Ch 11: Into Ashanti Territory

Though barbarism has its dark side, these bush people, quite cut off from every trace of civilisation, and out of the reach of missionaries, lead a very contented existence. "Ignorance is bliss," and the few requirements they have, are easily supplied: they have no luxury and no wants, few yearnings and few aspirations; a pointed stick makes them a spear, and a few sticks plastered with mud, a house, while an abundance of fruit springs up around for food which requires little preparation. Undoubtedly their great curse is the pernicious form of government and fetish, though this, of course, has more effect on the chief towns and immediate surroundings, than on the small scattered bush villages. With their cheeks for bellows, a stone for a hammer, a hard tree stump for an anvil, and tongs made of a split piece of green-wood, they can turn out work of a sort that would really compare favourably with that of an English blacksmith. Unfortunately, at first, civilisation spoils all this, they begin to covet; and once give them an education they lose their simplicity, becoming proud and arrogant; considering themselves quite equal to a white man.
   The black brotherhood is all very well in its place, but the Negro cannot be treated as an equal by a white man. He must first be taught to regenerate his character, quit habits of brutish sloth, and abandon the practice of most degrading crimes and filthy ways. Speke says, "I do not deem the African Negro capable of raising himself from the degradation in which he lives," and there is a great amount of truth in the assertion. Centuries of barbarism cannot be changed in a moment, though it may be hid under a thin veneer of civilisation, and, at present, it is doubtful if the invasion of the white man has been a great blessing to the African. That is more the fault of the European than the Negro. With patient teaching, and wise legislation only, will the savage be taught self-respect, and gradually emerge from his age of darkness and hereditary paganism with all its incumbent horrors.
   A white man has much influence over an uncivilised black by his superior moral power, and even the ordinary things of every-day life of a European seem supernatural to the savage mind; but this influence is only too often abused. The native wants a certain number of kicks, but also a certain number of "ha'pence"; and strict justice and impartial treatment will go a long way with a nigger. If the justice is too much tempered with mercy, he is not slow to take advantage of it; and on the other hand, too harsh a discipline will brutalise him. The fresh arrival in Africa who starts by making friendly overtures to natives usually turns into one of the hardest men when dealing with them, because he is so often taken in and has his clemency abused at every turn. The Negro may become as faithful as a dog with proper treatment, but he will need as strict a breaking in as a colt, who is either made or marred by early training. He won't follow his teachers into civilisation, neither will he be driven to it, but he must be firmly led.
   The natives have few games, the most universal being Po, which is played in most of the villages. The game takes place on a board containing twelve round holes, each containing four men. On making inquiry as to the rules, the answer was always the same, "No savey, sah," but they get very excited when playing, and will gamble the very wraps from their bodies. Apparently it is not unlike the Indian "Pachisi"; at least, they have similar methods of reckoning.
   Funerals are attended by scenes of disgraceful orgie, especially if a chief or big man has died. His remains are closed over by some dozens of his progeny, who, with his faithful wives, are all as drunk as they can afford to be. In cases of war, the dead enemies are never buried, but the bodies are sometimes eaten, or thrown into the bush to be devoured by wild beasts.
   The birth of a child gives no pleasure to the Ashanti, with his plurality of wives; the woman is often banished to the bush, and never remains in the husband's house during confinement. The female offspring is sold as a wife-slave, at a tender age, to some neighbouring chief. Who can wonder that pudicity is unknown among these women, whatever other virtues they may possess, when wives are looked on in the same light as a farmer in England regards cattle. They all work for their lord; do everything for him, and their numbers are a standard of his wealth. There, indeed, Marie Corelli would have ample scope to dilate on, and anathematise the supreme egotism of man; and there is certainly an opening for a branch of the "Women's Rights Association." Perhaps some of our more advanced sisters of civilisation will turn their wasted energies in this direction. "The Society for the Emancipation of African Womanhood" would sound even better than the "League for Supplying the Blacks with Flannel Petticoats and Pocket Handkerchiefs," or similar societe de bienfaisance.
