Ch 3: Of Customs and Culture

Many were the queer customs and bizarre ceremonies that I daily witnessed in the streets, in which the ugliness and boniness of the semi-nude hags that jumped and yelled, did not tend to remove the sense of disgust felt amid such scenes of downright savagery. Numbers of the women had fetish to perform as their husbands had gone to the war, and one most singular custom was to make clay with their saliva, and anoint their shoulders and face with stripes of white mud each day.
   Before the authorities interfered, a wedding marked one of the most disgusting orgies that it is possible to imagine. In one part of the ceremony, the young virgin was stripped quite naked, and carried round the streets loaded with jewels, till the multitude had gloated its eyes on the maiden, who was then conducted to the house of her husband, accompanied by the howling scum of the place. The one wedding that took place in the town while I was there, was a very different affair, for the hymeneal pair belonged to the select upper ten of Cape Coast Society, and were therefore married in orthodox European fashion, or in a near approach to it. The service was conducted in the little English Church by a native clergyman, the bride being attired in a flowing white veil and crimson satin gown, the bridegroom in faultless European dress. The church was crowded by the wealth and beauty of Cape Coast upper classes, the youths chiefly in European clothes, and many comely maidens decked in full dress, or rather undress, of the latest native fashion, which allows no costume above the waist, unless a few rows of beads around the neck could be thus described. When the ceremony was over, the happy pair bowed themselves down the aisle to the door, and entering a hand gig, were soon whirled, amid clouds of dust, by a dozen willing pairs of arms, to the bride's residence. Owing to the difficulties of travelling, honeymoons are necessarily dispensed with.
   The next afternoon was marked by an even more lively ceremony, to wit a funeral. For two days previously a monotonous chant and tom-tom beating had been kept up in the native quarter, and the reason was explained when a horde of men and women appeared, dancing and shouting to the accompaniment of the everlasting drums and horns, and bearing in their midst the body of a minor fetish priest, rolled in a shroud. With much din and hubbub was the gruesome burden taken to the beach, where a disgraceful scene was enacted. The body appeared to be used for a tug of war between two parties, each scrambling for the possession of the corpse, and racing it through the surf, and many were the capers cut with the remains before they were laid to rest in the native burying place. This ceremony constituted some of the obsequies of the water fetish, the ocean being worshipped right down the coast. In some out-of-the-way places human sacrifices to the water still take place. A young girl is tied to a stake at low water, for the rising tide to sweep her away, unless a shark ventures in to seize the prey before the sea comes up.
   The sunrise of December 24th was heralded by a fearful din in the town, and on enquiring the reason of the hubbub from a dignified gentleman of colour, who condescended to act as a clerk to the Government, I was told that it was “Christmas Eve” in a tone that plainly showed how I was to be pitied for my ignorance, though it was only just 7 a.m. The natives keep up the day before Christmas in grand style, but it is only a forerunner of the day that is to come. In the terrible heat of West Africa there is nothing suggestive of the festive season, and the bare idea of Christmas seems a glaring incongruity in the un-English surroundings. The natives have copied Europeans in making a general holiday of this season, but their notions of "Peace on Earth and Good Will to Man" take the form of a disgraceful debauch, and settlement of private feuds. Should any resident in Cape Coast, be he black or white, have given offence to any person, he is always on the alert at Christmas time. The individual wronged quietly nurses his injuries till this holiday when, inflamed with spirits, he remembers his insult, and accompanied by a crowd of friends, lies in wait for his victim, who gets a severe mauling with sticks and fists should he fall into the clutches of the mob. Probably the intended recipient is warned, and as a precaution takes a bodyguard of partisans with him, and many a sanguinary faction fight takes place on the coast during the season we look on as Divine Bands of young men and maidens in the scantiest costumes, paraded the town all day, but sunset was the signal for the orgies to commence in good earnest. The streets were packed; the din unbearable; drums and tom-toms of every description were beaten, the night air being rendered hideous by the screeching of native horns, penny trumpets and tin whistles, without regard to time or tune, and all the niggers were more or less maddened with excitement and drink as they danced, screamed and howled in mad frenzy. Skinny old hags were grinning hideously, revealing their toothless gums; nude children hopping inextricably between the legs of their elders, and the men dashing about madly with coloured fires and torches in their hands. Squibs and crackers were also flying in all directions, for the surplus fireworks of our English November festival are shipped to the coast for December, and the Saturnalian celebration was indeed pandemonium let loose.
