Land of the Golden Trade - John Lang


If one were to embark on a work very far beyond the scope of this present volume, West Africa's history at the end thereof would still present a huge mass of romance and interest practically untouched, a mine the workings of which would yet be but surface scratchings. One would fain dwell on many an incident, many a fact or event, to which considerations of space now forbid more than brief allusion. There is much of moment still untouched in the history of each separate section of the Guinea Coast and its Hinterland.

It would, for example, have been not without interest to watch the development of Sierra Leone, from its early days of tolerably honest trade through the times when it was little better than a depot for slaves, or the headquarters of Pirates, down to its present status (at Freetown) of first-class fortified Imperial Coaling Station and trade centre.

It was here that in 1787 an abortive attempt was made to carry out Dr. Smeathman's philanthropic scheme of colonising parts of West Africa with liberated negro slaves, a scheme admirable in theory, but—at least in those days—hopeless of execution. "During the American War," says Mr. Hugh Murray in his Discoveries and Travels in Africa, "many negroes . . . had entered on board the British ships of war, or repaired to the British standard, where they had been formed into regiments of Rangers. At the termination of the war, in 1788, they were dispersed, with the white loyalists, among the Bahamas Islands and Nova Scotia, while many were conveyed to Great Britain, especially to London. There, indigent and idle, despised and forlorn, they were soon vitiated by intercourse with their profligate brethren, who, having contrived to convey themselves from the West Indies, infested the streets of London." Probably no inconsiderable portion of those who "infested the streets of London" were black servants brought by their masters some time before from the West Indies, numbers of whom, in consequence of Lord Mansfield's famous decision of 1772, were turned adrift on the streets.

To cope with this growing evil, a Committee was formed, which zealously tried to carry out Dr. Smeathman's "Plan of a Settlement to be made near Sierra Leone on the Guinea Coast." As a result, "above four hundred blacks, with about sixty whites, but who were chiefly women of abandoned character, debilitated by disease," were shipped off in a Government transport to Sierra Leone, provided with all things deemed by the philanthropists necessary to the support of colonists. Of provisions, arms, implements of agriculture, there was a ship load, but the Committee, careful in the matter of spades and ploughs, had taken no precautions whatever to ensure that the colonists should be of tolerably good character. The sole qualification might almost seem to have been that the skins of the black men should be as shady as the characters of the white women. However reasonable it may have been to suppose that for persons of African descent the land most suitable must be that of their forefathers, it is difficult to assign any philanthropic reason for the despatch to that same land of a considerable female white population. To ship undesirables off to distant over-sea parts was the fad of the hour, no doubt. It will be remembered that in this same year 1787 took place the first shipment of convicts to Botany Bay in Australia, wanton pollution of a great virgin land. The idea was not new, of course. It is the same that Hanno the Carthaginian in his day was set to carry out.

The end of the Committee's philanthropic scheme was what from the beginning it was bound to be, a disastrous failure. The "unemployed" black of the latter end of the Eighteenth Century no more wanted to work than does his professional unemployed white brother of this present Twentieth Century. The voyage was little short of a prolonged debauch; on arrival at Sierra Leone, "indolence and depravity so generally prevailed that hardly a man could be induced to labour steadily in erecting the hut in which he was to be sheltered, or in unloading the provisions by which he was to be supported."

The expedition arrived on 9th May 1787. By 11th September of that year, out of a total of close on five hundred persons landed, only two hundred and seventy-six remained in the colony. Death and desertion, but chiefly the former, had in four months accounted for over two hundred human beings out of that small community. In such a climate, among such a people, it could not well have been otherwise.

In 1792 another attempt was made on better lines, when twelve hundred free blacks from Nova Scotia were brought over. After many vicissitudes; and after being raided in 1794 by a French squadron—consisting chiefly of privateers who construes their principles of "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité," into liberty to help themselves to everything that their black brethren possessed, with an equal right to burn after they had looted,—that, too, proved a failure, and in 1807 the colony was handed over to the Crown. It is interesting to note that the Maroons, (descendant of those negro slaves who fled to the mountains of Jamaica when that island was captured by England from Spain in 1655, and who for a hundred and forty years waged incessant warfare against us,) were in the year 1800 transported to Sierra Leone. They were, says Lucas, "a strong and healthy element," and it was chiefly due to their great fighting powers that the authorities of the colony were able to quell that dangerous rising which, owing to the imposition of a quit-rent, broke out among the Nova Scotian negroes who had been brought over in 1792. "Years after, when slave emancipation was an accomplished fact, the survivors of those Maroons returned once more to their old homes in Jamaica."

