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A Mountrath man in the Third Anglo-Ashanti War

Laois Local Studies > Articles > A Mountrath man in the Third Anglo-Ashanti War
Image of John Joseph Crooks courtesy of Paul O'Farrell

by Terry Dunne, Laois Historian-in-Residence

In recent years the National Library of Ireland took possession of a scrapbook containing documents and newspaper clippings concerning a career in the late-nineteenth century colonial administration of British West Africa.[1] The scrapbook belonged to a man born in Mountrath in November 1842 named John Joseph Crooks. Crooks first landed in what was then known to Europeans as the Gold Coast, present-day Ghana, to take part in the Third Anglo-Ashanti War, which reached its culmination 150 years ago in February 1874. This was the critical conflict between the British Empire and the Asante kingdom, which controlled a large part of the inland of what is now Ghana (Asante is the modern rendition of the name into English, the nineteenth-century term ‘Anglo-Ashanti’ will be used for the series of wars). The conflict was also pivotal in the development of the British Army as a colonial fighting force in Africa, mostly through the role of Dubliner Garnet Wolseley and a coterie of officers around him who became known as the ‘Ashanti Ring’ – among them Tipperary-born William Francis Butler, future husband of Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler, the famous painter of military scenes.[2]

The Gold Coast

The name the Gold Coast betrays the original European interest in the area. A significant amount of the bullion circulating in the late Middle Ages across Europe, Africa and Asia had its origins in West African gold mines, about two-thirds of it in fact.[3] This gold was exchanged across trans-Saharan trade routes, with salt making its way south. In addition to gold the forest zone exported cloth, ivory, pepper, slaves and kola nuts, while receiving, along with salt, horses, brass, copper, textiles, preserved foodstuffs and glass.  Crucial was control of “the transfer points” between forest and savanna grasslands, and between savanna grasslands and desert, and these nodes were the keypoints in the development of states. While the gold trade is often associated with areas to the north of those we are concerned with here, it probably also encompassed the Akan goldfields, Akan being the language group to which both the Asante, and the Fante, belong, we will be returning to the latter later.[4] 

In 1482 seafaring Portuguese built an outpost on a stretch of West Africa coast they called ‘Mina’, – literally mine as in gold mine, and this became Elmina castle on the Gold Coast. This was the first European building in the tropics, constructed with the intent of turning the trans-Saharan trade into an oceanic one. The fate of Elmina castle, and the surrounding settlement, was, as we shall see, the issue to be decided by the clash of arms in the 1870s. By the 1600s there were Dutch, Swedish, French, English and even Brandenburger trading stations along this littoral, supplanting the older Portuguese presence. Likewise the export of slaves to the Americas would, as the decades passed, loom larger than the earlier focus on gold. While merchants in Bristol or Liverpool made fortunes from the export of human cargo this was not the best posting for a sailor and the area became notorious on account of the susceptibility of Europeans to tropical diseases.  This too was to be a factor in the 1870s.

Elmina Castle Ghana

The Asante Kingdom

Formed around the turn of  the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Asante kingdom was probably the most significant interlocutor the British Empire had in the region – often an opponent, but not simply an opponent, as it rulers benefited from trade with Europeans along the coast. Central to the kingdom’s political history was a continual expansion to that coast, and consequent conflict with coastal dwelling peoples, most notably the Fante, who eventually conglomerated into the Fante confederacy.   The governing council was known as the ‘Asante Kotoko’, a Kotoko being a porcupine (the national symbol) and comprised the king (or Asantehene), queen-mother, first three chiefs and some notables of Kumasi.[5] Kumasi was the Asante capital, with a population in the tens of thousands. Queen-mother as post-menopausal Asante women could play a public role – exceptionally Akyaawa Yikwan negotiated the treaty of the 27th of April 1831 with the British.[6] Asante society was also matrilineal – tracing descent along the female line.

The aforementioned treaty of the 27th of April 1831 formally ended the First Anglo-Ashanti War, though active hostilities had ceased some years before that. The driving force behind that conflict was Sir Charles MacCarthy, of Cork descent, who had been an officer in the Irish Brigade in the service of France, before transferring his loyalties to Britain in the wake of the revolution.

MacCarthy lost his life, and his head, in the battle of Nsamankow on the 21st of January 1824. His head was subsequently used for ceremonial purposes, as was the Asante tradition, which, we might suppose, is better than what might have happened to it had its owner remained in France. 

