Cape Coast Castle: 26 June 1824. Octavo bifolium ca. 22,5x18 cm (8 ¾ x 7 in), 4 pp. Brown ink on watermarked laid paper. Housed in a recent dark green custom-made cloth portfolio with a red gilt-lettered morocco label. Fold marks, paper slightly age-toned, but otherwise a very good letter.
Rare historically important original letter written by Major James Chisholm, a prominent British civil administrator and military commander during the first Ashanti War (1824-31). The war started a series of 19th-century conflicts between the British Gold Coast colony and the powerful west African Ashanti kingdom for influence in the Gold Coast region, modern-day Ghana. After four Anglo-Ashanti wars, the kingdom’s territory became a British protectorate in 1897.
The author of the letter, James Chisholm served in the Royal African Colonial Corps (since 1809) and the 2nd West India Regiment in Sierra Leone (since 1819); he was the governor of the Gold Coast Colony in May-December 1822, and January-October 1824. During the First Ashanti War, Chisholm commanded the rear column of Governor Sir Charles McCarthy’s expeditionary force to Ashanti territory. Chisholm was in charge of the main body of the army, while McCarthy led the smaller advance party. On 21 January 1824, McCarthy met with the Ashanti troops at Nsamancow and lost in battle; most of his people, including McCarthy himself, were killed. William Williams, the colonial secretary to whom Chisholm addressed his letter, was taken prisoner and held in captivity for about two months. He “was kept by day under a thatched shed and shut up each night in a hut with the heads of Sir Charles and the other officers. <…> Mr. Williams’ only food was as much snail soup as he could hold in the palm of his hand <…>” (Claridge, W.W. A History of the Gold Coast and Ashanti from the Earliest Times to the Commencement of the Twentieth Century. Vol 1. London, 1915, p. 352). Finally, Williams was released and handed over to Frederick Ulrich Last (1768-1833), the commander of the Dutch Gold Coast colony at Elmina.
Chisholm retreated to the Cape Coast Castle and protected it during the siege by the Ashanti forces in May-June 1824, sharing the command with Lt.-Col. W. Sutherland of the 2nd West India Regiment. The letter was written at this time. On June 21-23 the whole Ashanti army approached the walls of the Cape Coast castle, and numerous refugees from the nearby villages rushed inside. The grass-thatched native town in front of the castle was put on fire by the defenders in order to remove the potential cover for the Ashantis. The attackers, though, decided not to risk and retreated to the nearby villages till the end of the month. The decisive battle took place near the Cape Coast Castle on July 11 and ended with the British victory, the Ashantis temporarily returning to the inner Gold Coast region.
The letter written in the still besieged Cape Coast Castle talks about “the success of the Ashantees & the disastrous state of our affairs,” the refugees inside the castle, the burning of the native town under the castle walls, mentions Lieut.-Col. Sutherland, Frederick Ulrich Last and Williams’ recent captivity, etc. Overall an interesting original letter with an eye-witness account of the First Ashanti War.
Chisholm died just a few months after he had written the letter on October 17, 1824. Shortly before his death, he had been promoted Lieutenant-Colonel. “His loss was keenly felt, for not only was he a most popular officer who treated all those with whom he came in contact with justice and consideration, but his many years of service in West Africa, since 1809, had given him an insight into native character and affairs that was of the utmost value” (Claridge, ibid. p. 382).
Excerpts from the letter: “Late events have rendering it prudent to transfer the Civil Administration to Col. Sutherland. I am so much engaged in preparing matters for the change this day, that I cannot write to you at length on any subject, & I regret the circumstance the more from my having been for some time unable to communicate with you.
You are of course acquainted with the success of the Ashantees & the disastrous state of our affairs. Some recent occurrences have occasioned me much uneasiness, & I fear greatly that their effects will shortly place us in a most calamitous situation. We have a population of from eight to ten thousand females and children & the destruction by fire of nearly the whole of the town & provisions a few days back has left them destitute of both shelter and food.
The Allies seem undecided as to the part they are to act, & we are told by deserters <…> escaping from the enemy, that the king intends to form a cordon round Cape Coast so as to prevent our receiving assistance in men or provisions.
The Colonel is bent at officially demanding your release, and he is to address Major Last on the subject as soon as the Man of War can be spared to go up. The plea on which he is to ground his application is not yet fully known to me, but I have reason to believe that it is in a great measure confined to the circumstances of the Ashantees having refused to treat for some ransom - when in the vicinity of Elmina – contrary to the understanding at the time of you being handed over to the Dutch authorities.
We are much in want of a Boat sufficiently large to carry a Gun & as it is understood that Falcon has one, one of the Commissaries is ordered up to speak to Mr. Deffords [?] about her. You can judge of the difficulty experienced here in getting men to go to Elmina, by the trouble you had the other day on a like point. If there is a public mail from the post office you may consider yourself at liberty to open it & if you find a bag from the Colonial office for me, you can take out any letters it may contain for yourself…”.
Price: $2,500.00 USD
Status: On Hold