Following my companion's outstretched finger I espy something which at first glance looks like a yellow-headed African whose hair has grown down to his waist. But the next moment I see that the supposed Esau is wearing an enormous hat of dried grass, the long straggling ends of which completely hide his upper figure and make him appear as if carrying a huge truss of straw.|
He has scarcely passed when up come four or five stalwart blacks in dark blue uniforms and scarlet facings, who carry their rifles in a smart, soldierlike fashion suggestive of long discipline. These are the famous Houssas, the Sikhs of West Africa, who form a kind of armed constabulary along the whole Guinea coast. Though almost unknown to the civilized world they have done many a deed of valor as heroic as any which has been famed in story and song. Only the other day one of their English officers was telling me, with a glow of honest admiration on his handsome face, how 30 of his negro warriors made good their ground against ten times their number of savage Awoonas till their ammunition was spent, and then charged home with the bayonet, sweeping away their swarming enemies like chaff.
The Governor has kindly sent down a horse and gig for us, which, guarded by a trim black groom in a spotless white jacket, are standing in front of a long, low, many-windowed building, displaying in rusty black paint upon a rough plank the magic words "Post Office." In another moment we are rattling along the wide, red, well beaten road on our two-mile drive to the Governor's residence at Christianborg Castle, passing some noteworthy object at every turn.
The broad whitewashed front and pillared doorway of the Wesleyan Chapel, the low, massive, loopholed wall of the old Dutch fort, (now used as a prison,) and the seven long iron guns that look seaward from the brow of the cliff beside it serve only to heighten by contrast the picturesqueness of the primitive barbarism around them. Small hovels of mud with a top-heavy thatch of dried grass, such as one sees in every Arab village of the Eastern Soudan; tall, slender palm trees overshadowing tumbledown plank stores, which look very much like overgrown packing cases with one side knocked out, and contain little beyond bad gin and worse rum; gaunt, long-limbed native gentlemen in striped blankets and leopard-skin sashes; fuzzy-haired colored ladies tastefully attired in two brass armlets and a red cotton handkerchief, and romping children with nothing on but a grin.
Here and there among the motley crowd, conspicuous by his proud and defiant bearing, appears a tall, bony Ashantee, whose prominent and somewhat Jewish features are set in a frame of short, black, wiry beard.
At last we are clear of the town and spinning briskly over the green sloping uplands beyond. To our right lies the boundless sea, to our left a wide undulating plateau dappled with clumps of rich equatorial vegetation, and slanting gradually upward to the beautiful hills which--unhappily almost hidden by a sea of golden haze--stand up against the northern sky 28 miles away. The highway, broad, smooth, and set with trees at short intervals along either side, might pass for a post road in Western France were not the trees so unmistakably tropical.
But we do not go far without another and gloomier proff that we are really in Africa--an enormous anthill of thick red clay, more than six feet in height, and literally creeping from top to bottom with active and ferocious life. Not without a shudder do I remember how recently, both here and in South America, it was a common thing to see in passing one of these fearful mounds a bare white skull staring blankly out of it in mute witness how some living man had been thrust in to be devoured piecemeal by the army of vampires within.
"Yonder's Fetich Rock, which people here think so sacred," observes my companion, pointing to a bold rocky bluff that juts out into the sea midway along the beach. "When a lot of stones were taken from there a while ago the natives got so excited about it that we almost had a riot. See, there's the Mission House"--pointing to a trim one-storied building that peeps at us over its high boundary wall, through the narrow gateway of which we catch a passing glimpse of a perfect nest of date and fan palms, almond trees, flamboyants, &c., that would make a botanist's mouth water.
"Do you see that big house with the palisade round it down there in the hollow? It belongs to a great native chief and he's called it 'Philadelphia.' Something for your American readers, that. These two lines of neat little huts making a sort of street to the right are the quarters of the married Houssas, all built with their own hands. Now, look at that big whitish gray building some way ahead of us; that's Christianborg Castle itself, where the Governor lives."
