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The Attack on Cape Castle

by Commande

The Ashanti were a different sort of people than most in sub-Saharan Africa. During the earliest contacts with the Portuguese they were described as polite, intelligent and dignified. What ever mummers of Ashanti state existed when this contact was made in the 1470s, it pales in comparison with what was yet to come. In the 18th century a shaman named Okomfo Anoyke emerged. He was to be hailed later by his tribesmen as the founder of a centralized Ashante nation. He quickly set about to solidifying the rule of king Osei Tutu. He planted a Kumnini tree and declared that the tree would grow with Tutu's power. This however was not the limit of his tricks. He also had crafted a gold stool and presented it to Tutu in a ceremony attended by the other tribal chiefs. The stool he declared was a symbol of all the tribes. From that moment on until the end of his reign in the early 1700s, Osei Tutu was the King of Kings(1).

The shaman was not forgotten and around the Kumnini tree grew the city of Kumasi(which meant "under the kumnini tree.") Slowly they had built for themselves and Empire the size of Wyoming in the interior of present day Ghana. Their highly organized army was rumored to be based on observation of ants on the march. Not only were they empire builders they were rebels too. They had successfully rebelled against and resisted the British for some 100 years, until finally being pacified around the close of the 19th century.

A man called Torrance

In 1804 with the Napoleonic wars still raging in Europe, "Col." George Torrance had been appointed British Governor of Cape Coast(2). He recieved the appointment on September 12, 1804 at a meeting of the Royal African Company of England. Mr. Torrance had a loyal service record, accountant skills and was further noted as having a knowledge of that part of Africa. The current Governor had lost favor back home after riots around Cape Coast Castle resulted in the death of a white sergeant and reports of insubordination of the lower officers filtered back to England. Such a miserable state of affairs could not be allowed.

By the beginning of the 19th century the British where the dominate trading power on the Gold Coast. Their principal trading partners were the coastal Fante, a tribe not well known for politeness and modesty in it's dealings with the British or the inland Ashante. The Fante were quick to prohibit the trade of firearms or related materials between the British and Ashante. The British were compliant in this law but; showed concern that the Dutch circumnavigated this ruling and traded prohibited materials with the Ashante. To the further disapproval of the Ashanti, Britain outlawed the maritime slave trade in the year 1807. The Ashante now had a much harder time dealing with rebellious slaves.

However, the events leading up to the siege started in late 1806 in the recently conquered Assin chiefdoms. An Assin tribesmen raided the grave of another tribe and stole some gold. Ashante king Osei Bonsu instructed the chieftain of the guilty tribe to repay the bereaved(3). However this tomb raider was a relative of Bonsu and Chief Kwaku Aputai refused. Not only did he refuse to pay he ordered his men to attack those he was supposed to repay. Perhaps he hoped to quiet the matter without involving the king in an issue which was growing into an issue of Assin nationalism. However King Osei Bonsu would not let his rule be ignored and he sent two envoys to call the Assin to halt hostilities and to pay the debt. Once again Aputai showed his knowledge of diplomacy, he killed and mutilated both of the Ashanti diplomats.

King Bonsu knew the time for action had come and he dispatched a massive army. As the Ashanti invaded and showed their superior skill, Aputai fled. He and Kwadwo Obtibu another Assin chief sought asylum in the Fante. When news of this reached Bonsu he sent gifts to the Fante and requested they turn over the Assin rogues. Aputai's tribe fled farther south and all Bonsu received for his efforts were more mutilated diplomats. The Ashanti army marched on and the Fante resistance disintegrated.

Now Aputai's outlaws came to another land. The Cape Coast colony of President Torrane. They beseeched the governor for asylum. Without hesitation he declared he would protect them with "force of arms". Perhaps he hoped to establish good relations with his neighbors to avoid the riots which had removed his predecessor. The renegades took up residence at the Fante village near the fort.

Torrane had limited military resources at his disposal. The British fort on the Cape Coast had been built in 1652 by the Swedes. It had firm stone walls upon which were mounted twelve cannon. His force however was quite small, totally a mere 29 men including laborers and servants. Most important of these men were five officers of the African Company whose names history has recorded as Barnes, Meredith, Smith, Swanzy, and White. The Vice-President Mr.White served as commander of the fort.

The Ashanti army did not pause for a moment and took possession of the abandoned Dutch fort at Cormantine. Now they were a mere three miles from the British at Cape Coast Castle. When Torrane attempted to send a truce the Fante soldiers prohibited this action(4).

