Ch 4: At Cape Coast Castle

On Wednesday afternoon, December 18th, we had the welcome news that our destination was in sight. After passing the white walls of the castle and town perched on high ground, the ramparts of Cape Coast Castle were plainly visible, and at six o'clock we dropped anchor about three-quarters of a mile from the shore. It was too late to land that evening, but we were immediately surrounded by boats and canoes whose occupants were soon floundering in the water, scrambling for ship's biscuits thrown from the troop-deck.
   The town of Cape Coast, as we viewed it that night, lit up by the last rays of the setting sun, made a scene of striking grandeur. Built on a solid rock is the castle, consisting of battlements and turrets, and with the main building and tower in the centre, while a blue sea rolls in great waves, which rise in crested walls of water as they break on the rock at the base. Low hills surround the town, while the white walls of the fort gleam from the heights beyond. The little whitewashed church and mission houses on the sea front, and the substantial houses of the traders, form a strong contrast to the native quarter, where the mass of square flat-roofed houses of red clay stand perched in every conceivable position below. Small clumps of palm trees on the east border a mass of half-ruined houses of the same description which stand tottering on the top of a green bank whose sandy base is ever washed by the waves as they break with a continuous roar. Behind the town, and extending right to the water's edge on either side of it, rise green masses of luxuriant vegetation, forming the ridge of dense African forest that stretches away to the interior. As the sun set in all its tropical splendour, throwing a crimson tint over the whole, the most prosaic could not fail to be struck with the rare and romantic beauty of the scene that would enrapture an artist and make a spring poet rave.

Approaching Cape Coast Castle

Anchored off the castle were the gunboats “Racoon” and “Magpie,” rolling incessantly in the heavy swell, which must make things very unpleasant on board in those narrow quarters. The life of Naval officers and men, shut up in the confines of their floating home off the African coast, must be terribly monotonous, as they lie day after day continuously rolling with no outlook, save perhaps a few mud huts and impenetrable bush, and their resources for any kind of amusement are necessarily limited.
   We were a merry party at dinner that night, the last we should spend on board. There were the usual speeches and leave-takings of officials going to posts lower down the coast; a couple of naval officers came over from the “Magpie” to dine, and we thus ended what had been a most pleasant voyage, thanks chiefly to Captain Jones and the other officers of the ship who had taken every care of our creature comforts throughout the voyage. During the evening a boat came from the shore, and as it reached the ship there was a cry of recognition. “Here's Piggott!” An officer came on board in quiet serge patrols, but those cleanly-cut features, clear fearless eyes lit by a gleam of humour, the firm mouth and determined chin, revealed a striking personality. It was Major Piggott, hero of a dozen fights, and with more active service records than any two officers on the expedition, though there were old campaigners there, and no feather-bed soldiers.
   We were up betimes next morning, and after a hurried breakfast, clambered over the side into the waiting surf boats with our traps. We were paddled vigorously ashore by twelve muscular Fantees, who sat six aside on the gunwale, paddle in hand, giving a combined stroke as each wave lifted us on the crest, and watching their opportunity, the boat was rushed ashore on the curling top of a large breaker, the next wave dashing over the boat and drenching us. A dozen naked blacks were at hand, and seated on the shoulders of two gigantic specimens, I found myself at last deposited high and dry on the shore of Cape Coast Castle. The scene on the sand was a particularly animated one, as boat after boat arrived in quick succession, loaded with stores from the “Loanda,” and as soon as one boat's load was landed, a gang of carriers, many of them young girls and boys, had each put a box on their head and carried it into the Castle courtyard, while super-intending the work were Supply Officers, standing in the blazing sun with parched faces and dried lips. Once on shore the heat begins to tell, the sun beating down with merciless ferocity, and woe betide that foolhardy person who exposes himself without suitable head-gear, as sun-stroke is then inevitable to a European.
