Major R. S. S. Baden-Powell


Native Levy Building a Fort



There may be those among my readers who would be glad to receive some information regarding the organization and work of the levy, and who, on the other hand, have not the leisure or inclination to wade through the foregoing pages in search thereof. To save them this trouble, I have thought it right to append the following brief account, extracted by the kind permission of the editor, from the Journal of the Royal United Service Institute for March, 1896: —

"Our frequent little wars in all parts of the globe necessitate continually the raising of native levies, and yet one looks in vain for any book that may give one details of organization, or even the experiences of previous efforts, and that may serve as a guide to similar work when occasion demands it.

“It is, of course, impossible for any hard and fast organization to be laid down to suit all cases. For example, to attempt to impose some new form of discipline and tactics on a levy of Zulus or Swazis would be to hamper a people already well-grounded in their own form of warfare; whereas with a levy of less warlike folk, such as the West African Coast tribes, some system has to be arranged by which they may be kept in hand by the few white officers available for commanding them.

"It may, therefore, be of interest to many to learn what were the lines upon which the native levy in the recent campaign in Ashanti was organized, and what was the scope of its work.

"On the arrival of the expedition at Cape Coast Castle, on December 13th last, I was ordered to raise and organize a native levy.

"Fortunately, I was given the invaluable assistance of an officer who had already some experience of the country and its people, namely, Captain Graham, D.S.O., 5th Lancers.

"Also, through the kind offices of Captain Donald Stewart, I obtained the services of Chief Andoh of Elmina, who proved himself a most loyal and trustworthy adviser on all points of native custom and character.

"The material at hand for forming the levy consisted of some 300 of the Krobo tribe, under their king, Matikoli, and about 100 of the Mumford tribe, under Chief Brew. The Krobos had in former times distinguished themselves as a comparatively warlike race, and they furnished a satisfactory contingent to the native levies in the last campaign against Ashanti. The Mumfords were merely coast fishermen, splendid in physique, but absolutely useless, as they rather proudly admitted, for anything but sea-fishing. They were fitted with —

‘Iron sinews, but hearts of mice.’

"Up country, on the Prah, there were already collected too warriors of the Adansi tribe. These warriors had already been armed by the civil Government with ‘Dane’ guns, that is, long flint-lock trade guns, and supplied with a few kegs of powder and bars of lead for ammunition. A store of these arms was lying ready at Prahsu for arming the remainder of the levy as soon as it should arrive there. Two or three days were required to collect the men at Cape Coast Castle, and it was only by adopting somewhat vigorous methods with the chiefs that this time was not prolonged to a week or more.

"The native was apparently incapable of grasping any idea of punctuality; lying was the natural form of every statement or promise he made; lying was the natural attitude assumed by his body, especially when any work was to be done.

"Moreover, in the present instance, the trade gin of the metropolis had come sweet to the lips of the countryman just called up from his village, and his natural stupidity was thereby rendered doubly dense. One good point about these warriors was their cowardice; the least hint of an intention of backing up an order with force ensured its prompt obedience, but this was?* trump card which had to be held up with discretion until the frontier was crossed and desertion had become impossible.


"In the meantime, extreme patience, coupled with firmness, was required; exasperation and a rising gorge had to be smoked or whistled down. (There is nothing like whistling an air when you feel exasperated beyond reclaim.)

"It is a West Coast proverb which says, ‘Softly, softly, catchee monkey.’ This was suggested jokingly as a suitable motto for the stealthily creeping corps of native scouts, but its spirit soon came to be adopted as a guiding principle in practice in all our dealings and actions. Its meaning might be construed into ‘Don’t flurry! Work up to your point quietly and steadily. In a word, ‘Patience!’

"The Krobos and Mumfords had at length been coaxed into assembling by the evening of the 16th, and on the following day they were roughly organized in companies under headmen of their respective villages. They were then supplied with red fezes, paraded for the inspection of His Excellency the Governor, and marched off for the interior.

"The ultimate organization that was found to be best adapted for all purposes, whether for pioneer work, drill, reconnaissance, or outposts, was the division of each tribe into small companies of from twenty to thirty men each.

