Ch 12: Kumassi at Last

The rain poured down steadily till eight o'clock, but when it ceased things were as bad for some time afterwards, sundry small streams of water still dropping from every tree as we passed beneath. The path, turned into a veritable quagmire with the rains, made marching anything but pleasant. The sun shone at last, and as it began to gain power, things became drier overhead, and our spirits rose accordingly. This was not altogether a blessing, however, for the foetid vapours began to rise from the swamps by which Kumassi is insulated; and the vile steamy mugginess was much increased by the surface-water of the previous night's storm.
   The broken rest and general dampness affected the troops, though they stoically held out, determined to reach the long looked for goal, and not give in with their object in sight. Many, however, dropped by the way, thoroughly done, and the hammocks were crammed. Still others could not keep up, and staggered along, vainly trying not to fall out, while officers pluckily assisted their men by carrying accoutrements, and giving an arm when needed.
   Surgeon-Lieutenant Spencer, though not well himself, relinquished his own hammock to a worn out sick one, and not content with that, loaded himself with the accoutrements of some of his men, who were just able to walk when thus relieved. That day's march was not the only occasion that this young officer acted in a similar way, and when the Medical Staff were reduced by sickness, he laboured day and night tending the patients in his charge. It is such acts of devotion and self-sacrifice as these that have ever made the British officer stand pre-eminent in the annals of civilisation.
   That march to Kumassi proved to be another fine exhibition of the stamina and national pluck which carries the Britisher through when other nations fail. Heavily equipped, the troops had tramped towards Kumassi; in sweltering heat and dank night fogs, and there was no malingering among them. Early and late the Tommies doggedly pressed on, defying the fever and not giving in till they dropped by the wayside, thoroughly overcome. Then! at last …

KUMASSI - the proud and dreaded capital of Ashanti!

   Major Baden Powell's force had worked its way by different paths through the bush, capturing many armed Ashanti spies on the way. The main road into the town was narrow but fairly good, and led through a dense patch of high jungle grass, fringed with medicine heaps. There were also many graves strewn with fetish images, and rotting vultures tied by the neck to the head posts.
   Suddenly a thunder of drums could be heard, but still the scouts warily advanced. Major Gordon and Captain Williams cut their way through the bush, and entered the town by the Kokofu road on the right flank, and a party of Bekwais forced a passage in the same way on the left. The main advance party consisted of Major Piggott bearing the Union Jack on his Soudan Lance, Major Baden-Powell and Captain Graham with the scouts and levies, Captain Mitchell with a company of Houssas, and their drums and fifes and the Expedition’s Political Officer, Captain Stewart. The levies were followed by a small party of four Engineers; Sergeant Lowe, Corporal Dale, and Sappers Richardson and Rubery, with the reel of cable, which they paid out and fixed as they marched. The wire was in and working at an early hour; a fresh feather in the cap of the smart telegraphists, who had slaved from morn till night in getting the cable laid from the coast. Shortly after the scouts had arrived, the two flank parties appeared, and piquets were immediately posted on all the approaches to the Palaver Square, where the levies halted at 8.20 a.m., the flag being firmly planted in the centre of the market.
   The drumming increased, and at last King Prempeh, with his chiefs and hundreds of followers, was seen advancing. They made no show of resistance: the King seated himself on his throne, or raised dais, in one corner of the clearing, while the chiefs and followers ranged themselves in dense lines on the two sides of the square. Colonel Stopford's gallant boys heard the thunder of drums in the distance, and mistaking it for firing, eagerly pressed forward. Fatigue and fever were alike forgotten as they broke into a trot, eager for the fray, but the troops were doomed to disappointment when they drew nearer, and the true nature of the sounds was revealed.