   Cape Coast Castle was in an uproar with the preparations for the advance on Kumassi. I had heard before I arrived that the place was the most filthy and neglected town known under a civilised government, and therefore did not expect to find things particularly flourishing. Such an assertion as the above is perhaps too sweeping to describe the present state of the town, but even now it would rank among the worst types of places with all the improvements which have taken place since 1874. The town has been in English hands now for two hundred and thirty years, and yet, beyond a few minor improvements, it remains as it was, with the addition of a few larger and more substantial houses, built by traders who have settled there. The town lies in the hollows at the base of three hills, the centre immediately behind the Castle being occupied by the Government House, chief trading houses, post office, church, mission-house and schools, and on each side over various little undulations and hollows are massed the squalid mud hovels of the Fanti population proper.
   The Fantis are the inhabitants of the town of Cape Coast and its immediate neighbourhood. They are a fine-looking tribe, but about as cowardly a race of blackguards as could well be found, and with all their bombast, the mention of an Ashanti makes them tremble. As allies, they are perfectly useless for fighting, and are greatly despised in consequence by the tyrants on the northern boundary. Their outward fetish worship is not very powerful now, but still flourishes, one curious fetish being the mass of rock called “Tahara” on which the Castle stands. At regular periods this is washed and swept by the women, and offerings are piled up on it.
   To the east of the town rises Connor's Hill, which was used as a hospital and sanatorium for the troops, and from the top, by the white wooden houses and marquees forming the hospital wards, a fine view is obtainable. In front is the mighty expanse of the ever-rolling Atlantic, to the right stands the Victoria tower, and nearer at hand on the top of the centre hill, Fort William, a round whitewashed little place, resembling a Martello tower, and now used chiefly as a lighthouse. Behind the fort is Prospect House, while all around, closing right into the very outskirts of the town, is the bush, so thick and tangled as to be almost impenetrable.
   The little water obtainable is stored in wells outside the town, and there is no system of drainage in Cape Coast Castle. There are 12,000 inhabitants, none over clean, and many living in a horrible state of filth; so imagine what condition a place in ordinary latitudes would be in under such circumstances. Added to that there is the intense heat, and not a breath of air stirring in the lower parts of the native quarter, where the stench is unbearable. There is one large surface drain cut right through the centre of the town; but, whatever use it may be in the wet season, in the dry it is simply a convenient repository for all the filth and offal that the natives wish to get rid of. The authorities do what they can to prevent the depositing of offensive matter in the streets, and a strict ordinance is in force by which all delinquents caught in the act may be heavily fined. This may have a little effect in bettering matters, but the natives easily evade the law by keeping the refuse in their hovels all day and throwing it outside at night when darkness has set in. With sanitation in such a state in an otherwise deadly climate, small wonder that Europeans sicken and die if they stay in the place any length of time. Undoubtedly a very great deal could be done to improve matters, but the authorities are not alone to blame, as the lack of water is a great defect, and the filthy habits of the natives, if restricted, cannot be altered by law, however rigidly enforced.
   On landing at Cape Coast, on December 19th, I found the whole place in a glorious state of bustle and confusion. Long lines of carriers were taking stores from the shore to the castle. Fresh gangs were being loaded and sent off up country to Mansu, where the intermediate depot on the road to the Prah was formed. Everything was in a very forward state, though the first contingent had arrived less than a fortnight before, and Sir Francis Scott and his staff had only landed a few days previously.
