George Fenn.

George Alfred Henty: The Story of an Active Life



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As a matter of course, Henty (a businesslike and thorough seaman, who knew what he was about in the management of a sailing boat) must have set his teeth hard; but war-correspondent-like, he was ready to make the best of things, and after running his eye over the little steamer in the moonlight, he cheered himself with the thought that, as they went on, the weight of the coal would gradually grow less, and the launch become lighter in the water.

It was past the time for starting, so the anchor was soon drawn up, the little engine commenced to pant and rattle away merrily, while the lights upon the shore began to grow faint, for, in spite of being heavily laden, the steam launch showed herself worthy of her name, rising easily over the long heavy Atlantic swell. To Henty’s great satisfaction it seemed to be time to enjoy a calm and thoughtful pipe, for it was at once apparent that unless the wind freshened and made the sea get up, and this was only probable in the event of a hurricane, there was no cause for any uneasiness as to the safety of the little yacht.

In about half an hour they had settled down, for Henty was thoroughly at home on board the smallest of craft, and loved to see things ship-shape. Thick mats were spread over the blocks of coal, rugs were unrolled, and preparations were made for indulgence in the ever-welcome cup of tea.

The crew, all told, were only six in number. Stanley, the skipper; an English lad, who acted as his amanuensis and general help; the engineer, two black boys, who acted as servants and assistant stokers; and Henty himself. The last mentioned immediately began to talk business, and was for the time being the most important man on board, for it was not in him to be aboard a vessel of any kind without being ready to consider where their bearings lay and what effect the local currents would have upon their course.

Things were a little haphazard on board a vessel made only for steering by the shore, for the most part at the mouth of a river, so they had only a pocket compass. Quite nautically, Henty says that he knew that their course was slightly to north of east; but all the same it seemed extremely doubtful whether they ought to steer by such bearings, for they had no means of knowing how far the iron of the engine would affect the compass; “and besides, as there was a strong set of the current on the shore,” he continues, “we agreed to steer by the land.”

He goes on philosophically to say that steering by the land is simple enough by daylight, but at night, situated as they were, it was no easy matter, for though the moon was up, the customary African haze hung on the water and rendered the outline of the coast so indistinct that it was difficult in the extreme to judge the exact distance. Sometimes, too, the land lay so low that they could see little besides the white line of the surf, with here and there the head of a palm-tree. Once or twice, feeling that it was necessary to go cautiously, steam was turned off, and they stopped a few minutes to oil heated bearings or to tighten a nut; and then in the stillness of the night the loud roar of the surf seemed startlingly near.

Then on again and on, not knowing what was to be their fate, for there was always the possibility that they might be carried by a current too near one of the breakers and then be caught up, borne along at a tremendous rate, till, striking upon the sand, the little vessel would be rolled over and over, prior to being cast ashore a complete wreck.

In this way they steamed through the dull half-transparent haze, a feeling of ignorance and helplessness troubling the man to whom the navigation was most strange.

They took it in turns to steer, and the one who was off duty was supposed to take a nap; but Henty says quietly, “I do not think there was much sleep on board the Dauntless, and there was a general satisfaction when the morning broke.”

The general idea of a reader is that the West Coast of Africa is a land where the surf rushes in over the cast-up sand to where the dull olive-green of the weird-looking mangrove fringes the shore.

But between Cape Coast Castle and Accra, although the seashore lies flat for a few miles inland, it, for the most part, impressed Henty as a beautiful undulating country, with the hills rising occasionally from the very edge of the sea and attaining at times a thousand feet in height, the highest eminence in the neighbourhood being double that elevation.

And yet, he says, this beautiful hilly portion of the coast is as unhealthy as, if not worse than, the low shores with their mango swamps. This evil repute is said to apply most strongly to parts where the land is rich in gold, and it deters the adventurous who are disposed to exploit the precious metal. There is no doubt about its presence, and abundance might be had, but gold is too dear at the cost of life; and though it might be considered that the native black would prove immune if employed at gold-digging, it has been demonstrated again and again that the fever – the malaria – that is set free as soon as the earth is disturbed, is just as fatal to the black as to the white. The latter, with a smattering of science, attributes it to the disturbance of the soil and the setting at liberty of the germs of disease buried therein, and points to the fact that where new plantations of coffee, cinchona, or india-rubber are being made almost anywhere in the Malay Peninsula, the effects are, at the first cultivation of the soil, precisely the same, though in time, when the ground has been stirred again and again, it becomes healthy.

