5th January 1896.
A NIGHT march is, as a rule, a slow and tedious business, unless there is some little excitement to enliven it. Last night we had the experience of a night march in which the spice of adventure relieved the tedium, although it did not, and indeed could not, do much towards making it a rapid one. The King of Bekwai, a tributary of Kumassi, had sent to the Governor messengers asking that he might come under the British flag, and that protection might at once be sent to him, as otherwise he would be taken by Prempeh and executed. A small flying column was therefore organised, and ordered to proceed at once from our outposts to the Bekwai capital, some twenty miles distant through the bush. The one road to it was held by an Ashanti piquet. The column was ordered to take a week’s supplies, in order to render it independent of its communications should it become cut off, in the defence of Bekwai, from the main body of the expedition. But this carrying of provisions, together with medical stores, ammunition, etc., involved the addition to its personnel of some 450 carriers, and as the whole force could only move in single file through the narrow jungle track, it may be imagined how great an incubus to its fighting efficiency was this long train of defenceless people. Even were the head of the column to succeed in driving the Ashanti piquet out of its position, the certainty was that the men composing it would scatter into the bush on either side of the track, and there lie ambushed until the non-combatant portion of the force came up before they opened fire. The effect on unarmed carriers—who by nature are at any rate no braver, if half as brave, as most people—would have been excellent from the enemy’s point of view, and would possibly have meant disaster to the little expedition. Moreover, the expedition was not a reconnaissance in force to drive in outposts, but rather a relief party, whose one object was to put itself as quickly as possible in touch with the place it was ordered to succour. It was, therefore, determined to make a secret flank march past the Ashanti outposts by night, and so gain a position where, on the one hand, we should be in touch with Bekwai, and, on the other, be in rear of the outpost, and so able to attack it with full advantage.
From Dompoassi, to reach Bekwai, the flying column would have to follow the Kumassi road as far as Esian Kwanta. At this point the Bekwai road branches off to the left; but it was at this same point that the Ashanti piquet was posted. About a mile away, to the left of Esian Kwanta, deep in the bush, is the village of Obum, connected with the Bekwai road by a path which joins it near Heman. This village, Obum, was not connected with the main Kumassi road until our scouts came and cut a path. And it was by this route, Obum and Heman, that the flank march was to be conducted. The flying column under my command was composed and formed as follows:—First, a section of the scouts ranging well to the front; then an advanced guard, followed by one company, headquarters, and drums of the Gold Coast Houssas, under command of Captain Mitchell. Then came the long string of carriers, among whom were distributed the Elmina company of my scouts for their better protection. Behind the carriers came a second company of Houssas, with a rearguard; and finally, in rear of all, another section of scouts, the whole comprising 700 men, and extending, when closed up, over a mile of path. No orders had been given to the force as to its march or destination till after dusk. It was then too late for would-be deserters to abscond; they would rather face the enemy with the crowd than venture alone on the ghost-haunted path that led homewards; and for the same reason, Ashanti spies, if there were any, having seen the camp apparently settle down for the night, would have gone back to report all quiet. We gave orders to parade at moonrise,—that was at a quarter to nine,—and shortly after that hour the column stood ready to proceed. In the bush-clearing, which is the site of the former town of Dompoassi, the rising moon, gleaming dully through the heavy night mist, gave sufficient light to show the long line of men standing motionless and dead silent—like a wall. The orders were given out and explained as to what was to be done by every man in the event of attack; ammunition was cast loose,—with no little pleasure on the part of the Houssas,—and presently the word was given to march—not that any word was heard, but the ghostly wall was seen to be slipping quietly along to where it was lost in the dark tunnel of the bush.
