Ch 10: A Treaty with the Bekwai

On Friday afternoon, January 10th, Prince Henry was not at all well, and though he made no complaint, everyone in camp noticed that he was not his usual cheery self. Naturally, he felt depressed at the news of Major Ferguson's death, for they were both walking together at Prahsu the evening before that gallant officer was taken ill. Towards evening, the Prince grew rapidly worse, and symptoms of malaria fever developed. Everyone hoped that as it was taken in its early stage, the Prince would recover sufficiently to resume the march. Surgeon-Colonel Taylor was in constant attendance, and everything done to relieve the fever; but malaria is a subtle enemy to deal with, and as the symptoms were serious, the doctors decided the Prince must return to the Coast and be removed to the "Coromandel." The Royal sufferer was bitterly disappointed at this decision, and all ranks felt deeply for the brave officer who had entered into the campaign with such spirit, and who had uncomplainingly braved all the hardships, only to be invalided when the goal was almost in sight.
   On Saturday morning, as we turned our faces Kumassi-wards, a little party, consisting of Prince Henry in a hammock, his attendant, George Butcher, and Surgeon-Captain Hilliard, who was in medical charge, started for the coast. The Prince cast longing eyes toward the troops already preparing to march, but he was much weaker, and realised that it would be useless to attempt to proceed further. Many expressions of deep sympathy for the poor fever-stricken patient went out from all members of the force: one could not but think that he, who, comparatively, a few hours before, had been in the best of health and spirits, was now paving Africa's penalty, whose malarious grip might demand even life itself from its victim. We sorrowfully watched the hammock till it was lost in the gloom, as the bearers carefully wended their way up the steep sides of the Monsi Hill; and then we resumed our march.
   Leaving Kwisa, the road descends rapidly, afterwards winding through a swampy district, infested with frogs of enormous proportions. The slimy batrachians, who infest these morasses, are held in religious horror by the natives, who refuse to touch them; and even the ominous croaking is the signal for absolute silence from the usually irrepressible carriers.
   Having crossed the Adansis and entered Ashanti proper, the natives acted very differently on the march. There was no lagging behind or plumping down loads for "chop" at every half mile; and even their remarks were made in an undertone for fear of arousing the dreaded 'Shantiman. The one topic among the white men was the probable chance of fighting; for the Ashantis fell back on Kumassi before the advancing scouts without firing a shot. What could be the intentions of His Sable Majesty Kwaku Dua III?
   Several skulls were found in the vicinity of these swamps below Kwisa, which evidently marked the spot of a fierce battle in bygone days. This swampy district was trying, for the bush was so dense all round that it completely cased in the narrow path. The air in those murky forest depths was also vitiated by the long lines of carriers, such that it was scarcely possible to breathe. The road, after crossing some low sand hills, became dryer, however, and the undergrowth less dense, though the forest was as luxuriant as ever.
   Fomena was once a flourishing town, and the capital of the Adansi Kingdom, but it is now in ruins and has few inhabitants. Passing through the village clearing, we reached a broad but shallow brook which was easily forded. By the marks and excavations on the banks and in the bed of this river, the natives had evidently been prospecting for alluvial gold, which abounds in many of the West African streams. Crossing the water, we were refreshed by a fragrant smell from a clump of smallish trees covered with a white bloom resembling hawthorn blossom. Nature here seemed to have wilfully joined two extremes, for a few yards further on, a noxious creeper grew in abundance, emitting a vapid foul muskiness which got into the throat and nose, and gave a peculiar taste to the mouth.
   Dompiassi, another ruined town, is about four miles from Fomena, and from there the road led direct into Essian Kwanta, where we arrived at 10.30, after a trying march of ten miles. Reports had reached Essian Kwanta that the piquet, who had evacuated the village and fallen back on Kumassi, had been reinforced, and 2,000 Ashantis were then within two miles of the camp bent on retaking their outpost. The small company of Houssas turned out with an alacrity worthy of better results, and the native levy got under arms. The piles of cases of biscuit and meat were hastily thrown round as a barricade, and others packed to form a rude fort. I am afraid all were highly pleased with the prospect of a fight at last with the Ashantis, and Prince Christian bustled about looking eagerly forward for the brush. Everyone was disappointed when further news came in that the movement was not being proceeded with, and the Ashantis had withdrawn again. Thus nothing came of all the preparations and the wily foe did not show fight.
   When the Special Service Corps and Artillery arrived, they marched through the village, and bivouacked in the bush about a mile ahead, while the Staff took up their quarters in the village itself, which was deserted. The houses were superior dwellings, many having additional courtyards and out-houses for the use of the household slaves. The surroundings were also fairly clean; but there was a very bad smell, partly due to some plots of plantains rotting in the vicinity.
