The disease-ridden coast of West Africa had the most fearsome reputation of any part of the Dark Continent. Yet there were increasing numbers of white men in the 19th Century ready to brave malaria and yellow fever to trade, to preach, to rule and, if necessary, to die for Britain’s interests in minor colonial wars. By 1914, they had established a new Empire there and laid the foundation of modern African states.
“When you have made up your mind to go to West Africa”, said a 19th Century veteran, of that grim coast, “the very best thing you can do is to get it unmade and go to Scotland instead”; but if your intelligence is not strong enough to do so, abstain from exposing yourself to the direct rays of the sun, take 4 grains of quinine every day ....and get an introduction to the Wesleyans; they are the only people on the Gold coast who have got a hearse with feathers“.
It was for Sierra Leone, which in 1807 had become Britain’s first West African colony, that the term ” White Man’s Grave“ was originally coined. It had been conceived as a home for slaves freed after slavery was declared illegal in Britain In 1772. A humanitarian doctor suggested Sierra Leone would be ” a permanent and comfortable establishment in a most pleasant and fertile climate“. It was a virtual paradise, he explained, ”where a man possessed of a change of clothing, a wood-axe, a hoe and a pocket knife could soon make himself at home“.
Government servants fared no better. During one seven-month period Sierra Leone went through 4 acting governors; two died in office and another, mindful of his predecessors fates, left the colony when he fell ill. On another occasion, a governor returning from a trip found his administration had no lawyer, no chief justice, no secretary, no chaplain, and only one schoolmaster.
Europeans died mainly from malaria and yellow fever - or from the “cures” which were nearly as dangerous as the ailments. Blood-letting was common. Leeches were standard colonial surgical equipment, being placed on the patients shaved head to “suck out” the fever. Great blisters were raised with steaming cloths or mustard packs and then broken to drain away the fever. On the same principle, salivating was induced by calomel, often at the expense of the victim’s teeth, or by quicksilver and mercury, an even more drastic “treatment” that inflamed the mouth and sometimes caused the sick man to suffocate on his own swollen tongue.
The diseases were generally attributed to “a peculiar state of the atmosphere”. One colonial surgeon who embraced this “bad air” theory was more precise; he believed the miasma originated across the estuary from Freetown and that a careful observer could actually see it coming slowly across the water. It was not until the 1890‘s that scientists knew mosquitos spread malaria and yellow fever.
Quinine’s efficacy was not appreciated until 1854, when William Blaikie led a party well dosed with it on a 900 mile journey through the interior. Not a single European died. It was an important event. The great Niger River was now open to trade. After clinging to the coast of West Africa for centuries, the British at last began moving inland. Quinine was not the end of sickness or death for Britisher's in the area; it simply improved the chances for survival enough to make the gamble worth while.
British people were not exposed to the abysmal living - and dying - conditions of west Africa to fulfil some grand scheme of Empire expansion. During the 19th Century, British governments tried to avoid involvement in the region, impoverished, unhealthy and troubled by native warfare as it was. To the nation as a whole it held little economic attraction; in the 1840‘s it was noted that there was more trade with the Isle of Skye than with the whole of West Africa.
For the most part, this corner of Empire was acquired and developed because of unofficial forces; humanitarians determined to end slavery and spread Christianity.: merchants eager to trade, however small the total volume; and individual Britons who followed their own burning stars of imperial destiny. British influence in the Gold Coast followed this pattern. Forts controlled by Britain’s African Company of Merchants, scattered among others belonging to the Dutch and the Danes, were built to protect trade, not to serve as footholds for territorial aggrandisement.
During the 18th Century, two nations of a strength and political complexity uncommon to Africa developed there. Closest to the seaboard and most heavily engaged in commerce with the Europeans, were the allied Fante tribes. Further inland, almost unknown to the white men was Ashanti, a great African empire with a tradition of fierce militarism and as the British would learn, a finely developed skill in exercising it.
