Travels in West Africa, by Mary H. Kingsley

Chapter II. Fernando Po and the Bubis.

Giving some account of the occupation of this island by the whites and the manners and customs of the blacks peculiar to it.

Our outward voyage really terminated at Calabar, and it terminated gorgeously in fireworks and what not, in honour of the coming of Lady MacDonald, the whole settlement, white and black, turning out to do her honour to the best of its ability; and its ability in this direction was far greater than, from my previous knowledge of Coast conditions, I could have imagined possible. Before Sir Claude MacDonald settled down again to local work, he and Lady MacDonald crossed to Fernando Po, still in the Batanga, and I accompanied them, thus getting an opportunity of seeing something of Spanish official circles.

I had heard sundry noble legends of Fernando Po, and seen the coast and a good deal of the island before, but although I had heard much of the Governor, I had never met him until I went up to his residence with Lady MacDonald and the Consul–General. He was a delightful person, who, as a Spanish naval officer, some time resident in Cuba, had picked up a lot of English, with a strong American accent clinging to it. He gave a most moving account of how, as soon as his appointment as Governor was announced, all his friends and acquaintances carefully explained to him that this appointment was equivalent to execution, only more uncomfortable in the way it worked out. During the outward voyage this was daily confirmed by the stories told by the sailors and merchants personally acquainted with the place, who were able to support their information with dates and details of the decease of the victims to the climate.

Still he kept up a good heart, but when he arrived at the island he found his predecessor had died of fever; and he himself, the day after landing, went down with a bad attack and he was placed in a bed — the same bed, he was mournfully informed, in which the last Governor had expired. Then he did believe, all in one awful lump, all the stories he had been told, and added to their horrors a few original conceptions of death and purgatory, and a lot of transparent semi-formed images of his own delirium. Fortunately both prophecy and personal conviction alike miscarried, and the Governor returned from the jaws of death. But without a moment’s delay he withdrew from the Port of Clarence and went up the mountain to Basile, which is in the neighbourhood of the highest native village, where he built himself a house, and around it a little village of homes for the most unfortunate set of human beings I have ever laid eye on. They are the remnant of a set of Spanish colonists, who had been located at some spot in the Spanish possessions in Morocco, and finding that place unfit to support human life, petitioned the Government to remove them and let them try colonising elsewhere.

The Spanish Government just then had one of its occasional fits of interest in Fernando Po, and so shipped them here, and the Governor, a most kindly and generous man, who would have been a credit to any country, established them and their families around him at Basile, to share with him the advantages of the superior elevation; advantages he profoundly believed in, and which he has always placed at the disposal of any sick white man on the island, of whatsoever nationality or religion. Undoubtedly the fever is not so severe at Basile as in the lowlands, but there are here the usual drawbacks to West African high land, namely an over supply of rain, and equally saturating mists, to say nothing of sudden and extreme alternations of temperature, and so the colonists still fall off, and their children die continuously from the various entozoa which abound upon the island.

When the Governor first settled upon the mountain he was very difficult to get at for business purposes, and a telephone was therefore run up to him from Clarence through the forest, and Spain at large felt proud at this dashing bit of enterprise in modern appliance. Alas! the primaeval forests of Fernando Po were also charmed with the new toy, and they talked to each other on it with their leaves and branches to such an extent that a human being could not get a word in edgeways. So the Governor had to order the construction of a road along the course of the wire to keep the trees off it, but unfortunately the telephone is still an uncertain means of communication, because another interruption in its usefulness still afflicts it, namely the indigenous natives’ habit of stealing bits out of its wire, for they are fully persuaded that they cannot be found out in their depredations provided they take sufficient care that they are not caught in the act. The Governor is thus liable to be cut off at any moment in the middle of a conversation with Clarence, and the amount of “Hellos” “Are you theres?” and “Speak louder, pleases” in Spanish that must at such times be poured out and wasted in the lonely forests before the break is realised and an unfortunate man sent off as a messenger, is terrible to think of.

But nothing would persuade the Governor to come a mile down towards Clarence until the day he should go there to join the vessel that was to take him home, and I am bound to say he looked as if the method was a sound one, for he was an exceedingly healthy, cheery-looking man.

Fernando Po is said to be a comparatively modern island, and not so very long ago to have been connected with the mainland, the strait between them being only nineteen miles across, and not having any deep soundings. 4 I fail to see what grounds there are for these ideas, for though Fernando Po’s volcanoes are not yet extinct, but merely have their fires banked, yet, on the other hand, the island has been in existence sufficiently long to get itself several peculiar species of animals and plants, and that is a thing which takes time. I myself do not believe that this island was ever connected with the continent, but arose from the ocean as the result of a terrific upheaval in the chain of volcanic activity which runs across the Atlantic from the Cameroon Mountains in a SSW. direction to Anno Bom island, and possibly even to the Tristan da Cunha group midway between the Cape and South America.

These volcanic islands are all of extreme beauty and fertility. They consist of Fernando Po (10,190 ft.); Principe (3000 ft.); San Thome (6,913 ft.); and Anno Bom (1,350 ft.). San Thome and Principe are Portuguese possessions, Fernando Po and Anno Bom Spanish, and they are all exceedingly unhealthy. San Thome is still called “The Dutchman’s Church-yard,” on account of the devastation its climate wrought among the Hollanders when they once occupied it; as they seem, at one time or another, to have occupied all Portuguese possessions out here, during the long war these two powers waged with each other for supremacy in the Bights, a supremacy that neither of them attained to. Principe is said to be the most unhealthy, and the reason of the difference in this particular between Principe and Anno Bom is said to arise from the fact that the former is on the Guinea Current — a hot current — and Anno Bom on the Equatorial, which averages 10 degree cooler than its neighbour.

The shores of San Thome are washed by both currents, and the currents round Fernando Po are in a mixed and uncertain state. It is difficult, unless you have haunted these seas, to realise the interest we take down there in currents; particularly when you are navigating small sailing boats, a pursuit I indulge in necessarily from my fishing practices. Their effect on the climate too is very marked. If we could only arrange for some terrific affair to take place in the bed of the Atlantic, that would send that precious Guinea current to the place it evidently comes from, and get the cool Equatorial alongside the mainland shore, West Africa would be quite another place.