"Each tribe was under the orders of its chief, and he, or his orderly, understood English, and acted as the adjutant of his detachment, taking all his instructions from the white officer. Each company was under a ‘captain,’ assisted by an under-captain.

"No specific duties beyond those of acting as scouts had been assigned to the levy; but as we made our way up-country, it became evident that much pioneering work would be necessary, in order to make the road passable for troops through the dense bush and to prepare clearings ~and huts for rest camps. Therefore, whenever we saw a chance of obtaining tools of any description, we did not fail to avail ourselves of it; but in the end, the quantity and quality of our equipment did not amount to anything very considerable, and it was greatly due to the further system applied to our organization that the levy was able success- fully to carry out the pioneering work which it eventually accomplished. Our tools consisted mainly of matchets (long, heavy knives), naval cutlasses, spades, picks, and a few hatchets and felling-axes.

"The companies were permanently detailed to certain kinds of work: thus, one was charged with the work of building bridges, another with making huts, another with digging the road and draining it where necessary, another with felling timber and log-cutting, and so on; so that every man knew his proper work, and with a few days’ practice, became proficient in it.

But at first Native Levy’s building a Fort, much instruction had to be given in the method of using felling-axes, spades, levers, and in knotting ropes — or, rather, the substitute for rope, the kind of creeper known as ‘monkey-rope.’

"Each ‘captain’ was made responsible for tools used by his company (and these had to be checked daily, both before and after work), and also for the presence of all his men during working hours, which, with the exception of two hours’ rest for the midday meal, generally lasted from daylight till dusk. It was some time before this idea of responsibility for the working of their men could be instilled into the captains, but once it had been grasped by them, and the system had got into working order, all went smoothly and efficiently, so long as a white officer was at hand to keep the rate of progress up to the mark.

"The practical outcome of the pioneer work of the levy was the cutting of over fifty miles of road beyond the Prah through the bush to Kumassi, the bridging of numberless streams, the corduroying of swamps, and the ramping of numerous giant tree-trunks that lay across the path; and also in the clearance of camping-grounds, erection of huts, and the building of three forts; and, lastly, in a piece of work that was comparatively light and yet of paramount importance, namely, in the clearing of the bush round the palace at Kumassi, which enabled that place to be surrounded, and so prevented Prempeh’s intended escape when he was ‘wanted.’

"Of course, strong measures had at first to be taken to bring the amount of work up to the standard required, and the punishment for non-obedience of orders was supposed to be fining; but the native, unaccustomed to much regular payment of any kind, and totally ignorant of payment in arrear, could not understand the meaning of deductions and stoppages, and their infliction was not carried out; more tangible punishment had to be substituted.

"Rations were not issued to the levy, but in order that they might live without raiding when in strange territory, the men were paid three pence a day, and this sufficed to buy them sufficient yams and plantains to satisfy their wants. In addition to this subsistence, the Krobos, Elminas, and Mumfords also drew, in arrears, daily pay at sixpence a man and eighteen pence for a captain. This was less than the pay of carriers, but more than would be given to levies in any other part of our dominions; for, surely, it would seem the duty of warrior-subjects to turn out when called upon for the defence of their country, as a return for our protectorate over them.

"This latter rule was carried out with part of the levy, namely, the Adansis, Bekwais, and Abodoms, and they worked none the less satisfactorily for it — perhaps all the better, as they hoped, by good work, to obtain a good ‘dash’ or reward at the end of the campaign.

"While the main body of the levy had been undergoing organization and equipment about the Prah, as above described, the Adansi contingent of four companies had been acting as scouts and outposts to the front of the Adansi Hills, three-quarters of the way to Kumassi from the coast.

"They were a wild, uncivilized crew, living entirely in the bush, and therefore well adapted for this particular duty.

"It was only necessary to show them a system to work upon, and they readily grasped it. Briefly, the plan for outpost duties was this: Each company formed a piquet, and during the day it had sentries out for all paths leading to it. These sentries were concealed in the bush close by the path, and within reach of recall by the horn sounding at the piquet. Patrols of two or three men went out for the whole day on every path. No individual work could be got out of natives at night — the bush was too full of fairies and fetish devils for that. Therefore, after dark, instead of the day sentries and patrols, small detached posts of half a dozen men each were bivouacked on every path, at a distance of about a mile from the piquet.

