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

CHAPTER XVI

VILLAGES ON THE NIGER— DETERMINES TO GO NO FARTHER EASTWARD

Being, in the manner that has been related, compelled to leave Sego, I was conducted the same evening to a village about seven miles to the eastward, with some of the inhabitants of which my guide was acquainted, and by whom we were well received. 3 He was very friendly and communicative, and spoke highly of the hospitality of his countrymen, but withal told me that if Jenne was the place of my destination, which he seemed to have hitherto doubted, I had undertaken an enterprise of greater danger than probably I was apprised of; for, although the town of Jenne was nominally a part of the king of Bambarra’s dominions, it was in fact, he said, a city of the Moors — the leading part of the inhabitants being bushreens, and even the governor himself, though appointed by Mansong, of the same sect. Thus was I in danger of falling a second time into the hands of men who would consider it not only justifiable, but meritorious, to destroy me, and this reflection was aggravated by the circumstance that the danger increased as I advanced in my journey, for I learned that the places beyond Jenne were under the Moorish influence in a still greater degree than Jenne itself, and Timbuctoo, the great object of my search, altogether in possession of that savage and merciless people, who allow no Christian to live there. But I had now advanced too far to think of returning to the westward on such vague and uncertain information, and determined to proceed; and being accompanied by the guide, I departed from the village on the morning of the 24th. About eight o’clock we passed a large town called Kabba, situated in the midst of a beautiful and highly cultivated country, bearing a greater resemblance to the centre of England than to what I should have supposed had been the middle of Africa. The people were everywhere employed in collecting the fruit of shea trees, from which they prepare the vegetable butter mentioned in former parts of this work. These trees grow in great abundance all over this part of Bambarra. They are not planted by the natives, but are found growing naturally in the woods; and in clearing woodland for cultivation every tree is cut down but the shea. The tree itself very much resembles the American oak, and the fruit — from the kernel of which, being first dried in the sun, the butter is prepared by boiling the kernel in water — has somewhat the appearance of a Spanish olive. The kernel is enveloped in a sweet pulp, under a thin green rind; and the butter produced from it, besides the advantage of its keeping the whole year without salt, is whiter, firmer, and, to my palate, of a richer flavour, than the best butter I ever tasted made from cow’s milk. The growth and preparation of this commodity seem to be among the first objects of African industry in this and the neighbouring states, and it constitutes a main article of their inland commerce.

3 I should have before observed that I found the language of Bambarra a sort of corrupted Mandingo. After a little practice, I understood and spoke it without difficulty.

We passed, in the course of the day, a great many villages inhabited chiefly by fishermen, and in the evening about five o’clock arrived at Sansanding, a very large town, containing, as I was told, from eight to ten thousand inhabitants. This place is much resorted to by the Moors, who bring salt from Berroo, and beads and coral from the Mediterranean, to exchange here for gold dust and cotton cloth. This cloth they sell to great advantage in Berroo, and other Moorish countries, where, on account of the want of rain, no cotton is cultivated.

I desired my guide to conduct me to the house in which we were to lodge by the most private way possible. We accordingly rode along between the town and the river, passing by a creek or harbour, in which I observed twenty large canoes, most of them fully loaded, and covered with mats to prevent the rain from injuring the goods. As we proceeded, three other canoes arrived, two with passengers and one with goods. I was happy to find that all the negro inhabitants took me for a Moor, under which character I should probably have passed unmolested, had not a Moor, who was sitting by the river-side, discovered the mistake, and, setting up a loud exclamation, brought together a number of his countrymen.

