Travels in West Africa, by Mary H. Kingsley

Chapter XVI. Fetish — (concluded).

In which the discourse on apparitions is continued, with some observations on secret societies, both tribal and murder, and the kindred subject of leopards.

Apparitions are by no means always of human soul origin. All the Tschwi and the Ewe gods, for example, have the habit of appearing pretty regularly to their priests, and occasionally to the laity, like Sasabonsum; but it is only to priests that these appearances are harmless or beneficial. The effect of Sasabonsum’s appearance to the layman I have cited above, and I could give many other examples of the bad effects of those of other gods, but will only now mention Tando, the Hater, the chief god of the Northern Tschwi, the Ashantees, etc. He is terribly malicious, human in shape, and though not quite white, is decidedly lighter in complexion than the chief god of the Southern Tschwi, Bobowissi. His hair is lank, and he carries a native sword and wears a long robe. His well-selected messengers are those awful driver ants (Inkran) which it is not orthodox to molest in Tando’s territories. He uses as his weapons lightning, tempest, and disease, but the last is the most favourite one.

There is absolutely no trick too mean or venomous for Tando. For example, he has a way of appearing near a village he has a grudge against in the form of a male child, and wanders about crying bitterly, until some kind-hearted, unsuspecting villager comes and takes him in and feeds him. Then he develops a contagious disease that clears that village out.

This form of appearance and subsequent conduct is, unhappily, not rigidly confined to Tando, but is used by many spirits as a method of collecting arrears in taxes in the way of sacrifices. I have found traces of it among Bantu gods or spirits, and it gives rise to a general hesitation in West Africa to take care of waifs and strays of unexplained origin.

Other things beside gods and human spirits have the habit of becoming incarnate. Once I had to sit waiting a long time at an apparently perfectly clear bush path, because in front of us a spear’s ghost used to fly across the path about that time in the afternoon, and if any one was struck by it they died. A certain spring I know of is haunted by the ghost of a pitcher. Many ladies when they have gone alone to fill their pitchers in the evening time at this forest spring have noticed a very fine pitcher standing there ready filled, and thinking exchange is no robbery, or at any rate they would risk it if it were, have left their own pitcher and taken the better looking one; but always as soon as they have come within sight of the village huts, the new pitcher has crumbled into dust, and the water in it been spilt on the ground; and the worst of it is, when they have returned to fetch their own discarded pitcher, they find it also shattered into pieces.

There is also another class of apparition, of which I have met with two instances, one among pure Negroes (Okyon); the other among pure Bantu (Kangwe). I will give the Bantu version of the affair, because at Okyon the incident had happened a good time before the details were told me, and in the Bantu case they had happened the previous evening. But there was very little difference in the main facts of the case, and it was an important thing because in both cases the underlying idea was sacrificial.

The woman who told me was an exceedingly intelligent, shrewd, reliable person. She had been to the factory with some trade, and had got a good price for it, and so was in a good temper on her return home in the evening. She got out of her canoe and leaving her slave boy to bring up the things, walked to her house, which was the ordinary house of a prosperous Igalwa native, having two distinct rooms in it, and a separate cook-house close by in a clean, sandy yard. She trod on some nastiness in the yard, and going into the cook-house found the slave girls round a very small and inefficient fire, trying to cook the evening meal. She blew them up for not having a proper fire; they said the wood was wet, and would not burn. She said they lied, and she would see to them later, and she went into the chamber she used for a sleeping apartment, and trod on something more on the floor in the dark; those good-for-nothing hussies of slaves had not lit her palm-oil lamp, and mentally forming the opinion that they had been out flirting during her absence, and resolving to teach them well the iniquity of such conduct, she sat down on her bed into a lot of messy stuff of a clammy, damp nature. Now this fairly roused her, for she is a notable housewife, who keeps her house and slaves in exceedingly good order. So dismissing from her mind the commercial consideration she had intended to gloat over when she came into her room, she called Ingremina and others in a tone that brought those young ladies on the spot. She asked them how they dared forget to light her lamp; they said they had not, but the lamp in the room must have gone out like the other lamps had, after burning dim and spluttering. They further said they had not been out, but had been sitting round the fire trying to make it burn properly. She duly whacked and pulled the ears of all within reach. I say within reach for she is not very active, weighing, I am sure, upwards of eighteen stone. Then she went back into her room and got out her beautiful English paraffin lamp, which she keeps in a box, and taking it into the cook-house, picked up a bit of wood from the hissing, spluttering fire, and lit it. When she picked up the wood she noticed that it was covered with the same sticky abomination she had met before that evening, and it smelt of the same faint smell she had noticed as soon as she had reached her house, and by now the whole air seemed oppressive with it.

