Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa, 1795-7, by Mungo Park

CHAPTER XII

OBSERVATIONS ON THE CHARACTER AND COUNTRY OF THE MOORS

The Moors of this part of Africa are divided into many separate tribes, of which the most formidable, according to what was reported to me, are those of Trasart and Il Braken, which inhabit the northern bank of the Senegal river. The tribes of Gedumah, Jaffnoo, and Ludamar, though not so numerous as the former, are nevertheless very powerful and warlike, and are each governed by a chief, or king, who exercises absolute jurisdiction over his own horde, without acknowledging allegiance to a common sovereign. In time of peace the employment of the people is pasturage. The Moors, indeed, subsist chiefly on the flesh of their cattle, and are always in the extreme of either gluttony or abstinence. In consequence of the frequent and severe fasts which their religion enjoins, and the toilsome journeys which they sometimes undertake across the desert, they are enabled to bear both hunger and thirst with surprising fortitude; but whenever opportunities occur of satisfying their appetite they generally devour more at one meal than would serve a European for three. They pay but little attention to agriculture, purchasing their corn, cotton, cloth, and other necessaries from the negroes, in exchange for salt, which they dig from the pits in the Great Desert.

The natural barrenness of the country is such that it furnishes but few materials for manufacture. The Moors, however, contrive to weave a strong cloth, with which they cover their tents; the thread is spun by their women from the hair of goats, and they prepare the hides of their cattle so as to furnish saddles, bridles, pouches, and other articles of leather. They are likewise sufficiently skilful to convert the native iron, which they procure from the negroes, into spears and knives, and also into pots for boiling their food; but their sabres, and other weapons, as well as their firearms and ammunition, they purchase from the Europeans, in exchange for the negro slaves which they obtain in their predatory excursions. Their chief commerce of this kind is with the French traders on the Senegal river.

The Moors are rigid Mohammedans, and possess, with the bigotry and superstition, all the intolerance of their sect. They have no mosques at Benowm, but perform their devotions in a sort of open shed, or enclosure, made of mats. The priest is, at the same time, schoolmaster to the juniors. His pupils assemble every evening before his tent; where, by the light of a large fire, made of brushwood and cow’s dung, they are taught a few sentences from the Koran, and are initiated into the principles of their creed. Their alphabet differs but little from that in Richardson’s Arabic Grammar. They always write with the vowel points. Their priests even affect to know something of foreign literature. The priest of Benowm assured me that he could read the writings of the Christians: he showed me a number of barbarous characters, which he asserted were the Roman alphabet; and he produced another specimen, equally unintelligible, which he declared to be the Kallam il Indi, or Persian. His library consisted of nine volumes in quarto; most of them, I believe, were books of religion — for the name of Mohammed appeared in red letters in almost every page of each. His scholars wrote their lessons upon thin boards, paper being too expensive for general use. The boys were diligent enough, and appeared to possess a considerable share of emulation — carrying their boards slung over their shoulders when about their common employments. When a boy has committed to memory a few of their prayers, and can read and write certain parts of the Koran, he is reckoned sufficiently instructed; and with this slender stock of learning commences his career of life. Proud of his acquirements, he surveys with contempt the unlettered negro; and embraces every opportunity of displaying his superiority over such of his countrymen as are not distinguished by the same accomplishments.

The education of the girls is neglected altogether: mental accomplishments are but little attended to by the women; nor is the want of them considered by the men as a defect in the female character. They are regarded, I believe, as an inferior species of animals; and seem to be brought up for no other purpose than that of administering to the sensual pleasures of their imperious masters. Voluptuousness is therefore considered as their chief accomplishment, and slavish submission as their indispensable duty.

