Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Fall of the Asante Empire

 Kumasi, capital of the Ashanti region of Ghana, during the 19th century.
Image published: 1901.
(courtesy eonimages.com)

author:  Robert B. Edgerton
Free Press, First edition 1995
(Amazon)

With the recent discussion about Jared Diamond's latest book, in which he compares two types of societies: "Primitive" and WEIRD (White, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic), I thought it worth finally getting around to posting on this book on the Asante Empire.  The black, educated, pre-industrial, rich, constitutional monarchy of the Asante Empire and their century long battle to preserve their empire against British dominance is vividly described here by Robert Edgerton.  Given that both Edgerton and Diamond are professors at UCLA, Edgerton in anthropology and Diamond in geography, I am a bit at a loss to understand why Diamond doesn't spend some time in his latest book discussing the fact that there are many alternatives to "WEIRD" societies which are not at all primitive.

There are several excellent reviews of The Fall of the Asante Empire on Amazon.  I include several here:

Tim F. Martin:

"The Fall of the Asante Empire by Robert B. Edgerton is a rather engaging book that can be read on several levels. It is an account of one of the last existing preliterate sub-Saharan African civilizations, the author providing speculation and first-hand contemporary accounts of one of the most noteworthy and powerful non-European civilizations of West Africa. As one might imagine it is also a vivid, detailed, and exhaustive (though certainly not tedious) tale of the various cold and hot wars that broke out between an ambitious, imperialistic British Empire and a sometimes bellicose but often surprisingly peace-loving native civilization, a tale filled with bravery, treachery, humor, and tragedy, of an African state that though locally quite powerful was increasingly aware of the growing disparity in military might between the two civilizations. It is also an interesting study in international affairs; one filled with failed peace attempts, misread intentions, and missed opportunities for peace.

"The Zulus are with good reason both during the 19th century and today a highly respected example of the military power, success, and bravery of native African armed forces, one that for a time prevailed against a much more powerful British Empire, its flamboyantly dressed and clearly very brave warriors capturing the imaginations of many Westerners. The author though laments that for many Americans and Europeans, recognition of the valor and success of the African fighting men begins and ends with the Zulus. Largely unrecognized is the longest and most successful military resistance to European colonization, that of the Asante of Ghana, which fought against the British from 1807 to 1900, a century long conflict of numerous small and many large battles, several of which the Asante were the clear victors, the only West African army to defeat the Europeans in more than one major engagement.

"At the start of the 19th century the Asante Empire was at its height, easily the most powerful state in West Africa, an empire of over three million people in what is now Ghana and then referred to as the Gold Coast. This was more than half as many people as there were in the U.S. at the time and more than one quarter of the population of Britain (eleven million people in 1801). In land area the empire was larger than England, Wales and Scotland (or the state of Wyoming), stretching four hundred miles north from the coast, dominating nearly five hundred miles of coastline. The heartland of the Asante people was the tropical forest zone of the Gold Coast, a hot, humid, wet, and luxuriant forest that was not well-liked by Europeans.

"More than just the physical and population size of the Asante were impressive. Unusual among the native African states, the Asante, particularly at the beginning, had a remarkably successful governmental structure. It was able to balance the needs and desires of the king with a ruling oligarchy, a system of checks and balances in which sometimes the king was supreme on a given issue, at other times a near-parliamentarian body had the last say. It had a fairly large and successful government bureaucracy that oversaw many aspects of daily life. Though the empire included many subject kingdoms, conquered peoples, and a sometimes restive slave population, it had a surprisingly cohesive national identity, a "deep patriotism" that survived the worst military setbacks in a century of conflict, that despite internal divisions among a "hodgepodge" of people there was a surprisingly large core that was "always willing to fight and die for the Asante union."

"Most remarkable of all perhaps was the Asante fighting man himself. Despite the fact that most of its common soldiers were slaves, often recently captured, they often fought superbly and obeyed their orders with bravery and enthusiasm, amazing the British as they stood their ground against clearly superior firepower (which would later include artillery and machine guns). Also, most were only part-time soldiers, not living and serving in units like their British opponents, required to own and maintain their own flintlock musket (this long musket, called the "long Danes," gave the Asante an enormous advantage over their native neighbors as the Asante possessed a near monopoly on guns along the Gold Coast, though as the century progressed these guns became vastly inferior to later British weaponry).

"The heart of the book is an account of the military campaigns that took place between the two great powers, the author detailing the causes, course, and consequences of each battle, discussing the tactics of each encounter, the role various weapons played, the bravery (or cowardice) of individuals of note in each battle, whether the conflicts were small-scale conflicts that occurred basically by mistake or massive mobilizations of men, planned well in advance and involving tens of thousands of individuals. This made for gripping reading and the author, though primarily working with writings from those of the British side, nevertheless worked hard to provide a balanced portrayal of both sides of these various conflicts.

"Regrettably misunderstanding was as often at the root of Asante-British fighting as was British imperial ambitions, as each side "struggled with their colossal incomprehension of one another's values, religious beliefs, diplomacy, sense of honor, and national purpose." Both sides could be self-righteous, insistent upon their cultural and in the case of the British oftentimes racial supremacy. In many ways economics was at the heart of the conflict, but even there misunderstanding prevailed, as each side was oftentimes ignorant of the others needs and goals in that arena. Even attitudes towards the other's culture, even ones that did not directly affect the other, would color policy towards the other (such as the British distaste for Asante human sacrifice, well-detailed in this book, as well as the views of their source for porters and interpreters, the native Fante, who hated their Asante overlords and never missed an opportunity to paint vivid pictures of Asante "cruelty, rapacity, untrustworthiness, and lust for war," hardly providing a balanced portrait to the British)."

M. Noland:

"The Ashantis never really made their peace with the British and this history has relevance for contemporary Ghana as manifested by the underrepresentation of the Ashanti in the politically influential [Ghanaian] armed forces, relative to other ethnic groups."

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