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

CHAPTER XV

NEGRO CURIOSITY; A MESSAGE FROM THE KING

Wawra is a small town surrounded with high walls, and inhabited by a mixture of Mandingoes and Foulahs. The inhabitants employ themselves chiefly in cultivating corn, which they exchange with the Moors for salt. Here, being in security from the Moors, and very much fatigued, I resolved to rest myself; and meeting with a hearty welcome from the dooty, whose name was Flancharee, I laid myself down upon a bullock’s hide, and slept soundly for about two hours. The curiosity of the people would not allow me to sleep any longer. They had seen my saddle and bridle, and were assembled in great numbers to learn who I was and whence I came. Some were of opinion that I was an Arab; others insisted that I was some Moorish Sultan, and they continued to debate the matter with such warmth that the noise awoke me. The dooty (who had formerly been at Gambia) at last interposed in my behalf, and assured them that I was certainly a white man; but he was convinced from my appearance that I was a poor one.

July 6. — It rained very much in the night, and at daylight I departed in company with a negro who was going to a town called Dingyee for corn; but we had not proceeded above a mile before the ass upon which he rode threw him off, and he returned, leaving me to prosecute the journey by myself.

I reached Dingyee about noon, but the dooty and most of the inhabitants had gone into the fields to cultivate corn. An old Foulah, observing me wandering about the town, desired me to come to his hut, where I was well entertained; and the dooty, when he returned, sent me some victuals for myself and corn for my horse.

July 7. — In the morning, when I was about to depart, my landlord, with a great deal of diffidence, begged me to give him a lock of my hair. He had been told, he said, that white men’s hair made a saphie that would give to the possessor all the knowledge of white men. I had never before heard of so simple a mode of education, but instantly complied with the request.

I reached a small town called Wassiboo, about twelve o’clock, where I was obliged to stop until an opportunity should offer of procuring a guide to Satile, which is distant a very long day’s journey, through woods without any beaten path. I accordingly took up my residence at the dooty’s house, where I stayed four days, during which time I amused myself by going to the fields with the family to plant corn. Cultivation is carried on here on a very extensive scale; and, as the natives themselves express it, “Hunger is never known.” In cultivating the soil the men and women work together. They use a large sharp hoe, much superior to that used in Gambia, but they are obliged, for fear of the Moors, to carry their arms with them to the field. The master, with the handle of his spear, marks the field into regular plats, one of which is assigned to every three slaves.

On the evening of the 11th eight of the fugitive Kaartans arrived at Wassiboo. They had found it impossible to live under the tyrannical government of the Moors, and were now going to transfer their allegiance to the King of Bambarra. They offered to take me along with them as far as Satile, and I accepted the offer.

July 12. — At daybreak we set out, and travelled with uncommon expedition until sunset. We stopped only twice in the course of the day, once at a watering-place in the woods, and at another time at the ruins of a town formerly belonging to Daisy, called Illa-compe (the corn-town). When we arrived in the neighbourhood of Satile, the people who were employed in the corn-fields, seeing so many horsemen, took us for a party of Moors, and ran screaming away from us. The whole town was instantly alarmed, and the slaves were seen in every direction driving the cattle and horses towards the town. It was in vain that one of our company galloped up to undeceive them; it only frightened them the more; and when we arrived at the town we found the gates shut, and the people all under arms. After a long parley we were permitted to enter, and, as there was every appearance of a tornado, the dooty allowed us to sleep in his baloon, and gave us each a bullock’s hide for a bed.

July 13. — Early in the morning we again set forward. The roads were wet and slippery, but the country was very beautiful, abounding with rivulets, which were increased by the rain into rapid streams. About ten o’clock we came to-the rains of a village which had been destroyed by war about six months before.

About noon my horse was so much fatigued that I could not keep up with my companions; I therefore dismounted, and desired them to ride on, telling them that I would follow as soon as my horse had rested a little. But I found them unwilling to leave me; the lions, they said, were very numerous in those parts, and though they might not so readily attack a body of people, they would soon find out an individual; it was therefore agreed that one of the company should stay with me to assist in driving my horse, while the others passed on to Galloo to procure lodgings, and collect grass for the horses before night. Accompanied by this worthy negro, I drove my horse before me until about four o’clock, when we came in sight of Galloo, a considerable town, standing in a fertile and beautiful valley surrounded with high rocks.

