Eileen K. Wade, The Piper of Pax:
The Life Story of Sir Robert Baden-Powell
, 1924


‘Crowns and thrones may perish Kingdoms rise and wane."
S. Baring-Gould.

The Ashanti Expedition—experiences of a native levy—the wages of a king the nigh] march to Bekwai—hoisting the British flag— how to avoid fever—Kantankye receives promotion.

IF you look at the map of the West Coast of Africa you will find about half-way down it a spot marked as Cape Coast Castle, Gold Coast. This is the gateway to the great forest country of Ashanti, which was to be the scene of B.P.’s next adventures.

The expedition of 1895-1896, in which he took part, was the fourth Ashanti campaign within fifty years. In his book, The Downfall of Prempeh, published at the conclusion of the expedition, B.P. has told the full story of it, and he gives as the main objects of the expedition the protection of the loyal tribes and the abolition of slavery and of human sacrifice.

Prempeh, the King of Ashanti, had "ever since 1874 stood in the way of civilisation, of trade and of the interests of the people themselves." At any rate, that was the British Government’s view of the situation, as voiced by Mr. Chamberlain.

B.P. stated in his book that: "In England we scarcely realise the extent to which human sacrifice had been carried on in Ashanti. In the first place the name Kumassi (the capital of Ashanti) means ‘The Death Place.’ The town possessed no fewer than three places of execution, one for private executions which was at the Palace, a second for public decapitations was on the parade ground; a third for ‘fetish sacrifices’ was in the sacred village of Bantama . . . the victims of sacrifices were almost always slaves or prisoners of war."

On November 13th, 1895, Major Baden-Powell received his orders to proceed on special service in connection with the proposed expedition to Kumassi, under Sir Francis Scott, and on the 23rd November he sailed from Liverpool in the B. & A.S.N. s.s. Bathurst. The boat called at Grand Canary and at Sierra Leone, from which place a telegram was sent forward to Cape Coast Castle requesting that a hundred reliable natives might be enrolled for service as Scouts. B.P. was to command these Scouts as part of his native levy, so he occupied himself on the voyage in drawing out a scheme for their organisation.

He had with him on the ship a book on the previous Ashanti Expedition of 1874, by Sir William Butler, called The Story of a Failure. It described how Sir William had raised a native levy among the Krobo tribe and organised it with twelve white officers. He took this force up country with the remainder of Lord Wolseley’s column, but for the attack on Kumassi he was ordered to move by a separate path to outflank the enemy. The day before the battle he found himself, with his twelve officers, deserted by his Krobos.

It was from the experience of this officer that B.P. stipulated that his levy should be formed of as many different tribes as possible, so that when one lot mutinied he would still have others on his side.

On December 13th the expedition disembarked at Cape Coast Castle, and B.P. got to work on the collection of his natives and the distribution of their various duties.

On 14th December he noted in his diary:

"Engaged Mr. Cathline as interpreter. Sent for Chief Ando of Elmina to confer on arms, etc., in store at Prahsu. Interviewed King Matekouley of the Krobos. He produced 50 fighting men ready to march to-morrow, 15th inst., and stipulated that they should receive subsistence and that he himself should have a hammock and carriers. His remaining 265 to be ready to march on 16th under Captain Graham. Chief Ando of Elmina expressed himself willing to accompany me as adviser and to bring 25 picked warriors should H.E. the Governor personally desire him to do so."

15th December.—"Sir F. Scott saw King Matikoli. H.E. and Sir F. Scott saw Chief Ando. The following numbers and rates of pay for native levies under my command were then determined upon:

100   Adansis under Chief You Bin.
315   Krobos under King Matikoli.
25   Elminas under Chief Ando.
100   100 Winnebahs under Captain Brew.
Pay—         £ s. d.  
1   King at 10/- a day     0 10 0  
4   Chiefs at 7/6     1 10 0  
6   Captains at 2/-     0 12 0  
530   Men at 9d     19 17 6  

To these numbers there were afterwards added four companies of Adansis, two of Bekwais and one of Abodoms, making the total strength of B.P.’s natives up to 860. Their work on the expedition was to scout ahead and on the flanks, to clear the bush, make roads and base camps for the main army of some 10,000 men coming up behind.

The assembling of an army of West Coast natives was not so easy a task as it is to write the numbers down on paper. The kings and chiefs of the country were better at making promises than at carrying them into effect, and it required both "a smile and a stick" to deal with these "wobblers."

