Sir Charles MacCarthy inherited a difficult situation as British Colonial Governor of Africa’s Gold Coast. Ongoing disputes with the powerful Ashanti tribe led to war in 1824.
Starting with a 6,000-man force, MacCarthy divided it into four uneven columns. The column under MacCarthy’s own personal command numbered a mere 500, against 10,000 Ashanti. When the Ashanti initiated battle on 20 January, the other three British columns were miles away and were unable to reinforce MacCarthy.
At the battle’s onset, MacCarthy ordered his bandsmen to play ‘God Save the King’, thinking this would scare the Ashanti away. It did not. A ferocious battle ensued; MacCarthy’s troops holding their own until ammunition began running out. Hard-pressed, MacCarthy called up his reserve ammunition, only to find macaroni instead of bullets !
The Ashanti warriors overran and massacred the British force of 500, with only 20 survivors. MacCarthy was killed, his heart eaten and his head used as a fetish for years by the Ashanti King.
Charles MacCarthy (15 February 1764 – 21 January 1824) was an Irish-born soldier who served in the French, Dutch and British armies, and was a colonial governor of various British territories in West Africa.
He was born in Cork in Ireland, the son of the French émigré Jean Gabriel Guérault and his wife Charlotte Michelle; he changed his name at an early age to MacCarthy, his mother’s maiden name, on the advice of his uncle Thaddeus MacCarthy, a colonel in the French regiment of Life Guards of Louis XV.
In 1785, at the age of 21, he joined the Irish Brigade of the French army, as a sub-lieutenant in the Régiment de Berwick; by 1791 he had attained the rank of Captain, and was serving with the émigré royalist army under Louis Joseph de Bourbon, prince de Condé in Germany. He later served with the army of the Dutch Republic as a volunteer; then in Damas’ Regiment (French Army), from 1793 to 1794, and was wounded in the leg during an action outside Louvain on 15 July 1794.
He subsequently saw service in the Duc de Castries’s Regiment of the émigré army. And, when the Irish Brigade of France was reorganized in British pay during late 1794 (to fight the anti-Royalist French Revolutionaries), he was appointed an ensign in the Irish Regiment of Le Comte de Conway (the 6th Regiment of the Irish Brigade of France), and saw service in the West Indies with the Irish Regiment of Le Comte de Walsh-Serrant (the 2nd Regiment) from 1796 to 1798. Returning from Honduras on the transport-ship ‘HMS Calypso’ in June 1798 with the grenadier company of that Irish regiment, he was wounded whilst in a day-long action fighting off a Revolutionary-French privateer.
The Irish Brigade was disbanded as a whole in late 1798.
Charles MacCarthy received his first British commission on 17 October 1799, when he was appointed to command a company of the 11th West India Regiment, and transferred to a captaincy in the 52nd (Oxfordshire) Regiment of Foot on 15 March 1800. He was appointed a Major in the New Brunswick Fencible Infantry (later the 104th Foot) on 14 April 1804 and remained with them until 1811, when he received a Lieutenant-Colonelcy in the Royal African Corps.
West India Regiment
He married Antoinette Carpot in 1812, and had one son, Charles; he would be adopted by his uncle, the (Count) Comte de Mervé after his father’s death, and succeed to that title on his uncle’s death as a naturalized French citizen.
Also during 1812 he was appointed the British Governor of Senegal and Île de Gorée. When these territories were returned to France by the Treaty of Paris, he was appointed as the British colonial Governor of Sierra Leone.
As governor, he took a strong interest in the welfare of the colony, actively encouraging the building of housing and schools. He was a correspondent of William Wilberforce, and founded many settlements for liberated slaves.
In addition, he arranged for the support and education of native children whose parents had been captured by slavers, in schools run by the Church Missionary Society. As a result of this involvement, he became a campaigner for the complete suppression of the slave trade – whilst the slave trade was abolished in the United Kingdom and its territories, the slave trade was still active in West African waters, using ships nominally flagged in countries which had not yet abolished it.
MacCarthy was knighted by the British on 21 November 1820 ; and on 19 July 1821 he was promoted to the rank of Colonel with the temporary rank of Brigadier-General in West Africa.
After the African Company of Merchants was abolished in 1821, for its failure to suppress the slave trade efficiently, the Gold Coast was taken on as a crown colony, and placed under the government of Sierra Leone; he became the governor of both. ‘MacCarthy Island’ in Gambia was named in his honour whilst governor.
In late 1823, following the disagreements between the Fantis and the Ashantis (African tribes), MacCarthy declared war on the king of the Ashanti 1; after organising the defences of Cape Coast, he set out with an expedition of some 80 men of the Royal African Colonial Corps, 170 men of the Cape Coast Militia, and 240 Fanti tribesmen under subordinate-command of their local chiefs. He was accompanied by a captain and an ensign of the 2nd West India Regiment, as aides-de-camp, a surgeon of the same regiment, and J. T. Williams, his colonial secretary.
