Ch 15: Of Sacrifice and Execution

Immediately after the palaver, the native levy marched to Bantama and surrounded the Royal Mausoleum and fetish houses. When these were broken into, nothing was found except a row of empty brass coffins in the Mausoleum. The contents of the houses, which were of great value, had all been removed with the sacred bones of the Kings, before the capital was invested. The practice in Ashanti, when a person dies, is to bury all the personal belongings, that they may accompany the defunct to the next world. Before burial, each article has to be "killed," i.e., broken, to enable its spirit to "shuffle off this mortal coil."
   On the decease of an important personage, slaves have to be sacrificed, guns and spears snapped, bow strings carefully cut, arrows split, and the odd utensils, such as plates, calabashes, &c, cracked; and thus the spirit of the departed native makes its exit in a manner befitting its rank, attended by the spirits of every needful commodity, from slaves to the deceased's ditty pipe. The Ashantis have no belief in award or punishment in the future state, though the fetish power looks sharply after its adherents in this life. Fetishism is a religion only in the literal sense of that word, which means "fearing the gods." There is no question of right or wrong in their creed, for the fetish is a spirit, or combination of spirits, manifested in material things, and which is ever ready to seriously injure unless handsomely propitiated. In short, by means of fetishism kings hold their despotic sway, and the priests draw large revenues, and exercise an enormous influence. In its tenets there is no question of doing good here and being rewarded in the next world, and in this respect, it differs greatly from the lowest forms of Hindoo idolatry, for even the Thugs professed to think they would reap a rich posthumous reward for every victim they secured with the sacred noose and pickaxe of Kali.
   These fetish houses at Bantama had doubtlessly contained rich treasure belonging to the defunct Ashanti monarchs, and this would be looked upon as sacred by the natives; but it was not to be found, having been previously removed. Outside the chief buildings were various food offerings placed for the refreshment of the departed chiefs, and the door was firmly cemented up. These offerings showed that the people were unaware of the sacrilege committed, and the villainous priests may have surreptitiously removed the valuables for their own use, months before the Expedition was thought of.
   Near the buildings stood the sacred banyan tree, with a large metal basin fixed below. Beneath the shade of this tree, human fetish sacrifices took place on regular festivals, slaves being barbarously executed as offerings to the manes of departed kings. These festivals took place quarterly, when the King paid his periodical visit to show his respect to the deified shades of the departed, and also to satiate his real, and their imaginary, blood-lust, by the decapitation of twenty victims, whose blood was collected in the sacred bowl.
   The fetish village was speedily set on fire, and the tree blown up, the bowl falling as trophy to the popular commander of the levy. The ground round the tree was saturated and foetid with human blood, and the very roots were stained and impregnated with red corpuscles.
   Some especially interested gentlemen, misled by the Ansahs, have publicly stated that human sacrifice was unknown in Kumassi. The Princes (par nobile fratrum!) had serious thoughts, when in London, of bringing an action for slander against Governor Griffith and Sir Francis Scott, for stating that Prempeh indulged in the mild dissipation of occasional head-chopping; and thereby casting a reflection on the character and the integrity of the Ashanti Embassy then in London. The solicitor acting for these masquerading princes and forgers, found he could not weave a single mesh of the legal net required for a prima facie case, though he had twisted and contorted every clause of the laws relating to libel, and waded through briefs innumerable, in the hope of finding a precedent. He adopted, however, the moderately wise course of writing to the Press on the subject, and by a striking coincidence, the same week, abundant proof of recent sacrifice arrived by mail from Accra, the reports being voluntarily furnished by eye-witnesses.
   Every day that we spent in Kumassi, also brought to light fresh evidences of the continuance of the practice, though the people had been warned, under pain of fearful penalties, not to give any information to the white men. By means of an interpreter I talked with many of them freely on other topics; but one had only to touch on anything connected with fetish or sacrifice, and they instantly glanced round much disturbed. "The priests are so wise and will tell the white man all he wishes to know, but we must not say words about it;" and the dark native minds fully believed the priest knew every thought they had, or word they uttered. There were fugitive Ashantis on the coast, however, who were not afraid to speak, and native traders who visited Kumassi with goods, and sometimes forfeited their lives for their temerity, have brought reports from time to time, of the strange and bloody doings of Prempeh & Co. Much information was given me by an intelligent and well educated young captain or chief from Accra. He was in charge of his people serving as carriers to the Expedition, and proved to be a perfect mine of information in respect of West African habits and customs.
