The tale of the gold trophy head of Kofi Karikari, the ninth King of the Ashanti Empire, is a story of colonial conquest, looting, and cultural displacement. Its journey from the palace in Kumasi, Ghana, to London, where it ended up in the possession of Sir Richard Wallace, represents the complex dynamics of power, imperialism, and the global trade in cultural artifacts during the 19th century..
Kofi Karikari was a significant figure in Ashanti history, ruling over one of West Africa’s most powerful and prosperous kingdoms in the mid-19th century. The Ashanti Empire, located in present-day Ghana, was renowned for its wealth in gold, political organization, and military prowess. However, the empire’s strength was severely tested during the Anglo-Asante war of 1873–4, when British forces sought to expand their colonial dominion over the region.
The war resulted in the looting and destruction of the Ashanti palace in Kumasi, a devastating blow to Ashanti culture and power. The British forces, motivated by both political and economic interests, plundered numerous treasures, including gold artifacts, rows of books in many languages, royal regalia, and other valuable objects. Many of the plundered objects were then sold and taken to London.
The Graphic’s account of the sale includes an illustration of kofi’s golden head, described as a ‘Mask of Solid Gold‘. At that time ‘what use they are put to is unknown, they are too small for a man to wear, and besides, are neither pierced for seeing nor breathing‘
The looting of cultural artifacts during the height of European imperialism was not limited to economic exploitation but was also driven by a desire to possess and control the cultural heritage of conquered peoples. Objects such as the trophy head became prized possessions that symbolized conquest and domination.
After the destruction of Kumasi, the Ashanti people signed the Treaty of Fomena in July 1874 to end the war. As part of the treaty between Queen Victoria and Ashanti King Kofi Karikari, the Ashanti were required to pay 50,000 ounces of gold as compensation for the expenses incurred by the Queen of England during the war.
Garrard & Co. Ltd, the Crown Jeweller in London, played a pivotal role in the acquisition and sale of the plundered Asante objects. It was through this renowned establishment that Sir Richard Wallace, a wealthy collector and philanthropist, purchased the gold trophy head of Kofi Karikari in May 1874 for £500. Wallace, known for his vast art collection, displayed the head alongside other Asante artifacts, including swords, knives, and jewelry.
Today, the golden trophy head of Kofi Karikari can be found at the Wallace Collection in London. It stands as a lasting testament to the consequences of British colonialism, serving as a reminder of the cultural heritage and power that were ravaged during the tumultuous Anglo-Asante war.