Ch 6: To Kumassi - the March Begins

On December 27th, the Headquarter Staff started for the front, Prince Henry and Major Piggott being first off, leaving Cape Coast Castle at 4 a.m. Sir Francis Scott left at 7 o'clock, accompanied by Prince Christian and the remainder of the Staff, except Colonel Ward, who was left to superintend the landing of the troops.
   For the first four miles the road was smooth and wide, the bush being a variegated mass of vegetation composed of small palms, green scrub, flowering creepers, lilies and acacia tangled together in a glorious profusion of colour, and rising shoulder high on either side of the road. As we mounted the densely-wooded hills that skirt the coast, the early morning sun was just gaining power and dispelling the mists; but white and glistening far below lay the town, already like a smouldering furnace, and we heaved a sigh of relief at the thought of the smells now left behind in that pestiferous place.
   After gaining the summit, the sun began to make its presence forcibly known, beating mercilessly down on our backs, and as there was not a vestige of shade, it was a relief to turn into a hammock. The regular jolting as the bearers step stolidly together makes reading or writing impossible, and is trying at first, but one soon grows accustomed to the motion, and a nap may be indulged in, if the bearers will only hold their tongues for a spell.
   The first rest camp was formed at Jaycuma, or Inquabim as it is often called. Prince Henry was waiting here for the other members of the Staff, who halted for breakfast and a short rest during the heat of the day. The camp was built in a clearing, and consisted of rows of roughly built huts for the use of the troops on the march. These shelters were about 40 feet long; a framework of bamboo covered with palm leaves interlaced, and kept in place by long strips of fibrous creeper. The interiors were fitted with long, gridiron shaped platforms, running from end to end, and made of six-foot strips of bamboo, tied to trestles at top and bottom. These formed a rough and knotty bed for the troops to spread their blankets, and if the couches did not err on the side of comfort, they at least saved the men from sleeping on the ground, and the palm leaf thatch effectually kept off the worst of the deadly night dew.
   Our rest was only a brief one at Jaycuma, for we were doing two ordinary stages each day to Prahsu, leaving the troops to march up in the short daily distances. "Chop", which, by the way, signifies any meal or food, being finished, we re-started on the road to Akraful.
   The road visibly narrowed, and as the level macadam developed into a rough track, with traces of recent widening for the advance of the expedition, the first impression that in this highway was at least one useful piece of work of the Colonial Government was rudely dispelled. Mr. Bennett Burleigh intended to ride to the Prah on a bicycle; perhaps he had made his decision after reading of this road in the official accounts, which, if they cannot lie, equivocate to a near degree; but I pity a cyclist scorching over such a track. To his credit, he pluckily managed to pedal to Mansu, in spite of ruts big enough to bathe in, and an occasional trunk resting serenely across the path, but at that village the “bike“ had to be abandoned. This was a pity. Judging from the effect on the coast niggers, who fled at its approach, had the valiant Burleigh taken his machine all the way to Kumassi, and entered the capital sounding his siren, his presence would have been more effectual in subduing the Ashantis than twenty Special Service Corps; for Prempeh and his merry men would have instantly succumbed at the apparition of such a powerful fetish giving its aid to the advancing white man.
   As we proceeded on the road, the bush increased in density, and in some places the trees, meeting overhead, formed a perfect archway and shelter from the sun, while huge cotton trees, with massive buttresses, reared majestically above the surrounding bush. The low dense undergrowth parted at intervals, opening into shady dells, containing stagnant pools, overhung with a choice profusion of flowering plants of all hues. In these lovely glades splendid and rare orchids abound, and a botanist can revel for hours in any one spot in an African forest. Floating on the surface of the water are various aquatic plants, and the beautiful African lily abounds; flocks of many coloured birds flit on the surrounding branches, brilliant lizards run up the trunks as one approaches, and myriads of glittering little creatures flit on the surface of the stagnant pools. What a glorious picture! How you would like to linger and revel in its beauties for ... Faugh! A loathsome smell assails your nostrils as you approach, and you instantly turn back to the road, inwardly vowing never to venture into these Elysian glades again. This deadly smell comes from the rotting vegetation of ages, that forms a rich strata in which all plants flourish luxuriantly, but it also charges the air with the germs of malaria that, sooner or later, act on the system of the white man who enters that fatal country, and it pulls him to the very verge of the grave, if he escapes with his life.
