PRAHSU, 21st December.
ON the road at last-from Cape Coast to, or at any rate towards, Kumassi. For the first few miles after we have cleared the bazaar of Cape Coast Castle, the road, a hard gravel path, runs through a labyrinth of small bush-covered hills; but although there is very little sun to-day, the heat is very great, and one is fain to give up one’s first resolution of doing all the march on foot in favour of an occasional, if not a frequent, lift in the hammock. The hammock as a conveyance, once you have become accustomed to its motion, and have fitted its hang to suit your taste, is said to be luxurious. Personally I prefer to walk, except where a lift may serve to keep one’s feet from wet or head from sun. The hammock itself is a common string one, with a cross-bar affixed to each end. The cross-bar rests on the heads of the bearers. Over all a light canvas roof is fixed, which serves to keep off the worst of sun or rain from the occupant. The four bearers shamble along at a good pace, balancing the concern on their heads, and can carry one for long distances by day or night without stumble or false steps. The drawback to this method of travel, is that the springiness of the motion forbids all reading or writing that might otherwise usefully occupy many of the hours spent on the march.
But so far as it has gone,—some five days between Prahsu and Cape Coast Castle,—the journey has in no way palled upon us. About fifteen miles from the coast the bush gradually grew in height and density, until the huge bare shafts of the cotton-trees began to tower here and there among the palms, giant ferns, and smaller trees that formed the general mass of foliage. Then we gradually came into regular forest scenery, from which we shall not again emerge till our campaign is over. This same scenery, we were told, would appall us with its deadly dullness, and the depression of the forest would affect our minds most powerfully. Possibly our minds are not sufficiently prehensile to catch the morbid sensation that was promised, and in all the wondrous woodland that has charmed our eye at every step, the only inharmonious quality that has struck us is its aroma. Yes, walking down the solemn shady aisles of forest giants, whose upper parts gleam far above the dense undergrowth in white pillars against the grey-blue sky, or passing from a sunlit glade into the deep dark crypt of massive bamboo clumps,-places that have aptly been compared with the scenery of the depths of the ocean,—everywhere there hangs the noisome scent that meets you near old cabbage plots in England. The rule here seems to be, the prettier the spot, the more deadly is its air.
Where you see the brilliant red wax-flowers gleaming beneath the great angle-buttresses of a cotton tree, whose stem is covered for 50 feet with ferns and orchids, till 150 feet of creeper, hanging in one dense curtain, meets them from the upper branches, you stand a moment to wonder and admire, when, faugh! the loathsome smell assails and drives you forward. In all the forest scarce a bird or living thing is seen. An occasional robin’s song is heard, or the tuneful wail of the "finger-glass bird," while at night the whistle of the crickets and the roar of frogs is broken by the dismal child-like shriek of the sloth.
The path is now narrowed down, and being almost all in shade, is far more cool for walking than at the outset of the journey-in width about four yards, but often by overgrowth reduced to one. On either side, the dense mass of fern and bush and tangled creeper set in swampy ground prevents all moving off the path. And thus our pace is checked as we find the road in front blocked with a slow-moving mass of loaded carriers-hundreds upon hundreds of them, all working along in gangs, with loads upon their heads of about 50 lbs. apiece. Each gang works under its own chief, and is distinguished by armlets of a certain colour, each armlet bearing the classifying letter and number of the wearer. Here we find yellow armlets carrying cases of "bully" beef; then come grey ones with limejuice; soon after we find white ones carrying tarred rope for the bridge over the Prah; and then a "lady-pack," with blue and white policemen’s armlets, carrying biscuit cases, many a one of them with an additional load in the shape of a brown nodding little baby on her back. The whole of this mass of usually blundering natives was working just like clockwork all along the line within three days of its organisation in the hands of Colonel Ward and his never-tiring staff. Not a load gets lost or even delayed, not a man is in arrears of his daily pay.
