Sir Charles McCarthy – Colonial Governor’s Skull became a Gold Plated Drinking Cup


Born in the largest Irish county of Cork, Sir Charles McCarthy was a knighted Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal African Corps before his appointment as Governor of Senegal in 1812. With injuries sustained in two different wars in 1794 and 1798, McCarthy had seen his fair share of battles.

The latter of his battle wounds was received when he fought off a French privateer while serving in the 2nd Regiment of the Le Comte de Walsh-Serrant of the British-paid Irish Brigade. The brigade was disbanded in 1798, and in 1799, McCarthy was commissioned to serve in the Royal African Corps, a British penal military unit composed of deserters and prisoners of war; “culprits from the hulks” as they were so popularly called, the prisoners were mainly British-captured French soldiers.

His émigré French father, Jean Gabriel Guérault, had only adopted his mother’s maiden name upon advice from his uncle Thaddeus McCarthy, a British captain, because of the existing feud between the French and the British at that time.

Defeat of the Ashantees, by the British forces under the command of Coll. Sutherland, July 11th 1824

When his father died, Charles McCarthy, an only child, was adopted by his uncle, the Conte de Mervé. McCarthy soon became a naturalized Frenchman and assumed his uncle’s title upon his demise.

During his appointment in Africa as a British Colonial Governor, McCarthy had been a major supporter of the campaign to abolish the slave trade on the continent. At the time, slavery had already been abolished in the United Kingdom but the trade was still in full swing in West Africa. His excellent service to the crown led to his being knighted in 1820.

McCarthy only became acquainted with the Ashanti Empire and the Gold Coast when it became a crown colony in 1821, with McCarthy as her Governor.

An Ashanti soldier

The Ashanti Empire was embedded in the heart of what is known today as the nation of Ghana and they resisted colonial rule for the better part of the 19th century. They were also in a long-standing feud with the rival Fante Confederacy on the Gold Coast, and their wars soon became a matter of concern for the British, who were involved in trade relations with the Fante. The British sided with them and subsequently became enemies of the Ashanti.

Under the distinguished leadership of their fearless leader, King Osei Bonsu and their sophisticated bureaucracy, the Ashanti had the best independent militia in all West Africa. They won an earlier war with the Fante which broke out in 1806, with the British giving in to their demands for the head of Kwadwo Otibu, the ruler of one of the Fante cities. The British had underestimated the Ashanti army at the time and they did so once again in the Battle of Nsamankow.

McCarthy declared war against the Ashanti in late 1823 after their continuous disruption and raid of Fante cities, which were under British protection, seeing their actions as a direct slap to the face, one to which he wasn’t prepared to turn the other cheek.

British Empire in late XIX

He quickly put together an army of over twelve thousand men and separating them into four groups; one group of five hundred and thirty men which he commanded, the other groups comprised a six-hundred-man regular army of the RACC and three thousand locals, with an extra hundred regulars with two thousand locals in the second group, then a third with three hundred regular soldiers and six thousand locals.

The other larger groups were still on route and were yet to be joined with McCarthy’s small army when he made a fatal decision to proceed without them. It was the 19th century and there were no phones with which to communicate and determine a person’s whereabouts.

McCarthy was therefore not able to determine the precise location of Major Alexander Gordon Laing and his men; he proceeded alone with his group, hoping to be joined by the others later on.

When it was dark, McCarthy and his men camped just off a side stream of the Pra River; the border between the Akan rainforest of the Ashanti Empire and the British colonized Gold Coast. They continued their march on the next day until they came across the ten thousand man army of the Ashanti on the other side of a sixty-foot river, armed to the teeth with rifles and machetes.

Golden Stool (Sika ɗwa) in the Ashanti Kingdom, 1935. Photo: The National Archives UK / OGL

Undaunted by the force before him, McCarthy ordered his men to play the British National Anthem, “God Save the Queen,” loudly, largely to intimidate the opposition forces but also as a signal to his troops behind if they were within hearing distance to hurry to the battlefield.

This action was interpreted by the Ashanti warriors as a sign of readiness on the part of the British for the war at hand and they too began to beat their drums as they marched closer toward the small enemy force in front of them.

McCarthy, not being one to run from a fight ordered his men to take up positions and a firefight ensued. The governor knew that he could only keep the charade up for a short period and he prayed that reinforcements would arrive in time to save them from the onslaught that would ensue if they ran out of ammunition, for most of the men charged with the supply of ammunition to the force had deserted at the sound of gunshot, leaving McCarthy and his men undersupplied. It was only a matter of time before they ran out.

Map from 1896 of the British Gold Coast Colony showing Ashanti

That time finally came after two hours of guns blazing; they were out of gunpowder and the Ashanti army had started stumbling across the stream to their position, McCarthy could no longer ask his men to wait around to die.

Faced with such a spine-chilling assault, the men turned in a futile attempt to flee the battlefield but were quickly overrun by the Ashanti army, who wiped out most of the small British Force within minutes, leaving only twenty survivors.

McCarthy was shot twice, the second shot being the fatal one that ended his life. He was then beheaded, along with his ensign, Wetherell, by the Ashanti, who were accustomed to taking souvenirs from their violent encounters; his skull was cleaned and crafted into a gold-rimmed drinking cup for the Ashanti king.

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