Homecoming – Exhibition of Asante Gold Regalia at Manhiya Palace Museum, Kumasi

Metalwork, Decorative Art and Sculpture
May 2, 2024

Historic Asante gold court regalia acquired by the V&A in 1874 from items looted by British troops during the Anglo-Asante Wars has gone on show in Ghana for the first time in 150 years, through a significant cultural partnership between Manhyia Palace Museum, the V&A and the British Museum. The exhibition, Homecoming, in the newly refurbished Manhyia Palace Museum in the Asante capital, Kumasi, was opened yesterday by Asantehene (Asante King), Otumfuo Osei Tutu II, and includes 17 items from the V&A, 15 from the British Museum and 7 formerly in the Fowler Museum, California.

The V&A items include a gold peace pipe (abua) and four cast gold soulwashers’ badges (akrafokonmu) that demonstrate the beautiful, historic lost-wax casting techniques for which the Asante are renowned. Beaten gold ornaments with intricate and symbolic decoration that once adorned thrones, canopies and swords are also on show – as is a small cast gold eagle and a cast gold ring. With the help of Ivor Agyeman-Duah, exhibition organiser and chief advisor to Manhyia Palace, Museum, we have updated our research on the Asante regalia.

You can see the items from the V&A and explore their histories here.

Round golden badge
Soulwasher’s badge (Akrafokonmu), a spiritual emblem worn by important members of the Asante court who are responsible for purifying the king’s soul, cast gold, before 1874, Museum no. 368-1874
Flat gold ornament
Ornament, sheet gold in repoussé with torn edges, before 1874, Museum no. 374-1874
Gold eagle
Eagle, cast gold, identified in 2023 by Asante royal goldsmith, Nana Poku Amponsah Dwumfour, as a throne ornament, probably before 1874, Museum no. M.454-1936

Asante Gold

A seated man in regalia
Asantehene Otumfuo Osei Tutu II, picture courtesy of Barima Owusu-Nyantekyi

The Asante royal regalia is of deep cultural, historical and spiritual significance to the Asante people. Gold has, since the foundation of the Asante empire during the late 17th century, been central to Asante identity, spirituality and economic stability. The gold regalia is the ultimate symbol of Asante royal government: it embellishes the royal throne, is worn by high-ranking court officials and, above all, is worn by the Asantehene who is adorned with gold ornaments at royal ceremonies. These ornaments carry meaning beyond their material value. They are invested with the spirits of the Asante people and their decoration can be read by those familiar with the visual lexicon.

The Golden Stool is the cultural, spiritual and artistic centrepiece of a dazzling, gold-rich court. It is only shown in public once every 5 years. No-one ever sits on the stool as it contains the spirits of former Asante kings. Instead, it is placed near the Asantehene’s throne. In 1817, the English writer and diplomat, Thomas Bowdich, described meeting the Asantehene when he was sent to Kumasi to negotiate a trade treaty: ‘The sun was reflected, with a glare scarcely more supportable than the heat, from the massy gold ornaments, which glistened in every direction … Under the next umbrella is the royal stool, thickly cased in gold. Gold pipes, fans of ostrich wing feathers, captains seated with gold swords, wolves’ heads and snakes as large as life of the same metal, depending from the handles, girls bearing silver bowls, bodyguards, &c. &c. are mingled together till we come to the King, seated in a chair of ebony and gold.’

The Anglo-Asante Wars of the nineteenth century

The British parliamentary abolition of the slave trade in 1807 led to a greater focus on trade in gold and other natural resources from West Africa. Britain began to assert more forceful claims to coastal forts as other European powers withdrew their interest. This prompted repeated conflicts with the Asante, who resisted intrusions on their own interests on the coast. These protracted wars led in 1901 to British colonisation of Ghana, then known as the Gold Coast. In 1957, Ghana became the first West African nation to secure independence from a European colonial power.