   There were two ways of evading sacrifice after a person had been selected for execution. One was to repeat the "King's Oath," a form of declaring allegiance to the sovereign; or the intended victim must break away from his captors and reach a certain spot on the outskirts of the town, which formed a sanctuary or place of refuge. Another subject would then have to be selected, and the escaped victim would be free for the time being. These seemingly merciful provisos were not available for those who were to be executed for an offence, real or imaginary, against the King, and if he wanted a victim, he had not far to look for an excuse. Even the person who unwittingly passed under the shade of a fetish tree was condemned to death. To prevent intended victims getting clear by either of the before-mentioned methods, the executioners sprang on the poor wretch from behind, and thrust a long stiletto through his cheeks and tongue to prevent him speaking. A long wooden skewer was then thrust through the muscles of his arms, fixing them behind, and in this horrible condition his legs were put in irons to keep him fast until he was wanted for execution.
   On the death of any great personage, slaves were immediately sacrificed on the threshold. If a chief, male victims were selected; but if a great lady died, females were slaughtered, often young virgins of tender age. The burial was marked by another scene of bloodshed, and more victims were chosen and executed, one of the mourners being sometimes seized and killed, if it suited the priest's caprice to further amuse the crowd. Quite recently, Aframi, King of Gyeso died, and Prempeh had six men beheaded at the burial to "wash his grave," as the custom is called.
   When the King or any of the royal family of Kumassi died, enormous sacrifices took place, and on the death of the King's aunt, 400 slaves were tortured and executed for the supreme joy and edification of the people. In these large executions, the executioner in his frenzy would often seize an unsuspecting onlooker he had a grudge against, or had been bribed to remove, and the victim's head would be hacked off amid the plaudits of the onlookers. Fiendish tortures were also often resorted to, especially with prisoners of war, when the executioners vied with each other in devising fearful methods of torture, such as flaying alive, plucking out eyes, and even more original devices. When Prempeh ascended the throne enormous sacrifices also took place to celebrate the event.
   Human sacrifices were offered to avert threatening calamities, and even as the troops invested the capital, two young slave girls had their throats quietly cut in the confines of the palace, their blood being poured out as a libation to the gods to act against the invading white man.
   After Prempeh's capture, the streets were filled with flying Ashantis, taking what they could carry, to the bush. A group of priests and fetish men crowded together in anxious deliberation in a temple, on the north side of the town. Vile wretches, murderers, capable of any deed of cowardly cunning. Were these low looking creatures real humanity? The humanity which God created? Surely not! They were more like apes than human beings. The very leers and contortions of those lean faces, as their owners wildly gesticulated, resembled the grin of the skulls that we kicked into light when we walked through the dank grass of the horrible fetish grove. Their palaver did not last long, and priests and executioners cleared to the bush, though in strict justice, it seemed a pity some at least were not hung to the adjoining fetish trees, as carrion for the vultures they could provide food for no longer. Some of these "Ju-Ju" men, trained from childhood in the mystery and ways of the forest, and taught carefully all that has been handed down in their profession for generations, are not altogether imposters, and know secrets which are not known in the Western World of Science; but all that counts as nothing against their bloody and devilish rites.
   The immense fetish trees were blown up one after another, and the sacred houses and temples set on fire, or razed to the ground, and a cry of despair went up from the miserable creatures watching from the surrounding forest. "Our fetish is gone and our gods have deserted us!" In a few hours they had a practical lesson on the fallacy of fetishism that years of patient missionary labour could not have taught them. The day before, they would have declared that no power on earth could prevail against the gods of Ashanti; but when they saw Prempeh, the natural head of fetish, forced to humble himself and afterwards be taken prisoner, when the sacred houses and blood-washed trees, the very abode of the spirits, were destroyed by the white man's powder, and still the gods availed them nothing, their faith was shaken. It was a trial of orthodoxy that even the Negro mind could not stand.
   The forest land will for ever remain much as it is. The coast tribes are far too indolent to clear, and the climate is too deadly for white men to attempt to work even as overseers, but when a good road has been made from the coast, the timber trade may be greatly developed, as it is now only hindered by the difficulties of transport. There is much gold in the forest, but the climate forbids the white man to disturb the surface of the earth, and stir up the malaria germs; for it is certain death for the European to attempt to prospect.
   Everyone in camp turned out to see the enormous fetish tree, facing the market place, destroyed. Charges were inserted all around the massive trunk, the cable was attached, and when everyone had withdrawn to a safe distance, the lever was pressed. There was a dull roar; a complete section about a foot wide was blown away as cleanly as if cut, and the mighty trunk rearing its lofty branches over 150 feet in the air, poised itself for a second, and fell to the earth with a thunder and force that shook the ground, crushing down large trees and part of the sacred grove in its fall, and badly injuring some natives who had gone too close after they had been warned. The enormous stump with its buttresses and gnarled roots was afterwards set on fire, and when darkness fell on the capital the blazing fetish houses and heaps of rubbish, with the black bodies of the levies as they rushed hither and thither, demolishing walls and throwing fresh fuel on the blazing piles, made a weird and striking scene, that will be long imprinted on the minds of those who witnessed it. The public square was turned into a temporary Gehenna, and tons of filth and rubbish there destroyed.
