Part 3 – Lieutenants
Chapter 8 – The Niger
The recently commissioned sloop Freytus was anchored at the mouth of the Niger near Benin when the new lieutenants arrived to join her crew of 75 men. Despite his reservations, Ephraim enjoyed the sight of the handsome barque-rigged ship, chiefly iron and teak, 170ft long with a single screw, and a sail spread of 14,800 square feet, lying tranquilly on the water. He was intrigued by the guns. She had two 7inch and four 64 pounder MLR guns ranged three a side, and one at bow and stern. She carried two small boats for the recently acquired brass howitzer field guns. Their wheels and carriages were stowed in the bottom of the boat. The new lieutenants looked at each other in alarm when they saw how the Niger river fanned out into inlets that were little more than creeks. The Freytus was not big but it was too big to do much work up these creeks.
‘Just a bug trap,’ said First Lieutenant Mackie, ‘But it only draws nine feet of water. Welcome aboard.’
Ephraim could see cockroaches covering the bulkheads and could only guess at horrors to come.
‘These bug traps have to do the work of a naval brigade.’
To Ephraim’s surprise, Hepplewhite was standing on the deck,
‘Good heavens, didn’t expect to see you here!’
‘Came over from Benin. Good to see you fellows again.’
‘And you! Sorry to hear about your father. Terrible business!’ said Ephraim.
A steward appeared and offered refreshment.
‘They do a nice little thing with metal tasting rum and condensed water here,’ said Mackie, ‘But if you would prefer tea!’
‘Would die, just for water!’ said Sebold.
It all looked very civilized, Ephraim thought, as they settled over a pot of tea on deck under the awning. There was a noise as the Captain clattered up from below, a red bearded man with hair to match. He was quite willing to share with his new officers hair-raising stories of his recent experiences with poison spear carrying natives of the Polynesian islands who wore the dried skulls of their trophies around their waists and were reported to celebrate with cannibal feasts the defeat of enemy tribes.
‘Don’t suppose these Ashanti tribes will be much different.’
He explained the situation.
‘Here we have the Sobo, Mahim, and most warlike Jekri tribes, centered at Aboh and Igah. Orders from the Admiral are to keep the peace and punish any disorder, disturbance. The Niger is a British Protectorate and we have to protect the Traders of the Royal Niger Company from the local traders – and the local traders from the Company! – Palm oil and cotton is what it is all about. There have been local murders and the creeks have been obstructed. The government wants palavers before punishment. That is why they have sent the Commissioner Major Macpherson here for an inquiry. He has to interview all the Emirs, Kings and Chiefs before we bombard them.’
Harkness sighed; he was of a lean, nervous disposition but he liked to think so long as things were properly organised they would go well. To comply with Admiralty orders he had determined on an expedition up to Igah to meet with the native chief of the Brass men who had been causing trouble, blockading the river and building stockades. Their war canoes were everywhere, and some well armed with smooth bore cannon in the bows.
‘The first thing will be an initial, explorative trip up one of these river Brass creeks with the boats,’ Harkness told his men, ‘Things are getting a bit tricky, worrying, round here. If necessary, needed, we will leave Freytus behind and I will transfer my flag to the paddleboat and ammunition and stores from Freytus will be transferred, passed, to the boats. Then I will despatch individual, single sorties in the boats as seems expedient. Admiralty wishes boats never to be out of covering range.’
‘What sort of number to a sortie, sir?’ asked Lieutenant Mackie, who also liked things to be organised and to know what he was doing.
‘Thirty men in each boat. We shall make our approach as silent as applicable, sensible.’
‘Will that mean not talking, speaking, sir?’
Sebold had picked up the Captains quirk – might come in useful.
‘Means use your common sense, discretion.’
‘We may make it all the way to Igah. Not used to, familiar,with this territory.’
Captain Harkness said they must be prepared for it to feel much hotter, warmer, as they moved inland up the creek and lost the cool evening breeze. The officers thought it was quite hot enough where they were. It started with discomfort, it turned to sweat, and then ‘ones blood begins to boil,’ complained Hepplewhite, ‘The Marines have white helmets, we have to manage with white neck cloths.
‘Not to mention the mosquitos and other horrors,’ said Ephraim as he slapped one off his hand.
