Runaway--A Medieval English Ewer in Kumase


This file appears in: Adum Royal Palace
Runaway--A Medieval English Ewer in Kumase
©Trustees of the British Museum.

This lidded bronze container, known as "The Asante Jug," appears in 1884 Frederick Grant photograph of the entrance to the Asantehene's quarters. At 24.5 inches high and 41 pounds, it is extremely unwieldy yet impressive. Along with a second, shorter English lidded plain bronze vessel (now in the Leeds Museums and Galleries), it rested at the foot of a tree, nestled in its roots. This kind of arrangement indicates a shrine, with the bronzes acting as sacred vessels. The British apparently stripped both pieces from the palace in 1885/86 when they deposed the teenaged Asantehene Prempeh I, along with a third similar but plain, now lidless pitcher also in the British Museum.

The Asante Jug bears a royal coat-of-arms and other motifs that suggest a very late 14th-century date during Richard II's reign, as well as an old English inscription: "He that wyl [will] not spare when he may he shall not spend when he may he shall not spend when he would deme [deem] the best in every dowt [doubt] til [until] the trowthe [truth] be tryid [tried] owte [out]."

How these vessels came to Kumase is uncertain. They could have arrived via the Saharan trade from North Africa; certainly Islamic containers reached the Asante via this route. Ship's cargo directly from Europe is also possible. A seemingly insatiable hunger for bronze and its alloy components existed in West Africa long before direct European contact, and continued afterward.

This ewer is part of a group of three inscribed, extremely heavy vessels that were apparently dispersed centuries ago. Their metallic content, as well as technical similarities, reinforce the belief that the same foundry produced them. The Wenlok jug (now in Britain's Stockwood Discovery Center, Luton), never left Britain. Only about half the height of the Asante find, it bears the words "My Lord Wenlok" and no longer has its lid. The third example, known as the Robinson Jug, is the second largest pitcher, also now lidless. Now in London's Victoria and Albert Museum, its inscription reads: "Goddis [God's] grace be in this place Amen and stond [stand] uttir [away] from the fyre [fire] and lat [let] on [one] iust [just] come nere [near]."

While many scholars believe the works may have been royal gifts from Richard II (at least one intended for Wenlock, Canon of the King's Chapel, Westminster), some consider the three inscribed ewers were part of Richard II's own possession, while others think they may have been cast in 1468 by Flemish metal workers, despite their English wording. It is difficult to pin their production down because so few massive bronze vessels from this period survive for stylistic comparison.




This file appears in: Adum Royal Palace