"In addition to their watchfulness, the Adansis, and also the Bekwais and Abodoms (who were afterwards added to them for detached duties), distinguished themselves by their quickness in detecting the presence of an enemy, and by the rapidity with which they conveyed the news not only to their commander, but also to neighbouring piquets and parties.

“Their faculty, too, for finding their way in the forest, whether by day or by night, was surprising. They could not explain it themselves, but, like the forest tribes of South-Eastern Africa, they were in no way guided by sun or stars — some natural instinct brought them through.

"In the meantime, the Krobo portion of the levy had been armed with Snider rifles, and, in the intervals of work and on the march, the companies were instructed by Captain Graham in the use of their arms and in the elements of drill. This instruction chiefly took the form of the principles of the firing exercise, and its practice in action in the bush. A few simple whistle-signals were employed to signify ‘Halt,’ ‘Advance,’ ‘Rally,’ ‘Cease firing,’ &c, and these were readily learnt by the men.

"The supply of ammunition was kept up by means of an ammunition carrier to each company. Every man was allowed five rounds only, loose in his pouch, with another five rounds tied up. This would, it was hoped, do something to check indiscriminate blazing away. Unfortunately, the work told upon Captain Graham, and in the midst of it he was struck down, and for a time incapacitated by fever; and the same fate befell two more officers who were thereupon successively attached to the levy for duty, namely, Captain Williams, South Staffordshire Regiment, and Captain Green, Gold Coast Houssas. Major Gordon, 15th Hussars, then joined us, and would have been an ideal leader for the men had it been our fortune to come to blows with the enemy.


"The levy eventually was composed as follows:—

8 companies of Krobos,

2 companies of Mumfords,

1 company of Elminas,

4 companies of Adansis,

2 companies of Bekwais,

1 company of Abodoms,

having a total strength of 860. Of these eighteen companies, eleven were more or less disciplined, armed with Sniders, and equipped with tools for pioneering. The remaining seven companies were irregulars, armed with flintlock guns, and especially useful as scouts and for outpost and reconnaissance work.

"The first actual test of the marching and scouting power ot the levy and of its discipline was the march to the assistance ot Bekwai. This was carried out by night as well as by day, and in the presence of an outpost and scouts of the enemy. The levy was backed up by two companies of Houssas, and this no doubt helped to give it the confidence it displayed, and which contributed to its rapid and successful completion of the duty.

"After this experience there was no doubt of its ability to work, if not in a bold and dashing manner, at least warily and usefully; and this was borne out in the final advance on Kumassi, when the levy forming the advance guard was divided into three parties and approached the place by three different routes. The central party on the main road cut the path for the troops. Its covering party being sent to within a short distance of Kumassi, the remainder was distributed in cutting parties at intervals along the track; by this disposition the last six miles of road were cleared in two hours. On arrival at Kumassi the levy formed outposts to cover the arrival of the main body, and continued to find the out- posts all round the camp during the stay of the troops there.

"These outposts were partly employed for the purpose of protecting villagers bringing in supplies to the market, and partly to prevent native followers from going out to raid on their own account, and they were also useful, especially at night, in preventing the escape of Prempeh and his chiefs from Kumassi. It was certainly due to their vigilance that Prempeh did not escape on the night before his arrest.

"The palace had been reconnoitered soon after the arrival of the troops, and we had then found that its garden adjoined the bush at the back, and that a small postern existed in the fence, and led by a footpath through this bush, across the swamp and into the forest beyond.

"The levy therefore went to work with matchets, and in a few hours had cut away a broad open space all round the palace enclosure; and thus, when the time came, it was found possible to draw a cordon of men rapidly round the place, to prevent not only the escape of its inmates, but also looting parties from gaining an entrance.

"On the night before the arrest the piquets on all the roads were reinforced, and an extra patrol was stationed to watch what went on at the palace. Messengers from the palace and others were caught trying all the roads, and during the night one of the Ansahs was captured by the piquet on the so-called ‘secret’ path.

"There had been some difficulty in obtaining information as to where the queen-mother resided, but at three o’clock in the morning the patrol saw her come out of the palace and go to her home in the town, and there they marked her down with a piquet until she might be wanted.

