Ashanti 1896 : a bloodless campaign in West Africa.
The Ashanti Empire in the north of what is now Ghana was one of a group of powerful states which crossed sub-Saharan West Africa. But unlike the others – Bornu, Nupe, Ilorin and the rest – the Ashanti state was not Muslim. On the contrary, as the Muslim emirates gradually expanded towards the coast, leaving only a band of largely forest-dwelling local tribes, the Ashanti empire had been a bulwark against Islamic expansion from the Sahara. It has been said that if European powers had not intervened during “the Scramble for Africa” after 1882, the Muslim emirates of West Africa would have conquered their way to the coast.
The Ashanti Empire, founded in the early 18C and expanded by conquest and treaty, was in effect a confederation of conquered and allied states recognising a “paramount chief”, the Ashanti king or Asantehene, ruling from the sacred “Golden Stool” in the capital, Kumassi. In 1895, its ruler was Kwaku Dua III Asamu, known as King Prempeh. It was said that the empire could field an army of 200,000 men.
European contact went back as far as the 15C with slaves, ivory and gold the main attractions, leading to the establishment of Portuguese, Dutch and British trading bases on the coast. In the early 19C, frequent slaving raids by the Ashanti prompted local tribes (like the Fante on the “Gold Coast”) to ask for British protection and several treaties were signed between Britain and the Ashanti – none of them effective. To put a halt to raids, military action was eventually sanctioned and in 1823, the British fought what was effectively the “first Anglo-Ashanti war” and met with a disastrous defeat in a now forgotten campaign. The British force under Sir Charles McCarthy (who was killed) was utterly defeated and Ashanti raids continued.
But the ending of slavery itself in 1833 halted even this slight British commitment to the area. Britain, like the other European powers, took little official interest in West Africa for generations after the abolition of the slave trade, which had provided the main reason for a European “presence”. In Britain’s case, other than keeping an anti-slaving squadron off West Africa, there was no desire to do more than maintain a few watering points and coastal bases like Elmina or Cape Coast Castle which could be used by British ships making the long journey around the Cape to the East. And there was equally no large-scale economic motive at that time for seizing land in the interior. As late as 1865, a Royal Commission recommended that Britain should give up all its bases and (slight) commitments in West Africa as pointless expenses.
This attitude only gradually changed. The British seizure of Lagos in 1861 and the establishment of the Gold Coast Protectorate in 1867 were driven largely by the desire to protect limited trading contacts on the coast and were not part of a policy of planned imperial expansion; Britain had no official political or economic interest in the interior until much later in the century. A good example of this fact is the war of 1873-74.
The well-known “Ashantee Campaign” campaign, conducted by Sir Garnet Wolseley with about 2,500 British troops and local forces, was typical of Britain’s military involvement before the days of tropical empire and the “scramble”. In this case, an army was sent in as a result of further Ashanti raids into the Gold Coast and the failure of diplomacy to sort out the matter. The British force, wracked with disease, fought its way to Kumassi (or Coomassie as then spelled) in the face of severe opposition, imposed a harsh treaty and indemnity, burned the capital and simply withdrew; there was no question in 1874 of Britain seizing or controlling the entire Ashanti Empire.
However, only twenty years later Britain’s imperial interests had developed entirely in another direction. The stated reason for the invasion in 1895-96 was that military action was necessary “in the interest of the Gold Coast colony [and] to suppress slavery and human sacrifice and to punish King Prempeh for his refusal to carry out his part of the treaty of 1874”. The real reason, however, was that, with the growing European interest in expansion, the Colonial Office feared increasing French expansion around the Gold Coast (and other British coastal enclaves) which threatened to cut off the colony from what was potentially an economically profitable hinterland. In the era of “the scramble for Africa”, Britain was not prepared to lose possibly important markets and resources to the French. Under the aggressively expansionist Tory Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, Britain began after 1895 a series of what can only be called “land grabbing” exercises in tropical Africa, to forestall French expansion and to seize any territory which might be a useful source of resources and trade – areas once compared to “undeveloped estates” whose present value was perhaps negligible but which might be of great economic value in the future.
At the very end of 1895, a British expeditionary force of only 2,250 men (most of them drawn from locally-raised Hausa regiments or the West India Regiment) under Colonel Sir Francis C. Scott was sent from the British coastal protectorate of the Gold Coast into the Ashanti Empire.