A parade of 500 men had been promised by noon on December 16th Here is B.P.’s account of what actually happened:

16th December, Noon.—" The parade ground outside the castle lies an arid desert in the midday sun and the sea breeze wandereth where it listeth. Not a man is there. It is a matter then for a hammock ride through the slums of the slum that forms the town. Kings are forked out of the hovels, where they are lodging at the end of a stick; they in their turn rouse out their captains, and by two o’clock the army is assembled. Then it is a sight for the gods to see Captain Graham (nicknamed ‘The Sutler’) putting each man in his place…. If it were not for the depressing heat and the urgency of the work one could sit down and laugh to tears at the absurdity of the thing, but under the circumstances it is a little wearing. But our motto is the West Coast proverb, ‘Softly, softly, catchee monkey.’ In other words, ‘Don’t flurry, patience gains the day.’ It was suggested as a maxim for our levy of softly-sneaking Scouts, but we came to adopt it as our guiding principle, and I do not believe that a man acting on any other principle could have organised a native levy on the West Coast—and live. Gradually out of chaos order comes. Kings and chiefs are installed as officers, and the men are roughly divided into companies under their orders."

Each man was then served out with a red fez with a black tassel. The regiment, after being inspected by H.E. the Governor and Colonel Sir Francis Scott, moved off on the first stage of its march to Prahsu under B.P.’s command, with Captain Graham, D.S.O., of the 5th Lancers, as second in command.

17th December.—" Marched with my command from Eqkuma 6 a.m., arriving Akrofu 8.45. After two hours’ halt proceeded to Dunkwa (total 11 miles). Mustered, checked loads. paid subsistence money.

Thus the march proceeded from day to day, until on the 22nd December the native levies crossed the Prah, thus doing in seven days what it had taken Wolseley sixty days to accomplish in the expedition of 1873.

It is interesting to compare B.P.’s experience with his levies with that of Wolseley in the earlier campaign. In 1873, after one month’s fighting experience, Sir Garnet Wolseley wrote home telling of the "miserable behaviour of the native levies and of the urgent necessity for the reinforcement of British troops."

A contrast was B.P.’s report in 1896 that his native Scouts "have proved highly efficient and done excellent work.”

Five days after crossing the Prah, B.P. and his men had cleared their way through the bush and established themselves in camp at Akusirem, within thirty-five miles of Kumassi. This bush-cutting business, of course, made progress rather slow, and was attended by many difficulties.

"Twisting and turning," wrote B.P., " now up, now down, clambering over giant tree roots or splashing through the sucking mud—all in moist and breathless heat, till tired and dripping, we reach the next site for a camp. Two hours’ rest for midday ‘ chop ‘ (food) and then parade. More delays, more excuses, and at last every man has his tool issued to him, and every company has its work assigned to it. No. 1 to clear the bush. No. 2 to cut stockade posts. No. 3 to cut palm leaf wattle. No. 4 to dig stockade holes. No. 5 to mount sentries and prevent men hiding in huts; and so on until everyone is at work.

‘Hallo, where are the hole diggers?’

‘They have retired to have some chop.’

‘Chop? They’ve only just finished two hours of chop.’

‘Yes—but the white chief works them so hard that they have big appetites.’

‘They—and you, their chief, will all be fined a day’s pay.’

‘Yes, well, the white man is powerful. Still we prefer that to not having our chop. Many thanks.’

‘Oh, but you’ll have to work as well. See this little instrument? That’s a hunting crop. Come, I’ll show you how it can be used. I’ll begin on you, my friend!’

No need to. They all fly to their work. Then you go round. Every company in turn is found sitting down or eye-serving.

‘Down with that tree, my lad. You with the felling axe! Not know how to use it?’

"For three days I felled trees myself till I found that I could get the tree felled equally well by merely showing the cracker of the hunting crop. The men had loved to see me work. The crop came to be called ‘Volapuk’ because it was understood by every tribe. But though often shown it was never used.

"The bush clearing company are sitting down. Not a yard of bush cut. ‘Why?’

‘Oh, we are fishermen by occupation, and don’t know anything about bush cutting.’

"The bush soon comes down nevertheless, and, what is more wonderful, by sunset there is an open space of some seven or eight acres where this morning there was nothing but a sea of bush jungle. Large palm-thatched sheds have sprung up in regular lines, and in the centre stands a nearly finished fort, with its earth rampart bound up by stockade and wattle. Within it are two huts, for hospital and storehouse. Trains of carriers are already arriving with hundreds of boxes of beef and biscuit to be checked, arranged, and stored. At sunset sounds the drum, the treasure box and the ledger are opened, and the command comes up for pay.

‘First Company, how many men present?’

‘Sixty-eight, Sir.’

‘But it has only got fifty-nine on its establishment.’

‘Next Company ? ‘

‘All here, Sir, but some few men away sick—and two he never come.’ And so on and so on. At last it is over except that a despatch runner comes in with a telegram, forwarded from the last telegraph station, to ask from Cape Coast Castle offices immediate reason why the men’s pay list has been sent in in manuscript instead of on Army Form O-1729."