   Colonel Scott had certainly an efficient staff of officers under his command for Special Service. He himself served in the last Ashanti war, and was also in the Crimea and through the Indian Mutiny. In 1892 he was in command of the expedition against the Jebus on the West Coast, and is at present Inspector General of the Gold Coast Constabulary or Houssas. Colonel Kempster, D.S.O., Second in Command, has served in the Egyptian Army, and was also in the Bechuanaland Expedition. Major Belfield, Chief Staff Officer, had seen no previous war service, but he is a Staff College man, and has a very high reputation. Surgeon-Colonel Taylor, Principal Medical Officer to the force, when he was selected for Ashanti, had only recently returned from special service with the Japanese Army, during their late war with China. He was present at the capture of Port Arthur and Wei-hai-wei, and he was for some years on the staff of Lord Roberts, in India. Lieutenant Colonel Ward, A.S.C, Assistant Adjutant-General, served in the Soudan. Major Piggott was in Zululand and served in the Transvaal, but it was in Egypt and the Soudan that he made his name and gained a list of honours in the many engagements he passed through, and in 1886 he was second in command in the expedition against the Yonnes. Major Piggott and Prince Christian Victor were aides-de-camp to Sir Francis Scott. The latter volunteered his services, and his appointment was sanctioned by the Queen. He has seen service in India, where much of his military career was spent. Captain Larrymore, Adjutant of the Gold Coast Constabulary, has a medal for the Jebu expedition, and was eminently fitted for aide-de-camp, as his duties on the coast have brought him into close contact with Sir Francis, and he is thoroughly acquainted with the tribes in West Africa, both on the coast and in the interior.
   Apropos of Captain Larrymore's connection with Sir Francis Scott, a story of that young officer's pluck may not be out of place. In February, 1892, while on a tour of inspection, Sir Francis Scott and Captain Larrymore, with a small party of Houssas, called at Asuom, where there was much excitement among the natives over the death of their King. After a long march in the heat of the day, the officers settled down in a native shanty to rest, having put their men into quarters.
   Sir Francis was suddenly disturbed by a great clamour, and going to the door of the hut he saw his troops surrounded by an armed, howling mob, mad with drink. The Houssas had formed into line and were loading their rifles, while the natives, who numbered a thousand or more, had loaded also, and in another minute shots would have been exchanged, when the little force must have been annihilated. Captain Larrymore, however, dressed only in a suit of pyjamas, rushed in between the-two bodies of men with his umbrella open. He gave orders to his men to unload and go into the hut, while he quietly stood, umbrella in hand, confronting the horde of savages. Such prompt presence of mind had its effect. Quiet was restored, and the natives, after yelling considerably, retired. Had the Captain seized his arms and rushed out showing signs of alarm, the niggers would have instantly opened fire, and no one would have been left to tell the tale; but such quiet pluck is not without an effect even on the dark minds of African savages.
   Another digression may be of interest in connection with Captain Larrymore, who had recently returned from the Koranza country in the interior. While there he gleaned further information about the existence of a white tribe in the interior of Africa. He found it was an accepted tradition among the Houssa tribes that on a strip of the desert to the north-east, there lived a tribe of white men. As this desert was dangerous, attempts had been made by the Koranza people to avoid it, by passing through these white men's country, but they were found to be so fierce that the dangers of the desert were preferred to the hostility of this tribe. He afterwards met a Mohammedan priest and Hadji; a man of great integrity, who had been to Mecca and had seen one of this white tribe on his return journey. Captain Larrymore suggested that the man was simply a light-coloured Arab, but the Hadji said “Oh, no! I saw him close at hand. He had light hair and blue eyes, exactly as you have, and was armed with a bow and arrows.” This region is practically unknown to European travellers, but for some years, reports have constantly been brought down by the natives as to the existence of this white race, and there seems now to be substantial grounds for believing there is a foundation for their story.
   Things were kept very lively in the Castle by the constant arrival of various kings who came in from the surrounding districts with their followers to act as carriers. Each arrival was announced by a fearful uproar; shouting, singing, horn blowing, and beating of tom-toms; the rank of each chief and the number of his followers being easily decided by the amount of din made. As an officer pertinently remarked, “You could first hear them, then smell them, and afterwards see them,” as they marched down the main street to the Castle. The present power of many of these kings and chiefs is purely nominal, so a special ordinance was brought into force, conferring upon them the power to enrol their able-bodied subjects for service with the expedition, and under this enactment, all kings and chiefs were liable to heavy fine for neglect in collecting their men, and their subjects also liable to punishment for refusing to obey orders.
