PRAHSU, 22nd December.
WHEN one speaks of the boundary between Ashanti and Cape Coast Colony, one’s ideas picture the Prah as the natural mark of the border, whereas the actual boundary lies much farther north, beyond the Adansi Hills. Historically and politically, and for most practical purposes, the Prah remains the boundary all the same. The Adansis, who used to inhabit the British portion beyond it—and so formed a buffer tribe between the Ashantis and the colony—have been removed to more eligible quarters in the south, and the district remains a No Man’s Land, and practically a bush desert. For the purposes of the expedition the camp at Prahsu, on the bank of the Prah, is a half way house to Kumassi—comparatively safe from attacks of the enemy by reason of its position at the end of a good road from the coast, and in a land of plentiful supplies. It is as much the frontier and advanced base to-day as it was in 1874, when it was actually on the border of the enemy’s country.
An immense depot of supplies has now been formed here, and when the forward move commences, no doubt a further advanced base will be formed at the Adansi Hills, thirty-five miles farther on. The supply of stores will be pushed up there for the maintenance of the troops within striking distance of Kumassi. The long line of road between Prahsu and the Adansi Hills has, however, to be prepared with a chain of defensive camps, where convoys can defend themselves should the Ashantis endeavour to cut in on our line of communications. This is a very favourite manoeuvre of theirs, and constitutes one of their avowed plans of campaign for the present war. Their system is to secretly cut a path for themselves through the bush away from the line of the main road, but parallel to it. When their scouts have warned them that they have well passed the main force or depot whose destruction they desire, they cut their way to the road, and then lie in ambush for parties endeavouring to pass up or down, or they make a raid on a convoy in camp; thus with a comparatively small body they are enabled to completely cut off their enemy from his base. It is to guard against such tactics that the native levy has now been ordered into the country across the Prah, together with about 150 of the Houssa police. The advanced outposts are formed by our Adansi company, of 100 men. These are posted on the actual border north of the Adansi Hills, and the scouts are watching every move on the part of the Ashantis; for there are moves of Ashantis going on-small ones, it is true, but they are often the grains of dust that tell which way the wind blows. The Adansis being bushmen and hunters by nature, and subjects for many years of oppression at the hands of the Ashantis, have entered on the work of reconnoitering con amore; and although they are only armed with flintlock guns, they show an amount of keenness in their work that is very noticeable in a country where energy or enterprise on the part of the natives is usually so conspicuously absent. Our main body consists of some 300 Krobos under their king Matikoli, and 100 Mumfords, under chief Brew, and a company of Elminas, under the veteran chief Ando. This fine old warrior bears on his breast the medal for the last Ashanti campaign, where he served for some time in Sir Evelyn Wood’s Native Levy, and afterwards as native adviser on the staff of Lord Wolseley.
At Prahsu, after handing over to the Commissariat department the loads which we have brought up for them, we have got to work on the more complete organisation and training of the levy. After begging and borrowing (sometimes even stealing) any tools of any kind whatsover, we have started the levy to work in clearing the bush, in building huts, in road-making, and in other useful pioneering work. And in addition to this we are exercising the men at outpost work, and we have issued arms to some of them. But the arms, being very inferior flintlocks,—many of them wanting even the flints,—do not inspire great confidence, and we only hope that ere long a supply of Snider rifles may be issued in their place.
FUMSU, 27th December.
On the 24th December, after four days usefully, but anxiously, spent at Prahsu, the permission arrived for the levy to cross the Prah, and to continue its advance into the enemy’s country. The permission reached us at three o’clock, and by five the major portion of the levy had been ferried across in the great ferry-boat (a "dugout" hewn from the trunk of an enormous tree, and capable of carrying thirty people). A slight delay was occasioned by one tribe declining to move, but the argument pro and con did not last long, and eventually we found ourselves practising night-marching up till about nine o’clock, when we reached our camping-ground.