When I arrived at the house of Counti Mamadi, the dooty of the town, I was surrounded with hundreds of people speaking a variety of different dialects, all equally unintelligible to me. At length, by the assistance of my guide, who acted as interpreter, I understood that one of the spectators pretended to have seen me at one place, and another at some other place; and a Moorish woman absolutely swore that she had kept my house three years at Gallam, on the river Senegal. It was plain that they mistook me for some other person, and I desired two of the most confident to point towards the place where they had seen me. They pointed due south; hence I think it probable that they came from Cape Coast, where they might have seen many white men. Their language was different from any I had yet heard. The Moors now assembled in great number, with their usual arrogance, compelling the negroes to stand at a distance. They immediately began to question me concerning my religion, but finding that I was not master of Arabic, they sent for two men, whom they call Ilhuidi (Jews), in hopes that they might be able to converse with me. These Jews, in dress and appearance, very much resemble the Arabs; but though they so far conform to the religion of Mohammed as to recite in public prayers from the Koran, they are but little respected by the negroes; and even the Moors themselves allowed that, though I was a Christian, I was a better man than a Jew. They however insisted that, like the Jews, I must conform so far as to repeat the Mohammedan prayers; and when I attempted to waive the subject by telling them that I could not speak Arabic, one of them, a shereef from Tuat, in the Great Desert, started up and swore by the Prophet that if I refused to go to the mosque, he would be one that would assist in carrying me thither; and there is no doubt that this threat would have been immediately executed had not my landlord interposed on my behalf. He told them that I was the king’s stranger, and he could not see me ill-treated whilst I was under his protection. He therefore advised them to let me alone for the night, assuring them that in the morning I should be sent about my business. This somewhat appeased their clamour, but they compelled me to ascend a high seat by the door of the mosque, in order that everybody might see me, for the people had assembled in such numbers as to be quite ungovernable, climbing upon the houses, and squeezing each other, like the spectators at an execution. Upon this seat I remained until sunset, when I was conducted into a neat little hut, with a small court before it, the door of which Counti Mamadi shut, to prevent any person from disturbing me. But this precaution could not exclude the Moors. They climbed over the top of the mud wall, and came in crowds into the court, “in order,” they said, “to see me PERFORM MY EVENING DEVOTIONS, AND EAT EGGS.” The former of these ceremonies I did not think proper to comply with, but I told them I had no objection to eat eggs, provided they would bring me eggs to eat. My landlord immediately brought me seven hen’s eggs, and was much surprised to find that I could not eat them raw; for it seems to be a prevalent opinion among the inhabitants of the interior that Europeans subsist almost entirely on this diet. When I had succeeded in persuading my landlord that this opinion was without foundation, and that I would gladly partake of any victuals which he might think proper to send me, he ordered a sheep to be killed, and part of it to be dressed for my supper. About midnight, when the Moors had left me, he paid me a visit, and with much earnestness desired me to write him a saphie. “If a Moor’s saphie is good,” said this hospitable old man, “a white man’s must needs be better.” I readily furnished him with one, possessed of all the virtues I could concentrate, for it contained the Lord’s Prayer. The pen with which it was written was made of a reed; a little charcoal and gum-water made very tolerable ink, and a thin board answered the purpose of paper.

July 25. — Early in the morning, before the Moors were assembled, I departed from Sansanding, and slept the ensuing night at a small town called Sibili, from whence on the day following I reached Nyara, a large town at some distance from the river, where I halted the 27th, to have my clothes washed, and recruit my horse. The dooty there has a very commodious house, flat-roofed, and two storeys high. He showed me some gunpowder of his own manufacturing; and pointed out, as a great curiosity, a little brown monkey that was tied to a stake by the door, telling me that it came from a far distant country called Kong.

July 28. — I departed from Nyara, and reached Nyamee about noon. This town is inhabited chiefly by Foulahs from the kingdom of Masina. The dooty, I know not why, would not receive me, but civilly sent his son on horseback to conduct me to Modiboo, which he assured me was at no great distance.