   In this village I was offered a peculiar native spirit with a most pungent odour. One has heard of Europeans becoming addicted to drinking "stink-pot," but I doubt if any white man could have taken a nip of this vile concoction. I pushed the nigger and his jar away, but he took a deep draught, which made his eyes water, and then smacked his lips with evident relish.
   Large piles of stores were stacked in readiness for the advance, and Captain Donovan, of the Colonial Service, had pushed well ahead throughout the march with his carriers and supplies, entering Kwisa, and forming a camp there just behind the advanced scouts. Captain Swain, British Guiana Police, took the Bekwai carriers in hand, and he used these friendly Ashantis to the best possible advantage in getting necessaries to the front. Governor Maxwell was journeying from the coast to enter Kumassi when it had been invested.
   Saturday afternoon, by the time we had settled into quarters at Essian Kwanta, a furious drumming announced the arrival of the young King of Abadoom, who was coming with the King of Bekwai to sign a treaty with the British. He seated himself on the outskirts of the town to await the time arranged for the palaver, and a little later, the King of Bekwai arrived in the vicinity of the camp, resting his royal bones on a stool in the forest.
   Punctually at five o'clock, the guard of honour, furnished by the Special Service Corps, marched in, and was drawn up in line outside headquarters. The Kings then came on the scene; the Bekwai monarch in great state. Immense war drums thundered, tom-toms were thumped, big metal bells hammered on continuously, while a hideous tooting on elephants' tusks completed his noisy if inharmonic arrangements for wooing the gentle muse.
   Behind these raucous melodists marched the sacred Executioner and Fetish priest combined. With his appearance and rig, and enormous head-dress of leopard skin, surmounted with tusks and a high fringe of eagle's feathers, he could have taken his place among any Redskin chiefs of the Wild West, on the war path.
   Then came his most Sable Majesty of Bekwai, an intelligent but sensual looking Negro of medium stature and apparently about forty-five years of age. A small black cap perched on the back of his cranium, and ornamented with gold filigree work, did duty for a crown; a long silken robe and sandals completed his outfit. His claw like fingers were covered with massive gold rings finely worked, which were well displayed by a paw bearer on either side, holding a bunched-up silken cloth on which the royal hands rested. Several gold fetish ornaments were hung on his wrists and suspended round his neck, while his royal toes were also adorned with gold work. In fact his Majesty was a veritable walking jeweller's shop.
   Over his head rose the mighty folds of a gorgeous umbrella of plush and silk, which the attendant kept on a continuous hop and twirl for no apparent reason except it were to circulate the air about the King, but it seemed a clumsy and laborious method of fanning. Immediately behind his Kingship walked a prime minister, who placed his hands round the royal waist as a support to the monarch as he walked in majestic state.
   The Lord Chamberlain followed, with a fine collection of rusty keys of every description hung in bunches on his body as an insignia of office; and bringing up the rear were a motley crew of minor chiefs, fetish men, soldiers with flintlocks, ladies in waiting and slaves with fly whisks, or bearing their master's stools, chairs and litters.
   The King of Abadoom had a very different gathering. He was a gentle lad of fourteen, of pleasing countenance, and very nervous throughout the proceedings, though any lack on his part was amply made up by his two chief advisers; one, a cunning, white-headed old rascal, the other a younger but no less crafty looking Negro. Many of the King's retainers were boys younger than their master, but there were also older chiefs, sheltering their sacred heads from the sun under common cotton umbrellas sent up from the coast, and all much the worse for wear. The bearers of these sorry gamps were quite young boys, some not more than five or six years of age. The poor little fellows are doomed to stand behind their master's chair for hours, with arms stretched upward to the utmost extent, in order to shade the lazy Negro sitting at his ease, while his poor little slave is ready to drop with exhaustion
   When the Kings were seated on their respective thrones (otherwise brass-studded kitchen chairs), and the followers had grouped themselves around, the "General Salute" was sounded, the troops presenting arms as Sir Francis Scott and his Staff appeared on the scene. In the centre of the gathering stood a small camp table, with papers, pen and ink duly arrayed thereon, also a short end of candle; a valuable commodity in the bush, for use in sealing the treaty.
   Captain Donald Stewart officiated; and, after asking if they had signed a treaty with any other foreign power, and being answered in the negative, he read the articles of the treaty between "Her Most Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria and the Kings of Bekwai and Abadoom." Each article was translated by a native interpreter, the terms being as follows:
1. That Her Most Gracious Majesty would accord her protection over their countries, the same to be part of the Jurisdiction of the Gold Coast, provided that:
2. The respective countries of Bekwai and Abadoom should be always kept open for trade; every facility being offered to traders; the roads kept open, and in good repair.
