Classic DACB Collection

All articles created or submitted in the first twenty years of the project, from 1995 to 2015.

Owusu-Ansa, Prince John (A)


Prince John Owusu-Ansa (1822 - November 13, 1884) was the son of the Asantehene, Osei Bonsu (q.v.) [ruled 1800-24], who was given to the British as a hostage, and educated in England. He was later, at different times, an agent of the British colonial administration, a Wesleyan missionary, and an emissary of the Asantehene. He eventually settled in Cape Coast, making occasional visits to Asante.

Owusu-Ansa and his cousin Owusu Kwantabisa (1819-58), who was the son of the Asantehene Osei Yaw Akoto (q.v.) [ruled 1824-38], were given to the British as hostages in 1931. They were to be kept in Cape Coast for 6 years as a guarantee that the Asantehene would keep the 1831 peace treaty concluded between the Asante on the one hand and the British and their African allies on the other. Instead, however, George Maclean, the British representative who was president of the Council of Merchants at Cape Coast, educated the boys at the Castle school at his own expense (1831-36). They therefore came briefly under the influence of Joseph Dunwell, the first Wesleyan missionary, who baptised them as John Owusu-Ansa and William Kwantabisa.

In 1836, after Maclean had obtained permission from the Asantehene, the two were sent to school in England. Maclean travelled on the same boat with them. The expenses, amounting to £150 annually, were paid by the British government. When they returned to the Gold Coast in 1841, the British Foreign Office appointed them as British agents in Kumase, at an annual salary of £ 100 each. Before they left for Kumase, Maclean gave them further written instructions, the most important of which required them to set a good example to their countrymen in order to promote Christianity. They were also told to pay the greatest deference to their uncle, the Asantehene, “never to interfere violently with the customs and privileges of your countrymen,” and to report twice a year to Cape Coast to collect their pension and to enable Maclean to see the progress they were making.

At this time Kwaku Dua I (q.v.), [ruled 1834-67], was the Asantehene. But their arrival in Kumase, in the company of the Wesleyan missionary Thomas Birch Freeman (q.v.), marked the parting of ways on the two princes, and the failure of the scheme of the Foreign Office to use them as instruments in promoting British interests in Asante. In 1842 Kwantabisa was reported by the resident Wesleyan missionary to have committed adultery with one of the wives of a senior counsellor to the Asantehene. He thereupon lost his pension, although he continued in his post, against the wishes of the colonial governor at Cape Coast. He died in 1858.

Another missionary, Brooking, reported in 1844 that Owusu Ansa was also involved in indiscreet affairs with women. Yet Owusu Ansa nevertheless became an assistant missionary in the Wesleyan Mission. Through his influence, Freeman was given land in Kumase to build a mission station. Owusu Ansa later had to leave Kumase, however, because his own attitude, as well as that of Opoku Awusi, another educated Asante, had made him enemies. Kwame Poku Agyeman in particular, the senior counsellor whose wife had been involved in the Kwantabisa incident, led the opposition to Christianity and education.

In Cape Coast, to which he returned in 1844, he was reported to have become a regular and devoted attendant at the mission chapel. He rendered such effective service as interpreter, class-leader, and preacher that he was eventually sent back to Kumase as a catechist. He returned to Kumase in May 1850, but in 1851 he was transferred to Abakarampa, east of Cape Coast. He left mission work in 1852, and again returned to Kumase, where he acted as secretary to his uncle, Kwaku Dua I.

In 1853 the Asantehene appointed him as an emissary to the British authorities at Cape Coast. In 1854 the Wesleyans wanted him to return to Kumase again, but he declined the offer, and instead became a teacher at the Cape Coast Boys’ School. He seems to have remained in this position until 1863, in which year he accepted a temporary post in the Customs Department. He was also sent on a mission to Asante at this time to try to avert the impending Anglo- Asante war of 1863-64. In 1864 he was again sent to Kumase by the British to negotiate for an exchange of prisoners taken in the war, but he himself was captured and held prisoner, together with two Basel missionaries, Friederich A. Ramsever and J. Kühne, until 1870, when he was restored to favor in Kumase.

When he returned to Cape Coast, however, anti-Asante feeling was running high there. He was suspected of intriguing with Asante. Although he had married a Fante wife, he narrowly escaped alive when, in 1873, his home was attacked by an enraged mob, and several members of his household beheaded. In May of that year the British Administrator, R. W. Harley, sent him to Freetown, Sierra Leone, for his own security. In Freetown he was “detained in a kind of honorable captivity,” contributing an article to the London Times on July 29, 1873, on the subject of Asante and the causes of what later became known as the Sagrenti war of 1873-74, between Asante and the British and their Fante allies. In 1874 he arrived in London. He subsequently returned to Cape Coast.

In later years he became unpopular because of his involvement in many Asante causes. He took sides in the quarrel between Asante and the ruling house of the state of Gyaman; about 120 miles (192 km) northwest of Kumase in what is now the Ivory Coast, and adopted questionable methods to win back the allegiance of Gyaman to the Asantehene. His support for the deposed Asantehene, Kofi Kakari (q.v.) [ruled 1867-74], made him more enemies, but he could not have him reinstated, despite his influence in Cape Coast Castle. Subsequently he again fell under suspicion of intriguing, and in 1884, the year of his death, the British Governor and Council recommended that he should be deported to the island of St. Helena, in the South Atlantic. He died, however, on November 13

Owusu-Ansa served three kings of Asante - Kwaku Dua I, Kofi Kakari and Mensa Bonsu (q.v.) [ruled 1874-83]. One of his sons, John Owusu Ansa Jr., was to continue this service in the reign of Prempeh I (q.v.) [1886-96]. Under Kofi Kakari, he had pointed the way towards administrative reforms, for he himself represented a new phenomenon - one who served the state on contract, and whose status was therefore quite distinct from that of the traditional administrators.

Owusu-Ansa’s heart was clearly in his work for the Asante cause. During the difficulties he encountered during the final year of his life, he wrote to Lord Stanley, the Earl of Derby, British Secretary of State for the Colonies, the statesman who abolished slavery in the British Empire:

“If it is a sin to have at heart the true interests of one’s country and to advise one’s countrymen what their real interests are, then I must, my Lord, say that I have sinned grievously, and must have erred greatly in my long career with English Government and my country.”

M. A. Kwamena-Poh


I. S. Ephson, A Gallery of Gold Coast Celebrities, Accra, 1969, William Fox, A Brief History of the Wesleyan Missions on the Western Coast of Africa, London, 1851; Friederich A. Ramseyer and J. Kuhne, Four Years Captivity in Ashanti, London, 1878; I. Wilks, Asante in the Nineteenth Century, Cambridge, 1975. See also National Archives of Ghana, ADM 1/2/373.

This article was reprinted from The Encyclopaedia Africana Dictionary of African Biography (in 20 Volumes). Volume One Ethiopia-Ghana, ©1997 by L. H. Ofosu-Appiah, editor-in-chief, Reference Publications Inc., New York, NY. All rights reserved.