There, sure enough, is the famous stronghold, built in days when the white cross of Denmark floated here, long before the coming of the British union jack. But the details of all that we saw and heard there must be reserved for my next letter.
The New York Times, October 24, 1886, p.6:|
AN OLD CASTLE IN AFRICACHRISTIANBORG FORTRESS AND ITS FURNISHINGS.
A CHEERY GOVERNOR WITH A STAFF OF FEVER-STRICKEN OFFICIALS--DAHOMEY LOSING ITS PRESTIGE.
AT THE MOUTH OF THE NIGER, July 27.--I left off last week with our arrival at Accra and our drive to Christianborg Castle to visit the local Governor, which was certainly the most picturesque trip that we have made since our African voyage began. Sadly disfigured though its walls have been, both by nature and by man, the old Danish fortress of the Gold Coast (now transformed into a British "Government House") still makes a gallant show. Perched on a steep, rocky headland forming the highest point of the Accra ridge, and overhanging the sea on one side, while commanding on the other a small lagoon connected with it at high tide, the castle has a position which must have been of priceless importance in the old fighting days, when a white settler on the West African coast had his hand against every man and every man's hand against him.
But unhappily it needs no special acuteness to discern that this site was not chosen for military purposes alone. In the days when this fortress was built European officials in tropical lands were allowed to eke out their scanty salaries by private trading, and in a region like West Africa such trading could only deal in one article of merchandise, viz., slaves. This tiny bay sheltered behind the Christianborg headland must have been only too convenient a lurking place for some light brigantine to lie at anchor and take in her cargo of human bodies and souls, watching meanwhile for a night dark enough to enable her to slip out into the open sea despite the sleepless vigilance of the British cruises outside.
None but God can tell what horrors were once witnessed by the gloomy vaults far down beneath the castle, in which scores of fettered slaves, packed together until they could hardly more a limb, sweltered through the long agony of a stifling African night, till, when morning came, the jailers found many of their still living victims chained to stiffened and already decaying corpses.
But now the fresh sea breeze rushes unchecked through grated loopholes that were once blocked with a struggling mass of distorted faces and gasping lips, and the Governor's native groom, as he pilots me through the maze of these dreary catacombs, taps with his knuckles the topmost of a pile of kegs in one corner and says with a knowing grin: "Black man no live here any more; rum live here instead."
Although greatly changed as regards its interior, Christianborg still retains almost unaltered the massive outer wall of grayish-white masonry, loopholed for musketry and cannon, which frowned defiance at the marauding spearmen of Ashantee 90 years ago. Several blue-coated Houssas present arms to us as we pass through its low tunnel-like archway into a small courtyard shaded with trees, from which a steep, broad stair of crumbling stone leads up to the main building.
At the top of this ascent Mr. Evans halts for a moment to point out to me the old chapel of the fortress (now turned into a billiard room) and to draw my attention to an inscription upon its wall which may fairly be called the castle's certificate of baptism:
CHRISTIAN VII., 1794.
It is a pleasant surprise to find within these grim old ramparts a suite of handsome rooms furnished in the most approved modern style, with sofas, armchairs, books, flowers, photographic albums, and ornamental screens worthy of a Parisian drawing room. Through the countless windows of the spacious veranda that runs along the front of the building--a delightful place to sit and read on a hot Summer afternoon--the cool breeze comes freshly in from the sea, upon which our steamer may be seen lying like a toy two miles away.
A few yards beneath the veranda a broad platform of stone commands the landward approach to the castle with the three small brass cannon leveled over its low white parapet, and through the universal silence rises in deep sonorous cadence the boom of the unresting waves against the sandstone cliff far below.
In the drawing room we are received by the Governor himself, a stout, pleasant-faced, cheery old gentleman, with a thick gray beard. His ruddy complexion and clear bright eye almost contradict the terrific reports which we have been hearing for days past from our fellow-passengers, all whose allusions to their local acquaintances sound like the returns of killed and wounded after a battle. But the first five minutes' talk with his Excellency gives a a formidable confirmation of these gloomy stories.