By one account the severed head was found amongst the loot of a subsequent battle “enveloped in two folds of Paper, covered with Arabic characters, tied up a third time in a silk handkerchief, and lastly sewed up neatly in a Leopard Skin.”[7] However, it seems this was in fact another head, and Sir Charles MacCarthy’s head remains in Kumasi, where, at least according to one historian, it was taken out and dusted off to launch the Third Anglo-Ashanti War almost fifty years later.[8]  

 The Third War

The backdrop to the renewed conflict was an agreement signed on the 25th of February 1871 which transferred Dutch possessions in West Africa to Britain. This was negotiated by Sir Arthur Kennedy, Governor-General of the West Africa Settlements, better known to Irish history as the inspector of the Kilrush Poor Law Union during the Great Famine, his family’s demesne is now the Ulster Folk Museum.[9]  On the 6th of April 1872 John Pope Hennessy, new Governor-General of the West African Settlements, arrived to take possession ending the 274 year Dutch presence on the Gold Coast. John Pope Hennessy seems to have been credited with mishandling the situation – at least he was moved to a governorship of the Bahamas before very long, he went on to be governor of Hong Kong and died as the anti-Parnellite Home Rule M.P. for North Kilkenny.[10] On the face of it the issue was who actually had sovereignty over the Dutch forts and trading posts along the coast – the Dutch paid the Asante a tribute for them, a more crucial issue was probably the positive trading relationship the Asante had with the Dutch – and hence what they stood to lose from the establishment of a British monopoly and the consequent negative terms of trade for them.  

A previous British expedition against the Asante in 1864 came undone as the majority of the troops were taken out of action by death or debilitation through disease. Hence the major concerns in 1873 and 1874 were in logistics and transport – getting soldiers through the forest and keeping them healthy.  Garnet Wolseley was able to draw on his recent (1870) experience in trekking across Canada to confront the so-called Red River Rebellion. Crucial was greater availability of quinine to protect against malaria – and a host of other measures such as special kit and instructional pamphlets counselling the men in all manner of protections, including the need to sleep a few inches off the ground. Telegraphs, staging posts and new paths were all erected or carved out of the earth.[11] There was to be one native carrier to every three soldiers. The supply of such carriers was ensured by a policy of collective punishment – various villages being sacked by British soldiers in retaliation for desertions by the porters.[12] The same fate befell Elmina which was cannonaded as it was suspected the inhabitants were sympathisers with the Asante.[13]

Although the opening offensive of the war was made by the Asante forces, by February 1874 Kumasi, the Asante capital, had fallen. The decisive battle in the approaches to the city won for Britain in large part as the Snider rifle was so much a more effective weapon than the Long Danes of the Asante, a type of shotgun or blunderbuss, which made many casualties but few fatalities.[14] The extensive royal palace at Kumasi was looted and burned before British forces hastily withdrew. What led to the Asante kingdom suing for peace was probably not this reversal, but the fact that it had been brought about by only one of the several British columns which had entered their territory. It should be noted at this juncture that ‘British’ forces included levees from various allied indigenous polities such as the Fante confederation as well as Hausa soldiers from elsewhere in West Africa. 

John Joseph Crooks

John Joseph Crooks played a logistical role in the 1873-74 war, but as we have seen that was a crucial one. He was born in Mountrath and baptised a Catholic there on the 21st of November 1842, to parents Martin and Mary Crooke.[15] Crooks was a pupil of the Royal Hibernian Military School, which was intended for the orphaned children of British soldiers. The school building is now St. Mary’s hospital, a rehabilitation centre, in the Phoenix Park, Dublin. It is possible he had lost his father and a Mary Crooke, recorded living in Chapel Street in Mountmellick in Griffiths Valuations in the 1850s, was his widowed mother. His school records list his father as a member of the 38th (1st Staffordshire) Regiment of Foot.

Royal Hibernian Military School (now St. Mary’s Hospital, Phoenix Park)

At the age of fourteen in 1857 Crooks joined the army straight from the classroom. In September 1873 Crooks gained a commission as Assistant Commissary in the Army Service Corps (also referred to as the Control Department) to be in charge of stores at Cape Coast Castle, the main British fort on the Gold Coast, and he sailed from Liverpool on the 18th of September 1873 on the British and African Steam Navigation Company’s mail steamer Roqeulle, under a Captain Sullivan. As was the case with all intended for service there he had to pass a special medical examination. Underlining the grim necessity of such an examination are the presence in his scrapbook of death notices of his colleagues – ‘After a brief illness of but two days with remittent fever, while serving his Queen and Country on the Gold Coast’, sketches of colleague’s graves, and letters informing of similar deaths. As it happens he was to be invalided home for some months in 1874.

