An Excerpt from:
CHAPTER III. THE TESTING OF A SCOUT
B.-P. rejoined his regiment in Ireland in June, 1893, and was soon busily occupied with the duties of a keen officer. His resourcefulness at maneuvers and his efficiency in all that he undertook soon attracted the attention of the Commander-in-Chief, Lord Wolseley, who was always on the watch for young officers who showed that they could think for themselves. B.-P. certainly satisfied this condition, for he never hesitated to put rules and regulations on one side if he thought immediate action was needed; nor did he play for safety—he took risks, made his mistakes, and learned from them.
It was not therefore surprising that in 1895 he was chosen by Lord Wolseley for special duties in an expedition to Ashanti. This country lies behind the Gold Coast of West Africa. There were a number of trading stations on the coast under British control, but peaceful development inland was hindered by the king of Ashanti, Prempeh. He roused the local tribes against the British and did all he could to prevent trading. In addition to this he carried on the blood-sacrifices and the slave trade, which had been forbidden. At last it was decided to send an expedition to his capital, Kumassi, to bring him to reason and to show the native chieftains that they could not carry on in the old lawless ways.
B.-P.’s job was to organize a levy of natives to do the necessary scouting and pioneering work. Most of the country that lay between the coast and Kumassi, 145 miles away, was dense forest with innumerable streams and stretches of swamp. There was no proper road but only a few paths, and these were mostly overgrown.
The officials at Cape Coast Castle had already collected together some hundreds of natives ready for this levy by the time B.-P. landed in December, I 895. He had a difficult task before him; the natives were quite willing to earn money, but their ideas of work were primitive and they were apt at the first difficulty to give up all effort. Here his previous experience with African natives was of great value to B.-P. First of all he decided that they must be given some kind of uniform to promote a sense of pride; the uniform consisted solely of a red fez, which appealed to the native’s sense of colour. Then he divided the men into groups each under its own chief, who was held responsible for seeing the tasks carried out; it was really a kind of Patrol system, but the Patrol Leaders were kings in their own country.
He was quick to see that it was no good trying to bully them, and found a good guide in the West African proverb, "Softlee, softlee, catchee monkey"—a saying which he often quoted in after years. The natives responded to this treatment, especially when they found that there was little use in trying to "put one over" on their commander; they thought he had eyes in the back of his head!
In Scouting for Boys B.-P. gave a brief account of the kind of work his men had to carry out.
"When I was on service on the West Coast of Africa, I had command of a large force of native scouts, and, like all scouts, we tried to make ourselves useful in every way to our main army, which was coming along behind us. So not only did we look out for the enemy and watch his moves, but we also did what we could to improve the road for our own army, since it was merely a narrow track through thick jungle and swamps. That is, we became pioneers as well as scouts. In the course of our march we built nearly two hundred bridges of timber over streams. But when I first set the scouts to do this most important work I found that, out of the thousand men, a great many did not know how to use an axe to cut down the trees, and, except one company of about sixty men, none knew how to make knots—even bad knots. So they were quite useless for building bridges, as this had to be done by tying poles together."
The scouts of the levy were drawn chiefly from the Adansi tribe; they showed remarkable ability in finding their way through the forest by day and by night. They went ahead of the main force in order to give warning of any ambuscades or the approach of an enemy. But the British were not attacked. There was one alarm from a friendly chief at Bekwai who expected to be attacked by Prempeh’s men; so B.-P. took off a party from the main route to forestall any such plan.
As they neared Kumassi everyone was more on the alert, for it was not certain how far Prempeh was prepared to go in opposition. The British heard the drums throbbing out, and at first thought this was the signal for battle; but the natives knew it for "drum-talk" and the message was that Prempeh was willing to palaver. Forty years later B.-P. was to hear that "drum-talk" again, but this time at the Wembley Empire Jamboree, when some Boy Scouts from Ashanti came to London with their drums. They greeted B.-P. as "Kantankye," which means, "He of the Big Hat," for it was in the Ashanti expedition that he first adopted the cowboy hat because it proved so practical; the broad brim shielded the face and the back of the neck from the hot sun, and kept the face and eyes from being scratched in the low bush of the jungle. Some of those boys at Wembley brought him messages from fathers who had served in the levy that reached Kumassi in January, 1896.
B.-P.’s special task at Kumassi was to see to the picketing of the town, and above all to prevent any attempt Prempeh might make to escape in the night. As a first step, B.-P. had the bush, which grew right up to the palace area, cleared for a good distance; then he posted his scouts, and during the night he himself kept close watch. As a signal to his men he used the "quit-quit-quit" of the frog with the timing of the letter K in Morse. When darkness fell, first one then another native came out of the palace to reconnoitre; these were the king’s scouts looking to see if the way was clear. They quickly found it was not, for when they entered the bush they were seized and gagged. Others followed and were disposed of in the same fashion. Then came two men, evidently of superior rank, who took more care; one of them came to the bush where B.-P. himself was concealed and stood there for some minutes, absolutely still, peering into the darkness. As soon as he moved, B.-P. seized him round the neck and they rolled over in a desperate struggle. Just as the man had managed to draw his knife—a wicked-looking weapon—one of the Adansis came up and probably saved B.-P.’s life. This careful watch undoubtedly prevented the escape of the king and further trouble. The aim of the expedition was achieved without bloodshed; Prempeh was deposed and sent into exile. Years later he was allowed to return to a peaceful country. Kumassi had grown into a fine town and was flourishing. The returned king could not have recognized the old site where the blood-sacrifices had been carried out. Perhaps he too thought of "Kantankye" when he became President of the Kumassi Boy Scouts!
Another link between the Boy Scouts and Ashanti is the Scout staff. B.-P. was struck by the usefulness of a long staff which the chief engineer officer carried with him. It came in useful for testing swampy ground, for pole jumping streams, and for making quick measurements, as it was marked off in feet and inches. This practical idea was stored up in B.-P.’s memory for future use.
The expedition returned to the coast—taking Prempeh with them—in seven days. B.-P. went on board the hospital ship Coromandel to get some breakfast. He sat down and immediately fell asleep; twenty-four hours later he awoke to find that he had been put comfortably to bed. When on active service he could manage with very little sleep, as he preferred to do his lone scouting at night.
He brought back to England the Blood Bowl which was used in the Kumassi sacrifices, and this grim relic can now be seen in the United Services Museum in London.
For his services, B.-P. was promoted, at the age of thirty-nine, to Brevet-Lieutenant-Colonel; he rejoined his regiment in Ireland, but within a few months he was once again chosen for special service, this time for what he called "the best adventure of my life ."