We rode nearly in a direct line through the woods, but in general went forwards with great circumspection. I observed that my guide frequently stopped and looked under the bushes. On inquiring the reason of this caution he told me that lions were very numerous in that part of the country, and frequently attacked people travelling through the woods. While he was speaking, my horse started, and looking round, I observed a large animal of the camelopard kind standing at a little distance. The neck and fore-legs were very long; the head was furnished with two short black horns, turning backwards; the tail, which reached down to the ham joint, had a tuft of hair at the end. The animal was of a mouse colour, and it trotted away from us in a very sluggish manner — moving its head from side to side, to see if we were pursuing it. Shortly after this, as we were crossing a large open plain, where there were a few scattered bushes, my guide, who was a little way before me, wheeled his horse round in a moment, calling out something in the Foulah language which I did not understand. I inquired in Mandingo what he meant; “Wara billi billi!” (“A very large lion!”) said he, and made signs for me to ride away. But my horse was too much fatigued; so we rode slowly past the bush from which the animal had given us the alarm. Not seeing anything myself, however, I thought my guide had been mistaken, when the Foulah suddenly put his hand to his mouth, exclaiming, “Soubah an allahi!” (“God preserve us!”) and, to my great surprise, I then perceived a large red lion, at a short distance from the bush, with his head couched between his forepaws. I expected he would instantly spring upon me, and instinctively pulled my feet from my stirrups to throw myself on the ground, that my horse might become the victim rather than myself. But it is probable the lion was not hungry; for he quietly suffered us to pass, though we were fairly within his reach. My eyes were so riveted upon this sovereign of the beasts that I found it impossible to remove them until we were at a considerable distance. We now took a circuitous route through some swampy ground, to avoid any more of these disagreeable encounters. At sunset we arrived at Modiboo — a delightful village on the banks of the Niger, commanding a view of the river for many miles both to the east and west. The small green islands (the peaceful retreat of some industrious Foulahs, whose cattle are here secure from the depredations of wild beasts) and the majestic breadth of the river, which is here much larger than at Sego, render the situation one of the most enchanting in the world. Here are caught great plenty of fish, by means of long cotton nets, which the natives make themselves, and use nearly in the same manner as nets are used in Europe. I observed the head of a crocodile lying upon one of the houses, which they told me had been killed by the shepherds in a swamp near the town. These animals are not uncommon in the Niger, but I believe they are not oftentimes found dangerous. They are of little account to the traveller when compared with the amazing swarms of mosquitoes, which rise from the swamps and creeks in such numbers as to harass even the most torpid of the natives; and as my clothes were now almost worn to rags, I was but ill prepared to resist their attacks. I usually passed the night without shutting my eyes, walking backwards and forwards, fanning myself with my hat; their stings raised numerous blisters on my legs and arms, which, together with the want of rest, made me very feverish and uneasy.

July 29. — Early in the morning, my landlord, observing that I was sickly, hurried me away, sending a servant with me as a guide to Kea. But though I was little able to walk, my horse was still less able to carry me; and about six miles to the east of Modiboo, in crossing some rough clayey ground, he fell, and the united strength of the guide and myself could not place him again upon his legs. I sat down for some time beside this worn-out associate of my adventures, but finding him still unable to rise, I took off the saddle and bridle, and placed a quantity of grass before him. I surveyed the poor animal, as he lay panting on the ground, with sympathetic emotion, for I could not suppress the sad apprehension that I should myself, in a short time, lie down and perish in the same manner, of fatigue and hunger. With this foreboding I left my poor horse, and with great reluctance followed my guide on foot along the bank of the river until about noon, when we reached Kea, which I found to be nothing more than a small fishing village. The dooty, a surly old man, who was sitting by the gate, received me very coolly; and when I informed him of my situation, and begged his protection, told me with great indifference that he paid very little attention to fine speeches, and that I should not enter his house. My guide remonstrated in my favour, but to no purpose, for the dooty remained inflexible in his determination. I knew not where to rest my wearied limbs, but was happily relieved by a fishing canoe belonging to Silla, which was at that moment coming down the river. The dooty waved to the fisherman to come near, and desired him to take charge of me as far as Moorzan. The fisherman, after some hesitation, consented to carry me, and I embarked in the canoe in company with the fisherman, his wife, and a boy. The negro who had conducted me from Modiboo now left me. I requested him to look to my horse on his return, and take care of him if he was still alive, which he promised to do.

