By Nick Richwagen
War between the Asante and the coastal Fante Confederacy would lead the kingdom into their first conflict with British forces.
Update March 2018: Previously, this article was titled The Asante Fante-War of 1806-1807 and the Battle of Cape Coast Castle. This basis for the description of these incidents came from Edgerton’s The Fall of the Asante Empire (1995), which describes the first conflict between the Asante and British as occurring at Cape Coast Castle, the headquarters of the British Cape Company at the time. However, a reading of the Records Relating to the Gold Coast Settlements from 1750 to 1874 by J.J. Crooks (1923) suggests that the first conflict actually took place at Fort William, in Anomabu. I have changed the article to more accurately reflect this account.
Between 1750 and 1800, the Ashanti (Asante) Empire would remain the predominant power in West Africa. Further campaigns to the north cemented its authority among non-Akan peoples, and trade with the western powers along the coast continued to be extremely important. However, two important changes were taking place in the Gold Coast region that emerged as a threat to the Asante kingdom. Along the coast, the Fante people developed a robust confederacy that acted as a trade intermediary between the European coastal forts and interior kingdoms. Although technically Asante subjects, the Fante were another Akan tribe with a strong independent streak who chafed under Asante rule. By the start of the 18th century, the Fante became openly hostile to the power of Kumasi.
The other significant development was the increasing power of British agents in West Africa. Founded in 1752, the African Company of Merchants was chartered by the British Government to engage in profitable trade in the Gold Coast region. This included the purchase and transport of slaves. Over time, the African Company expanded their authority to a number of coastal forts previously held by other European powers. By the start of the 19th century, British trading agents only significantly competed with the Dutch in the region (though the Danes still had a coastal presence at Accra, the future Ghanaian capital). The main British fortress was at Cape Coast Castle; to their west, the Dutch held Elmina.
The African Company of Merchants, and then the British government, would come to ally themselves with Fante confederacy against the Asante. This was a slow development, fraught with frequent misunderstandings between British agents and Asante ambassadors. Indeed, many British officials, deeply impressed with Asante society and the sophistication of the kingdom, wished the Asante to continue their preeminent position in West Africa. Tragically, the two countries would come to blows. In the Asante-Fante War of 1806-1807, first blood would be drawn between British and Asante.
Civil Strife in the Asante Kingdom- the Late 1700s
Asantehene Osei Kwadwo reigned for 13 years, annexing the Wasa and Banda tribes and intervening in a civil conflict among the Dagomba. He implemented bureaucratic reforms, making a number of chieftaincies appointed positions instead of hereditary ones, and established regular diplomatic contact with the Danish, Dutch, and British forts.
The king also went to war against the Akyem people who had so vexed Osei Tutu, though like his predecessor he was unable to conquer them. Importantly, Osei Kwadwo also fought the Assin people. A delegation of Fante promised the king to remain uninvolved, yet were later found to have provided the Assin secret support. Kwadwo wanted revenge against this Fante insolence, but even at this stage feared European intervention— the Fante had been established as an important British trading partner. From 1765 onwards, the African Company worked to dissuade conflict between tribes on the coast in order to make conditions safe for European traders.
The next king, Osei Kwame Panyin (r. 1777-1801) had a turbulent reign characterized by internal strife. Although chosen by Kwadwo as successor, many in the Asante aristocracy (sikapo) opposed him. He was eventually overthrown by the previous queen mother, and committed suicide rather than lead the country into civil war. The next king, Opoku Fofie, reigned less than a year.
Although the Asante kingdom closed the 18th century with civil violence, the kingdom remained strong. However, subject peoples began to see a fracturing of Asante power, particularly the Fante who had defied the Asantehene with impunity. With the accession of Osei Bonsu in 1804, the Fante and Assin peoples felt ready to challenge their Asante overlords.
The Fugitive: Kwaku Aputai
In 1806, Napoleon’s France, blockaded by Britain at sea, warred against Russia on the European continent. In that same year, south of Kumasi, an Assin chief called Kwaku Aputai dug up of the grave of a prominent aristocrat and stole golden jewelry left on the body. Word got out, and the dead man’s relative, another chief, demanded that Aputai return the stolen grave goods. Aputai refused, and the wronged chief appealed directly to king Osei Bonsu. The Asante king often acted as a mediator in disputes between subject peoples, and his decision was to be respected as law.
A subject and relative of Aputai, who happened to be present at the funeral, afterwards returned and rifled the grave, and it is to this insignificant occurrence, of no great importance outside the village in which it happened, that all the subsequent trouble between England and Ashanti, ending in the downfall of that kingdom, can be directly traced.— W. Walton Claridge, 1915
The Asantehene ordered Aputai to return the stolen goods or pay a fine to the wronged man. Aputai refused to do this, and instead mugged his accuser. This was a serious crime, and the Asante king sent two personal envoys to demand Aputai pay restitution. Wearing official golden insignia, Asante envoys had sacred status and were supposed to be untouchable.
Aputai killed the king’s men, and mutilated their corpses. This was a declaration of war, and Osei Bonsu assembled his army, moved south, and attacked Aputai’s tribe. Although Aputai allied with another Assin chieftain, Kwadwo Otibu, their forces were destroyed and villages overrun. The two fugitive chiefs fled towards the coast and begged the Fante confederacy to protect them. Their wish was granted.