The Moors have singular ideas of feminine perfection. The gracefulness of figure and motion, and a countenance enlivened by expression, are by no means essential points in their standard. With them corpulence and beauty appear to be terms nearly synonymous. A woman of even moderate pretensions must be one who cannot walk without a slave under each arm to support her; and a perfect beauty is a load for a camel. In consequence of this prevalent taste for unwieldiness of bulk, the Moorish ladies take great pains to acquire it early in life; and for this purpose many of the young girls are compelled by their mothers to devour a great quantity of kouskous, and drink a large bowl of camel’s milk every morning. It is of no importance whether the girl has an appetite or not; the kouskous and milk must be swallowed, and obedience is frequently enforced by blows. I have seen a poor girl sit crying, with the bowl at her lips, for more than an hour, and her mother, with a stick in her hand, watching her all the while, and using the stick without mercy whenever she observed that her daughter was not swallowing. This singular practice, instead of producing indigestion and disease, soon covers the young lady with that degree of plumpness which, in the eye of a Moor, is perfection itself.

As the Moors purchase all their clothing from the negroes, the women are forced to be very economical in the article of dress. In general they content themselves with a broad piece of cotton cloth, which is wrapped round the middle, and hangs down like a petticoat almost to the ground. To the upper part of this are sewed two square pieces, one before, and the other behind, which are fastened together over the shoulders. The head-dress is commonly a bandage of cotton cloth, with some parts of it broader than others, which serve to conceal the face when they walk in the sun. Frequently, however, when they go abroad, they veil themselves from head to foot.

The employment of the women varies according to their degrees of opulence. Queen Fatima, and a few others of high rank, like the great ladies in some parts of Europe, pass their time chiefly in conversing with their visitors, performing their devotions, or admiring their charms in a looking-glass. The women of inferior class employ themselves in different domestic duties. They are very vain and talkative; and when anything puts them out of humour they commonly vent their anger upon their female slaves, over whom they rule with severe and despotic authority, which leads me to observe that the condition of these poor captives is deplorably wretched. At daybreak they are compelled to fetch water from the wells in large skins, called girbas; and as soon as they have brought water enough to serve the family for the day, as well as the horses (for the Moors seldom give their horses the trouble of going to the wells), they are then employed in pounding the corn and dressing the victuals. This being always done in the open air, the slaves are exposed to the combined heat of the sun, the sand, and the fire. In the intervals it is their business to sweep the tent, churn the milk, and perform other domestic offices. With all this they are badly fed, and oftentimes cruelly punished.

The men’s dress, among the Moors of Ludamar, differs but little from that of the negroes, which has been already described, except that they have all adopted that characteristic of the Mohammedan sect, the turban, which is here universally made of white cotton cloth. Such of the Moors as have long beards display them with a mixture of pride and satisfaction, as denoting an Arab ancestry. Of this number was Ali himself; but among the generality of the people the hair is short and busy, and universally black. And here I may be permitted to observe, that if any one circumstance excited among them favourable thoughts towards my own person, it was my beard, which was now grown to an enormous length, and was always beheld with approbation or envy. I believe, in my conscience, they thought it too good a beard for a Christian.

The only diseases which I observed to prevail among the Moors were the intermittent fever and dysentery — for the cure of which nostrums are sometimes administered by their old women, but in general nature is left to her own operations. Mention was made to me of the small-pox as being sometimes very destructive; but it had not, to my knowledge, made its appearance in Ludamar while I was in captivity. That it prevails, however, among some tribes of the Moors, and that it is frequently conveyed by them to the negroes in the southern states, I was assured on the authority of Dr. Laidley, who also informed me that the negroes on the Gambia practise inoculation.

The administration of criminal justice, as far as I had opportunities of observing, was prompt and decisive: for although civil rights were but little regarded in Ludamar, it was necessary when crimes were committed that examples should sometimes be made. On such occasions the offender was brought before Ali, who pronounced, of his sole authority, what judgment he thought proper. But I understood that capital punishment was seldom or never inflicted, except on the negroes.

Although the wealth of the Moors consists chiefly in their numerous herds of cattle, yet, as the pastoral life does not afford full employment, the majority of the people are perfectly idle, and spend the day in trifling conversation about their horses, or in laying schemes of depredation on the negro villages.