   Nearing Akraful the road widens, and as we reached the village, the smell of an extensive piggery played havoc on the olfactory nerves, making even the Sierra Leone hammock bearers break into a trot, with a vigorous hum to expel the noxious effluvia. All these villages are in a filthy state, the bush on the outskirts being terribly defiled; and the gangs of carriers passing to and fro had not improved matters in that respect. The natives seem impervious to smells, but the Sierra Leone men were an exception, though the odours in Freetown would want a deal of beating. Smart, active fellows, these Sierra Leone men are made for hammock carrying, with their flat heads and bull necks, and they have a stock of ready wit and repartee that would vie with any cockney 'bus driver, both for pointedness and vulgarity. All other tribes are as dirt to them, especially the cowardly Fanti.
   "Out de way, Fantee man!" "You Fantee fool! He no good 'tall, sah!" "Let us pass, you Fantee fool!" "Go to bush, you pig!" and woe betide the carrier who did not hastily step on one side to allow the hammock free progress, for the nearest bearer seized the offending nigger by the nape of the neck, and over he went, load and all, into the prickly scrub at the roadside. There were a few gangs of women carriers employed on the early stages of the march, and to these they were very polite and gentle. If we overtook a dusky beauty, the nearest bearer's arm was instantly placed round her waist to remove her gracefully on one side, after which he bestowed a smacking kiss on the ebony lips as he passed, and that without jarring his corner of the hammock, or losing his equilibrium.
   After hurrying through the village, we reached the second rest camp on the road, and halted for the night. The shelters here were similar to those already described at Jaycuma, the camp being in charge of a white officer and guard of the West India Regiment. The surroundings of this camp at Akraful were very beautiful, and as coconut palms abounded in the vicinity, we were able to refresh ourselves by a good supply of the green fruit, which contains a cool and luscious drink, long before the hard nut is formed inside.
   Our long strings of carriers were still straggling in, when the sun disappeared behind the high masses of foliage spreading around the clearing, but camp fires were soon blazing, cooking pots on, and everyone started to settle down and spend the first night in the bush as comfortably as possible under the circumstances. The water was a dirty brown hue, and very thick even after twice boiling, and passing through the crude but fairly effectual dripping pot system of filtration.
   There was a great difficulty in keeping shaved in the bush; some let their hirsute appendages flourish, others shaved clean every day, but the climate played havoc with razors, and shaving was an ordeal. I had one of the finely-ground "Mabs," however, and that kept in splendid condition, often shaving half-a-dozen in one day; for no one is particular in those things in the wilds. "He that hath, lendeth", is a universal maxim there.
   Here we had the first taste of the preserved Government vegetables, and they were very savoury, despite the ominous label, "Made in Germany". The latter fact gave rise to a deal of small talk among some would-be patriots at home, and even formed a theme for a question in the “House“; but as vegetables in this form are unobtainable in England, these busy-bodies could have easily turned their attention, with more profit, to the hundreds of articles that can be produced at home, but which are thrust out of the market by the inferior, if cheaper, products of the wily Teutons.
   The leafy thatch of the shelters served the double purpose of keeping off much of the dew, and harbouring myriads of lizards and small insects that invaded everything and everybody alike. The first few nights in the bush, sleep, to the novice, is impossible, for beside the tortures of prickly heat, various little pests persist in crawling over him, and inflicting a series of judicious but maddening nips and stings. Enormous crawlers, horny beetles, lizards and spiders occasionally drop from the thatch upon one's upturned face, and a deafening chorus is kept up incessantly till morning by thousands of crickets.
   A thick mist was hanging over everything when the march was resumed next day. The dew dropped from the trees like rain as we passed beneath them, and the musty smell of rank decaying vegetation was almost overpowering in the heavy humid atmosphere. Prince Henry was the first to start, and evidently believed in a morning constitutional, for he always tramped stolidly in front of his hammock for the first few miles, till the sun began to gain power. His bearers exchanged many glances of mutual satisfaction at their luck in being attached to so indulgent a master; for they thought it was done for their special benefit.
   The first two miles on the road to Mansu were very trying, but as we reached higher ground, things became more favourable, and the sun at last dissipated the miasma, and shone forth in all its glory and power. The soil right up from the coast is a bright red colour, and highly ferruginous, and the road is so strewn with quartz crystals that walking is difficult. This ferrous strata has a marked effect on compasses, the needles being tilted and rendered perfectly useless.