The heat took them all differently and affected none more significantly than Ephraim. It had often seemed his body had shared a deadly cold with Emily ever since she died, and now as the tropical heat diffused itself into his being he welcomed the restoration to warmth and life. The long, uneventful seven week passage from Portsmouth had brought him low. As they left the Niger, the verdant green of the fern-laden, tropical river bank, with its fanning of tall palm trees and tall grasses at the edge, concealing crocodiles and wildlife hitherto unknown to him, brought such sensations as to entrance his eye and lift his soul. He could not stop inhaling the heavy, humid air, the scents changing their attractions by the minute, now sharp and almost acrid, now sweet and fetid, then fragrant with orchid and frangipani, then clogged by pungent river mangoes and great fat water lilies. It was the mythical garden of Eden. It was an epiphany. Surely Emily was here amongst the lilies, and they could breathe in this divine emanation together.
There was little to do on board as they sailed into their destination on the Brass river, passing the wooden trading stores set up by English Merchants, with shops below and living quarters above, the ground around often beneath water, cleared and packed with palm-oil casks waiting for England.
‘And they call them factories!’ said Sebold. ‘The white man is only interested in bartering his cotton for palm-oil to make as much money as he can before his health gives up and he goes home to die.’
They passed a small English burial enclosure. Ephraim was pleased to see these early signs of Empire raised in dense bush and impassable mangrove swamps.
They kept a careful lookout for movement in the coastal brush, sounds of native canoes plashing in the adjacent creeks, the chilling beat of native drumming as it sounded, then silenced. The fitful breeze made progress slow. Harkness restricted life to a few quiet watches. Something in the air made everyone unusually somnolent. Sebold was reading his book, Lieutenant Hepplewhite was rehearsing several scenarios in his mind where he held off armed men, protected bluejackets under his care, disarmed natives from their bows and arrows and shot the chief; lounging about on deck was not to his taste. Hepplewhite was pouring small amounts of water over himself at regular intervals and Mason, who had been sent over from Benin at the last minute by Admiral Redford, was indulging in a few cautionary prayers lest battle commence at any moment. Admiral Redford’s father had been with Fishbourne in the failed Admiralty abolition expedition of ’41 to the Niger and Redford was now on the Committee of the CMS where he had met and been impressed by the fervor of the young Lieutenant. Redford had sent him a letter of introduction to Rev. Crowther and the Church Missionary Society settlement at Bonny, in case he should get the chance of a meeting.
Captain Harkness was examining orders for where they were to meet up with the marines at Igah.
As they neared their destination, he turned to the First Lieutenant,
‘Post a couple of lookouts at each end of the boat. We don’t want to set up any sort of alarm but Admiral Redford thinks the Brassmen are massing, congregating in one of the villages. A British subject has complained of assault and robbery.
‘Massing? How many are we thinking of?’
‘No idea. We’ll know when we see, view them!’
The creek narrowed and the verdant growth of mangos, linneas and crotons made it difficult to proceed further. Harkness was a collector of crotons and would have wanted to stop and investigate for new delights but duty called. It was obvious that Freytus could go no further, her engine was giving trouble. She would have to be left behind and they would have to use the boats. He had seen to it that the boats were supplied with ammunition and rations and now he supervised their release up river. The wheels and carriages kept at the bottom of the sloop were now in the boats ready for the howitzers to be installed.
‘I will transfer my own flag to the paddle boat, Arbit. First Lieutenant Mackie and Lt. Browne will take one boat, Lt. Hepplewhite and Sebold, the other. The men are supplied with muskets and cutlasses. Officers are well supplied with swords and small arms, and we might as well take a pulling boat. That will be you, Sub Lieutenant Trimble. Lieutenant Mason will remain here to keep an eye on Freytu….and I don’t like the sound of those drums!’ There was no doubt about it, the ominous rhythmic drumming was becoming louder.
The officers made the necessary arrangements and the little flotilla was soon ready to creep warily ahead. But it was not long before the creeping foliage and vegetation of the creek waved above them and threatened to endanger all three boats and prevent them from moving.
‘Nothing for it,’ said Mackie, ‘We will have to hack our way through this bloody jungle, but let us keep the boats moving along the creek as long as we can.’
‘Browne go up on yours and keep a look out in the bow and see, while we hammer away at this stuff.’
