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

CHAPTER XVIII

DESPAIRING THOUGHTS— ARRIVAL AT SIBIDOOLOO

On my arrival at Taffara I inquired for the dooty, but was informed that he had died a few days before my arrival, and that there was at that moment a meeting of the chief men for electing another, there being some dispute about the succession. It was probably owing to this unsettled state of the town that I experienced such a want of hospitality in it, for though I informed the inhabitants that I should only remain with them for one night, and assured them that Mansong had given me some kowries to pay for my lodging, yet no person invited me to come in, and I was forced to sit alone under the bentang-tree, exposed to the rain and wind of a tornado, which lasted with great violence until midnight. At this time the stranger who had assisted me in crossing the river paid me a visit, and observing that I had not found a lodging, invited me to take part of his supper, which he had brought to the door of his hut; for, being a guest himself, he could not, without his landlord’s consent, invite me to come in. After this I slept upon some wet grass in the corner of a court. My horse fared still worse than myself, the corn I purchased being all expended, and I could not procure a supply.

August 20. — I passed the town of Jaba, and stopped a few minutes at a village called Somino, where I begged and obtained some coarse food, which the natives prepare from the husks of corn, and call boo. About two o’clock I came to the village of Sooha, and endeavoured to purchase some corn from the dooty, who was sitting by the gate, but without success. I then requested a little food by way of charity, but was told he had none to spare. Whilst I was examining the countenance of this inhospitable old man, and endeavouring to find out the cause of the sullen discontent which was visible in his eye, he called to a slave who was working in the cornfield at a little distance, and ordered him to bring his hoe along with him. The dooty then told him to dig a hole in the ground, pointing to a spot at no great distance. The slave, with his hoe, began to dig a pit in the earth, and the dooty, who appeared to be a man of very fretful disposition, kept muttering and talking to himself until the pit was almost finished, when he repeatedly pronounced the words “dankatoo” (“good for nothing”)— “jankra lemen” (“a real plague”)— which expressions I thought could be applied to nobody but myself; and as the pit had very much the appearance of a grave, I thought it prudent to mount my horse, and was about to decamp, when the slave, who had before gone into the village, to my surprise returned with the corpse of a boy about nine or ten years of age. quite naked. The negro carried the body by a leg and an arm, and threw it into the pit with a savage indifference which I had never before seen. As he covered the body with earth, the dooty often expressed himself, “naphula attiniata” (“money lost”), whence I concluded that the boy had been one of his slaves.

Departing from this shocking scene, I travelled by the side of the river until sunset, when I came to Koolikorro, a considerable town, and a great market for salt. Here I took up my lodging at the house of a Bambarran, who had formerly been the slave of a Moor, and in that character had travelled to Aroan, Towdinni, and many other places in the Great Desert; but turning Mussulman, and his master dying at Jenne, he obtained his freedom and settled at this place, where he carries on a considerable trade in salt, cotton cloth, &c. His knowledge of the world had not lessened that superstitious confidence in saphies and charms which he had imbibed in his earlier years, for when he heard that I was a Christian, he immediately thought of procuring a saphie, and for this purpose brought out his walha, or writing-board, assuring me that he would dress me a supper of rice if I would write him a saphie to protect him from wicked men. The proposal was of too great consequence to me to be refused. I therefore wrote the board full, from top to bottom, on both sides; and my landlord, to be certain of having the whole force of the charm, washed the writing from the board into a calabash with a little water, and having said a few prayers over it, drank this powerful draught; after which, lest a single word should escape, he licked the board until it was quite dry. A saphie-writer was a man of too great consequence to be long concealed; the important information was carried to the dooty, who sent his son with half a sheet of writing-paper, desiring me to write him a naphula saphie (a charm to procure wealth). He brought me, as a present, some meal and milk, and when I had finished the saphie, and read it to him with an audible voice, he seemed highly satisfied with his bargain, and promised to bring me in the morning some milk for my breakfast. When I had finished my supper of rice and salt, I laid myself down upon a bullock’s hide, and slept very quietly until morning, this being the first good meal and refreshing sleep that I had enjoyed for a long time.