The West Coast black, however, has a very different theory, which he will freely impart, but with an almost awestricken whisper. Death comes to anyone who digs for gold, because it is fetish. It is of no use to laugh at his superstition. He knows that this is the case, and if any careless, contemptuous personage ridicules his superstition, he is angered; if a more rational explanation is propounded, he pities the enquirer’s ignorance. It is fetish, and fatal. Fatal enough, but unfortunately the horrible fetish belief is utilised in connection with poison and the destruction of an enemy. Hence the power of the Obeah man, the impostor-like native priest, witch-doctor, or medicine man. This fetish idea lingers still in the West Indies, where it has been handed down by the early unfortunate slaves from the West Coast, who formed the trade of the old plantation times.

This by the way. There were no further troubles about the steering in the bright morning sunshine, and Henty spent his time probably dreaming of future stories and mentally describing the beauty of the plains and hills. Birds abounded as they drew near to Accra, and they caught sight of little African antelopes dashing across the plains. For in this neighbourhood horses, mules, and oxen can live; and, in fact, the town itself is one of the most healthy along the coast, while, strange anomaly, it is one of the filthiest.

Upon reaching Accra in safety the engineer discovered that the intense saltness of the water had encrusted up the gauge, rendering it necessary to blow out the boiler, allow it to cool, and fill it again before proceeding. So the Dauntless was moored to a hawser from the stern of one of the ships at anchor. While leaving the engineer to put all right, the two correspondents prepared to go ashore and see what the town was like. Henty found time to note the tremendously rampant population of pigs, which, with the help of dogs and fowls, were the scavengers of the place. He makes no allusion, however, to the quality of the pork, but goes on to discourse upon the intense love of the women of the place for beads. These ranged from the tiny opaque scraps of all colours used by children for their dolls, to cylinders of variegated hues, yellow being the favourite, which were sometimes as long as the joint of one’s thumb and as thick round. The women wear these round the wrist, round the neck, and round the loins, while the occupation of threading the lesser beads is one of their greatest pleasures.

At seven the next morning they started back, congratulating themselves that they had met with no serious accident. But they were not fated to escape scot free, for on their return journey it was found that the rudder was gradually losing its power, proving at last to be broken, and when at length Addah was reached, and the Dauntless made fast to the stern of one of the vessels, they had to whistle for nearly half an hour before any effort was made to send out a surf-boat. When at last one was on the way, they began to understand the reluctance of the boatmen to make the trip, for over and over again, as the boatmen strove to cross the breakers, their vessel was thrown almost perpendicularly into the air, so that only a foot or so of the end of the keel touched the water. To quote Henty’s own words: —

“As we watched she still struggled on, though she was so long in getting through the hurtling foam that we began to fear that the men would give it up as being impracticable; but at last they got outside the surf, to lie upon their oars, utterly exhausted and waiting to recover from their exertions, when they rowed out to where we lay and took us on board.

“Nothing could have been better than the way in which they managed the landing. They hung upon their oars as we watched them breathlessly, and then, keen-eyed and watchful as they waited their time, they caught the exact moment when one of the breakers was, as it were, balancing itself as if waiting to pounce upon the surf-boat and its occupants.

“It was a race between man and nature, and man won, for the black boatmen seized the exact time, and then went at it with racing speed. Their steersman was one of the finest specimens of the negro I have ever seen. Nothing could be finer than his attitude as he stood upon the seat in the stern, one hand resting upon the long steering-oar, while in the other he held his cap.

“For some time he stood half-turned round, gazing keenly seaward, while the boat lay at rest just outside the line of breakers. Then all at once he waved his hat and gave a wild shout, which was answered by his crew, and every man plunged his oar into the water, rowing desperately, while their helmsman cheered them on with his frantic shouts.

“How they pulled! And it seemed in vain, as if we had started too late, for a gigantic wave was rolling in behind us, looking as if it were about to curl over, break into the stern, and sweep us from end to end.

