As the 19th century progressed the inexorable expansion of the British Empire gained momentum across the globe. Imperial ambitions invariably resulted in British naval and military forces coming into conflict with indigenous peoples, who understandably resented intrusions into their territories and traditional ways of life. How problematic the resulting conflict proved to be for the British depended on two factors—the martial abilities of their opponents and the difficulty of the terrain for military operations. The more troublesome these factors were, particularly when combined, then the more likely it was that there would be no easy final outcome. It is significant that the first hostile engagements against the Ashanti tribe, of the West African Gold Coast region, broke out in 1806 and conflict with the British continued throughout the century—in at least five wars—until the final Ashanti defeat in 1900 and the incorporation of Ashanti territories into the Gold Coast colony in 1902. This book concentrates on the First Anglo-Ashanti War of 1823-31. It followed a pattern for British imperial wars with captured officers beheaded, bitter fighting in dense jungle with no favourable outcome guaranteed, and tropical diseases which reduced British numbers far more effectively than open battle ever could. The initial part in this Leonaur book is a first hand account of the conflict based on personal experience, and this is followed by a brief overview of the campaign, that adds perspective, by the eminent historian of the British Army, Sir John Fortescue.
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The attack commenced from right to left, at about half past nine o’clock. Several of the natives came insulting and abusing the centre as cowards; which being represented to the commanding officer, he directed them to advance about four hundred yards, when a heavy and effective fire took place. They went steadily forward amid the work of death, the enemy slowly and sulkily giving way. No prisoners were taken by the natives, but as they fell they were put to death: happy were they whose sufferings were short; in vain the gentlemen implored them to hold their hand, or at least to kill them outright; some were ripped up and cut across the belly, when plunging their hands in, they took out the heart, pouring the blood on the ground as a libation to the good fortune of the cause: others, when they saw their own friends weltering in their blood, would give them a blow on the breast or head, to put an end to their misery.
In many instances they dragged each other from the opposite ranks and wrestled and cut one another in pieces; and fortunate was he whose knife first found out the vital part in his foe during the deadly grapple, though perhaps in his turn to be laid low by the same means. So hard were the enemy pressed at this moment, that a captain of consequence blew himself up, nearly involving some of the Europeans in destruction.
The number of the various articles taken from the enemy was very great, but as none were allowed to leave the field, and as they had no spare hands, like the people of the native chiefs, they were thrown aside, when a cry arose that the Ashantees were getting between the centre and the left, which was the fact, as one party from the Dutch town, who supported the right of the Cape Coast people, had given way, and the enemy had rushed into their place. Besides this, the whole of the Danish natives, with their caboceers at their head, had fled early in the action, and the swallow-tailed banners of Denmark were seen safely flying in the rear. The centre were now obliged to fall back and relinquish every advantage, sustaining a galling fire in flank, and closely pressed with the mass of the enemy, who evidently were making a bold push to seize or bring down the whites.
Captain Rogers, who was advancing with a small piece of artillery, would have been taken, had he not very promptly distinguished them as the enemy. This was the crisis of the battle; Colonel Purdon advanced with the reserve, and the rockets, a few of which thrown among the Ashantees occasioned the most dreadful havoc and confusion: the hissing sound when thrown, the train of fire, the explosion and frightful wounds they inflicted, caused them to suppose that they were thunder and lightning, called snowman in Fantee, by which name they are now known among the natives.
Another party of Ashantees having attacked the left of King Cheboe of Dinkera, the Winnebahs fled at the first fire, nor halted till they reached Accra, but a few rounds of grape shot, thrown over the heads of our people, restored the battle there also, Cheboe being already in advance with part of his people driving back his opponents. On the right, the battle was not for a moment doubtful; the king of Akimboo drove all before him, and penetrating to the King of Ashantee’s camp, took them in flank; his path was marked by the column of smoke that rose in front, the short grass being dry, from our forces having bivouacked at the roots of the trees for two nights, together with extreme heat, caused it to take fire; the explosions of some Ashantee captains, who at intervals blew themselves up in despair, which was known by the smoke that arose over the trees; the shouts and groans of the combatants, with the burning grass, and the battle raging all around, formed no bad idea of the infernal regions.
Fancy may indeed imagine, but it cannot describe such a scene of havoc and destruction, more resembling the wild fiction of an oriental tale, than one of absolute reality. The Danish natives who had fled at nearly the first onset, now perceiving the enemy to be repulsed by the rockets and grape shot, advanced, and taking possession of the plunder, which was immense, deliberately walked off the field; they sent to request more ammunition, saying they had only received twenty rounds each from their own government; and when upbraided with their bad conduct, they said it was against their fetish to fire on a Monday. About one o’clock, the heads of the Ashantee chiefs began to be brought in.
Several of the blood royal and principal captains were known by the residents; when the deaths of any of them were reported to the king, he offered up human sacrifices to their manes in the heat of the battle. Among the sad trophies of the day, was supposed to be the head of Sir Charles MacCarthy, which was sent to England by Lieutenant-Colonel Purdon; it was taken by the Aquapim chief. The king carried it along with him as a powerful charm, and on the morning of the battle, he poured rum upon it, and invoked it to cause all the heads of the whites on the field to lie beside it. The skull was enveloped in paper covered with Arabic characters, and a silk handkerchief, over all was a tiger skin, the emblem of royalty.
The whole of the Ashantee camp was taken, together with their baggage and gold; the amount of the latter was said to be very considerable, but the whites never could ascertain what the natives obtained. Towards the end of the day, a great many slaves or prisoners were taken by the natives, who subsequently sold them to slave vessels to leeward of Accra, being satiated with the multitudes they had killed, in the early part of the fight, and until it was dark, parties were coming in with plunder from every quarter.
The troops lay on their arms all night, as it was not known but that the king, with his surviving friends, might make an attack upon us in despair, having been seen in front, wandering over the scene of his blighted ambition. Through the night, at intervals, some of our native allied chiefs struck their drums to some recitations, which were repeated along the line, and as they died away, had a most pleasing effect, but were generally succeeded by deep wailings and lamentations from the glades, in front of our position, apparently from some unhappy Ashantee women looking for their friends among the fallen.
The loss of chiefs on our part was but small; Mr. Richter was wounded in the thigh early in the action, and obliged to leave the field, but his men did not follow the flying portion of their countrymen. Narboah, the captain-general of the Akimboos, the chief captain of the queen of Akim, and Quashie Amonquah, chief of Esseecoomah, were the only persons of rank that we lost. The latter was regretted by everyone, as several of the natives were always accusing him of treachery, and he was determined to shew in the day of battle his sincerity, he therefore made a bold attempt to seize the king’s person, and to take him dead or alive, and even had his hand on the royal basket to pull him down, when he was shot in the neck and secured.
The king upbraided him for his treachery, and ordered him to follow, which he refused; order was then given to decapitate him; a party of Cheboos attacked the king, but Amonquah was already killed, and his head, if they have preserved it, is the only trophy which they can exhibit. His brother Abaggy was wounded in the thigh, or, as he says, “he would have made the king pay dear for his brother’s head,” which none doubted.