This was not the only part of his force; three other groups of infantry were in the region, one of 600 regulars of the Royal African Colonial Corps and 3,000 native levies, one of 100 regulars and militia and 2,000 levies (under Major Alexander Gordon Laing), and a third of 300 regulars and militia and 6,000 levies. The plan was for the four groups to converge and then engage the enemy with overwhelming force.
On the night of the 20th, still without having joined forces with the other three groups, MacCarthy’s force camped by a tributary of the Pra River. The next day, at around 2pm, they encountered a large enemy force of around ten thousand men; in the belief that the Ashanti army contained several disaffected groups whose chiefs were willing to defect, MacCarthy instructed the band to play the British National Anthem loudly. The Ashanti responded by approaching closer, beating war drums, and his belief in intelligence regarding several disaffected chiefs being willing to defect was very quickly dispelled.
Fighting started shortly thereafter; the two sides were separated by a 60-foot-wide (18 metres) stream, which the Ashanti made no major attempt to ford ; both sides contented themselves with staying firm and keeping up continual musket-fire. However, MacCarthy’s British forces were lightly supplied ; the ‘African bearers’ (native carriers) bringing the supplies up in the rear, which included most of the gunpowder and ammunition, nearly all fled after hearing the firing in the distance and then encountering African deserters straggling back. Only one additional barrel of powder and one barrel of shot were brought up, and ammunition ran out around 4pm;the Ashanti then made a determined attempt to cross the river, and quickly broke into the British camp.
Almost all the British force were killed immediately; only around 20 managed to escape.
MacCarthy, along with the ensign and his secretary, attempted to fall back; but he was wounded by rifle-fire, and killed by a second shot shortly thereafter.
Ensign Wetherell was killed whilst trying to defend MacCarthy’s body and Williams taken prisoner.
On Wetherell’s return, he related that he had only survived through being recognised by an Ashanti chief for whom he had done a small favour, and was spared;
he was held prisoner for several months, locked in a hut which he shared with the severed heads of MacCarthy and Wetherell, kept as trophies of war. McCarthy’s gold-rimmed skull was later used as a drinking-cup by the Ashanti rulers.
However, killing MacCarthy was not quite the end of the matter for the Ashanti : and they were to about to have good reason to regret their ‘rough treatment’ of Sir Charles MacCarthy …
Sir Charles MacCarthy was quickly avenged by yet another Irishman in the British Army : Brigadier Garnet Wolseley; who was sent out from Ireland to restore British prestige in West Africa and to smash the upstart Ashantis.
Brigadier Garnet Wolseley 2 with 2,500 British troops and several thousand West Indian and African troops (including some Fante tribesmen) was sent against the Ashanti, and he subsequently became a household name in Britain. His Ashanti campaign was covered by war correspondents.
Military and medical instructions were printed for the troops.
However, the British government refused appeals to interfere with British armaments manufacturers who sold to both sides.
In 1873, Garnet Wolseley went to the Gold Coast in West Africa and, having made his plans and logistical arrangements before the arrival of his troops in January 1874, was able to complete the campaign in two months, and re-embark his soldiers for home before the unhealthy season began. He fought the Battle of Amoaful on 31 January of that year, and, after five days’ hard fighting, ended with the Battle of Ordashu. There were only 300 British casualties.
The Ashanti capital, Kumasi, was abandoned by the Ashanti tribe and it was briefly occupied by the British … and burned. The British were impressed by the size of the
palace and the scope of its contents, including “rows of books in many languages.”
The Asantahene, the ruler of the Ashanti signed a harsh British treaty, the ‘Treaty of Fomena’ in July 1874, to end the war. Among articles of the treaty between H.M. Queen Victoria, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland and H.M. Kofi Karikari, King of Ashanti were that “The King of Ashanti promises to pay the sum of 50,000 ounces of approved gold as indemnity for the expenses he has occasioned to Her Majesty the Queen of England by the late war…”
The treaty also stated that “There shall be freedom of trade between Ashanti and Her Majesty’s forts on the [Gold] Coast, all persons being at liberty to carry their merchandise from the Coast to Kumasi, or from that place to any of Her Majesty’s possessions on the Coast.” Furthermore, the treaty stated that “The King of Ashanti guarantees that the road from Kumasi to the River Pra shall always be kept open…”
Garnet Wolseley received the thanks of both houses of Parliament (and a grant of £25,000), and was promoted to brevet major-general for distinguished service in the field; he received the campaign medal and clasp and was made Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St. Michael and St. George (GCMG), as well as being made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath. The ‘Freedom of the City’ of London was conferred upon him with a sword of honour, and he was made honorary Doctor of Civil Law of Oxford university and a Legum Doctor of Law for Cambridge university.