Early next morning (July 14th), having first returned many thanks to our landlord for his hospitality, while my fellow-travellers offered up their prayers that he might never want, we set forward, and about three o’clock arrived at Moorja, a large town, famous for its trade in salt, which the Moors bring here in great quantities, to exchange for corn and cotton cloth. As most of the people here are Mohammedans, it is not allowed to the kafirs to drink beer, which they call neodollo (corn spirit), except in certain houses. In one of these I saw about twenty people sitting round large vessels of this beer with the greatest conviviality, many of them in a state of intoxication.

On the morning of the 16th we again set forward, accompanied by a coffle of fourteen asses, loaded with salt, bound for Sansanding. The road was particularly romantic, between two rocky hills; but the Moors sometimes lie in wait here to plunder strangers. As soon as we had reached the open country the master of the salt coffle thanked us for having stayed with him so long, and now desired us to ride on. The sun was almost set before we reached Datliboo. In the evening we had a most tremendous tornado. The house in which we lodged being flat-roofed, admitted the rain in streams; the floor was soon ankle-deep, the fire extinguished, and we were left to pass the night upon some bundles of firewood that happened to lie in a corner.

July 17. — We departed from Datliboo, and about ten o’clock passed a large coffle returning from Sego with corn-hoes, mats, and other household utensils. At five o’clock we came to a large village where we intended to pass the night, but the dooty would not receive us. When we departed from this place my horse was so much fatigued that I was under the necessity of driving him, and it was dark before we reached Fanimboo, a small village, the dooty of which no sooner heard that I was a white man than he brought out three old muskets, and was much disappointed when he was told that I could not repair them.

July 18. — We continued our journey, but, owing to a light supper the preceding night we felt ourselves rather hungry this morning, and endeavoured to procure some corn at a village, but without success.

My horse becoming weaker and weaker every day, was now of very little service to me; I was obliged to drive him before me for the greater part of the day, and did not reach Geosorro until eight o’clock in the evening. I found my companions wrangling with the dooty, who had absolutely refused to give or sell them any provisions; and as none of us had tasted victuals for the last twenty-four hours, we were by no means disposed to fast another day if we could help it. But finding our entreaties without effect, and being very much fatigued, I fell asleep, from which I was awakened about midnight with the joyful information Kinne nata! (“The victuals are come”) This made the remainder of the night pass away pleasantly, and at daybreak, July 19th, we resumed our journey, proposing to stop at a village called Doolinkeaboo for the night following. My fellow-travellers, having better horses than myself, soon left me, and I was walking barefoot, driving my horse, when I was met by a coffle of slaves, about seventy in number, coming from Sego. They were tied together by their necks with thongs of a bullock’s hide, twisted like a rope — seven slaves upon a thong, and a man with a musket between every seven. Many of the slaves were ill-conditioned, and a great number of them women. In the rear came Sidi Mahomed’s servant, whom I remembered to have seen at the camp of Benowm. He presently knew me, and told me that these slaves were going to Morocco by the way of Ludamar and the Great Desert.

In the afternoon, as I approached Doolinkeaboo, I met about twenty Moors on horseback, the owners of the slaves I had seen in the morning. They were well armed with muskets, and were very inquisitive concerning me, but not so rude as their countrymen generally are. From them I learned that Sidi Mahomed was not at Sego, but had gone to Kancaba for gold-dust.

When I arrived at Doolinkeaboo I was informed that my fellow-travellers had gone on, but my horse was so much fatigued that I could not possibly proceed after them. The dooty of the town at my request gave me a draught of water, which is generally looked upon as an earnest of greater hospitality, and I had no doubt of making up for the toils of the day by a good supper and a sound sleep; unfortunately, I had neither the one nor the other. The night was rainy and tempestuous, and the dooty limited his hospitality to the draught of water.

July 20. — In the morning I endeavoured, both by entreaties and threats, to procure some victuals from the dooty, but in vain. I even begged some corn from one of his female slaves, as she was washing it at the well, and had the mortification to be refused. However, when the dooty was gone to the fields, his wife sent me a handful of meal, which I mixed with water and drank for breakfast. About eight o’clock I departed from Doolinkeaboo, and at noon stopped a few minutes at a large korree, where I had some milk given me by the Foulahs, and hearing that two negroes were going from thence to Sega, I was happy to have their company, and we set out immediately. About four o’clock we stopped at a small village, where one of the negroes met with an acquaintance, who invited us to a sort of public entertainment, which was conducted with more than common propriety. A dish, made of sour milk and meal, called sinkatoo, and beer made from their corn, was distributed with great liberality, and the women were admitted into the society, a circumstance I had never before observed in Africa. There was no compulsion — every one was at liberty to drink as he pleased — they nodded to each other when about to drink, and on setting down the calabash commonly said Berka (“Thank you”). Both men and women appeared to be somewhat intoxicated, but they were far from being quarrelsome.