Perhaps the most exciting incident of the expedition was the night march of the flying column to Bekwai.

The King of Bekwai, a tributary of Kumassi, sent messengers to Sir Francis Scott, saying that he wished to come under the British flag, but that protection must be sent at once, as otherwise he would be taken by King Prempeh and executed as a traitor.

It fell to B.P., therefore, to organise a flying column, which, cutting its way through the nine miles of bush by night, surrounded Bekwai Palace on the following morning and hoisted the British flag there.

In this night march’ B.P.’s force had actually got round the enemy who were in position at Essian Qwanta to resist any advance. It was a game of hide-and-seek, and the hiders "got home." In the morning the enemy found that instead of attacking them in front, where they expected it, B.P.’s force was behind them and had cut them off from any help from Bekwai —whom they counted as an ally—and was likely to cut them off from getting back to their main body at Kumassi. So they fled, and the road was thus left open for the main British force to come along without opposition. This was really the turning point of the expedition.

This is how the Chief Scout describes the flag hoisting ceremony:

"African monarchs are hard to hurry, but there was much business to be done, and business on an expedition such as this has to be done quickly. So that, after several messages requesting the King’s wishes as to where and when the ceremony of hoisting should take place, I had the staff set up in a spot of my own choosing, paraded my force and sent to tell the King that all was ready. This had the desired effect in the end, although the guard of honour of Houssas and of the B.P. Scouts had some time to wait before the din of drums and horns and the roaring of the crowd told that the royal procession was on the move. Presently it came in sight—a vast black crowd surging and yelling round the biers on which the King and chiefs were borne. Above and around them twirled the great state umbrellas. In front were bands of drummers with small drums. then dancing men who leaped and whirled along, fetish men in quaint head-dresses, drummers with kettledrums, trumpeters with their jaw bedecked ivory horns, and then the great war drums carried shoulder high and hung with skulls which were, however, for this occasion covered with a strip of cloth signifying that it was a peace ceremony. There were the King’s court criers with their tiny black and white caps, running before; and behind there rushed the crowd of slave boys carrying their masters’ stools upon their heads. The roar and the drumming became intense as the procession came rushing up the road— for it moved at a fast pace—and the umbrellas whirling and leaping gave a great amount of life and bustle to the scene. At last the throne and chair were set and the people marshalled by degrees into some kind of order. I then offered to the King the flag with all its advantages, which the King, with much spirit in his words, eagerly accepted….

"The King then moved from his seat to the flagstaff. Though it was but a few paces the move involved no small amount of ceremony. The umbrella had to be kept twirling over him while the bearer moved only on the ball of the foot. Men went before to clear every stick and straw from the royal path. The fetish man, in a handsome Red Indian kind of feather head-dress and a splendid silver belt, appeared to bless the scene. One man supported the King by holding his waist, and was himself similarly supported by two or three others in succession behind. Another mopped the King with a handkerchief, while boys armed with elephants’ tails kept off stray flies from the royal presence. The King was dressed in a kind of patchwork toga with a green silk scarf, on his head a small tortoiseshell cap, and on his wrists, among the pendant fetish charms, he wore some splendid bracelets of rough gold nuggets and human teeth.

"In all his barbaric splendour the King moved up to the flagstaff. The flag was at the masthead in a ball, and as he pulled the halyard that let it fall out in long gaudy folds, the band of the Houssas struck up ‘ God Save the Queen ‘ and the troops presented arms.

"The King made a gesture as of going to sleep, with his head on his hand, and said that under that flag he should remain till he died…. Later in the day the King and chiefs came in procession and called upon the British officers. This consisted in their filing past, bowing to each officer, and holding his hand out as if to bless him—the greater chiefs shaking hands."

With B.P. himself the King shook hands three or four times over, and even went so far as to dance a few steps—a thing almost unheard of for one of his dignity and intended as a very special compliment to his deliverer.

This all sounds to us like a sort of dream or fairy tale, nevertheless it is a true description of what took place at Bekwai.

But it was not the intention of the flying column to give the King something for nothing. He had to pay for his deliverance by providing men for B.P.’s army, and, after much "palaver" and threats on the part of the British to remove his newly found protection, the King provided a large party of carriers to join the force.

This piece of good Scouting had cleared the way for the main body to follow up, and on January 17th the white forces entered Kumassi by the main route, while B.P. and his levies also entered by side tracks.

So that within one month of landing on the Gold Coast the British were in occupation of Prempeh’s capital, without bloodshed or disorder. It was then comparatively easy to complete the work in hand.

The story of Prempeh’s surrender, of the occupation of his palace, of the capture of the Execution Bowl which had received so many innocent heads, of the total destruction of Bantama, of the horrible discoveries in the execution grounds, and other details which at first seem too gruesome to be possible, have all been written down elsewhere by the Chief Scout himself. They are not things to dwell on, but it is only by learning of them that we can realise how necessary was this expedition and what good work was thereby accomplished.