   Close behind the "Specials" came the Houssas with their seven-pounders, then Sir Francis Scott and his Staff, followed by the West Yorkshire Regiment and their carriers. As each company of troops arrived they were drawn up in the Palaver Square, and soon a long string of hammocks wended their way onward to the Field Hospital on the outskirts of the town, bearing many a poor fellow with aching head and burning frame. The baggage column then poured in with line after line of carriers, and it was three o'clock before the whole force was drawn up and dismissed to quarters. The Houssa Band made an attempt to play the troops in, and among other appropriate airs, the strains of "Home, Sweet Home," floated through the trees, as if in irony at the dirty surroundings.

Into Kumassi

   Viewed from a distance, the long rows of enormous coloured umbrellas resembled the line of round-abouts in Barnet pleasure fair, with far more infernal din than in that English orgie. The chiefs and petty kings were arranged in rotation, from the King himself, ranging gradually downward according to rank, till the minor chiefs took up their position by the side of the road leading into the town. The least powerful chief had one big umbrella and a small group of dependents and slaves, with a couple or so of drums and tom-toms; but higher up the line, the fallowings grew with the importance of their master, and the number of musicians likewise increased.
   Near Prempeh, the Kings of the surrounding Ashanti dependencies were placed, with their swords of state and fetish dancers; but little attention beyond a passing glance was paid to these groups, for on the built throne sat Prempeh and all his royal gathering in choice barbaric array.
   Was that oily, peevish-looking object the monarch whose name alone made the surrounding tribes tremble? It seemed impossible, but yes, it was he, and in a state of ludicrous funk.
   He was sitting with his back half turned to the square, but now and again he glanced round furtively at the troops formed up there. He wore a black crown, heavily worked with gold, a silken robe and sandals. Suspended from his body and wrists were various fetish charms, while behind him hung a dried lemur as a special fetish. He was seated on an ordinary brass-studded chair, which was placed on the top of the tier of baked clay forming the throne. The fabled stool of solid gold was not to be found, and had been removed to a safe distance, long before the troops entered the capital.
   Seated on the left of King Prempeh, was the Queen Mother, smiling and jabbering, with an air of nonchalance that contrasted strongly with the marked concern exhibited by her puny-hearted son. Though her face wore a hard, cruel expression, she had regular features, and would have been good looking had her appearance been less sinister. Round her were perched a numerous train of women, decently and cleanly dressed, but their shaved heads and flat oily faces gave them a most repulsive look. Prempeh's Aunt, swathed in a gaudy wrapper of silk, sat among them, enjoying a gnaw of chew-stick, and grinning at the white men who approached the throne. Like the Queen Mother, the demeanour of these women was one of absolute indifference, though the faces of the sterner sex were livid with fear.
   The lower parts of the throne were filled by prime ministers, advisers, sword bearers, executioners, and criers, in every description of barbaric apparel. On the outside of the circle, slaves bearing huge plaited fans, kept a constant current of air directed toward the King. The throne, with its numerous occupants, was sheltered by immense and gaudy umbrellas held aloft by gigantic Swefis, captured in a raid by Samory, or some other manhunter, and sent to slavery in Kumassi.
   Grouped in a large circle round the throne were some hundreds of Prempeh's minions, under-executioners, lesser ministers of the household, and slaves. In the centre of the circle, three hideous fetish dwarfs, in little red shirts, capered about, while seated in a group on the right were Prempeh's own personal attendants. These boys and men were protected by various fetish laws, and wore as a badge, a small hair cap surmounted with a mortar board of gold. They seemed to enjoy their position immensely, but as their paramount privilege consisted in being sacrificed on the death of the King, to accompany him to the next world, the honour of such a post was highly enigmatical.
   Drawn up in line were the native levies, with their long guns, every whit as proud as kings themselves. Major Baden-Powell had done wonders with these men, who in four weeks were transformed from a horde of savages into a disciplined force.
   Right opposite Prempeh were his revolted subjects, the Bekwais, and many a glance of hate went across from those dusky ranks, to be returned by glances of envy from many of the petty Kings, who would gladly have thrown off Prempeh's rule in the same manner, had they dared. Rushing about from King to chief in great perturbation of spirit, were the two Ansahs. They found playing at king-making very pleasant when masquerading in London, but fraught with considerable danger and anxiety in Ashanti.