   This ordinance quite did away with the stern necessities of martial law, and was a sort of compromise between that, and making service optional, in which case the required number of carriers would never have been collected. The arrangement proved satisfactory in every respect, causing great excitement among the natives as soon as it was published, and they willingly rallied round their chiefs. The Governor certainly acted wisely in reaching the people through their own head-men, who were thus backed by the authority of the Government. Their loyalty to the British is only prompted by fear, but they still keep up a semblance of their former devotion to their kings, whose legal power, in most cases, is absolutely nil.
   The case of the Accra King Tackie may be cited as an example of this. In 1881, he was a prisoner at Elmina Castle, and his people steadfastly refused to join the expedition then being formed, unless Tackie were released. When he was ultimately set free, he had no legal control left over his tribe, and latterly he seemed to have so allowed his moral influence to wane, that his power had practically ceased to exist. When a new enactment order came into force, however, and temporary power was again vested in him, the Accras rushed en masse to their chief, and he suddenly found himself in a position of perfect authority over his people, whose latent instincts of loyalty were stirred to the utmost. They arrived at Cape Coast Castle on the 21st in full force, amid scenes of great excitement. It was so long since the Accra people had been regaled by a Royal Procession, that they determined to make the most of it, working themselves into a state of enthusiasm bordering on frenzy. The poor old king, finding the excitement infectious, was so beside himself with his newly-found power, that he indulged in a penny bottle of palm-wine from a roadside merchant, and after drinking a carefully measured half, he distributed the remainder among the head-men while his people danced round, wildly shouting most extravagant and adulatory encomiums to the dusky monarch, amid a deafening accompaniment of drums, tom-toms and horns.
   In the streets of Cape Coast, the one topic was the war; and the niggers were all squatting on their hams, gravely discussing the ins-and-outs, and probable consequences thereof. Many of them remember the last war, and a few, who had served in some capacity in '74 and obtained a medal, were proudly exhibiting the precious bit of silver, pinned on an old European coat or shirt donned for the occasion. Meanwhile, up country, things were being pushed forward. Major Baden-Powell was at Prahsu with his levies, and rest camps were being formed at intervals along the road to the Prah River. Stores were being rapidly sent on ahead, and it was evident that, when the white troops arrived, everything would be in readiness for a rapid advance to the frontier, beyond which, progress must be slow and difficult.
   An ever-absorbing difficulty on the West Coast is to keep the water in tolerable order. Just outside Cape Coast are large wells, or closed underground reservoirs of puddled clay, with a small opening to the surface, and a more substantially made tank in the town. These wells are filled in the rainy season, the water being stored for subsequent use, but after standing for some time in such a climate, it is totally unfit for European consumption, and is doubtless a great cause of sickness among white men on the coast, though the natives apparently suffer no ill effects from it. Many of the officials and traders have private tanks to store their water, in which it is kept free from contamination, but nothing can prevent it becoming stagnant and tainted by the surrounding unwholesome influences. There are a great many pretentious looking stores in the town, but most of the commodities consist of old stuff, shipped from England or Germany, calculated to catch the Negro eye, and little can be purchased that is of service to a European. English money is now more freely circulated, though many places of business still retain their scales for weighing the gold-dust which, until recently, formed the staple currency. Coppers are looked at with disdain, the smallest article being threepence, and thus the modest silver bit is in great demand.
   The Market stands on the front, but it is only a corrugated iron shelter with open sides and no fittings. The bush people flock down with their supplies, and barter is much carried on with their stock and coast commodities. There is an air of bustle and activity there all day long as the dusky vendors, dressed in gaudy wraps of Manchester print, ply their trade, while perspiring women stagger round with a heavy load balanced on their heads and a nodding brown babe or two tied behind. Thus loaded, they thread their way through the crowd, vigorously pushing the sale of their stock of bananas and plantains.