Departing from thence, we passed several large villages, where I was constantly taken for a Moor and became the subject of much merriment to the Bambarrans, who, seeing me drive my horse before me, laughed heartily at my appearance. “He has been at Mecca,” says one, “you may see that by his clothes;” another asked me if my horse was sick; a third wished to purchase it, &c., so that, I believe, the very slaves were ashamed to be seen in my company. Just before it was dark we took up our lodging for the night at a small village, where I procured some victuals for myself and some corn for my horse, at the moderate price of a button; and was told that I should see the Niger (which the negroes call Joliba, or the Great Water) early the next day. The lions are here very numerous; the gates are shut a little after sunset, and nobody allowed to go out. The thoughts of seeing the Niger in the morning, and the troublesome buzzing of mosquitoes, prevented me from shutting my eyes during the night; and I had saddled my horse, and was in readiness before daylight, but, on account of the wild beasts, we were obliged to wait until the people were stirring and the gates opened. This happened to be a market day at Sego, and the roads were everywhere filled with people carrying different articles to sell. We passed four large villages, and at eight o’clock saw the smoke over Sego.

As we approached the town I was fortunate enough to overtake the fugitive Kaartans, to whose kindness I had been so much indebted in my journey through Bambarra. They readily agreed to introduce me to the king; and we rode together through some marshy ground, where, as I was anxiously looking around for the river, one of them called out, Geo affili! (“See the water!”) and, looking forwards, I saw with infinite pleasure the great object of my mission — the long-sought-for majestic Niger, glittering in the morning sun, as broad as the Thames at Westminster, and flowing slowly to THE EASTWARD. I hastened to the brink, and having drunk of the water, lifted up my fervent thanks in prayer to the Great Ruler of all things for having thus far crowned my endeavours with success.

The circumstance of the Niger’s flowing towards the east, and its collateral points, did not, however, excite my surprise, for, although I had left Europe in great hesitation on this subject, and rather believed that it ran in the contrary direction, I had made such frequent inquiries during my progress concerning this river, and received from the negroes of different nations such clear and decisive assurances that its general course was TOWARDS THE RISING SUN, as scarce left any doubt on my mind, and more especially as I knew that Major Houghton had collected similar information in the same manner.

Sego, the capital of Bambarra, at which I had now arrived, consists, properly speaking, of four distinct towns — two on the northern bank of the Niger, called Sego Korro and Sego Boo; and two on the southern bank, called Sego Soo Korro and Sego See Korro. They are all surrounded with high mud walls. The houses are built of clay, of a square form with flat roofs — some of them have two storeys, and many of them are whitewashed. Besides these buildings, Moorish mosques are seen in every quarter; and the streets, though narrow, are broad enough for every useful purpose, in a country where wheel carriages are entirely unknown. From the best inquiries I could make, I have reason to believe that Sego contains altogether about thirty thousand inhabitants. The King of Bambarra constantly resides at Sego See Korro. He employs a great many slaves in conveying people over the river, and the money they receive (though the fare is only ten kowrie shells for each individual) furnishes a considerable revenue to the king in the course of a year. The canoes are of a singular construction, each of them being formed of the trunks of two large trees rendered concave, and joined together, not side by side, but endways — the junction being exactly across the middle of the canoe: they are therefore very long, and disproportionably narrow, and have neither decks nor masts: they are, however, very roomy, for I observed in one of them four horses and several people crossing over the river. When we arrived at this ferry, with a view to pass over to that part of the town in which the king resides, we found a great number waiting for a passage: they looked at me with silent wonder, and I distinguished with concern many Moors among them. There were three different places of embarkation, and the ferrymen were very diligent and expeditious; but from the crowd of people I could not immediately obtain a passage, and sat down upon the bank of the river to wait for a more favourable opportunity. The view of this extensive city — the numerous canoes upon the river — the crowded population, and the cultivated state of the surrounding country — formed altogether a prospect of civilisation and magnificence which I little expected to find in the bosom of Africa.

