Ch 13: The Killing Fields

While awaiting the arrival of Governor Maxwell I joined a small party of press-men on a somewhat tentative exploration of the town. Scattered amongst the courtyards, alleys and quadrangles were warrens of dingy living quarters and storerooms, juxtaposed with larger houses that were highly and attractively embellished, the walls being stuccoed in red and finished in white. Despite this surface decoration, though, there was an overpowering filth and stench, with rank, mephitic vapours rising from the inhabitant’s detritus and from the swamps by which Kumassi is surrounded.
   Kumassi means literally, "The place of bloody death," and well its name describes it. We found that the town possessed three places of execution. One, for private executions, was at the palace and it was here that Prempeh is said to have caused the slaughter of four hundred young virgins, their blood being used for the stucco on the Palace walls. Fetish sacrifices were conducted separately in the sacred quarter known as Bantama, employing the celebrated execution bowl, a large brass basin some five feet in diameter, ornamented with four small lions around its rim and a space for the victim's neck to rest on the edge. It is said that the blood of the victim was allowed to putrefy in the bowl and, with leaves of certain herbs being added, was considered a potent and valuable fetish medicine.
   By far the most gruesome of these killing fields was the grove called Samanpon, where the tortured, mutilated and decapitated bodies of the executioner’s victims were thrown after sacrifice. This hideous Golgotha was piled with the remains of hundreds of miserable creatures, executed simply to please the Ashanti rulers' insatiable lust for human blood.
   Huge cotton trees had their buttresses stuffed with bones and skulls and human remains were littered about in every direction, while the whole of that terrible place reeked with pestilential odours. Every step I took in that rank grass revealed hidden human carcases mouldering there while fat, contented-looking vultures, gorged with human carrion, swarmed the trees above in black hordes.