The largest elements in the expeditionary force were :
2nd West Yorks : approx. 420 officers and “chosen” men, stopped at Gibraltar en route to England after years in India and sent to West Africa on the Malabar.
2nd West India Regt : approx. 400 officers and men. This regiment, largely recruited in the West Indies, was regularly deployed in tropical West Africa.
Hausa troops : approx. 800, drawn from the Gold Coast, Sierra Leone and Lagos Constabulary.
“Native” Levies: approx. 300
There was also, as usual in these campaigns, a very large number of locally-recruited porters and bearers who took the brunt of the logistical side – manhandling and carrying food, equipment and stores. Over 6,000 were said to have been needed.
For the main “fighting force”, small detachments were drawn from a number of British regiments and corps, to form a “Special Service Corps” of about 250 officers and men with supports. The men were specially selected for physical fitness, marksmanship and strength for service in the notorious “white man’s grave”, where it was known from bitter previous experience that disease and heat would cause real problems, whilst the Ashanti army had proved to be a formidable opponent. Apart from necessary support Corps, like the Royal Artillery, the Army Service Corps, Royal Engineer telegraph and pontoon companies and a noticeably large medical contingent (about 115), these detachments were :
2nd Coldstream Gds. 16
1st Scots Guards 17
1st North’land Fus. 26
2nd Devons 26
1st KOYLI 26
2nd KSLI 26
2nd KRRC 26
2nd Ryl. Irish Fus. 26
1st Leinster 26
2nd Rifle Bgde. 26
The average detachment was one officer and 25 men; 2 KSLI, for example, sent 25 selected men under Capt. R. N. R. Reade, who also served as Intelligence Officer on the campaign and wrote the official report of the operations. His very fine medal group can be seen in the Regimental Museum in Shrewsbury Castle.
Whilst extensive preparations were made on the Gold Coast, setting up base camps, hospitals and depots and deploying local forces as far as the River Prah (effectively the border with Ashanti), the British element of the force began to be assembled in November 1895. The bulk of the British force landed at Cape Coast Castle on Christmas Day 1895 from the troopships Coromandel and Malabar and marched across the colony for the Prah.
By December 31st 1895, advance elements of the invasion force had crossed the Prah and on 5th January the main British “strike force” itself crossed the river, entering Ashanti territory on the 15th. Unlike the expedition under Sir Garnet Wolseley in 1873-74, which saw some very severe fighting, the column faced no opposition at all and the large Ashanti army made no move to resist the progress of Sir Francis Scott’s small force, simply retreating as the column advanced. This seems rather strange and was unexpected, given the ferocity of the response in 1873-74 (and again in 1900). The Ashanti army of 1895 was certainly no smaller than it had been in 1874, but as with many other military empires which are effectively confederations of subject states, it seems that by 1895 the Asantehene could not rely on the support or collaboration of his subjects – it was hinted that many of the powerful client-states within the empire, like Beckwai, would be only too glad to see Ashanti power broken and therefore would not come out to fight for Prempeh. Some of these states actually signed their own treaties with the British as Scott’s force advanced and even provided troops or porters. Whatever the reason, there was no military response from the Ashanti and in complete contrast to the campaign of 1873-74, the main column simply walked through the country and, setting up bases, hospitals and depots in the string of villages along the 75-mile road from the Prah to Kumassi, entered the capital without a shot being fired. Nevertheless – as in 1873-74 – heatstroke and tropical diseases decimated the force, with as many as 20% being sent back to the coast before reaching Kumassi.
The main British column entered an almost deserted city on 17th January 1896 after a hot and arduous journey of twelve days along a mud road and through scrubland and the dense Adansi forest. They brought with them the Governor of the Gold Coast, William Maxwell, CMG, who would formally take control and establish a Resident in a new fort to be built in Kumassi. British rule was proclaimed in the city’s main square after the public submission of an understandably reluctant Ashanti king.