   In some places the water had risen right over the road, or had washed it away, but these gullies were being rapidly bridged over to facilitate the advance of the main body. The pools were a great temptation to the natives, who were panting and perspiring under their loads, and the moment they thought themselves unobserved, down went the burden, off came the scanty wrap, and in two seconds they were splashing about in the delightfully cool but stagnant water. Many of them deliberately stooped to drink deep draughts, ignoring the green slime on the surface, and the filthy state of the water from the constant washings; but the nigger argues, "I am thirsty. Thirst requires water, and if I cannot get it pure I must take it as it comes", and they arrive at all their deductions and rules of life by such simple but questionable logic. Numbers of natives die of dysentery, but it is chiefly caused through living on raw unripe fruit; and the consumption of this foul water, which would be death to a white man to drink unboiled, has no serious effect on them.
   Passing along the road we met many women returning from the forest with their day's stocks of yams and plantains. The Fanti carriers made short work of these, stripping every woman and child of their day's provisions which had only been gathered at the expense of much personal toil and trouble. One comely maiden, about 15 years of age, attempted to run into the bush, but some cowardly Fanti struck her a blow which knocked her down, and her head striking a tree, she lay helpless and half stunned. I heard her scream, but was not near enough to see who struck the blow, and when I arrived the poor little creature lay dazed and bleeding, while a dozen lusty Negroes were scrambling to get the biggest share of her stock, someone having even stripped her of her only print robe or wrap. So much for your civilised, educated and christianised natives of Accra and Cape Coast, where these cowards came from. Yes, my Exeter Hall friend - these are members of the black brotherhood you are so fond of pitying; and they would call themselves enlightened members too.
   Happily they were so absorbed in plunder that they did not hear my approach, and glad was I that a good stout cudgel was handy. The track was narrow, my hammock nearly blocked the way, while every stinging blow I struck filled me with unholy exultation, and before they had all got clear, my arm was powerless, and some of them were marked in a way they would not forget in a hurry. A little lime juice brought the poor girl round; her goods had all been dropped by the niggers in their flight, so she got back her stock intact, and the present of four bright new threepences to go on her necklace, made her forget her troubles. Little scenes like this speak volumes for the cowardly despicable nature of the Negro, even if he has been brought up and educated in a town, the seat of the Government and the home of the English official, missionary, and trader.
   We reached Dunkwa, the next rest camp, shortly before 10 o'clock. The huts and camp were similar to the previous ones, with sleeping accommodation for 500 troops provided. This halting place was only five miles from Akraful, and it was sixteen miles to the next camp at Mansu, thus giving the troops very unequal marches on succeeding days, but the water supply had much to do with the selection of sites at such awkward distances. After a brief halt for breakfast, we resumed the march at midday. The heat was intense, the path anything but shady, and many a poor carrier lay thoroughly exhausted on the wayside with his load beside him.
   We passed through several small hamlets, but all unimportant except Daman, which is a flourishing and dirty township. The only difference in these African villages is the size, for they all consist of a collection of mud huts, built on similar lines in a forest clearing; the people squatting on their hams, moodily dozing in the sun, and a few dozen naked children tumbling in the street with half a score of skinny fowls, and a few pigs. The women ran and hid themselves on the first approach of white men, but even these ebony daughters of Eve are inquisitive, and unable to restrain their curiosity, they could be seen furtively peeping through the holes and crannies in the mud-plastered walls. The young men had all been engaged at Mansu as carriers, but the old men squatted about and looked on with listless indifference, while hideous old hags grinned at us as they stood by the roadside, with short pipes between their toothless gums.
   Most of the villages have some horrible monstrosity which is assiduously pushed forward in full view of any passing stranger. Here was a woman with her face half eaten away by a loathsome disease, a ghastly and terrible picture to behold. At Dumassi, the next village, a boy was strutting about, perfectly nude, but his hair and skin of a sickly white hue, though his parents were niggers black as night; and his appearance was not improved by festering sores covering his body. In the centre of each of these forest townships are the palaver trees, with trimmed logs laid round under the shade of the spreading branches. The rustic seats are occupied by the “big men“ of the village, and the most solemn palavers take place in these leafy parliament houses, during which the most trivial questions are discussed with weighty argument and flowery speech, under the presidency of the local chief.
   The road dips suddenly as it crosses two valleys, with a low hill between. From the summit of this eminence a splendid view opened out, showing a vast stretch of vegetation extending on every side. The track in several places was washed away by previous floods, but the gaps had been roughly filled, or bridged with logs, by the advance party. Passing through some swampy districts, the road suddenly plunged into pitch darkness, as it passed through magnificent clumps of bamboo. These clumps may be viewed from a distance, their presence being distinguished by a soft cloudy outline of bluish-green vegetation, differing greatly from the surrounding masses of foliage. The darkness was intensified by entering into it suddenly from brilliant sunlight, and as each cluster of canes rises at first perpendicularly, and then curves gracefully over to interlace with the tops of the adjoining clumps, a series of beautiful archways are formed. The atmosphere thus closed in is so humid, and saturated with malarious vapour, as to be almost unbearable, and a feeling of relief is experienced as you again emerge into the light of day.
