Forensic Fashion
(c) 2006-present R. Macaraeg


>Costume Studies
>>1823 Asante warrior
Subject: noble warrior
Culture: Asante/Ashanti
Setting: Asante empire, west Africa 1806-1902

Context (Event Photos, Primary Sources, Secondary Sources, Field Notes)

* Knight/Scollins 1989 p10-11
"Of all the peoples in the northern half of Africa whom the British fought in the 19th century, the Asante (pronounced Ashanti), who lived in the great rain forests of present-day Ghana in West Africa, remained the most intractable enemy, maintaining their resistance to European encroachment for over a hundred years.
    "Gold and slaves, both available cheaply and in abundance, drew the European powers to West Africa, and by the 18th century a number of rival trading outposts had been established on the coast.  Unlike other parts of Africa, however, the inhospitable climate -- the area was so dangerous to European health that it was nicknamed 'The White Man's Grave' -- made colonisation impractical, and the white settlements remained little more than enclaves, often literally shut up in castles on the shore.  Their economic influence was immense, however; and their demand for slaves and gold, often paid for in highly desirable commodities such as firearms, influenced the balance of economic power for hundreds of miles into the interior. [...]
    "By the late 18th century the Asante were already heavily engaged with the European trade, and resentful of the interference of the Fante.  They were keen to open direct contact with the whites, a policy encouraged by the Dutch but opposed by the British, who believed the existence of a middle-man enabled them to exploit local differences.  The Asante drive to the coast led to Britain's first experience of Asante military might.  In 1806 the Asante moved south into Fante territory, and the Fante appealed to British interests at Cape Coast Castle to support them.  The British, who maintained only a few irregular troops, could do little except offer sanctuary to fleeing Fante.  The result was that the Asante swept through Fante territory, and advanced along the beach right up to the walls of Cape Coast Castle, massacring Fante sheltering there, despite valiant and bloody attempts to drive them off."

* Vandervort 1998 p85
"In 1823, following a breakdown in relations with British officials at Cape Coast Castle, the largest British post in the region, an Ashanti army had descended toward the coast to enforce its claims.  An army comprised of warriors of the Fante people, who were local British allies, and a small detachment of British troops under the command of the Governor of Sierra Leone, General Sir Charles McCarthy, had sallied forth to meet them in January 1824.  The allied force, outnumbered and outflanked, had fled in disarray, leaving the governor to be killed and beheaded by the victorious Ashantis.  McCarthy's skull, whose fate would become something of an obsession with two generations of British statesmen and soldiers, was carried off to the Ashanti capital, where it became a highlight of the annual Yam Festival.  Forty years later, by which time the British government had declared a protectorate over the land in the proximity of its trading posts on the Gold Coast, another British-led army had advanced against the Ashantis, only to be caught in the rainy season and forced to withdraw when disease put half of its troops out of action.  
    "According to an early Western historian of the region, this 1864 fiasco was 'the greatest failure in the history of the British occupation of the Gold Coast.'  These British defeats at the hands of the Ashantis clearly rankled, and can be seen as a major contributing factors to the conflict between Britain and the Ashantis in 1873-74."

Costume (Batakari, Kente, Jewelry)

* Knight/Scollins 1989 p14
"The standard dress for male Asante was a large oblong of brightly woven or printed cloth, wrapped around the waist and thrown over the left shoulder rather like the Roman toga.  Since this restricted the movement of the left arm, it was usually just wrapped around the waist in time of war, and sometimes gathered up to leave the legs free below the knees.  A distinctive item worn by senior Asante commanders was a war-smock, called batakari.  These reflected the influence of Moslem societies to the north, since they were completely covered with magical talismans said to protect the wearer against harm.  Each talisman was encased in a small brightly coloured square of leather or cloth which was then sewn to the smock.
    "Surviving 19th century photographs of Asante officials often show them wearing bright headscarves, and these also feature extensively in contemporary newspaper engravings of warriors.  However, it seems likely that most warriors went into action bare-headed, although many wore characteristic caps.  Made from animal skin -- examples quoted vary from crocodile to leopardskin -- these usually fitted over the top and back of the head.  Those of ordinary warriors were decorated with large red shells, and sometimes held in place by a chin-strap covered in cowries.  Wealthier or more senior men might have caps decorated with gold or silver patterns; and senior officers or commanders had a profusion of gold shells and horns on their caps, which had a large plume of eagle feathers fanning out from the back.  Commanders could also be distinguished by the sheer quality of gold about their persons -- necklaces, arm-bands, and finger- and toe-rings." ...


