George Alfred Henty: The Story of an Active Life
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“We did not suffer so much from the heat upon this coast as we do in parts of India; but this was because there was always either a sea or a land breeze blowing, which kept down the temperature in the shade to 84 or 85 degrees, which was by no means unpleasant. But when the sun blazed down the heat was really intense. A thermometer placed in the sun upon the wall of the hospital marked over 150 degrees for some hours three or four days during the week, and I should say that the heat of the bush, where there was no shade, was fully as great. Under these circumstances it was not to be wondered at that a certain number of men at the end of each day’s march were found unfit for further work, and had to be sent back in hammocks. Still, the number that fell out was very small indeed, for men struggled to the last rather than give in.”
When the men broke down, the officers noticed the poor fellows’ flushed faces and dull eyes, and said that they could only speak coherently with an effort. These were cases of attacks by the sun, not of sunstroke, for they were not sudden. The doctors called them sun-fever, and the cure adopted was for the poor fellows to be sent back in hammocks to the coast and placed on board ship, where in most cases the sea air restored them to health.
Henty is pretty severe in his description of the Sierra Leone men, the over-civilised and spoilt blacks with whom he came in contact during the advance. He describes them as “the laziest, most discontented, most self-sufficient and most impudent set of rascals the world contains. They are no more,” he says, “to be compared with the Fantis, or any of the other native tribes, than light is to darkness.”
In one case they started a mutiny, refusing to work unless money was paid to them instead of stores; but they had Englishmen to deal with, and when two of the ringleaders offered to strike the Control officers, the latter at once seized them single-handed, forced them apart, and treated them with firmness. Subsequently, as the men grew more threatening and determined in their refusals to work, one of the naval officers of the expedition, Captain Peel, interfered, and in true naval fashion threatened that the first man who refused to obey orders should be had up to the triangles and receive three dozen lashes. If the fellow resisted after this, he declared he would summon his sailors on shore, take him on board ship, and give him five dozen; while, if his companions and fellow-mutineers attempted any violence, he would without hesitation give orders for the sailors to fire. The threat sufficed.
The term “spoiled” has been applied by Henty to the Sierra Leone negro, and he is not the first writer by many who has dealt with the vanity and conceit that inflate the half-educated native. Allusion may be made to the humorous description of Captain Marryat concerning the Badian boy: “King George never fear, sir, long as Badian boy ’tan’ ’tiff.”
The Sierra Leone negro, says Henty, is in his native country lord and master.He believes that he is the white man’s equal in every point, his superior in most. But this game of indolence and insolence did not pay at Cape Coast. The negroes were enlisted in the service of the Queen for six months, and although the work they did was less than that which a Fanti girl of twelve years old would get through, it had to be done without insolence or mutiny.
Night in the jungle produced its memories. After his day’s tramp with the troops and bearers, nine o’clock in the evening saw all but the sentries lying down, and Henty retained for many years very vivid recollections of these nights in the forest on the way to Coomassie – close nights, with scarcely a breath of wind stirring. Somewhere outside the hut where the correspondents sheltered, a native would be demonstrating that chest troubles are not peculiar to our bronchitic, foggy isles, for here in the midst of this tropic heat one of the blacks would keep up a perpetual coughing that made sleep next to impossible; next, a legion of rats could be heard gnawing and scratching, as they tore about the shelters and raced in every direction over those who were seeking for rest; and then there were the insects. The mosquitoes would begin, and it seemed as if they knew the command in the old opera “The Siege of Rochelle” – “Sound the trumpet boldly!” Every now and then, too, upon fell intention bent, they would make a raid from above on some unprotected face, while, to supplement this trouble, a colony of the wretched insects which make their attacks from below – thin, flat, silent, and secretive – carried on their assault, and retired afterwards singularly misshapen, grown, to use the old countrified expression, “quite out of knowledge.”
“Now,” says Henty, “I imagine that here were assembled all the elements which make night horrible, with the exception only of indigestion after a heavy supper. Had I been in any other country, I would have moved my rug outside and slept there, but here such a proceeding would have entailed an attack of fever. Consequently I had nothing to do but lie still till morning.”