Beyond the Prah we find a very different state of things to that on the southern side. Our road is no longer the comparatively broad, direct, and well-cleared way, but has become a twisty, zigzagging footpath—now clambering over fallen tree-trunks, now twisting through a bog—so narrow and broken as to forbid the use of a hammock for any distance. Villages are very few and very small, and consequently supplies are very scarce for our men and for the carriers of the expedition who are to follow. Road-makers and bush-cutters cannot now be obtained among the native population. Thus the work that falls upon the levy is exceptionally heavy, especially as our supply of tools is somewhat limited, and the natives’ idea of using those they have is even more so. Give a man a felling-axe, and he will think it a good weapon for scraping up weeds, and a spade he will use for cutting down timber.
Yes, life with a levy, where there are only two of you to work six hundred, might, for a few days, be a diverting experience, if the climate were good and if there were no immediate necessity for the work to be carried to a result. But as things are, it is a pretty powerful exercise, both mental and physical, and by the end of the day one wants but little here below but to drink and to lie down and sleep-or die, you don’t care which.
Here is our usual day’s routine: At early dawn, while the hush of the thick white mist yet hangs above the forest, a pyjamaclad figure creeps from its camp-bed in the palm leaf hut, and kicks up a sleeping drummer to sound "Reveille." Then the tall, dark forest wall around the clearing echoes with the boom of the elephant-tusk horns, whose sound is all the more weird since it comes from between the human jaws with which the horns are decorated. The war-drums rumble out a kind of Morse rattle that is quite understandable to its hearers. The men get up readily enough, but it is merely in order to light their fires and to settle down to eat plantains, while the white chiefs take their tubs, quinine, and tea. A further rattling of the drum for parade produces no result, The king is called for. "Why are your men not on parade?" With a deprecatory smile the king explains that he is suffering from rheumatism in the shoulder, and therefore he, and consequently his tribe, cannot march to-day. He is given a Cockle’s pill, and is warned that if he is not ready to march in five minutes, he will be fined a shilling. (The luxury of fining a real, live king to the extent of one shilling!) In five minutes he returns and says that if the white officer will give his men some salt to eat with their "chop" (food), he thinks they will be willing to march.
The white officer grimly says he will get a little salt for them, and proceeds to cut a specimen of a particularly lithe and whippy cane. A hundred pair of eyes are watching him. They read his intention in a moment, and at once there is a stir. A moment later, and that portion of the army are off in a long string upon the forward road, with their goods and chattels and chop tied up in bundles on their heads. But the whole levy is as yet by no means under way. Here a whole company of another tribe is still squatting, eating plantains, and jabbering away, indifferent to every other sound. "Call the chief." Yes, the chief is most willing to do any thing; would march straight on to Kumassi if ordered. But his captains are at present engaged in talking over the situation, and he cannot well disturb them. The white chief does not take long about disturbing them, but still the rank and file don’t move. The captains have something they would like to communicate to the white chief. "Well, out with it."
The head captain has come to the conclusion, from information received, that the Ashantis are a most cowardly race.
"Quite right. Just what I have told you all along; and if you will only hurry up, we can get right up to them in a few days and smash them."
"Ah! the white chief speaks brave words, but he does not know the ways of the bush warriors. No; the plan which the captains in council have agreed upon is to draw the enemy on by retiring straight away back to Cape Coast Castle. The enemy will follow them, and will run on to the bayonets of the white soldiers who are coming up from the coast."
"A very good plan, but not quite identical with that of the white chief. There is only one plan in his mind, and that is to go forward, and this plan must be carried out by all. He has in his hand a repeating rifle which fires fourteen shots. When the regiment begins its retirement, he will go to the head of it and will shoot at each man as he comes by. Fourteen corpses will suffice to block up. the path. And now any who like to go back on these conditions can do so; the gun is already loaded. Those who like to go forward to get their chop at the next halting-place can move on. Those who like to sit where they are can do so till it is their turn to be tied to a tree, to get a dozen lashes, commencing with this gentleman." Loads are taken up, and in a moment the whole force goes laughing and singing on the forward path.
On through the deep, dark aisles, still foggy with the morning mist and wet with the dripping dew. Twisting and turning, 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, 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, till every one is at work. We lay out the plan and trace of the fort that is to be built, and of the huts that are to form the camp.
