Within the walls of Sheffield General Cemetery is the only lasting legacy of a truly remarkable and peculiar event from Sheffield’s past. On the cemetery’s website one can explore its residents and discover the grave of Kai Akosia Meusa, an African child who died in Sheffield in 1902. The information provided about Kai Akosia is both intriguing and puzzling, as a contemporary news report reveals that her father was ‘one of the principal warrior dancers in the Ashantee Village.’ What this signifies seems entirely obscure, yet the nature of this information has led to its meaning being revealed, as other newspaper reports from the time divulge the exact nature of the Ashantee Village.
I was first made aware of the Ashantee Village whilst studying for my Master’s degree in History at the University of Sheffield. I took the module Presenting the Past, supervised by Caroline Dodds Pennock and became part of a small team of students tasked with proposing a museum exhibition based on our own research. Knowing that the National Fairground Archive was based at the university, we quickly decided to ask about research projects there. What archivists Ian Trowell and Ange Greenwood had in store for us certainly did not disappoint. They told us about Kai Akosia and revealed that the Ashantee Village had been a travelling show which toured Sheffield in 1902. Little else was known so it was suggested that one of us consult local newspaper records to find out more and I took the opportunity to do so.
The local Sheffield newspapers were packed with information about the show. Numerous adverts urged people to ‘Look Out!’ for over one-hundred Africans due to take part in the ‘absolutely unique’ show which attempted to recreate village life as found within the Asante Empire. Reviews revealed the lavish nature of the show, which came complete with village buildings and regular performances of elaborate war dances. Reporters marvelled at the craftsmanship and trades which were carried out before them, whilst visitors could observe African children being taught at the local school. The show exhibited at the Volunteer Artillery Drill Hall on Edmund Road for over two weeks (the building remains standing but is now home to a car garage). We have no information about how many tickets were sold in Sheffield, but over 100,000 were sold in Manchester, giving an indication of the show’s popular appeal.
What the Africans themselves thought about the Ashantee Village is unknown. How and why they had become part of the show is a mystery, although it seems significant that the Asante Empire had recently been subsumed into the British Empire after a series of Anglo-Asante wars. Given the history of European imperialism and the exploitation and devastation of native peoples, the unheard testimonies of those appearing in the Ashantee Village would most probably shock and disturb both modern and contemporary society.
For all its unusualness, the Ashantee Village is only one example of many similar shows which exhibited to Western audiences in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These shows are increasingly becoming the subject of historical scrutiny, and are rightly presented within a narrative of cruel and racist exploitation. Nonetheless, the Africans who appeared in the Ashantee Village were not simply victims of this peculiar ‘entertainment’, but were people who retained both their pride and dignity in spite of circumstance. However condescending or racist, the show’s reviews testify to an obvious and demonstrable self-respect on the part of the Africans. That Kai Akosia was born and died whilst her parents were part of this show serves as a poignant and tragic reminder of the unresolved issues which surround these unusual shows, in which racism and shocking exploitation stood in uncomfortable relation to interest, admiration and human agency.
There is still a great deal to be uncovered about the Ashantee Village and other shows like it. Having graduated from the University of Sheffield I have chosen to continue my research at British Library Newspapers, Colindale, where I can access local papers from all over the country. This has enabled me to track the show’s journey from Manchester to Sheffield to Cardiff, and most recently I have discovered that the show toured in Blackpool. When I discover that the show has been to a certain town or city, I can then consult the relevant local newspapers reports. This builds up my knowledge of the show as well as leading me in different research directions. For me this research has been hugely rewarding, and I warmly thank all those who have helped me since its conception. I only hope that I can continue to uncover the history of the Ashantee Village.
Alex Jackson is a graduate of Sheffield’s MA in Early Modern History. He is currently volunteering with heritage organisations including the National Maritime Museum and the Marine Lives project and looking for work in the heritage sector.
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