In the latter half of the 1870s Crooks enjoyed a series of remarkable promotions – from November 1876 to June 1877 he was acting Auditor-General of the West African Settlements, in July 1877 he was appointed Acting Colonial Treasurer of Sierra Leone, then Acting Assistant Colonial Secretary in January 1879 and then in May 1879 he was Auditor General of the West African Settlements, and in May 1880 he was made Private Secretary to the Administer-in-Chief of Sierra Leone. The fact that newspaper reports on the Hibernian Military School made detailed reference to his career speaks to us as to how untypical it was. Sierra Leone was at this time the main British territory in West Africa, what was to become Nigeria and what was to become Ghana were only in their infancies as British colonies.     

Crooks returned to Ireland in the 1890s, making his home in Dublin, where he was involved in moderate nationalist politics in the late 1890s, standing for local election in the unpromising environment of the Rathmines and Rathgar West Ward, that Urban District Council returning a Unionist majority into the 1920s.[16]  Crooks already had a son and daughter in the early 1870s before he went out to the tropics. In the early 1900s he was a retired widower and a retired Major in Brighton Road, Rathgar, where he seems to have lived with his adult children, two of his daughters are listed as clerks in the General Post Office in the 1911 census. He spent much of his retirement writing and editing, producing such works as A short history of Sierra Leone for the use of the schools of the colony (1900), A history of the colony of Sierra Leone, western Africa (1903), History of the Royal Irish Regiment of Artillery (1914), Records relating to the Gold Coast Settlements from 1750 to 1874 (1923) and Historical records of the Royal African Corps (1925). He died on the 9th of September 1928.


Although diminishing in economic importance following the 1874 defeat the Asante kingdom maintained its independence. This changed with the loss of sovereignty in the Fourth Anglo-Ashanti War of 1895–1896. A Special Service Corps of volunteers of the right physique and stamina from various British Army regiments was formed for this expedition, including men from the Leinster Regiment and the Royal Irish Fusiliers.[17] After this Asante territory was effectively folded into the Gold Coast colony (an area more or less equivalent to modern-day Ghana), the aftermath of the last armed conflict, the War of the Golden Stool in 1900, bringing a finality to the question. The Gold Coast colony was incorporated into the British Empire as a producer of cocoa – the main raw ingredient of chocolate. At a local level this was through the agency of local people – small-scale agriculture predominated rather than the plantations that produced tropical farm products in many places elsewhere in the European empires. The resulting pattern of underdevelopment and dependence on the export of a single primary product has persisted long after formal political independence. In 1957 Ghana became the first sub-Saharan African country to win its independence with a government elected by a black-majority electorate. The 1948 protests of ex-servicemen, veterans of the 1939-45 war, was the key event on the road to self-rule.  

[1] National Library of Ireland, A scrapbook of letters, documents and ephemera collected by John Joseph Crooks during his time serving in Sierra Leone, MS 42,121. This is the main source for his career as outlined later in this article.

[2] Alan Lloyd, The Drums of Kumasi: The Story of the Ashanti Wars (London, 1964), p. 66.

[3] Eric R. Wolf, Europe and the People without History (Berkeley, 1982), p. 39.  

[4] Ivor Wilks, Forests of Gold: Essays on the Akan and the Kingdom of Asante (Ohio, 1993), pp. 8 – 32.

[5] David Kimble, A Political History of Ghana: The Rise of Gold Coast Nationalism 1850-1928 (Oxford, 1963), p.266. 

[6] Wilks, pp. 329 – 357.

[7] Dispatch from Sir Neil Campbell to Earl Bathurst, 21st September 1826, extracted in J.J. Crooks,  Records relating to the Gold Coast Settlements from 1750 to 1874 (Dublin, 1923), p. 234.

[8] Ibid., footnote p. 236; Wilks, p.331; Stephen Manning, Britain at War with the Asante Nation: ‘The White Man’s Grave’ (Yorkshire, 2021), p. 45.

[9] Dictionary of Irish Biography,

[10] Manning, p.45; Dictionary of Irish Biography

[11] Manning, p. 57; Lloyd, p. 84.

[12] Manning, pp. 82-83; Lloyd, p. 96.

[13] Manning, p. 50.

[14] Manning, p. 55, p. 95.  

[15] Thanks to Sinéad Holland for help with the genealogical research. 

[16] Irish Independent, 17 January 1899; Dublin Daily Nation, 6 January 1899; Dublin Daily Nation, 4 March 1899; Irish Independent, 1 September 1899. 

[17] Manning, p. 119.