1860-1899 | Burning towns and cities | Ghana | Looting and plunder

The British sack the Ashanti Capital of Kumasi

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

6 February 1874

By the autumn of 1873, Britain was becoming increasingly exasperated by ongoing resistance to its colonisation of the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and, in December, Prime Minister William Gladstone authorised the dispatch of 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, which had refused to recognise the British acquisition of the Dutch Gold Coast the previous year, preferring instead to take up arms.

The Ashanti capital of Kumasi lay some 130 miles inland. As Wolseley’s forces made their way through the dense bush, they met increasing opposition from an enemy determined to defend its homeland and it was only with the advantage of overwhelming firepower, including the new Maxim (machine) gun, that they eventually succeeded in capturing the town on 4 February. One Edinburgh newspaper noted that ‘had they (the Ashanti) been equipped with anything like equal arms, not an Englishman would have ever have reached Coomassie [Kumasi] except as a prisoner.’1

It was not only the Ashanti’s military capabilities that impressed. The British, who expected Kumasi to be little more than a chaotic grouping of ramshackle buildings and squalid huts, were dazzled by its elegant appearance and architecture. The Daily Telegraph correspondent praised its ‘many handsome houses,’ the floors of which were ‘always kept clean and polished,’ its ‘sanitary arrangements superior to those of many European towns’ and its streets which were ‘broad and clean.’2 He added that the ‘smells of Coomassie [Kumasi] are never those of sewage,’ a telling comment coming only shortly after London had suffered what is known as ‘the Great Stink’ in the summer of 1858, due to the outpouring of untreated sewage into the Thames.3

The Looting of Kumasi

The British were equally awed by what they discovered inside the vast Royal Palace. The Times correspondent remarked on its library of ‘books in many languages,’ its ‘many specimens of Moorish and Ashantee handicraft’ and its priceless artefacts ‘too numerous for me to describe or even catalogue.’4 The correspondent of the Manchester Guardian was equally impressed.

‘Although we knew,’ he explained, ‘that the greater part of the gold treasures had been removed, yet many valuable articles were left behind. The rooms upstairs were filled with rich silks, satins and cloths of European and native manufacture; silver and golden pipes lay strewn about, with elegantly-worked tables, chairs and stools. As one penetrated further, golden masks and helmets, with clocks, swords, guns &c., all handsomely mounted came into view.’  

In some of the courtyards he noticed ‘drums bedecked with skulls, chairs of state &c., and in the royal chamber were two swords; one a present from her majesty Queen Victoria to the King of Ashantee,’ adding that ‘the royal mattress, quilt and pillow were covered with rich silk.’ He had little time to document what else was there since ‘everything was broke open and ransacked that night’ by the British Army’s prize agents, rushing to complete the task of looting the palace’s irreplaceable contents.5

Once the plundering of the palace was complete, the attention of the British turned to what the Daily News described as ‘a huge heap of costly clothes and other valuable spoil,’ which was simply lying untouched in the main street.’ This had been taken from Fante soldiers (the Fante then been allied to the British) who had escaped from their imprisonment shortly prior to the arrival of Wolseley’s redcoats at Kumasi, and had presumably gone on their own looting spree.

Naturally, there was no consideration given by the British to returning the articles to the Ashantee. On the other hand, as the Daily News correspondent explained, ‘it seemed a little absurd’ to leave them lying where they where when ‘we were about to devote the place to the flames.’ Consequently ‘Sir Garnet… permitted a few officers and soldiers to pick over the heap and take what they could carry away.’6

The quantity of plunder was so great that it required an army of porters to transport it back to Cape Coast, the main port and operations base. Four bearers were also required to carry Wolseley himself, who directed operations from the comfort of his hammock.7

Once at Cape Coast, the loot was auctioned off. A Russian prince was among the many bidders.8 He succeeded, after what the Daily News described as ‘fierce competition,’ in acquiring a ‘bronze representation,’ including some ‘very elaborate figures’ of an ‘Ashantee procession or battle,’ which was ‘believed to be a piece of native work,’ and was generally considered to be ‘a somewhat exceptional piece of property.’9