A bearded man in military uniform
Major-General Garnet Joseph Wolseley, platinum print, from Frederick Hollyer’s Portraits of many persons of note, Vol. 3, ca. 1890, V&A, Museum no. 7858-1938

The items lent to Homecoming by the British Museum include pieces from the early nineteenth-century as well as items from the wars of 1895-6 that led to the exile to the Seychelles of King Prempeh I. The V&A’s items all date from the third Anglo-Asante War of 1874. On 4 February that year, following Asante efforts to protect the fort of Elmina over which they had a long-held claim, British forces under the command of Major-General Sir Garnet Wolseley launched a so-called punitive raid on the Asante state capital, Kumasi. In Ghana, this conflict is known as the Sagrenti War after the local pronunciation of Sir Garnet. Faced with overwhelming odds and the impossible demand for an indemnity of 50,000 ounces of gold, the Asante king, Kofi Karikari, fled. To suppress any resurgence of Asante authority, Wolseley ordered troops to plunder the royal regalia and destroy the palace. ‘I had shown the power of England,’ he claimed in his report to the Secretary of State for the Colonies on 7 February. Print journalists and war artists who accompanied the raid ensured this demonstration of imperial force was broadcast not just to the Asante and neighbouring communities, but to other European powers who might interfere with Britian’s interests overseas.  On such raids, removing the court regalia was not simply about acquiring wealth. The looting of symbols of authority was a political act. The spiritual significance of the Asante gold meant this was an attack on Asante identity that is felt to this day.

Most of the items of Asante regalia in the V&A were among several hundred looted from the royal palace in Kumasi that were later sold at Garrard’s, the Crown Jewellers in London, and dispersed among museums and private collectors including the V&A and British Museum. The V&A acquired 13 pieces at the sale and bought two further items within a decade, one section of sheet-gold ornament purchased in 1874 from a military family and one cast gold soul-washer’s badge, purchased in 1883 with no record of the previous owner. A gold ring given to the museum by an artist in 1921 and a gold ornament in the form of an eagle given by a private donor in 1936, more than likely come from the regalia.

Cultural partnership

The V&A items are on loan to Manhyia Palace Museum for three years with the option to extend for a further three, subject to approval from Arts Council England. For national museums like the V&A to lend items known to have been looted during colonial conflicts is a contentious issue and we are often asked why we do not simply transfer legal ownership. The National Heritage Act of 1983, under which we are governed, only allows us to remove items from the collection in very narrow circumstances. There is no power under that Act for the V&A to return items simply because they were acquired through imperial conflict.

You can find out more about how the V&A is addressing issues related to restitution here.

The Act, however, does not mean we sit back and do nothing. We take seriously our responsibility to share collections as widely as possible. The V&A has a very active international programme for both short and long-term object loans. Last year we lent 282 objects to 42 venues around the world. While the loan of the Asante gold follows similar arrangements to our other international loans, in collaboration with Manhiya Palace Museum and the British Museum we have developed this further into a cultural partnership based around the exchange of knowledge and skills. V&A and British Museum staff have contributed to the installation of the exhibition, coaching Manhyia Palace Museum staff in object presentation, environmental control and gallery writing. In turn, Manhyia Palace Museum colleagues have taught us more about the items in our care, bringing new insights into the meanings behind each piece. V&A Director Tristram Hunt spoke at the opening event at the palace acknowledging the circumstance of acquisition and encouraging future collaboration.

People preparing for the exhibition
Sheena Ofori
Two people preparing for the exhibition at a table
Teddy Kyei-Poku and Loretta Gyasi

Homecoming commemorates three important anniversaries. 2024 marks 150 years since the British looting of the court regalia and the destruction of the old royal palace. It is also 100 years since the return from exile of King Prempeh I and the construction of the palace building that will form the new Manhyia Palace Museum. 2024 also honours Asantehene Osei Tutu II who celebrates his silver jubilee. For Ivor Agyeman-Duah the Homecoming exhibition ‘marks an important step in the process of acknowledgement, reconciliation and healing between the UK and Ghana and a recognition of the lasting cultural, historical and spiritual significance of these objects to the Asante people.’

The group of people who worked on the exhibition outside the museum
Manhyia Palace Museum team, 1 May 2024

About the author

Metalwork, Decorative Art and Sculpture
May 2, 2024

I am Senior Curator of Metalwork, Decorative Art and Sculpture, responsible for our collections of European Base Metals and Arms and Armour from around 1450–1900. The collections include brass, pewter,...

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