* Spring 1993 p59-60
"Firearms were obviously used by the indigenous people of the Guinea Coast from an early date.  DeMarees relates that 'They also buy many Firelocks and are beginning to learn to handle them very well'.  Each Asante musketman was equipped with a leather cartridge belt, ntoa, which included all the accessories required for war: a calabash powderhorn, dauka, a pouch for shot and flints, a series of small wooden containers, totoa, each containing the powder required for one round, and a set of knives, sepo, the exact function of which remains unclear.  It has been suggested that they were used to remove the heads of fallen enemies or to pierce the cheeks of prisoners and thus prevent them from invoking spells and curses against their captors.  In view of the small size of the knives, the number (up to ten) carried on any one cartridge belt, and the abiding fear of the enemy's magical potency, the latter explanation seems rather more plausible.
    "Ostentatiously embellished cartridge belts were undoubtedly worn by gun bearers as symbols of their own or their masters' wealth and prestige. Bowdich relates that the 'corselets' of the Asantehene's musket men were made 'of Leopard's skin covered with gold cockle shells, and stuck full of small knives, sheathed in gold and silver, and the handles of blue agate; cartouch [sic] boxes of elephant's hide hung below, ornamented in the same manner ... Their long Danish mukets [sic] had broad rims of gold at small distances, and the stocks were ornamented with shells'.  He goes on to say that the common soldiers' ammunition belts were embossed with red shells and small brass bells"  [references omitted]

* Knight/Scollins 1989 p13-14
"Theoretically, such guns had a range of 200 yards, but in fact few marksmen could aim with accuracy beyond 30 yards, and the flight of the slug was often erratic.  Weather conditions did not help since humidity and sudden downpours could both ruin the powder.  Nevertheless, it should not be thought that these drawbacks made the Asante gunmen ineffective: far from it.  In the forest where they fought, visibility was strictly limited anyway, and casualties were usually achieved by heavy fire at close quarters, by quantity rather than quality of musketry.  British observers were impressed by the dexterity with which the Asante used their firearms: they understood the principle of sights and the necessity of firing from the shoulder -- while many other African groups held guns at arm's length, or fired from the hip to reduce the risk from explosions -- and they were able to perform complex drill, and to fire in a number of postures.  
    "The guns themselves were usually very long-barrelled, and the Asante often bound round the barrels with wire or thongs to prevent them bursting, and decorated them with cowrie shells. Powder and shot were carried in ornate war-belts of hide.  The belts were festooned with gourds for the powder, and wooden containers for the shot.  They were often decorated with large shells, sometimes covered in a layer of gold.  Several daggers and knives were also often attached to the belt: though they might be used in hand-to-hand combat, their chief function was to remove the head of a fallen enemy, which was a prize trophy."


* Christoph/Müller/Ritz-Müller 1999 p392-393


* Gold in der Kunst Westafrikas 1975 p10-11
"Wichtige Zeichen der Macht sind bei den kriegerischen Akan-Völkern die Zeremonial-schwerter.  Eine bis zu zwei Meter lange, gebogene und oftmals durchbrochene, kunstvoll geschmiedete Eisenklinge steckt in einem hölzernen Griff, den zwei grosse Kugeln begrenzen.  Da die Goldschicht auf dem Holz leicht abblättert, werden die Schwerter bei zeremoniellen Auftritten meist an der Klinge gehalten.  Diese kann auch in einer Scheide aus Rochenhaut, Leopardenfell oder Antilopenhaut stecken
    "Die Schwerter, afena auf Ashanti, waren früher, vor der Einfuhr vun Feuerwaffen, neben den Speeren wichtigste Kriegswaffen der Akan-Völker.  Die Klingen der Zeremonialschwerter sind jedoch stumpf, handelt es sich doch um Paradewaffen.  Allerdings wird auch berichtet, dass bei Hinrichtungen vom Scharfrichter bewusst stumpfe Klingen verwendet wurden, um die Qual des Delinquenten zu verlängern."

