King's College London
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I speak of Africa

The Asante

The first day the Yam Custom as depicted in Thomas Edward Bowdich's Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee: with a statistical account of that kingdom and geographical notices of other parts of the interior of Africa. London: John Murray, 1819 [FCOHistorical Collection DT507 BOW]The first day the Yam Custom as depicted in Thomas Edward Bowdich's Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee: with a statistical account of that kingdom and geographical notices of other parts of the interior of Africa. London: John Murray, 1819 [FCOHistorical Collection DT507 BOW]In the early nineteenth century the kingdom of the Asante, located in the hinterland of the Gold Coast, in present-day Ghana, was at the height of its power, rich from its trade in gold, ivory and slaves.

From 1807 onwards, the Asante undertook several bloody invasions of the territory of the Fanti, a British ally, which disturbed British trade along the Gold Coast and which obliged the African Company, which was in charge of the trading posts, to pay the Asante to retreat. In 1816, after another Asante raid, the governor of Cape Coast Castle asked his superiors in London to authorise a mission to be sent to the Asante in order to ‘deprecate these repeated calamities, to conciliate so powerful a monarch and to propitiate an extension of commerce.’ Apart from these political objects, the mission also had another aim, namely to find out as much as possible about the kingdom and its inhabitants, of which only little was known in Europe at the time.

The book displayed here gives a comprehensive description of this mission and the Asante kingdom. It was the first detailed account of the kingdom to reach Europe and remains even now an important source of historical and anthropological information about pre-colonial West Africa. The plate on display shows the first day of the yam custom, an annual celebration of the maturity of this vegetable, which took place at the beginning of September. The festival was a splendid occasion with all the different chiefs coming together to pay tribute to the king. However, the event was not a joyous affair for everybody. Apparently, all the chiefs killed several of their slaves as a sacrifice and another hundred persons, ‘mostly culprits reserved,’ were generally sacrificed during the annual custom.

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