Many others also made successful bids, returning to England with what the Reading Mercury modestly described as ‘a variety of trophies,’ including ‘a rams head of hammered gold’ knocked down to some artillery officers. As well as the loot from the auction, many of the officers also brought back the skins of wild animals which, the Mercury explained, had ‘fallen before English rifles,’ and according to the Morning Post, some even arrived at Portsmouth carrying ‘a few parrots who talk indifferently.’10

Nor did Wolseley return empty handed. When, on 20 March, he disembarked to much cheering and ‘the strains of “See the Conquering hero come,”‘ he had with him a ‘thousand ounces of gold paid by King Koffee (King Kofi Karikari) as a first instalment of the indemnity.’11 A treaty in July, which formally ended hostilities, fixed the total indemnity to be paid at 50,000 ounces, ‘for the expenses he (King Kofi) has occasioned to Her Majesty the Queen of England by the late war.’12 Those expenses were a pittance compared to the cost of the conflict for the inhabitants of Kumasi who lost everything, even their homes.

The Burning of Kumasi

Wolseley was still at Kumasi, on 6 February, when he heard that King Kofi, who was holding out in the bush, would not yet agree to an immediate surrender. Accordingly he issued orders first to dynamite the palace and then to torch the town, the population of which was estimated at somewhere between 10,000 and 200,000.13 

Just prior to the burning, Wolseley instructed the naval brigade to evict at the point of a gun all those who had been unable to flee earlier, turning them out into the surrounding bush to fend for themselves. This despite the warm greeting and help the troops had received from the population of the town when they had arrived, as a sergeant in the Black Watch, recalled:

‘They could not have been kinder to us if it had been Edinburgh we were marching into. We were very thirsty, although we had slept in the rain the night before, and when we made signs to them by pointing to our mouths they ran and brought us water in calabashes.’

The same soldier added sadly that ‘when the town was burnt our company was the last to leave it, and as we filed out there came toddling in from the bush a little Ashantee with a banana plantain in each hand. They were about as much as the child could carry for I don’t believe he was more than five years at the outside. He stared at us as we opened our ranks to let him pass by, and ran away into the smoke without saying a word.’14

It’s interesting to note how on 23 March 1874 the lead picture carried by the London Illustrated News made no attempt to disguise the brutality of the evictions, presumably because it felt its readers would agree with the use of such punitive measures.

Naval Brigade troops evicted the remaining civilians from their homes shortly before Kumasi was burned. – The London Illustrated News – 21 March 1874, p. 1.
Naval Brigade troops evicted the remaining civilians from their homes shortly before Kumasi was burned. – The London Illustrated News – 21 March 1874, p. 1.

A day earlier, the Daily Telegraph had already been able to boast that ‘Coomassie no longer exists. Its best treasure we have with us, and the king’s palace lies a heap of ruins.’15 His claim that the palace and the entire capital had been laid waste was corroborated by several others including a British army officer passing through the smouldering ruins five days later, who 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.’16

The reason for such indiscriminate destruction was not strategic, but a means of a collective punishment that would, as Sir Garnett Wolseley boasted, instil a ‘wholesome fear of the British power,’ and would be so severe that the population would not forget the terrible price exacted for generations.17  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 descendants. 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.’18

Wolseley immortalised while his victims are forgotten

This seemingly unequivocal crushing of Ashantee resistance delighted the British press and their lavish praise of the new conquering hero turned Wolseley into a household name. As his reward for looting the palace, incinerating Kumasi and rendering the entire population homeless, he received thanks from both houses of parliament, a grant of £25,000 (equivalent to approximately £3 million today), freedom of the city of London, honorary doctorates from Oxford and Cambridge universities, was promoted to Brevet Major-General and made Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St. Michael and St. George. Eleven years later, as a reward for his undoubted ruthless efficiency and ceaseless dedication to the imperial cause, he was appointed Commander-in-Chief of Britain’s Armed Forces.