3. That capital punishment must be abolished for all crimes except murder, and no slaves to be kept, bought, or traded with.
4. The King not to enter into any act of aggression or war, but must refer all disputes to the Governor of the Gold Coast.
5. Great Britain would respect, and not interfere in any way with the customs and habits of the country not enumerated in the above, and no levy or tax would be imposed on them. The King's methods of collecting the revenue remaining the same.
6. They were to enter into no contracts with other Foreign Powers.
7. Human sacrifices must be abolished and kept down with a strong hand.
   The young King listened attentively, but the more skilled diplomats of Bekwai did not want to appear too eager to accept British terms. He was in frequent conference with his chiefs, and having craved permission to speak, began to raise salient points of order and law. The High Chamberlain wished to know what was to be done if a man committed a murder. Captain Stewart replied that he would be tried under British law, and, if found guilty, be put to death. That only half satisfied the contumacious old wretch. "The King had a number of young slave girls that he was now going to give to his young men as wives; if one ran away might not she be killed, if caught?" To this it was pointed out that slavery must be abolished, and they would therefore be no longer slaves, but free.
   We were then favoured with a few different phases of breaking the Seventh Commandment. It appears that in Ashanti, Sir Francis Jeune had a counterpart in the Executioner, who dealt summary justice to the offending parties; but the Bekwais had previously been told that no man or woman must be put to death except for murder, so that all these questions of moral law-breaking, involving death to the guilty parties, had been answered in that one stipulation.
   More caviling was in course of preparation, and king and ministers were in close conference; but as the proceedings were getting unduly protracted, Sir Francis remarked to the interpreter, "Tell him I am not here to be made a fool of, and if he has any more to say, he must say it quickly." Then, finding the King of Abadoom was quite ready to sign the articles, he gave the signal for him to advance.
   The Bekwais were still deep in consultation on some learned subject, but it did not transpire. There was Bekwai prestige and precedent being rudely put aside, and the subordinate King of Abadoom signing first! Their whole natures rebelled against such supersedure. The chiefs shouted; the court crier sprang to his feet and howled off some marvellous panegyric, informing us of the supreme dignity, nay, the cohabitation of the divine and mortal realised in their Lord and Master; while the King hastily gathered his rather dirty robes around him, advancing to the table with more haste than dignity.
   The seal was attached, and the royal finger nail touched it; Captain Stewart then held the pen, the King placed his digital extremities on it, "Yow Boatin" was duly written, and the treaty thus signed. The King of Abadoom, who had been rather disconcerted by the previous little scene, then went trembling through the same ceremony. The Union Jack was hoisted; the general salute sounded, as the troops sprang to attention and presented arms; thus annexing the Kingdoms of Bekwai and Abadoom under British rule and protection. After much shaking hands the Kings took their departure, and the troops hied away for tea and much needed repose. As the King of Bekwai was leaving in state, he expectorated freely, and, to my disgust, there was a general scramble among the followers to secure the saliva; some youths actually applying their tongues to the spot, to obtain the last traces.
   To the credit of the Bekwai Monarch, on one occasion when Prempeh required a number of victims for sacrifice, and sent to levy slaves from the dependent monarchs, he refused to send human beings, but substituted an offering of gold dust instead.
   More news from Kumassi arrived by spies who stated that all the men were called into the capital, and the women were wailing in the villages for their husbands, who had gone to the war. News also came that every effort would be made to keep the white man from Kumassi, and envoys were on their way down to promise anything and everything, if only the troops would return to the coast. If the forces advanced on the city there might be no resistance unless the English fired the first shot, or injured or captured the King.
   Telegrams arrived from the base concerning the sick. Captain Curtis, Lieutenants Mangan and Davies, who had all been dangerously ill, were now reported doing well. Everyone was hoping to hear Prince Henry had reached the Coast and had been safely removed to the "Coromandel," but his illness unfortunately proved even more serious than was at first anticipated. He arrived safely on the 12th at Prahsu, but had been much tried by the journey, the fever greatly increasing. The Medical Staff spoke of the great consideration shown by the Prince to all attending him. He was frequently bathed with warm water, with a view of inducing the skin to act. Though this water was well warmed, it seemed cool to the fever stricken frame, and the Prince remarked "How refreshing that cold water is." The doctors were decidedly anxious about him, but he rallied enough to be moved to Mansu on the 14th and resumed the journey to the coast next day.
   On Sunday, January 12th, the Staff remained at Essian Kwanta to enable the Ammunition Column and Bearer Company to close up, in readiness for the final advance into Kumassi. Several hundreds of carriers were encamped in the forest just below the village. The thick undergrowth had been cut away, leaving the high trees alone standing. At night the flickering light of the numerous camp fires throwing a red glare on the surrounding foliage; hundreds of black naked forms moving about under the trees, or lying round the blazing fires in every conceivable position; a perfect babel of voices jabbering and shouting in unknown tongues, and you have the weird picture that requires far more than a pen to portray.
