III. The British Museum collection

The British Museum’s collection of Asante gold regalia is historically important as it includes examples that date from the pre-colonial (before 1896), colonial (1896–1957) and post-colonial (1957 onwards) periods. The first systematic collection of Asante artefacts, which included a pair of gold disc pendants (nos 2.1 and 2.2) and three gold beads (nos 3.42, 3.43 and 3.52), was donated by Thomas Edward Bowdich to the British Museum in 1818. As the Conductor of the first British Mission he was charged with collecting information on geography, language, customs, history, music, art and architecture. By the early 19th century the practice of assembling a collection of artefacts was increasingly cited as one of the purposes of overseas exploration and Bowdich dutifully collected examples of products that typified Asante manufacturing processes and technological developments. He presented the gold ornaments on behalf of Asantehene Osei Tutu Kwame Asibey Bonsu as a gift for the British Museum after the Asantehene was told about the Museum during the British Mission to Kumase. These five ornaments were the first examples of Asante gold-work to be put on public display in Great Britain. They are all modelled on real items closely associated with the Golden Stool of Asante, which suggests that they were not randomly chosen but were intended to reflect the importance that was attached to such symbols in Asante culture.

After the signing of the first trade treaty in 1817, relations between Asante and Great Britain slowly but steadily deteriorated. On at least four notable occasions (1824, 1874, 1896 and 1900) disputes arose that could not be resolved peacefully and led to the eventual absorption of the Asante state into the British Gold Coast Protectorate in 1896. The escalation of Anglo-Asante conflicts reflects the increasingly brutal nature of 19th-century European colonisation. This was also the period when many of the iconic art treasures from Africa were first seen and appreciated in the West.

The Anglo-Asante wars were extensively reported on in the British and American press, igniting the general public’s interest in Asante and West Africa. Items of Asante royal regalia were taken by British troops during each of the four major conflicts and gold regalia also formed part of indemnity payments that were made to the British authorities. In an age where photography was still in its infancy, black and white illustrations published in newspapers such as The London Illustrated News and The Graphic gave audiences some idea of the fabulous treasures that were associated with this little known kingdom. Some of the finest pieces of Asante regalia were later presented to the British Museum by individuals as well as the government of the British Gold Coast Protectorate. These donations reflected a growing desire to preserve some of the most beautiful examples of Asante gold-work and to display them so that everyone could appreciate their artistry and craftsmanship.

There are currently 105 items in the British Museum’s collection that are associated with the Anglo-Asante war of 1874, 12 of which were purchased directly from the London goldsmith R & S Garrard’s, including four pendants (nos 1.1, 1.5, 2.6 and 2.7) and several cast gold ornaments that may have come from the same ceremonial head-dress (nos 10.1, 10.2 and 10.3). A further 83 objects were purchased for the collection from the crown agents for the colonies in December 1876. There is a possibility that some of these gold ornaments did not form part of the Asantehene’s regalia at all, but were included as part of the payment that Asantehene Kofi Kakari (r.1867–74) demanded from every Asante chief for war expenses (Ehrlich 1981). Although most of the contributions were probably paid in gold dust, chiefs could also pledge state regalia to make up their share of the payment.

Other objects, such as the cast gold star-shaped pendant that was subsequently incorporated into the Exeter dish (no. 1.4) and Kofi Kakari’s tobacco pipe (no. 18.1), which was bequeathed by Sir Frederick Maurice KCMG CB, did not enter the Museum’s collection until the mid-20th century.

 

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