It was no easy feat but the bluejackets fell to it with a will. Axes and knives slashed down branches, but cutlasses and swords were less use against the rattans which bound the roots of the trees on either bank and clung to the overarching branches. Sub Lieutenant Trimble innovated the use of ropes to lasso the vegetation the better to demolish it. Captain Harkness was up to his waist in the water, slipping on the mud as they tried to keep a channel clear through the creek. At least there was no evidence of native habitation or adjacent crocodiles, only occasional yelling war cries and the noise of drums, now on either side of the creek. Ephraim stood at the front of the boat, nerves attuned to any sight or sound that might indicate crocodiles concealed in the water or native bodies hidden in the river bank, or adjacent war canoes, but there was only the beating of drums from the jungle, now on both sides. It took a half hour before he could cry,
‘Clearing ahead!’ as the vegetation drew back and the creek widened sufficiently for the ships to proceed in relatively clear water. Another half hour brought them close to Igah with a wide beech clearing backed by a steep hill. No sign of habitation. Hearts stopped pounding and bodies relaxed. Success!
A sound of war drums and a blood curdling cry disillusioned them! Chiefs and their warriors rushed down from the crest of the hill on to the river beach, yelling and waving their weapons. They only wore loin cloths and feathered head dresses but with guns and their long poisoned spears and arrows they threatened immediate disaster. They halted at the waters edge. Captain Harkness assessed the situation, mindful of Admiralty orders not to make shore landings unless absolutely necessary, he told the men to stay in their boats while he went to parley with the chiefs. He went ashore believing that if he showed a quiet authority and told the chiefs to disperse in the face of naval boats from a warship, they would do so. But the natives were hostile, there was a great deal of noise and war dancing. They refused, and Harkness had only just got back into Arbit when the natives opened fire. The boats retaliated with an enthusiastic bombardment of musket and rifle bullets. Harkness fired his revolver into them at eighty yards range. He was struck by the Ashanti discipline. They reformed behind their main body, like British troops, and did not run away until the loss of men made them strategically disappear.
Harkness was not prepared to leave the matter there. Next day Lieutenant Sebold and Mackie steamed to the town of Aboh to bring back the British subject whose complaint had brought the expedition out in the first place. He despatched an order to the chiefs to assemble for a palaver. The leading chief again refused to attend. Such insurgent dissension could not be tolerated. Harkness sent warning,
‘You must understand that if you do not return in Arbit, the town will be destroyed.’
Not only did the chief not return, he indicated that he would fight. Aware of his orders for punishment as well as palaver, Harkness prepared rockets and ordered Marines and bluejackets from his boats to destroy Igah. Some four or five hundred natives assembled on the shore and parties had to be landed to deal with them. It was not without difficulty and the fight proved a sharper engagement than expected. The natives were driven back with heavy loss on their part. Lieutenant Mackie was severely wounded by a native spear, two seamen from Freytus were wounded and a Midshipman was killed. Mason had killed two, but it was a just war, the enemy had opened fire first. Sebold and Hepplewhite congratulated themselves on bagging several natives. Ephraim had managed to fire his gun but had missed, thankfully.
He had also been involved in an incident. A native child had spilled from the bush at the edge, and run crying into the middle of the battle. A native bedecked with feathers and straw skirt had run through the gun fire, scooped up the crying child into his arms and run him back to safety. An overwhelming identification grasped Ephraim. For a moment he knew that he too had a son, the inexplicable understanding flashed into his mind like a pain in the stomach, he and the native were as one – they were fathers! But no time for reflection. He lifted his Martini Henry and fired at the nearest native.
The Lieutenants were glad to get out alive from this, their first experience of peace-keeping on the Niger, but there was further work ahead. The French were becoming expansionist after the ’78 Berlin Congress had given them a free hand in Tunisia and they were now using their naval forces to assert power in Guinea, the Ivory Coast, Dahomey and the Congo. This brought them up against the British in Nigeria, Gambia and the Gold Coast, and Freytus was again called into action. Hepplewhite had succombed to the always present risk of fever and had to be invalided out but to Ephraim’s delight Polwhele was transferred from Hunter to Freytus. The men from Freytus, having distinguished themselves in the Niger were now available for the Congo.