PREMEH I IN EXILE
By Prof. Albert Adu Boahen
The exile of Prempeh I by the British Government to the Seychelles Islands, far away in the Indian Ocean, about a thousand miles off the coast of East Africa, in 1900 till 1924 is one of the most moving episodes in the history of Ghana in general and Asante in particular. The reasons that led to this unfortunate episode should be traced to the circumstances that precipitated the scramble for, and the partition of Africa among some European powers and the subjection of Africa to colonial domination during the last two decades of the nineteenth century.
It was primarily as a result of the refusal of Nana Prempeh I and the Asante Amanhene to accept British protection or even allow a British resident commissioner to be stationed in Kumasi, and its hinterland that the British at long last decided to assume direct control over Asante. In 1896, therefore, an army under the command of Sir Francis Scott was dispatched to occupy Asante. This army entered Kumasi in January 1896 and, though the Asante did not put up any resistance whatsoever since Nana Prempeh I fully realized its cost and futility, the British army arrested Nana Prempeh I, his mother, father, a brother a number of leading Kumasi and other Asante chiefs and conveyed them to Freetown in Sierra Leone. In April, 1900, because of the harsh treatment being given to the Asante by the newly appointed chiefs and above all because of the demand for the Golden Stool by the Governor which they considered an unbearable insult and a great sacrilege, the Asante rose up in rebellion under the leadership of Nana Yaa Asantewaa, the Queen Mother of Edweso.
Following this rebellion and feeling that the proximity of Freetown would not be conducive to peace and stability in Asante, the British transferred Nana Prempeh I and his group to the Seychelles group of islands. After the rebellion, Yaa Asantewaa and a number of more prominent Asante leaders were also deported to the Seychelles group of islands. After the rebellion, Yaa Asantewaa and a number and a number of the more prominent Asante leaders were also deported to the Seychelles. By 1901 the, there was a total of 74 Asante there consisting of 30 chiefs, 15 women (mainly wives of some of the chiefs), 13 children and 16 attendants. The British government adopted a policy of repatriating the family and attendants of any of the chiefs who die on the island. On the whole, 24 of them died there, and their dependants were repatriated in 1908, 1918, and 1923. It was not until November 1924 that the last batch of the Asante including Nana Prempeh I himself were repatriated.
During their twenty-four years’ stay in the Seychelles, they were treated with every humanity and kindness by the British. They were settled on an estate of about 27 acres in area, 2½ miles from Victoria, the capital of the Seychelles group of islands. In the centre of estate was a very imposing two-storey villa with lawns and gardens which was rented for Nana Prempeh I and his family, while roomy single wooden storey houses were built close to the villa for the other chiefs, their families and dependants. Prempeh I and the other chiefs were paid monthly stipends or allowances each according to his rank, by the British Government for subsistence.
In this estate which became known as the Asante Camp, the Asante political prisoners were allowed freedom of movement and led normal lives. They made farms and gardens on which they cultivated such crops as plantain, rice, sweet potato, pawpaw and vegetables. Nana Prempeh I himself had a large farm in which he cultivated rubber, vanilla, vine, coco-nuts etc. some of the wives also reared hens and pigs for consumption as well as for sale. The inmates could go the market and shops in Victoria for the purchase of their daily needs.
Relations between them and the indigenous people remained smooth and cordial throughout. Indeed, six of the Asante young men including two of Nana Prempeh’s children married local women. The food of the inmates consisted of plantain, rice and sweet potato though rice steadily became their staple. Electricity and pipe-borne water were also provided for the Camp and the houses were kept in constant repair and occasionally renovated or redecorated.
A senior police officer was put in charge of the Asante political prisoners to see that peace and discipline were maintained. In the Camp, the Asante were allowed to govern themselves through a committee of the senior chiefs with Nana Prempeh I as its chairman. Family life went on normally in the Camp, and its population increased steadily. Thus, though the population dropped to 40 following the repatriation of 34 people in 1907, it rose to 84 by 1915 and to 139 by 1924.
Nana Prempeh I himself was treated with every respect by the Seychelles authorities. Though he was called ex-king Prempeh I he was treated in practice as a king and leader of the Asante political prisoners. He was accepted as the intermediary between the inmates and the local authorities and was invited to official receptions and parties organized by the Governor. After one of these receptions held in august 1912 Nana Prempeh I wrote “to thank your Excellency gratefully for the hearty reception which I and my chiefs received from your Excellency on Saturday afternoon.” Nana Prempeh I was also free to entertain people in his villa; he became quite famous for the parties and dances that he organized there.
Apart from ensuring that his people lived perfectly normal and happy lives, Nana Prempeh I occupied himself with three other activities connected with their welfare namely, their education, conversion to Christianity and repatriation. To set the example, he himself and some of the younger chiefs learned to speak, read and write the English language. He also ensured that educational facilities were provided for the inmates. Thus, a school was built in the camp for the infants while the youth attended elementary and secondary schools in Victoria. Nana Prempeh I took particularly keen interest in the Camp School and saw to it that all children attended school regularly. On the completion of their education, some of them obtained employment as civil servants, typist, clerks and cooks, and some of the women became experts in domestic science.
Even greater was the attention that Nana Prempeh I paid to Christianity. Soon on his arrival, he became converted to Christianity and he saw to it that the other inmates followed his example. Indeed, as early as 1902, he requested that the Civil Chaplain of Seychelles, Rev. R. Fuller, should be employed to give religious instructions to the political prisoners on a salary of 500 rupees per annum. Though this request was turned down, he and some of his followers continued to receive religious instruction.
On 29th May, 1904, he, his mother and others were baptized into the Anglican Church. He attended service in town every Sunday and insisted that the inmates of the camp did so too; and most of them including even the old Nana Yaa Asantewaa became Christian. Moreover, with the future evangelization of Asante in mind, he persuaded one of his children, John Prempeh, to go to Mauritius in 1911 to train as a chaplain. He returned to Ghana in 1930 and did work as an Anglican priest in Kumasi, Mampong and other places till his death.
Nana Prempeh I’s third main concern was the repatriation of himself and his fellow political prisoners. He sent his first petition for repatriation on 31st October, 1901, that is only a year after his arrival in Seychelles. The second one followed in 1902 and the third in 1904, After all of them were summarily rejected, he could only wait for sometime, and it was not until 1910 that he dispatched another petition. This was followed with similar petitions and letters in 1911, 1912, 1913, 1917, 1918, 1920 and finally 1921, the petitions becoming more plaintive and desperate in tone with the years. It was the combined result of these persistent petitions and those of the Asante people at home, as well as questioning by some chiefs and commoner members in the Legislative Council of the Gold Coast and above all, of the mutual confidence that had developed between the Asante and the British administration on the Gold Coast, that Prempeh I and the other inmates of the Camp were finally allowed to return home in November 1924.
The impact of Seychelles on Nana Prempeh I and his followers was truly immense. He returned home an educated Christian. Moreover, having become convinced of the benefits of Christianity and western education, he did all he could to promote them in Kumasi in particular and Asante in general on his return home. He also appeared to have developed real respect for the British and their way of life though he never forgot that he was the Asantehene, or rejected the Asante traditional way of life and beliefs. On the contrary, he did try a synthesis of the Asante and British ways of life and to accelerate the process of modernization ushered in with colonial rule.
Nana Prempeh I died in 1931 as the last of the traditional and the first of the modern Asante kings. His reign marks a clear watershed in the history of Asante.
Culled from Souvenir Brochure of the Celebration of the Golden Jubilee (50th Anniversary – 1935- 1985.)