The Human Sacrifice
From: The Great White Queen
KUMASSI, the capital of the Ashanti kingdom, was, we found, full of
curious contrasts. We approached it through dense high elephant grass,
along a little beaten foot-path strewn with fetish dolls. It was evening
when we entered it, and drums could be heard rumbling and booming far and
near. Presently we passed a cluster of the usual mud huts, then another;
several other clusters were in sight with patches of high jungle grass
between. Then in a bare open space some two hundred yards across, were
huts, and more thatched roofs in the hollow beyond. This was Kumassi.
During that day three of our fellow-sufferers, knowing the horrible fate
in store for them, managed to snatch knives from the belts of our captors
and commit suicide before our eyes, preferring death by their own hands
to decapitation by the executioners of Prempeh, that bloodthirsty monarch
who has now happily been deposed by the British Government, but who at
that time was sacrificing thousands of human lives annually, defiant and
heedless of the remonstrances of civilized nations.
In size Kumassi came up to the standard I had formed of it. The streets
were numerous, some half-dozen were broad and uniform, the main avenue
being some seventy yards wide, and here and there along its length a
great patriarchal tree spread its branches. The houses were wattled
structures with alcoves and stuccoed facades, embellished with Moorish
designs and coloured with red ochre. Red seemed the prevailing colour.
Indeed it is stated on good authority that on one occasion Prempeh
desired to stain the walls of his palace a darker red, and used the blood
of a thousand victims for that purpose. Behind each of the pretentious
buildings which fronted the streets were grouped the huts of the
domestics, inclosing small courtyards.
Passing down this main avenue, where many people watched our dismal
procession, we came to the grove whence issued the terrible smell which
caused travellers to describe Kumassi as a vast charnel-house; we,
however, did not halt there, but passed onward to the palace of Prempeh,
situated about three hundred yards away and occupying a level area in the
valley dividing the two eminences on which the town is situated. The
first view of what was designated as the palace was a number of houses
with steep thatched roofs clustered together and fenced around with split
bamboo stakes, while at one corner rose a square two-storeyed stone
building. The lower part of the lofty walls of stucco was stained deep
red, probably by blood, and the upper part whitewashed.
Presumably our captors had received a commission from Prempeh to supply
him with slaves for the sacrifice, for we were marched into a small
courtyard of the palace itself and there allowed to rest until next day,
being given a plentiful supply of well-cooked cankie, or maize pudding
wrapped in plantain leaves. Our position was, we knew, extremely
critical. Attired in the merest remnant of a waist cloth, with a thick
noose of grass-rope securely knotted around our necks, we lay in the open
court with the stars shining brilliantly above us, unable to sleep from
the intensity of our feelings. In the next court there were more than a
hundred unfortunates like ourselves huddled together, ready to be
sacrificed on the morrow.
Soon after sunrise, while moodily awaiting our fate, we were made to
stand up for inspection by one of the King's Ocras. These men were of
three classes; the first being relatives of the King and entrusted with
State secrets, were never sacrificed, the second were certain soldiers
appointed by the king, and the third slaves. All, on account of their
distinguished services, were exempt from taxes, palavers and military
services, and were kept in splendid style by the Royal exchequer, those
of the inferior classes being expected to sacrifice themselves upon the
tomb of the king when he died.
The tall, rather handsome, man who inspected us was an Ocra of the first
class, for he wore a massive gold circle like a quoit suspended around
his neck by golden chains, and, walking beneath an enormous,
gaudily-coloured silken umbrella bearing the crude device of a crouching
leopard, was attended by a numerous retinue, who paid him the greatest
The Arabs who had brought us there made him profound obeisance, while
some members of the retinue snapped fingers with several of the Arabs,
and the usual teetotal ceremony of drinking water to "cool the heads"
was gone through. The inspection was a keen one, each of us being passed
in review before the Ocra, who made brief comments to the Arabs at his
side. As Omar passed the dark-faced official scrutinised him carefully
and seemed interested to learn what the leader of the slave caravan told
him in a tongue unknown to me regarding us both, for his gaze wandered
from my companion to myself, and I was at once called out to pass before
his keen glance. We were both kept there several minutes while the Arab
presumably explained how we had been entrapped at the court of Samory. At
last, however, we were allowed to retire, and very soon afterwards the
great Ocra moved forward into the next court, followed by a couple of
youths bearing long knives and a thin, lean-looking wretch with a stool
curiously carved from a solid block of cotton wood, richly embellished
with gold ornaments.