As soon as the lamp was alight she saw what the stuff was, namely, blood. Blood was everywhere, the rest of the sticks in the fire had it on them, it sizzled at the burning ends, and ran off the other in rills. There were pools of it about her clean, sandy yard. Her own room was reeking, the bed, the stools, the floor; it trickled down the door-post; coagulated on the lintel. She herself was smeared with it from the things she had come in contact with in the dark, and the slaves seemed to have been sitting in pools of it. The things she picked up off the table and shelf left rims of it behind them; there was more in the skillets, and the oil in the open palm-oil lamps had a film of it floating on the oil. Investigation showed that the whole of the rest of her house was in a similar mess. The good lady gave a complete catalogue of the household furniture and its condition, which I need not give here. The slave girls when the light came were terrified at what they saw, and she called in the aristocracy of the village, and asked them their opinion on the blood palaver. They said they could make nothing of it at first, but subsequently formed the opinion that it meant something was going to happen, and suggested with the kind, helpful cheerfulness of relatives and friends, that they should not wonder if it were a prophecy of her own death. This view irritated the already tried lady, and she sent them about their business, and started the slaves on house-cleaning. The blood cleaned up all right when you were about it, but kept on turning up in other places, and in the one you had just cleaned as soon as you left off and went elsewhere; and the morning came and found things in much the same state until “before suntime,” say about 10 o’clock, when it faded away.

I cautiously tried to get my stately, touchy dowager duchess to explain how it was that there was such a lot of blood, and how it was it got into the house. She just said “it had to go somewhere,” and refused to give rational explanations as Chambers’s Journal does after telling a good ghost story. I found afterwards that it was quite decided it was a case of “blood come before,” and at Okyon, Miss Slessor told me, in regard to the similar case there, that this was the opinion held regarding the phenomenon. It is always held uncanny in Africa if a person dies without shedding blood. You see, the blood is the life, and if you see it come out, you know the going of the thing, as it were. If you do not, it is mysterious. At Okyon, a few days after the blood appeared, a nephew of the person whose house it came into was killed while felling a tree in the forest; a bough struck him and broke his neck, without shedding a drop of blood, and this bore out the theory, for the blood having “to go somewhere” came before. In the Bantu case I did not hear of such a supporting incident happening.

Certain African ideas about blood puzzle me. I was told by a Batanga friend, a resident white trader, that a short time previously a man was convicted of theft by the natives of a village close to him. The hands and feet of the criminal were tied together, and he was flung into the river. He got himself free, and swam to the other bank, and went for bush. He was recaptured, and a stone tied to his neck, and in again he was thrown. The second time he got free and ashore, and was recaptured, and the chief then, most regretfully, ordered that he was to be knocked on the head before being thrown in for a third time. This time palaver set, but the chief knew that he would die himself, by spitting the blood he had spilt, from his own lungs, before the year was out. I inquired about the chief when I passed this place, more than eighteen months after, and learnt from a native that the chief was dead, and that he had died in this way. The objection thus was not to shedding blood in a general way, but to the shedding in the course of judicial execution. There may be some idea of this kind underlying the ingenious and awful ways the negroes have of killing thieves, by tying them to stakes in the rivers, or down on to paths for the driver ants to kill and eat, but this is only conjecture; I have not had a chance yet to work this subject up; and getting reliable information about underlying ideas is very difficult in Africa. The natives will say “Yes” to any mortal thing, if they think you want them to; and the variety of their languages is another great hindrance. Were it not for the prevalence of Kru English or trade English, investigation would be almost impossible; but, fortunately, this quaint language is prevalent, and the natives of different tribes communicate with each other in it, and so round a fire, in the evening, if you listen to the gossip, you can pick up all sorts of strange information, and gain strange and often awful lights on your absent white friends’ characters, and your present companions’ religion. For example, the other day I had a set of porters composed of four Bassa boys, two Wei Weis, one Dualla, and two Yorubas. None of their languages fitted, so they talked trade English, and pretty lively talk some of it was, but of that anon.

I cannot close this brief notice of native ideas without mentioning the secret societies; but to go fully into this branch of the subject would require volumes, for every tribe has its secret society. The Poorah of Sierra Leone, the Oru of Lagos, the Egbo of Calabar, the Isyogo of the Igalwa, the Ukuku of the Benga, the Okukwe of the M’pongwe, the Ikun of the Bakele, and the Lukuku of the Bachilangi Baluba, are some of the most powerful secret societies on the West African Coast.

These secret societies are not essentially religious, their action is mainly judicial, and their particularly presiding spirit is not a god or devil in our sense of the word. The ritual differs for each in its detail, but there are broad lines of agreement between them. There are societies both for men and for women, but mixed societies for both sexes are rare. Those that I have mentioned above are all male, except the Lukuku, and women are utterly forbidden to participate in the rites or become acquainted with their secrets, for one of the chief duties of these societies is to keep the women in order; and besides it is undoubtedly held that women are bad for certain forms of ju-ju, even when these forms are not directly connected, as far as I can find out, with the secret society. For example, the other day a chief up the Mungo River deliberately destroyed his ju-ju by showing it to his women. It was a great ju-ju, but expensive to keep up, requiring sacrifices of slaves and goats, so what with trade being bad, fall in the price of oil and ivory and so on, he felt he could not afford that ju-ju, and so destroyed its power, so as to prevent its harming him when he neglected it.