And then began a night of trouble. Dark as pitch, one’s only guide to the path was the white rag or package on the next man in front. With stick in hand, one groped one’s way through the deep, dense gloom, hoping that as the moon rose things would improve—but they didn’t. Buried in this bush, below the over laced treetops, scarcely a ray could penetrate. Now a jerk down as one stepped off a hummock, now a stumble over a root, now caught in a prickly creeper, now ploughing through the holding swamp; and all around the deep silence of the forest, only broken by the rare crack of a trodden stick. One could scarcely believe that several hundred people were with one, moving—slowly, it was true, but still moving—ever forward. The carriers carried, in addition to their loads, their own packages of food and furniture—the furniture consisting of a mat, the food of plantains and dried fish. It was this dried fish that was my trouble. It was horrid; but one felt comforted to think that two atmospheres, namely, malaria and fish, could not have a place on that path together. Fallen trees were frequent, and tangled bush and streams combined to check and break the column. Each man took his several seconds to negotiate the obstacle, and lost a few yards of distance in doing so, thus every minute saw the column growing longer. This could only be remedied by frequent halts and slow marching at the head. Occasionally the check would come from the head itself. Marching with the advance guard, there would be a sudden bump against the man in front of you, and, like a train of trucks, the whole party bumped to a standstill; then the whisper passed that the scouts had discovered the enemy. Suddenly a flicker and a flare of light in the bush well to our right. Enemy? No, it is the advanced scouts on our road, which twists and serpentines in a marvellous way, who think they have discovered an enemy’s ambush. They creep around the particular thicket they suspect, then suddenly lighting brands, they hurl them into the hiding-place to light up the hoped-for target. This time they draw blank, and we move on again, grateful even for this little excitement. The march does not appear so tedious or so slow when one moves among the scouts. These fellows are on the qui vive all the time—now stopping to listen, now diving into the bush, with scarce a rustle, to search the flanks. Nor is their watchfulness too great for the occasion, for twice we come upon the glowing logs of outpost fires that have hastily been quitted; but those are the only signs of men—whether friend or foe—being in the forest besides ourselves. At length the scouts creep forward, spreading out in an open clearing, and we reach the village of Obum. It is occupied by Bekwas, who, as they peer startled from their doors, tell us no Ashanti scouts are there. But we do not pause; clearings are more frequent, and consequently the light is better, and now we are on a well-worn path things seem better; but there is very little improvement in pace—the carriers are tired, and the column keeps ever trailing out.
It is long past two in the morning when our advanced guard reaches the village of Heman, and an hour later before the tail of the column comes in. Only nine miles in six hours, and everybody fagged! But we have gained our point; we have passed the outposts, and are in Bekwai country, within reach of the capital. We learn that the Ashantis have not yet advanced against it, and all is quiet. So after planting our outposts, we spread our beds in the verandahs which form the houses here, and roll off to sleep in no time. But it is not for long. Four hours’ rest and a light breakfast set us up for further work. One company of Houssas move off, with all the carriers, for Bekwai, some ten miles distant, while the remaining company, together with the scouts, prepare to turn on Esian Kwanta to clear the Ashantis out of it. The Houssas turn out with an eager alacrity that reminds one of our little warriors in other climes—the Ghoorkas. But once again, alas! their hopes are disappointed. The native scouts sent on ahead to reconnoitre Esian Kwanta come trotting back to tell us the enemy are not waiting for us to attack, but have bundled themselves out and away towards Kumassi. This renders the main road clear for those coming after us, and leaving a piquet of the scouts to occupy Esian Kwanta, we march away for Bekwai.
One emerges from the shady forest on to a red, bare rising ground, on which are two long straggling streets of huts crossed by two others at right angles. Open and airy, but unimposing. This is Bekwai.
The Ashanti houses are similar in design to those of the Adansi country, in that a house usually consists of a collection of four small verandahs facing inwards, with walled backs.
They thus form a little court, with a small portico all round—not at all unlike the Pompeian houses, the more so as they are stuccoed with a smooth red-coloured cement. The houses differ in construction from those of the Adansis in being made of wattle and daub, and in having very high-pitched roofs. So long as the fine weather, with which we have luckily been blessed, continues, they form ideal houses for living in shady, airy, and fairly clean.