   The King had ascended his throne early in the morning, and sat right on till five o'clock, watching the arrival of the dreaded white men. The Royal family all seemed of a superior race to the remainder of their subjects; in fact, they bore little resemblance to the surrounding Ashantis, being better looking, and of a much lighter colour. The reason of this is not far to seek, for in Ashanti as in other countries in Africa, the Kings have as many wives as they like, picked from all classes of society; but blue blood is not the necessary qualification for a royal marriage; the indispensable endowment is good looks. The royal sons may marry pretty women, the royal ladies the best looking men they can find.
   Prempeh's mother was very fickle in that respect; in fact, she was a veritable female Bluebeard. It is stated that at various times she had taken unto herself fifty husbands, all of whom were executed by her orders, until Prempeh's father came on the scene, and the offspring was considered comely enough to ascend the stool. The Kumassi eligibles must have, figuratively speaking, trembled in their shoes at an amorous glance from that female dragon. She so thoroughly turned the matrimonial market into a lottery, in which a blank meant death, though her speedy vengeance also would unerringly descend on those who failed to enter the lists when told.
   The troops were quietly dismissed to their quarters, and still Prempeh held state reception in all barbaric pomp and splendour; but it was his last, though little did he realise how completely his power would be overthrown, without a chance on his part to fight for it. The Ashanti rulers may be skilled in wily statecraft, but they proved no match for European diplomacy with its far-reaching arms.
   About one o'clock the reception had begun with a weird dance of executioners and dwarfs round the throne. Three dancers in long flowing robes twirled and leaped in a mazy serpentine fling, till they dropped thoroughly exhausted, to be followed by others. The chief executioner also gave a solo dance, accompanied by the most diabolical leers and suggestive gestures, as he furiously brandished his huge beheading knife, accompanying each wild flourish with a series of blood curdling whoops and yells.
   The various kings and chiefs next approached to pay homage to the plenipotent monarch, while the din waxed louder than ever. Each chief advanced in turn, with all his followers, down a long lane formed through Prempeh's courtiers. The royal crier then sprang to his feet, and, in Ashanti epics, extolled his master's virtues and prowess.
   The monarch, if he were flattered by these eulogies, could not fail to be wearied by their repetition hour after hour. During this uproar, the headman of the visiting chief was also shouting and gesticulating, as if to call attention to the marvellous qualities of his own master, and when this pantomine had gone far enough, sudden silence fell on everyone; even the drums were hushed, while the chief advanced slowly, as if entranced, with his eyes glued on Prempeh's face, and prostrating himself on each step of the throne, he at last cringed full length at the monarch's feet. The King, after a mock show of deliberation, extended his hand, which the prostrate chief gingerly clasped between his own extended palms. Bowing his head, he shook with emotion, as if thoroughly overwhelmed by the ineffable bliss of holding the oily paw of the cruel nigger despot, and so great were the transports of joy that he could not let that hand go. Prempeh's prime minister pushed him with his foot, and his own headmen dragged at his robe. No! He could not tear himself away. The tugging grew more forcible, till, with mournful countenance and much rolling of eyes, he sorrowfully arose and prepared to descend. Then the silence was broken as suddenly as it commenced, and the din started again with redoubled vigour. The Chief moved down one step, and stopped again. The wrench was too great! He hesitated, then advanced a stage lower, stopped undecided, while his waiting attendants beckoned and howled for him to come. It was impossible, and he sorrowfully shook his head from side to side; but, with a vigorous and unceremonious shove, the prime minister sent him flying off the step into the outstretched arms of his people.
   The hypocritical old wretch dragged his robe securely round his shoulders, heaved a great sigh of relief at having got through his part of the business, and marched off with his followers. Another immediately took his place, and exactly the same ceremony was gone through, and kings and chiefs succeeded each other in this performance, in all its details; though, at heart, those cringing Negroes were cursing the very existence of the monarch they were professing to revere.