One official is down with fever, another with dysentery, a third with rheumatism. This man is just going off sick leave, that one has lately come back from it almost as sick as he went. A Colonial Secretary has recently died of pneumonia, a District Judge is completely disabled by liver complaint. In short, the entire local administration just at present seems to consist entirely of the Governor himself, who appears to hold as many offices and to discharge as various duties as Pooh-Bah in The Mikado.
Even during the brief space occupied by our visit I see brought to him by various messengers no fewer than 11 dispatches of different kinds. Among these are two or three telegrams, for the telegraph line which is being carried westward along the Guinea coast from Lagos has just reached Accra this very morning, while another line is creeping eastward from Sierra Leone to meet it and make the chain of communication complete.
Having completed our inspection of the castle and the garden in front of it--where the Governor is doing his best to raise plantains, Indian corn, beans, tomatoes, and the other vegetables which are so precious in this unhealthy region, where one man's meat is literally another man's poison--we start on our return journey to the town, halting every here and there to examine some new feature of the place.
New Site--so called as being more modern than either the town of Accra itself or the grim old fortress that guards it--is the aristocratic quarter of the little capital, and consists of a group of well-built country houses tenanted by the principal local officials, and shielded from the burning African sun by a thick wall of tropical vegetation. All are very much of the same pattern, and with the same characteristics. A wide courtyard shaded with spreading trees--a stair outside the house leading up to the higher story--a broad, airy veranda, with a roof and Venetian blinds, running quite round the building and containing easy chairs, writing tables, cane lounges, and very often beds likewise.
The rooms are immensely large, and their walls seem to be all doors and windows altogether, for in this scorching region, the atmosphere of which alternates between that of a vapor bath and that of an oven, the slightest breath of fresh air is caught at with an eagerness which the inhabitants of the cooler north can but faintly imagine.
With all these precautions, aided by the rocky soil and elevated position of Accra, it seems almost inconceivable that the capital of the Gold Coast should really be one of the most unhealthy spots in Western Africa. But that such is actually the case there can be no doubt whatsoever. A single glance around the circle of English officials would suffice to convince the most skeptical. Several of them are men of fine stature and powerful frame, whom any recruiting Sergeant of the Life Guards would eye with grim professional approval. Others are smooth-faced young fellows who have left the cool woodlands and breezy moors of England but a few months ago. But one and all are marked with the worn and faded look, the heavy eye, the flabby, discolored skin, the nerveless languor, which every one who has lived long on the Guinea Coast knows only too well.
No one can be surprised at this, however, who is familiar with the details of everyday life in this dismal region. You rise feverish and unrefreshed after a night made miserable by mosquitoes and "prickly heat." You swallow your early cup of tea and its adjuncts with what appetite you may, and go out for a mouthful of fresh air before the daily grind begins. Then, for several hours together, you struggle through your dry and tedious work, against an ever-growing weight of lassitude, with the heat dripping from your forehead, and your wet hand staining the paper that it touches.
Your 11 o'clock bath and breakfast revive you just enough to bear without absolutely collapsing the strain of another long spell of work in the afternoon, from which you go out spent, jaded, and irritable for your evening ride. Then home to dinner at 7, to wrestle with a joint of meat which the science of your native cook has made as hard as the Atlantic cable or burned as black as if it had just been shot up from the crater of Vesuvius. Or perhaps you dine out, to meet the same three or four men whom you are in the habit of meeting every day, and to hear the same talk and the same stories which you have heard every evening for the last six months.
Can anybody wonder that so many of these poor fellows should commit the fatal error of supplementing with strong stimulants the food which does not nourish and the exercise which does not strengthen, or that the few who escape an untimely grave in the African jungle are sent home as helpless invalids, to live through years of misery because they have not the strength to die?
It is quite a relief to turn away from all these sights of horror to the open sea once more...