Sir Charles MacCarthy and the Battle of Nsamankow – 22 Jan 1824
Sir Charles MacCarthy was appointed governor of the Cape Coast in 1822 during a period of increasing efforts at diplomacy and good relations between the British and the Ashanti kingdom. However, once at Cape Coast MacCarthy very quickly came to the view, probably persuaded by the Fante and other coastal people, that the Ashanti were untrustworthy, warlike and a threat to trade.
Relations soon turned sour as MacCarthy prepared for war with a troop build-up, new fortification to Cape Coast Castle and a policy of persuading other European traders from selling powder and arms to the Ashanti. 3 companies of British troops were available to him, plus 3 companies of the 2nd West India Regt and local militia.
The first clash was precipitated by an incident in May 1822. An African soldier quarrelled with an Ashanti trader and hurled abuse at the Ashanti king. Reacting to this insult, a small party of Ashanti captured the man and took him inland. Without the knowledge of Osei Bonsu, the Ashanti king, who was still hopeful of peace, the Ashanti council ordered the soldier’s execution. MacCarthy then lead a force of British regulars and militia against the party of Ashanti involved in the capture, but their guide led them into a prepared ambush. MacCarthy was forced to retreat with the loss of 10 dead and 39 wounded.
Tension increased through the next 12 months until Osei Bonsu was unable to restrain the Ashanti war party any longer. In the latter part of 1823 the Ashanti advanced towards the coast until threatening Cape Coast in Jan 1824.
MacCarthy divided his forces into 2 columns in response to this advance and marched them to meet the enemy. However, he made the mistake of ordering the 2 columns to march so far apart from each other that any sort of co-ordinated action became impossible. Then, even more unwisely, he detached a force of 500 men from his larger column and marched them directly at the main Ashanti army of perhaps 20,000 men led by general Amanquatia.
MacCarthy’s small force made camp on the banks of the River Prah after a march in atrocious conditions. His chief of staff, Major Ricketts, was concerned about exhaustion and their small numbers but nothing appeared to shake MacCarthy’s confidence.
The next day, the 22nd, the drums and horns of the Ashanti were heard moving through the forest. As they approached the British position, MacCarthy ordered his own brass band (which amazingly was part of the make-up of his small force) to play “God Save the King”. Quite what MacCarthy thought would happen next, or what his plan was, is unclear. But as the Ashanti draw closer, and the British officers stood there in their scarlet uniforms, the musical prelude drew to a close and the Ashanti opened fire.
Initially, luck favoured MacCarthy’s force as the Ashanti had to cross a river in full flood to reach the British position. This they tried to do several times, but the attempts left them exposed to British fire and they were halted. The tables turned however when the British started running out of ammunition and an expected ammunition supply column never materialised (the Fante bearers had dropped their loads and fled). As the Ashanti finally succeeded in crossing the river, MacCarthy’s men defended themselves with bayonets, knives and muskets used as clubs, but were soon overwhelmed. Major Ricketts was one of the few to escape using the cover of the dense bush. MacCarthy himself was badly wounded and shot himself rather than be captured. All other officers were killed apart from Williams, the Colonial Secretary, who was captured.
British losses were 9 officers and 178 men killed, 3 officers and 89 men wounded plus an unknown number taken prisoner. Some of those captured by the Ashanti (including Williams) were later released.