An Ashanti stool modeled on the throne. (Photo: Brooklyn Museum online collection)
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.  

This week’s entry: War of the Golden Stool

What it’s about: In its history, Great Britain has really only tried to conquer two places on Earth: the land and the sea. At its peak, the empire controlled roughly half of Africa, what are now 17 modern-day countries. With the exception of South Africa and Egypt, each of those countries’ independence happened within the last 60 years. But in 1900, when the only countries ever to leave British rule were the U.S. and Canada, Ashanti (now part of Ghana) won de facto independence in a war over the Golden Stool—the country’s ceremonial seat of power—led by the 60-year-old grandmother of Ashanti’s exiled king.

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Strangest fact: The Ashanti initially welcomed their colonial overlords in 1900. When Britain began invading the Gold Coast in the early 1800s, the Ashanti were the strongest military power in Africa and made numerous attempts to rule the nation throughout the 19th century, only finally succeeding with the Fourth Anglo-Ashanti War in the 1890s. A large English force was joined by several of Ashanti’s African neighbors, and Prempeh I, the Ashanti king (or Asantehene), wanting to avoid bloodshed, surrendered without a shot fired. The Asantehene was sent into exile after agreeing to make his nation a British protectorate in 1897.

The arrangement didn’t last long. The Ashanti immediately began to chafe against British rule, but when the crown sent colonial governor Sir Frederick Mitchell Hodgson, he was greeted as a respected diplomat, with children singing a chorus of “God Save The Queen” and full hospitality extended. Tensions might have been smoothed over had Hodgson not insisted that the Ashanti’s traditional seat of power was his by right. “Why have you relegated me to this ordinary chair? Why did you not take the opportunity of my coming to Kumasi to bring the Golden Stool for me to sit upon?”

This was a tremendous faux pas. The stool was not merely a throne; it was a symbol of both the country and the Ashanti people, past, present, and future. Only the Asantehene himself is allowed to touch it. People were outraged at Hodgson’s behavior, and tensions exploded.

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Yaa Asantewaa, dressed for battle. (Image: Public domain)

Thing we were happiest to learn: The hero of the story is, for lack of a better turn of phrase, a pistol-packin‘ granny. Yaa Asantewaa had been the sister of the king of Ejisu, a region within the Ashanti Empire. When her brother died in 1894, she installed her grandson, Ejisuhene, on the throne. He was exiled along with the Ashanti royal family, and his grandmother remained behind as regent. When Hodgson arrived, demanding the throne, Asantewaa, as the only member of the royal family still in the country, was able to raise a rebellion.

In a secret meeting of Ashanti leadership, she shamed the men for allowing their king to be sent into exile. “Is it true the bravery of Asante is no more? I cannot believe it. It cannot be! I must say this: if you, the men of Asante, will not go forward, then we will… I shall call upon my fellow women. We will fight! We will fight till the last of us falls in the battlefields.”

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The enraged populace provided plenty of eager volunteers, who lined up behind Asantewaa’s leadership and lay siege to a British fort, with Hodgson inside. As supplies dwindled, Hodgson and a group of over 100 fled the fort, with an Ashanti force of 12,000 in pursuit. His group met up with another group of Brits led by Major James Willcocks, who had been harried by local resistance for weeks. But the two groups joined forces and hired Nigerian mercenaries, and the combined group won several battles.

In the end, Asantewaa was exiled as well and didn’t live to see King Prempeh return to the throne in 1924. But her rebellion kept the British off the Ashanti throne, and as a result, the empire only had tenuous control over the country, which, although nominally a British possession, was more or less autonomous until Britain’s Gold Coast colony (of which Ashanti was a part) became the independent nation of Ghana in 1957.

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: The Golden Stool may have survived the war, but it very nearly didn’t. It was hidden deep in the forest to protect it from the British, and it remained hidden even after the war, as the Ashanti were still technically under British rule, even if in name only. Finally, in the 1920s a group of road workers stumbled onto the stool by accident. They stripped it of its golden ornaments, robbing it of its ceremonial grandeur. The Ashanti sentenced the laborers to death for defiling their national symbol, but the British managed to get them out of the country instead. The scandal was enough for the British to promise not to interfere with the stool, and it was again used as the seat of power, where it remains to this day. While Ashanti is now part of Ghana, it is still a state within that nation, and operates as a constitutional monarchy, which still uses the Golden Stool as the symbolic seat of power.

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A 1935 photo of the Golden Stool. (Photo: British National Archives)

Also noteworthy: No one actually sits on the Golden Stool. Such is its symbolic importance that even the Asantehene merely sits next to it. The throne is rarely seen by outsiders to the royal family and their inner circle, but replicas are made, each carved from a single block of wood, each unique, usually inlaid with symbolic carvings.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: One of Wikipedia’s quirks is that occasionally seemingly random words will be highlighted with a link. In this case, “God Save The Queen” links neither to Britain’s national anthem, nor to the Sex Pistols song of the same name, but to God. For the uninitiated, God is the supreme being who many religious believe is an eternal, divine presence who is all-powerful and created the universe. Thank, well, him, that we have Wikipedia to tell us these things.

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Further down the Wormhole: One of the weapons employed by the British against the Ashanti is the Maxim gun, an early machine gun invented in 1883 by Hiram Stevens Maxim and widely used in Britain’s colonial efforts. The gun used the same ammo as an already existing rifle, the Martini-Henry, by a gun manufacturer that also built the Greener Light Harpoon Gun used by Quint in the movie Jaws. While Jaws is considered a masterpiece, its sequel, Jaws: The Revenge, is considered one of the worst movies of all time. That previous Wiki Wormhole topic leads to the similar, and succinctly named, list of sitcoms notable for negative reception. Wiki Wormhole will take a two-week break for the holidays, then return in the new year to plumb some of television’s depths.