Henty relates a sad incident in connection with the encounters with the warlike Ashantis. He tells how the first of their merry party on the screw steamer Ambriz, the vessel on which Sir Garnet Wolseley went out to take up his command, had fallen, and “as usual,” he says, “death had taken one of the most gentle, brave, and kindly spirits from among them.” Lieutenant Wilmot, of the Royal Artillery, had fallen, fighting like a hero, and the news of his death, when it was brought in, produced the keenest regret among those who knew him. A promising young officer, attached to his profession, a zealous worker, and a favourite with all because of his quiet cheerfulness and modest unassuming manner, he was one of the leaders in a reconnaissance that had been thought necessary. The force consisted of a hundred of the West India Regiment, nine hundred native allies, and some of the Hausas with rockets, the last being under the command of the young officer. It seems that when he approached the Ashanti camp an alarm was given, and the fight began at once. The bush was extremely dense, and from out of its shelter the enemy poured a fierce fire, and in those short minutes the British officers had a severe lesson in the amount of confidence that could be placed in the native allies. Out of the nine hundred levies only about a hundred stood firm, and these might, for all the good they did, have followed their king or chief. This “noble” warrior headed the party who took to flight, and he, with his company, did not cease to run until they were safe back at camp, while many did not even stop there, but continued right on till they reached their own villages. Those that did stand fast made use of their muskets in the wildest and most useless manner, in contradistinction to the West India Regiment, which behaved with great steadiness and gallantry, and for two hours kept up a heavy Snider fire at their invisible foes, the Ashantis. Lieutenant Wilmot had dependable men in the Hausas, who had been well trained in the use of rockets, weapons formidable and awe-inspiring to natives; but early in the fight he received a severe wound in the shoulder from one of the Ashanti bullets fired from the bush, and this tore through flesh and muscle and narrowly missed the bone. The wound was bad enough to have necessitated immediate retirement; but it meant the loss of their leader to the Hausas, and in spite of the severity of the wound and the acute pain, he held on to his task, encouraging his men for two long hours, during which time the rockets discharged against the enemy dislodged them again and again from their strongholds. At last, when the gallant young officer’s work was pretty well done, another bullet struck him down, and this time it was no mere painful flesh wound – the missile found its way straight to his heart, and he fell back dead. With the exception of one native, poor Wilmot was the only man killed. But the Ashantis had stood their ground well, and the wounds of the attacking party were many. So vigorous indeed was the defence of the brave savages, that just about the time when Wilmot fell, Colonel Festing, who was in command, and was also hit, seeing that an attempt was being made by the enemy to cut off his retreat, fell back upon the village from which the attack had been made. The many wounds were for the most part very slight; for though put down as severe because received in spots where a rifle bullet wound would have been a serious matter, they were mostly inflicted by slugs from clumsy muskets. These pellets only penetrated a short distance, with the result that the injuries only entailed a day or two’s confinement.
The death of poor young Wilmot moved the whole camp to deep feeling, and the funeral took place at the cemetery of Cape Coast on the following day. Sir Garnet Wolseley and the staff and nearly every officer in the town attended, while the navy was represented by the officers from the fleet. The procession was solemn and impressive, bringing to the minds of many the sad little poem which recounts the burial of Sir John Moore. The body had been brought down from Prospect House, to which it had been first taken, and was placed in a room of the General Hospital. A gun was brought, dragged by a party of marine artillerymen and marines, who, commanded by a naval officer, had come ashore for the purpose. An officer of the Royal Artillery superintended the preparations and followed as chief mourner. As the coffin, covered by a flag, was brought out and placed upon the gun carriage, all the officers saluted their dead comrade, and then fell in behind at a slow march.
“Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note.”
There was no military music, but Henty says: “I think the slow measured tramp was more moving than any pomp or military display could have been. Never before has such a procession of officers been seen on the Gold Coast; and a crowd of natives assembled to look on.”
The road led by the sea, and the dull moan of the surge was more appropriate music than any made by mechanical instruments. A quarter of a mile brought them to the cemetery, and as they stood around and listened to the solemn words, “it is, I trust, no derogation to our manliness to say that many a lip was bitten hard, many a hand dashed across the face to hide that emotion which, however great the cause, Englishmen always strive to conceal.”
“During his month’s stay at Cape Coast, Lieutenant Wilmot had assisted Captain Rait to turn the wild Hausas into steady gunners. He had won all hearts, and among us there was but one feeling – that of deep regret for the unselfish young fellow who had left us but a few days before in high health and spirits, and who was brought back only to be laid in his lonely grave by the never-ceasing surf of the Atlantic Ocean.”