By 1821 the situation with the Ashanti and the British “African Company of Merchants” in the Gold Coast had so deteriorated that the government abolished the Company and took control. The new Governor, Sir Charles Macarthy, was a tall bearded man who enjoyed parading in full ceremonial regalia before admiring Africans. He had an imposing manner and intended to impose it on the Ashanti. , whose war-making talents, he was convinced, had been much over-rated. He met the enemy on January 22nd 1824, on the banks of the Bonsa River. They were unseen but the sound of their drums and horns indicated an army of 10,000. He had only 500 men but was convinced most of the Ashanti were just waiting for the chance to defect and to this end ordered the band to play “God Save the King”, to which the Ashanti responded with their war-hymn. Following this musical interlude the Ashanti came - shooting not defecting. In the ensuing melee Macarthy was killed and his head was carried in triumph to Kumasi, the Ashanti capital.
By 1828, Whitehall was so weary of the Gold Coast problem that it prepared to demolish the forts and evacuate the merchants. When the businessmen protested, the government agreed to hand the administration over to the merchants.
Captain George Maclean, the merchant’s new Governor, concluded treaties with both Fante and Ashanti and settled the chaos in which the country had been immersed for a quarter of a century. Africans brought him their disputes to be settled and his jurisdiction extended far beyond what the British Government wished. He established what amounted to a British protectorate from the coast to the Ashanti frontier.
In 1850 the British bought out the Danish holdings in the area and 20 years later the Dutch. The Gold Coast was becoming part of the British Empire. Not, however, as far as the Ashanti were concerned. In 1862 they twice defeated British-led armies. When the Dutch land holdings which King Kofi of the Ashanti believed to be his, were ceded to the British he drained a toast to victory from the skull of Sir Charles Macarthy and sent his armies across the Pra for a decisive war.
In 1873, for the sixth time in 70 years, British troops set out to quell the aggressive, expansionist Ashanti of the Gold Coast. In the previous century, this warrior nation had extended its harsh, slave-based rule southwards from its land-locked forest homeland to the European dominated coast. In 1824, the Ashanti destroyed a British force under Sir Charles Macarthy, and took his skull back to their capital Kumasi - as a royal drinking cup - a humiliation the British had not avenged. When the Dutch sold Britain, Elmina Castle, long coveted by the Ashanti as a slave emporium, war flared again. Early in 1873, Sir Garnet Wolseley, a specialist in colonial war, was dispatched to crush the Ashanti. His task was to achieve victory within two months, before the March rains made the fever-ridden forests almost impassable.
MOUNTING THE CAMPAIGN. Originally Wolseley’s command consisted of African and West Indian troops scraped together for the campaign. But Wolseley insisted that this force would stand little chance against the Ashanti without a stiffening of regulars. And as a veteran of numerous colonial wars in which he had shown great daring and ingenuity, the general was not a man to ignore. On the understanding that the regulars would be quickly whisked away from the deadly malarial lowlands, the government grudgingly sent small units of the Black Watch Rifle Brigade and Royal Welch Fusiliers who landed at Cape Coast Castle on January 1 , 1874. During the time these troops were on route to the Gold Coast, Wolseley had not only cleared a road north for them but had built supply-bases all along it.
JUNGLE VICTORY. Heavily dosed with quinine, Wolseley’s force, reinforced with a naval contingent, marched north through the jungle. Some 70 miles up country was the welcome forward base of Prasu, where troops could briefly rest. Then after crossing the Pra River, the advance on Kumasi continued. Spies had reported to Wolesely that the enemy would stand and fight in dense bush at Amoafu 20 miles south of the capital and there his 2,200 man force found the Ashanti army on January 31.
STENCH OF BLOOD. Wolseley weighed the risks involved in outrunning his supplies and then sent his men racing towards Kumasi. With pipes skirling, the Black Watch swept all before them and on February 5th, 1874, led the way into the capital. To Wolseley’s amazement the Ashanti appeared in no hurry to leave Kumasi. While his men formed up and gave three cheers for Queen Victoria, yesterday’s opponents crowded round and even shook British troops by the hand.
