Palace, Fort, and Museum

Instruments of Power and Status: Construction and Destruction

Once the site of the Aban, a stone royal fortress/museum built in the European mode, its destruction gave rise to a British colonial fortress, a forceful sign of occupation. Today it stands as Kumase's military museum, a reminder of the Asante martial past.

In 1817, Asantehene Osei Tutu Kwame Asiba Bonsu relayed his dreams of a new palace to Bowdich, the first European to reach Kumase. The structure would have a brass roof and be built on ivory columns, with gold and silver lining the windows and door. These dreams, stoked by conversations with his Muslim advisors from the north, were still on his mind three years later, when he talked to the British consul, Joseph Dupuis.

Although the monarch continued to refer to brass and ivory, his attention had turned to the European coastal forts for inspiration. He had begun construction, but had shifted his plans for brass, gold, and ivory to the interior, stating, “I am building a fort like Cape Coast Castle; but I shall make it very high that I may look out and see all the town.” His intention was to subvert European perceptions for political reasons, for he added, "Now white men know me, I must live in a great house as white kings do; then I shall not be ashamed when more white people come."

The structure was made of stone that had to be brought by hand from the coast, and its foreignness was underlined by its height, which dwarfed even two-storied earthen structures. It did not begin to approach Cape Coast Castle or any of the other forts in size, but included a tower, paved inner courtyard, far more shuttered windows than most Asante structures, several staircases, and decorative balustrades at three levels. In addition, its flat roof stood in contrast to the sharply pitched thatch of surrounding palace buildings, allowing for elevated viewing. Along with the earthen palace buildings that surrounded it, it stood behind a palisade fence of lashed bamboo-like posts.

Upon its completion in 1822, the Asantehene named it after King George IV, the reigning British monarch, and Dupuis suggested suitable sacrifices for its dedication, supplying a silk British flag to fly. Though he wrote about it as "a private token of friendship," it is difficult to believe a state envoy would see it as anything other than a sign of conquest, despite Britain's continued struggles with the Asante.

Two new Asantehenes followed. Kwaku Dua I was on the throne during an 1839 visit by Methodist missionary Thomas Birch Freeman. The fort, known by its Twi name, Aban, was still the only stone structure in Kumase. in 1841, Freeman compared its size to one of "the small villas in the vicinity of London," and noted a table bearing 31 gold-handled swords, as well as others with the ruler's gold-covered drinking calabashes or imported glassware, gold chains, and nuggets.

In 1872, Asantehene Kofi Karikari requested the British governor at the coast send him chalk and oil colors to refurbish the "stone house." The monarch soon directed his paroled prisoner, Rev. Frederick Ramseyer, to build him an additional two-story European-style house--this time from sun-dried brick--with a crew of Fante workers. Heavy rains later that year, however, damaged both the new house and the stone Aban.

By 1874, Kofi Karikari's conflicts with the British resulted in the latter's successful invasion of Kumase and the British collection of gold dust and other loot from the palace and chiefs' homes. Stanley remarked that the Aban's rooms were "lofty and commodious, and those occupied by his Majesty are furnished with European and native articles. The presents he has been continually receiving diplomatically have assisted in supplying him with unusual luxuries. Pictures adorn the walls; sumptuous sofas are ranged round his walls; thick carpets cover his floors; his tables are loaded with a thousand costly knick-knacks."

Stanley inventoried the items found on the upper floors of the Aban, which he considered the Asantehene's residence. They included gold nuggets, locally-made gold jewelry, stools, gold-decorated rifles, and linguist staffs. European goods were varied, ranging from silver flatware to porcelain and Delftware, carpets to an oil painting and prints.

Boyle observed that "the palace is apparently used as a treasure-house exclusively. The King prefers his native architecture, which is not without elegance," noting the monarch's earthen residence, site of his bedroom, stood immediately behind the Aban; Sir Garnet Wolseley, who led the British troops placed the Asantehene's bedroom and four-poster bed in the Aban itself.

In the stone house, Boyle saw Dutch engravings, a magic lantern, an ivory ship's model, and busts of the Duke of Wellington, as well as silver-decorated calabashes, velvet state umbrellas, and four gold "masks", (Stanley recorded seven) which were actually ornaments. In addition, the shaded courtyard area stored his palm wine, champagne, and brandy.

