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  • The Ashanti Ewer August 29, 2014

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval, Modern , trackback

    asante ewer and twins

    ***Thanks to RG for the tip***

    A brilliant wrong place story that has just come strangehistory’s way. Imagine that in the late nineteenth century you stumble upon a medieval ewer (a kind of jug), the heaviest of its kind, in fact, weighing an incredible 18.6 kilos (just for the record that’s almost exactly how many kilos this blogger should lose). The ewer, of English make, has been preserved exceptionally well: it is one of the few of its kinds with the lid still attached, allowing you, an expert, to identify the decade of its creation. There is a hart on the lid which demonstrates that it was put together while klutzy Richard II was using that symbol, 1390-1399. And just so there can be no doubt about its English provenance there is a  proverb on the jug’s side: ‘He that wyl not spare when he may, He shal not spend when he would, Deme the best in every dowt, Til the trowthe be tryid owte.’ Beach has read this several times, understands every word and yet still has not the slightest idea what this little ditty means.

    Now where did our intrepid Victorian medievalist find this rare treasure? In a ditch outside an abbey, at an antiquarian shop on the King’s Road, buried in a box in someone’s attic? No, no, no… This ewer, known as the Ashanti Ewer or the Asante Ewer was recovered (which is not an unreasonable word under the circumstances) in January 1896 by British troops fighting against the Ashanti of Ghana (West Africa). One Major Charles Barter found it in the royal palace and took the ewer back to Britain selling it for fifty pounds to, one imagines, an astounded acquisitions department at the British museum. A fellow officer on the raid was Robert Baden-Powell (of scouting fame). This is his description. Sweet the way that a piece of medieval English tableware gets mixed in with the rest.

    It need not be supposed that all the property found in the palace was of great value. There were piles of the tawdriest and commonest stuff mixed indiscriminately with quaint, old, and valuable articles, a few good brass dishes, large metal ewers, Ashanti stools, old arms, etc. But a large amount of valuables known to belong to the king had disappeared, probably weeks previously-such as his celebrated dinner service of Dutch silver, his golden hat, his golden chair of state, and, above all, the royal stool, the emblem par excellence of the King of Ashanti.

    Baden-Powell goes onto describe raid on a local temple and opening the brass coffers there in his search for treasure: ‘On my honour I will do my best…’

    Savour this, enjoy it, and then let the speculation begin. How, in God’s name, does a fourteenth-century jug find it way, in the Middle Ages, to another continent? It is easy to imagine a situation in which, after Richard’s death, it was no longer fashionable or perhaps even safe to keep such things. The jug was possibly traded to the continent for a song and then passed into the Mediterranean. Sure, it could have ended up among the Arabs and perhaps even made its way to the edge of the Sahara. But Ghana? Islamic pilgrims did cross the Sahara to go to Mecca… Arab brassware also turned up among West African tribes, where such objects seem to have had prestige value. Nothing is impossible… But there is another curiosity. Three English jugs were retrieved from the Ashanti, apparently all part of a single set. This doesn’t sound like a trans-Saharan trade deal, objects, particularly large objects don’t tend to stay together over this kind of distance; perhaps a European vessel was wrecked pushing down the African coast towards the equator? But even that c. 1400… Is there a late context when such a thing could have been given over to Ashanti?

    Other wrong place objects or an explanation for this one: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    PS There is an article entitled ‘Two kings, their armies and some jugs: The Ashanti Ewer’ Apollo 1993 by Martin Bailey. Does anyone have a copy? Apparently there is a pre-conquest photograph showing the Ashanti with the ewers among their ‘crown jewels’

    31 Aug 2014: Mike Dash writes in ‘Hmmm… well, the British Library website points out that “two other English bronze jugs from the late fourteenth century were found at Kumasi [the Asante capital] at the same time as this example. This may suggest that they left England as a set and that they all originated from the household of Richard II.” That seems to add considerably to the mystery. But why assume that the jugs made their way to the interior of West Africa during the Middle Ages? The more likely explanation is that they were traded later, and perhaps were connected to the slave trade, which brought the British to the region and was conducted on a large scale on the Gold Coast, directly to the south of the Asante kingdom, from the mid-17th century. The main base there, Cape Coast Castle, was established in the 1650s and taken over by the Brits during the Anglo-Dutch Wars in the 1660s. In addition to the trade in slaves, the Asantes also produced and exported gold (hence Ghana’s colonial-period name, the Gold Coast), which Jack Goody, in his Metals, Culture and Capitalism, observes was regularly exchanged for “trinkets” both in the interior and on the coast. Goody speculates that the Ewer “probably came down the Saharan route,” and notes that the caravan trade had certainly brought copper working technology to the Asante, permitting the creation of the impressive Benin Bronzes. So the real question, perhaps, is whether it is realistic to envisage a situation in which a set of jugs is traded, many times, from England down into the Sahara and beyond, without being split up in the course of all those miles and years. I do wonder about this, and perhaps it is also permissible to imagine an Asante gold trader entering Cape Coast Castle to haggle with a representative of the Royal African Company. The Englishman is the younger son of some ancient family who has decorated his quarters with mementoes from home. The Asante takes a fancy to some of his hosts ornaments, gestures, and a deal is done…’ Louis writes on very similar lines: ‘One: As it is made of bronze, I think the Ashanti, themselves reknowned for their bronze craftsmanship, might have valued its workmanship. Two: As Ghana was called ‘Gold Coast” from about 1500 on, I think there was enough contact with europeans, there to get gold, (or later to get slaves), for it to have arrived from the coast, which makes the whole travel through europe, and accross the Sahara, slightly less credible. And it could have been given by any european power that had contact with the english from Richard III on down. Spanish, Portugeuse, French, Dutch, even English traders themselves, that raided grandmothers cupboard to get a good deal on the coast for some prime bronze items.’