When he had gone I cast myself upon the ground in the shadow beside Omar,
"After all, it would have been better if we had died in the woods than to
endure this torture of waiting for execution."
"Yes," he answered, gloomily. "That Ocra who has just inspected us was
Betea, a bitter enemy of my mother. He is certain to revenge himself upon
But even as he spoke we heard the adulatory shouts of the royal crier
somewhere in our vicinity. They were more than sufficient to transform
any man, white or black, into a vain despot, and as translated by Omar
were in the strain of:
"O, King, thou art the king above all kings! Thou art great! Thou art
mighty! Thou art strong! Thou hast done enough! The princes of the earth
bow down to thee, and humble themselves in the dust before thy stool.
Who is like unto the King of all the Ashantis?"
It was the preliminary of the great sacrifice!
King Prempeh, though arrogant, vain and cruel beyond measure, had, we
afterwards saw, the eye of a king, which means that it was the eye of one
possessing unlimited power over life and death. It was the custom for the
king to be placed on the stool by the united voice of the chiefs; but
immediately he was seated in him became vested the supreme power.
Soon the firing of guns and the loud beating of the great kinkassis, or
drums ornamented with human skulls, sounded outside the walls wherein we
were confined, while the air was rent by the wild yells of the excited
populace. For nearly an hour this continued, and we thus remained in
terrible suspense until at last the gate opened, and with the grass ropes
still around our neck we were marched out of the palace under an escort
of the king's slaves.
Turning to the left along the broad avenue we saw upon a long pole a
human head grinning at us, two vultures perched upon it eagerly stripping
it. It was, Omar told me, the head of a thief. The street was crowded
with people, who shouted to their gods as we passed in procession, and
presently we came to a great fetish-gallows, from the cross beams of
which hung the decomposing body of a ram. Some of the men forming our
escort were a strangely-dressed set, their uniform consisting of striped
tunics reaching to the knee, confined round the waist by belts profusely
decorated with strips of leopard skin and tiny brass bells which tinkled
musically as they moved. In their belts they carried several knives,
while the musket and the little round cap of pangolin skin completed
At last we reached the grove at Bantama on the out-skirts of the town,
one of the three execution places. Several thousand people had assembled
around a great tree where a number of gorgeous umbrellas of every hue and
material had been erected. Many were ornamented with curious devices, and
the tops of some bore little images of men and animals in gold and
silver. Under the centre umbrella, upon a brass-nailed chair close to the
tree, sat King Prempeh in regal splendour, surrounded by a crowd of
chiefs, whose golden accoutrements glittered in the sun. Three
scarlet-clad dwarfs were dancing before him amid the dense crowd of
sword-bearers, fly-whiskers, court criers and minor officials. As he sat
there, his thin flabby yellow face glistening with oil, he looked a truly
regal figure, wearing upon his head a high black and gold crown, and on
his neck and arms great golden beads and nuggets. His habit was to suck a
large nut that looked like a big cigar, and as he sat there with it in
his mouth it gave his face a strangely idiotic expression.
The whole Ashanti court had assembled at the theatre of human sacrifice.
As we approached the drumming grew louder, the roar of voices filled the
air, and the great coloured umbrellas were seen whirling and bobbing
above the heads of the surging crowd of natives. The great barrel-like
drums, with their grim ornamentations, boomed forth, and bands of
elephant-tusk horns added to the deafening din.
In the distance could be seen the great fetish-house, with its enormous
high thatched roof wherein was supposed to be hidden Prempeh's great
treasures of gold-dust and jewels. The ground whereon the glittering
court had assembled was covered with the skulls and bones of thousands of
former victims, and as we advanced slowly through the turbulent crowd we
saw a sight that froze our blood. At the foot of the fetish tree was
placed a great brass execution-bowl, about five feet in diameter. It was
ornamented with four small lions and a number of knobs all around its
rim, except at one part where there was a space for the victim's neck to
rest upon the edge. The blood of those sacrificed to the gods was allowed
to putrefy in this great bowl--which has recently passed into the hands
of the English, and is now in London--and leaves of certain herbs being
added it was considered valuable as a fetish medicine.