   A Government clerk, a gentleman of colour, had sent me a written invitation to a ball to be held in the town that evening. Enclosed was a ticket with my name written across, and as a friend of mine, an English trader, had promised to drop in, I decided to go. The wording of the letter was decidedly ambiguous, but I grasped the gist of it, and in due course set out. Being a white man, the doorkeeper did not attempt to collect any subscription, and I was ushered into the ball room, a spacious whitewashed chamber above a large trading store.
   A giddy waltz was in progress, but just as I entered, the band ceased, and the afore-mentioned clerk introduced me with much ceremony to mine host, a fat, greasy nigger, in a tolerable dress suit and pumps, shipped expressly for the occasion from England. As I gazed down the ball-room the gaudy vision and coloured magnificence of that brilliant assemblage dazzled me, for the colours of the rainbow were not in it. The dusky beaux were arrayed in coats and waistcoats of satin of every shade and pattern, with a wide expanse of shirt-front; their nether extremities cased in black and coloured stockings and the orthodox pumps. The ladies were redolent with patchouli, and magnificently attired in silk and satin wrappers of most brilliant hues, and more modest proportions than usual. Hair oiled and dressed in spikes or knobs, and bedecked with gaudy artificial flowers or glaring pins, stuck fantastically into every corner, and their ebony complexions, not painted and powdered, as soot would be the only preparation suitable, but heightened and polished by fish oil, which gives a beautiful finish, but vile effluvia. The ladies were all young and comely, most of them between fourteen and seventeen, after which age they are usually mothers of families and decidedly passe. The guests were leading residents of the town, coloured officials, native traders and clerks, all absurdly dignified and scrupulously polite. The grandiloquence of the males was the cause of much envy on the part of the ladies, and they vainly tried to emulate the fluency of their lords and masters, but invariably had to relapse into pigeon-English.
   The music was supplied by the drums and fifes of the Cape Coast Volunteers, and though it was possible to dance to the measured beat of the drums, the so-called harmony was simply a discordant fanfaronade. I was introduced to the principals, by mine host, with much flourish and flowery speech, while the compliments showered on my poor head by him, would have made the most brazen reprobate blush; but at last it was over, and the dancing re-started. Like an English ball-room, there were a number of "wallflowers," but not so much from the lack of eligible partners, as the fact of many prominent men bringing their wives and sisters, the former not being supposed to dance with any, save her lawful spouse, though he was free to lavish his attentions on any lady he pleased. I was earnestly pressed to pick a partner from one of these forlorn maidens, but my feelings of gallantry were not sufficiently strong to go through the ordeal, though the waiting belles felt I was showing a total lack of good taste in failing to appreciate their respective merits.
   The dance had hardly started when there was a sudden disturbance. A certain gentleman was assiduously paying his attentions to a showy little damsel in the far side of the room, when "horrendum dictu," he suddenly noticed his wife, a modest-eyed maiden of fifteen, was dancing with another man, who, as subsequently proved, was her cousin. He quitted his partner instantly, and dashing across the room, roughly dragged his poor little slave aside, and with murder blazing in his eyes, faced the now enraged chevalier. Bursting with righteous indignation they could find no words to express themselves, but if looks would kill, both would have instantly departed this life. They found tongues at last simultaneously, and then ensued such a flow of rhetoric, in Fanti and English, that had I a speed certificate for Pitman's, I could never have kept pace with their tongues, neither would the report be fit for publication. Terrible were the maledictory threats and solemn imprecations hurled from side to side with much bombast of "blood alone wiping out the stain on their honour," till they were both exhausted, and turned away, about to resume the festivities.