   The horse is a greater curiosity in Cape Coast than an elephant at home, for in the narrow environs of the town there is little use for them, though the total absence of suitable forage alone forms an insuperable barrier to their introduction. There are a few light hand-carts or buggies occasionally to be seen flying through the streets, drawn by half-a-dozen stalwart Fantis; the occupants being some white official or trader going to make a call, or a haughty gentleman of colour, who looks disdainfully on the pedestrian canaille around him.
   The approved method of travelling is by hammock, for this means of locomotion is available, and fairly comfortable, under the most difficult conditions of road, through forest or swamp, where all other mode of transport is impossible. The hammock is slung on a stout bamboo with cross pieces fixed at each end, and an awning over the whole. The four bearers stand, one at each corner, and placing the ends of the cross pieces on their heads, walk with a swinging stride, the weight being evenly distributed and the hammock hanging suspended between them. The jolting is trying at first, and until confidence is gained, the nervous inmate feels at every step one end will slip from the bearers head, in which case a nasty fall is inevitable, but so practised do these hammock boys become that they rarely make a false step, and if one trips, his hand is up instantly to keep the load firm till he recovers his equilibrium.
   One half of the West India contingent was encamped on Connor's Hill, the remainder being sent forward to Mansu. Many of the former daily reported sick, and no doubt they suffered as much from fever as any of the white, troops, though the attacks were shorter and had less effect. Many of the cases were trivial, and I am afraid the close proximity of the hospital gave vent to a great deal of malingering among these lazy Negroes, in the hope of getting admitted as a patient, with a few additional luxuries and no duty to perform.
   On December 21st, the smart detachment of Artillery non-commissioned officers, under Captain Benson, left to take charge of the Houssa battery at Mansu. The butchers and bakers of the Army Service Corps also started, under Sergeant Major Sparks, to get field ovens built, and a batch of fresh bread ready for the troops when they marched up country.
   The accommodation in the Castle was severely taxed, many officers having to find quarters in the Wesleyan Mission House. The school-rooms afforded shelter for the men of the Engineers, who made themselves as comfortable as possible on the stone floor, and if the bed were hard, at least it was dry and cool. One of the most amusing sights in the Castle was the massing and numbering of carriers as they were formed into gangs. Large cases of police armlets, with numbers attached, were sent out, and the possession of one of these gaudy bandages was the cause of much inward joy and gratification to the dusky burden bearers. Each native lost no time in strapping on his number, there being little fear of his discarding the valued insignia of office as enrolled carrier to the Queen, and the work was much facilitated thereby, for each man's number was always visible, denoting his position and gang without difficulty or palaver.
   The indefatigable Army Service Corps certainly earned themselves fresh laurels for the efficient arrangements of transport, and before the troops had landed, there were 11,000 loads of supplies safely deposited at Prahsu; a feat of no small magnitude, over an indifferent track of seventy-three miles.
   The underlying impression of the visitor, though, is that the more that is seen of Cape Coast and its surroundings, the greater wonder is created as to how little the Government has done for the town and its inhabitants. True, there is a fairly efficient force of native police, who walk about, baton in hand, ready to crack the skull of any offending nigger. There are a few oil lamps sprinkled down one or two of the principal streets, but any other road or track is left in total darkness, and from one end of the town to the other there are numerous holes and pitfalls into which any traveller, who has the temerity to walk abroad after dark, is sure to come to grief. Then the stench and pollution in many of these slums are a disgrace to any town whose inhabitants profess to be under the British Flag.

George Clarke Musgrave - separator bar

To Kumass with Scott Under Three Flags in Cuba In South Africa with Buller The Peking Legations Under Four Flags for France Cuba - Land of Opportunity

Our aim is to re-open George Clarke Musgrave's library and make his books available to everybody free of charge. Any donation that you choose to make will help with the costs of hosting and operating the websites and blogs that make this possible. If you have enjoyed reading this page, you might like to ...
make a donation

George Clarke Musgrave - separator bar

Of Wars and Words - navigation link
Chapter 3
Of Wars and Words - navigation link
Blog Home
Of Wars and Words - navigation link
Chapter 5