George Fenn.

George Alfred Henty: The Story of an Active Life





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 days 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 mans 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 days tramp with the troops and bearers, nine oclock 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 officers 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 twos 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 months 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.

Chapter Thirty.
The March up Country

The lessons learned in dealing with the native allies in the attack upon the daring savages who had set the British forces at defiance were too sharp to be neglected. There was, of course, something very attractive and cheering about being backed up by some hundreds, or even thousands, of well-armed, fierce-looking, stalwart natives. They were wonderfully skilful in performing upon the tom-tom, or in producing thunder from the war drum sounds which could be kept up, suggesting dire threats, all through the night, and were often accompanied by yells and shouts such as would send dismay into any enemys breast while, when they were partially drilled and supplied with musket or rifle and cartridge-box, they were looked upon as being invincible, and even believed it themselves. But the proof of the pudding is said to be in the eating, and the flavour of the comp?te of native allies proved only to be vile. Indeed, in the opinion of our officers many of the blacks seemed to be only of use for the labour of road-making, preparing stations, and accumulating stores up the country, business, all this, which would have been much better carried on by the women, who had already proved themselves invaluable for carrying loads.

Encounter after encounter had taken place with the Ashantis, in which the native allies had done a great amount of shouting when they stood their ground; but they had more often done this shouting while in full retreat, for they seemed to consider it a duty to alarm everyone in the rear. Hence it was decided to do away with our native army, which had proved itself to be worse than useless; and the police were ordered to arrest all the men belonging to the Cape Coast contingent as they came sneaking in through the bush when the fights were at an end.

Their arms were taken away from them, and orders were given for them to be marched up under a guard to where the road had been commenced towards the interior for a more strenuous attack to be made on the enemy. This was considered to be a move in the right direction, but all wished that the entire force of the allies had come in to be disarmed, for as long as they remained under arms they were a trouble and an anxiety. They had to be fed; they expended ammunition largely; they had to be driven towards the foe, and when they reached his neighbourhood they proved themselves to be more likely to shoot their friends than their enemies. In fact, where the British regiments were strengthened such was the term by these native allies, the latter proved to be an immense anxiety and cause of weakness to any troops they accompanied. Even now their measure is not quite taken. They proved to be useless as scouts; they would not go in front; and they were dangerous in the rear. They were unreliable even as watch-dogs, for they would run from their own shadow, and they would blaze away at nothing for half an hour if they heard a night bird flutter in the bush.

But with all these disadvantages and objections to their presence, the leaders of the expedition could not but feel the difficulty of taking such a step as to disarm them en masse. There was the risk of incurring the wrath of the whole population of Cape Coast, as these men, if they could do injury in no other way, might refuse altogether to work or carry loads. There was also the fact that the British had no force which could compel a thousand men to go out and labour on the road. They might have been taken up, of course, under an escort, but no contingent which the little British army could spare could prevent these allies from taking to the bush the first day they went out, and so finding their way down again.

Finding that the men would not come forward to carry loads after the disarmament, it occurred to one of our officers to appeal to the women, as they had proved to be so much better than the men; and this proved to have excellent results, two of the wives of the chiefs going round and haranguing their sisters in very able speeches. They called upon the women to come forward and help the white men by carrying loads up the country. The white men, they said, had come there to protect them from the Ashantis, and the people of Cape Coast ought to help in every way they could. The men, they said, had not done well. They had refused to fight; they had disgraced themselves. Let the women come forward, then, and do their best, and let every one of them go and offer to take a load up the country.

These speeches produced a good deal of talk and excitement among the women, who came to a general agreement that they ought to do as they were asked. Whether they would come forward in any numbers remained to be seen, for, as related by the American humourist, each woman was ready and willing that all her female relations should come forward as carriers, but each was disposed to view her own as an exceptional case. However, after much talk, the assistance of the women did prove valuable, and later, when the Control was much troubled about getting the loads up into the interior for the use of the troops, a brilliant idea occurred to one of the officers of the department. This was, that the services of the children of the place could be utilised, and that by paying half the usual price for the carriage of half the usual load, they might get the troublesome little barrels of provisions taken up the country. The idea was carried out with immense success, for no sooner was it known that boys and girls could get half wages for carrying up light loads, than there was a perfect rush of the juvenile population to the store where the barrels were served out.