The general rule with these secret societies is to admit the young free people at an age of about eight to ten years, the boys entering the male, the girls the female society. Both societies are rigidly kept apart. A man who attempts to penetrate the female mysteries would be as surely killed as a woman who might attempt to investigate the male mysteries; still I came, in 1893, across an amusing case which demonstrates the inextinguishable thirst for knowledge, so long as that knowledge is forbidden, which characterises our sex.

It was in the district just south of Big Batanga. The male society had been very hard on the ladies for some time, and one day one star-like intellect among the latter told her next-door neighbour, in strict confidence, that she did not believe Ikun was a spirit at all, but only old So-and-so dressed up in leaves. This rank heresy spread rapidly, in strict confidence, among the ladies at large, and they used to assemble together in the house of the foundress of the theory, secretly of course, because husbands down there are hasty with the cutlass and the kassengo, and they talked the matter over. Somehow or other, this came to the ears of the men. Whether the ladies got too emancipated and winked when Ikun was mentioned, or asked how Mr. So-and-so was this morning, in a pointed way, after an Ikun manifestation, I do not know; some people told me this was so, but others, who, I fear, were right, considering the acknowledged slowness of men in putting two and two together, and the treachery of women towards each other, said that a woman had told a man that she had heard some of the other women were going on in this heretical way. Anyhow, the men knew, and were much alarmed; scepticism had spread by now to such an extent that nothing short of burning or drowning all the women could stamp it out and reintroduce the proper sense of awe into the female side of Society, and after a good deal of consideration the men saw, for men are undoubtedly more gifted in foresight than our sex, that it was no particular use reintroducing this awe if there was no female half of Society to be impressed by it. It was a brain-spraining problem for the men all round, for it is clear Society cannot be kept together without some superhuman aid to help to keep the feminine portion of it within bounds.

Grave councils were held, and it was decided that the woman at whose house these treasonable meetings were held should be sent away early one morning on a trading mission to the nearest factory, a job she readily undertook; and while the other women were away in the plantation or at the spring, certain men entered her house secretly and dug a big chamber out in the floor of the hut, and one of them, dressed as Ikun, and provided with refreshments for the day, got into this chamber, and the whole affair was covered over carefully and the floor re-sanded. That afternoon there was a big manifestation of Ikun. He came in the most terrible form, his howls were awful, and he finally went dancing away into the bush as the night came down. The ladies had just taken the common-sense precaution of removing all goats, sheep, fowls, etc., into enclosed premises, for, like all his kind, he seizes and holds any property he may come across in the street, but there was evidently no emotional thrill in the female mind regarding him, and when the leading lady returned home in the evening the other ladies strolled into their leader’s hut to hear about what new cotton prints, beads, and things Mr. —— had got at his factory by the last steamer from Europe, and interesting kindred subjects bearing on Mr. — -. When they had threshed these matters out, the conversation turned on to religion, and what fools those men had been making of themselves all the afternoon with their Ikun. No sooner was his name uttered than a venomous howl, terminating in squeals of rage and impatience, came from the ground beneath them. They stared at each other for one second, and then, feeling that something was tearing its way up through the floor, they left for the interior of Africa with one accord. Ikun gave chase as soon as he got free, but what with being half-stifled and a bit cramped in the legs, and much encumbered with his vegetable decorations, the ladies got clear away and no arrests were made — but Society was saved. Scepticism became in the twinkling of an eye a thing of the past; and, although no names were taken, the men observed that certain ladies were particularly anxious, and regardless of expense, in buying immunity from Ikun, and they fancied that these ladies were probably in that hut on that particular evening, but they took no further action against them, save making Ikun particularly expensive. There ought to be a moral to an improving tale of this order, I know, but the only one I can think of just now is that it takes a priest to get round a woman; and I always feel inclined to jump on to the table myself when I think of those poor dear creatures sitting on the floor and feeling that awful thing clapper-clawing its way up right under them.

Tattooing on the West Coast is comparatively rare, and I think I may say never used with decorative intent only. The skin decorations are either paint or cicatrices — in the former case the pattern is not kept always the same by the individual. A peculiar form of it you find in the Rivers, where a pattern is painted on the skin, and then when the paint is dry, a wash is applied which makes the unpainted skin rise up in between the painted pattern. The cicatrices are sometimes tribal marks, but sometimes decorative. They are made by cutting the skin and then placing in the wound the fluff of the silk cotton tree.

The great point of agreement between all these West African secret societies lies in the methods of initiation.

The boy, if he belongs to a tribe that goes in for tattooing, is tattooed, and is handed over to instructors in the societies’ secrets and formula. He lives, with the other boys of his tribe undergoing initiation, usually under the rule of several instructors, and for the space of one year. He lives always in the forest, and is naked and smeared with clay.

The boys are exercised so as to become inured to hardship; in some districts, they make raids so as to perfect themselves in this useful accomplishment. They always take a new name, and are supposed by the initiation process to become new beings in the magic wood, and on their return to their village at the end of their course, they pretend to have entirely forgotten their life before they entered the wood; but this pretence is not kept up beyond the period of festivities given to welcome them home. They all learn, to a certain extent, a new language, a secret language only understood by the initiated.