   The climate had already made its mark on our things, and every metal article was oxidized a few hours after cleaning, so that constant care alone prevented arms from being rendered useless. Pen nibs were rusted together, watches had refused to act, and my stock of paper, though carefully packed, was in a pulp from the damp, and this only our second day on the road.
   At 5 pm, we sighted Mansu, Prince Henry and Prince Christian being the first to arrive. It was a late hour when the whole of the carriers had come in, having straggled much on the road. Here was one officer vainly waiting for a change of clothes, another searching for his "chop" box, but all turned up safely at last.
   The camp at Mansu was larger than the previous halting places, as it formed the half-way depot to the advanced base at Prahsu. Three large compounds of bamboo formed the storehouses, and stewing in the heat during the previous fortnight, a little band of officers and non-commissioned officers had been working from morning till night, receiving the everlasting streams of carriers with stores, and organising fresh gangs to transport the loads to the Prah. Being an important station, a hospital of several beds had been built, and a field bakery was almost completed. A company of the West Indians formed the garrison.
   A few days previously, a West Indian private of the Mansu force was reported for insubordination by a sergeant, and sentenced to some trifling punishment. His trial was hardly over, when he seized his carbine, loaded it, and walking to the hut where his accuser sat writing, deliberately shot him. The ball struck the sergeant in the shoulder, completely shattering it, and going through the flimsy wall of the hut, it passed through the arm of a carrier who stood just outside. The sergeant's life was at first despaired of, but he subsequently recovered from his terrible injuries. Such an event happening on the opening of a campaign, requires no comment, and, unfortunately, the West Indian soldier is not always a model of good discipline, for with the best treatment he is a grumbler, easily aroused. In this case the would-be murderer was tried by civil power, and sentenced to seven years' imprisonment, but had he been tried by court- martial, under the rules of active service, he was liable to be shot. This latter sentence might have seemed harsh, but it would have had a salutary effect on other of his disaffected comrades, and the term of imprisonment he received was certainly a light one.
   Near Mansu there is a stream of quite respectable proportions, and the water free from the terrible Guinea worm. It was pitch dark when I heard of this pool, but immediately a longing for a refresher came over me, and as the feeling increased, I set out with a couple of niggers to act as guides. There was only a narrow track leading through the forest to this so-called lake, and that was fringed with tall grass that completely overshadowed the path, but after stumbling over various obstacles, a gurgling revealed the whereabouts of a stream. As I reached the bank, three dark figures rushed from the water; for this bathing place was set apart for Europeans, the natives having a strip lower down. There was a large patch of sand, clean, but infested with ants, and just as I had stripped, my guide suggested crocodiles. Reassured, however, by the presence of the three niggers two minutes before, I took a header into the inky darkness, only to run my head into, fortunately, soft mud at the bottom; the depth of the water had been exaggerated, for it was barely four feet deep. But what a treat that deliciously cool stream was, and how one revels in the luxury of sufficient water to wallow in, after some time on a very restricted allowance. The stream and its approaches were swarmed with thousands of fireflies, and the effect was both startling and beautiful. The trees met overhead on the higher reaches of the water where the stream was narrower, and swarms of these luminous little creatures flitted in the leafy avenue and settled on the branches, making a rare and wonderful display of nature's own fireworks.
   Sir Francis Scott had happily arrived in Mansu too late for the never failing palaver with the king of the place, though we were not so fortunate next day. I paid a visit to the huts forming the royal residence, but there was little of interest save some elaborate war drums covered with leopard skin, and bedecked with a goodly supply of skulls, dried ears and eyes. All these petty African kings seem to revel in an osteological collection that would form a pretty decent graveyard or a first-rate bone museum.
   Major Piggott who arrived with the staff at Akraful the previous day, returned to transact some business at Cape Coast the same evening. He arrived there at midnight, left again at 3 am. and reached Akraful soon after the Staff had started to Mansu. He pushed on, however, and arrived in camp during the afternoon, having established a record for hammock travelling. The double journey to Akraful, and then on to Mansu, made a total distance of 64 miles, almost without a break; a rate of transit that the hammock bearers would not appreciate too often.

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