Fernando Po is the most important island as regards size on the West African coast, and at the same time one of the most beautiful in the world. It is a great volcanic mass with many craters, and culminates in the magnificent cone, Clarence Peak, called by the Spaniards, Pico de Santa Isabel, by the natives of the island O Wassa. Seen from the sea or from the continent it looks like an immense single mountain that has floated out to sea. It is visible during clear weather (and particularly sharply visible in the strange clearness you get after a tornado) from a hundred miles to seawards, and anything more perfect than Fernando Po when you sight it, as you occasionally do from far-away Bonny Bar, in the sunset, floating like a fairy island made of gold or of amethyst, I cannot conceive. It is almost equally lovely at close quarters, namely from the mainland at Victoria, nineteen miles distant. Its moods of beauty are infinite; for the most part gentle and gorgeous, but I have seen it silhouetted hard against tornado-clouds, and grandly grim from the upper regions of its great brother Mungo. And as for Fernando Po in full moonlight — well there! you had better go and see it yourself.

The whole island is, or rather I should say was, heavily forested almost to its peak, with a grand and varied type of forest, very rich in oil palms and tree-ferns, and having an undergrowth containing an immense variety and quantity of ferns and mosses. Sugar-cane also grows wild here, an uncommon thing in West Africa. The last botanical collection of any importance made from these forests was that of Herr Mann, and its examination showed that Abyssinian genera and species predominated, and that many species similar to those found in the mountains of Mauritius, the Isle de Bourbon, and Madagascar, were present. The number of European plants (forty-three genera, twenty-seven species) is strikingly large, most of the British forms being represented chiefly at the higher elevations. What was more striking was that it showed that South African forms were extremely rare, and not one of the characteristic types of St. Helena occurred.

Cocoa, coffee, and cinchona, alas! flourish in Fernando Po, as the coffee suffers but little from the disease that harasses it on the mainland at Victoria, and this is the cause of the great destruction of the forest that is at present taking place. San Thome, a few years ago, was discovered by its surprised neighbours to be amassing great wealth by growing coffee, and so Fernando Po and Principe immediately started to amass great wealth too, and are now hard at work with gangs of miscellaneous natives got from all parts of the Coast save the Kru. For to the Kruboy, “Panier,” as he calls “Spaniard,” is a name of horror worse even than Portugee, although he holds “God made white man and God made black man, but dem debil make Portugee,” and he also remembers an unfortunate affair that occurred some years ago now, in connection with coffee-growing.

A number of Krumen engaged themselves for a two years’ term of labour on the Island of San Thome, and when they arrived there, were set to work on coffee plantations by the Portuguese. Now agricultural work is “woman’s palaver,” but nevertheless the Krumen made shift to get through with it, vowing the while no doubt, as they hopefully notched away the moons on their tally-sticks, that they would never let the girls at home know that they had been hoeing. But when their moons were all complete, instead of being sent home with their pay to “We country,” they were put off from time to time; and month after month went by and they were still on San Thome, and still hoeing. At last the home-sick men, in despair of ever getting free, started off secretly in ones and twos to try and get to “We country” across hundreds of miles of the storm-haunted Atlantic in small canoes, and with next to no provisions. The result was a tragedy, but it might easily have been worse; for a few, a very few, were picked up alive by English vessels and taken back to their beloved “We country” to tell the tale. But many a canoe was found with a dead Kruboy or so in it; and many a one which, floating bottom upwards, graphically spoke of madness caused by hunger, thirst, and despair having driven its occupants overboard to the sharks.

My Portuguese friends assure me that there was never thought of permanently detaining the boys, and that they were only just keeping them until other labourers arrived to take their place on the plantations. I quite believe them, for I have seen too much of the Portuguese in Africa to believe that they would, in a wholesale way, be cruel to natives. But I am not in the least surprised that the poor Krumen took the Portuguese logo and amanha for Eternity itself, for I have frequently done so.

The greatest length of the island lies N.E. and S.W., and amounts to thirty-three miles; the mean breadth is seventeen miles. The port, Clarence Cove, now called Santa Isabel by the Spaniards — who have been giving Spanish names to all the English-named places without any one taking much notice of them — is a very remarkable place, and except perhaps Gaboon the finest harbour on the West Coast. The point that brings Gaboon anchorage up in line with Clarence Cove is its superior healthiness; for Clarence is a section of a circle, and its shores are steep rocky cliffs from 100 to 200 feet high, and the place, to put it very mildly, exceedingly hot and stuffy. The cove is evidently a partly submerged crater, the submerged rim of the crater is almost a perfect semi-circle seawards — having on it 4, 5, 7, 8, and 10 fathoms of water save almost in the centre of the arc where there is a passage with 12 to 14 fathoms. Inside, in the crater, there is deeper water, running in places from 30 to 45 fathoms, and outside the submerged rim there is deeper water again, but rocky shoals abound. On the top of the shore cliffs stands the dilapidated little town of Clarence, on a plateau that falls away slightly towards the mountain for about a mile, when the ground commences to rise into the slopes of the Cordillera. On the narrow beach, tucked close against the cliffs, are a few stores belonging to the merchants, where goods are placed on landing, and there is a little pier too, but as it is usually having something done to its head, or else is closed by the authorities because they intend doing something by and by, the chances are against its being available for use. Hence it usually comes about that you have to land on the beach, and when you have done this you make your way up a very steep path, cut in the cliffside, to the town. When you get there you find yourself in the very dullest town I know on the Coast. I remember when I first landed in Clarence I found its society in a flutter of expectation and alarm not untinged with horror. Clarence, nay, the whole of Fernando Po, was about to become so rackety and dissipated as to put Paris and Monte Carlo to the blush. Clarence was going to have a cafe; and what was going to go on in that cafe I shrink from reciting.

