IN the African bush one may see a lion making his meal on the beast which he unaided has hunted, and has slain by his mighty power; and round him, shrieking and snarling, snatching and tearing, there skips a craven pack of jackals.
One need not go so far as Africa to seek a similar scene. Within a hundred miles of Westminster it may be found.
When a travelling Briton has returned from roaming among the broad lands of our empire beyond the seas, he finds that his ideas have become enlarged, his “bosom swells with pride” at his being an heritor of this vast prize of generations of British lions, and he realises for the first time what it is “to be an Englishman,” and how there is not much temptation “to belong to any other nation”—so long as our navy rules the seas.
But should he feel a little too “uppish” in this elation and pride of birth, he can readily find an antidote. Let him obtain a ticket for the Strangers’ Gallery in the House of Commons, and let him go and see for himself the working of what the nation is pleased to call its brain. There he will find—on both sides of the House (for I have no party predilections)—a few lions and a great many jackals behind them. The petty jabber and snarl of these as they snatch and worry at the subject under discussion well-nigh drowns the occasional, meaning “sough” of their betters.
A growl is enough to scatter them all like chaff, but only for a moment, and anon they are back again, blathering as before.
The scene fills one with a sense of humiliation, and yet, on the other hand, it shows the lions in even a better light than before: they have to carry out their hunting not merely unaided, but handicapped by the incessant yapping at their heels of a pack utterly incapable of hunting for itself.
To one just back from Ashanti not many days ago, it was particularly pleasing to hear the Secretary of State for the Colonies replying, with reference to that country, to a chorus of yaps. In a brief, but very complete manner, he stated the reasons which had led to the despatch of the expedition under Sir Francis Scott.
The main contentions which he had to meet were, firstly, that the claim on the King of Ashanti which produced the expedition was absolutely unjustifiable; and, secondly, that even if it were justifiable, it could have been secured by a means much less costly than an expedition to Kumassi. As a preliminary, to dealing with these questions, Mr. Chamberlain disclaimed any ulterior motive in the expedition as having respect to the doings of the French in West Africa-the expedition was undertaken solely in the interests of the Gold Coast Colony, and at the request, often repeated, of the inhabitants of that colony. Both they and the Government considered that steps must be taken to suppress what was neither more nor less than an intolerable and injurious nuisance. The government of the King of Ashanti had, ever since 1874, stood in the way of civilisation, of trade, and of the interests of the people themselves, and should, on these general grounds alone, be put a stop to. He put it thus: “From the date of the war in 1873 and 1874 this district of Africa, which is, I believe, extremely rich,—certainly rich in natural resources, probably rich in mineral resources,—has been devastated, destroyed, and ruined by inter-tribal disputes, and especially by the evil government of the authorities of Ashanti. No sooner was the present ruler installed as king of the country than he began to make war upon every tribe in the neighbourhood, and the consequent loss of life was very great. I often think it is so extraordinary for gentlemen like the Hon. Member for Caithness to talk of the loss of life involved in the expedition. It cannot be placed in the same category as the loss of life which has been going on year after year, month after month, simply because we had not the courage and the resolution to make the expedition. (cheers). I think the duty of this country in regard to all these savage countries over which we are called upon to exercise some sort of dominion is to establish, at the earliest possible date, Pax Britannica, and force these people to keep the peace amongst themselves (cheers), and by so doing, whatever may be the destruction of life in an expedition which brings about this result, it will be nothing if weighed in the balance against the annual loss of life which goes on so long as we keep away. What is the state of things in Ashanti and in many other of these West African and African possessions? The people are not a bad people. The natives are, on the whole, perfectly willing to work, and if they fight, they fight because they cannot help themselves. They would always rather settle down to commercial or agricultural pursuits if they were allowed to do so, but in such cases as that we are considering, the government is so atrociously bad that they are not allowed to do so. No man is safe in the enjoyment of his own property, and as long as that is the case, no one has any inducement to work.”
But in addition to these general grounds for action being taken against the Ashanti regime, there exist more particular reasons for it in the refusal of the king to carry out the provisions of the treaty of 1874.
The danger of allowing treaty contracts to be evaded is fairly well understood among European nations, but the results of slackness or leniency in their enforcement are none the less dangerous when the treaty has been made with an uncivilised potentate, since his neighbours are quick to note any sign of weakness or loss of prestige on the part of the white contracting party, and they in their turn gain courage to make a stand against the white ruler and his claims over them.