The same removal from home and instruction from initiated members is also observed with the girls. However, in their case, it is not always a forest-grove they are secluded in, sometimes it is done in huts. Among the Grain Coast tribes however, the girls go into a magic wood until they are married. Should they have to leave the wood for any temporary reason, they must smear themselves with white clay. A similar custom holds good in Okyon, Calabar district, where, should a girl have to leave the fattening-house, she must be covered with white clay. I believe this fattening-house custom in Calabar is not only for fattening up the women to improve their appearance, but an initiatory custom as well, although the main intention is now, undoubtedly, fattening, and the girl is constantly fed with fat-producing foods, such as fou-fou soaked in palm oil. I am told, but I think wrongly, that the white clay with which a Calabar girl is kept covered while in the fattening-house, putting on an extra coating of it should she come outside, is to assist in the fattening process by preventing perspiration.

The duration of the period of seclusion varies somewhat. San Salvador boys are six months in the wood. Cameroon boys are twelve months. In most districts the girls are betrothed in infancy, and they go into the wood or initiatory hut for a few months before marriage. In this case the time seems to vary with the circumstances of the individual; not so with the boys, for whom each tribal society has a duly appointed course terminating at a duly appointed time; but sometimes, as among some of the Yoruba tribes, the boy has to remain under the rule of the presiding elders of the society, painted white, and wearing only a bit of grass cloth, if he wears anything, until he has killed a man. Then he is held to have attained man’s estate by having demonstrated his courage and also by having secured for himself the soul of the man he has killed as a spirit slave.

The initiation of boys into a few of the elementary dogmas of the secret society by no means composes the entire work of the society. All of them are judicial, and taken on the whole they do an immense amount of good. The methods are frequently a little quaint. Rushing about the streets disguised under masks and drapery, with an imitation tail swinging behind you, while you lash out at every one you meet with a whip or cutlass, is not a European way of keeping the peace, or perhaps I should say maintaining the dignity of the Law. But discipline must be maintained, and this is the West African way of doing it.

The Egbo of Calabar is a fine type of the secret society. It is exceedingly well developed in its details, not sketchy like Isyogo, nor so red-handed as Poorah. Unfortunately, however, I cannot speak with the same amount of knowledge of Egbo as I could of Poorah.

Egbo has the most grades of initiation, except perhaps Poorah, and it exercises jurisdiction over all classes of crime except witchcraft. Any Effik man who desires to become an influential person in the tribe must buy himself into as high a grade of Egbo as he can afford, and these grades are expensive, 1,500 pounds or 1,000 pounds English being required for the higher steps, I am informed. But it is worth it to a great trader, as an influential Effik necessarily is, for he can call out his own class of Egbo and send it against those of his debtors who may be of lower grades, and as the Egbo methods of delivering its orders to pay up consist in placing Egbo at a man’s doorway, and until it removes itself from that doorway the man dare not venture outside his house, it is most successful.

Of course the higher a man is in Egbo rank, the greater his power and security, for lower grades cannot proceed against higher ones. Indeed, when a man meets the paraphernalia of a higher grade of Egbo than that to which he belongs, he has to act as if he were lame, and limp along past it humbly, as if the sight of it had taken all the strength out of him, and, needless to remark, higher grade debtors flip their fingers at lower grade creditors.

After talking so much about the secret society spirits, it may be as well to say what they are. They are, one and all, a kind of a sort of a something that usually (the exception is Ikun) lives in the bush. Last February I was making my way back toward Duke Town — late, as usual; I was just by a town on the Qwa River. As I was hurrying onward I heard a terrific uproar accompanied by drums in the thick bush into which, after a brief interval of open ground, the path turned. I became cautious and alarmed, and hid in some dense bush as the men making the noise approached. I saw it was some ju-ju affair. They had a sort of box which they carried on poles, and their dresses were peculiar, and abnormally ample over the upper part of their body. They were prancing about in an ecstatic way round the box, which had one end open, beating their drums and shouting. They were fairly close to me, but fortunately turned their attention to another bit of undergrowth, or that evening they would have landed another kind of thing to what they were after. The bushes they selected they surrounded and evidently did their best to induce something to come out of them and go into their box arrangement. I was every bit as anxious as they were that they should succeed, and succeed rapidly, for you know there are a nasty lot of snakes and things in general, not to mention driver ants, about that Calabar bush, that do not make it at all pleasant to go sitting about in. However, presently they got this something into their box and rejoiced exceedingly, and departed staggering under the weight. I gave them a good start, and then made the best of my way home; and all that night Duke Town howled, and sang, and thumped its tom-toms unceasingly; for I was told Egbo had come into the town. Egbo is very coy, even for a secret society spirit, and seems to loathe publicity; but when he is ensconced in this ark he utters sententious observations on the subject of current politics, and his word is law. The voice that comes out of the ark is very strange, and unlike a human voice. I heard it shortly after Egbo had been secured. I expect, from what I saw, that there was some person in that ark all the time, but I do not know. It is more than I can do to understand my ju-ju details at present, let alone explain them on rational lines. I hear that there is a tribe on the slave coast who have been proved to keep a small child in the drum that is the residence of their chief spirit, and that when the child grows too large to go in it is killed, and another one that has in the meantime been trained by the priests takes the place of the dead one, until it, in its turn, grows too big and is killed, and so on. I expect this killing of the children is not sacrificial, but arises entirely from the fact that as ex-kings are dangerous to the body politic, therefore still more dangerous would ex-gods be.

