1860-1899 | Burning towns and cities | Looting and plunder | Punitive operations

The British Army loots and burns the Ashanti capital of Kumasi

The burning of Kumasi – book illustration –
The British Library – no known copyright restrictions
.

6 February 1874

Determined to subdue continual resistance to its colonisation of the Gold Coast (now Ghana), London dispatched 2,500 Redcoats, as well as thousands of West Indian troops, to the coastal town of Cape Coast. From there, under the command of Major General Sir Garnet Wolseley, they marched north in January to subdue and punish the recalcitrant Ashanti nation, whose capital lay 130 miles inland at Kumasi. By deploying overwhelming firepower, Wolseley’s forces soon succeeded in capturing the city on 4 February.

Kumasi’s elegant appearance and architecture astonished the British. The Daily Telegraph correspondent praised its ‘sanitary arrangements superior to those of many European towns,’ the floors of the houses, which were ‘always kept clean and polished,’  and its streets which were ‘broad and clean.’1 The Times correspondent was similarly impressed. He marveled at the vast Royal Palace, with its library of ‘books in many languages,’ its ‘many specimens of Moorish and Ashantee handicraft’ and its priceless artifacts ‘too numerous for me to describe or even catalogue.’2 British troops lost no time in looting its contents, which were transported by an army of porters back to Cape Coast.  Four bearers were also required to carry Wolseley himself, who directed operations from the comfort of his hammock.3

On 6 February, when King Kofi Karikari of the Ashanti still refused to surrender, Wolseley gave orders first to dynamite the palace and then to burn the city, the population of which was estimated at somewhere between 10,000 and 200,000.4  A British army officer passing through the smouldering ruins five days later, reported that he ‘found the burnt and raised town entirely deserted’ and that the destruction of the palace had ‘been most complete.’ He added that ‘here and there a wall was standing and in one place a staircase. All were in such a rickety condition that the first gale would blow them down.’5

The reason for such indiscriminate destruction was not strategic but as a means of a collective punishment that would be so severe that the population would not forget the terror inflicted for generations.  As the Irish Times explained, ‘a punishment has been inflicted on the Ashantees which during the lapse of years – nay centuries – will be remembered by them and their descendents. Hardly will they venture again to dare the vengeance of the British Lion. The story of retribution will be handed down from sire to son, and the wrath of the “white-faced stranger” will be dreaded as deeply by the savage nation of Africa as was the anger of Peleus’ son by the cowering Trojans.’6

FOOTNOTES

  1. The Daily Telegraph cited in ‘Coomassie,’ The Buckingham Express, 7 March 1874, p. 3 and also in ‘King Koffee’s Capital,’ The Birmingham Daily Post, 28 February 1874, p. 7.
  2. William W. Read, The Times special correspondent, cited in ‘The Occupation and Burning of Coomassie,’ The York Herald, 10 March 1874, p. 2.
  3. Ian Hernon, Britain’s Forgotten Wars: Colonial Campaigns of the 19th Century, The History Press, Stroud, p. 190.
  4. King Koffee’s Capital,’ The Birmingham Daily Post, 28 February 1874, p. 7 and William W. Read, op. cit., p. 2.
  5. ‘Ride of Captain Sartorius,’ The Penny Illustrated News, 21 March 1874, p. 182.
  6. Editorial, The Irish Times, 9 March 1874, p. 4.

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