I have little hesitation now in saying this alarm was a false one. When I next arrived in Clarence it was just as sound asleep and its streets as weed-grown as ever, although the cafe was open. My idea is that the sleepiness of the place infected the cafe and took all the go out of it. But again it may have been that the inhabitants were too well guarded against its evil influence, for there are on the island fifty-two white laymen, and fifty-four priests to take charge of them 5 — the extra two being, I presume, to look after the Governor’s conduct, although this worthy man made a most spirited protest against this view when I suggested it to him; and in addition to the priests there are several missionaries of the Methodist mission, and also a white gentleman who has invented a new religion. Anyhow, the cafe smoulders like a damp squib.

When you spend the day on shore and when, having exhausted the charms of the town, — a thing that usually takes from between ten minutes to a quarter of an hour, — you apply to an inhabitant for advice as to the disposal of the rest of your shore leave, you are told to “go and see the coals.” You say you have not come to tropical islands to see a coal heap, and applying elsewhere for advice you probably get the same. So, as you were told to “go and see the coals” when you left your ship, you do as you are bid. These coals, the remnant of the store that was kept here for the English men-of-war, were left here when the naval station was removed. The Spaniards at first thought of using them, and ran a tram-way from Clarence to them. But when the tramway was finished, their activity had run out too, and to this day there the coals remain. Now and again some one has the idea that they are quite good, and can be used for a steamer, and some people who have tried them say they are all right, and others say they are all wrong. And so the end of it will be that some few thousand years hence there will be a serious quarrel among geologists on the strange pocket of coal on Fernando Po, and they will run up continents, and raise and lower oceans to explain them, and they will doubtless get more excitement and pleasure out of them than you can nowadays.

The history of the English occupation of Fernando Po seems often misunderstood, and now and then one hears our Government reviled for handing it over to the Spaniards. But this was unavoidable, for we had it as a loan from Spain in 1827 as a naval station for our ships, at that time energetically commencing to suppress the slave trade in the Bights; the idea being that this island would afford a more healthy and convenient spot for a naval depot than any port on the coast itself.

More convenient Fernando Po certainly was, but not more healthy, and ever since 1827 it has been accumulating for itself an evil reputation for unhealthiness which is only languishing just at present because there is an interval between its epidemics — fever in Fernando Po, even more than on the mainland, having periodic outbursts of a more serious type than the normal intermittent and remittent of the Coast. Moreover, Fernando Po shares with Senegal the undoubted yet doubtful honour of having had regular yellow fever. In 1862 and 1866 this disease was imported by a ship that had come from Havana. Since then it has not appeared in the definite South American form, and therefore does not seem to have obtained the foothold it has in Senegal, where a few years ago all the money voted for the keeping of the Fete Nationale was in one district devoted by public consent to the purchase of coffins, required by an overwhelming outbreak of Yellow Jack.

In 1858 the Spanish Government thinking, presumably, that the slave trade was suppressed enough, or at any rate to a sufficiently inconvenient extent, re-claimed Fernando Po, to the horror of the Baptist missionaries who had settled in Clarence apparently under the erroneous idea that the island had been definitely taken over by the English. This mission had received from the West African Company a large grant of land, and had collected round it a gathering of Sierra Leonians and other artisan and trading Africans who were attracted to Clarence by the work made by the naval station; and these people, with the English traders who also settled here for a like reason, were the founders of Clarence Town. The declaration of the Spanish Government stating that only Roman Catholic missions would be countenanced caused the Baptists to abandon their possessions and withdraw to the mainland in Ambas Bay, where they have since remained, and nowadays Protestantism is represented by a Methodist Mission which has a sub-branch on the mainland on the Akwayafe River and one on the Qua Ibo.

The Spaniards, on resuming possession of the island, had one of their attacks of activity regarding it, and sent out with Don Carlos Chacon, who was to take over the command, four Jesuit priests, a secretary, a commissariat officer, a custom-house clerk, and a transport, the Santa Maria, with a number of emigrant families. This attempt to colonise Fernando Po should have at least done the good of preventing such experiments ever being tried again with women and children, for of these unfortunate creatures — for whom, in spite of its being the wet season, no houses had been provided — more than 20 per cent. died in the space of five months. Mr. Hutchinson, who was English Consul at the time, tells us that “In a very short time gaunt figures of men, women, and children might be seen crawling through the streets, with scarcely an evidence of life in their faces, save the expression of a sort of torpid carelessness as to how soon it might be their turn to drop off and die. The Portino, a steamer, carried back fifty of them to Cadiz, who looked when they embarked more like living skeletons of skin and bone than animated human beings.” 6 I quote this not to cast reproach on the Spanish Government, but merely to give a fact, a case in point, of the deadly failure of endeavours to colonise on the West Coast, a thing which is even now occasionally attempted, always with the same sad results, though in most cases these attempts are now made by religious but misinformed people under Bishop Taylor’s mission.

The Spaniards did not entirely confine their attention to planting colonists in a ready-made state on the island. As soon as they had settled themselves and built their barracks and Government House, they set to work and cleared away the bush for an area of from four to six miles round the town. The ground soon became overgrown again, but this clearing is still perceptible in the different type of forest on it, and has enabled the gardens and little plantations round Clarence to be made more easily. My Spanish friends assure me that the Portuguese, who discovered the island in 1471, 7 and who exchanged it and Anno Bom in 1778 to the Spaniards for the little island of Catalina and the colony of Sacramento in South America, did not do anything to develop it. When they, the Spaniards, first entered into possession they at once set to work to colonise and clear. Then the colonisation scheme went to the bad, the natives poisoned the wells, it is said, and the attention of the Spaniards was in those days turned, for some inscrutable reason, to the eastern shores of the island — a district now quite abandoned by whites, on account of its unhealthiness — and they lost in addition to the colonists a terrible quantity of their sailors, in Concepcion Bay. 8 A lull then followed, and the Spaniards willingly lent the place to the English as aforesaid. They say we did nothing except establish Clarence as a headquarters, which they consider to have been a most excellent enterprise, and import the Baptist Mission, which they hold as a less estimable undertaking; but there! that’s nothing to what the Baptist Mission hold regarding the Spaniards. For my own part, I wish the Spaniards better luck this time in their activity, for in directing it to plantations they are on a truer and safer road to wealth than they have been with their previous importations of Cuban political prisoners and ready-made families of colonists, and I hope they will send home those unfortunate wretches they have there now, and commence, in their expected two years, to reap the profits of the coffee and cocoa. Certainly the chances are that they may, for the soil of Fernando Po is of exceeding fertility; Mr. Hutchinson says he has known Indian corn planted here on a Monday evening make its appearance four inches above ground on the following Wednesday morning, within a period, he carefully says, of thirty-six hours. I have seen this sort of thing over in Victoria, but I like to get a grown, strong man, and a Consul of Her Britannic Majesty, to say it for me.