The Attack

On June 15th 1807, The Ashanti left the safety of the fort Cormantine and attacked the village. The Fante "fled like sheep" and many were killed as they ran from the village toward the protective guns of the fort. The Ashanti finally had their enemy cornered after a long campaign and took out it's retribution burning the village as they moved onto the mile or so of beach that lead to the fort. Some 2,000 Fante were allowed in the fort and others clung desperately to the walls outside.

Mr. White ordered artillery to be fired over the town(5). The Ashanti leader ordered an attack on the fort. Ashanti musket fire opened up on the fortress. They advanced, oblivious to the guns, right up to the walls to carry off Fante women. They assaulted the main gate and attempted to force it open. A 24-pounder facing west towards the sea killed dozens of Ashanti with each fire of grape shot. A three-pounder protecting the eastern gate saw similar success. However the western gate's were to exposed to Ashanti musket fire. Messrs Meridith and John Swanzy defended it firing 300 rounds. They battled until sunset when the third attempt to force the gate, lead by an Ashanti carrying a torch, failed. The torchbearer was shot and his body extinguished the torch.

The garrison had just withstood six-hours of siege. The arms of the defenders ached from firing their weapons for such an extended period. White was shot through the mouth and arm and had relinquished command to Meredith. Eight men were still able to fight.

Sunrise brought the grueling picture of a mile and a half of beach strewn with the dead Fante and Ashanti. The blood-stained waves crashed against a bloody beach. The remains of the town lay there smoking. Offshore two-hundred survivors clung to a rock.

Half-hearted fighting continued the next day until a brief truce allowed twelve men and three officers to reinforce the exhausted defenders. With orders from Torrane a flag of truce was carried to the Ashanti. In turn they sent messengers to the fort telling Torrane that the king wanted to meet him in person. The Ashanti were ready to talk.

Making Peace

Col. Torrane decided he was going to bring some leverage to the table and attempted to capture the two wanted Assins. The elderly Kwadwo Obtibu was captured but sly Aputai escaped. Torrane and a handful of British officers were received by the king and hundreds of servants. The kings advisors included a tall Arab from somewhere north of Timbuktu. He lead a group of armed Arabs who used barbed iron headed arrows as well as muskets. Some of these arrows had been found in the fort.

Torrane admitted the Ashanti had "fought with bravery not to be exceeded." and king Osei Bonsu claimed 3,000 had perished in the attack on the fort. Kwadwo Obtibu was to be turned over to the Ashanti. While Torrane's officers felt betrayed by handing over the Assin they had fought to protect, the Ashanti were extremely pleased and spoke of Torrane quiet highly. With the treaty concluded, Fante sovereignty was surrendered and British control of the coast was insured. The 2,000 member Fante tribe was split in two. Half became Ashanti slaves and half Governor Torrane shipped off to America as slaves to pay off a personal debt.

Enraged by the treaty, John Swanzy made herculean efforts to save a handful of refugees. Efforts were being considered to remove Torrane, but he died on Christmas Eve. Edward William White who had fended off the Ashanti attack became governor of the colony. The stage was now set for the next chapter or drama and intrigue on the Gold Coast.

  1. There is much disagreement about what year he died as many are reported. The year 1712 is usually considered too early. Edgerton maintains 1719 and Lloyd has the significantly later date of 1731 recorded. While some suggest he died in battle other accounts have us believing he died of natural causes. It maybe noted that this would not be the first case where African leaders are given extended periods of life by their tribesmen.
  2. Colonel was an honorary title given to him by the company in hopes it would help him to restore order and was not one earned by military service.
  3. By now the residents of Kumasi numbered 20-25,000.
  4. Here the story blurs. Lloyd maintains Mr. White declined to pay a price of guns and ammunition to start negotiations.
  5. Again disagreement. Lloyd this time siting the account of Lt. Col. Ellis of this firing above the town.

Bibliography

Lloyd, Alan. The drums of Kumasi: the storu of the Ashanti wars. London: Longman's Green and Co. LTD, 1964.

Crooks, John Joseph. Records relating to the Gold Coast settlements from 1750 to 1874. London: Frank Cass and Company Linited, 1973.

Edgerton, Robert B. The fall of the Asante Empire. New York: The Free Press, 1995.

Tufto, J.W. ASHANTIS of GHANA People with a soul. Ghana: Ringway Press, 1969.

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