The Kumassi Golgotha

   On Saturday evening I strolled with Bennett Burleigh down to the King's Palace, which occupies a considerable space in the centre of the town. The palatial residence destroyed in the last campaign has been replaced by a heterogeneous collection of well-built wattle huts of enormous proportions and barn-like appearance. Large courtyards, alleys, and small quadrangles succeeded each other, with quarters for the numerous wives and slaves, and storerooms; all built with little design, either architectural or beautiful. In some places the foundations of the old palace were still to be seen. The buildings stood in a large enclosure, surrounded by a fence of tall bamboo, and containing a fetish grove and private place of execution for any person it was thought expedient to decapitate on the quiet. Passing up a broad avenue with a companion, the chief entrance to the Palace was reached, a large gateway hung with enormous wooden doors. One door was immediately swung back to admit us, but the dusky janitors nearly dropped with astonishment when two presumptuous white men entered.
   We stood in a large courtyard just inside, with spacious thatched alcoves opening all round, in which a couple of hundred slaves and attendants lay in silent rows, resting on their mats. Large earthen ewers of water stood in the enclosure, palms occupied the corners, and on a balcony higher than the rest were the huge bloodstained war drums, decorated with ghastly human remains ad lib.
   There was another doorway leading to the private apartments of the uxorious King, with two naked daggers hung above on the lintel. As we paused at this entrance the Ashantis started up in horror, expecting to see those suspended swords of Damocles fall on our sacrilegious heads; but military regulations forbade a further investigation, and we retired, to the evident relief of the hundreds of attendants, who immediately barred the outer door, behind us and in the face of two approaching officers on exploring bent. Prempeh's numerous wives were all safely transferred to the bush, so we had little opportunity of seeing any Ashanti beauties, unless the Gorgonian attendants of the Queen Mother were analogous types.
   Ashanti ethics are curious and manifold. There are king's ethics and subjects' ethics; king's psychics and subjects' psychics; but individual influence and rank greatly determine the rules and laws of life; for they are promulgated by the fetish priests, who naturally know on which side their "bread is buttered," and grant dispensation accordingly.
   The King of Ashanti was accredited in the English Press as having 3,333 wives granted him by law. Though there were no means of testing the accuracy of this statement, it must be accepted with the proverbial grain of salt. Any numbers derived from native sources are to be looked on with suspicion; for they have no true idea of numeration, the word "many'' being used for all large amounts, and may as equally signify hundreds as thousands. The King could marry whomsoever he pleased, the more the merrier. Certain death fell on any man who looked on one of the King's wives, and instances are also known in which young lovers have been ruthlessly parted for the maiden to be placed in the royal harem, and afterwards, being discovered secretly renewing their vows, they have both been barbarously tortured and executed.
   When Prempeh ascended the throne, he proclaimed, as a punishment to the family, that any man who should cohabit with the sisters of Prince Yao Atchereboanda of Kumassi should be put to death. A few months ago, just before the Ansahs started to England, Kwasie Adjaye, Captain of the Royal Hammockmen, and commanding one thousand guns, was accused of familiarity with one of these sisters, Princess Akosia Bereyna, and he was publicly put to death on this flimsy pretext.
   On one occasion, Prempeh is said to have caused a public execution of four hundred young virgins, their blood being used for the stucco on the Palace walls. Even if the numbers are exaggerated, the information is probably true in the main, as virgin's blood is supposed to contain very sacred properties, and much of the Juju or fetish medicine of the West Africans must be obtained from different parts of a young girl immediately after slaughter.
   The royal wives were carefully guarded by eunuchs, but were often executed for a fancied offence; if they were passi, or had been denounced as unfaithful, by some evil-disposed person, though they had little chance of infidelity.
   The Ashanti subjects who could not rely on the good services of the executioner to dispose of old wives, whose beauty had faded or who were too old to work, could easily rid themselves of the encumbrance. They had only to bring an accusation of unfaithfulness against the poor wretch and she had to undergo the ordeal of poison.
   The fetish priest, on being consulted, arrived with an elaborate apparatus of skins, idols, &c., and seated himself in front of the victim, who knew she was innocent, and had perfect confidence in facing the ordeal. The crafty fetish-man then made a poisonous mixture, and poured it down her throat. He shrieked and wailed, while numerous interested spectators chanted a weird chorus. He is a clever conjuror, and manipulated his paraphernalia cleverly, but greeted every movement with a well-feigned astonishment, not lost on the people. Excitement grew to fever pitch as he muttered mysterious incantations; but at last, the poison beginning to act, the poor woman screamed in fearful agony as the pains seized her.
   The priest paused in his mummeries to frantically clutch the air as one possessed, while the victim lay writhing in the last throes of mortal agony. When he saw the poison had successfully done its work, he sprang up denouncing the dying woman. Her agony was then speedily ended by the infuriated spectators rushing in, and beating the remaining life from the pulsating body with their clubs. By this means this wonderful fetish priest had consulted the Spirits, and the Gods had devoured the life from the wicked woman whose only offence, most probably, was that her husband was tired of her. This ordeal by poison was not confined to Ashanti alone; but was, and is still, practised in many places in the interior. Another more inquisitorial form of torture was to bury a man to his neck in a colony of white ants, who slowly devoured the flesh off the living body.
   I have no wish to dwell unduly on these horrors; but in order to give a faithful account of the habits of the people of West Africa it is necessary to recount many gruesome details in speaking of their devilish fetish worship. English people have no idea of the fearful enormities constantly practised in darkest Africa, and it is just as well that their eyes should be opened, so that they will be in a better position to judge the difficulties to be encountered in civilising these people, and why it seems impossible for them to be made respectable members of society. In the apparently most civilised districts, all manner of diabolical crimes are committed under the very nose of the authorities; and so superstitious are the people, and so powerful the influence of the fetish priests, that the greatest difficulty is experienced in tracing these acts to their source. In many places the tenth child in every family is slain at birth as an offering. I could not find out for what supposed reason the gods require this sacrifice, but as the offspring of most African women exceeds this number, many hundreds of innocent babes must be yearly killed. Even on the Gold Coast itself, in well-populated districts, the moment the tenth child is born in many families, it is either buried alive, or taken to the shore and thrown into the sea. It is difficult to advise any course for the Government to stop such practices, as most stringent legislation is of little use in restraining accepted traditions, which the people are bound to follow by a superstitious dread of fearful penalties.

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