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Account for the failure of the Asante to mount a unified struggle against the British during the Yaa Asantewaako
The Asante was a state of Ghana occupied by the Akan people. During the 1700s the kingdom expanded under their ruler, Osei Tutu, and his successor, Osai Apoko, to cover most of Ghana, including the coast, which later became known as the Gold Coast because of its gold mines. Their trade in gold and other commodities, including slaves, spread out across the Atlantic.
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In the 19th century British traders began to take control of the trade routes and coastal regions. Wars and treaties with British over possession of land continued throughout the century. Later in the century the slave trade declined and the Asante had to rely on its sales of Kola nuts to the north. However, the pressures of colonisation, and the British monopoly of the gold mines, proved too much for the state and it lost its independence in 1874.
At this time the ruler of Ejisu, a state in the Confederacy, was Nana Akwasi Afrane Okpese. When he died in 1894, his sister Yaa Asantewaa nominated her grandson as ruler. However, in 1896 he was sent into exile with the King of Asante, Prempeh I, and Yaa Asantewaa herself became regent.
The Asante people had a legendary throne, known as the Golden Stool, which was believed to contain the spirit of the Asante nation. This throne symbolically represented the nation’s independence, and had never been sat on. In 1900, the British governor-general of the Gold Coast, Sir Frederick Hodgson, demanded that the throne should be brought to him in honour of Queen Victoria, and he should be entitled to sit on it. This demand was insensitive in the light of the people’s reverence of the stool and created a great deal of anger and resentment amongst the Asante people.
Yaa Asantewaa reacted by starting the Asante uprising in 1900 which was intended to release the King. This started by an attempted ambush, and was followed by the siege of the British in Kumasi. The Asante only made one attack on the fort, and when a rescue party arrived, 600 men were released, who, despite further attacks on the road from around 1500 warriors, were able to get to the coast with a loss of 40 men.
A rescue force of 1000 men was sent out, and although they received heavy attacks from allied tribes, they were able to carry out an assault on Kumasi in July 1900, and relieved the fort within two days. Following this victory for the British, raids took place on regions that supported the uprising and eventually the Asante were completely defeated. Yaa Asantewaa was also exiled, and remained so until her death in 1921.
The Asante had the advantage at the beginning of the uprising, and the possibility of the uprising being a success seems at first glimpse to have been very high. However, there are various reasons why they were unable to defeat the British, and present a unified force.
Despite the Asante’s courage and cunning, the British also showed extreme bravery and enterprise in the face of horrific conditions, both for those in the siege, and for the relieving troops. The men and women in the garrison had only limited supplies, and after the initial release of the 600 who managed to make their way to the Cape Coast, the remaining garrison only had enough rations to last them for three weeks.
Furthermore, the relief expedition, led by Colonel Willcocks, faced enormous problems. They had difficulty in obtaining carriers and food for the journey, and as it was the height of the rainy season, all the roads were in deepest mud and almost impenetrable.
Despite these seemingly insurmountable problems, Willcocks’s troop managed to reach Bekwai. From here, he managed to draw much of the enemy away from Kumasi by releasing reports that he was about to attack Kokofu to the east. However, whilst feinting an advance on Kokofu, he suddenly turned west to Kumasi, and after some fighting, reached the fort, just in time to relieve the inhabitants before they surrendered.
It is clear, therefore, that the defeat of the Asante uprising was very much due to the courage and cleverness of Willcocks, who was afterwards promoted and received the K.C.M.G.
Further reasons for this defeat must lie with the Asante themselves. Despite their show of initial strength, this last act of defiance in the wars with the British had its own weaknesses.
The continual wars of the preceding century had decreased the Asante’s power over land around the coast. The territorial war of 1873-74 had also ended in defeat for the Asante, and the kings that ruled their people immediately after this war were either tyrannical or short-lived. Civil war was the outcome, until the election of Prempeh, who at first seemed to bring peace. However, his later refusal to comply with the treaty made earlier, led to his exile, and British governors were put in place at Kumasi.
The moral of the Asante must have been low at this point. Many of the chiefs could not reconcile themselves to British rule, but seemed unable to take action. Furthermore, many of the tribes remained loyal to the British, which must have decreased their strength even further. Much of the enemy they were fighting against was made up of Africans – the Hausas – and tribes loyal to the British, which perhaps was also a demoralising factor. With other tribes allying themselves to the British, they were unable to call on so many neighbouring areas – while the British were able to call on continual support, even though this support was long in coming.
At the beginning of the rebellion, Yaa Asantewaa had been able to gain the support of some of the Asante nobility, but only after an impassioned and now famous speech she made to members of the government council:
Now I see that some of you fear to go forward to fight for our King. If it were in the brave days of Osei Tutu, Okomfo Anokye, and Opoku Ware, chiefs would not sit down to see their king taken away without firing a shot. No European could have dared speak to chiefs of Asante in the way the governor spoke to you this morning. Is it true that the bravery of Asante is no more? I cannot believe it. It cannot be! I must say this: if you the men of Asante will not go forward, then we will. We the women will. I shall call upon my fellow women. We will fight the white men. We will fight till the last of us falls in the battlefields.
This speech was made because the government members could not agree on the right action to take. Although she did gather support for the rebellion, it may be that it was not as strong in spirit as its numbers suggest.
The rebels were able to muster a force of 40,000, but numbers were not a great advantage in the light of the superior technology of the British ammunition, which included field guns and rapid-fire maxim guns. This gap in technology had grown over the preceding 100 years and severely disadvantaged the Asante, though their use of stockades was an attempt to deal with British superior gunfire.
In summarising the reasons why the Asante were unable to defeat the British in this uprising, it can clearly be seen that, despite their numbers and bravery, they were at a considerable disadvantage in military terms, and in support. The years of war had seen a growth of military technology for the British, while the Asante only had defence techniques to counter this. The gradual submission to British rule by neighbouring tribes must also have been a factor, and in the end, the War of the Golden Stool was a final act of defiance which was inevitably doomed to failure.
Gilbert, M., ‘A History of the Twentieth Century Volume One, 1900-1933’, [online] Available from http://partners.nytimes.com/books/first/g/gilbert-history.html [accessed 28th April 2007]
Nugent, P., (1997) ‘A Clash of Empires: Asante and the British’ [online] A review of Edgerton, Robert, The Fall of the Asante Empire: The Hundred Year War For Africa’s Gold Coast Available from
http://www.h-net.msu.edu/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=20828873843577#fromnote1 [accessed 28th April 2007]
 quoted in www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yaa_Asantewaa
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