Departing from Kea, we proceeded about a mile down the river, when the fisherman paddled the canoe to the bank and desired me to jump out. Having tied the canoe to a stake, he stripped off his clothes, and dived for such a length of time that I thought he had actually drowned himself, and was surprised to see his wife behave with so much indifference upon the occasion; but my fears were over when he raised up his head astern of the canoe and called for a rope. With this rope he dived a second time, and then got into the canoe and ordered the boy to assist him in pulling. At length they brought up a large basket, about ten feet in diameter, containing two fine fish, which the fisherman — after returning the basket into the water — immediately carried ashore and hid in the grass. We then went a little farther down and took up another basket, in which was one fish. The fisherman now left us to carry his prizes to some neighbouring market, and the woman and boy proceeded with me in the canoe down the river.

About four o’clock we arrived at Moorzan, a fishing town on the northern bank, from whence I was conveyed across the river to Silla, a large town, where I remained until it was quite dark, under a tree, surrounded by hundreds of people.

With a great deal of entreaty the dooty allowed me to come into his baloon to avoid the rain, but the place was very damp, and I had a smart paroxysm of fever during the night. Worn down by sickness, exhausted with hunger and fatigue, half-naked, and without any article of value by which I might procure provisions, clothes, or lodging, I began to reflect seriously on my situation. I was now convinced, by painful experience, that the obstacles to my farther progress were insurmountable. The tropical rains were already set in with all their violence — the rice grounds and swamps were everywhere overflowed — and in a few days more, travelling of every kind, unless by water, would be completely obstructed. The kowries which remained of the king of Bambarra’s present were not sufficient to enable me to hire a canoe for any great distance, and I had but little hopes of subsisting by charity in a country where the Moors have such influence. But, above all, I perceived that I was advancing more and more within the power of those merciless fanatics, and, from my reception both at Sego and Sansanding, I was apprehensive that, in attempting to reach even Jenne (unless under the protection of some man of consequence amongst them, which I had no means of obtaining), I should sacrifice my life to no purpose, for my discoveries would perish with me. The prospect either way was gloomy. In returning to the Gambia, a journey on foot of many hundred miles presented itself to my contemplation, through regions and countries unknown. Nevertheless, this seemed to be the only alternative, for I saw inevitable destruction in attempting to proceed to the eastward. With this conviction on my mind I hope my readers will acknowledge that I did right in going no farther.

Having thus brought my mind, after much doubt and perplexity, to a determination to return westward, I thought it incumbent on me, before I left Silla, to collect from the Moorish and negro traders all the information I could concerning the farther course of the Niger eastward, and the situation and extent of the kingdoms in its vicinage; and the following few notices I received from such various quarters as induce me to think they are authentic:—

Two short days’ journey to the eastward of Silla is the town of Jenne, which is situated on a small island in the river, and is said to contain a greater number of inhabitants than Sego itself, or any other town in Bambarra. At the distance of two days more, the river spreads into a considerable lake, called Dibbie (or the Dark Lake), concerning the extent of which all the information I could obtain was that in crossing it from west to east the canoes lose sight of land one whole day. From this lake the water issues in many different streams, which terminate in two large branches, one whereof flows towards the north-east, and the other to the east; but these branches join at Kabra, which is one day’s journey to the southward of Timbuctoo, and is the port or shipping-place of that city. The tract of land which the two streams encircle is called Jinbala, and is inhabited by negroes; and the whole distance by land from Jenne to Timbuctoo is twelve days’ journey.

From Kabra, at the distance of eleven days’ journey down the stream, the river passes to the southward of Houssa, which is two days’ journey distant from the river. Of the farther progress of this great river, and its final exit, all the natives with whom I conversed seemed to be entirely ignorant. Their commercial pursuits seldom induce them to travel farther than the cities of Timbuctoo and Houssa, and as the sole object of those journeys is the acquirement of wealth, they pay little attention to the course of rivers or the geography of countries. It is, however, highly probable that the Niger affords a safe and easy communication between very remote nations. All my informants agreed that many of the negro merchants who arrive at Timbuctoo and Houssa from the eastward speak a different language from that of Bambarra, or any other kingdom with which they are acquainted But even these merchants, it would seem, are ignorant of the termination of the river, for such of them as can speak Arabic describe the amazing length of its course in very general terms, saying only that they believe it runs TO THE WORLD’S END.

