Gateway to the Classics: Growth of the British Empire by M. B. Synge
Growth of the British Empire by  M. B. Synge

The Story of British West Africa

"Clear the land of evil, drive the road and bridge the ford."

— Kipling

T HE occupation of Khartum was followed by a strange incident. Some 400 miles to the south, Lord Kitchener found the French flag flying from the desert city of Fashoda. Captain Marchand, on behalf of the French Government, had overstepped the bounds of the French Sudan, and he was obliged reluctantly to retire, through Egyptian territory, to France.

The French were already the largest land-owners in West Africa—their possessions stretching from Lake Chad to Cape Verd, from Algeria to the Gulf of Guinea. Of late years, notwithstanding the energy of modern French colonisation, the British Empire has expanded yet more rapidly in this quarter, and territories, hitherto vast tracts considered as barren wastes of drifting sand, have been included in the British sphere of influence.

The west coast of Africa calls up a vision of old Hanno, the Carthaginian, seeking colonies for the Old World: then falls a silence of twenty centuries, broken by the Portuguese sailing from point to point, urged on by the enthusiasm of Prince Henry. Europeans followed, bringing back gold-dust and negro slaves, until this coast of Guinea was literally studded with forts and factories for purposes of trade.

A curious story is connected with this name. One day, some early European traders asked the black natives where they got the gold, which they offered for sale on the coast.

"From Jenne," they replied, naming an inland town on the banks of the Niger.

So the name was given to the coast of Guinea, and indirectly to a British coin, struck from the first piece of gold that came from here.

Low-lying and unhealthy is this West African coast, upon which great Atlantic rollers thunder unceasingly, fringing the shore with boiling surf, which makes landing difficult and dangerous. Inland, is a thickly wooded and well-watered land, with an unlimited wealth of gold and a deadly climate for Europeans.

Nevertheless many Europeans live there, and a glance at the map will show, how quaintly their colonies are wedged in together. The mouth of the Senegal river is French, the mouth of the Gambia is English. Portuguese and French Guinea divide Gambia from her sister colony of Sierra Leone, some 500 miles by sea; the negro republic of Liberia and the French Ivory Coast, divide Sierra Leone from the third English possession, the Gold Coast, 800 miles away, which is separated by German and French territory 300 miles in length, from Lagos and Nigeria.

It would take too long to tell the story of each of these English Crown Colonies—Gambia, Sierra Leone, the Gold Coast, Lagos, and Nigeria. Sierra Leone, or the Mountains of the Lion, has been called the "White Man's Grave"; but indeed the whole of this coast is fever-stricken, and many a white man has gone, never to return from this beautiful and deadly region. Perhaps the majority have perished in the Gold Coast, where in 1874 the presence of British soldiers was necessary to put down the warrior tribe of Ashantis, who occupied the hinterland and resented the white men's possession of the Gold Coast. After many attempts in past years to drive out the English, the whole Ashanti army marched to the invasion of the colony, under their great black King Koffee.

"I will carry my golden stool to Cape Coast Castle, and there wash it in English blood," said the King of the Ashantis.

The guns at Cape Coast Castle saved the town, but it was necessary to take some severe measures, if the colony were to be saved from these savage warriors. So Sir Garnet Wolseley, the leader of the Red River expedition in Canada, was sent to suppress the Ashantis, with British and West Indian troops. Early in the year 1874, a start was made from the camp at Prahsu, some seventy miles from the coast, for the hundred miles to Kumassi, the capital of the Ashanti kingdom. They had to march through a dense tropical forest, its huge trees matted together with creepers, through which no sun could penetrate, no breeze could cool the stifling atmosphere. Only the chatter of monkeys and the flutter of bright-plumed birds broke the deep silence. The troops pressed laboriously forward. Meanwhile the Ashantis had taken up a position on a commanding height twenty miles from Kumassi, with every prospect of success. They outnumbered the foe by five to one; they were surrounded by impenetrable bush; they had never known defeat.

On January 31, the battle began. For some hours the position was shelled by British guns and rockets, and the position finally carried by the Highlanders, who swept forwards, with their bagpipes playing the while. Then the whole Ashanti army turned and fled in the wildest disorder towards Kumassi. The ground was strewn with traces of their flight: umbrellas, drums, muskets, and dying men strewed the line of their retreat. The king himself, who had watched the battle seated on his golden stool, under a red umbrella, fled with the rest. They were pursued by the British to Kumassi. In vain did the black men offer human sacrifices, after their ignorant custom: the king had disappeared, and nothing remained but to set on fire his savage capital and make peace. The campaign had been a brilliant success, and for the moment it seemed as if Ashanti power were at an end. But it was not so. Kumassi was soon rebuilt; a new king, Prempeh, inherited the golden stool or throne of Ashanti, and continued human sacrifices, interfered with British trade, and failed to carry out the terms of the treaty. Once more, in 1896, a British army advanced to Kumassi, but this time the Ashantis refused to fight. The troops entered the capital with the Union-jack flying, took King Prempeh prisoner, and annexed the kingdom of Ashanti to the Gold Coast Colony.

But the latest addition to the West African colonies is Nigeria, the land watered by the mighty Niger, explored in the eighteenth century by Mungo Park. Two men, Denham and Clapperton, had taken up his incomplete work. Crossing the great desert from Tripoli, they struck the Niger, wandered over the Houssa States and the shores of Lake Chad, reached Sokoto, and drew aside the veil of the French Sudan for the first time. Clapperton died of fever at Sokoto, and his servant, Richard Lander, undertook to carry on his work. After many adventures, he reached the mouth of the Niger in 1830, and the thunder of the surf upon the shore convinced him, that the mystery of the Niger was solved at last. The Niger was mostly discovered by British enterprise, but its possession by England to-day is due largely to one—Sir George Goldie. He gave to his country Nigeria, a tract of land four times the size of the British Isles, just as Cecil Rhodes gave her Rhodesia.

Goldie had travelled much in the country: he had seen the tyranny of the slave trade, the barbarism of the natives, the terrors of human sacrifices, and he knew that England must reclaim and administer this unhappy country of the blacks. Here is the story of one district. Benin City stood on the river Benin, which flows into the Bight of Benin, a veritable death-trap.

"Beware and take care of the Bight of Benin,

Whence few come out though many go in,"

sang the sailors of olden times.

Now the abolition of the slave trade had infuriated the cruel king of Benin, who swore eternal hatred to all Europeans and closed his door to their trade. In the year 1897, an English mission started for Benin City, to try and induce the king to open his country to their traders; but before ever they reached the city a shot rang through the air, and all save two were massacred in cold blood by orders of the king. A punitive expedition followed this treachery, and Englishmen made their way to the city to find a condition of affairs that defies description; in every direction they found crucified bodies, the remains of human sacrifices, heads and skulls. There was nothing to do, but to set fire to this City of Blood, from which the king had already fled. It was time for this country to be placed under some civilised state, and in 1900 England announced her protectorate over Nigeria.

To that country she has brought civilisation and progress, peace and, justice, carrying out those principles, which alone justify annexation.

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