   It is now my pleasant duty to record the gallant action of the one hundred and fifty guests who had crowded round the two principals while the uproar was on. The fierce arguments had hardly ended, when the crowd of friends heroically flung themselves in the breach, frantically holding apart the late combatants in the wordy war, begging them to desist, and not injure each other. The two heroes, finding it was now impossible to come to blows, immediately made a brave show of resistance, and piteously begged to be allowed to take summary vengeance, and fly at each other's throats. They vainly struggled to get from the grasp of the peacemakers, but when some of them seemed inclined to let the irate husband have his way, and loosed their hold, he was suddenly seized with an unalterable determination to pass it over that time, and reserve reprisals for a future date.
   It was a relief to get into the air again after the hot stuffy room, but in the streets the row had increased tenfold; the orgy was at its height, and the din unbearable. As we stood and looked into the lower part of the town, the glare of the torches and coloured fires, the sombre stillness of the surrounding bush, the hordes of nude savages flying madly around, and the different flares lighting up their naked bodies as they twirled and turned, made a most weird scene, and one could well imagine it was the very haunt of demons. We had hardly gone a hundred yards when, whiz! came an empty bottle past my ear, smashing on the road in front, another broke at my friend's feet, followed by a shower of stones, and it was lucky we had not discarded our helmets, for mine was knocked over my eyes by a large lump of flint, which would have smashed an unprotected head. We scrambled up the bank to dislodge our unknown assailants, who were lurking in the ruins of an old mud house, and when we rushed in, there was a dash and scuffle, as a dozen dusky figures clambered over the walls and were lost in the labyrinth of clay ruins. This little ambush was no doubt intended for some white man, and as we were of the same colour, they thought we should make as good recipients for such favours as the intended quarry, providing it gave vent to their pent-up feelings.
   As we got into the main thoroughfares the crowd became denser than ever, but we managed to push through into the Ashanti road where a fresh crowd was gathered, and some well-dressed nigger clerks greeted us with a string of insults. We took no notice till the rabble sent a volley of stones after us, when we turned on them, and I grasped my stick, expecting to be involved in the thick of a fight, but to my surprise the crowd melted, scattering in all directions; two hundred instantly put to flight by two white men. Our troubles were not yet ended, as in the square by the Wesleyan Mission Church, we encountered a fresh mob. In the centre were two more highly civilised Negroes in European dress, making melody on an old banjo and concertina, the crowd dancing round the centre pair, who were almost revered for their adoption of civilised attire. Wishing to make a further show of their vast superiority, they made various offensive remarks about white men, and finished it by shouting "You two white niggers, &c, &c." Had we passed on, the rabble, thus encouraged, would have sent a volley of stones after us, so we turned sharply, and made for the educated specimens, who precipitately fled, followed by the crowd running like a flock of frightened sheep, many falling over one another in the panic.
   Christmas day brought no relief from the row; the respectable few attended service, but the majority kept up the drunken debauch till night, when they ceased their noise from sheer weariness. So much for these wretched Fantis, who are practically useless, being the most cowardly, indolent, toil-hating tribe to be found on the coast.
   Among Negroes, conscience really does not seem to exist, unless the wholesome fear of the law, and its far-reaching arm when they have transgressed, can be so termed. They have no true sense of right or wrong in themselves, but know that if they are found out in certain things they will be punished, and keep a little straight in consequence, though they do not abstain from law-breaking for any moral sense of wrong. The Fantis have a terrible dread of the law and police, while the logical deductions which often enable the white commissioner to bring a crime home to a man, is looked on by many as the wonderful power of fetish; for their own dull brains can never put two and two together.
   When returning from Elmina early on Christmas evening, I saw a group of people gathered round a prostrate figure, while another man was tearing at his wool, and beating his forehead on the ground in a way that would be perfectly suicidal if other than a Negro’s thick skull were concerned. As I drew near, the man, hearing the approach of booted feet, sprang up with a cry and disappeared in the bush. I found a youth badly stunned, with blood oozing from his nose and mouth, and was told by an intelligent-looking Negro that the man who had dashed for the bush had beaten this youth on the head with a club. Thinking he had killed him, he was told by the crowd who had coolly watched the proceedings that the police would take him and he would be hanged. Not till then did he feel any compunction for his brutal conduct, but he at once set to work to kill himself rather than be captured, though he would have taken a long time to fracture that thick skull of his. He was, however, cutting his face badly on the gravel, till hearing a European tread, he made off.