In Ashanti the abuse had been allowed to go on far too long. Natives near our border—ay, within it too—had seen year after year go by, and the Ashanti liberty taking the form of license more and more pronounced, with little or no restraint beyond mild and useless remonstrance on our part. Naturally this raised the Ashantis once more in their estimation, while it lowered our prestige in a corresponding degree; and although the people were sufficiently knowing to see that under our government they were their own masters and were able to carry out any ideas of commerce that they might entertain, still they also saw that, as far as local indications went, the Ashantis were equal in power to the white men, and, as a natural consequence, they were much inclined at least to waver in their allegiance to us.
“Britons never will be slaves,” and Britons are so peculiarly imbued with a notion of fair-play that they will not see anybody else in a state of slavery either, if they can prevent it.
Slaves in some parts of the world form the currency of the country; in others they are the , beasts of burden and the machinery; often their lot is mercilessly hard, though not always.
Wherever there is a good market for them, it is to the interest of the owner to keep them well fed and in good condition. In those parts where domestic slavery prevails, there is often little or no hardship. An occasional lick from a whip is, to an unintelligent savage, but a small matter where in the opposite scale he has the very substantial compensation of protection, food, and home—advantages which are not always shared by his white brother when fate has frowned and has turned him into the cold to work out his living among the unemployed.
The worst part of slavery is, as a rule, the hardships entailed in the slave-caravan marches, which have to be conducted at a forced pace over desert and devious routes, in order to avoid the good intentions of the European anti-slavery forces.
But in no part of the world does slavery appear to be more detestable than in Ashanti. Slaves, other than those obtained by raids into neighbours’ territory, have here to be smuggled through the various “spheres,” French, German, and English, which are beginning to hem the country in on every side. The climate they are brought to is a sickly one for men bred up-country.
They are not required for currency, since gold dust is the medium here. Nor are they required to any considerable extent as labourers, since the Ashanti lives merely on vegetables, which in this country want little or no cultivation. And yet there is a strong demand for slaves. They are wanted for human sacrifice. Stop human sacrifice, and you deal a fatal blow to the slave trade, while you render raiding an unprofitable game.
Up till the time of the expedition raiding had been carried on systematically in direct contravention of treaty. “The expedition was necessary also for the protection of other tribes. Every tribe in the neighbourhood of Ashanti lived in terror of its life from the king, who had on several occasions destroyed, one after another, tribes which had sought our protection. There were at least half a dozen separate tribes under separate kings or chieftains who had been driven out of their country and to a large extent destroyed, the whole trade and commerce being utterly ruined in consequence of the continued raids, made against the representations of the British authorities, by the King of Ashanti. In order to prevent that, from time to time the British Government took some of the tribes under its protection. In my opinion a great mistake was made in refusing sooner to take under our protection tribes that asked that protection merely in order that they might engage in peaceful commerce, always with the result that the tribe was immediately afterwards eaten up by the tribes of Ashanti. On one occasion the tribes of Ashanti marched into another kingdom which had been taken under the protection of the British Government. We had to send, at considerable expense, an armed force in order to protect these territories. It is true that in the presence of that force the tribes of the King of Ashanti were withdrawn. But it was only under threat of our intervention that they were withdrawn. The finances of the colony have suffered for years by keeping up larger forces in order to protect tribes under our protection. I think I have said enough to show that we should have been wanting in our duty if we had not insisted that this state of things should be stopped.”
In England we scarcely realise the extent to which human sacrifice had been carried on in Ashanti previous to the late expedition, but evidences were not wanting to show it.
In the first place, the name Kumassi means “the Death-Place.”
The town possessed no less than three places of execution; one, for private executions, 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.
Close to the parade ground was the grove into which the remains of the victims were flung, and which very aptly was known as “Golgotha” to the members of the force. The ground here was found covered with skulls and bones of hundreds of victims. At Bantama was the celebrated execution bowl, which was fully described by, Bowdich in his account of Kumassi in 1817. It is a large brass basin some five feet in diameter. It is ornamented with four small lions, and a number of round knobs all round its rim, except at one part, where there is a space for the victim’s neck to rest on the edge. The blood of the victims was allowed to putrefy in the bowl, and leaves of certain herbs being added, it was considered a very valuable fetish medicine. The bowl has now been brought to England. Then in Kumassi are two blocks of houses occupied entirely by the executioners-one being assigned to the sacrificial, the other to the criminal executioners. Among the loot taken in the houses of Prempeh and of his chiefs were several “blood stools,” or stools which had been used as blocks for executions, and which bore very visible signs of having been so used. In these notes, be it remembered, we are only dealing with Kumassi, but every king—and there were some half a dozen of them in the Ashanti empire—had powers of life and death over his subjects, and carried out his human sacrifices on a minor scale in his own capital.
In fact, the ex-king of Bekwai was deposed on account of his over-indulgence in that form of amusement.
