Journal Volume 6 2010
Sir William F. Butler (continued/5)
The Wild North Land
The story of this new journey is best told in the form of an itinerary because it would otherwise be an unending repetition of loneliness, subzero temperatures, and rations of moose meat, pemmican and milkless tea.
Train to St Cloud Minnesota
North by stagecoach and Red River steamer to Fort Garry
600 miles to the forks of the Saskatchewan River
A thirty day hunt with his Indian scouts to obtain a winter’s supply of buffalo meat; did not meet another human being
North along the Athabasca River to Lake Athabasca and then Westwards along the Peace River to Fort St John’s
Traversed the northern Rockies into British Columbia
Quesnel on the Fraser River 400 miles northeast of Vancouver; this area still populated by a few mining prospectors
He was accompanied on this trip by a magnificent sleigh-dog called ‘Cerf Volant’ who was leader of the team of huskies by day and his bed warmer by night. They made their way along the Cariboo trail to Victoria and thence by steamer to San Francisco.
In the autumn of 1873, Butler parted company with Cerf Volant in Boston and returned to Canada. By now his funds were low but he was reluctant to return to England. He hoped for a commission from the Canadian Government but this was not forthcoming. Then by chance he read in a newspaper of a new colonial war to be planned by the Imperial Government on the Gold Coast of West Africa
For centuries European merchants from Britain, Holland, Portugal and Denmark had been operating trading posts along the Gulf of Guinea. They traded guns, knives, textiles, and rum for gold, ivory and slaves. The tribes along the coastal belt had been corrupted by venality, rum and the white man’s diseases. However the real power in the region rested with the Ashanti tribe who were the Zulus of West Africa-centrally organised, disciplined and militarily competent. Their territory lay north of the Prah River and their capital was Kumasi, about 100 miles inland. From time to time they raided the coastal region and were able to exact tribute from the traders under threat of attack.
The Ashanti were a thorn in the side of the British who were trying to establish a Gold Coast Protectorate to secure their trade. As far back as 1825 they had given the British a bloody nose when a punitive expedition led by an Irish Governor, Sir Charles MacCarthy, invaded their territory complacently believing that the Ashanti would be cowed by a display of military splendour. The expedition was surrounded and annihilated and MacCarthy’s head was cut off and for many years thereafter his skull was paraded around Kumasi on ceremonial days. The band instruments were another prized trophy of the Ashantis – possibly the origin of jazz!!
In 1871 the British press, reacting to Ashanti pressure on the trading fort at Elmina, and encouraged by the trading lobbies, began a campaign of censure. British prestige was said to be at stake and nothing outrages the British more than a blow in the prestige. The Government in London was spurred to take action to put the Ashanti in their place.
Butler heard in Montreal that Lieutenant-General Sir Garnet Wolseley had been appointed to lead the expedition but by the time Butler reached England Wolseley had already sailed. He embarked immediately on a fever ridden death trap called the ‘Benin’ and sailed on September 30th 1873. The voyage lasted 22 days during which the captain and six sailors died. At Cape Coast Castle, Wolseley and his staff were planning the campaign. By December they assembled a force of some 4,000 men including three battalions of British regulars and the remainder African levies from the coastal tribes. With this force they intended a direct assault towards Kumasi which was defended by up to 40,000 Ashanti warriors led by their king Kofi Karikari. Butler was sent on his own 150 miles to the northeast to raise a force of several thousand Akim tribesmen which he was to lead in a flanking attack from Accra.
Two days out from Accra, Butler met a procession of Akims headed in the opposite direction that had no intention of fighting anyone. He sympathised with their anxieties; they were afraid of the Ashantis and knew from previous experience that the British having scored a victory would go home leaving them to face the music. At this stage Butler came down with fever which was to plague him for the remainder of his time in West Africa. His body wasted away and he was at times so weak that he had to be carried on a litter. Nevertheless he managed to assemble a force of 200 Akims and had been joined by two more British officers who also came down immediately with fever.
Wolseley set the date of January 15th 1874 for the crossing of the Prah River with his own force on the direct line north and Butler’s column moving from the east. On that day only Butler reached the start point. The Akims refused point blank to cross the river. Butler and two of his fellow officers stripped off and crossed first and eventually succeeded in assembling a force of several hundred men north of the Prah. Meantime Wolseley’s main force crossed the Prah and engaged the Ashanti at the village of Amoafu. The Ashanti fought bravely but their muzzle loaders were no match for the rifles, rockets and artillery of the British. The Ashanti withdrew but were still an effective fighting force. By this time Butler and his people were at Akina but the Akims had no intention of fighting. Butler was in despair feeling himself to be a total failure. It became apparent afterwards that his presence alone compelled the Ashanti to divide their forces making it possible for Wolseley’s force to capture and burn Kumasi.
On March 14th a treaty was signed at Fomena which deprived the Ashanti of their power. Some evidence of human sacrifice was found in Kumasi which provided retrospective justification for the campaign to the readership of the British press. It was the Victorian equivalent of weapons of mass destruction.
Butler was by now seriously ill and by the time he was taken on board a steamer at Cape Coast he was near death. In fact on the voyage home he was being prepared for burial at sea when sailors noticed a small sign of life. On arrival in England he was delirious, a near skeleton and lay in Netley Military hospital for two months.
In spite of his sense of failure Wolseley was highly appreciative of his efforts and Butler was written up in the Illustrated London News, mentioned in the House of Lords, promoted to major and awarded a CB. Queen Victoria came to visit him in hospital. From Netley, still barely able to walk, he returned to Ireland to spend eight months in Kerry recuperating. During this time he wrote his experiences on the Gold Coast in his book ‘Akim Foo - The Story of a Failure’. The verdict on his contribution by independent observers was that he had confronted impossible odds and shown qualities of courage and perseverance which few men could have matched.