Immediately on arrival of the flying column in Bekwai, I proceeded to the so-called palace, where I was received by the king in council, and after giving the king a letter assuring him of British protection, I received the evidently earnest thanks of the king for the prompt coming of the protecting force. The following morning (5th January) was devoted to the ceremony of hoisting the British flag, and small as the matter seemed to be at first, it developed into a very impressive function. African monarchs are very 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 the flag 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, and 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 chairs 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; every phrase he used, besides being formally applauded by the chorus of court criers, was evidently fully approved of by the concourse.
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 headdress 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. The officers of the Houssa force then came up and were introduced to the king. These were Captains Mitchell, Aplin, and Middlemist, Dr. Murray, etc.
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 the hand out as if to bless him—the greater chiefs shaking hands. The king himself shook hands three or four times over with me, calling me his friend and deliverer, and then proceeded to favour the company with a few steps—a proceeding almost unprecedented in the annals of Bekwai, and intended as a very special compliment. This was the end of the ceremonial palaver; but later in the day there came a business palaver, the first of a series which lasted over the next two or three days, whereat the king was asked to make some return for the privilege he now enjoyed of being a British subject, such as supplying men to act as carriers at a shilling a day, men to act as armed levies, assistance of villagers in cutting roads through the bush, and in supplying vegetable markets, etc. To each and every proposal he found some insuperable objection. A thousand carriers were required in two days’ time; he could produce only two hundred in six days. Two thousand armed men were wanted to form a levy; he could only produce one thousand. This was accepted, and the thousand soldiers transferred to be carriers. He had not reckoned on that, so added they could not carry loads, did not know how, and could not be collected in less than ten days. Endless argument, promises of reward, only passed hours of fruitless talk.
"Was this the way he showed his gratitude for being saved from the Ashanti?"
"Yes; he was very sorry, but he could do no more."
"Very well, then, tomorrow the flag would be hauled down, and the troops would march away."
Thereupon, he thought that possibly six hundred carriers might be got in four days, and so on, until at last all was promised as desired, and eventually the promises have been very fairly carried out. But it was a very wearisome business, this long preliminary haggling. The king too was generous in his way. A long string of slave boys brought us a pile of good things, such as yams, plantains, paw-paws, chickens, eggs, sheep, and even a bullock. And what a brute a man becomes after even a few weeks in the bush We simply revelled in this fresh food. And yet, up to the present, we had had no cause to complain; modern "canning" science has shorn a campaign of much of its hardship; we are well supplied with Maconochie’s rations, and as a great authority has said, "an army can go anywhere and do anything, so long as it possesses morale and Maconochie."
On the 5th January we were joined by a new white officer, Captain Williams, South Staffordshire Regiment, better known as "Litre-billee." He came to us practically for the purpose of replacing "The Sutler," who had at last fallen into the clutches of the fever fiend, and had to be sent into the newly established hospital at Qwisa. But " Litre-billee " was already ill when he reached us at Bekwai. And soon we heard that yet another officer, Captain Green of the Houssas, who had been sent to command a wing of the levy then on a reconnaissance westward, had also been struck down, The fever, too, was not of a kind that had a set-to with you and then retired, but after giving a shattering blow, he hung around and kicked at you at intervals; so that these officers, after their first seizure, were never up to the mark again, although between the attacks they went to work as energetically as ever.
This day was enlivened by an incident which, small as it was in itself, had a large effect on our dealings with the King of Bekwai. My report to the Assistant Adjutant-General thus briefly describes it all:
This somewhat high-handed procedure evidently startled the king, and showed him that we did not blindly believe in him. The result was that from that hour he exerted himself, and carried out fully one-half of his promises.
While at Bekwai, we have been joined by Prince Christian Victor and Major Piggott, who have come up to see the place, and who evidently mean to make themselves welcome to headquarters when they return with the numbers of fowls and eggs they are purchasing from the natives.