Ch 7: Of Tribes, Kings and Palavers

On Sunday, December 29th the sweet clear notes of reveille were echoing among the trees when the column again got in motion; the long line of carriers wending their way like a long moving snake as they followed the sinuous windings of the path through the bush. As we left the camp the strains of a plantation hymn came stealing through the trees from the West Indian lines, reminding us it was Sunday. These men show a national trait in their fondness for hymns and part songs, and well they sing too, though some of their songs are coarse. They are outwardly very pious, and on the "Loanda," en route for Cape Coast, being unable to sleep much, they were singing the lowest songs till midnight on Saturday, when the theme instantly changed to the Church Service which they chanted till 3 a.m. without intermission. Quietness then reigned till daylight, when they started the service again from beginning to end, mingled with many well-known hymns, this being kept up all day. Sunday and its observances, with them, is a mere outward form to be adopted for a fixed period, ie, from twelve pm. Saturday till twelve pm. Sunday.
   The road between Mansu and Kwaita was rough, but remarkably open on one side, and frequently intersected with large streams. The bridges over these were very crude, being simply three or four huge trunks thrown across, but the water was shallow in most instances, and easily forded by the natives. Crossing one of these bridges, Prince Henry's largest donkey came to grief, getting his foreleg fixed firmly between two trunks. The niggers would soon have made short work of it, for being afraid to approach too near, a dozen started to pelt the poor brute with stones in the hope of making it struggle to its feet. It vainly kicked and plunged, and must have broken its leg had not Major Ferguson arrived on the scene and stopped their pranks. Even then he could not induce the niggers to approach and lift the poor beast up, and he had to wait till others arrived, when half a dozen willing hands lifted Jack from his awkward position. These donkeys were the cause of much cogitation on the part of the bush people, and for once the much despised ass evoked a considerable amount of anxious interest and fear. An animal whose voice will beat even the roar of a lion is certainly a marvellous creature, and we were much amused when passing through a village in which the headman and numerous suite were seated in state to receive the white men. Suddenly the donkeys appeared on the scene, marching in solemn file. At once the regal party were visibly agitated, being half inclined to bolt, but they bravely sat, however, awaiting the approach of the animals, till a glorious bray broke the stillness of the forest, and chief, wives, courtiers and children, fled precipitately, overturning stools, and throwing aside every article in their flight. Nor did they stop till they were far from the source of danger.
   Much is said on the coast of the tsetse-fly whose bite is so fatal to domestic animals, but the donkeys seemed to suffer little inconvenience from this cause; the total lack of forage seems to be a greater drawback to their introduction.
   Passing up a rugged incline through Akrofuma, we reached Suta at 10 a.m., and halted for a couple of hours. The surrounding country is beautiful, and though the so-called bush is a misnomer, the trees having attained a sufficient height and density to fully exhibit the majestic beauties of a tropical forest, the landscape is bright, with plenty of sun and sky, which quite removes the feeling of solemnity and gloom experienced in the dense forest further north.
   Passing through several villages, we reached Assin Yan Comasse just before sundown, after a trying march of twenty-two miles over an indifferent road. The long journey had severely taxed the endurance of the carriers, who straggled much on the way, and dragged themselves wearily into camp one by one, at all hours of the evening. At last all the loads had safely arrived but one, which was, as chance would have it, a bundle containing my only changes of clothes. Tired of waiting, I walked into the bush to see if there were any traces of the missing man, or the kit lying by the road-side, but after going a long distance fruitlessly, I began to retrace my steps. The sun set suddenly, and darkness came on, so my return journey was difficult and protracted, through swamp, and over fallen trunks, rocks, and other obstacles. In the solemn stillness of these vast forests at night, there is an awesome and appalling feeling of loneliness and depression that will not be shaken off. In the denser part of the bush it was impossible to see a foot ahead, but the dead stillness was occasionally broken by a dismal howl from a jackal, or the rustle of leaves, as some animal wended its way on a nocturnal prowl.
   Hearing a breaking of twigs, and the creaking that denoted the approach of a human being, I stood in the shade on the edge of a large roadside pool, and in a moment a native figure, clad in white robes, cautiously emerged from the gloom of the trees, and proceeded to fill a chattie from the pond. The outline of his figure was shown in relief on the gleam of the water, and from his large head-dress and flowing robe he might have been a Mohammedan Priest, but for the long spear in his hand and sword in his girdle. I stepped out of the shadow suddenly, when the figure with a bound reached the bush and disappeared among the trees.
   On return to camp there were no signs of the missing kit; my clothes were sopped through with perspiration and dew, and passing a night under such circumstances is not only uncomfortable, but well calculated to give one the necessary chill for a dose of malarial fever. In a country where the difficulties of transport are many, no one takes more than their absolute requirements, but happily I found one Good Samaritan in the person of Mr. Ward, of the "Pall Mall Gazette" who had a spare rig, of which he generously gave me the loan.