In short order, one man’s greed and defiance had led to a full-scale rebellion against Asante rule. Enraged beyond all measure, in 1807 Osei Bonsu marched against the Fante with the full strength of his army. Fante militiamen were no match for the well-drilled, professionally led Asante soldiers. The entire coastal region was quickly invaded. The Asante torched villages and took their enemies as slaves. Thousands of Fante men, women, and children fled from the onslaught.
The Battle of Anomabu
Unbelievably, Aputai and Kwadwo Otibu again managed to avoid capture. With hundreds of Fante refugees, they came to the gates of Fort William in Anomabu, a substantial British Merchant fortress. They pleaded with the British, traditional Fante allies, for sanctuary. The governor, Colonel George Torrane, granted them refuge.
Torrane tried to negotiate with the Asante, but failed due to Fante interference with his emissaries. As the Asante host moved towards the castle, thousands of Fante refugees gathered around the walls, pleading for entry. The British allowed in two-thousand before the Asante started their attack. Any Fante resistance was quickly destroyed and the Asante began to slaughter the gathered Fante outside the gates.
As the Asante gathered closer around the castle walls, British troops opened fire. Fort William was only garrisoned by a few dozen soldiers who worked overtime to defend the fort against the onslaught. Because the Asante lacked artillery, they were unable to make headway against the stone and brick fortifications. British cannon rained down grape-shot, killing 30 men with each blast. Despite horrific casualties, the Asante pressed against the main gate of the castle, but were unable to batter it down.
The Asante suffered 3,000 casualties over six hours of fighting, before finally retiring at sundown. Close-quarter musket and cannon fire had proved devastating against the closely packed Asante soldiers, though they managed to kill or capture most of the Fante outside the fort. Roughly 8,000 Fante were found dead. It was the first time British and Asante soldiers had fought each other. Colonel Torrane wrote that the Asante “fought with a bravery not to be exceeded.”
Negotiations: Torrane and Osei Bonsu Meet
After this bloody engagement, Torrane sent emissaries to Osei Bonsu to ask for a truce. It is possible that Torrane had been unaware that Aputai and Otibu were Asante fugitives, and felt the battle was the result of misunderstanding. Even after such a ferocious attack, this demonstrated the reputation of the Asante king that Torrane knew his envoys would be safe in his hands. The king received the envoys, listened to the message, and returned them to Cape Castle. Torrane was told that Osei Bonsu would only negotiate with him in person. This was likely a power play, but Torrane relented. Dressing in his scarlet uniform, Torrane left with his officers to address the king. The British were impressed with grandeur and pageantry of the Asante court, who warmly received the soldiers.
In his desire to make peace with the Asante king, Torrane betrayed the Assin chiefs he previously offered protection. The two men were bound to be given over to the Asante. Then, in a move that stunned his own officers, Torrane moved to sell the two-thousand Fante refugees in Cape Castle as slaves in the Americas. Although it is difficult to find information, it is known that Torrane was a man of significant personal debt. Even though the United Kingdom would ban the slave trade in less than a year’s time, he obviously felt in his position he could get away with such stark disloyalty to the Fante.
For an absurd third time, Aputai managed to escape before Torrane could hand him over to the Asantehene. His fellow Assin chief, however, the old and blind Kwadwo Otibu, was given over and gruesomely killed. The slippery Aputai would rally Assin forces and continue to fight the Asantes in pitched battles and guerilla conflicts for years to come; his eventual fate in unknown.
Many of the British at Cape Castle were incensed by Torrane’s betrayal of his erstwhile allies; one officer, John Swanzy went so far as to follow the enslaved Fante to Accra to seek their freedom. He only was able to free a handful before dying of dengue fever. It is likely that reports back to the African Company were responsible for Torrane’s later removal.
Osei Bonsu felt that the British had submitted to his will; indeed the negotiations were strongly in his favor— Torrane acknowledged Asante control over the coastal region. In the king’s mind, the battle at Cape Coast was the product of misunderstanding, and that now the British and Asante were allied. Indeed, Osei Bonsu developed a fondness for the British and was happy to receive them at his court.
Further Conflict with the Fante: The British Stand By
The good terms between the British and the Asante were very tenuous. The African Company had worked for fifty years to build good relations with the Fante, whose refugees had been betrayed and enslaved. The outcome of negotiations had been very much dependent on Colonel Torrane’s personal disposition toward the Asante. Torrane was removed as governor in December of 1807, and he died the next year.
The Fante had been beaten by the Asante, but their spirit had not been broken. In 1811, the Fante refused Asante merchants passage to trade with the coastal forts. Again, Osei Bonsu directed his army to burn and pillage Fante villages. Regular trade resumed, but yet again in 1814 the Fante interfered. For a third time, the Asante destroyed Fante resistance and wreaked havoc against their confederacy. The commander of the Asante, general Amankwatia IV, was under orders not to harm European traders during these 1811 and 1814 expeditions, but the British and Dutch were alarmed by the violence. Nevertheless, they made no move to interfere on the Fante’s behalf. It would only be three years later, in 1817 that the British would feel compelled to meet again with the Asante king.
- Eugene L. Mendosa, West Africa (2002)
- Robert B. Edgerton, The Fall of the Asante Empire: The Hundred-Year War for Africa’s Gold Coast (1995)
- W. Walton Claridge, A History of the Gold Coast and Ashanti: From the Earliest Times to the Commencement of the Twentieth Century (1915).