Having discoursed at large on the various incomers to Fernando Po we may next turn to the natives, properly so-called, the Bubis. These people, although presenting a series of interesting problems to the ethnologist, both from their insular position, and their differentiation from any of the mainland peoples, are still but little known. To a great extent this has arisen from their exclusiveness, and their total lack of enthusiasm in trade matters, a thing that differentiates them more than any other characteristic from the mainlanders, who, young and old, men and women, regard trade as the great affair of life, take to it as soon as they can toddle, and don’t even leave it off at death, according to their own accounts of the way the spirits of distinguished traders still dabble and interfere in market matters. But it is otherwise with the Bubi. A little rum, a few beads, and finish — then he will turn the rest of his attention to catching porcupines, or the beautiful little gazelles, gray on the back, and white underneath, with which the island abounds. And what time he may have on hand after this, he spends in building houses and making himself hats. It is only his utterly spare moments that he employs in making just sufficient palm oil from the rich supply of nuts at his command to get that rum and those beads of his. Cloth he does not want; he utterly fails to see what good the stuff is, for he abhors clothes. The Spanish authorities insist that the natives who come into the town should have something on, and so they array themselves in a bit of cotton cloth, which before they are out of sight of the town on their homeward way, they strip off and stuff into their baskets, showing in this, as well as in all other particulars, how uninfluencible by white culture they are. For the Spaniards, like the Portuguese, are great sticklers for clothes and insist on their natives wearing them — usually with only too much success. I shall never forget the yards and yards of cotton the ladies of Loanda wore; and not content with making cocoons of their bodies, they wore over their heads, as a mantilla, some dozen yards or so of black cloth into the bargain. Moreover this insistence on drapery for the figure is not merely for towns; a German officer told me the other day that when, a week or so before, his ship had called at Anno Bom, they were simply besieged for “clo’, clo’, clo’;” the Anno Bomians explaining that they were all anxious to go across to Principe and get employment on coffee plantations, but that the Portuguese planters would not engage them in an unclothed state.

You must not, however, imagine that the Bubi is neglectful of his personal appearance. In his way he is quite a dandy. But his idea of decoration goes in the direction of a plaster of “tola” pomatum over his body, and above all a hat. This hat may be an antique European one, or a bound-round handkerchief, but it is more frequently a confection of native manufacture, and great taste and variety are displayed in its make. They are of plaited palm leaf — that’s all you can safely generalise regarding them — for sometimes they have broad brims, sometimes narrow, sometimes no brims at all. So, too, with the crown. Sometimes it is thick and domed, sometimes non-existent, the wearer’s hair aglow with red-tail parrots’ feathers sticking up where the crown should be. As a general rule these hats are much adorned with oddments of birds’ plumes, and one chief I knew had quite a Regent-street Dolly Varden creation which he used to affix to his wool in a most intelligent way with bonnet-pins made of wood. These hats are also a peculiarity of the Bubi, for none of the mainlanders care a row of pins for hats, except “for dandy,” to wear occasionally, whereas the Bubi wears his perpetually, although he has by no means the same amount of sun to guard against owing to the glorious forests of his island.

For earrings the Bubi wears pieces of wood stuck through the lobe of the ear, and although this is not a decorative habit still it is less undecorative than that of certain mainland friends of mine in this region, who wear large and necessarily dripping lumps of fat in their ears and in their hair. His neck is hung round with jujus on strings — bits of the backbones of pythons, teeth, feathers, and antelope horns, and occasionally a bit of fat in a bag. Round his upper arm are bracelets, preferably made of ivory got from the mainland, for celluloid bracelets carefully imported for his benefit he refuses to look at. Often these bracelets are made of beads, or a circlet of leaves, and when on the war-path an armlet of twisted grass is always worn by the men. Men and women alike wear armlets, and in the case of the women they seem to be put on when young, for you see puffs of flesh growing out from between them. They are not entirely for decoration, serving also as pockets, for under them men stick a knife, and women a tobacco pipe, a well-coloured clay. Leglets of similar construction are worn just under the knee on the right leg, while around the body you see belts of tshibbu, small pieces cut from Achatectonia shells, which form the native currency of the island. These shells are also made into veils worn by the women at their wedding.

This native coinage-equivalent is very interesting, for such things are exceedingly rare in West Africa. The only other instance I personally know of a tribe in this part of the world using a native-made coin is that of the Fans, who use little bundles of imitation axe-heads. Dr. Oscar Baumann, who knows more than any one else about these Bubis, thinks, I believe, that these bits of Achatectonia shells may have been introduced by the runaway Angola slaves in the old days, who used to fly from their Portuguese owners on San Thome to the Spaniards on Fernando Po. The villages of the Bubis are in the forest in the interior of the island, and they are fairly wide apart. They are not a sea-beach folk, although each village has its beach, which merely means the place to which it brings its trade, these beaches being usually the dwelling places of the so-called Portos, 9 negroes, who act as middle-men between the Bubis and the whites.

You will often be told that the Bubis are singularly bad house-builders, indeed that they make no definite houses at all, but only rough shelters of branches. This is, however, a mistake. Shelters of this kind that you come across are merely the rough huts put up by hunters, not true houses. The village is usually fairly well built, and surrounded with a living hedge of stakes. The houses inside this are four-cornered, the walls made of logs of wood stuck in edgeways, and surmounted by a roof of thatch pitched at an extremely stiff angle, and the whole is usually surrounded with a dug-out drain to carry off surface water. These houses, as usual on the West Coast, are divisible into two classes — houses of assembly, and private living houses. The first are much the larger. The latter are very low, and sometimes ridiculously small, but still they are houses and better than those awful Loango grass affairs you get on the Congo.

