Sir Charles MacCarthy was an Irish-born soldier of French and Irish descent, who was appointed governor of Sierra Leone. He was killed by Ashanti forces in the battle of Nsamankow, with his skull used as a trophy of war.
Sir Charles MacCarthy was born in 1764 in Cork, Ireland, the son of a French man and his Irish wife. He began his military career at the age of 21 when he joined the Irish Brigade of the French army as a sub-lieutenant in the Régiment de Berwick. By 1791, he had attained the rank of captain.
In 1799, MacCarthy received his first British commission and was appointed to command a company of the 11th West India Regiment. He later transferred to a captaincy in the 52nd Regiment of Foot in 1800.
In 1812, at the age of 48 MacCarthy was appointed as governor of two former French territories in Africa, Senegal and Gorée, which the British had acquired following Napoleon’s defeat in Russia. When these territories were returned to France by the Treaty of Paris, MacCarthy was appointed in 1814 as the Governor of Sierra Leone.
Battle of Nsamankow
In 1821 After the African Company of Merchants was abolished for its failure to suppress the slave trade efficiently, Great Britain took on the Gold Coast as a crown colony. It was placed under the government of Sierra Leone, and MacCarthy became the governor of both colonies.
During his time as governor, MacCarthy faced various challenges, including conflicts between the Fanti and Ashanti people. In late 1823, the British took the side of the Fantis and declared war on the Ashanti king. MacCarthy organized a military expedition to engage the Ashanti forces.
After ensuring the defenses of Cape Coast were in order, Governor Sir MacCarthy led an expedition consisting of approximately 80 men from the Royal African Colonial Corps, 170 men from the Cape Coast Militia, and 240 Fanti tribesmen under the leadership of their local chiefs.
Accompanying him on the expedition were a captain and an ensign from the 2nd West India Regiment. Additionally, three other infantry groups were present in the region. One group comprised 600 regulars from the Royal African Colonial Corps and 3,000 local soldiers. Another group consisted of 100 regulars and militia members, supported by 2,000 local forces. The third group comprised 300 regulars and militia members, with 6,000 local forces at their disposal.
Together, this diverse and sizeable force embarked on the mission under MacCarthy’s command, with the aim of confronting the opposing Ashanti forces and securing a favorable outcome in the conflict.
The plan was for the four groups to converge and then engage the enemy with overwhelming force.
Unfortunately, MacCarthy’s plan did not go as intended. On January 21, 1824, his British force, consisting of around 500 men, was ambushed by a 10,000-strong Ashanti force at Nsamankow. Despite displaying great valor, MacCarthy’s force ran out of ammunition, and the resupply failed to reach them. Many of his men deserted him, and the remaining soldiers were overwhelmed. Only around 20 managed to escape the battle.
Realizing the defeat, MacCarthy attempted to fall back but was wounded by gunfire and subsequently killed by a second shot. This marked the first time the British had suffered a defeat against the “natives.”
Upon seeing MacCarthy’s lifeless body, Ashanti soldiers decapitated him and took his head as a trophy back to their capital, Kumasi. MacCarthy’s personal secretary Williams was also taken prisoner but was later released when an Ashanti chief for whom he had done a small favour, recognized him.
On getting to Kumasi, McCarthy’s head was boiled and defleshed and the top of his skull made into a gold-rimmed drinking cup for the personal use of the Ashanti king and other Ashanti rulers after him.
McCarthy’s skull was later recovered in 1829 and interred at St Saviours Church in Dartmouth, Devon.
The story of Sir Charles MacCarthy is a tragic one, highlighting the complexities and challenges faced by colonial powers during the period of European expansion in Africa. His fate serves as a reminder of the violent conflicts and cultural clashes that occurred during this time.