Every three or four miles one passes through a native village-generally a single street of some twenty or thirty houses. Each house consists, as a rule, of three or four small huts or sheds, facing inwards, and forming a little courtyard. These huts are on built-up platforms, with hard mud walls, and roofs’ thatched with palm-leaves, and their front steps faced with a smooth red-coloured cement. They are kept fairly clean, so that we generally occupied one for our half-way breakfast, or on occasion to sleep the night. In the centre of each village is a tree with seats round it, formed of untrimmed logs, on which the elders of the village sit and smoke and gravely talk. As one leaves the village and plunges once more into the bush, one passes the village fetish ground, well marked by rags and stones and broken pots, all offered as propitiation to the presiding demon of the place. Deep in the bush behind the huts one sees the giant leaves of the plantain groves that yield the staple food of the inhabitants. At every village as we pass we interview the headman on the subject of his crop, and warn him that a daily market must be open for the sale of yams and plantains to our host of carriers; and though he looks a knowing and a high-class kind of man when strutting forth in his. toga-like garment, we find it hard to make him grasp the full meaning of our demand. The brains of these Ashantis are assuredly most non-receptive.
At nearly every ten miles we come upon a rest camp, in a more or less completed condition, for occupation by the British troops when they come marching up. With no little labour, bush has been cleared away for many hundred yards, and huts have been built up of bamboo frames, with trellis sides and palm-thatched roofs. Within them tables, seats, and bed – places have been made again of split bamboos – accommodation sufficient for some three hundred men, with complement of officers. Store-sheds are being quickly filled with food and ammunition for the force. A.S.C. officers in dishabille, and steaming, are hard at work from dawn till dusk. And then, as far at least as Mansu, half-way to the Prah, the telegraph runs near the path, but taking a more direct line through the bush by a track recently cut out with much and heavy labour. After Mansu the "fetish cord," as the natives call it, no longer hangs on poles, but lies along the ground close to the path. It is the mere field cable of the Engineers that now takes the place of the more permanent line; and as we press forward, we at length overtake Captain Curtis, R.E., working himself, like his men, half-stripped, and laying out his line at the phenomenal rate of two and a half miles an hour. This in itself is a record that would be hard to beat when all the difficulties of country, climate, and circumstances are taken into consideration.
Here and there along the road we come to bridges over streams and causeways over swamps, all in course of construction at the hands of scores of natives, working with an amount of energy that is most surprising when one sees how few and far between are the ever-travelling, hard worked white superintendents. Here we meet one gaunt and yellow. Surely we have seen that eye and brow before, although the beard and solar topee do much to disguise the man. His necktie of faded "Old Carthusian" colours makes suspicion a certainty, and once again old schoolfellows are flung together for an hour to talk in an African swamp of old times on English playing-fields. Again we press on through the never-ending dark green aisles, until at length, one sweltering afternoon, we tramp in a melting state-although in the airiest of costumes—into the village camp of Prahsu. Prahsu is our advanced base on the river Prah.
The big yellow river slowly slides along between its forest-clad banks, and on a low reed grown spit the camping-ground is cleared and huts are being built. One double-storeyed house exists, the headquarters of the post, where Major Gordon reigns supreme. A company of Houssas—the war-loving native armed police—is quartered here; a base hospital and base supply and ordnance stores are being made. There is an accumulation of barrels waiting for the rope with which the pontoon bridge is to be constructed.
As we arrive at Prahsu, rumours there are of encounters between our scouts and those of the enemy, and of blood drawn on both sides. We are told that King Prempeh laughs to scorn the proposal that he shall come down to meet the Governor in conference. "The King of the Ashantis is the lord of heaven and of earth." This is an Ashanti proverb up to which the king and his captains are said to be ready to act. Today, too, we hear that the best Ashanti scouts are now out and about Bekwai to watch our doings, and that the Ashanti plan of campaign is to draw on our force, and then to cut in in rear of it. At any rate, they seem inclined to fight. That they will do so is the great hope of those who toil through the long hot hours in this steaming fetid atmosphere. Nor can one well grudge them the feeling. Of the little band’ of, eight white men now preparing matters in Prahsu, even as I write, three are down with fever. Still they peg away, one day down, the next up and smiling again but sometimes the smile is a little wan. All that buoys them up is hope-hope that through their "bucking up" their side will win the game.