As we entered the cleared space between the chiefs and caboocers
surrounding the King and the thousands of warriors and spectators, salvo
after salvo of musketry was fired, until the smoke obscured all objects
in our immediate vicinity. Around the sacrificial bowl were grouped a
dozen or more royal executioners with their faces whitewashed and
hideously decorated. Some upon their heads wore caps of monkey skin with
the face in front, while others had high head-dresses of eagles'
feathers, their tunics of long grasses being covered with magical charms
tied in little bunches. All were copiously smeared with blood, while each
wore a necklace of human teeth, and carried a heavy broad-bladed sword
rusted by the blood of former victims. Behind them were twenty or thirty
Ashantis, each with a knife stuck through both cheeks, to prevent the
unhappy victims from asking the King to spare their lives, which,
according to national law, must be granted, while a broad-bladed dagger
was in many cases run under the shoulder-blades. They were prisoners who
had tried to stir revolt, and were, we understood, to be sacrificed
first. Our turn would come later.
The scene was horrible; we were appalled. At a signal from the King the
first unfortunate wretch was instantly seized by two executioners and
held over the bowl, while a third lifted his keen sword, and with a dull,
sickening thud brought it down upon the poor fellow's neck, hacking into
his spine until the head was severed. Then there arose a loud shout of
triumph. The offering to the fetish was the signal for the most
enthusiastic rejoicing, and the shouts of adulation were deafening. The
people, ground down by a crafty priesthood, and steeped in the most
degrading superstitions, looked upon the wholesale butchery that followed
without a shudder. King, courtiers and slaves seemed seized with an
insatiable desire for blood, and as one head fell after another, the
cries of the victims drowned by the vociferous shouts of the onlookers,
Omar and I stood shackled and trembling.
One after another the victims were thrown across the bowl and their
life-blood gushed into it as the cruel swords descended, while the King
gloated over the sight with an expression of pleasure upon his oily
sinister face, until the heap of headless trunks grew large, and the
number sacrificed must have been over a hundred.
Suddenly the chief executioner took one of his knives which had a human
skull upon the hilt, and holding it up, commanded silence.
Then spoke the Ocra Betea, who, rising from his stool, waved his hand
across the veritable Golgotha, crying:
"Behold! Tremble! The King makes the great yam custom. The death-drum
beats, and to the fetish we offer sacrifice. Who is so great as the King
of all the Ashantis, and who is so powerful as the fetish? Yonder are the
graves of the great kings, and the marks on yonder walls show the number
of men who were sacrificed when their graves were watered. Listen! The
mighty King Prempeh is about to sacrifice. To-day he sends five hundred
men to the dark world as a thank offering for the harvest, and as an
offering to the fetish to enable us to eat up our enemies, the whites.
When our mighty King says war, we will arm against them, and their heads
shall fill many baskets. Of a truth our lord Prempeh is the greatest
monarch who has ever sat upon the stool. The earth quakes when he speaks,
and his enemies are paralysed by fear. Betea has spoken."
Then the crowd set up a series of wild shrieks and yells, they
gesticulated, fired guns indiscriminately, and danced wildly, while some
of the enthusiasts pressing forward, dipped their hands into the blood
already in the bowl, and besmeared themselves with it; and others,
turning upon myself and my companion as we stood silent and trembling,
heaped every insult upon us.
In a few moments, however, the crowd was driven back, and at a signal
from the King the executions recommenced, until the smell of blood grew
sickening, and the awful scene caused me to shake like an aspen.
I knew that nothing could save me from the hands of these demoniacal
whitewashed executioners, and in a few moments I, a slave purchased like
an ox for the slaughter, would be borne down over the bowl and
I looked at Omar. His face was pale, but his lips were tightly set,
although there was an expression of utter hopelessness upon his
The horror of that moment held me breathless.
Next: In The Sacred Grove