"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 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! "
"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 01729
From the advanced scouts to the main body of the expedition is a long step. The antennae are at Dompoassi, the head and brain are at Prahsu, and the body extends from that place to Cape Coast Castle. The white troops are getting along well now that they are in the bush, but the first march on the coast claimed, alas, two victims to the heat. At Prahsu the headquarters staff are at present concentrated, and occupy a position where they are completely in touch with the whole of the long line of the force, a line a hundred miles in length. The field telegraph is of the greatest value in directing and controlling this immense chain, and has now reached Akuserim under the energetic arrangements of Captain Curtis. Plenty of work for everybody is the talisman which has so far happily kept the staff in an excellent state of health and energy. Sir Francis Scott appears the picture of life and freshness. Prince Henry of Battenberg, as military secretary, is in constant attendance on his chief, and shows no sign of feeling the heat. Having allowed his beard to grow, he is now the counterpart of his brother, Prince Louis. He has imported chargers into the country in the shape of a pair of riding donkeys, which are, so far, standing the climate well; but shortly they will have to face the ordeal of the "fly," for about Esiaman, a short distance north of the Prah, the tsetse fly abounds. This little pest,—about the size of a large house-fly,—although to men it is no more harmful than a mosquito, is fatal to a horse or domesticated animal. One bite is said to be sufficient; the system gradually becomes poisoned, and the animal loses strength and dies—all the more rapidly if the weather is wet. Wild animals—probably through generations of inoculation—are proof against the poison, and donkeys are said to be less susceptible to it than other tame beasts. Therefore it is possible that Prince Henry’s stud may live to carry him through the campaign. Working hard at his duties as A.D.C., Prince Christian Victor gets through a great amount of work in the day, and, in opposition to Prince Henry, he has shaved even his moustache. Major Belfield, on whose shoulders the main work of the expedition falls, luckily keeps as well and as energetic as ever was his wont. But there is sickness in the camp, and far too much of it. Three of the medical officers are down with it, and several of the non-commissioned officers and men—especially of the Royal Engineers.
All along the road progress continues. The carriers, thoroughly organised in gangs, are working like clockwork. Tons of supplies are being placed ready in the camps all along the route as far as the Adansi Hills. Over these and beyond, the road is still being cut, and camps being laid out and built. News trickles in daily from the outposts. We now know that Prempeh ordered a council of war last week at Kumassi, and that most of his chiefs attended it, but that several did not, and business was adjourned for their attendance. In the meantime, the envoys who had been to England have returned. The council has again been called, and again one or two chiefs have refrained from attending. The most notable among these absentees is the king of Bekwai, who has a force of some 2000 men, and whose country would be the first to receive the British invasion. He has sent messengers to Sir Francis Scott expressing his desire to come under British protection. But it is evident that such protection must take an active form, and promptly, for there is little doubt that should Prempeh discover his subject’s treason before the British help arrives, the King of Bekwai will lose his head. It is probable, therefore, that a small flying column will be sent with all speed to occupy Bekwai and afford protection to its people. In doing this, such column would also occupy a very strong strategical point on the enemy’s flank, which might possibly affect in an important degree the future plans and moves of the Ashantis. Of these there are now collected in Kumassi some 8000 warriors armed with guns and rifles, but apparently not well supplied with ammunition for sustained fighting. The ceremony of taking fetish for war is gradually being carried out-in the leisurely fashion peculiar to all business, however urgent, in this part of the world. Taking fetish is practically the taking, by all the captains and chiefs, of an oath to fight. When all have completed the ceremony, the king gives his assent and his orders for the war.
The system of the army appears to be to sit quietly awaiting the development of affairs, and they protest that they have no intention of fighting the English. This same protestation they made in 1874, and continued to do so until within a few hours of the battle of Amoaful, so that no reliability can be placed on their statements; and there seems little doubt, from the fact of their being already assembled in arms, that they intend to resist, at any rate, any attempt to take their capital or their king. But once they have thus satisfied their conscience and established etiquette, they will be only too glad to lay down their arms and to welcome the new order of things. The whole country seems sick and tired of the continual state of war in which they have lived. Over the border they see the people who used to be their slaves now thriving, fat and happy, under the English flag, and they begin to long for something of the kind for themselves. Custom and superstition still partly hold them to the old order, but with very little pressure they will gladly throw that over and accept the new, much to the benefit of themselves and their neighbours.