Any great public function was seized on as an excuse for human sacrifices. There was the annual “yam custom,” or harvest festival, at which large numbers of victims were often offered to the gods. Then the king went every quarter to pay his devotions to the shades of his ancestors at Bantama, and this demanded the deaths of twenty men over the great bowl on each occasion. On the death of any great personage, two of the household slaves were at once killed on the threshold of the door, in order to attend their master immediately in his new life, and his grave was afterwards lined with the bodies of more slaves who were to form his retinue in the spirit world. It was thought all the better if, during the burial, one of the attendant mourners could be stunned by a club, and dropped, still breathing, into the grave before it was filled in. In the case of a great lady dying, slave-girls were the victims. This custom of sacrifice at funerals was called “washing the grave.” On the death of a king the custom of washing the grave involved enormous sacrifices. Then sacrifices were also made to propitiate the gods when war was about to be entered upon, or other trouble was impending. Victims were also killed to deter an enemy from approaching the capital: sometimes they were impaled and set up on the path, with their hand pointing to the enemy and bidding him to retire. At other times the victim was beheaded and the head replaced looking in the wrong direction; or he was buried alive in the pathway, standing upright, with only his head above ground, to remain thus until starvation, or—what was infinitely worse—the ants made an end of him. Then there was a death penalty for the infraction of various laws. For instance, anybody who found a nugget of gold and who did not send it at once to the king was liable to decapitation; so also was anybody who picked up anything of value lying on the parade-ground, or who sat down in the shade of the fetish tree at Bantama. Indeed, if the king desired an execution at any time, he did not look far for an excuse. It is even said that on one occasion he preferred a richer colour in the red stucco on the walls of the palace, and that for this purpose the blood of four hundred virgins was used. I have purposely refrained elsewhere from giving numbers, because, although our informants supplied them, West African natives are notoriously inexact in this respect. The victims of sacrifices were almost always slaves or prisoners of war. Slaves were often sent in to the king in lieu of tribute from his kinglets and chiefs, or as a fine for minor delinquencies. Travelling traders of other tribes, too, were frequently called upon to pay customs dues with a slave or two, and sometimes their own lives were forfeited.
When once a man had been selected and seized for execution, there were only two ways by which he could evade it. One was to repeat the “king’s oath”—a certain formula of words—before they could gag him; the other was to break loose from his captors and run as far as the Bantama-Kumassi cross road; if he could reach this point before being overtaken, he was allowed to go free. In order to ensure against their prisoners getting off by either of these methods, the executioners used to spring on the intended victim from behind, and while one bound his hands behind his back, another drove a knife through both his cheeks, which effectually prevented him from opening his mouth to speak, and in this horrible condition he had to await his turn for execution. When the time came, the executioners, mad with blood, would make a rush for him and force him on to the bowl or stool, whichever served as the block. Then one of them, using a large kind of butcher’s knife, would cut into the spine, and so carve the head off. As a rule, the victims were killed without extra torture, but if the order was given for an addition of this kind, the executioners vied with each other in devising original and fiendish forms of suffering. At great executions torture was apparently resorted to in order to please the spectators. It certainly seems that the people had by frequent indulgence become imbued with a kind of blood-lust, and that to them an execution was as attractive an entertainment as is a bull-fight to a Spaniard or a football match to an Englishman.
This custom is one which a clause in the treaty of 1874 stipulated was to cease, but the contract was never carried out by the king. In spite of his promises, sacrifices went on up till the time of the expedition. It was even said that an execution came off at the palace the day after our arrival in Kumassi.
Another clause of the treaty which King Prempeh had failed to carry into effect was that which promised the maintenance of an open high-road from Kumassi to Cape Coast Castle. The idea of this road was not only to render communication with Kumassi comparatively easy, but also to open a way through the two hundred miles of impassable forest which shut off the rich plains of the Hinterland from access to the coast. It was argued, with reason, that if such road were kept open for pack caravans, a big trade would at once be opened up with the interior; but the king neglected to carry out his part of the treaty. The road was allowed to become overgrown again with the rank, thick jungle of the bush, and the slight foot-track to which if dwindled was used by a few small bands to rubber-dealers, but these traded at great risk and for small returns, owing to the heavy dues and peremptory punishments imposed by the Ashantis on traders passing through their country. Remonstrance had no effect. Without an expedition it looked as though the mass of trade awaiting an outlet from the Hinterland would either die off, or would be diverted into neighbouring countries belonging to France and Germany.
Another item in the bill against the king was the payment of the war indemnity for the last expedition. Of this the first two installments had been paid, but since then not a stiver.
Briefly, then, we may look on the following as the main reasons and objects for the expedition:
To put an end to human
Experience had shown that it was of no avail to trust to the king carrying out the terms of a treaty, and therefore it was considered necessary to appoint a Resident at Kumassi who would see that the king carried out his engagements.