   On Monday, December 30th, the Staff halted for the day at Assin Yan Comasse; Prince Christian and Major Piggott going on to Prahsu, about sixteen miles distant. Captain Benson had got his Artillery mobilised in camp, and during the day the contingent was inspected by Sir Francis Scott. They marched into the bush with guns slung, carriages in pieces, and carried on natives' heads, making a brave show with the long train of ammunition bearers. The order was given to come into action, and the whole movement was done in splendid style. In an instant each man deposited his load in its place, guns and wheels were unslung from the poles, ammunition placed handy, and on the carriers retiring to the rear, the Houssa detachments, each in charge of a smart Royal Artillery sergeant, had the guns mounted, rocket tubes fixed, and all in readiness within one minute after the first order was given. This display of efficiency was a great credit to Captain Benson and his subalterns; one of whom was Captain de-Hamel, a well-known officer of the Londonderry Artillery, also Captain Irvine, Donegal Artillery, and Captain Hawtrey, 4th Royal Munster Fusiliers.
   The gunners were evidently ready to give a good account of themselves should occasion require, though with the native carriers there is the fear of stampede or confusion when really under fire, and at such a time disorder may prove fatal to the best efforts of the officers and troops.
   A big drumming and commotion in the distance plainly bespoke another palaver. Kings are as plentiful in Africa as Colonels on the other side of the "herring pond," and everyone was heartily sick of the constant palaver on palaver, all to no purpose, though it is most impolitic to refuse such honours, and the officials have to endure them with inward groanings but smiling exterior.
   passage to England, how differently he is received. His arrival and subsequent doings are duly chronicled by the Press; he dines with my Lord Mayor, and is petted and pampered to a degree that plainly shows how little African royalty is consonant with European ideas. The young kinglets that yearly come over to this country for education seem to move freely in superior circles of Society, and they are specially patronised by moneyed nobodies, whose snobbish instincts revel in the fact of having a real live Prince in their train, though he comes from a stock of brutal niggers that no person could see in their natural state, without horror and disgust. Yet with all the luxury and civilisation that is crowded into them in England, the majority of these, when they have exhausted their finances, return to the old habits, with a bit of print and a swish hovel as evidences of the very thin veneer civilisation has put over their patrimonial barbarism. It is a common thing in Africa to find young chiefs who have been educated in England, but have now thrown off the trammels of civilisation, and are living in a blissful state of barbarity that would vie with any of their less enlightened subjects.
   The King who turned up that afternoon for palaver was Attafuah, King of Akim, a more important personage than many of the same species who abound in the vicinity. His retinue was large and influential, and he was well aware of the fact. Had not his Prime Minister a large bunch of old rusty keys tied to his girdle? Was not the royal stool studded with brass-headed nails, and had he not a few rusty old flint lock guns in his possession?
   They formed a dusky but picturesque crowd as they were grouped beneath the shade of three enormous umbrellas of silk and leopard skin. And after a short prelude on three drums, all skull-bedecked, the business started. The King had a long yarn to spin about Prempeh, and complained that many of his people had gone to the 'Shanti country to collect rubber, and had never returned, having been sacrificed in Kumassi. Sir Francis informed the king and his chiefs that he was going to Kumassi to enforce the demands of Queen Victoria, that Ashanti would be annexed, and the country opened up for trade. His remarks made an evident impression on the assembled chiefs, and then Prince Henry of Battenberg was introduced to the King as the husband of the Queen's daughter. All the chiefs, headmen and commoners immediately got on tip-toe to get a glimpse of His Royal Highness, and by their expression, they were evidently disappointed. That a Royal Prince! Why, he was wearing his own sword, instead of having a sword bearer, and worse still, holding a small white umbrella over his own head; then he had no slaves, no stool bearers, and no war drums! He did not come up to their African ideas of royalty, and they could not understand a Prince laying aside all considerations due to his rank, and sharing the same hardships and dangers as the rest of the force. A fawn was afterwards sent to Prince Henry from the King as a present, and the Akims took themselves away; King, noise, and stench.
   On Tuesday, December 31st, we were all on the alert before sunrise. Major Ferguson was always one of the first up, and, with his able assistant Quartermaster Sergeant Toye, gave an eye to the arrangements for moving camp. Sir Francis Scott also was always ready to move with the lark, and little time was lost in the early morning. The scene at sunrise was an animated one, all the carriers bustling about, the native servants working or pretending to work, and the officers superintending the packing of their things till, everything ready, the march was resumed. Meanwhile, the light would be rapidly increasing; the thick miasma moving slowly up till the top of the trees were visible, over which the orb of day soon rose and beat down relentlessly.