The capital stank of blood. Near the palace, appalled soldiers stumbled upon the remains of several thousand sacrificial victims, a sight that made Wolseley sick. Short of supplies and fearing the approach of the rains he set the city ablaze and pulled out for the coast with as much of the royal jewellery as he could collect.
THE REWARDS OF VICTORY. As the army gladly tramped away form the horrors of Kumasi, Ashanti messengers rushed up with peace proposals; an offer to renounce claims to Elmina and pay an indemnity of 50,000 ounces of gold. “So”, wrote Wolseley “ended the most horrible war I have ever took part in”
His triumph was overwhelming. He had created a field force out of disparate units; fed it with an ingeniously improvised supply system; led it to victory through deep jungle; and got it safely back before the onset of the torrential rains. In later years some military men belittled his achievements as the inevitable outcome of a contest between the British Army and primitive savages. But faultfinders were few at the moment of victory. Parliament voted Wolseley a gift of £25,000; the Queen personally decorated him; and the troops were welcomed home with balls and
CAPTAIN HODGSON. After the 1874 war, the Ashanti nation rebuilt itself. A new Asantehene renewed his claim on some of the vassal states fed by the British. Payments on the indemnity imposed by Wolseley lapsed and were forgotten. Britain at first left well alone. Gold Coast Governor, William Maxwell decided to settle the Ashanti problem once and for all. In 1896, he went to Kumasi and forced the Ashanti to accept “British Protection ” and for security kidnapped the Asantehene and most of the royal family, but left behind the “Golden Stool” the symbol of Ashanti sovereignty. This symbol proved irresistible to a later Governor Frederick Hodgson. He went to Kumasi in February 1900 and demanded it. It had been hidden in the bush. Hodgson then sent a party led by a Captain Armitage into the bush to search for it. But the natives attacked and he had to fight his way back to the British fort in Kumasi which was under siege.
There were by June, 750 African soldiers and 29 Europeans inside. Each subsisting on a lump of tinned corn beef and one biscuit a day. Deaths from starvation and smallpox rose to 30 a day. Hodgson gambled on an escape. He left behind the wounded and a small force of able-bodied men and enough food to last 23 days. During their dash for safety the escapee's had to fight off continual Ashanti attacks and in desperation abandoned their luggage. This probably saved their lives as the Ashanti stopped to loot it. By July 14 the besieged force thought they heard distant cannon but received no answer when they fired off a signal, but at 4.30pm the next afternoon “terrific firing” was heard behind the Ashanti lines. and at 6pm a fox-terrier scampered from the bush! They were saved.
The battle was soon over. The reckless bravery and antiquated muskets of the Africans were no match for the disciplined fire power of Wolesely’s British square. Hundreds of Ashanti fell, including three of their greatest chiefs. The survivors turned and fled. But victory posed a dilemma for Wolesely. Was he to play safe and wait for his trailing supply column or sweep on to Kumasi immediately?
Even Black Slaves Succumb
But reality was very different. The first batch of slaves had mostly been flamboyantly dressed flunkies in stately homes and town mansions. Easy prey to tropical diseases, without any proper system of government-sponsored hygiene, they died in scores. Missionaries who followed them out there found things equally tough. They were only being realistic when they spoke of “seeking martyrdom” there. One society lost 53 of the first 79 it sent out. “I looked upon the land” wrote James Norman of his arrival in Freetown in 1821, “as my burying place”.
Fortunately, a carpenter had survived. “There is nothing but making coffins going on” that tradesman sighed, “three and four a day”.
The story was similar elsewhere in Britain’s West African outposts. In 1824 half the 600 soldiers garrisoned in the Gold Coast died within a few months, and the House of Commons was told in 1826, that of 1,567 troops sent out in the previous two years, 905 had died.