The king was asked whether he approved of this plan. At first he altogether refused to accept a Resident. Then he sent insulting replies. Another time he sent no reply. And finally, he declined to deal with the governor of the colony, but sent envoys to England.
The story of this part of the case was thus stated by the Secretary of State for the Colonies: “The king said he had sent his messengers to see the Queen of England and make known his wishes. Lord Ripon sent word to the Governor of the Gold Coast to tell the messengers if they came to England that they would not be received by the Queen or her representatives. He actually forbade their coming to England, although he did not feel justified in preventing them by force. On what grounds did Lord Ripon take this course? He had many grounds. In the first place, that their character was bad; in the second place, that they were representatives of a king who indulged in human sacrifice, and that the representatives of such a potentate were not to be received by the Queen of England (cries of “Oh, oh!”) ; and, in the third place, that in dealing with these subject tribes under the circumstances which I have detailed, it would be absolutely ruinous to the governor on the spot if, at any moment you chose, you could pass him by and claim to be received directly in London. We place a great responsibility upon the heads of the governors whom we send out to those distant places, and who have to act very often on the spur of the moment; and if we ourselves reduce their authority in the eyes of these subjects, there would be simply no end to the representations with, which we should have to deal in this country, and to the tricks by which these savage rulers would escape from their responsibility. When I came to office the matter came before me, having been already decided by my predecessor. I do not want on that account in the slightest degree to lessen my responsibility. If I had occupied office at the time Lord Ripon did, I should have taken exactly the same course. These persons came to England, and I refused to receive them. Representations were made to me on their behalf by a member of this House; and I said I would be most happy to receive him, but I refused to recognise him as their representative. He did not desire to be recognised as their representative, but wished on his own account to place before me some statements which he had heard from them. Their statement was to the effect that they had credentials from the King of Ashanti; that they had plenipotentiary authority from him to deal with me as the representative of the Government; and, finally, that they were prepared to accept the terms which I informed the gentleman who saw me it was our intention to demand. Well, I told them I accepted their assurances for what they were worth (laughter); but that Her Majesty’s Government would not on that account countermand the expedition. It is very easy, of course, to say we should have stopped the expedition; that we would have saved the expenditure and attained the same result. That is a hypothetical statement. I confess I have not the remotest belief that we should have attained the same result, or anything like it. And I think I have some reason for saying that when I had to make my decision, of course, I did not know all the facts, but what I did know was that if the expedition was held back, and if, thereafter, these so-called envoys were repudiated by the King of Ashanti, not only would great expenditure have been incurred for no purpose, but we should have to repeat the expedition at a time when, owing to the difficulties of season and climate, the loss of life would have been very much greater. I thought the risk too great. What justification has come to hand of the action which we took in this matter? In the first place, these so-called envoys had absolutely no authority whatever to make the terms to which they gave their signature ; their credentials were forged credentials, the seal of the King of Ashanti was manufactured in London after they came here (laughter) ; they had no power whatever to accept the conditions imposed upon them by Her Majesty’s Government; and the only authority they had was authority which they themselves had sought to obtain redress from Her Majesty’s Government for the grievances of the Ashanti people. And it is perfectly clear that what I feared would have taken place, and that if they had gone back without an expedition, they would have been repudiated, and properly repudiated, by the Ashanti king. Then it is said, “Why this display of force?” In order to avoid bloodshed. (Cheers). It is also said that all this might have been done by a small force, and I believe that is true, but it would not have been done without bloodshed. If we had gone there with a small force, we should have tempted the Ashantis to war. Do not let it be supposed that the Ashanti king had no idea of resistance. You will find that he sent an embassy to Samory, who is a powerful chief, inviting him to join in resisting the British attack; and nothing but the sense of his own impotence prevented a collision which must have resulted in a very considerable amount of bloodshed.”
Indeed, as it was, the men had all been called out for war, and had the expedition been a little slower in coming upon the scene, it would, without doubt, have met with a determined resistance. The king would not bring his army into the field until he had had the report of his envoys from England. When they arrived at Kumassi, the expedition was close upon their heels. The Ashantis take time to mobilise and to get all the preliminary fetish-eating and oath-swearing completed, and thus, before they were ready, the British troops were already in Kumassi.
The force then present was sufficiently large and powerful to overawe the natives, who were assembled, be it remembered, under arms, in the villages round about Kumassi; and it was able to effect the arrest of Prempeh, together with the whole of his leading chiefs, at one swoop.
Had a smaller force, or one composed entirely of Houssas and West Indians, attempted a similar coup, there is not the slightest doubt that bloodshed, and very probably disaster, would have resulted. In a word, there could not, by any possibility, have been a clearer vindication of the policy of sending a compact force of white troops on this expedition.