With little ado, the Asantehene himself, the royal family and other leading officials and dignitaries were – to their great surprise – placed under arrest and escorted to Elmina on the coast. Prempeh was initially exiled to the Seychelles but was allowed to return as a private citizen in 1920. The sacred symbol of Ashanti power, “the golden stool” – more of an icon than an actual throne – was left in place but British demands for its surrender were a leading factor in the Ashanti uprising of 1900. This was a much more ferocious and demanding affair at a time when Britain’s armed forces were already stretched in China and South Africa and was eventually suppressed by a purely colonial force.
With this comparative ease, the huge Ashanti empire came under British control, annexed to the Gold Coast. But because of the rigours of the climate and the continuous drain on the men, Scott’s main force remained in Kumassi for less than a week before heading back to the Gold Coast with their captives, leaving only a small garrison of mainly West African Regiment and local Hausas to build the new fort and residency. Most of the Special Service Corps left the capital on 22nd January 1896 and were back on the coast by 5th February; they left on 8th in the Coromandel and Manila after what had been only a fortnight’s campaign! The expedition’s commanding officer recorded that “the conduct of the men was excellent and the greatest credit is due to all ranks for the soldierlike spirit shewn during a trying march in an unhealthy climate.”
It was certainly one of the fastest and most efficiently-managed colonial expeditions in the era of British tropical expansion. All the men received a war service gratuity and the medal shown – to a great deal of carping and scorn from armchair generals who thought that the whole exploit hardly merited an award at all! Two anonymous correspondents writing in Spinks “War Medal Record” in 1896 voiced the opinion of many. One wrote: “If it be true, as we have been informed, that a medal is to be given for the late Ashantee Expedition, it is time to ask when this shower of decorations is likely to cease?”; another agreed, blustering that “The Ashantee Star is wholly uncalled for and borders on the ridiculous”. Although the campaign was bloodless and lasted only a few weeks, these critics failed to recognise that at comparatively little cost and effort a huge swathe of territory had been secured for the Empire and that larger British interests in West Africa had been protected from possible French envelopment.
The medal awarded for the campaign is known as The Ashanti Star. It had what Hastings Irwin called “a novel design” and was certainly unusual compared with other Victorian awards – perhaps we do not adequately recognise just how much flair and artistic freedom were acceptable to the awarding authorities. It is usually said that the medal was designed by Princess Beatrice of Battenberg, whose husband, Prince Henry, grandson of Queen Victoria, died of disease while serving on the Staff during the campaign. The medal was cast in “gun metal” (bronze), “with eight principal points”, formed from a four-pointed star, crossed by a St. Andrew’s cross and with the imperial crown in the centre and the wording ASHANTI 1896. The reverse was plain except for From the Queen in a sunken central roundel. “Stars” are not that common in the series of Victorian campaign medals – though the Gwalior Stars of 1843 and Kabul-Kandahar Star of 1880 are familiar examples. The ribbon, too, is rather striking – vivid stripes of yellow and black.
Nowadays, the Ashanti Star, with only a few thousand awarded to the fighting column, remains a rare medal but to some extent has been neglected by collectors. This is probably because it was (rather unusually for that period) awarded unnamed and collectors, for obvious research reasons, tend not to like unnamed medals. It therefore shares the fate of other unnamed awards, like the Baltic Medal, with collectors being suspicious of privately “named up” medals. With the exception of those awarded to the men of the 2nd West Yorks, whose medals were named in a standardised and recognizable form at the cost of their Commanding Office, Lt. Col A. J. Price, other named medals on the market have to be taken at face value. Some are found engraved on the front arms of the cross and some on the reverse.
The way around all this, of course, is to collect Ashanti Stars which are paired or grouped with officially named medals to the same recipient – like the Queen’s South Africa, which many Ashanti veterans went on to earn – or in bigger groups. But then they tend to be expensive!
Interestingly, the medal was not awarded to naval personnel – even though a sizeable naval force (not least transports, troopships and warships like HMS St. George and Philomel) had been assembled off the coast. This is in stark distinction to the “East and West Africa” medal soon to be awarded for the Benin campaign of 1897, for which naval personnel were awarded the medal even if they had not landed or served ashore.
The last known British survivors of the Ashanti campaign of 1896 were Pte. T. Grenfell of the Medical Staff Corps who died in March 1966 and Pte. E. Walker of 2nd West Yorks, who died in Scarborough in August 1966. That was only 70 years after the event, so there may be other, later survivors yet to be identified.