Herr Baumann says that the houses high up on the mountain have double walls between which there is a free space; an arrangement which may serve to minimise the extreme draughtiness of an ordinary Bubi house — a very necessary thing in these relatively chilly upper regions. I may remark on my own account that the Bubi villages do not often lie right on the path, but, like those you have to deal with up the Calabar, some little way off it. This is no doubt for the purpose of concealing their whereabouts from strangers, and it does it successfully too, for many a merry hour have I spent dodging up and down a path trying to make out at what particular point it was advisable to dive into the forest thicket to reach a village. But this cultivates habits of observation, and a short course of this work makes you recognise which tree is which along miles of a bush path as easily as you would shops in your own street at home.

The main interest of the Bubi’s life lies in hunting, for he is more of a sportsman than the majority of mainlanders. He has not any big game to deal with, unless we except pythons — which attain a great size on the island — and crocodiles. Elephants, though plentiful on the adjacent mainland, are quite absent from Fernando Po, as are also hippos and the great anthropoid apes; but of the little gazelles, small monkeys, porcupines, and squirrels he has a large supply, and in the rivers a very pretty otter (Lutra poensis) with yellow brown fur often quite golden underneath; a creature which is, I believe, identical with the Angola otter.

The Bubis use in their hunting flint-lock guns, but chiefly traps and nets, and, I am told, slings. The advantage of these latter methods are, I expect, the same as on the mainland, where a distinguished sportsman once told me: “You go shoot thing with gun. Berrah well — but you no get him thing for sure. No, sah. Dem gun make nize. Berrah well. You fren hear dem nize and come look him, and you hab to go share what you done kill. Or bad man hear him nize, and he come look him, and you no fit to get share — you fit to get kill yusself. Chii! chii! traps be best.” I urged that the traps might also be robbed. “No, sah,” says he, “them bian (charm) he look after them traps, he fit to make man who go tief swell up and bust.”

The Bubis also fish, mostly by basket traps, but they are not experts either in this or in canoe management. Their chief sea-shore sport is hunting for the eggs of the turtles who lay in the sand from August to October. These eggs — about 200 in each nest — are about the size of a billiard-ball, with a leathery envelope, and are much valued for food, as are also the grubs of certain beetles got from the stems of the palm-trees, and the honey of the wild bees which abound here.

Their domestic animals are the usual African list; cats, dogs, sheep, goats, and poultry. Pigs there are too, very domestic in Clarence and in a wild state in the forest. These pigs are the descendants of those imported by the Spaniards, and not long ago became such an awful nuisance in Clarence that the Government issued instructions that all pigs without rings in their noses — i.e. all in a condition to grub up back gardens — should be forthwith shot if found abroad. This proclamation was issued by the governmental bellman thus:— “I say — I say — I say — I say. Suppose pig walk — iron no live for him nose! Gun shoot. Kill him one time. Hear re! hear re!”

However a good many pigs with no iron living in their noses got adrift and escaped into the interior, and have flourished like the green bay-tree, destroying the Bubi’s plantation and eating his yams, while the Bubi retaliating kills and eats them. So it’s a drawn battle, for the Bubi enjoys the pig and the pig enjoys the yams, which are of singular excellence in this island and celebrated throughout the Bight. Now, I am told, the Government are firmly discouraging the export of these yams, which used to be quite a little branch of Fernando Po trade, in the hope that this will induce the native to turn his attention to working in the coffee and cacao plantations. Hope springs eternal in the human breast, for the Bubi has shown continually since the 16th century that he takes no interest in these things whatsoever. Now and again a man or woman will come voluntarily and take service in Clarence, submit to clothes, and rapidly pick up the ways of a house or store. And just when their owner thinks he owns a treasure, and begins to boast that he has got an exception to all Bubidom, or else that he knows how to manage them better than other men, then a hole in that man’s domestic arrangements suddenly appears. The Bubi has gone, without giving a moment’s warning, and without stealing his master’s property, but just softly and silently vanished away. And if hunted up the treasure will be found in his or her particular village — clothes-less, comfortable, utterly unconcerned, and unaware that he or she has lost anything by leaving Clarence and Civilisation. It is this conduct that gains for the Bubi the reputation of being a bigger idiot than he really is.

For West Africans their agriculture is of a fairly high description--the noteworthy point about it, however, is the absence of manioc. Manioc is grown on Fernando Po, but only by the Portos. The Bubi cultivated plants are yams (Dioscorea alata), koko (Colocasia esculenta — the taro of the South Seas,) and plantains. Their farms are well kept, particularly those in the grass districts by San Carlos Bay. The yams of the Cordillera districts are the best flavoured, but those of the east coast the largest. Palm-oil is used for domestic purposes in the usual ways, and palm wine both fresh and fermented is the ordinary native drink. Rum is held in high esteem, but used in a general way in moderation as a cordial and a treat, for the Bubi is, like the rest of the West African natives, by no means an habitual drunkard. Gin he dislikes. 10

And I may remark you will find the same opinion in regard to the Dualla in Cameroons river — on the undeniable authority of Dr. Buchner, and my own extensive experience of the West Coast bears it out.

Physically the Bubis are a fairly well-formed race of medium height; they are decidedly inferior to the Benga or the Krus, but quite on a level with the Effiks. The women indeed are very comely: their colour is bronze and their skin the skin of the Bantu. Beards are not uncommon among the men, and these give their faces possibly more than anything else, a different look to the faces of the Effiks or the Duallas. Indeed the people physically most like the Bubis that I have ever seen, are undoubtedly the Bakwiri of Cameroons Mountain, who are also liable to be bearded, or possibly I should say more liable to wear beards, for a good deal of the African hairlessness you hear commented on — in the West African at any rate — arises from his deliberately pulling his hair out — his beard, moustache, whiskers, and, occasionally, as among the Fans, his eyebrows.

Dr. Baumann, the great authority on the Bubi language says it is a Bantu stock. 11 I know nothing of it myself save that it is harsh in sound. Their method of counting is usually by fives but they are notably weak in arithmetical ability, differing in this particular from the mainlanders, and especially from their Negro neighbours, who are very good at figures, surpassing the Bantu in this, as indeed they do in most branches of intellectual activity.