* Blier 1998 p142-144
"Afena swords were carried by military officers, ambassadors, and messengers representing the ruler on state business as markers of their official status.  With their distinctive curving metal blade and gold foil-covered handles of barbell shape, swords had important political functions, among these the making of oaths.  In the late seventeenth century, the king of the Denkyira in the south is said to have sent officials carrying such swords to Kumasi when demanding their gold-dust tribute.  Local traditions suggest that Asante kings adopted this type of sword after Osei Tutu's victory over the Denkyira.  Although it was probably in use here much earlier, this legend is in keeping with other Asante traditions which credit the creation of key art forms to foreigners brought into the Asante confederacy, especially through war.
    "...  The political importance of afena swords is reinforced by the various gold ornaments (abosodee) which were sometimes attached to the handle or blade.  Although each king chose his own sword symbols, one of the most frequently seen comprised a head cast of gold representing a defeated enemy.  Like the sword itself, these supplemental gold heads held special meaning for Asante royal and military history; one of the earliest heads of this type is said to have represented the king of Denkyira, defeated by the Asante founder, Osei Tutu, in the seventeenth century.  Such heads, with closed eyes and gagged mouths, recall traditions of decorating swords with skull trophies."

* Spring 1993 p56
"The afena is fitted with an iron, curved blade, broad at the point but gradually tapering towards a hilt of wood, sometimes encased in gold and consisting of two spheres at either end of a cylindrical grip. The sheath is often fashioned from much-prized ray skin, etwum.  However, if this scarce commodity could not be obtained, imitations were sometimes made by painstakingly pitting the surface of antelope leather to simulate the abrasive skin of the ray.  The sheath and occasionally the hilt are also decoarted with abosodee, gold castings which show the status of the sword bearer and of his master.
    "[...]  The sword, along with other weapons, had been largely outmoded by the musket during the seventeenth century.  However it became, in the form of the afena, an object which could be instantly identifiable anywhere in the kingdom as imparting the authority of the Asantehene to its bearer. This was extremely important in a kingdom which included many non-Akan peoples.  It was essential to unify them into a coherent system, accepting the cultural, military and political organisation of Asante and, most important, the supremacy of the Asantehene as divine king.  The unwritten messages conveyed by the afena and the images attached to its sheath and hilt played an important part in this process."  [references omitted]

* Christoph/Müller/Ritz-Müller 1999 p402
"Bis zum Ende des 19. Jahrhunderts zählten neben Schemeln und Sänften auch sogenannte Reichsschwerter (afena) zu den Ehrengeschenken, mit denen vor allem Statthalter der Grenzprovinzen ausgezeichnet wurden, um sie zu belohnen und in hireer Loyalität bestärken.  Die Zal wie die besonders kunstvolle Ausführung der Stücke unterstreichen Würde und Macht ihrer Besitzer.  Ab dem 18. Jahrhundert bis zum Beginn der Kolonialzeit entwickelten sie sich von Kampf- mehr und mehr zu reich mit Golddekor überzogenen Paradewaffen.  Vor Einführung der Gewhre gehörten Speer und Schwert (domfena) zur Ausrüstung jedes Kriegers.  Mit der fortschreitenden Zentralisierung wurden die Schwerter zu Autoritätszeichen, mit denen der Asantehene verschiedene Würdenträger bedachte.  Ihre wesentliche Bedeutung lag jetzt im Ausweis der königlichen Machtdelegation."