I waited more than two hours without having an opportunity of crossing the river, during which time the people who had crossed carried information to Mansong, the king, that a white man was waiting for a passage, and was coming to see him. He immediately sent over one of his chief men, who informed me that the king could not possibly see me until he knew what had brought me into his country; and that I must not presume to cross the river without the king’s permission. He therefore advised me to lodge at a distant village, to which he pointed, for the night, and said that in the morning he would give me further instructions how to conduct myself. This was very discouraging. However, as there was no remedy, I set off for the village, where I found, to my great mortification, that no person would admit me into his house. I was regarded with astonishment and fear, and was obliged to sit all day without victuals in the shade of a tree; and the night threatened to be very uncomfortable — for the wind rose, and there was great appearance of a heavy rain — and the wild beasts are so very numerous in the neighbourhood that I should have been under the necessity of climbing up a tree and resting amongst the branches. About sunset, however, as I was preparing to pass the night in this manner, and had turned my horse loose that he might graze at liberty, a woman, returning from the labours of the field, stopped to observe me, and perceiving that I was weary and dejected, inquired into my situation, which I briefly explained to her; whereupon, with looks of great compassion, she took up my saddle and bridle, and told me to follow her. Having conducted me into her hut, she lighted up a lamp, spread a mat on the floor, and told me I might remain there for the night. Finding that I was very hungry, she said she would procure me something to eat. She accordingly went out, and returned in a short time with a very fine fish, which, having caused to be half broiled upon some embers, she gave me for supper. The rites of hospitality being thus performed towards a stranger in distress, my worthy benefactress (pointing to the mat, and telling me I might sleep there without apprehension) called to the female part of her family, who had stood gazing on me all the while in fixed astonishment, to resume their task of spinning cotton, in which they continued to employ themselves great part of the night. They lightened their labour by songs, one of which was composed extempore, for I was myself the subject of it. It was sung by one of the young women, the rest joining in a sort of chorus. The air was sweet and plaintive, and the words, literally translated, were these:— “The winds roared, and the rains fell. The poor white man, faint and weary, came and sat under our tree. He has no mother to bring him milk, no wife to grind his corn. Chorus. — Let us pity the white man, no mother has he,” &c. &c. Trifling as this recital may appear to the reader, to a person in my situation the circumstance was affecting in the highest degree. I was oppressed by such unexpected kindness, and sleep fled from my eyes. In the morning I presented my compassionate landlady with two of the four brass buttons which remained on my waistcoat — the only recompense I could make her.

July 21. — I continued in the village all this day in conversation with the natives, who came in crowds to see me, but was rather uneasy towards evening to find that no message had arrived from the king, the more so as the people began to whisper that Mansong had received some very unfavourable accounts of me from the Moors and slatees residing at Sego, who, it seems, were exceedingly suspicious concerning the motives of my journey. I learned that many consultations had been held with the king concerning my reception and disposal; and some of the villagers frankly told me that I had many enemies, and must expect no favour.

July 22. — About eleven o’clock a messenger arrived from the king, but he gave me very little satisfaction. He inquired particularly if I had brought any present, and seemed much disappointed when he was told that I had been robbed of everything by the Moors. When I proposed to go along with him, he told me to stop until the afternoon, when the king would send for me.

July 23. — In the afternoon another messenger arrived from Mansong, with a bag in his hands. He told me it was the king’s pleasure that I should depart forthwith from the vicinage of Sego; but that Mansong, wishing to relieve a white man in distress, had sent me five thousand kowries, to enable me to purchase provisions in the course of my journey: the messenger added, that if my intentions were really to proceed to Jenne, he had orders to accompany me as a guide to Sansanding. I was at first puzzled to account for this behaviour of the king; but from the conversation I had with the guide, I had afterwards reason to believe that Mansong would willingly have admitted me into his presence at Sego, but was apprehensive he might not be able to protect me against the blind and inveterate malice of the Moorish inhabitants. His conduct, therefore, was at once prudent and liberal. The circumstances under which I made my appearance at Sego were undoubtedly such as might create in the mind of the king a well-warranted suspicion that I wished to conceal the true object of my journey. He argued, probably, as my guide argued, who, when he was told that I had come from a great distance, and through many dangers, to behold the Joliba river, naturally inquired if there were no rivers in my own country, and whether one river was not like another. Notwithstanding this, and in spite of the jealous machinations of the Moors, this benevolent prince thought it sufficient that a white man was found in his dominions, in a condition of extreme wretchedness, and that no other plea was necessary to entitle the sufferer to his bounty.

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