   "Where has he gone? Why did you not stop him?" I asked. "Oh, Sah, he go to bush plenty far, but white man strong medecin find him ebbery where he go. Dat dere fool nebber escape, no fear ob dat." I did not seek to underrate their belief in the secret power of the white man and his Sherlock Holmes' methods of procedure when unravelling simple crimes.
   The feelings of maternity are strong among African women, and form a wonderful contrast to their utter indifference on all questions of morality. For two or even three years the mother's whole care is devoted to her little one, though probably she has one or even two more children before the first is weaned. Thus she slaves and never separates herself from them, and even when going through the most laborious occupations, one or two children will be suspended on her back, with their little heads alone showing over the tight folds of her wrap. Thus encumbered, she will trudge into the bush, and collect her supply of yams and plantains for the day's use. Many procure a second load, and trudge to market, with sixty or seventy pounds balanced on their head and child behind, to exchange the fruit for other wares. Yet these children soon return this marked devotion with perfect indifference, and when once they can do for themselves, the mother is treated as an absolute stranger.

Gold Coast Women

The brightness of these little savage children presents a striking contrast to the dull expressions of their elders. The active little boys and girls, with their naked bodies, fat corporations, and bright fearless faces, roll about in a perfect state of happy innocence. On seeing a white man they instantly stand to attention, gravely saluting, as they have seen the Houssas do to white officers. As you pass, there is a shrill little chorus, "A good h'evening, sah," "Good h'evening, sah"; you look round with a smile, and a dozen little paws are outstretched, "Dash me frepence, sah," "Dash me frepence." Who could resist such an appeal? You dash, i.e., give them a couple of threepenny bits to scramble for, that being the smallest coin current on the Gold Coast, and go on your way; but another hundred yards, a fresh group of urchins require "dashing," and it soon becomes wearisome. This charming naivete of character is lost as soon as childhood's days are past. There is little of the bloom of youth in Africa, especially with the women. Children develop at a very early age, and at thirteen or fourteen, the girl is married, and soon sinks under the degrading slavery of her position. The male degenerates by the life of apathy, and the excesses he indulges in, long before man's estate is reached.
   There is a newspaper on the Coast published at Accra, a weekly production - The Gold Coast Independent - of which the inhabitants of the coast towns are very proud. The price is threepence, for which you get two small sheets of large print. The modest aspirations of this delightful paper are "To create and foster public opinion in Africa, and make it racy of the soil." To accomplish this small task, which you are reminded of by the motto appearing in large type, in three different places, you pay threepence, and receive one column and a half devoted to an Ordinance, a copy of which could be seen posted up in a dozen places in the town, and the remainder of that page filled with a school report and remarks on Ashanti, taken from the Standard, of November 15th, 1895. Two pages of advertisements, and the last columns containing some startling information under the heading of "Latest War Intelligence," in which we are told "All people are taking much interest in the forthcoming war." "Many men from Axim are running into Cape Coast to see the troops land," &c, &c.
   The British trading companies on the Gold Coast have a white agent, and one, or perhaps two, white clerks to superintend the working of the staff of native assistants. The clerks are generally young men who hear of an opening on the West Coast of Africa, and immediately are filled with a romantic longing for a change. Visions of lion and elephant hunting, travels among cannibals, and a life of adventure, loom in the distance, and they engage for periods varying from two to three years, at a salary that is not munificent at home, and is certainly inadequate compensation for a life on the Gold Coast. They arrive fresh from home, and what a terrible disappointment is in store. Before a week has elapsed, they are longing to return, and after a few months on the coast, their energies have become impaired, and they go on in a mere sort of day-by-day existence, and hope dies within them.
   To spend three years in the pestiferous environs of a town like Cape Coast, with a miserable craven-hearted tribe like the Fantis, is little better than a living burial were the climate healthy; but the risk of health and life is also so great, that I should strongly advise those intending to accept a situation on the West Coast of Africa, to think well before they decide, and to take a small post in England, rather than an apparently good one in the tropics. If they manage to live three years, they return home broken in health, and probably ruined for life. With Government officials it is entirely different, as the conditions are better, the pay is good, and future prospects assured; with chances of seeing the surrounding country, and six months' leave in England, after every twelve months on the coast.

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