   On the 15th, preparations were made for the final advance. Progress was painfully slow, the pace being reduced to a regular crawl, with frequent halts. The road at first was moderately clear, but plunged into a thick bush tunnel with the branches interwoven above, only just allowing free passage. The smell in the leafy avenue was unbearable as we followed in rear of hundreds of carriers. The numerous obstructions soon also caused straggling, and the long line of troops and bearers extended for some miles. Crossing three streams in succession, which join about two miles down, and form the River Suberri, the road passes two sharp ridges with sides approaching the perpendicular, but once having cleared these, the path widened into an open and fairly smooth track right into Esumeja, being the best and widest piece of road after the Prah.
   From the top of the ridges a splendid view was obtained. The long straggling line of the column could be seen winding in and out, patches of scarlet showing the position of the troops moving through the trees, with streaks of white, caused by the light robes of the carriers.
   At Esumeja we found the Bekwai King drawn up in state, with his band well to the fore, to play us from his dominions. They made a terrible din, monotonously uttering a peculiar war chant, which was almost drowned by the infernal drumming and jangling of the musicians. We sighed in vain for wax to stop our ears, like the companions of Ulysses, when they rowed past the sirens and their delusive melodies. This music, however, would have rather caused one to die in agony than in ecstasy of delight. Judging from their faces they derived a considerable amount of gratification from the display, but we were much relieved to get out of earshot.
   After leaving Esumeja the forest archway was again apparent, while the rough and swampy track reduced the advance to a snail's pace, and there were frequent stoppages. The foetid smell caused by the narrow air space, vitiated by hundreds of carriers, and the stench from the swamp was really filthy. Everything comes to an end at last, but the trying march had its effect on the troops, many of whom fell by the wayside, thoroughly exhausted, and the numerous sick severely taxed the resources of the Bearer Company. We reached Edunku at three o'clock, the Special Service Corps advancing to Dede Siwa, and bivouacking on the banks of the Adra; but it was almost sunset before the end of the long straggling column came in and had settled down. The troops pitched their tentes dabri where practicable, and these useful and portable little shelters, which are just large enough for three men to snuggle inside, can be easily put up in any situation.
   Some of the miserable hovels in the village were turned into temporary hospital wards, and the remainder only afforded accommodation for a few officers of the Staff. Several of us bivouacked in the forest, hastily rigging up rough shelters of bamboo poles, with creepers twined above, and palm leaves laid over for a roof. Fires were soon burning, and we had settled down fairly comfortably before the chilly night came on. An encampment in the bush is soon made, as the material is near at hand. Some search for young trees or bamboos for uprights; others lop down plantains and palm leaves, and thus rough shelters are easily formed.
   Several Fanti servants and interpreters were grouped round a camp fire, each relating tales of their wonderful presence of mind and their prowess, and what they would do if the 'Shantiman came across the river and attacked our camp that night. Crack! Bang! Bang! went some fresh bamboos, thrown on the next fire. The Fanti jumped and squealed; believing that 'Shantiman had come at last, they were off helter-skelter to the bush, without waiting to see the cause.
   These explosions, when burning bamboos, are very common, as the cavities between the joints are often filled with water, and when put on the fire steam is generated, blowing up the section before the wood is burnt through. This water is often drunk by the natives, who select a likely-looking reed, and obtain a pint or more from a single cavity; though it would not be fit for European consumption except in a case of dire extremity.
   There were various howlings and roarings from the different animals prowling round in the forest; but after making big fires by the shanty, for comfort's sake, I had dropped off to sleep in spite of this mournful nocturnal chorus, when suddenly despairing screams of mortal agony, followed by a fearful hub-bub, and more cries, harrowed every soul as they were startled from their sleep. The attack had come at last, and the wily foe had crept through the bush and was upon us, was the first thought. To spring up and get outside was the work of a moment, and two other pyjama clad figures came rushing on the scene shortly after, while the startled natives sat half dazed on their mats, which they had spread near the fires. Hastening in the direction of the noise there was a gang of hammock bearers with a Fanti in the midst, who was yelling and screaming madly, for no apparent cause, while the others shouted to drown his yells. Our slumbers had thus been disturbed, and our small camp alarmed, for nothing more serious than some horseplay of the niggers, who speedily retired at the end of a good thick stick.