Today ‘the wrath of the white-faced stranger’ is commemorated not in a museum of British atrocities or war crimes, but by a towering bronze equestrian statue of Wolseley as Field Marshal, wearing a cocked hat and standing proud in Horse Guards Parade, just a short walk from London’s Trafalgar Square. His legacy is also immortalized by a memorial  tablet at St Michael and All Angels Church in Colwich in Staffordshire and for many years there was even a pub in Norwich called ‘The Sir Garnet Wolseley’ (now renamed ‘The Garnet.’) Several places and locations across the Empire were also named ‘Wolseley’ in the general’s honour including at least two towns, one in southeast Saskatchewan, Canada and one in Western Cape, South Africa.

Note

Eight years after the sacking of Kumasi, General Sir Garnet Wolseley commanded British troops at the battle of Tel-el-Kebir in Egypt, where they showed no mercy either to those fleeing the battlefield or the wounded.

Footnotes

  1. ‘The Return from the Gold Coast,’ The North Briton, 28 March 1874, p. 6.
  2. ‘Many handsome houses’ – The Daily Telegraph cited in ‘Coomassie Before it was Burned,’ The Shetland Times, 23 March 1874, p. 2 and the other quotations from The Daily Telegraph cited in ‘Coomassie,’ The Buckingham Express, 7 March 1874, p. 3 and in ‘King Koffee’s Capital,’ The Birmingham Daily Post, 28 February 1874, p. 7.
  3. The Daily Telegraph cited in ‘Another Glimpse at Coomassie,’ The Exmouth Journal, 21 March 1874, p. 3.
  4. William W. Read, The Times special correspondent, cited in ‘The Occupation and Burning of Coomassie,’ The York Herald, 10 March 1874, p. 2.
  5. The Times cited in ‘The Destruction of Coomassie,’ The Huddersfield Chronicle, 18 March 1874, p. 4.
  6. The special correspondent of the Daily News cited in ‘Sale of “Loot,”‘ The West Somerset Free Press, 28 March 1874, p. 3.
  7. Ian Hernon, Britain’s Forgotten Wars: Colonial Campaigns of the 19th Century, The History Press, Stroud, p. 190.
  8. ‘Coomassie Loot,’ The Globe, 20 March 1874, p. 1.
  9. The special correspondent of the Daily News, cited in ‘Sale of “Loot,”‘ The West Somerset Free Press, 28 March 1874, p. 3.
  10. ‘The Return from Ashantee – The Reception of Sir Garnet Wolseley and his staff,’ The Reading Mercury, 28 March 1874, p. 2 and ‘The Return from Ashantee,’ The Morning Post, 27 March 1874, p. 6.
  11. ‘The Return from Ashantee – The Reception of Sir Garnet Wolseley and his staff,’ The Reading Mercury, 28 March 1874, p. 2.
  12. Article II of the treaty as cited by Captain Henry Brackenbury, The Ashanti War (1874), A Narrative, Volume 2,’ William Blackwood and Sons, London, 1874, p. 268.
  13. King Koffee’s Capital,’ The Birmingham Daily Post, 28 February 1874, p. 7 and William W. Read, op. cit., p. 2.
  14. A sergeant in the 42nd Regiment of Foot (the Black Watch) quoted in The Scotsman, cited in ‘”The Black Watch” in Ashantee,’ The Renfrewshire Independent, 28 March 1874, p. 3.
  15. The Daily Telegraph cited in ‘Coomassie Before it was Burned,’ The Shetland Times, 23 March 1874, p. 2.
  16. ‘Ride of Captain Sartorius,’ The Penny Illustrated News, 21 March 1874, p. 182.
  17. Sir Garnet Wolseley cited in ‘Official Dispatches,’ The Exmouth Journal, 21 March 1874, p. 3.
  18. Editorial, The Irish Times, 9 March 1874, p. 4.

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