But the most remarkable instance of inferiority the Bubis display is their ignorance regarding methods of working iron. I do not know that iron in a native state is found on Fernando Po, but scrap-iron they have been in touch with for some hundreds of years. The mainlanders are all cognisant of native methods of working iron, although many tribes of them now depend entirely on European trade for their supply of knives, etc., and this difference between them and the Bubis would seem to indicate that the migration of the latter to the island must have taken place at a fairly remote period, a period before the iron-working tribes came down to the coast. Of course, if you take the Bubi’s usual explanation of his origin, namely that he came out of the crater on the top of Clarence Peak, this argument falls through; but he has also another legend, one moreover which is likewise to be found upon the mainland, which says he was driven from the district north of the Gaboon estuary by the coming of the M’pongwe to the coast, and as this legend is the more likely of the two I think we may accept it as true, or nearly so. But what adds another difficulty to the matter is that the Bubi is not only unlearned in iron lore, but he was learned in stone, and up to the time of the youth of many Porto-negroes on Fernando Po, he was making and using stone implements, and none of the tribes within the memory of man have done this on the mainland. It is true that up the Niger and about Benin and Axim you get polished stone celts, but these are regarded as weird affairs, — thunderbolts — and suitable only for grinding up and making into medicine; there is no trace in the traditions of these places, as far as I have been able to find, of any time at which stone implements were in common use, and certainly the M’pongwe have not been a very long time on the coast, for their coming is still remembered in their traditions. The Bubi stone implements I have seen twice, but on neither occasion could I secure one, and although I have been long promised specimens from Fernando Po, I have not yet received them. They are difficult to procure, because none of the present towns are on really old sites, the Bubi, like most Bantus, moving pretty frequently, either because the ground is witched, demonstrated by outbreaks of sickness, or because another village-full of his fellow creatures, or a horrid white man plantation-making, has come too close to him. A Roman Catholic priest in Ka Congo once told me a legend he laughed much over, of how a fellow priest had enterprisingly settled himself one night in the middle of a Bubi village with intent to devote the remainder of his life to quietly but thoroughly converting it. Next morning, when he rose up, he found himself alone, the people having taken all their portable possessions and vanished to build another village elsewhere. The worthy Father spent some time chivying his flock about the forest, but in vain, and he returned home disgusted, deciding that the Creator, for some wise purpose, had dedicated the Bubis to the Devil.

The spears used by this interesting people are even to this day made entirely of wood, and have such a Polynesian look about them that I intend some time or other to bring some home and experiment on that learned Polynesian-culture-expert, Baron von Hugel, with them:— intellectually experiment, not physically, pray understand.

The pottery has a very early-man look about it, but in this it does not differ much from that of the mainland, which is quite as poor, and similarly made without a wheel, and sun-baked. Those pots of the Bubis I have seen have, however, not had the pattern (any sort of pattern does, and it need not be carefully done) that runs round mainland pots to “keep their souls in” — i.e. to prevent their breaking up on their own account.

The basket-work of the Bubis is of a superior order: the baskets they make to hold the palm oil are excellent, and will hold water like a basin, but I am in doubt whether this art is original, or imported by the Portuguese runaway slaves, for they put me very much in mind of those made by my old friends the Kabinders, from whom a good many of those slaves were recruited. I think there is little doubt that several of the musical instruments own this origin, particularly their best beloved one, the elibo. This may be described as a wooden bell having inside it for clappers several (usually five) pieces of stick threaded on a bit of wood jammed into the dome of the bell and striking the rim, beyond which the clappers just protrude. These bells are very like those you meet with in Angola, but I have not seen on the island, nor does Dr. Baumann cite having seen, the peculiar double bell of Angola — the engongui. The Bubi bell is made out of one piece of wood and worked — or played — with both hands. Dr. Baumann says it is customary on bright moonlight nights for two lines of men to sit facing each other and to clap — one can hardly call it ring — these bells vigorously, but in good time, accompanying this performance with a monotonous song, while the delighted women and children dance round. The learned doctor evidently sees the picturesqueness of this practice, but notes that the words of the songs are not “tiefsinnige” (profound), as he has heard men for hours singing “The shark bites the Bubi’s hand,” only that over and over again and nothing more. This agrees with my own observations of all Bantu native songs. I have always found that the words of these songs were either the repetition of some such phrase as this, or a set of words referring to the recent adventures or experiences of the singer or the present company’s little peculiarities; with a very frequent chorus, old and conventional.

The native tunes used with these songs are far superior, and I expect many of them are very old. They are often full of variety and beauty, particularly those of the M’pongwe and Igalwa, of which I will speak later.

The dances I have no personal knowledge of, but there is nothing in Baumann’s description to make one think they are distinct in themselves from the mainland dances. I once saw a dance at Fernando Po, but that was among Portos, and it was my old friend the Batuco in all its beauty. But there is a distinct peculiarity about the places the dances are held on, every village having a kept piece of ground outside it which is the dancing place for the village — the ball-room as it were; and exceedingly picturesque these dances must be, for they are mostly held during the nights of full moon. These kept grounds remind one very much of the similar looking patches of kept grass one sees in villages in Ka Congo, but there is no similarity in their use, for the Ka Congo lawns are of fetish, not frivolous, import.

The Bubis have an instrument I have never seen in an identical form on the mainland. It is made like a bow, with a tense string of fibre. One end of the bow is placed against the mouth, and the string is then struck by the right hand with a small round stick, while with the left it is scraped with a piece of shell or a knife-blade. This excruciating instrument, I warn any one who may think of living among the Bubis, is very popular. The drums used are both the Dualla form — all wood — and the ordinary skin-covered drum, and I think if I catalogue fifes made of wood, I shall have nearly finished the Bubi orchestra. I have doubts on this point because I rather question whether I may be allowed to refer to a very old bullock hide — unmounted — as a musical instrument without bringing down the wrath of musicians on my head. These stiff, dry pelts are much thought of, and played by the artistes by being shaken as accompaniments to other instruments — they make a noise, and that is after all the soul of most African instrumental music. These instruments are all that is left of certain bullocks which many years ago the Spaniards introduced, hoping to improve the food supply. They seemed as if they would have flourished well on the island, on the stretches of grass land in the Cordillera and the East, but the Bubis, being great sportsmen, killed them all off.

