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People and history

THE DECLINE OF THE ASANTE EMPIRE

The success of the Asante Empire was as much due to advances in administration, trade, and agriculture as it was to military strength. But there is an Asante proverb: "If the elephant were not in the forest, the buffalo would claim to be a large animal" (Blier, 1998). No matter what your strength, there is always someone stronger, for the Asante, it was their misfortune to come into conflict with the British Empire, at that time the most powerful empire in the history of the world. Even so, it would take the British 100 years to vanquish the Asante.

In 1800, the British influence in the Gold Coast was still relatively weak, except along the coast, and intermittent conflicts with the Asante and other tribes were common. The British were interested in increasing their influence on the continental interior, especially in order to increase their control over the lucrative gold trade. British foreign policy was at first somewhat conciliatory towards the Asante, and they signed a peace treaty in 1817 (Bowdich, 1819), but Sir Charles McCarthy opted for a more aggressive approach after becoming Governor of the British colony in 1821. He began by bribing local chiefs to declare allegiance to the British Crown, and when the Asantehene died in 1823, decided to take advantage of the interregnum to launch a preemptive attack (Wilks, 1993). The battle of Nsamankaw turned into a disastrous defeat for the British (Anti, 1996).

British strength, however, continued to increase throughout the 19th century, and in 1874, the British burned Kumase. The vassals of the Asante had broken free of the empire, yet the Asante regrouped, and within six years had rebuilt Kumase and regained virtually their entire empire. There followed a period of internal unrest, which was complicated by the overthrow of Osei Mensah Bonsu, followed by the nearly immediate death of his successor, which gradually sapped the strength of the empire (Anti, 1996). By 1901, the Asante became a colony of the British Empire.


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