In terms of the land that is now present-day Ghana and our assorted invasions of it, two things come quickly to mind: the Gold Coast and the Ashanti. A bit like many Brits don’t know that there have been three Burma Wars, a lot of Brits don’t know that there have been not three, but four Ashanti Wars, or even five depending on how you reckon them. It all started from our point of view with the Gold Coast. This is what we called the area when we first got to know it, unsurprisingly for the reason that there was gold to be had there. But there were other sources of wealth available too, mainly slavery and ivory. The French preferred to call the area the Ivory Coast, or Côte d’Ivoire, which, equally unsurprisingly, explains why that’s now the name of the country to the west of Ghana. As early as the sixteenth century we were getting gold from the Gold Coast, and in the seventeenth century we started grabbing bits of land as well. For example, in the 1660s we established ourselves at Cape Coast Castle (bit of a tongue-twister that). Inevitably, with all the money to be made there, it wasn’t just us showing an interest in the area. Lots of Europeans were too. But with our customary relentless dedication, we wore the others down and kicked them out slowly. We had a bit of a rocky start on that front since the Dutch almost managed to chuck us out in the seventeenth century, but things went our way in the competition with the other Europeans and by 1850 we had reached a deal to buy the Danish forts, and finally in the 1870s we got the Dutch forts.
And then there are the Ashanti. A lot of Brits know something about our battles with the Zulus, perhaps because of the movies. But our wars against the Ashanti were even longer. They caused massive suffering to the Ashanti and, on a number of occasions, were pretty tough for the Britons involved too.
The First Ashanti War was something of a shock to us. In 1823, Sir Charles MacCarthy, Governor of Sierra Leone and the Gold Coast, declared war on the Ashanti to win control of Fanti areas. In the end it didn’t turn out too well for him and his men. The Ashanti killed almost all of them, and his colonial secretary, Williams, was captured and kept prisoner for months. MacCarthy’s skull was later used as a drinking cup by Ashanti rulers. In subsequent fighting, the Ashanti advanced to the coast on more than one occasion, but were in for a bit of a shock themselves from our Congreve Rockets. Eventually a peace treaty was signed in 1831.
More fighting broke out in 1863–64 with the Second Ashanti War. Again we didn’t manage to achieve very much, and there were losses on both sides.
Things went better for the British forces with the Third Ashanti War. Once we had got hold of the Dutch forts, we found that we had competition from the Ashanti who also wanted them. The Ashanti attacked and General Garnet Wolseley rushed to deal with them. After the Battle of Amoaful, we entered the Ashanti capital, Kumasi, and looted and burned it. A peace treaty, the Treaty of Fomena, was signed in 1874, making the Ashanti pay us an indemnity and giving us assorted trade advantages.
Then came the Fourth Ashanti War. We were getting a little nervous about the spread of German and French influence and wanted the Ashanti to sign up to be a British protectorate. The Ashanti weren’t so keen. By January 1896, citing breaches of the Treaty of Fomena as justification for the war, we had troops in Kumasi. Robert Baden Powell was in there somewhere, as was Prince Henry of Battenberg (like the cake), Queen Victoria’s son-in-law. It was not Prince Henry’s happiest time, however, since he died on the way back from the expedition. By February it was all over and a treaty of protection was signed and Britain sent some Ashanti leaders into exile on the Seychelles.
Finally, in 1900 came the War of the Golden Stool. This was the Fifth Ashanti War, but with a more interesting name. The Golden Stool was one of the main symbols of Ashanti rule and was sacred to the Ashanti. In 1900 the Governor of the Gold Coast demanded it for Queen Victoria and demanded that he could sit on it. Thus began a war. Eventually we won and more Ashanti leaders were exiled to the Seychelles, and on 1 January 1902 the Ashanti territories became part of the Gold Coast colony. In 1957, the Gold Coast became independent as Ghana.