The festivities of the Bubis — dances, weddings, feasts, etc., — at which this miscellaneous collection of instruments are used in concert, usually take place in November, the dry season; but the Bubi is liable to pour forth his soul in the bosom of his family at any time of the day or night, from June to January, and when he pours it forth on that bow affair it makes the lonely European long for home.

Divisions of time the Bubi can hardly be said to have, but this is a point upon which all West Africans are rather weak, particularly the Bantu. He has, however, a definite name for November, December, and January — the dry season months — calling them Lobos.

The Fetish of these people, although agreeing on broad lines with the Bantu Fetish, has many interesting points, as even my small knowledge of it showed me, and it is a subject that would repay further investigation; and as by fetish I always mean the governing but underlying ideas of a man’s life, we will commence with the child. Nothing, as far as I have been able to make out, happens to him, for fetish reasons, when he first appears on the scene. He receives at birth, as is usual, a name which is changed for another on his initiation into the secret society, this secret society having also, as usual, a secret language. About the age of three or five years the boy is decorated, under the auspices of the witch doctor, with certain scars on the face. These scars run from the root of the nose across the cheeks, and are sometimes carried up in a curve on to the forehead.

Tattooing, in the true sense of the word, they do not use much, but they paint themselves, as the mainlanders do, with a red paint made by burning some herb and mixing the ash with clay or oil, and they occasionally — whether for ju-ju reasons or for mere decoration I do not know — paint a band of yellow clay round the chest; but of the Bubi secret society I know little, nor have I been able to find any one who knows much more. Hutchinson, 12 in his exceedingly amusing description of a wedding he was once present at among these people, would lead one to think the period of seclusion of the women’s society was twelve months.

The chief god or spirit, O Wassa, resides in the crater of the highest peak, and by his name the peak is known to the native. Another very important spirit, to whom goats and sheep are offered, is Lobe, resident in a crater lake on the northern slope of the Cordilleras, and the grass you sometimes see a Bubi wearing is said to come from this lake and be a ju-ju of Lobe’s. Dr. Baumann says that the lake at Riabba from which the spirit Uapa rises is more holy, and that he is small, and resides in a chasm in a rock whose declivity can only be passed by means of bush ropes, and in the wet season he is not get-at-able at all. He will, if given suitable offerings, reveal the future to Bubis, but Bubis only. His priest is the King of all the Bubis, upon whom it is never permitted to a white man, or a Porto, to gaze. Baumann also gives the residence of another important spirit as being the grotto at Banni. This is a sea-cave, only accessible at low water in calm weather. I have heard many legends of this cave, but have never had an opportunity of seeing it, or any one who has seen it first hand.

The charms used by these people are similar in form to those of the mainland Bantu, but the methods of treating paths and gateways are somewhat peculiar. The gateways to the towns are sometimes covered by freshly cut banana leaves, and during the religious feast in November, the paths to the villages are barred across with a hedge of grass which no stranger must pass through.

The government is a peculiar one for West Africa. Every village has its chief, but the whole tribe obey one great chief or king who lives in the crater-ravine at Riabba. This individual is called Moka, but whether he is now the same man referred to by Rogoszinsky, Mr. Holland, and the Rev. Hugh Brown, who attempted to interview him in the seventies, I do not feel sure, for the Bubis are just the sort of people to keep a big king going with a variety of individuals. Even the indefatigable Dr. Baumann failed to see Moka, though he evidently found out a great deal about the methods of his administration and formed a very high opinion of his ability, for he says that to this one chief the people owe their present unity and orderliness; that before his time the whole island was in a state of internecine war: murder was frequent, and property unsafe. Now their social condition, according to the Doctor’s account, is a model to Europe, let alone Africa. Civil wars have been abolished, disputes between villages being referred to arbitration, and murder is swiftly and surely punished. If the criminal has bolted into the forest and cannot be found, his village is made responsible, and has to pay a fine in goats, sheep and tobacco to the value of 16 pounds. Theft is extremely rare and offences against the moral code also, the Bubis having an extremely high standard in this matter, even the little children having each a separate sleeping hut. In old days adultery was punished by cutting off the offender’s hand. I have myself seen women in Fernando Po who have had a hand cut off at the wrist, but I believe those were slave women who had suffered for theft. Slaves the Bubis do have, but their condition is the mild, poor relation or retainer form of slavery you find in Calabar, and differs from the Dualla form, for the slaves live in the same villages as their masters, while among the Duallas, as among most Bantu slave-holding tribes, the slaves are excluded from the master’s village and have separate villages of their own. For marriage ceremonies I refer you to Mr. Hutchinson. Burial customs are exceedingly quaint in the southern and eastern districts, where the bodies are buried in the forest with their heads just sticking out of the ground. In other districts the body is also buried in the forest, but is completely covered and an erection of stones put up to mark the place.

Little is known of all West African fetish, still less of that of these strange people. Dr. Oscar Baumann brought to bear on them his careful unemotional German methods of observation, thereby giving us more valuable information about them and their island than we otherwise should possess. Mr. Hutchinson resided many years on Fernando Po, in the capacity of H. B. M.‘s Consul, with his hands full of the affairs of the Oil Rivers and in touch with the Portos of Clarence, but he nevertheless made very interesting observations on the natives and their customs. The Polish exile and his courageous wife who ascended Clarence Peak, Mr. Rogoszinsky, and another Polish exile, Mr. Janikowski, about complete our series of authorities on the island. Dr. Baumann thinks they got their information from Porto sources — sources the learned Doctor evidently regards as more full of imagination than solid fact, but, as you know, all African travellers are occasionally in the habit of pooh-poohing each other, and I own that I myself have been chiefly in touch with Portos, and that my knowledge of the Bubi language runs to the conventional greeting form:— “Ipori?” “Porto.” “Ke Soko?’” “Hatsi soko”:— “Who are you?” “Porto.” “What’s the news?” “No news.”

