Friday, September 12, 2008


The last king of the Ashanti empire, Assantehene Agyeman Prempeh, was surrounded by victorious British troops clamoring for him to come out of his palace and surrender. The gods had abandoned Prempeh and all hope was gone. But before he went out to face his conquerors, he commissioned one last work of art.

Colonel Baden-Powell described the surrender in his memoir of the African military campaign. When Prempeh emerged, the soldiers commanded the defeated king to grovel before them:

It was a blow to the Ashanti pride and prestige such as they had never suffered before. Then came the demand for payment of the indemnity for the war.... The king could produce about a twentieth part of what had been promised. Accordingly, he was informed that he, together with his mother and chiefs, would now be held as prisoners, and deported to the Gold Coast.
Prempeh was marched off to jail. Behind him, soldiers plundered his palace and burned down the sacred Burial-Place of the Kings of Ashanti.

In those last days before Prempeh surrendered, he ordered his royal artists to prepare a glorious tunic for him to wear at the surrender ceremony. They worked long and hard to make a "regal robe of mourning" approximately 7 feet by 10 feet, covered with graphic symbols illustrating the culture and history of his people.

The cloak was organized in a series of squares, with ideograms depicting the legends, proverbs and histories of the Ashanti.

For example, the following design symbolizes the king encircled and protected by ancestors, warriors, and helpful spirits who support his reign:

This next symbol, called "hen's feet," relates to the Ashanti saying that "a hen treads upon its chicks but does not kill them," meaning that the powerful king stands on his people in a gentle, protective way.

Another symbol, the ram's horn, depicts strength but also corresponds to the proverb, "when a ram is brave, its courage comes from its heart and not its horns."

The soldiers were clueless about the meaning of these symbols or the significance of the cloak. However, one of them took a fancy to it and "obtained possession" of it. The king watched through jail bars as his conquerors walked away with the legacy of his people.

What in the world was Prempeh thinking? The beauty of his cloak couldn't possibly protect his people or their culture. Why did he go through the trouble of creating art whose message wouldn't be understood? And why put one more precious thing in the hands of his enemies to steal or destroy?

One obvious answer is that people sometimes reach out to art when they have nothing else left. In moments of ineffable sorrow, when our five senses can't piece together the world in a way that is bearable, art sometimes helps us bridge the gap. This kind of art might fortify Prempeh even if his enemies didn't understand its meaning.

But I suspect there was more involved in this case. Friedrich Schlegel once wrote,

Through all the noise of life's multi-coloured dream,
One song sings to the secret listener.

It seems to me that a lot of art is created like a message in a bottle. We hope it will someday find its way to a secret listener who understands us. The Ashanti empire, with its rich cultural tradition, would end when Prempeh surrendered that day. It was quite possible that Prempeh's cloak would be carelessly destroyed by infidels. But if the cloak survived, there was a chance it might someday come to the attention of some secret listener, and they would know the Ashanti for what they were, and maybe even take pity for something that once was, but is no more.

Every day you and I walk unknowingly on multiple layers of such sadness-- desperate songs from previous generations of singers who never found a listener. But in Prempeh's case, his gamble paid off. After many years, his cloak was discovered and rescued. Now it is in the inventory of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.