   There were many trivial but exciting episodes during the day with Ashantis being mobbed and robbed by carriers, or natives being disarmed by the Houssas, but a few of our niggers were tied up and thrashed for robbing Ashantis, and things quieted down by night, and the proud capital was left desolate and deserted.
   Strong piquets were stationed right round the place, as it was thought probable that an attempt might be made to rescue Prempeh, but the night passed quietly, broken only by the challenges of the native sentries, "Halt dere! Who come up dat dare road?" "Hullo! Did you take me for Shanti man?" "Oh no, sah! Shanti man him bad tink, sah! You no smell like Shanti, sah! Good night, sah!" and the cheery little Houssas resumed their watch.
   The Governor's smart coup in arresting all the chief men, had robbed the warriors of their leaders; and the open failure of the fetish power had demoralised them thoroughly, but every precaution had to be taken. A popular tradition was that if the King died at Kumassi, his fetish power remained, being transmitted to the next ruler; but if he crossed the boundary, the power departed with him from the capital, never to return. If Prempeh had acted up to his acknowledged principles he should have committed suicide rather than be removed; but he was too great a coward to do that, simply to bestow his evanescent power on his successor. There were many who would have been glad to save his Royal Highness the trouble, by assassinating him; for thus the fetish would remain with them for ever; but they lacked opportunity as a careful watch was kept on the King, till he was transferred to a safe region.
   On January 21st, a report reached Kumassi of Ashanti warriors massing in a village near Mampon. Major Baden-Powell took charge of a flying column, consisting of the levies under Major Gordon, two companies of Houssas under Captain Mitchell and a Maxim gun under Armourer-Sergeant Williams. They started at midnight, and after a toilsome march through thick bush and reeking swamp, reached the village, only to find the 400 armed Ashantis had heard of their coming, and made off, leaving smouldering camp fires as evidence of their recent presence.
   When this column returned to camp, the main body was just preparing to set out on the return march to the coast. They had fresh orders to reconnoitre Prempeh's summer residence where much valuable property had been stored. On arrival at this palace it was found to be deserted and looted. It subsequently transpired that Prempeh's head slave had been placed in charge, and other slaves, freed from bondage in Kumassi, had flown there with the news of Prempeh's downfall. They had then all systematically plundered the store rooms, securing the valuables, shaking the dust of Ashanti off their feet, returning to their own tribes with a recompense for their forced sojourn in the King's service. A large number of these slaves were taken during the war with Mampon, who opposed Prempeh's enstoolment. Over a thousand prisoners of war were then dragged into slavery to Kumassi, and many of the chiefs, beside the old and infirm, were bound together and burned alive by the savage army of Prempeh. Prempeh afterwards placed Osuche on the Mampon Stool, where he had reigned as right-hand man of the Kumassi rulers. His capture by the British will be hailed with joy by his people, whom reports say he has kept down with an iron hand, and an ever-ready beheading knife. Many a home in this district would rejoice in the restoration of a long-lost son, father or husband, freed after, perhaps, years of bondage.
   While in Kumassi the number of sick swelled to rather an alarming extent, and the Medical Officers anxiously looked forward to the day the mud of Ashanti should be shaken off. Every white man, paradoxical as it may read, was a sickly yellow, for the malaria was upon all in a slight or severe form, and a fever bred of the grisly and horrible surroundings. It was always pretty hot, though not so glaring as on the coast, where you lay an egg aside, and if you wait long enough, find a chicken in its place. Then there were the tortures of prickly heat to contend with, and a longing for a draught of water a few degrees below 90. At midday clothes might go; the natives were to be envied; and the noblesse oblige of civilisation, in dress at least, was to be lamented. Then as night came on, the falling dew chilled you to the bone; yet when rolled in a blanket the perspiration would drop from the forehead while alternate shiverings and burnings succeeded each other in painful monotony. Darkest West Africa indeed is no ideal spot; and as to those would-be journalists, sitting in the snug security of their Fleet Street attics, and writing on the Ashanti Picnic - well, they ought to be made to partake of a similar picnic. The West African medal may well be hung on a ribbon of yellow and black, as fever and death stalk hand in hand in effective combination.
   The Field Hospital was as well arranged as possible, and everything was done to relieve the numbers of sick, who were in a pitiful state with the dreaded fever. It was also a case of "physician heal thyself," for malaria is no respecter of persons, and attacked the Medical Staff as freely as other corps. Many a fine lad lay suffering in the Hospital tent, dreaming in a hazy delirium, of the home and dear ones far over the sea, which some of the poor fellows were destined to never see again.

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