A conversation with Malcolm McLeod on the Asante chest on loan to Leeds from the Prince of Wales’s Own Regiment of Yorkshire (LEEDM.F.L.1984.1.1 )
This chest is currently on show in the World View – Out of Africa gallery at Leeds City Museum. Malcolm McLeod (author of The Asante, published by the British Museum in 1981) visited recently and we had a detailed conversation on its construction, use and the many designs on its surface. The chest measures 990mm long by 507mm wide by 330mm tall, and is covered in copper sheeting with beaten and chased designs. The sheeting is held down by copper pins, rather than the staples Malcom has seen on other vessels. This chest is one of three similar Asante chests in the UK, the others being at the British Museum, and at the Baden Powell House in London. The interior of this wooden European made chest is lined with printed cotton. It is on loan to Leeds from the Yorkshire regiment who took part in the 1895-1896 Anglo-Asante war, and escorted King Prempeh to exile from Kumasi to the coast. As far as we know the chest was already empty when the officers of the regiment acquired it.
These chests may have been used to store gold dust (in gold dust storage boxes or Kuduo), gold ornaments or covered weapons etc, or they may have been used as mortuary chests, for holding the bones of deceased chiefs or royalty, and some of their personal gold ornaments and regalia. Next time the case is opened it would be important to see if there are any stains or traces inside which would indicate what European or UK items might have been transported to the Asante inside. In the 19th century the wealthy Asante were very fond of champagne, and Dutch gin. Are there any traces of alcohol? Are the chest’s internal dimensions appropriate for storing champagne bottles, maybe correct for a full case of champagne (12 bottles)? The Asante also imported lots of ammunition, and a range of fire arms. However, gun boxes are usually longer and slightly lower, and ammo boxes generally much smaller because of the weight. The other favourite import was tobacco, usually imported in long dark strips soaked in molasses. So next time we look inside we should check for alcohol, oil from guns or ammunition, or tobacco fragments. Reading through the object file the next day reminded me that the chest was cleaned by Doncaster Museums and Arts Conservation service in 1985, when it’s hinges were strengthened and the interior hoovered. Doncaster does not mention interior stains on their report.
Malcolm suggested we do a detailed comparison between this chest and the British Museum and Baden Powell ones. We can begin this process by publishing a series of photographs here.This detail of the centre of the lid shows men, chain patterns- and 'soul washer discs' (see Suzanne P Blier, Royal Arts of Africa 1999, caption to illustration 128 on page 155, talking about the British Museum chest). Further to the right on the lid are birds, most probably hens according to Malcolm, and very stylised elephants. On the back are padlocks in seried rows.
The sides are also covered (this is the left side). But the underside has only plain metal strips, looking more of a brassy copper alloy.