“But the boatmen knew what they were about. They rose upon the wave just as it was turning over, and in an instant they were sweeping along a cataract of white foam with the speed of an arrow. The next wave was smaller, but it carried them onward, and before a third that had been pursuing them hard could reach the boat, they were run up on the dripping sand.

“Just then a dozen men rushed out to meet them. The occupants of the boat threw themselves anyhow upon their shoulders, and directly after they were high and dry upon the sands.”

Chapter Twenty Eight.
The “Weaker Sex” in Ashanti

Almost at the start of his campaigning in Ashanti Henty found himself confronted with a serious problem, and anyone who, like the present writer, had known him intimately for years will find it easy to imagine the look of annoyance, puzzlement, and wrath that his features must have displayed upon waking up to this fact. He was bound upon an important mission, one which compelled him to keep in company with the expeditionary army, or portions of it, just about to start from Cape Coast Castle for the river Prah, in order to follow its windings through the dense tropical forest; he was a thorough athlete, and ready to make any shift to forward his progress that was possible, but he was now brought face to face with the unexpected. An expedition, he found, would start upon the following day at three, and as a matter of course, in spite of experience and the knowledge that he must not burden himself with what the old Romans so aptly called impedimenta during a campaign – a knowledge which had made him cut down his luggage to the narrowest limits, in fact made him take nothing more than he was obliged to take – he found to his dismay that it was impossible to procure hammock-bearers. It was not that he wished to travel in luxurious style, but nature had ordained that, to a European, walking through the prevalent intense heat was an impossibility; not because of the intense sunshine, for the way for the most part was through the shadow of the dense tropical forest, but because of the strange lowering prostration which followed the slightest exertion and compelled the most robust, able-bodied men to throw themselves down and rest after walking a distance that was absurdly short.

Hammock-bearers, however, he found it impossible to procure. He had engaged eight men for the purpose, but they had all been summoned by their chiefs the night before, and the whole of the men in the neighbourhood who were not under arms as combatants were engaged by the government as porters. In his ignorance of what he had to contend with, he was ready to abandon the idea of having hammock-bearers, and prepared to trust to his own walking powers and start afoot; but matters looked very serious when he was informed by the native merchant he had employed that it was impossible to find even four men to carry his tent and necessaries. Four women could be obtained, and that was all!

Women! Henty indignantly declined, and turned over in his mind what he should do. Then the idea struck him that the Army Control Department might have more men than they wanted, or would possibly spare him a few. Going up to the Castle Yard he found all in a state of animation and bustle, with plenty of labourers rolling casks and carrying cases up from the beach; but to his utter astonishment there were a hundred women working with them, chattering and laughing, as they worked more vigorously than the men. A few questions to one of the Control officers brought the explanation that they were short of hands in consequence of the number of men at work upon the roads and at the various stations, while numbers more had obeyed the summons of their chiefs and deserted to go to the war. There was a vessel laden with war stores that must be unladen, and consequently the Control had been driven to enlist women carriers to take up the bales of military greatcoats, blankets, and waterproof sheets, in addition to other stores.

Henty began to think, urged on as he was by dire necessity, what is sauce for the goose under certain circumstances may be sauce for the gander. In other words, if it was not undignified for her Majesty’s officials to make use of women labour, he began to see that it ought not to be bad form for him at such a supreme moment to follow their example. So under these circumstances he went back to the native Whiteley and accepted his offer to supply female bearers, and very shortly afterwards four women were brought forward for him to inspect. He objected to two of these at once, for one of them had what must be a great drawback to her power of carrying a load, in the shape of a child of two years old clinging to her back. The other was similarly circumstanced, but her little one was a mere infant. It was, however, these or none; and as the other two were smart good-looking girls of about sixteen years old, and as many of the women working for the Control were handicapped with children, he made no further demur, in spite of a lingering feeling of doubt about the banter which he would receive from his colleagues and the officers with whom he was brought in contact. It was so evidently the fashion, however, to employ women, that he hoped to escape scot free. But it was not so, for Henty’s Standard-bearers became one of the jokes of the expedition.

