Taxidermy, the process of stuffing dead animals for the purposes of display, either for decoration or for serious study, was extremely popular in the Victorian era. London’s Natural History Museum holds hundreds of Victorian exhibits.
The Natural History Museum first opened on Easter Monday in 1881, later than Frederick Goodenough had hoped for, since its site had been chosen as early as 1862. Before the museum officially opened, the natural history exhibits were a part of the British Museum’s collection. The new museum had a great need for “animal stuffers”, or taxidermists.
The value of money in the past is always difficult to calculate accurately, but in Chapter 5, Frank is certainly correct in saying that £25 will keep him in reasonable circumstances if he’s careful with his spending. It would approximate to £13,000 (US$19,360) in today’s earnings. On his return to England, Frederick leaves Frank £15,000, of which he gives his sister £5,000. In today’s earnings that sum is worth £4.9 million (US$7.9m) – so they were both left well off! The two lots of gold given him by the Ashanti king and General Amanquatia added up to 800 ounces. In 1874 an ounce of pure gold was worth £4.25, so Frank could have realised a total of £3,400 on selling it, which in today’s earnings gave him a further £1,697,187 (US$2.53m).
Toward the end of Chapter 9, Goodenough delights the Fang with slide shows on his magic lantern, which was a kerosene-fired slide projector. Victorian lantern slides were large and complex creations, often with built-in mechanical features using crank-pinion and gear wheels with operating handles, so that a limited form of animation was possible, such as the storm-tossed ship described. In 1817, Sir David Brewster patented the kaleidoscope—very much still with us today. Chromotrope lantern slides were made up from two glasses, each painted with geometric patterns, which when revolved in opposite directions projected fabulous displays of ever-changing colours like a kaleidoscope.
In Chapter 17, the ipecacuanha medicine mentioned comes from the root of a Brazilian plant and is a powerful emetic. Over several centuries its uses—depending on dosage—includes making people sick who have been poisoned—a sort of early stomach pump, inducing sweating (in malaria fever sufferers when they become over-hot), and most powerfully to treat dysentery.
All the tribes referred to in the story are real, although variable spellings may be found (Asante for Ashanti; Fante for Fanti, etc.). This is largely due to the fact that none of the West African and Central African tribes had a written language until the coming of Europeans, so names were rendered differently depending on the language used and the way the Europeans wrote down the sounds they were hearing. So, for instance, at the time the story is set, the spelling for Kumasi was usually Coomassie. The port for Dahomey (now Republic of Benin) in the story is given as Wydah, but appears today on maps with its more French-sounding spelling of Ouidah.
The military units and participating officers in the Ashanti War are all based on real characters who were there at the time, as are the characters of the Ashanti general, Amanquatia (Henty’s older spelling was Ammon Quatia), and the Asantehene, or king, Kofi Karikari.
Every town/village named in the story is a real place. Note that Sam’s village is not given a name and is fictitious although its circumstances are entirely authentic.
On the military road built between Cape Coast and Kumasi, the engineers constructed a total of 273 bridges across streams, swamps and rivers, including the largest, at over 200 feet, at Prasu.
As described in the story, the famous explorer Henry Morton Stanley really was present at the Ashanti War as a newspaper reporter, and so indeed in the same capacity was the famous novelist George Alfred Henty! In fact Henty’s inspiration for the character of Frank Hargate was Anthony Bannister Swinburne, Stanley’s 16-year-old travelling companion, described as his “hero-worshipping clerk and valet”. While Henty may have been obliged to defend himself, we are told that Stanley took an active part in the climactic battle at Amoaful. General Wolseley, “strolling” through the battle noted with approval the coolness and accuracy with which Stanley (“a thoroughly good man”) picked off the enemy.
At the start of Chapter 19, General Sir Garnet Wolseley (who also appears as the overall commander of the failed Nile river campaign to relieve Khartoum in Big Action Library’s Dash for Khartoum) refers to Stanley as “the Yank with an oddly Welsh lilt”. The famous explorer passed himself off as an American, but in reality he was born John Rowland, the illegitimate son of an impoverished farmer, in Denbigh, North Wales. His grandparents raised him until he was about six, when he was sent to a workhouse, where he remained until he ran away and made his way to the USA. His fascinating story has been covered by several biographies, none better than Tim Jeal’s Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer.
Tim Jeal also wrote a terrific biography of the founder of the Boy Scouts, Robert Baden-Powell, who crops up at the end of this story in the Epilogue. Baden-Powell led a native levy against Kumasi in the war of 1896 across almost exactly the same ground as Wolseley before him—although the engineers’ marvellous road of 1874 had fallen into disrepair by then and so much of the work had to be repeated. More detail on the reasons for this war can be found on the Big Action Library website, but two points are of immediate interest. The Asantehene Prempeh put up no fight, which greatly upset the vigorous Baden-Powell, who had been looking forward to a good scrap and a name-making victory. (Prempeh was exiled to the modern holiday hot-spot, the Seychelles Islands, so you might wonder who came off best…). The second point follows.
The origin of the Boy Scouts’ left handshake is often attributed to Baden-Powell’s time among the Ashanti. It’s said that when B-P entered Kumasi, he was surprised when a warrior chief offered his left hand to shake. The man told B-P that the brave shake with the left hand because a warrior uses his right hand to hold the spears and his left to hold his shield. To show your trust in someone, you put down the shield and greeted them by holding out the left hand. Now, hundreds of thousands of Scouts worldwide greet each other with the left handshake.
© 2010–2016 Reckless Books, England