Some of the booty--the Asantehene's wives' ornaments, two of his gold pipes, a silver coffeepot, and a sword from Queen Victoria--was packed up and taken to Cape Coast where it sold for between 5000-6000 pounds (in the neighborhood of half a million 2017 dollars). Other valuables were considered part of the indemnity paid to the Crown by the defeated monarch, and the famed Garrard jewelry house auctioned them in London.

Wolseley destroyed the Aban with dynamite and had the town torched. He stated, "I believe that the result will be such a diminution in the prestige and military power of the Ashantee monarch as may result in the break-up of the kingdom altogether."

The city's recovery from the 1874 conflagration was slow. Although some palace buildings were rebuilt or refurbished, the stone structure was not. Some of its stones were salvaged and stored xxx, and in 1897 they were incorporated in both the newly-built Residency and Fort, which shared a wall. Henderson noted, however, that most of the Fort itself was built from bricks. This structure spoke to both the permanence the British hope they had achieved in their occupation of Kumase, as well as their unease regarding the current political situation. After the 1874 war, his counselors forced Asantehene Kofi Karikari to resign. Several brief reigns and regencies followed, until internal conflicts were resolved and the teen-aged Asantehene Prempeh I was enstooled in 1888. Britain tried to coerce him into agreeing to a Protectorate, and his repeated refusals led to an 1896 invasion and annexation, as well as Prempeh I's deposition and arrest. The fort and residency together marked the center of Kumase's colonization, both militarily and administratively.

The Fort had a deep well and storage buildings, but its most notable features were its gun towers, their corrugated roofs painted white, with wooden roofs and an air space under the metal--the whole designed to create a cooler vantage point. Henderson noted that all "the arrangements are admirably adapted to enable the guns and Maxims [ a mounted rapid-fire machine gun invented in 1883] with which it is provided to sweep a space which has been cleared all around it."

On March 25, 1900 Kumase saw the first visit of the Governor of the Gold Coast, Sir. F. M. Hodgson. He proceeded towards the fort under a triumphal arch, passing an assembly of Asante chiefs and provincial rulers who then processed past the governor, who was seated on the Residency's verandah like an emperor reviewing the troops. They reassembled three days later, when he informed them they needed to begin paying towards the 1874 indemnity demanded of Asantehene Kofi Karikari. His next statement was incendiary. As Armitage, an eyewitness, put it, "The Governor proceeded to ask where the Golden Stool was, and why it had not been given up to him as representative of the Great White Queen."

By April 2, the Asante at Bali village engaged a small British party who had come lookng for ammunition and the Golden Stool in gunfire, singing (in Armitage's "rough translation"), "The Governor came up to Kumasi on a peace palaver. He demanded money from us and sent white men to bring him the Golden Stool. Instead of money the Governor shall have the white men's heads sent to him to Kumasi. The Golden Stool should be well washed in the white men's blood."

Although they fought their way back to Kumase and the fort, the Asante were massing for war under the direction of Queen Mother Yaa Asantewaa of Ejisu, a kingdom about ten miles northeast of Kumase. The fort became a refuge for the Governor, his wife, a handful of British officers, missionairies, mining engineers, clerks, servants, and Asante officials (some loyal to the British, others detained by them), as well as about 500 Hausa troops and their families. Telegraph lines had already been laid in Kumase, but after a plea for reinforcements from Nigeria had been sent, the Asante cut the line. A two-month siege began. Negotiations in May included an Asante demand: the Fort should be destroyed. British reinforcements arrived in Kumase on May 15, and at the cessation of fighting Queen Mother Yaa Asantewaa was exiled to the Seychelles Islands. She died there in 1921, but when Prempeh I returned from the islands to Kumase, he had her body and those of other exiled Asante who had died returned to Kumase for proper burial.

The fort continued to house colonial military forces, although unfortified barracks were built nearby, until 1952-53, when the British Army converted the structure into a military museum. It became a Ghanaian museum at the country's 1957 independence, and its exhibits consist of arms and related objects, many confiscated during wars with other nations. Swords, tanks, planes, photographs, and other military memorabilia from Ghana, Italy, Japan, and elsewhere.


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Stewart Ave., Kumasi, Ghana ~ Public museum, entry fee, 8:00am to 5:00pm, except on Sundays and public holidays.