Very little is known by outsiders regarding Egbo compared to what there must be to be known, owing to a want of interest or to a sense of inability on the part of most white people to make head or tail out of what seems to them a horrid pagan practice or a farrago of nonsense.

It is still a great power, although its officials in Duke or Creek Town are no longer allowed to go chopping and whipping promiscuous-like, because the Consul–General has a prejudice against this sort of thing, and the Effik is learning that it is nearly as unhealthy to go against his Consul–General as against his ju-ju. So I do not believe you will ever get the truth about it in Duke Town, or Creek Town. If you want to get hold of the underlying idea of these societies you must go round out-of-the-way corners where the natives are not yet afraid of being laughed at or punished.

Of the South–West Coast secret societies the Ukuku seems the most powerful. The Isyogo belonging to those indolent Igalwas, and M’pongwe is now little more than a play. You pretty frequently come upon Isyogo dances just round Libreville. You will see stretched across the little street in a cluster of houses, a line from which branches are suspended, making a sort of screen. The women and children keep one side of this screen, the men dancing on the other side to the peculiar monotonous Isyogo tune. Poorah I have spoken of elsewhere.

I believe that these secret societies are always distinct from the leopard societies. I have pretty nearly enough evidence to prove that it is so in some districts, but not in all. So far my evidence only goes to prove the distinction of the two among the Negroes, not among the Bantu, and in all cases you will find some men belonging to both. Some men, in fact, go in for all the societies in their district, but not all the men; and in all districts, if you look close, you will find several societies apart from the regular youth-initiating one.

These other societies are practically murder societies, and their practices usually include cannibalism, which is not an essential part of the rites of the great tribal societies, Isyogo or Egbo. In the Calabar district I was informed by natives that there was a society of which the last entered member has to provide, for the entertainment of the other members, the body of a relative of his own, and sacrificial cannibalism is always breaking out, or perhaps I should say being discovered, by the white authorities in the Niger Delta. There was the great outburst of it at Brass, in 1895, and the one chronicled in the Liverpool Mercury for August 13th, 1895, as occurring at Sierra Leone. This account is worth quoting. It describes the hanging by the Authorities of three murderers, and states the incidents, which took place in the Imperi country behind Free Town.

One of the chief murderers was a man named Jowe, who had formerly been a Sunday-school teacher in Sierra Leone. He pleaded in extenuation of his offence that he had been compelled to join the society. The others said they committed the murders in order to obtain certain parts of the body for ju-ju purposes, the leg, the hand, the heart, etc. The Mercury goes on to give the statement of the Reverend Father Bomy of the Roman Catholic Mission. “He said he was at Bromtu, where the St. Joseph Mission has a station, when a man was brought down from the Imperi country in a boat. The poor fellow was in a dreadful state, and was brought to the station for medical treatment. He said he was working on his farm, when he was suddenly pounced upon from behind. A number of sharp instruments were driven into the back of his neck. He presented a fearful sight, having wounds all over his body supposed to have been inflicted by the claws of the leopard, but in reality they were stabs from sharp-pointed knives. The native, who was a powerfully-built man, called out, and his cries attracting the attention of his relations, the leopards made off. The poor fellow died at Bromtu from the injuries. It was only his splendid physique that kept him alive until his arrival at the Mission.” The Mercury goes on to quote from the Pall Mall, and I too go on quoting to show that these things are known and acknowledged to have taken place in a colony like Sierra Leone, which has had unequalled opportunities of becoming christianised for more than one hundred years, and now has more than one hundred and thirty places of Christian worship in it. “Some twenty years ago there was a war between this tribe Taima and the Paramas. The Paramas sent some of their war boys to be ambushed in the intervening country, the Imperi, but the Imperi delivered these war boys to the enemy. In revenge, the Paramas sent the Fetish Boofima into the Imperi country. This Fetish had up to that time been kept active and working by the sacrifice of goats, but the medicine men of the Paramas who introduced it into the Imperi country decreed at the same time that human sacrifices would be required to keep it alive, thereby working their vengeance on the Imperi by leading them to exterminate themselves in sacrifice to the Fetish. The country for years has been terrorised by this secret worship of Boofima and at one time the Imperi started the Tonga dances, at which the medicine men pointed out the supposed worshippers of Boofima — the so-called Human Leopards, because when seizing their victims for sacrifice they covered themselves with leopard skins, and imitating the roars of the leopard, they sprang upon their victim, plunging at the same time two three-pronged forks into each side of the throat. The Government some years ago forbade the Tonga dances, and are now striving to suppress the human leopards. There are also human alligators who, disguised as alligators, swim in the creeks upon the canoes and carry off the crew. Some of them have been brought for trial but no complete case has been made out against them!” In comment upon this account, which is evidently written by some one well versed in the affair, I will only remark that sometimes, instead of the three-pronged forks, there are fixed in the paws of the leopard skin sharp-pointed cutting knives, the skin being made into a sort of glove into which the hand of the human leopard fits. In one skin I saw down south this was most ingeniously done. The knives were shaped like the leopard’s claws, curved, sharp-pointed, and with cutting edges underneath, and I am told the American Mendi Mission, which works in the Sierra Leone districts, have got a similar skin in their possession.