"The White Man's Grave," Sierra Leone has been called, and to the European it has ever been deadly; but in the two instances mentioned above it was also the black man's grave. Not even those of negro blood could with impunity live recklessly or carelessly in such a climate. Yet it is fair to say that not every white man has so sweepingly condemned it. By Zachary Macaulay (to whom in those early days the colony owed much), its able Governor in 1793-94, Sierra Leone was esteemed healthful, if not pleasant. Indeed, nothing is said to have more annoyed Macaulay than to hear it talked of as a climate necessarily hurtful to Europeans.

Meredith too, writing of the Gold Coast in 1812, says of that part of West Africa that it "has the advantage of the West Indies, not only in soil and climate, but also in seasons . . . The climate will be found as temperate and salubrious as the West Indies, and if it were cultivated it would probably surpass the West Indies in point of salubrity."

The truth one may suppose to be that, (whatever modern conditions and medical science may now have made it,) to a certain few, very few, constitutions in former days it was not directly harmful, but that to the vast majority of Europeans, in whatever fashion they might live, however careful they might be, the climate of West Africa was trying and even deadly. Miss Mary Kingsley compares it in the wet season to the "inside of a warm poultice," and she mentions how when she asked to be shown "the Settlement," they grimly took her to the Cemetery!

On the tale of the Gold Mines and the Gold Dust of West Africa,—in times long past, its "Golden Trade,"—one would also willingly have dwelt. The source is not dry from which Carthage in the days of her magnificence drew part of her supply of that metal for which man in all ages has periled soul as well as body. At the present day the flow is greater than it has ever been before. New methods have borne rich fruit. Though in 1901 the value of gold coming from the Gold Coast had dropped to the low level of £22,000, so rapid has been the recovery since that date that in 1907 the output was £1,168,516; whilst in 1908 the output was 281,257 oz. and the value £1,194,743. How widely different both in method and result from those days midway through the Seventeenth Century when Scottish Cavaliers, expatriated and enslaved, forsaken of God and man, toiled wearily under brazen sky to scrape the shining dust into the pockets of their masters, the merchants of Guinea.

Were space available, much might be said on the subject of present-day Missions and their work. Though probably success has not relatively been so great here as of late years it has been with the Missions of East Central Africa, yet one may hope that the time has gone by, or is rapidly going, when it might be truly said, as by Miss Kingsley, that "the mission attempt to elevate the African mass seems like unto cutting a path through a bit of African forest; you can cut a very nice tidy path there, and as long as you are there to keep it clear, it's all a path need be, but leave it and it goes to bush."

The shortcomings, too, must necessarily be great of any attempt to tell the story of West Africa which contains no more than passing reference to its explorers. Yet again space forbids that more than passing reference should be made. Of all Africa's explorers, there is none to whose name clings so great a share of romantic interest as to that of Mungo Park. Not only in his native land, the Scottish Border, is his memory yet proudly cherished, but wherever the English language is spoken, there still lives his fame, even after the lapse of more than a century. The first of Europeans to penetrate inland to the headwaters of the Niger, he perished on his second journey in an attempt to follow that river to its mouth, leaving scarcely a trace behind him. That he was drowned in his attempt to descend the Niger, is probable, but Mr. Bowdich mentions that in Ashanti he himself was informed by Moors that a white man, answering to the description of Park, was for two years held prisoner by a native king, at the end of which time he died of fever. "For actual hardships undergone, for dangers faced, and difficulties overcome, together with an exhibition of the virtues which make a man great in the rude battle of life, Mungo Park stands without a rival."