Some British accounts pay tribute to the hard fighting of the Ashanti at Amoaful, particularly the tactical insight of their commander, Amanquatia: “The great Chief
Amanquatia was among the killed … Admirable skill was shown in the position selected by Amanquatia, and the determination and generalship he displayed in the defence fully bore out his great reputation as an able tactician and gallant soldier.”
The campaign is also notable for the first recorded instance of a traction engine being employed on war service. Steam sapper number 8 (made by Aveling and Porter) was shipped out and assembled at Cape Coast Castle 3. As a traction engine it had limited success but gave good service when employed as a stationary engine driving a large circular saw.
But the Ashanti War of 1873 – 74 was not the end of conflict in the Gold Coast / Ghana region of West Africa. It took another 50 years of intermittent warfare for the
British to finally and completely subdue the Ashanti tribe.
1 The Ashanti (also spelled ‘Asante’) Empire (1701–1957) was a West African sovereign state of the Ashanti people of Ashantiland (Ashanti, Brong-Ahafo, Central region, Eastern region, Greater Accra region, and Western region, of present-day southern Ghana). The Ashanti ethnic group are a Akan origin, historically inhabiting an area known as Ashantiland. They used their military power, which came from effective strategy and an early adoption of firearms, to create an Ashanti Empire that stretched from central Ghana to present-day Ivory Coast. Due to the Ashanti Empire’s military prowess, wealth, architecture, sophisticated hierarchy and culture, the Ashanti Empire was studied by European scholars and had one of the largest historiographies by European, primarily British, sources of any indigenous Sub-Saharan African political entity.
From the 17th century AD, Asanteman king Osei Tutu (c. 1695 – 1717), along with Okomfo Anokye, established the Kingdom of Asanteman, with the ‘Golden Stool of Asante’ as a singular unifying symbol. King Osei Tutu engaged in a massive Asante territorial expansion. He built up the Ashanti army based on introducing new organization and turning a disciplined royal and paramilitary army into an effective fighting force. In 1701, the Asanteman army conquered Denkyira, giving the Ashanti access to the Gulf of Guinea and the Atlantic Ocean coastal trade with Europeans, notably the Dutch.
The ‘Golden Stool’ is the royal and divine throne of the Akan people (Ashanti tribe). According to legend, the High Priest and one of the two chief founders of the Asante Confederacy, caused the stool to descend from the sky and land on the lap of the first Asante king, Osei Tutu. Such seats were traditionally symbolic of a chieftain’s leadership, but the ‘Golden Stool’ is believed to house the spirit of the Asante nation—living, dead and yet to be born.
Several wars have broken out over the ownership of the royal throne. In 1896, Asantehene Prempeh I was deported rather than risk losing both the war and the throne. In 1900, Sir Frederick Hodgson, the British Governor of the Gold Coast, demanded to be allowed to sit on the ‘Golden Stool’, and ordered that a search for it be conducted. This provoked an armed rebellion known as the ‘War of the Golden Stool’, which resulted in the annexation of the Ashanti Empire into the British Empire, but preserved the sanctity of the ‘Golden Stool’. In 1921, African road workers discovered the stool and stripped some of the gold ornaments. They were taken into protective custody by the British, before being tried according to local custom and sentenced to death. The British intervened and the group was instead banished. An assurance of non-interference with the stool was then given by the British and it was brought out of hiding.
In 1935 the stool was used in the ceremony to crown Osei Tutu Agyeman Prempeh II.
The ‘Golden Stool’ is a curved seat 46 cm high with a platform 61 cm wide and 30 cm deep. Its entire surface is inlaid with gold, and hung with bells to warn the king of impending danger. It has not been seen by many and only the king, queen, true-prince Ofosu Sefa Boakye, and trusted advisers know the hiding place.
Replicas have been produced for the chiefs and at their funerals are ceremonially blackened with animal blood, a symbol of their power for generations. The stool is one of the main focal points of the Asante today because it still shows succession and power. Each stool is made from a single block of the wood of ‘Alstonia boonei’ (a tall forest tree with numinous associations) and carved with a crescent-shaped seat, flat base and complex support structure. The many designs and symbolic meanings mean that every stool is unique; each has a different meaning for the person whose soul it seats. Some designs contain animal shapes or images that recall the person who used it. The general shape of Asante stools has been copied by other cultures and sold worldwide.
the ‘Golden Stool’ being carried in public
Asantehene (King Opoko Ware II) next to the ‘Golden Stool’ (on right) at Kumasi, Ghana
European contact with the Asante on the Gulf of Guinea coast region of Africa began in the 19th century. This led to the Ashanti trading in gold, ivory, slaves, and other goods with the Portuguese. On 15 May 1817 the Englishman Thomas Bowdich entered Kumasi. He remained there for several months, was impressed,and on his return to England wrote a book, ‘Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee’. His praise of the kingdom was disbelieved as it contradicted prevailing prejudices. Joseph Dupuis, the first British consul in Kumasi, arrived on March 23, 1820. Both Bowdich and Dupuis secured a treaty with the Asantehene. But, the governor, Hope Smith, did not meet Ashanti expectations.
