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The Fall of the Asante Empire: The Hundred-Year War for Africa's Gold Coast [Paperback]

Robert B. Edgerton
1.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

1 Feb 1995
In 1817, the first British envoy to meet the king of the Asante of West Africa was dazzled by his reception. A group of 5,000 Asante soldiers, many wearing immense caps topped with three foot eagle feathers and gold ram's horns, engulfed him with a "zeal bordering on phrensy, " shooting muskets into the air. The envoy was escorted, as no fewer than 100 bands played, to the Asante king's palace and greeted by a tremendous throng of 30,000 noblemen and soldiers, bedecked with so much gold that his party had to avert their eyes to avoid the blinding glare. Some Asante elders wore gold ornaments so massive they had to be supported by attendants. But a criminal being lead to his execution - hands tied, ears severed, knives thrust through his cheeks and shoulder blades - was also paraded before them as a warning of what would befall malefactors. This first encounter set the stage for one of the longest and fiercest wars in all the European conquest of Africa. At its height, the Asante empire, on the Gold Coast of Africa in present-day Ghana, comprised three million people and had its own highly sophisticated social, political, and military institutions. Armed with European firearms, the tenacious and disciplined Asante army inflicted heavy casualties on advancing British troops, in some cases defeating them. They won the respect and admiration of British commanders, and displayed a unique willingness to adapt their traditional military tactics to counter superior British technology. Even well after a British fort had been established in Kumase, the Asante capital, the indigenous culture stubbornly resisted Europeanization, as long as the "golden stool, " the sacred repository of royal power,remained in Asante hands. It was only after an entire century of fighting that resistance ultimately ceased.
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 312 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press (1 Feb 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743236386
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743236386
  • Product Dimensions: 22.9 x 15.6 x 1.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 1.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,217,830 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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AT THE START OF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY, WHEN ASANTE AND British interests first collided, the Asante Empire was at its height. Read the first page
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars You can not be serious! 10 Nov 2010
They say you should never judge a book by its cover. In this case however, perhaps we should. The subject of this book is the sparodic conflicts between the British and the Ashanti of the West African Gold Coast (modern day Ghana), that took place between 1807 and 1901. It was not a continual 100 year war as the title would have readers believe.

The author was, at the time of writing, a professor within an American university. As such, you would expect a high standard of research and factual writing. Indeed, readers are provided with a bibliography that amounts to a full eight pages. Which then begs the question, "why has he made such a pigs ear of it?" Students of history are well aware that "The past is a strange land, they do things different there." Which means that one does not apply the norms and taboos of the modern culture that we happen to live in to the actions of those living at a different time or place. Nor should anyone try to impose their antipathy towards past times or events when writing about them.

To begin with, the cover shows two British officers riding down Africans. These however are not Ashanti but Zulus from South Africa, and the action depicted was the 'saving' of the colours during the British military disaster at Islandwana. The choice of such a subject image along with a detectable anti British (or even anti European) 'feel' to the text detracts from the facts (those that the author manages to get right that is).

The battle of Anamabo fort is wrongly placed at Cape Coast Castle. The number of 'British' reinforcements that arrive is not given. A grand total of 16 men against an Ashanti force that has been estimated as 20,000. It was F. L. Swanzy who took part in the battle not J. Swanzy.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.7 out of 5 stars  7 reviews
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars a fascinating story, well-told 8 Nov 2000
By m_noland - Published on
For centuries the Ghana nee the Gold Coast nee the Ashanti kingdom has been a major producer of gold. The 16th century arrival of European powers on the West African coast opened up vast new trading opportunities. The Europeans tried to push inland to locate the source of the gold, while the Ashantis tried to subjugate the coastal dwelling Fantes who intermediated the trade between the seafaring Europeans and the Ashanti and other inland groups.
This book describes the 100 years on-again off-again war between the British (and their Fante allies) and the Ashanti (supported by the Dutch). The author is an anthropologist and his intepretation of events emphasizes the cross-cultural incomprehension of two societies (Victorian Britain, and late Ashanti Empire) which in some ways were remarkably similar: aristocratic, hierarchical, chauvinistic, imperialistic, militaristic. Some of the stories are fascinating as in the depressing case of the British kidnapping and torture of an Ashanti peace emissary which predictably leads to Ashanti mobilization and the seige of the British castle at Cape Coast. Or the fact that it takes 70 years for the British to figure out that desertions by the Fante were less motivated by cowardice than the fact that the British were forcing their Fante porters to do culturally innappropriate "women's work." Nevertheless, the author clearly likes both the British and the Ashanti, so he makes constant references to the "cowardly" "perfidious" etc. Fante. What the Ashanti could not do, malaria and dysentary did (they don't call West Africa "White Man's Grave" for nothing) and in the end, the British need howitzers and Yoruba troops brought in from Nigeria to capture the Ashanti capital of Kumasi. The final armed resistance to the British is led by an old woman named Yaa Asantewaa who after her capture died in exile in the Seychelles.
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 armed forces, relative to other ethnic groups.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gripping portrait of a overlooked civilization and conflict 27 Dec 2007
By Tim F. Martin - Published on
_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).
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fall of ashanty empire 20 May 2013
By water50 - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Interesting Information about the ashanty tribe and additionally
better understanding about the colonialism in and of africa.
The term gold coast is also better understood.
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic Book 3 July 2014
By Johnny - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Excellent work here by the author, who writes with no bias, as we come to understand it in the modern text. Both sides are described for better and worse, warts and all. Slavery it seems practiced by the great African kingdoms all over Africa, is not something I remember being taught in school here in the US.
6 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Book 26 Jan 2001
By Fred M. Blum - Published on
This is a great book, epically for a novice in African history. While American are taught about the different European civilizations we are thoroughly ignorant about similar African civilizations. The Asante Empire was long established in Western Africa (present Ghana) and had an advanced civilization. They had a well organized army, with at the time of the first conflict with Britain, were armed with modern muskets. They had a well organized government and religion.
The conflict with the British was far from a cake walk for the British. The Asante fought bravely for their freedom and gave the British everything that they could handle. The British were not able to subdue the Asante until the progress in arms technology made the Asante armaments obsolete and gave the British a huge advantage. Eventually it was British howitzers vs. Asante muskets.
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