The human alligator mentioned, is our old friend the witch crocodile — the spirit of the man in the crocodile. I never myself came across a case of a man in his corporeal body swimming about in a crocodile skin, and I doubt whether any native would chance himself inside a crocodile skin and swim about in the river among the genuine articles for fear of their penetrating his disguise mentally and physically.

In Calabar witch crocodiles are still flourishing. There is an immense old brute that sporting Vice–Consuls periodically go after, which is known to contain the spirit of a Duke Town chief who shall be nameless, because they are getting on at such a pace just round Duke Town that haply I might be had up for libel. When I was in Calabar once, a peculiarly energetic officer had hit that crocodile and the chief was forthwith laid up by a wound in his leg. He said a dog had bit him. They, the chief and the crocodile, are quite well again now, and I will say this in favour of that chief, that nothing on earth would persuade me to believe that he went fooling about in the Calabar River in his corporeal body, either in his own skin or a crocodile’s.

The introduction of the Fetish Boofima into the country of the Imperi is an interesting point as it shows that these different tribes have the same big ju-ju. Similarly, Calabar Egbo can go into Okyon, and will be respected in some of the New Calabar districts, but not at Brass, where the secret society is a distinct cult. Often a neighbouring district will send into Calabar, or Brass, where the big ju-ju is, and ask to have one sent up into their district to keep order, but Egbo will occasionally be sent into a district without that district in the least wanting it; but, as in the Imperi case, when it is there it is supreme. But say, for example, you were to send Egbo round from Calabar to Cameroon. Cameroon might be barely civil to it, but would pay it no homage, for Cameroon has got no end of a ju-ju of its own. It can rise up as high as the Peak, 13,760 feet. I never saw the Cameroon ju-ju do this, but I saw it start up from four feet to quite twelve feet in the twinkling of an eye, and I was assured that it was only modest reticence on its part that made it leave the other 13,748 feet out of the performance.

Doctor Nassau seems to think that the tribal society of the Corisco regions is identical with the leopard societies. He has had considerable experience of the workings of the Ukuku, particularly when he was pioneering in the Benito regions, when it came very near killing him. He says the name signifies a departed spirit. “It is a secret society into which all the males are initiated at puberty, whose procedure may not be seen by females, nor its laws disobeyed by any one under pain of death, a penalty which is sometimes commuted to a fine, a heavy fine. Its discussions are uttered as an oracle from any secluded spot by some man appointed for the purpose.

“On trivial occasions any initiated man may personate Ukuku or issue commands for the family. On other occasions, as in Shiku, to raise prices, the society lays its commands on foreign traders.”

Some cases of Ukuku proceedings against white traders have come under my own observation. A friend of mine, a trader in the Batanga district, in some way incurred the animosity of the society’s local branch. He had, as is usual in the South–West Coast trade several sub-factories in the bush. He found himself boycotted; no native came in to his yard to buy or sell at the store, not even to sell food. He took no notice and awaited developments. One evening when he was sitting on his verandah, smoking and reading, he thought he heard some one singing softly under the house, this, like most European buildings hereabouts, being elevated just above the earth. He was attracted to the song and listened: it was evidently one of the natives singing, not one of his own Kruboys, and so, knowing the language, and having nothing else particular to do, he attended to the affair.

It was the same thing sung softly over and over again, so softly that he could hardly make out the words. But at last, catching his native name among them, he listened more intently than ever, down at a knot-hole in the wooden floor. The song was — “They are going to attack your factory at . . . tomorrow. They are going to attack your factory at . . . tomorrow,” over and over again, until it ceased; and then he thought he saw something darker than the darkness round it creep across the yard and disappear in the bush. Very early in the morning he, with his Kruboys and some guns, went and established themselves in that threatened factory in force. The Ukuku Society turned up in the evening, and reconnoitred the situation, and finding there was more in it than they had expected, withdrew.

In the course of the next twenty-four hours he succeeded in talking the palaver successfully with them. He never knew who his singing friend was, but suspected it was a man whom he had known to be grateful for some kindness he had done him. Indeed there were, and are, many natives who have cause to be grateful to him, for he is deservedly popular among his local tribes, but the man who sang to him that night deserves much honour, for he did it at a terrific risk.

Sometimes representatives of the Ukuku fraternity from several tribes meet together and discuss intertribal difficulties, thereby avoiding war.

