Prempeh I was the Asantehene (King) of the Kingdom of Ashanti. He was born as Prince Kwaku Dua III Asamu of the Kingdom of Ashanti, and he took the name of Prempeh I upon ascension on the throne at the young age of 16. His reign was a troubled one as it fell during the time of British invasion/colonization of the Gold Coast. In essence, he was the last king of the Kingdom of Ashanti before the Gold Coast fell under British protectorate.
Europeans were already installed in the region and had been trading on the coast since the 15th century for gold and slaves (as we saw with the slave castles of Elmina and Cape Coast). By the beginning of the 19th century, the British government decided to formalize its control of the Gold Coast. They dispatched a force to conquer the Ashanti. They only won the war against the disciplined Ashanti because of the superiority of their artillery and rifles over the traditional muskets of the Ashanti. Once in Kumasi, the capital, the British hastily looted the royal palace and burned the town to the ground. The defeated Ashanti had already released their prisoners and subsequently were forced into agreeing to a treaty to give up claims on coastal territories, to cease the practice of human sacrifice and to pay a huge indemnity of 50,000 ounces of gold. This was known as the Wolseley’s expedition. The Gold Coast was then declared a Crown Colony.
Having lost their invincibility in war, the Ashantis were now faced with rebelling neighboring tribes, and the Ashanti confederation was descending into civil war. The Ashanti had become so weak that, in 1888, they asked the British governor to send an arbitrator from the coast to decide who, amongst rival claimants, should be the next Asantehene. The governor’s delegate decided in favor of the 16 year-old Prempeh. But Prempeh I turned out to be no puppet and refused to agree that Ashanti should become a British Protectorate.
Asantehene Prempeh I began an active campaign of the Ashanti sovereignty. The British offered to take the Kingdom of Ashanti under their protection, but Asantehene Prempeh I of the Kingdom of Ashanti refused each request. Asantehene Prempeh I stated, “My Kingdom of Ashanti will never commit itself to any such policy of protection; Ashanti people and the Kingdom of Ashanti must remain an independent sovereign state as of old, and at the same time be friends with all white men“.
Still wary of the French in Ivory Coast and alarmed by a resurgent Ashanti, the British now (1894) “remembered” that the Wolseley indemnity had never been paid. Prempeh I tried to appeal directly to a fellow sovereign, Queen Victoria, and sent an embassy to London to plead his cause. But the British government refused to give his delegates an audience for almost a year and mounted another elaborate British army expedition to Kumasi. Prempeh I refused to allow the Ashanti to fight, partly because of the memory of the Wolseley expedition and partly because of the British support for him during the succession dispute. Instead, he diplomatically greeted the troops as his guests when they marched into Kumasi, in January of 1896. The British governor arrived and coldly received Prempeh I and his chiefs. Prempeh I desperately tried to placate the invaders and to the horror of his people, he demeaned himself by prostrating himself before the governor in a sign of submission. The governor’s only response was to demand the gold promised to Wolseley. Prempeh could not provide such a huge indemnity at once but offered to pay in instalments starting with 680 ounces as a down payment. This was refused and then, to the astonishment of the Ashantis, Prempeh and some of his main chiefs were suddenly arrested.
Prempeh I’s place was looted. His throne is still displayed in the Royal Signals Museum at Blandford in England. The abducted Asantehene, Prempeh I, some of his relatives and advisors were first taken to Elmina for about a year, then to Freetown in Sierra Leone until 1900 when, upon the outbreak of Yaa Asantewaa (story for another day), the British feared proximity and sent the royal party to the Seychelles, in the Indian Ocean.
Once there, Prempeh I spent time in his villa on Mahe, the largest of the Seychelles’ island in the Indian Ocean. Prempeh I’s villa, and 16 new wooden houses with sandy floors and roofed with corrugated iron-sheets were built in Seychelles and allocated to the various Asante’s nobles. The place was called the Ashanti Camp. Prempeh made an effort to educate himself in English and made sure that the children received education.
On 27 December 1924, Prempeh I and the other remaining members of the exiled Ashanti court were allowed to return to Ashanti Kingdom. Upon his return, and to appease the Ashanti people, the British created for Prempeh I the official position of Kumasehene in 1926, position which he held until his death in Kumasi, Ghana, on 12 May 1931. He was succeeded by his heir apparent Prempeh II of the Kingdom of Ashanti.
Prempeh I was definitely a king caught between trying to hold the sovereignty of his people, and keeping peace, while working with the British invader peacefully. Was his approach the correct one when faced with a greedy, heartless, and treacherous opponent? For more information, please check out Kreol magazine, The Kingdom of Asante, asantekingdom.org websites which are full of great articles.