Although these Portos are less interesting to the ethnologist than the philanthropist, they being by-products of his efforts, I must not leave Fernando Po without mentioning them, for on them the trade of the island depends. They are the middlemen between the Bubi and the white trader. The former regards them with little, if any, more trust than he regards the white men, and his view of the position of the Spanish Governor is that he is chief over the Portos. That he has any headship over Bubis or over the Bubi land — Itschulla as he calls Fernando Po — he does not imagine possible. Baumann says he was once told by a Bubi: “White men are fish, not men. They are able to stay a little while on land, but at last they mount their ships again and vanish over the horizon into the ocean. How can a fish possess land?” If the coffee and cacao thrive on Fernando Po to the same extent that they have already thriven on San Thome there is but little doubt that the Bubis will become extinct; for work on plantations, either for other people, or themselves, they will not, and then the Portos will become the most important class, for they will go in for plantations. Their little factories are studded all round the shores of the coast in suitable coves and bays, and here in fairly neat houses they live, collecting palm-oil from the Bubis, and making themselves little cacao plantations, and bringing these products into Clarence every now and then to the white trader’s factory. Then, after spending some time and most of their money in the giddy whirl of that capital, they return to their homes and recover. There is a class of them permanently resident in Clarence, the city men of Fernando Po, and these are very like the Sierra Leonians of Free Town, but preferable. Their origin is practically the same as that of the Free Towners. They are the descendants of liberated slaves set free during the time of our occupation of the island as a naval depot for suppressing the slave trade, and of Sierra Leonians and Accras who have arrived and settled since then. They have some of the same “Black gennellum, Sar” style about them, but not developed to the same ridiculous extent as in the Sierra Leonians, for they have not been under our institutions. The “Nanny Po” ladies are celebrated for their beauty all along the West Coast, and very justly. They are not however, as they themselves think, the most beautiful women in this part of the world. Not at least to my way of thinking. I prefer an Elmina, or an Igalwa, or a M’pongwe, or — but I had better stop and own that my affections have got very scattered among the black ladies on the West Coast, and I no sooner remember one lovely creature whose soft eyes, perfect form and winning, pretty ways have captivated me than I think of another. The Nanny Po ladies have often a certain amount of Spanish blood in them, which gives a decidedly greater delicacy to their features — delicate little nostrils, mouths not too heavily lipped, a certain gloss on the hair, and a light in the eye. But it does not improve their colour, and I am assured that it has an awful effect on their tempers, so I think I will remain, for the present, the faithful admirer of my sable Ingramina, the Igalwa, with the little red blossoms stuck in her night-black hair, and a sweet soft look and word for every one, but particularly for her ugly husband Isaac the “Jack Wash.”

4 From Point Limbok, the seaward extremity of Cameroons Mountain, to Cape Horatio, the most eastern extremity of Fernando Po, the soundings are, from the continent, 13, 17, 20, 23, 27, 29, 30, 34 fathoms; close on to the island, 35 and 29 fathoms.

5 I am informed that the allowance made to these priests exceeds by some pounds the revenues Spain obtains from the Island. In Spanish possessions alone is a supporting allowance made to missionaries though in all the other colonies they obtain a government grant.

6 Ten Years’ Wanderings among the Ethiopians, T. J. Hutchinson.

7 There is difference of opinion among authorities as to whether Fernando Po was discovered by Fernando Po or by Lopez Gonsalves.

8 From April 1777 till the end of 1782, 370 men out of the 547 died of fever.

9 Porto is the Bubi name for black men who are not Bubis, these were in old days Portuguese slaves, “Porto” being evidently a corruption of “Portuguese,” but it is used alike by the Bubi to designate Sierra Leonian and Accras, in fact, all the outer barbarian blacks. The name for white men, Mandara, used by the Bubis, has a sort of resemblance to the Effik name for whites, Makara, i.e., the ruling one, but I do not know whether these two words have any connection.

10 I am glad to find that my own observations on the drink question entirely agree with those of Dr. Oscar Baumann, because he is an unprejudiced scientific observer, who has had great experience both in the Congo and Cameroon regions before he came to Fernando Po. In support of my statement I may quote his own words:— “Die Bube trinken namlich sehr gerne Rum; Gin verschmahen sie vollstandig, aber ausser Tabak und Salz gehort Rum zu den gesuchtesten europaischen Artikeln fur sie. Wie bekannt hat sich in Europa ein heftiges Geschrei gegen die Vergiftung der Neger durch Alcohol erhoben. Wenn dasselbe schon fur die meisten Stamme Westafrikas der Berechtigung fast vollstandig entbehrt und in die Categorie verweisen worden muss die man mit dem nicht sehr schonen aber treffenden Ausdrucke ‘Humanitatsduselei’ bezeichnet, so ist es den Bube gegenuber wohl mehr als zwecklos. Es mag ja vorkommen dass ein Bube wenn er sein Palmol verkauft hat, sich ein oder zweimal im Jahre mit Rum ein Rauschlein antrinkt. Deshalb aber gleich von Alkohol–Vergiftung zu sprechen ware mindestens lacherlich. Ich bin uberzeugt dass mancher jener Herren die in Wort und Schrift so heftig gegen die Alkolismus der Neger zetern in ihren Studenten-jahren allein mehr geistige Getranke genossen haben als zehn Bube wahrend ihres ganzen Lebens. Der Handelsrum welcher wie ich mich ofters uberzeugt zwar recht verwassert aber keineswegs abstossend schlecht schmeckt, ist den Bube gewohnlich nur eine Delikatesse welche mit Andacht schluckweise genossen wird. Wenn ein Arbeiter bei uns einen Schluck Branntwein oder ein Glas Bier geniesst um sich zu starken, so findet das Jeder in der Ordnung; der Bube jedoch, welcher splitternackt tagelang in feuchten Bergwaldern umher klettern muss, soll beliebe nichts als Wasser trinken!” Eine Africanische Tropen. insel Fernando Poo, Dr. Oscar Baumann, Edward Holzer, Wien, 1888.

11 “Beitrage zur Kenntniss der Bubisprache auf Fernando Poo,” O. Baumann, Zeitschrift fur afrikanische Sprachen. Berlin, 1888.

12 Ten Years’ Wanderings among the Ethiopians. T. J. Hutchinson.

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