Dr. Nassau distinctly says that the Bantu region leopard society is identical with the Ukuku, and he says that although the leopards are not very numerous here they are very daring, made so by immunity from punishment by man. “The superstition is that on any man who kills a leopard will fall a curse or evil disease, curable only by ruinously expensive process of three weeks’ duration under the direction of Ukuku. So the natives allow the greatest depredations and ravages until their sheep, goats, and dogs are swept away, and are roused to self-defence only when a human being becomes the victim of the daring beast. With this superstition is united another similar to the werewolf of Germany, viz., a belief in the power of human metamorphosis into a leopard. A person so metamorphosed is called ‘Uvengwa.’ At one time in Benito an intense excitement prevailed in the community. Doors and shutters were rattled at the dead of night, marks of leopard claws were scratched on door-posts. Then tracks lay on every path. Women and children in lonely places saw their flitting forms, or in the dusk were knocked down by their spring, or heard their growl in the thickets. It is difficult to decide in many of these reports whether it is a real leopard or only an Uvengwa — to native fears they are practically the same, — we were certain this time the Uvengwa was the thief disguised in leopard’s skin, as theft is always heard of about such times.”

When I was in Gaboon in September, 1895, there was great Uvengwa excitement in a district just across the other side of the estuary, mainly at a village that enjoyed the spacious and resounding name of Rumpochembo, from a celebrated chief, and all these phenomena were rife there. Again, when I was in a village up the Calabar there were fourteen goats and five slaves killed in eight days by leopards, the genuine things, I am sure, in this case; but here, as down South, there was a strong objection to proceed against the leopard, and no action was being taken save making the goat-houses stronger. In Okyon, when a leopard is killed, its body is treated with great respect and brought into the killer’s village. Messages are then sent to the neighbouring villages, and they send representatives to the village and the gall-bladder is most carefully removed from the leopard and burnt coram publico, each person whipping their hands down their arms to disavow any guilt in the affair. This burning of the gall, however, is not ju-ju, it is done merely to destroy it, and to demonstrate to all men that it is destroyed, because it is believed to be a deadly poison, and if any is found in a man’s possession the punishment is death, unless he is a great chief — a few of these are allowed to keep leopards’ gall in their possession. John Bailey tells me that if a great chief commits a great crime, and is adjudged by a conclave of his fellow chiefs to die, it is not considered right he should die in a common way, and he is given leopards’ gall. A precisely similar idea regarding the poisonous quality of crocodiles’ gall holds good down South.

The ju-ju parts of the leopard are the whiskers. You cannot get a skin from a native with them on, and gay, reckless young hunters wear them stuck in their hair and swagger tremendously while the Elders shake their heads and keep a keen eye on their subsequent conduct.

I must say the African leopard is an audacious animal, although it is ungrateful of me to say a word against him, after the way he has let me off personally, and I will speak of his extreme beauty as compensation for my ingratitude. I really think, taken as a whole, he is the most lovely animal I have ever seen; only seeing him, in the one way you can gain a full idea of his beauty, namely in his native forest, is not an unmixed joy to a person, like myself, of a nervous disposition. I may remark that my nervousness regarding the big game of Africa is of a rather peculiar kind. I can confidently say I am not afraid of any wild animal — until I see it — and then — well I will yield to nobody in terror; fortunately as I say my terror is a special variety; fortunately, because no one can manage their own terror. You can suppress alarm, excitement, fear, fright, and all those small-fry emotions, but the real terror is as dependent on the inner make of you as the colour of your eyes, or the shape of your nose; and when terror ascends its throne in my mind I become preternaturally artful, and intelligent to an extent utterly foreign to my true nature, and save, in the case of close quarters with bad big animals, a feeling of rage against some unknown person that such things as leopards, elephants, crocodiles, etc., should be allowed out loose in that disgracefully dangerous way, I do not think much about it at the time. Whenever I have come across an awful animal in the forest and I know it has seen me I take Jerome’s advice, and instead of relying on the power of the human eye rely upon that of the human leg, and effect a masterly retreat in the face of the enemy. If I know it has not seen me I sink in my tracks and keep an eye on it, hoping that it will go away soon. Thus I once came upon a leopard. I had got caught in a tornado in a dense forest. The massive, mighty trees were waving like a wheat-field in an autumn gale in England, and I dare say a field mouse in a wheat-field in a gale would have heard much the same uproar. The tornado shrieked like ten thousand vengeful demons. The great trees creaked and groaned and strained against it and their bush-rope cables groaned and smacked like whips, and ever and anon a thundering crash with snaps like pistol shots told that they and their mighty tree had strained and struggled in vain. The fierce rain came in a roar, tearing to shreds the leaves and blossoms and deluging everything. I was making bad weather of it, and climbing up over a lot of rocks out of a gully bottom where I had been half drowned in a stream, and on getting my head to the level of a block of rock I observed right in front of my eyes, broadside on, maybe a yard off, certainly not more, a big leopard. He was crouching on the ground, with his magnificent head thrown back and his eyes shut. His fore-paws were spread out in front of him and he lashed the ground with his tail, and I grieve to say, in face of that awful danger — I don’t mean me, but the tornado — that depraved creature swore, softly, but repeatedly and profoundly. I did not get all these facts up in one glance, for no sooner did I see him than I ducked under the rocks, and remembered thankfully that leopards are said to have no power of smell. But I heard his observation on the weather, and the flip-flap of his tail on the ground. Every now and then I cautiously took a look at him with one eye round a rock-edge, and he remained in the same position. My feelings tell me he remained there twelve months, but my calmer judgment puts the time down at twenty minutes; and at last, on taking another cautious peep, I saw he was gone. At the time I wished I knew exactly where, but I do not care about that detail now, for I saw no more of him. He had moved off in one of those weird lulls which you get in a tornado, when for a few seconds the wild herd of hurrying winds seem to have lost themselves, and wander round crying and wailing like lost souls, until their common rage seizes them again and they rush back to their work of destruction. It was an immense pleasure to have seen the great creature like that. He was so evidently enraged and baffled by the uproar and dazzled by the floods of lightning that swept down into the deepest recesses of the forest, showing at one second every detail of twig, leaf, branch, and stone round you, and then leaving you in a sort of swirling dark until the next flash came; this, and the great conglomerate roar of the wind, rain and thunder, was enough to bewilder any living thing.