"There is good reason to suppose that the palace party had intended to escape that night, but were obliged to abandon their plan on finding every road stopped.

"The last pioneering task carried out by the levy was the very satisfactory one of levelling the smouldering walls of the burnt fetish houses at Bantama.

"Then part of the levy made a night march and reconnaissance to a place five miles beyond Kumassi, where 400 of Mampon’s men were reported to be encamped, but these got wind of our coming, and slipped away; and a reconnaissance the same day to Maheer, the king’s summer residence, only arrived there to find that the place had already been looted by the slaves left in charge of it.

"Next came the march down to the coast with all the royal and other prisoners. The part taken by the levies in the early portion of this march was not an unimportant one, since to them fell the duty of searching the bush and of holding all by-roads, to guard against attempts which we had reason to expect would be made to assassinate Prempeh. They found numbers of individual men in the bush, but these always came in asking for news, and were evidently runaway slaves rather than would-be assassins.

"On the 22nd January the levy marched out of Kumassi; on the 29th it arrived at Cape Coast Castle, thus completing a march of 150 miles in seven days, which in that climate is not a bad performance.

"This brief resume of the work done by the levy will tend to show to what extent it was capable of being useful in the short period of its enrolment, after being organized on the principles above stated.

"It is not claimed that such organizations could also go so far as to put pluck into the men, but it is only reasonable to infer that if they had been brought into actual conflict with the Ashantis, they would at least have shown themselves no worse than their enemy; they would, at any rate, have been perfectly under control of their officers; and they would probably have been emboldened to a very useful extent by the possession of better arms and by their superiority in tactical power.

"A reliable authority on the subject has stated that, in his opinion, West African tribes are worse than useless as levies, for two reasons: one is that their natural cowardice will lead them when the fight is going against them to run away at the critical moment, and in their panic in the narrow bush path to overrun and bear back with them the steadier troops in support; the other is that in a winning fight their want of discipline will, on the other hand, lead them to commit excesses such as would be unbecoming in allies of the British.

"But in dealing with a native levy in any part of the world, one or other of these difficulties, often both, will have to be encountered by the white commander; and the sooner he realizes that other means must of necessity be used for enforcing discipline than ordinary commands or requests, the sooner he will find himself properly obeyed. These have to be resorted to occasionally as the lesser of evils, up to the point of shooting one’s own men; but when resorted to they should be the result only of deliberate and fair consideration of the case. Strict justice goes a very long way towards bringing natives under discipline. A very few lessons suffice, as a rule, to show them that an order is not to be trifled with; and once this idea has been ingrafted into their minds, they become very amenable to discipline.

"In the late Ashanti expedition, although we had no fighting to do, the pioneering, scouting, and outpost work performed by the native levy were sufficiently valuable in their results to justify very fully its enrolment, in spite of the fact that it was composed of the much-abused West Coast tribes."


    The Authors Apology to the Reader.
    Sketch Map of the March to Kumassi
I.   Reasons For The Ashanti Expedition of 1895-96.
II.   Preliminaries To The Expedition
III.   Local Preparations.
IV.    At Cape Coast Castle (with a note on the British Royal Family).
V.   The Levy Starts
VI.   In the Bush
VII.   Pioneer Work
VIII.   The Scouts
IX.   The Bekwai Column
X.   Forward Movements
XI.   In Kumassi
XII.   Preparing the "Coup"

The Downfall

XIV.   After Events
XV.   The Coastward March
XVI.   Homeward Bound
XVII.   The Formation of the Native Levy
    Sir George Baden-Powell, "Policy And Wealth In Ashanti, 1895"

Major R. S. S. Baden-Powell.
The Downfall of Prempeh, 1895-96.
Sir George Baden-Powell, "Policy And Wealth In Ashanti, 1895"
Major R. S. S. Baden-Powell.
The Downfall of Prempeh, 1895-96.
Sketch Map of the March to Kumassi
Lessons from the Varsity of Life
Chapter V: Soldiering
"With a Native Levy in Ashanti"
Eileen K. Wade,
The Piper of Pax: The Life Story of Sir Robert Baden-Powell, 1924
Chapter VIII. Ashanti.
The Baden-Powell Library. A Selection of excerpts from the works of Lord Baden-Powell and works relating to his life and career.
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