Until Park's day, the Niger formed one of the most perplexing of geographical problems, a problem on which scarce any two authorities could be found entirely to agree. It flowed into the Nile, said some; without doubt it joined the Congo, affirmed others, (and it was to prove or disprove this last theory that Park undertook the journey from which he never returned); it was an independent river emptying itself into some vast inland lake, argued a third group; the Senegal and the Gambia were themselves but two of the many mouths of the Niger, protested a fourth. All was uncertainty, and Park was the first to throw light on the darkness. Since his day, much has been done, but even yet there remains a portion of the Niger of which little is known.

If one desired to deal with the story of our troubles with the kingdom of Ashanti, of the many Ashanti invasions of Gold Coast territory, of our various punitive and other expeditions and missions to Kumasi, a volume would be required for that alone. Since the beginning of the Nineteenth Century the invasions have been many, our expeditions, great and small, not few. Great Britain—in the fashion that until recently was peculiar to her in matters of Colonial policy—did not know her own mind; one year she would be intent on giving up her West African colonies, retiring from positions which were merely an expense and a trouble; the following year something had happened which necessitated a farther forward move on her part. Then again she would revert to her policy of "scuttle," or blow hot and cold almost in the same breath. Party Government no doubt was responsible for much of this, ignorance for the rest. Statesmen in those days possessed in small measure the gift of prescience; geographically their ignorance was unfathomable. Is it not on record that an ex-Cabinet Minister once told the wife of a distinguished Colonial Governor that all he knew of West African geography was that Africa had a hump which stuck out somewhere into the sea, and that he believed our West African Colonies were there? Perhaps the amount of this Statesman's geographical knowledge was a little greater than he admitted, but in truth what he said of "the hump" about sums up the geographical knowledge possessed in former days by the average inhabitant of Great Britain. And this lack of knowledge, combined with an invincible determination not to trust the man on the spot, has, joined to the vacillating policy of advance and retire, been fruitful of trouble in many lands.

We have seen the great Sierra Leone rising of 1898, and there has been an expedition to Benin, but our chief and most constant native troubles have been with the Ashantis. Many times have they raided us. In 1814 they took our fort of Winnebah, killing its commander, Mr. Meredith, a writer whose favourable opinion of the Gold Coast climate is quoted a few pages back. In 1816 they all but took Cape Coast Castle. In 1820 they invaded us; and again in 1826.

In 1817 we sent under Mr. Bowdich a mission to Kumasi; in 1824 Sir Charles M'Carthy led an expedition against the Ashantis, and was defeated by them and killed. In 1873-4 came the greatest of our native wars in that part of the world, the expedition led by Sir Garnet Wolseley, when Kumasi was taken and burnt, and much strange loot brought back.

It may be hoped that with the development of Railways in West Africa the day of these native wars is ended. Kumasi, the capital of Ashanti, is now in railway communication with the coast, and is indeed in point of time no more than sixteen days from London.

Sierra Leone possesses close on two hundred and thirty miles of Railway, and other parts of Guinea are not far behind,—a striking contrast to days not remote when travelling in West Africa was for the most part by narrow paths laboriously cut through dense forest. It is hard to realise that where in comparatively recent times pirate ships sheltered, and the bush echoed to the shouts of their ribald crews, now falls on the ear the shriek of railway whistle or the clank of windlass on some great steamship.

Rough times were the days of the Pirate and the Slaver, rough and cruel. Yet it is open to question if those days did not, on the average, produce a finer and more robust type of manhood than is commonly to be found in this Twentieth Century. Without question those days were coarse and full of brutality, but it is, unhappily, equally without question that we, in our day, are in sore danger of being handed over to the degenerating influence of emotional sentimentality. Vox populi, vox dei, shouts with increasing clamour our army of demagogues; and unfortunately for Britain the voice of the People is fast becoming totally opposed to wholesome discipline. Except to the upper classes, the rod as an instrument of education and upbringing is almost a thing of the past. The People are swayed by sentiment, not by reason; they have lost control of their children, and of themselves; and where is to be the end? To what is the Nation heading? We are rapidly losing steerage way, and are in danger of drifting on to the breakers of false sentiment. If the old breezy days were bad, at least they produced a breed of Men such as we do not now see; if they were hard, there are worse things than hardness in life. Better surely a little of the roughness, even a spice of the brutality, of old West African days than that the Nation should slip farther down the fevered path of sentimentality.