   After seeing a dozen or more go through the same form I turned to inspect the city; I say "city" advisedly, but mud heap would have been better. It certainly boasted of many regular and wide streets with fairly built wattle houses on each side; but the very roads were defiled, and the place was a mass of festering pollution. The much vaunted capital was a combined filth heap and charnel house.
   The town stands in a large clearing at the foot of a hill, and appears to have been larger than at present, notably on the east side, which was once an extensive suburb, but now is deserted. It is almost surrounded by a swamp; but under proper sanitary conditions the place might be made fairly inhabitable, though the misty exhalations from the marshes envelop the town at night in a thick fog which is not conducive to health.
   Disgusted with the filthy hole, I turned into quarters in one of the clay bedaubed dwellings. Outside they are substantially built, but once inside, the compound was a quagmire of polluted mud and filth, round which the veranda-like chambers opened; and in that state of foul squalor had the Ashantis lived like pigs. Heaps of this accumulated offal had to be carted away before the places were fit for European occupation, and then only with abundant disinfectant was existence possible. Everyone suffered more or less from sore throat, which was due to the vile smell and dampness.
   Lieutenant Pritchard, R.E., was indefatigable in his endeavours to make things pleasant. This young Engineer had exhibited great tact and energy throughout the march, and had been right forward with the advance; done a full share of duty when his superiors were stricken with fever, and came through with flying colours, though, unfortunately, he was seized with malaria after Kumassi was invested and his work practically done.
   Captain Blunt ranged his guns so to have full sweep across the Palaver Square and its approaches, and Major Baden-Powell pushed through the town to Bantama, and held all the roads from that direction. The Special Service Corps and West Yorks were quartered in two of the many separate districts into which the town was divided by stretches of dense elephant grass and corn patches.
   At five o'clock, Sir Francis Scott and all the officers of the Expeditionary Force seated themselves in a semi-circle on the square, while Captain Stewart and his interpreter went to tell the King that the Commander was ready to see him. Some of the chiefs blustered a little after Captain Stewart had gone, but the Ansahs finally persuaded Prempeh to pluck up his failing spirits and comply, which he did with a bad grace.
   The huge umbrellas began to bob and twist, and drums were beaten as the whole of that vast assemblage got into motion, and came slowly across the square toward the Commander-in-chief. The two Ansahs acted as prompters, going through the motions in dumb show, while the lesser chiefs passed, salaaming with outstretched hand to each officer in succession down the line. These chiefs were succeeded by the more important men and their followers, and finally Prempeh himself, with a large nut in his mouth, as a special fetish charm to guard against the wiles of the white man, was half dragged past between two attendants. He looked remarkably like a fat over-grown youngster, sucking a bull's-eye, but ready for a good cry at being taken to school.
   A more abject picture of pusillanimity could never be painted than of that despot as he passed, cringing and trembling, down the line. He afterwards advanced and shook hands with Sir Francis Scott and Major Piggott, who must have both felt overwhelmed by the honour. Sir Francis then addressed a few words to him through the interpreter: "Tell him, I am glad to see him here, and that there has been no fighting. I think he and his people have shown very good sense in not resisting the advance of the Queen's forces. I don't want any of those noises and disturbances at night, as we had when I was here twenty-two years ago in the last war. He must tell his people to bring things and form a market, and everything will be paid for. The town must be kept clean. White men cannot live in such filth, and the long grass will have to be cut down. We want good order, and I have told my people that they must not plunder anyone. The Governor, who is Her Majesty's representative, will be here to-morrow. He will arrange a day for palaver, und you must make your submission to him in native custom. That is all. I wish you a good evening."