Of the number of Ali’s Moorish subjects I had no means of forming a correct estimate. The military strength of Ludamar consists in cavalry. They are well mounted, and appear to be very expert in skirmishing and attacking by surprise. Every soldier furnishes his own horse, and finds his accoutrements, consisting of a large sabre, a double-barrelled gun, a small red leather bag for holding his balls, and a powder bag slung over the shoulder. He has no pay, nor any remuneration but what arises from plunder. This body is not very numerous; for when Ali made war upon Bambarra I was informed that his whole force did not exceed two thousand cavalry. They constitute, however, by what I could learn, but a very small proportion of his Moorish subjects. The horses are very beautiful, and so highly esteemed that the negro princes will sometimes give from twelve to fourteen slaves for one horse.

Ludamar has for its northern boundary the great desert of Sahara. From the best inquiries I could make, this vast ocean of sand, which occupies so large a space in northern Africa, may be pronounced almost destitute of inhabitants, except where the scanty vegetation which appears in certain spots affords pasturage for the flocks of a few miserable Arabs, who wander from one well to another. In other places, where the supply of water and pasturage is more abundant, small parties of the Moors have taken up their residence. Here they live, in independent poverty, secure from the tyrannical government of Barbary. But the greater part of the desert, being totally destitute of water, is seldom visited by any human being, unless where the trading caravans trace out their toilsome and dangerous route across it. In some parts of this extensive waste the ground is covered with low stunted shrubs, which serve as landmarks for the caravans, and furnish the camels with a scanty forage. In other parts the disconsolate wanderer, wherever he turns, sees nothing around him but a vast interminable expanse of sand and sky — a gloomy and barren void, where the eye finds no particular object to rest upon, and the mind is filled with painful apprehensions of perishing with thirst.

The few wild animals which inhabit these melancholy regions are the antelope and the ostrich; their swiftness of foot enabling them to reach the distant watering-places. On the skirts of the desert, where water is more plentiful, are found lions, panthers, elephants, and wild bears.

Of domestic animals, the only one that can endure the fatigue of crossing the desert is the camel. By the particular conformation of the stomach he is enabled to carry a supply of water sufficient for ten or twelve days; his broad and yielding foot is well adapted for a sandy country; and, by a singular motion of his upper lip, he picks the smallest leaves from the thorny shrubs of the desert as he passes along. The camel is therefore the only beast of burden employed by the trading caravans which traverse the desert in different directions, from Barbary to Nigritia. As this useful and docile creature has been sufficiently described by systematical writers it is unnecessary for me to enlarge upon his properties. I shall only add that his flesh, though to my own taste dry and unsavoury, is preferred by the Moors to any other; and that the milk of the female is in universal esteem, and is indeed sweet, pleasant, and nutritive.

I have observed that the Moors, in their complexion, resemble the mulattoes of the West Indies; but they have something unpleasant in their aspect which the mulattoes have not. I fancied that I discovered in the features of most of them a disposition towards cruelty and low cunning; and I could never contemplate their physiognomy without feeling sensible uneasiness. From the staring wildness of their eyes a stranger would immediately set them down as a nation of lunatics. The treachery and malevolence of their character are manifest in their plundering excursions against the negro villages. Oftentimes without the smallest provocation, and sometimes under the fairest professions of friendship, they will suddenly seize upon the negroes’ cattle, and even on the inhabitants themselves. The negroes very seldom retaliate.

Like the roving Arabs, the Moors frequently remove from one place to another, according to the season of the year or the convenience of pasturage. In the month of February, when the heat of the sun scorches up every sort of vegetation in the desert, they strike their tents and approach the negro country to the south, where they reside until the rains commence, in the month of July. At this time, having purchased corn and other necessaries from the negroes, in exchange for salt, they again depart to the northward, and continue in the desert until the rains are over, and that part of the country becomes burnt up and barren.

This wandering and restless way of life, while it inures them to hardships, strengthens at the same time the bonds of their little society, and creates in them an aversion towards strangers which is almost insurmountable. Cut off from all intercourse with civilised nations, and boasting an advantage over the negroes, by possessing, though in a very limited degree, the knowledge of letters, they are at once the vainest and proudest, and perhaps the most bigoted, ferocious, and intolerant of all the nations on the earth — combining in their character the blind superstition of the negro with the savage cruelty and treachery of the Arab.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/p/park/mungo/travels/chapter12.html

Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 16:24