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West Africa - Jaw-jaw, Episode 55 - 03/03/06


The Black Watch patrol the forests of Ashanti during the British-Ashante war (Getty Images/Hulton Archive)

The Black Watch patrol the forests of Ashanti
(Getty Images)
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Freetown, Sierra Leone, was a British Crown Colony that became a Protectorate in 1896. In 1812 Sir Charles M'Carthy was appointed governor in Freetown. M'Carthy was to suffer an inglorious and unexpected end.

Inland, the Ashanti kings who ruled from the Golden Stool, said to have come from the great god guardian of the Ashanti soul, Nyame, would not allow themselves to be governed by the British. Also, by the 1820s the British had decided to support one of the other tribes, the Fanti, enemies of the Ashanti.

In 1824, the British, led by M'Carthy, were squaring up for a dreadful conflict with the Ashanti. M'Carthy, with some arrogance or bad military intelligence, led his army of barely 600 men against perhaps 10,000 Ashanti warriors and their king, Osai Tutu Kwadwo. (The exact numbers are very hard to pin down.)

M'Carthy's planning was bad and therefore so was his logistical supply in mostly swamp and jungle conditions with seemingly ceaseless downpours. Little wonder that his men were demoralized and exhausted. Moreover, after the first skirmish the British had all but run out of ammunition.

So confident was the king of the Ashantis that he prophesized that soon he would defeat the British and that M'Carthy's jawbones would be used as drumsticks and his skull as a loving cup. As the Ashanti advanced, Sir Charles ordered his band to strike up with God Save The Queen.

The closer the Ashanti got, the quicker M'Carthey's Fantis deserted him. When the British guns were silent the Ashanti held back thinking the silence was a British ploy. But then it dawned. The British had run out of musket balls and powder. As one of the few survivors reported "our gallant little force still defended themselves with their bayonets until they were completely over-powered by the myriads who instantly beheaded nearly every one of those who unfortunately fell into their remorseless hands".

It was not until 1831 that a treaty was signed to define the boundaries of the Ashanti kingdom and the authority of the British territorial claim in the Gold Coast.

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Historical Figure

Sir Charles M'Carthy c. 1770-1824

Sir Charles M'Carthy came from an established Irish family whose grandfather had escaped William of Orange with James II. He was appointed ensign in 1794 in the regiment of Count Conway and went to the West Indies with them. Later he commanded the backwoodsmen who made up the New Brunswick fencibles. In 1811 he joined the Royal African Corps and in 1812 became governor of Sierra Leone and knighted in 1820. Apart from his extraordinary end, M'Carthy is remembered for administration reforms in Sierra Leone and the promotion of Christianity.

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Did You Know...

M'Carthy's heart was eaten by the principal Ashanti chiefs that they might imbibe his bravery, his bones were distributed as charms to inspire courage. His jawbones were used as drum sticks and his skull as a drinking cup - although later rescued and returned to England.

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Contemporary Sources

An eyewitness account of the death of Sir Charles M'Carthy

Excerpt from Narrative of the Ashantee War, With a View of the Present State of the Colony of Sierra Leone by Major H.I. Ricketts

"He saw ensign Wetherell, who appeared also to have been wounded, lying close to Sir Charles, cutting with his sword at the enemy as they were tearing the clothes off his friend and patron. Some of the Ashantis were attempting to cut off his head, and had already inflicted one gash on the back of his neck; luckily at this crisis an Ashanti of authority came up and recognizing Mr Williams from who he had received some kindness, withheld the hand of the savage. On Mr Williams's recovering his senses, he saw the headless trunks of Sir Charles McCarthy, Mr Buckle, and Ensign Wetherell. During his captivity he was lodged under a thatched shed in the same rooms as the heads which, owing to some peculiar process, were in a perfect state of preservation."

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