Asantehene (King Opoko Ware II) next to the ‘Golden Stool’ (on right) at Kumasi, Ghana
Slavery was a historical tradition in the Ashanti Empire, with slaves typically taken as captives from enemies in warfare. The status of slaves ranged from acquiring wealth and intermarrying with members of the master’s family to being sacrificed in funeral ceremonies. The Ashanti used their personal beliefs to justify slavery and human sacrifice, believing that slaves would follow their masters into the afterlife.
Ashanti homes in Asanteman, before British colonization
2 Garnet Joseph Wolseley, 1st Viscount Wolseley, KP, GCB, OM, GCMG, VD, PC (4 June 1833 – 25 March 1913) was an Irish officer in the British Army. He was educated in Dublin and first worked in a surveyor’s office. After being commissioned as an officer in the British Army, he served in Burma, the Crimean War, the Indian Mutiny, China, Canada, and widely throughout Africa — including his Ashanti campaign (1873–1874) and the Nile Expedition against Mahdist Sudan in 1884–85. He served as Commander-in-Chief of the British Forces from 1895 to 1900. His reputation for efficiency led to the late 19th-century English phrase “everything’s all Sir Garnet”, meaning “all is in perfect working order.”
Gilbert & Sullivan deliberately modeled the character of ‘Major-General Stanley’ – the “modern Major-General” – on Garnet Wolseley, in the operetta ‘The Pirates of Penzance’.
3 Cape Coast Castle is one of about forty ‘slave castles’, or large commercial forts, built on the Gold Coast of West Africa (now Ghana) by European traders. It was originally built by the Swedes for trade in timber and gold, but later used in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Cape Coast, or ‘Cabo Corso’, is a fishing port, and the capital of Cape Coast Metropolitan District and Central Region of south Ghana.
Cape Coast was founded by the Oguaa tribe. The Swedish later came to build the Cape Coast castle and so, Cape Coast grew around Cape Coast Castle, now a World Heritage Site. It was converted to a castle by the Dutch in 1650, then expanded by the Swedes in 1652 and captured by the British in 1664.
Trade was an important motivator in the creation of fortresses and settlements on Cape Coast. The various European countries that came to what is now the coast of Ghana created interpersonal, lasting relationships with the indigenous peoples as a method of ensuring long-term economic gain. The acquisition of gold, slaves, honey, and the many other African goods that comprised the African leg of the ‘Triangular Trade’ was increasingly detrimental to the inhabitants of Cape Coast. Cape Coast was where most of the slaves were held before their journey on the ‘Middle Passage’.
The ‘Middle Passage’ was the stage of the ‘triangular trade’ in which millions of people from Africa were shipped to the New World as part of the Trans-Atlantic slave-trade. Ships departed Europe for African markets with manufactured goods, which were traded for purchased or kidnapped Africans, who were then transported across the Atlantic by the Europeans as slaves; the slaves were then sold or traded for raw materials, which would be then transported back to Europe to complete the voyage. Voyages on the ‘Middle Passage’ were a large financial undertaking, and they were generally organized by companies or groups of investors rather than individuals.
Traders from the Americas and Caribbean received delivery of the enslaved Africans. European powers such as Portugal, England, Spain, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and Brandenburg, as well as traders from Brazil and North America, all took part in this trade. The enslaved Africans came mostly from eight regions: Senegambia, Upper Guinea, Windward Coast, Gold Coast, Bight of Benin, Bight of Biafra, West Central Africa, and Southeastern Africa.
An estimated 15% of the African slaves died at sea, plus mortality rates considerably higher in Africa itself during the process of dominant warlike tribes capturing and transporting the less powerful and less warlike tribes as slaves to the European slave-ships. The total number of African deaths directly attributable to the ‘Middle Passage’ voyage is estimated at up to two million; a broader look at African deaths directly attributable to the institution of slavery from 1500 to 1900 suggests up to four million African deaths.
For two hundred years, 1440–1640, Portuguese slavers had a near monopoly on the export of slaves from Africa. During the eighteenth century, when the slave trade transported about 6 million Africans, British slavers carried almost 2.5 million of them.