Prince Henry of Battenberg was a member of the British Royal Family and the husband of Princess Beatrice, Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter, whose journey to confront the Ashanti people of Ghana in 1896 ended in his tragic death.
Prince Henry Maurice of Battenberg was born on October 5, 1858, in Milan, Italy. As the son of Prince Alexander of Hesse and by Rhine and Countess Julia von Hauke, he came from a distinguished lineage. His family ties reached across Europe, with connections to Germany, Russia, and England. Henry’s father served as a military officer, and it was this background that would shape Henry’s own destiny.
As a young adult, Prince Henry received a military education and took up a commission as a lieutenant in the 1st Regiment of the Rhenish Hussars in the Prussian Army. He served in the Prussian Garde du Corps and was also Honorary Colonel of the 1st Infantry Regiment of Bulgaria, where his brother Alexander was Prince.
In 1885, Prince Henry married Princess Beatrice, the youngest daughter of Queen Victoria. This union connected him to one of the most powerful families in the world, but it also brought him closer to a life of public service and duty. Queen Victoria held a great affection for her youngest daughter, and Prince Henry soon found himself in the midst of a royal household that was both politically influential and socially demanding.
While Henry’s marriage to Princess Beatrice brought him prestige and privilege, it also meant that he would be expected to fulfill his duties as a member of the royal family.
In the late 19th century, an opportunity arose that would take the prince far beyond the comforts of the palace walls. The Ashanti Empire in West Africa became a focal point for the ambitions of the British Empire. Renowned for their wealth and military prowess, the Ashanti people found themselves targeted for colonization. In response, the British government dispatched a military expedition in 1895 to the Gold Coast (now Ghana) to confront the Ashanti Empire, which had fiercely resisted British attempts at annexation.
Eager to prove himself and demonstrate his loyalty to the crown, Prince Henry volunteered to join the Ashanti expedition. His decision was not without controversy, as he was advised against it due to his delicate health. Nevertheless, Prince Henry was determined to make his mark and embarked on the perilous journey to Ghana in December 1895.
The expedition, led by Sir Francis Scott, aimed to subdue the Ashanti Empire and bring the region under British control. It was a treacherous campaign that involved navigating dense jungles, battling harsh tropical conditions, and confronting a skilled and determined “enemy”. Prince Henry’s role was to serve as a military secretary to General Sir Francis Scott, the commander-in-chief of British forces in the region.
Tragically, the expedition did not go as planned. In January 1896, while the expedition was stationed in Prahsu, a small village located about 30 miles (50 km) from Kumasi, the capital of the Ashanti, Prince Henry fell gravely ill with malaria, a common and deadly affliction in the region. Despite the best efforts of his comrades and their medical personnel, his condition worsened rapidly. On January 20, 1896, at the young age of 37, Prince Henry of Battenberg passed away aboard the cruiser HMS Blonde, which was stationed off the coast of Sierra Leone.
Afterward, the cruiser HMS Blenheim transported his body back to England for repatriation.
Meanwhile, the British expeditionary force, now without Prince Henry, pressed on and eventually reached Kumasi, the capital of the Ashanti.
Faced with the formidable British and West Indian troops, King Prempeh I and his councilors confronted a difficult choice. Recognizing the technological superiority of the British forces, they understood that resisting the invasion would result in significant casualties.
After careful deliberation, King Prempeh I issued orders to his people, instructing them not to resist the invading forces. The renowned Ashanti warriors, known for their fierce battle prowess, complied with their king’s commands and stood down, allowing the British to enter Kumasi unopposed.
King Prempeh I was arrested and compelled to sign a treaty of protection. Subsequently, he and other Ashanti leaders were sent into exile in the Seychelles, where they were held as prisoners of the British Empire.
The Fourth Anglo-Ashanti War represented a turning point in the history of West Africa. It marked the end of the Ashanti Empire’s independence and the beginning of a period of colonial rule by European powers.
On February 5, 1896, two weeks following the war, the funeral service for Prince Henry of Battenberg was held at St. Mildred’s Church, Whippingham, Isle of Wight. The ceremony served as a solemn tribute to the prince’s life.
Queen Victoria, who had lost her husband, Prince Albert, decades earlier, was devastated by the loss of her son-in-law. She mourned his passing and honored his memory, even going so far as to have a monument erected in his honor in St. Mildred’s Church in Whippingham, Isle of Wight. The inscription on the memorial reads, “Brief Life! In sport and war so keen, mourned by these winds in heath and fir as where the falling breakers stir the pains that crowned thy closing scene.”