Sir Evelyn Wood, in his exhaustive and chatty work, From Midshipman to Field-Marshal, alludes to the state of affairs in connection with bearers at the same time and place. He says: “The women have most of the qualities which are lacking in the men. They are bright, cheerful, and hard-working, and even under a hot fire never offer to leave the spot in which we place them, and are very strong. As I paid over 130 pounds to women for carrying my loads up to Prahsu, I had many opportunities of observing their strength and trustworthy character, for to my knowledge no load was ever broken open or lost. They carried fifty or sixty pounds from Cape Coast Castle to Prahsu, a distance of seventy-four miles, for ten shillings, and the greater number of them carried a baby astride of what London milliners used to call a ‘dress improver’.” High praise, this, for the weaker sex, when Sir Evelyn describes the male bearers as being prone, as soon as they came under fire, to throw their loads down on the ground and run for their lives.

Chapter Twenty Nine.
Warfare in the Bush

It was only natural that wherever he went for an expedition there were two points to which Henty made frequent allusion. One was hospital practice and the care of the sick and wounded; the other the Commissariat Department and the supply of wholesome drinking water.

Plenty of such references are found in his account of the march to Coomassie. There is mention of the women bearers rolling the water-casks, and the native bearers, as they came in sight of one of the village markets, depositing their burdens upon the ground, to make a rush to the stores to lay in an extra supply for their wants during the tramp through the forest, these supplies consisting of native bread and dried fish. A rose by any other name, it is said, may smell as sweet; so it may be taken for granted that the native name for bread – “Kanky” – may not seriously affect its qualities. But when it comes to the dried fish, of which the blacks are very fond, Henty has some remarks to make. It is, though, by the way, rather curious what an instinctive liking the natives of some countries have for preserved fish. For instance, in the Malay Peninsula the natives have a great fancy for a concoction which they term blachang, as an appetiser to flavour the dull monotonous tameness of the ever-present boiled rice. This blachang is compounded of shrimps, saved up till they are in a state of putrefaction, and then beaten into a paste, the odour of which puts the ripest snipe to the blush.

The dried fish of the West Coast of Africa are to an Englishman (unless he has learned to like the flavour of asafoetida from long experience of the smoked dainties called in India Bombay ducks) excessively nasty, being smoked with some herb strongly resembling foetid gum in smell and flavour.

But to turn from fish to soup. Henty discourses very wisely about the latter in connection with the weariness and exhaustion consequent upon a long tramp through the forest. After an experience of ten miles or so of the hot, oppressive air there is no desire for eating, only a longing for a cup of hot cocoa or tea, as soon as a fire can be set going – not always an easy task in a land where the tropical downpours are tremendous, saturating everything and rendering the superabundant wood unfit to burn. Hunger, even after many hours’ march, is completely quenched, and it might be expected that the weary traveller would be prone to fly for a stimulus to the commissariat rum. But to quote Henty’s own words, spoken from experience, “Soup is undoubtedly the thing in this country”; and it grew to be the custom on the march, for the first party who arrived at the halting-place to start a fire and prepare what the soldiers spoke of as a jorum of hot broth, ready for the next comers. “After a fatiguing day’s march one has no appetite for solid food, but a basin of soup sets one up at once.”

This march to Coomassie was a dreary tramp through a jungle. The way being along a narrow native path, the progress was so slow, encumbered as they were with the necessaries of the journey, that on one occasion it took more than two hours and a half to accomplish four miles, for the heat was terribly trying. Yet to an observant eye the vegetation and the mighty trees were most attractive. The undergrowth of the forest consisted of broad-leaved plants, sword-bladed flags and the like, above which the great plantains, looking like Brobdingnagian hart’s-tongue ferns, spread their great green, often split and ragged leaves, while every here and there the cotton-trees, lovers of moist swampy land, rose to an immense height. The heat all the time gradually increased, and the men suffered severely during the delays caused by difficulties with the baggage, or from the column having to climb over trunks of trees that had fallen across the path, while sometimes it was necessary to pass through swamps in which the water varied from ankle to knee deep.

On such occasions the halts were most trying, for a small obstacle caused considerable delay in the passage of a column in single file. Men would pause for a moment to pick their way before entering the swamp; others would stop to turn up their trousers; and so the stoppage would often accumulate until what was merely a second’s wait of the leading man became five minutes with the five hundredth. A wait of even two minutes in the sun when there was not a breath of wind was most trying, for great as was the heat, it was not felt so much while moving, partly, perhaps, because the attention was directed to picking the way, but more because of the profuse flow of perspiration. In reference to this, though, Henty adds: —



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