   The first village on the road to Prahsu is Anowia, which contains a curious fetish house. My presence so alarmed the priests and little group of men whom I disturbed when I entered the compound that I did not push my investigations too far, but the fact of my being in the vicinity was regarded as gross sacrilege. Some of the carvings done in red and black clay were very well executed, the chief one representing the male and female figures, denoting the important genital symbol of fetishism, but a glimpse of the interior of the house revealed nothing more interesting than some medicine heaps and earthen pots containing food offerings for the gods.
   The fetish religion flourishes in many different forms throughout the whole of Western Africa, and seems to consist mainly of the worship of the immaterial, existing, or supposed to exist, in material things. Thus, any odd article may contain some marvellous virtue. An old wooden doll, a horn, a tooth, a bit of snake skin - all may be endowed by a hidden power, transmitted through the medium of a fetish priest, to cure diseases, bring good luck, wealth or happiness, on the lucky owner; or on the other hand, to call down ruin and destruction on the head of an enemy. If a charm refuses to act, the native loses no faith in fetish, but knows the influence of his charm is counteracted by the more powerful charm held by some enemy, who is bent on acting against him. This gives the fetish priests abundant opportunity to impose on the credulity of the people. Present after present is exacted and cheerfully given to enable the priest to propitiate the gods in the suppliant's favour. More potent charms are purchased till the priest has extracted as much as he thinks prudent, and if natural means have not brought about a satisfactory ending, the trusting victim is told that there is a combination of fetish spirits joined against him, whose influence no power can break.
   The consultation of the Fetish constitutes one of the most remarkable ceremonies possible, and animals are frequently sacrificed in the Protectorate in lieu of human beings. If a man feel ill, the fetish priest, or medicine man, is consulted. Should he think the illness slight, he demands a large present, and mutters some incantation which causes the evil spirit to take its departure within the next day or two. Should the case appear unsatisfactory, he is clever enough to procrastinate, reserving judgment till the symptoms are more developed or decreased. If he fears the illness will be fatal, he is at once endowed with so keen a sense of perception that he sees whole strings of spirits joining hand to rob the sick one of life. He is not quite disheartened, and accepts all the presents he can get to try and break the circle of uncanny influence. Should the patient recover, "Wonderful Fetish man." If he die, "Bad patient to make the spirits combine so strongly against him that even the priest's efforts are unavailing." To the dark native mind the fetish priest is as infallible as the old clock of Jedburgh, for though the sun or moon might be a few minutes wrong, that old timepiece never varied a minute.
   A novice wishing to devote himself to the service of the gods must have sufficient goods, or influence, to open the eyes of the chief priest to the fact of his being endowed with the supernatural powers, and if a would-be priest is rich or influential it is wonderful how the gods swoop suddenly down and put the spirit of divination on him. There are many classes of deities, and the novitiate has to work himself into a frenzy in the presence of all the tribe, with emblems of the different gods grouped in the centre. The wily old priest, previously bribed, watches till he sees the dancing convert approach the pre-arranged symbol, when he immediately declares that the spirit has attracted the subject toward it, and henceforth he must devote all his services to that god.
   A Fetish priest is not held accountable for any actions when the spirit of divination comes over him. He is at perfect liberty to violate most sacred laws, and indulges in fearful enormities. There is little need to add that everyone is careful to conciliate the holy man, or surely a speedy vengeance descends on their innocent heads when next he becomes inspired. It is also surprising how quickly a fit of piety will come upon him if he has cause for offence. On the coast, religion is often simply a mixture of Christianity, the Koran and fetish mixed; the last named usually predominating. Fetishism is deeply imbued, missionaries have introduced Christianity, and the intercourse with Mohammedans has left traces of the religion of the faithful; but many of the Negroes follow a compromise between the three, which makes a curious combination.
   Barraku was reached about midday, the latter part of the march being particularly hot and trying. After a halt for lunch and the issue of chop to the carriers and hammock boys, the march was resumed through Dumassi, a large hamlet which contained some of the best clay houses to be seen on the way up. Some of these residences even boasted of roughly-carved wooden doors, swinging on common iron garnets; an advance in civilisation which few of the natives in the enlightened precincts of Cape Coast have arrived at; for many there are quite satisfied with holes in the wall for the double purpose of door and window.
   Nearing Prahsu the track gradually widened, and the road into the wretched village was a well-made level highway, with extensive clearings on each side used as squatting camps for carriers. These places were in a very clean state, considering the large numbers of natives constantly using them, or they might have been a serious nuisance and source of danger to health in camp. Prahsu village is now a miserable collection of mud huts, though at one time it was a town of fair size. It derives its name from the river Prah; the suffix "su" meaning "resting on" or "built on." This termination is very common in West Africa, and thus Fumsu means, town on the Fum River, likewise Bannisu on the Banni, Mansu on the Man, and several others. Unfortunately such nomenclature often causes confusion, as there are possibly three or four towns on the same river, and all therefore named in the same way. The system of naming towns after their situation or some special feature, is also extended far beyond rivers; duplicate names being very common in consequence.

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