The Wallace Collection

Treasure of the Month - March 2015

A Gold Head from Ghana

Many visitors to the Wallace Collection may be surprised to know that, alongside its European treasures, is to be found one of the great masterpieces of African art.  This beautiful image in gold of an African warrior has a timeless quality, in some ways reminiscent of ancient Egyptian sculpture. It is in fact the largest surviving historic gold object from anywhere in Africa outside Egypt.  The warrior’s hair is shaven at the back into a diamond pattern, whilst his status is also indicated by scars on the sides of his head. He once wore ear-rings and has mysterious pegs either side of his mouth. He wears a stylised beard, behind which is a small loop. The eyes are modelled with a rope pattern along the edges to indicate lashes, whilst the mouth and lips are especially sensitively modelled. 

The head was made by a goldsmith from the Asante people, whose territory forms part of the modern country of Ghana, formerly the Gold Coast. From the 17th through to the late 19th centuries, the Asante were one of the most powerful tribes in West Africa, with a fearsome reputation as a nation of superb warriors, and an empire which at one point encompassed some four million people.   For no other African people does gold,  often formed into fine artefacts, play such an important role in their culture. The Wallace Collection head does not seem to represent an Asante, who do not wear ear-rings, but perhaps instead a warrior from the North.  The head may have been made to be suspended from a so-called messenger sword, displayed to enemies to warn them of an impending Asante attack.

In the course of the 19th century, as the British presence grew along the Gold Coast, the Asante increasingly came into conflict with neighbouring tribes, over many of which they had long sought domination. In particular, long-standing hostility between the Asante and the Fante people, allies of the British, was one of the principal catalysts for a series of wars, which culminated in the final defeat of the Asante as an independent nation, in 1895-96.  

The Third Asante War of 1873-74 began with a series of attacks on the Fante by the Asante. After initial reluctance to become involved in the conflict, a small British force under the command of Major-General Sir Garnett Wolseley set out for the Gold Coast in September 1873.  After  a short but by no means entirely one-sided campaign, the British eventually succeeded in entering the Asante capital Kumase, which had been vacated by the King (Asantahene), Kofi Kakari. Before beating a hasty and dangerous retreat, General Wolseley authorised prize agents to take what they could from the palace and its Treasury by way of war indemnity, before the building was destroyed. The objects taken from Kumase were brought to Cape Coast where they were auctioned, most then finding their way to London. 

The head in the Wallace Collection may well be one of seven masks hammered from pure gold, reported to have been found in the Asantahene’s palace.  It is the most important piece in a group of Asante objects in the Wallace Collection, bought by Sir Richard Wallace from the London jewellers’ Garrard, in May 1874.  They include ceremonial swords and knives, as well as exquisite gold rings and terminals in the form of eagles, which probably surmounted a throne.  


Gallery Talks
Friday 13 and Tuesday 24 March at 1pm with Jeremy Warren, Director of Collections and Academic, and Dennis Yeboah Mensah BA (Honours, MA).

Further Reading
A.A.Y. Kyermaten, Panoply of Ghana, London 1964
Alan Lloyd, The Drums of Kumasi. The story of the Ashanti wars, London 1964
Malcolm Macleod, The Asante, London 1981
Robert B. Edgerton, The Fall of the Asante Empire. The Hundred-Year war for Africa’s Gold Coast, New York 1995