By Emmanuel Akyeampong, Harvard Un
(Courtesy of Julien Durup-Student of History)
Ivor Wilks in “An Asante Pharmacopoeia” (Ghana Studies Council Newsletter, No. 11, 1998) commented on the career of the famed herbalist Charles Zialor (d. 1975) of the Seychelles, renowned throughout the western Indian Ocean for his skill. Incidentally, Zialor was reported to have acquired his medical knowledge from the Asante exiled to the Seychelles between 1900 and 1924. The British exiled Asantehene Prempeh I, his immediate family, and several important Asante chiefs to Elmina in 1896, and subsequently to Sierra Leone later that year. The Yaa Asantewaa war of 1900 encouraged the British to send the Asante exiles farther away to the Seychelles. Settled on Mahe, the largest of the Seychelles Islands, and in the relative comfort of the Le Rocher estate, the Asante exiles were granted an extraordinary degree of freedom in their everyday lives. They celebrated births and deaths in the Asante fashion, observed the adae in honor of their ancestors, cultivated farms, and found continued utility in Asante medicine.
As Wilks pointed out, two members of the nsumankwafo (the court physicians), Kwaku Afre and Kwame Yeboa, accompanied Prempeh into exile. There was much about the Seychelles that rendered life there amenable to the Asante cognitive system and medicine. The young Frederick Prempeh once reported seeing witches on his way home late at night (Adu Boahen fieldnotes: interview with Josephine Kuffuor, February 25, 1984). The climate in the Seychelles is tropical and supported familiar crops such as plantain and cocoyam. Thus, the Asante were not deprived of their staple fufu. The flora and fauna were strikingly familiar to the Asante version, and the skilled herbalists were able to practice their craft. A name that was not mentioned in Wilks’ account is Ankaasehene Nana Boatin, who was a skilled herbalist. The point of contact between the Asante herbalists and the wider Seychellois community was the Asante women. Thomas Boatin, son of the Ankaasehene Nana Boatin and born in the Seychelles, informed the author (August 29, 1997) that the Asante male elders lived lives of retired dignity. They did not mix much with the Seychellois, but their wives and children did. Nana Yaa Akude, the Ankaasehene’s wife, often informed him of ailments in the Seychellois community. Nana Boatin prepared medicines for these ailments and his wife took these to her Seychellois acquaintances.
Thomas Boatin re-visited the Seychelles in 1981, and discovered that the Asante community had left behind a reputation for strong medicine. Indeed, his mother had been nicknamed “Madame docteur” without the Asante community being aware of their remarkable impact.
Did the Asante exiles reduce their knowledge of herbal medicine into writing as the anonymous biographer of Charles Zialor intimated? This author is not sure, but the Asante community acquired literacy and important written works such as Prempeh I’s “The History of Ashanti Kings and the Whole Country Itself” (1907) were compiled during the exile in the Seychelles. The mode(s) of transmission of Asante herbal knowledge, and the types of ailments within the Seychellois community treated by Asante medicine, are certainly promising lines of research as suggested by Wilks.