Chapter XI. IN KUMASSI.
KUMASSI, January I7.
Kumassi at last! And what a disappointment. For a long and toilsome march to end in a scene of such meanness and squalor; for a well-equipped, expensive expedition to havethout the fight, the expense will be the same in valuable lives and good constitutions lost.
All yesterday my force was working its way by three different paths towards the capital. Here and there we captured armed Ashantis watching in the bush, but no kind of resistance was offered to the advance, One curious incident occurred to waken up those spirits of the main body who had begun to despair of getting a fight. Major Gordon was commanding the right flank party of the advanced force. A crumpled scrap of paper arrived by a native runner from this part of the command, bearing the ominous words:
“Major Gordon. “Killed 14th inst.”
This, of course, caused much discussion and rumour in the camp, till someone discovered a faint pencil note of receipt initialed by Major Gordon himself, and it then was remembered that a piece of fresh meat had been sent off to him a day or two previously, with this selfsame label attached to it. A few miles in rear of my crew came the main body, headed by Houssas and the Special Service Corps, and, with its long string of supply, ammunition, and hospital columns, it covered something like nine miles of road. The duty of the advanced force was to scout and to cut the road for the main body, but there was now no time for building huts, as had been the practice up till now; accordingly the troops had to make their own bush-shelters or pitch their tentes d’abri.
Most unfortunately a tornado paid us a visit last night. A violent thunderstorm and torrents of rain lasting several hours played havoc with the slight, improvised shelters, and turned everybody out in good time for an early start, but as wet and bedraggled as it was possible for men to be. Still, as usual, the wetter and more miserable his surroundings, the more cheery is Tommy Atkins, and today was to be the last of the march. Reports were flying around that the enemy meant to oppose us at the gates of Kumassi, to make one stand there, and if beaten, to blow up the city, and disperse into the bush. “Gates,” “city,” “king’s palace”; all sounded well, but what did we find?
Through dense, high elephant grass, along a little beaten foot-pathwhich was strewn with fetish dollswe got near to the place. As our scouts warily approached, the drums could be heard rumbling and booming far and near. Presently we passed a cluster of the usual mud huts, then another; several other clusters were in sight, with patches of high jungle grass between. Then a bare open patch of ground 200 yards across, with huts about, and more thatched roofs in the hollow beyond.
This was Kumassi.
With Graham a sent piquets on beyond the town to guard approaches, while the main body was moving up from out the bush. The drumming in the town was getting louder, and the roar of voices filled the air; but, alas! it was peace drumming. The great coloured umbrellas were soon seen dancing and bobbing above the heads of the surging crowds of natives. Stool-bearers ran before, then came the whirling dancers with their yellow skirts flying round them. Great drums, like beer-barrels, decked with human skulls, were booming out their notes, and bands of elephant-tusk horns were adding to the din. The king and all his chiefs were coming out to see the troops arrive. Presently they arranged themselves in a dense long line. The umbrellas formed a row of booths, beneath which the chiefs sat on their brass-nailed chairs, with all their courtiers round them. This was nine o’clock, and there they sat till five.
Often had they sat like this before upon that same parade ground; but never had their sitting been without the sight of blood. The object of this open space was not for parading troops, but for use as theatre of human sacrifice. Orders had been given before our arrival to clean away all signs of this custom, nor were the people to speak of it to the white men; but with very little cross-examination all the facts came out. Indeed, while standing about the parade-ground, “The Sutler” peered into the coppice close by, where the trees supported a flock of healthy looking vultures, and there at once he found skulls and bones of human dead.
And there sits Prempeh, looking very bored, as three scarlet-clad dwarfs dance before him, amid the dense crowd of sword-bearers, court criers, fly-catchers, and other officials. He looks a regal figure as he sits upon a lofty throne with a huge velvet umbrella standing over him, upon his head a black and gold tiara, and on his neck and arms large golden beads and nuggets. Presently a little party of our force comes hurriedly across the ground, three white soldiers with four natives carrying a reel and winding off the field telegraph; and thus within a few minutes practically of the arrival of the advanced force in Kumassi, the fact would have been known at home had not the previous day’s tornado destroyed the line in sundry places. But this feat has not been performed without cost. Of the telegraph section, Captain Curtis is in hospital with fever, as are also many of his men; and it is a fact worthy of record how, in spite of this and of the heavy work connected with the laying and the working of the line, its completion has been carried out with such rapidity and efficiency.
The billeting officers sent forward under Colonel Ward, the Assistant Adjutant-General for B duties, have been busy in allotting different portions of the town to the various units of the force as quarters, so that no time need be lost in housing them on their arrival.
And presently they come. The advanced guard of the Houssas lead the way.
Then come the Special Service Corps. Wet, and white of face, but going strong and well, they march up in their little companies to their places on parade, amid the admiring cheers of those of us who were already there to greet them. Close behind the 7-pounder guns came up, carried on bamboo poles.
And then Sir Francis Scott and staff, all looking hale and well. In rear of these there marches in the West Yorkshire Regiment, all ranks of most soldierly and most workmanlike appearance. A thousand pities that there is so little for them to do!
No time is lost. The billeting officers show the way, and soon the units are filing off to their various quarters about the town, the advanced force continuing its move to a mile beyond the townto Bantama.
Later in the afternoon, Sir Francis Scott, with all his staff, seated in a semicircle on the parade ground, received a visit from King Prempeh and his chiefs. There had been some conjectures as to what Prempeh might do when asked to come down from his throne to meet the commander of the troops, but he came down without a word; indeed, it looks as though the Ashantis had agreed to give in to their visitors on every point that might be raiseduntil their backs are turned!
The usual long string of chiefs, each with his little court, came thronging by, saluting with outstretched hand the officers; and finally King Prempeh came himself, supported and even jostled by his swarming courtiers, his flabby yellow face glistening with oil, and his somewhat stupid expression rendered more idiotic by his sucking a large nut like a fat cigar.
Sir Francis told him in plain terms that he would have to make his submission in accordance with native forms and customs to the Governor, who would shortly arrive in Kumassi. Beyond that he did not enter on political questions, but merely gave a few necessary orders regarding the provision of markets and the maintenance of order, etc., and the interview came to an end. The queen-mother followed, and looked a good- natured, smiling little woman; but beneath that smile she is said, like others of her sex, to hide a store of villainy.