   The white troops were respectfully standing in a line behind the officers to witness the proceedings, but the native carriers, with less deference, clustered round the Staff, obstructing the view of the soldiers behind. Little notice was taken of this until Prempeh approached, when curiosity overcame other scruples, and there was a rush to get a closer view of the King. The Ashantis instantly divined treachery, and were panic stricken; for a moment the utmost confusion reigned. Their black hearts, imputing their own methods to others, suspected a ruse; they thought they had been betrayed, and the men were going to fall upon them; but their apprehensions were soon quieted when the troops stopped on the edge of the crowd, where they could feast their eyes on that flabby, yellow, but royal countenance.
   When the palaver was over, Prempeh again resumed his seat on the throne, but many chiefs had taken their departure, eager to get clear away. Evidently Prempeh thought he was well out of the wood, and nothing would now be done by the force except to install a Resident and march away satisfied with any amount of flimsy promises, which the Ashantis could as easily break as heretofore.
   Most of the officers and men had retired to the European side of the town when the royal litter arrived, and the King descended from his perch to be borne in triumph to the Palace. In tropical regions there is no twilight; the sun had set, and sudden darkness descended when the royal procession was formed. The King and many of his adherents had been fortifying their nerves, and were fairly on the way of being "beastly drunk," as a West Yorkshireman remarked.
   There were only three white men in the vicinity, but Prempeh insisted on shaking hands with all; I can feel the grip of that clammy paw again, as I write. A start was then made for the Palace, and the weird appearance of that barbaric state procession by torchlight, baffles description. The musicians marched first, some of the enormous drums being carried between four slaves, and beaten by drummers in rear. Hundreds of torches were lit, while the crowd of nobles, courtiers, captains, citizens, and slaves, went mad with transports of joy, excitement, and rum. The purport of all this enthusiasm was echoed in their cry: "Prempeh! Prempeh! Your fetish has proved too strong for the white man! No power on earth can prevail against thee!"
   They leaped, they squirmed, shouted and screamed, directing all their frenzied motions to the royal litter, from which little could be seen except a crowned head; and a puny hand waving in acknowledgment to the roaring plaudits. Wearing European costume, and patent boots fit for Bond Street, were the two Ansah Princes. They squirmed and squealed and shouted with the rest, looking perfectly ridiculous in their civilised attire.
   Prince Christian and Major Piggott appeared on a bank watching the proceedings: both Ansahs danced furiously to the rear of the litter, and then walked quietly behind with the greatest nonchalance; but directly the procession turned the corner, thinking they were free from European observation, they again danced and yelled with redoubled vigour: the noble savages!
   As soon as darkness fell, piquets were stationed in all directions, guarding every approach. Spies from Kumassi had entered the British lines the day before, and reported that the Ashantis did not want to fight, and would not resist if the English only wanted to establish a Church and a Resident; but if they interfered with Prempeh, soldiers were ready in the bush. Also that plenty of powder had been distributed in the town, and the spies thought they had undermined the Palace and Palaver Square in case of emergency. Ten thousand warriors also had been collected in the capital a few days before our entry.
   No doubt exists that had not the Ansahs arrived with reports of the strength of the advancing English, which they greatly exaggerated, the Ashantis would have offered a spirited resistance at the entrance to Kumassi, when they found that no amount of subterfuge and false promise would keep back the invader. The wiser counsels of the Ansahs had prevailed, and the warriors were removed to the bush, still ready to answer to the calls of their chiefs if needed.
   Strict orders had been issued against looting, and also to respect the sacred fetish temples or hovels, which were all marked by white cards so that no one should unwittingly enter and defile the sanctity of mud and sticks. The town was littered with fetish heaps, shrines, images, clay pans, bottles, and other symbolic fetish tokens, and many a sly kick was given by the Houssas to these charm pots.
   Many of the houses in the principal street were highly embellished, the walls being stuccoed in red, and finished in white; but with all this decoration there was still the filth and stench, and the hundreds of carriers were at once set to work to thoroughly cleanse and clear the end of the town occupied by the troops. Beyond an occasional drumming, all was quiet in the native quarter, and the streets were thronged as usual by the proletarian Ashantis and slaves, though the upper classes did not show themselves much.

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