I have never hurt a leopard intentionally; I am habitually kind to animals, and besides I do not think it is ladylike to go shooting things with a gun. Twice, however, I have been in collision with them. On one occasion a big leopard had attacked a dog, who, with her family, was occupying a broken-down hut next to mine. The dog was a half-bred boarhound, and a savage brute on her own account. I, being roused by the uproar, rushed out into the feeble moonlight, thinking she was having one of her habitual turns-up with other dogs, and I saw a whirling mass of animal matter within a yard of me. I fired two mushroom-shaped native stools in rapid succession into the brown of it, and the meeting broke up into a leopard and a dog. The leopard crouched, I think to spring on me. I can see its great, beautiful, lambent eyes still, and I seized an earthen water-cooler and flung it straight at them. It was a noble shot; it burst on the leopard’s head like a shell and the leopard went for bush one time. Twenty minutes after people began to drop in cautiously and inquire if anything was the matter, and I civilly asked them to go and ask the leopard in the bush, but they firmly refused. We found the dog had got her shoulder slit open as if by a blow from a cutlass, and the leopard had evidently seized the dog by the scruff of her neck, but owing to the loose folds of skin no bones were broken and she got round all right after much ointment from me, which she paid me for with several bites. Do not mistake this for a sporting adventure. I no more thought it was a leopard than that it was a lotus when I joined the fight. My other leopard was also after a dog. Leopards always come after dogs, because once upon a time the leopard and the dog were great friends, and the leopard went out one day and left her whelps in charge of the dog, and the dog went out flirting, and a snake came and killed the whelps, so there is ill-feeling to this day between the two. For the benefit of sporting readers whose interest may have been excited by the mention of big game, I may remark that the largest leopard skin I ever measured myself was, tail included, 9 feet 7 inches. It was a dried skin, and every man who saw it said, “It was the largest skin he had ever seen, except one that he had seen somewhere else.”

The largest crocodile I ever measured was 22 feet 3 inches, the largest gorilla 5 feet 7 inches. I am assured by the missionaries in Calabar, that there was a python brought into Creek Town in the Rev. Mr. Goldie’s time, that extended the whole length of the Creek Town mission-house verandah and to spare. This python must have been over 40 feet. I have not a shadow of doubt it was. Stay-at-home people will always discredit great measurements, but experienced bushmen do not, and after all, if it amuses the stay-at-homes to do so, by all means let them; they have dull lives of it and it don’t hurt you, for you know how exceedingly difficult it is to preserve really big things to bring home, and how, half the time, they fall into the hands of people who would not bother their heads to preserve them in a rotting climate like West Africa.

The largest python skin I ever measured was a damaged one, which was 26 feet. There is an immense one hung in front of a house in San Paul de Loanda which you can go and measure yourself with comparative safety any day, and which is, I think, over 20 feet. I never measured this one. The common run of pythons is 10–15 feet, or rather I should say this is about the sized one you find with painful frequency in your chicken-house.

Of the Lubuku secret society I can speak with no personal knowledge. I had a great deal of curious information regarding it from a Bakele woman, who had her information second-hand, but it bears out what Captain Latrobe Bateman says about it in his most excellent book The First Ascent of the Kasai (George Phillip, 1889), and to his account in Note J of the Appendix, I beg to refer the ethnologist. My information also went to show what he calls “a dark inference as to its true nature,” a nature not universally common by any means to the African tribal secret society.

In addition to the secret society and the leopard society, there are in the Delta some ju-jus held only by a few great chiefs. The one in Bonny has a complete language to itself, and there is one in Duke Town so powerful that should you desire the death of any person you have only to go and name him before it. “These jujus are very swift and sure.” I would rather drink than fight with any of them — yes, far.

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 11:47