Stephen Manning, Britain at War with the Asante Nation 1823-1900 (Pen& Sword, 2021)
They called it the White Man’s Grave; that part of West Africa that we now call Ghana but was the Asante Empire in the nineteenth century. The British and Asante people fought for control of this land intermittently from before Queen Victoria was crowned to almost the end of her reign. Indeed, one of the Queen’s most famous generals, Garnet Wolseley, fought a campaign so audacious and brilliant that it ranks with any of the century’s great colonial expeditions. Yet, the Zulus and the Mahdists are commonly known Victorian foes, while the Asante have been pushed into the background. Stephen Manning is here to fix that misperception.
Manning begins with the rise of the Asante Nation and its early contacts with European traders, mostly dealing in slaves. He describes the Asante army, one which was formed only of infantry and well organised and supplied. They also used muskets, long danes, which, though often ineffective physically, could induce psychological terror in the twilight battlefields of the deep forest. It was perhaps inevitable that this army would clash with the British merchants along the Gold Coast among the Fante people. That happened in 1824 as a result of the usual British hubris in colonial matters, underestimating their enemy and advancing into a massacre. They recovered their position after nearly two years of fighting and an uneasy peace was restored. That lasted until the 1860s when relations broke down but with only limited conflict.
In, 1872, the Dutch sold their holdings on the Gold Coast to the British, leaving them the sole Europeans in the area. In December that year, the Asante attacked, again catching the British unprepared. With that, Manning brings us to Wolseley’s expedition of 1873-1874. Wolseley was a meticulous planner and he had British public opinion in his side, but most of all, he had the Snider Rifle, which would do great damage. Minor morale boosting operations occupied the British, although they gained valuable information about fighting in such a hostile environment. Wolseley then advanced, bringing the Asante to battle at Amoaful, which was a hard fought win for the British. He pressed on to the Asante capital, took it, then returned to the coast and Britain as a hero. As for the Asante, Manning notes that their tribal confederation fell apart and fell into civil war in the 1880s.
The British sat back, but then took renewed interest with the Scramble for Africa. That led to the ‘bloodless’ invasion of 1896 and the seizure of the Asante capital, this time for good. One serious rebellion followed in 1900, resulting in a protracted siege of the British in the Asante capital and a timely relief mission. Manning concludes with the note that the Asante believed their revolt a success because the British never located the seat of Asante power, the Golden Stool that the Asante revered.
Manning’s detailed account of the fighting for control over the Asante is Victorian military history at its best. His narrative portrays vividly the complexity of warfare in this environmentally treacherous region of West Africa, and Manning captures the spirit of the Victorian officers and soldiers perfectly. He also pointedly brings the native allies of the British into his account. Manning also tells the story from the Asante perspective, creating a more balanced account than older texts on the conflict. Anyone interested in Victorian warfare and how the Empire was formed in far-flung corners of the earth will thoroughly enjoy this book.