   At half-past five the sun is just rising, the birds give a few preliminary whistles, flocks of parrots fly overhead, the crickets have ceased their chorus, while the sloths also stop their child-like screams, that render sleep impossible to the bush novice. He constantly awakes during the night, startled from his doze with dim visions of murder and violence, till he suddenly remembers it is only the sloth, an African substitute for our feline tribe in their nocturnal choruses. Monkeys are not as common as is generally supposed, though at night they often come round the camp for a midnight chatter, while jackals occasionally give a short interlude by a series of mournful howls.
   At sunrise, on January 13th, we resumed our march and experienced one of the worst strips of road on the whole advance. Progress was painfully slow, as the track was narrow, and a very large body of troops and carriers were on the move, the column wending its way over tree trunks and through vile patches of foul-smelling swamp, happily now rendered passable by furlongs of corduroy thrown across by the native levy. Passing slowly onward through Adawassi, now in ruins, we went through Kuraman and reached Ejinassi at midday.
   The Special Service Corps marched on through the village and pitched camp in Amoaful, once a large and important town, but now little better than a heap of ruins. This place was the scene of a sanguinary conflict with the Ashantis during the '74 war, when fighting raged between Amoaful and Ejinassi all day, the natives being repulsed at nightfall. The Headquarter Staff again halted for a day, remaining in Ejinassi on the 14th to enable the forces in the rear to close up. The Special Service Corps advanced to Esumeja, their late camp being occupied by the West Yorkshire Regiment, who arrived from Essian Kwanta at eleven o'clock, and they marched into camp in splendid style, despite the drawbacks they were still suffering from.
   The day passed very quietly, though the necessary delay was chafing, with Kumassi so near; and yet the force were in a state of absolute uncertainty as to the probable issue of the expedition. The water in all the adjoining villages was very bad, the only available supply being from a muddy gutter streamlet. There was one trivial incident; a hammock-bearer was caught robbing an Ashanti woman, so a parade of natives took place in the morning, while a Houssa Corporal administered twelve strokes on the thief, who was deeply impressed by the ceremony, as were the other natives, though in a different way.
   In the afternoon the Bekwai Prime Minister arrived from the capital, bringing a "dash" for the white Chief. The "dash" consisted of a long string of natives, loaded with yams, plantains, fowls, and eggs, a present of gold dust, and last, but not least, a bullock, which was, perhaps, the most acceptable present of the batch, for no fresh meat had been procurable on the road. Major Piggott volunteered to shoot it, as none of the natives were capable of properly slaughtering the beast. Fire-arms came on the scene, the cowardly Fantis bolted to a safe place in the bush; a splendid shot in the forehead brought the animal down, and it was soon skinned and cut up, making an agreeable change after the long spell of preserved meat.
   In connection with this beef, a curious incident occurred which caused much discussion and rumour in camp. Major Piggott cut off a joint of beef, and sent it ahead to the commander of the advanced scouts by a runner, with a scrap of paper attached, "Major Gordon. Killed 14th inst." Major Gordon received the meat safely, and as paper was scarce, he scribbled a note of receipt on the back and returned it by the messenger, who duly delivered the same. The front script alone was an ominous missive to those out of the ken, and naturally the worst conclusion was jumped at, and the startling news spread. Poor Gordon! Killed! How terrible! Excitement ran high; fighting was imminent now, and bitterly was his death to be avenged. Then some far seeing person turned the paper over, and found note of acknowledgment on the back written by the defunct officer himself, and so the matter was cleared up.
   The Bekwai people had opened a market as requested, and a plentiful stock of bananas, plantains, yams, and paw-paws were offered for sale. So high a value did these bush people put on an English threepenny bit, that sufficient fruit could be purchased with it to last a week if you thought the load worth the carrying. The market women were all very ugly, but probably that was intentional, for fear if more comely Bekwai maids were sent they might be turning the heads or capturing the hearts of the white men. At any rate, Darwin could never have been to Ashanti, or he would assuredly have found his missing link; and the evolutionary theory seems borne out in Africa by types of startling reliability.
   With all due respect to these ladies, as some of them waddled about, it required a distinct stretch of imagination to realise that they were human beings, and not belonging to a race of the quadrumanous gorillas; and their shaved heads, a sign of slavery, did not add to their beauty. Many prevalent fashions among West African women are as cruel as those practised by their more enlightened European sisters; though the facial disfigurements are not as common on the Gold Coast as in surrounding districts, where the upper lip is slit and widened by pegs till a large ring is inserted to keep the orifice extended.

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