   Morning dawned, and everyone was up betimes to resume the march. Still no signs of the Ashantis, and only four hours' sharp travelling from Kumassi. The road was good, but the column made a short advance only, ready to invest the capital on the morrow. Passing down a broad well-cleared track we passed Adwabin, which was quite deserted save for a hideous old hag, who sat in one of the houses, left, apparently, with the hope that the English would make off with her.
   After an easy march Dede Siwa was reached, the West Yorks camping on the site occupied the previous day by the Special Service Corps, who crossed the Adra and halted on the other bank. The Headquarter Staff took up their quarters in the village, which boasted of several very fair houses, the inhabitants having cleared out stick and stone. Officers and men were fretting with the slow advance, and all would have preferred a quick dash into Kumassi, but that would have entailed possible risk, with no gain beyond the few hours saved.
   The Adra River was then a shallow stream about one hundred and fifty feet wide, and it was easily and quickly bridged over in a rough fashion, though the Engineer officers and men who were directing operations, had to stand up to their middle in slush and water for some hours. Stockades were also thrown up, so that the bridge could easily have been held.
   Both the Engineers and Army Service Corps were decidedly undermanned, especially the former. There were only sufficient men sent out to meet the bare exigencies of the Expedition, and when fever made many gaps in the ranks, the remainder of the sappers were very hard pressed, especially the Telegraph Section. They had lost the services of their commander, Captain Curtiss, and several men, though Lieutenant McInnes, with a mere handful of assistants, pluckily pushed ahead with the cable.
   Envoys came down to the outposts bringing as hostages, boys bedecked with gold, and said to be Prempeh's sons. They were only two poor slave children of no value to Prempeh or anyone else. Major Baden-Powell instructed them to return to Kumassi and tell the King that it was not the intention of the British to force the fighting, or depose Prempeh if he agreed to come to terms, but they had better hurry to Kumassi and await the Governor's arrival, for the Expedition must enter the capital, and the treaty would be arranged there.
   Prempeh, still hoping to delay the advance, again sent down Kwaku Fukoo, Boatin, and a number of subsidiary chiefs to treat with the white man and promise anything and everything if they could only stop the troops investing Kumassi.
   The envoys came down to Ordasum, where the advanced party of Houssas and native levies were camped, and they also brought a numerous following; attendants and slaves bearing stools, umbrellas, litters, state swords, and many emblems of office. An unfortunate occurrence followed this visit; and though the Ashantis were themselves greatly to blame, it was none the less to be regretted, as it was contrary to the British methods of treating negotiators of an armistice. The Ashantis, huddled together awaiting palaver, were obstructing the Houssa quarters. Three times they were asked to move by the interpreters, but they seemed to think it derogatory to their dignity, and would not budge an inch. The Houssas, always ready for a little fun, thereupon started to move the offending niggers, who were still stubborn, till canes were seized and freely used. The Ashantis moved then; the followers, dropping umbrellas and stools, bolted into the forest, leaving their belongings behind. The native levies, seeing a chance of "getting their own back" for years of aggression, then rushed at the Ashantis, whom they freely hustled and cuffed, till the officers came on the scene and stopped the row. In the confusion the envoys had been driven for a considerable distance, dropping even their smallest articles in the ignominious flight, and some of these things were discovered and stolen by our levies, who looked on Ashanti goods as lawful spoil.
   The Ashantis soon regained confidence, and after retailing their grievances, returned to camp, where a short search revealed most of the lost property, which was restored to the owners. Three young delinquents were then tied to a tree, and had half-a-dozen lashes apiece, in sight of the Ashantis, who saw strict justice had been done; but they took advantage of this by trebling the previous stated amount of their losses to Captain Donald Stewart, when the palaver started. Captain Stewart, through the interpreter, first said he was very sorry for what had happened. It was an accident, and they must tell the King so. They had complained about their losses, but most of the things had been recovered and returned, yet they now gave a finely exaggerated tale of missing property, but he would tell the Governor, and see what could be done. Chief Assufu first said he had lost £60 worth of gold dust, and now he has added £100 to that. The Ashantis were fond of doing such things. Every man who had lost anything during the last twenty years put it down, but the Governor would see they got justice. He was now ready to hear their message from the King.
