A trophy worth losing your head for?

Ashanti war trumpet, 1824

A bad deal

This war trumpet fell into British hands in 1824 during the First Ashanti War (1823-31). It is made from an elephant tusk covered with stingray skin.

The Ashanti attributed great spiritual significance to horns in their tribal ceremonies. Horns were also blown in battle, both to frighten the enemy and allow friendly forces to identify themselves.

Although an important artefact, the war trumpet might still be considered a poor return for the British. Especially as the Ashanti took as their war trophy the head of Sir Charles McCarthy, the governor of the British territories on the Gold Coast of West Africa.

‘It appears evident that though they have been blustering and threatening our forts, without any just cause, since last August, they were not prepared for war, but depended solely upon the terror of their name to bring us to seek a compromise.’
Sir Charles McCarthy on the Ashanti in a letter to Earl Bathurst, 7 April 1823

War against the Ashanti

In 1821 the British Crown took over the territories on the Gold Coast (now Ghana) from the African Company of Merchants. The Company had been in decline since the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. 

Brigadier-General Sir Charles McCarthy, a soldier of Irish descent, was appointed governor. He decided to resist the incursions made from the interior by the warlike Ashanti tribe against the more peaceable Fanti who inhabited the coastal region.

Mustering an army of Fanti tribesmen, local militia, and regulars from the Royal African Colonial Corps, McCarthy devised a strategy that would see four columns converge on the Ashanti and annihilate them.

Miniature of Sir Charles McCarthy, 1812

British forces defeat the Ashanti in a subsequent battle, 1824

Costly mistakes

Unfortunately, McCarthy's ambition outran his knowledge of the terrain. His column of 500 men encountered the 10,000-strong Ashanti force on 21 January 1824 at Nsamankow.

After a sporadic firefight, McCarthy’s force began to run out of ammunition. The re-supply was bungled, and his men deserted him.

McCarthy's ordnance storekeeper was partly responsible for the British defeat at the Battle of Nsamankow. He mistakenly sent kegs of pasta up to the front line instead of ammunition!

Wounded during the battle, McCarthy decided to take his own life rather than fall into enemy hands. The Ashanti promptly removed his head and took it in triumph back to their capital at Kumasi. It was made into a gold-rimmed drinking cup for the use of their king.

McCarthy's skull has never been recovered. But the British military expedition to Kumasi in 1874 did succeed in bringing back one of the silver dinner forks looted from his baggage in 1824. Like the war trumpet, this now resides at the National Army Museum.

The Ashanti war trumpet is on display in Insight gallery.

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