African Gold-weights in the British Museum

Fiona Sheales

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Gold-weights at the British Museum


The British Museum’s collection of gold-weights contains many examples that pre-date the colonial period (1896–1957). These gold-weights were initially acquired by military personnel who took part in a series of wars that occurred between the British and the kingdom of Asante in 1824, 1874, 1896 and 1900.

These wars resulted from the hardening of British attitudes towards local rulers and chiefs and reflect the brutal nature of 19th-century European colonial ambitions. The Anglo–Asante wars were extensively reported on in the British and American press, igniting the general public’s interest in the Gold Coast and West Africa. It was also at the end of the 19th century when many iconic sculptures cast in brass and bronze from the kingdom of Benin, in modern Nigeria, were first seen and appreciated in the West.

Gold-weights first came to the attention of the British public in 1874 as a result of a number of them being sold at an auction held at Cape Coast following the destruction of the royal palace in Kumase. Being small, attractive and relatively cheap to buy, they appealed to the members of the British expeditionary force who purchased them as souvenirs and brought them back to England. A number of these gold-weights were later presented to the British Museum by individuals such as Dowager Viscountess Wolesley who was the wife of Sir Garnet Wolesley, the commander of the British forces during the 1874 Anglo–Asante conflict.

In the years following the establishment of the Gold Coast Colony (1896–1957) gold-weights continued to be collected by military personnel such as Lieutenant-Colonel A.I. MacPherson. In 1913 he acquired 116 weights from a former attendant of Asantehene Prempeh I (paramount chief of Asante, r. 1888–96, d.1931), who was exiled by the British in 1896 to the Seychelles. Another small collection of weights that may also have a royal provenance was acquired by Mr Louis London from a former linguist to Prempeh I during a visit to Kumase in 1920. The acquisition of these weights from old palace retainers reflects the fact that by this point in time the colonial administration had successfully implemented the introduction of a European monetary system in the Gold Coast. Those people who continued to hoard defunct weights were now able to sell them to European collectors who were keen to acquire ‘authentic’ examples, as opposed to newly cast weights that were perceived to be inferior in quality.

Collectors of gold-weights therefore enjoyed a great advantage if they lived and worked in the Gold Coast Colony. One such collector was Miss Melanie McCarthy, who worked as a matron at the hospital in Kumase. Over a period of 22 years (from 1919 to 1931) she collected a fine assemblage of gold-weights that were later donated by her family to the British Museum. It is possible that some of these weights were sourced from grateful patients and through friends that saw and heard about her collection. Harry Martin, an agent of the United Africa Company (hereafter U.A.C.), also amassed a personal collection of 46 gold-weights from 1900 onwards. He was probably instrumental in creating a collection of 66 weights on behalf of his company as well. The history of the U.A.C. dates back to the first trading activities in West Africa during the 17th century. Prior to 1929 this enterprise was known as the Royal Niger Company, but after merging with other companies including the African & Eastern Trade Corporation (A & E.T) it changed its name. Both Mr Martin’s private collection and that of the U.A.C. were donated to the Museum in 1935 and 1952 respectively.

The 1920s and 1930s saw gold-weight collecting reach new heights fuelled by competition between senior colonial administrators to amass numerically larger assemblages populated with good quality examples. Assistant District Commissioner T.R.O. Mangin assembled a collection of 459 gold-weights, which he donated to the Museum in 1922. In 1922–3, Robert Sutherland Rattray, a Gold Coast official who worked as an anthropologist, collected nearly 1,000 gold-weights. He later claimed that this assemblage, which was seen and admired by many Europeans, started the fashion for collecting these artefacts and caused a revival in the art of casting them (Rattray 1923, 306). This claim is clearly untrue as gold-weights had been collected in relatively modest numbers for 50 to 60 years prior to this. However, collectors in the inter-war period were responsible for developing a connoisseurship which had been lacking in earlier times.

A small number of other collectors during the colonial period were employed overseeing mining and plantation activities on the Gold Coast. Mr Frank N. Best, a managing director of the Ofin River Mine, succeeded in building up a collection of 254 gold-weights in three years between 1898 and 1900. The largest single donation of gold-weights to the Museum also dates to this period. This collection of 567 gold-weights was assembled by Captain Robert P. Wild, who worked for the Gold Coast Colony Mines Department at Obuasi, near the Asante capital of Kumase, in the 1920s. Correspondence in the Museum archives clearly documents the collecting methods he used to procure weights, which included using some of his colleagues and employees as agents and go-betweens.

Collections of gold-weights continued to be donated to the British Museum in the post-war years (after 1945), but they consisted of smaller numbers of weights than those of the inter-war period (1919–38). This probably resulted from the fact that many weights had already entered private collections and public institutions by this time. One of the more notable donations of this period occurred in 1954 when the Museum received large numbers of archaeological and ethnographic objects from the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum. The Wellcome Trust was established in 1936 according to the terms of Sir Henry Wellcome’s will with an endowment of a large number of shares in his pharmaceutical company and his entire collection of artefacts and objects from around the world. Those items that had little or no relevance to the history of medicine were eventually distributed in the 1950s to museums in Britain and abroad. This donation contained a number of gold-weights that had been collected by Sir Henry prior to his death. Another notable assemblage of gold-weights originally formed part of an important collection of African art that was donated to the British Museum by Mrs Margaret Plass following the early death of her husband Mr Webster Plass in 1952.

Perhaps the most historically important collection of gold-weights to be added to the Museum’s collection was donated by Mr and Mrs C. Rosmer in 1950. This collection of 26 weights was discovered during the construction of a road near Bisiasi village in Denkyera, in the east of Ghana. They had been buried approximately 2ft (60cm) deep at the base of an old tree. Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing when these weights were interred, but they compare favourably with two other hoards of gold-weights, one of which was discovered in the small village of Ekruabadze near Anomabu, and the other reputedly from Assin-Manso, which have been dated on stylistic grounds by Garrard to between 1720 and 1770. This assemblage, which contains geometric and figurative weight types, also provides some clues about the status and wealth of the depositor, who it can be deduced must have valued his weight set enough to either hide it during a period of disruption or to offer it to the spirits (obosum, sing. abosum) in the hope of receiving a blessing.

In 1957, Ghana became the first African colony to gain independence from the British Empire. As a new cultural and political identity was forged, certain traditional arts and crafts such as narrow-strip woven kente cloth, stamped adinkra textiles and gold-weights became icons of Ghanaian art and culture. This helped to ensure the survival of cultural practices and techniques, including metal-casting, and provided a new stimulus for creativity and innovation. Gold-weights, along with other objects, have become very popular with visitors to Ghana who buy these small portable items as souvenirs. Since 1957 a small number of privately owned gold-weight collections have been donated to the British Museum. These donations have helped to fill gaps in the existing collection and provided duplicate examples of weight types that exhibit subtle variations in form and treatment. The Museum will continue to collect examples of gold-weights in order to ensure that ongoing developments in this important cultural art form are represented in the collection.

1. The origins and history of gold-weights 
2. The manufacture and use of gold-weights 
3. Gold-weights and proverbs 
5. A guide to weight types