest. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1971.
Boahen, A. Adu. "Asante, Fante, and the British, 1800–1880." In A Thousand Years of West African History: A Handbook for Teachers and Students, edited by J.F. Ade Ajayi and Ian Espie, rev. ed., Ibadan, Nigeria: Ibadan University Press; London: Nelson, 1969, pp. 121-136. Boahen, Adu. Ghana: Evolution and Change in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. London: Longman, 1975.
Fynn, John Kofi. Asante and its Neighbours, 1700–1807. Harlow, U.K.: Longman; Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1971.
Lewin, Thomas. Asante Before the British: The Prempean Years, 1875–1900. Lawrence: Regents Press of Kansas, 1978.
McCarthy, Mary. Social Change and the Growth of British Power in the Gold Coast: The Fante States, 1807–1874. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1983.
McIntyre, W. David. The Imperial Frontier in the Tropics, 1865–75: A Study of British Colonial Policy in West Africa, Malaya, and the South Pacific in the Age of Gladstone and Disraeli. London: Macmillan; New York: St. Martin's Press, 1967.
Wilks, Ivor. Asante in the Nineteenth Century: The Structure and Evolution of a Political Order. London: Cambridge University Press, 1975.
Wilks, Ivor. "Asante: Human Sacrifice or Capital Punishment? A Rejoinder." International Journal of African Historical Studies 21 (3) (1988): 443-451.