The names of many kingdoms to the eastward of Houssa are familiar to the inhabitants of Bambarra. I was shown quivers and arrows of very curious workmanship, which I was informed came from the kingdom of Kassina.

On the northern bank of the Niger, at a short distance from Silla, is the kingdom of Masina, which is inhabited by Foulahs. They employ themselves there, as in other places, chiefly in pasturage, and pay an annual tribute to the king of Bambarra for the lands which they occupy.

To the north-east of Masina is situated the kingdom of Timbuctoo, the great object of European research — the capital of this kingdom being one of the principal marts for that extensive commerce which the Moors carry on with the negroes. The hopes of acquiring wealth in this pursuit, and zeal for propagating their religion, have filled this extensive city with Moors and Mohammedan converts. The king himself and all the chief officers of state are Moors; and they are said to be more severe and intolerant in their principles than any other of the Moorish tribes in this part of Africa. I was informed by a venerable old negro, that when he first visited Timbuctoo, he took up his lodging at a sort of public inn, the landlord of which, when he conducted him into his hut, spread a mat on the floor, and laid a rope upon it, saying, “If you are a Mussulman, you are my friend — sit down; but if you are a kafir, you are my slave, and with this rope I will lead you to market.” The present king of Timbuctoo is named Abu Abrahima. He is reported to possess immense riches. His wives and concubines are said to be clothed in silk, and the chief officers of state live in considerable splendour. The whole expense of his government is defrayed, as I was told, by a tax upon merchandise, which is collected at the gates of the city.

The city of Houssa (the capital of a large kingdom of the same name, situated to the eastward of Timbuctoo), is another great mart for Moorish commerce. I conversed with many merchants who had visited that city, and they all agreed that it is larger — and more populous than Timbuctoo. The trade, police, and government are nearly the same in both; but in Houssa the negroes are in greater proportion to the Moors, and have some share in the government.

Concerning the small kingdom of Jinbala I was not able to collect much information. The soil is said to be remarkably fertile, and the whole country so full of creeks and swamps that the Moors have hitherto been baffled in every attempt to subdue it. The inhabitants are negroes, and some of them are said to live in considerable affluence, particularly those near the capital, which is a resting-place for such merchants as transport goods from Timbuctoo to the western parts of Africa.

To the southward of Jinbala is situated the negro kingdom of Gotto, which is said to be of great extent. It was formerly divided into a number of petty states, which were governed by their own chiefs; but their private quarrels invited invasion from the neighbouring kingdoms. At length a politic chief of the name of Moossee had address enough to make them unite in hostilities against Bambarra; and on this occasion he was unanimously chosen general — the different chiefs consenting for a time to act under his command. Moossee immediately despatched a fleet of canoes, loaded with provisions, from the banks of the lake Dibbie up the Niger towards Jenne, and with the whole of his army pushed forwards into Bambarra. He arrived on the bank of the Niger opposite to Jenne before the townspeople had the smallest intimation of his approach. His fleet of canoes joined him the same day, and having landed the provisions, he embarked part of his army, and in the night took Jenne by storm. This event so terrified the king of Bambarra that he sent messengers to sue for peace; and in order to obtain it consented to deliver to Moossee a certain number of slaves every year, and return everything that had been taken from the inhabitants of Gotto. Moossee, thus triumphant, returned to Gotto, where he was declared king, and the capital of the country is called by his name.

On the west of Gotto is the kingdom of Baedoo, which was conquered by the present king of Bambarra about seven years ago, and has continued tributary to him ever since.

West of Baedoo is Maniana, the inhabitants of which, according to the best information I was able to collect, are cruel and ferocious — carrying their resentment towards their enemies so far as never to give quarter, and even to indulge themselves with unnatural and disgusting banquets of human flesh.

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