The Execution Bowl—an enormous brass bath—was brought home by B.P. and lent to the Royal United Services Exhibition Museum, where it may be seen to this day.

The return march to Cape Coast Castle was a more difficult task than the advance on Kumassi, because there was no longer any hope of a fight ahead to buoy the spirits of the weary marchers. They were weighed down with rounds of ammunition which— thanks to the good organisation of the undertaking— had never been required, and they had only themselves and their discomforts to think of.

On January 20th, Prince Henry of Battenburg, who was serving with the main force, died of fever—"a martyr, if ever there was a martyr, to his sense of duty," commented B.P. in his diary. Fever was rife in that hot, airless forest country, and both Captain Graham, B. P.’s second in command, and his successor went down with it. The Chief Scout attributes his own escape from it to his habit of carrying two shirts, one on his body and the other slung round his neck, while on the march. He was thus never without a dry shirt to change into.

Before he sailed, B.P. had received a piece of advice from Lord Wolseley as to how to avoid fever. He told him to take to smoking. He said that his dodge was to have a double set of mosquito curtains, and after going to bed inside them to smoke a pipe so as to warm up the atmosphere inside and drive out the malaria, and the mosquito curtains would then keep it out. In those days it was not known that mosquitoes caused malaria, but these precautions were equally good against mosquitoes.

B.P. obediently bought a pipe and some tobacco and used it religiously for two or three nights in Ashanti. But owing to the damp climate the tobacco went mouldy, so he threw the whole lot away—and never got fever after all.

On February 5th, soon after daybreak, the West Yorkshire Regiment marched into Cape Coast Castle, bringing with them King Prempeh, the old Queen and their "court." The whole party was then embarked for Elmina Fort under escort of native police. So ended the reign of a cruel King. He lived in banishment until 1924, when he was allowed to return to Ashanti as a harmless old man.

Nearly thirty years have passed since the Ashanti Expedition of I895-I896, but B.P. has never been forgotten by the men who served with him there.

In 1923, Captain Rattray, of the Ashanti Civil Service, wrote to him as follows:

"The old Ashantis all remember you. You are called ‘Kantankye,’ which means ‘He of the Big Hat.’ I cannot understand this, for it is a name they gave you long before the Boy Scouts came into being. Can you give any explanation?"

In his reply the Chief Scout explained that he wore the cowboy hat long before Boy Scouts were invented.

Strolling into the West African village at the British Empire Exhibition (I924), the Chief Scout found himself quite at home. The son of a man who had served with him in 1895 greeted him, and the son of King Prempeh’s predecessor as King of the Ashantis was also there anxious to make the acquaintance of "Kantankye."

As for Kumassi, it is quite a modern civilised township now, and the Gold Coast is as well populated with Boy Scouts to-day as most other parts of the world.

For his good work on this expedition B.P. became Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel, and he had only been back with his regiment for a few weeks when he was singled out again for special service.

From: Eileen K. Wade, The Piper of Pax: The Life Story of Sir Robert Baden-Powell, 1924. Chapter X: Old Places with New Faces.

  Palaver and Submission of King Prempeh, Ashanti Campaign, 1895

  Eileen K. Wade, The Piper of Pax: The Life Story of Sir Robert Baden-Powell, 1924
Foreward and Contents
    Chapter VII. Swaziland, Malta and Home. A shooting trip to Knysna—first encounter with an elephant—a mission to Swaziland—an interview with Oom Paul—life in Malta—adventures in many countries—maneuvers in Ireland.
    Chapter VIII. Ashanti. The Ashanti Expedition—experiences of a native levy—the wages of a king the nigh] march to Bekwai—hoisting the British flag— how to avoid fever—Kantankye receives promotion.
    Chapter IX. Matabeleland. Special service again—troubles in Matabeleland—Sir Frederic Carrington arrives—scouting in the Matoppos—the Wolf that never sleeps—the case of Uwini—home with Rhodes.
    Chapter X. Old Places and New Faces. India revisited—Officer Commanding 5th Dragoon Guards—work and sport in plenty—a shooting trip with Sir Baker Russell—on special service to South Africa—ready for war.
    Chapter XI. The South African War, 1899-1902. The declaration of war—beseiged in Mafeking—seven months beseiged—the story of the stamps—food shortage—arrival of the relief column.
    Chapter XII. The South African Constabulary. The hero of Mafeking—Lord Roberts’ despatch—a new job—the South African Constabulary—home at last—an interview with King Edward—appointed Inspector-General of Cavalry.

  The Baden-Powell Library. A Selection of excerpts from the works of Sir Robert Baden-Powell and works relating to his life and career
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