Three hundred were sent off the first morning, nearly four hundred the second, and a large number of applicants were told that they must come next day. The glee of the youngsters on being employed was worth watching. They were all accustomed to carry weights, such as great jars of water and baskets of yams, far heavier than those which they had now to take up country, and the fun of the expedition and the satisfaction of earning money proved delightful, while as four hundred boys and girls carried up ten thousand pounds of rice, this addition to the army of carriers was no small help.

The march to Coomassie proved to be a time for carrying out invention. Wants had to be made up for, and in accordance with the proverb that necessity is the mother of invention, our officers appealed pretty largely to that mother.

For instance, during a long halt before making a serious advance, one of the most amusing sights in the town was provided by Captain Rait, of the Royal Artillery. He had a certain number of guns to get to the front, and he very soon discovered that, for purposes of hauling a field-piece through a dense tropical forest, the native black was worse than useless. This discovery, too, was made at a time when there were no Jacks available from the men-of-war to harness themselves on to the limber and run the light pieces up to the front in sailors cheery fashion.

But Captain Rait made his plans, knowing as he did that in camp there were a number of young bullocks which had been sent down from Sierra Leone to the contractor who supplied the meat. Why, said the gallant officer, should not these young bullocks be broken in to draw my guns?

Why, indeed? But here was where the amusing side amusing to the forces who looked on came in, for as soon as the attempt was made to yoke or harness the oxen, they began to object.

The heavy dull oxen have never been known to display much understanding, but had they known that the acquirement of the hateful accomplishment in which they were being instructed was saving them from immediate slaughter, they might perchance have become more tractable. The French have a proverb that it is necessary to suffer so as to become beautiful. The oxen were not required to become beautiful, only useful, and, says one of our writers, the useful and the beautiful are one. At any rate, they were called upon to suffer but slightly.

The animals were small, but the weight behind them was not very great an old-fashioned howitzer weighing, with its cannon and limber, about two hundredweight. The artillery officer acted as driver, and the Hausa gunners ran alongside, leaving the oxen alone when they progressed slowly and steadily, and, when not so disposed, giving them a thrust here and a push there so as to keep the sluggish brutes straight, while others urged the guns along whenever the beasts did not submit readily to the yoke.

So every afternoon for some days the artillery captain drove these peculiar war chariots about the place to the no slight risk of his neck, for the roads were ill-made and intersected by drains, some of which were two feet deep. But the gallant officer faced all this, to the delight of the lookers-on, and he was quite happy and contented, for no accident beyond the occasional breaking of a pole took place. Finally, as a reward for his perseverance Captain Rait had the satisfaction of taking his guns up to the front drawn by these sturdy bullocks, which, though not entirely broken in, were yet sufficiently so to draw their loads in very fair order.

At this time bullocks were being driven regularly up to the front, so as to give the white troops a meal of fresh meat twice a week, and the sailors and marines, who were accustomed to the salt junk served on board, got on very well with an occasional change. But, says Henty, for white men not so used to salt meat, it would be difficult to imagine a more objectionable food for a tropical climate, and, he continues, once more well launched upon the Commissariat Department, the preserved meat, which was issued much more frequently than the salt, was no doubt healthier, but men grew very sick of it. Australian meat at the best of times is not an appetising food, but once or twice a week one can eat it without any great effort. Four or five times a week, however, in a climate where the appetite requires a little humouring, it is really a trial; so that the discovery that bullocks could at any rate live for some time up the country, and that they were able to pick up a subsistence for themselves in the old clearings, was an immense benefit for us all.





: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27