   The lanky Kwaku Fukoo, after along preamble, replied that they had taken the letter to the King, and Ansah had read it; but the voluble linguist then went on with such a jumbled speech that no one could quite grasp the gist of his remarks. Captain Stewart answered that they did not seem to understand the letter, which said that it was not the intention of Her Majesty's Forces to depose King Prempeh if he fully submitted and paid a war indemnity, and would agree to the demands of the British Government, namely, the appointment of a Resident. Also he must send hostages to be held till the indemnity was paid. Kwaku Fukoo interrupted: "You want hostages! Why, I brought you two, and you refused to take them." Captain Stewart rejoined: "Thank you! We shall choose the hostages, not you, and the two children you brought were not royal personages, and not worth anything. You know that!" (A broad grin of acknowledgment illuminated three hundred dusky faces.) "We shall come to Kumassi, and the King must submit in proper fashion to the Governor."
   Boatin sprang to his feet: "I am the eye of Kumassi, and the people agree to submit. Lo! I say so! We are here to settle the whole matter for the King, and you need not come further. I am a big chief, yet your people have robbed me. Perhaps we shall be treated thus if we let you come to Kumassi." Captain Stewart rejoined that the palaver about their losses was settled, and they had punished the guilty. The Governor would agree about compensation but things had gone too far, and the Expedition must go to Kumassi and nowhere else.
   The Chiefs begged and pleaded that the treaty might be drawn up there and then, and they would touch the British flag in token of submission, so the white men could then march back to the coast. Finding that their entreaties met with no response, and that the terms would be discussed in Kumassi alone, the envoys returned with sad hearts to the capital. The visit of these messengers still further reduced the chances of fighting, but in the last Expedition the same tactics were adopted in the earlier stages of the advance, when the sole efforts of the Ashantis were also to keep the troops out of Kumassi, and when the British General steadily advanced, the foe resisted and made a desperate stand outside the town. There seemed now two probable courses; either Prempeh would bolt, or a stand would be made at the gates of the city when they found the occupation of the capital inevitable.
   On the night of the 16th the whole of our force was encamped on the banks of the Adra. Everyone turned in early, eagerly looking forward to the final march, and the solving of the Ashanti enigma, which was a difficult one. It was a glorious night for Ashanti, with a bright curtain of stars and little mist, so all settled down to sleep in eager expectation of the morrow, and what it would bring forth.
   About midnight, without any previous warning, a fearful clap of thunder awakened everyone with a start. The lightning flashed incessantly, and the rain suddenly poured down in torrents. The rough roofs of plantain-leaf thatch were washed away in a second, and everyone was drenched to the skin. It was a copious shower bath which would have been pleasant in the heat of the day, if we could have stripped, and put clothes and effects in a dry place. The flashes of lightning were vivid and incessant, followed immediately by the deafening roar of thunder reverberating through the trees. The forest was lit up as brightly as at noonday, the electric fluid playing dangerously over the tree tops, and bringing many a giant of the forest down with a crash. In one case a huge cotton tree was struck, and fell, crushing to jelly a group of native carriers who were clustering, affrighted, round its ample roots. The tornado raged without cessation for over two hours, and then the clouds dispersed as suddenly as they had gathered.
   Everything was in a deplorable state of dampness, with water, inches deep, flowing around; but, when the rain ceased, soldiers and carriers turned out to cut down wood for bonfires, and, before long, cheery piles were blazing for all to warm and dry themselves by. During the storm the officers moved about freely among the troops, administering rum to those who needed a stimulant, and the surgeons were up all night doing what they could to the poor fever-stricken patients in their charge. Things were getting more comfortable, when the storm started again, extinguishing the fires and swamping everything; but, luckily, tea and cocoa had been prepared by the men before the rain began. At 4.30 reveille sounded, ending a strange and dreadful night; and, after a hasty breakfast had been swallowed in the rain, the column re-formed to wend its bedraggled steps into Kumassi.

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