LIKE most of the world, the Ashanti region of Ghana, West Africa, is facing the coronavirus pandemic, though a partial lockdown has recently been lifted. Nearly 150 years ago it was facing another crisis, this time as a result of British imperialism.

A lingering memory of the conflict is a white marble tablet at the west end of the south aisle of Winchester Cathedral. It records the death in January 1874 of James Nicol, who served in the 13th Light Infantry and the Hampshire Militia, before volunteering to fight in the 3rd Anglo-Ashanti War (the first two were in 1824 and 1863).

This long-forgotten conflict was sparked in 1872 when the port of Elmina on the Gold Coast– once active in the slave trade, now Ghana– was sold to the British by the Dutch. The King of the Ashanti, named Kofi, who controlled the region from his capital at Kumasi, had previously received payment from the Dutch, but the British refused to pay. And this led to the Ashanti army moving south to attack the British Gold Coast Protectorate.

In an attempt to fight back, Sir Garnet Wolseley – later parodied in the Pirates of Penzance as the “very model of a modern Major-General” – was dispatched to rally local tribesmen hostile to the Ashanti. He was described in parliament by Disraeli as a man possessing “great knowledge of human nature as well as of military science”. But even he soon realised that the task was hopeless and sent for British troops. This is where Captain Nicol and many others stepped in.

The task faced the soldiers under the command of Wolseley, was enormous. Fresh from England, they were fighting in dense bush against determined enemies who knew the terrain intimately and were courageously defending their own territory. Nicol was killed on January 29, 1874, in what military historians call “a small action” at Borborassie. A dispatch spoke of him leading his men “with the devotion of an English gentleman”.

A much greater action at Amoaful, which was successful, took place two days later and allowed Wolseley to advance to Kumasi, where the royal court had fled. The capital was torched and King Kofi, faced by a naval detachment supported by 700 fighters recruited from what is now Nigeria surrendered and signed a peace treaty.

Today it reads like colonial bullying. But in a vote of thanks in parliament a month later Disraeli, fresh from defeating Gladstone in a general election, praised Wolseley and his troops to the hilt. Although there were some dissenting voices that accused the government of acting too slowly and not assessing the situation properly, in fact the 3rd Anglo-Ashanti War became a symbol of British military might.

In Hampshire there are other traces of the war. In the All Saints Garrison Church, Aldershot, Lt Arthur Hardolph Eyre of the 90th Infantry is commemorated. He served throughout the war, displaying the “noble courage hereditary in his family” (he was the son of Major-General Sir William Eyre), but fell on February, 4, 1874, “whilst leading the advanced guard in the last days of fighting before Coomassie [Kumasi]”.

In the whole of the 3rd Anglo-Ashanti War four VCs were awarded and, surprisingly, only 18 British were killed in combat, though more died from disease and many were wounded. Some were brought back to convalesce in Netley Hospital, where they were visited by no less than Queen Victoria herself.

A modest sum gets a year’s entry to Winchester Cathedral, where a host of similar stories await the end of the coronavirus crisis.

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