August 21. — At daybreak I departed from Koolikorro, and about noon passed the villages of Kayoo and Toolumbo. In the afternoon I arrived at Marraboo, a large town, and, like Koolikorro, famous for its trade in salt. I was conducted to the house of a Kaartan, of the tribe of Jower, by whom I was well received. This man had acquired a considerable property in the slave-trade, and, from his hospitality to strangers, was called, by way of pre-eminence, jatee (the landlord), and his house was a sort of public inn for all travellers. Those who had money were well lodged, for they always made him some return for his kindness, but those who had nothing to give were content to accept whatever he thought proper; and as I could not rank myself among the moneyed men, I was happy to take up my lodging in the same but with seven poor fellows who had come from Kancaba in a canoe. But our landlord sent us some victuals.

August 22 — One of the landlord’s servants went with me a little way from the town to show me what road to take, but, whether from ignorance or design I know not, he directed me wrong, and I did not discover my mistake until the day was far advanced, when, coming to a deep creek, I had some thoughts of turning back, but as by that means I foresaw that I could not possibly reach Bammakoo before night, I resolved to cross it, and, leading my horse close to the brink, I went behind him and pushed him headlong into the water, and then taking the bridle in my teeth, swam over to the other side. About four o’clock in the afternoon, having altered my course from the river towards the mountains, I came to a small pathway which led to a village called Frookaboo, where I slept.

August 23 — Early in the morning I set out for Bammakoo, at which place I arrived about five o’clock in the afternoon. I had heard Bammakoo much talked of as a great market for salt, and I felt rather disappointed to find it only a middling town, not quite so large as Marraboo; however, the smallness of its size is more than compensated by the richness of its inhabitants, for when the Moors bring their salt through Kaarta or Bambarra, they constantly rest a few days at this place, and the negro merchants here, who are well acquainted with the value of salt in different kingdoms, frequently purchase by wholesale, and retail it to great advantage. Here I lodged at the house of a Serawoolli negro, and was visited by a number of Moors. They spoke very good Mandingo, and were more civil to me than their countrymen had been. One of them had travelled to Rio Grande, and spoke very highly of the Christians. He sent me in the evening some boiled rice and milk. I now endeavoured to procure information concerning my route to the westward from a slave merchant who had resided some years on the Gambia. He gave me some imperfect account of the distance, and enumerated the names of a great many places that lay in the way, but withal told me that the road was impassable at this season of the year: he was even afraid, he said, that I should find great difficulty in proceeding any farther; as the road crossed the Joliba at a town about half a day’s journey to the westward of Bammakoo, and there being no canoes at that place large enough to receive my horse, I could not possibly get him over for some months to come. This was an obstruction of a very serious nature; but as I had no money to maintain myself even for a few days, I resolved to push on, and if I could not convey my horse across the river, to abandon him, and swim over myself. In thoughts of this nature I passed the night, and in the morning consulted with my landlord how I should surmount the present difficulty. He informed me that one road still remained, which was indeed very rocky, and scarcely passable for horses, but that if I had a proper guide over the hills to a town called Sibidooloo, he had no doubt but with patience and caution I might travel forwards through Manding. I immediately applied to the dooty, and was informed that a jilli kea (singing man) was about to depart for Sibidooloo, and would show me the road over the hills. With this man, who undertook to be my conductor, I travelled up a rocky glen about two miles, when we came to a small village, and here my musical fellow-traveller found out that he had brought me the wrong road. He told me that the horse-road lay on the other side of the hill, and throwing his drum on his back, mounted up the rocks where, indeed, no horse could follow him, leaving me to admire his agility, and trace out a road for myself. As I found it impossible to proceed, I rode back to the level ground, and directing my course to the eastward, came about noon to another glen, and discovered a path on which I observed the marks of horses’ feet. Following this path I came in a short time to some shepherds’ huts, where I was informed that I was in the right road, but that I could not possibly reach Sibidooloo before night.

A little before sunset I descended on the north-west side of this ridge of hills, and as I was looking about for a convenient tree under which to pass the night (for I had no hopes of reaching any town) I descended into a delightful valley, and soon afterwards arrived at a romantic village called Kooma. This village is surrounded by a high wall, and is the sole property of a Mandingo merchant, who fled hither with his family during a former war. The adjacent fields yield him plenty of corn, his cattle roam at large in the valley, and the rocky hills secure him from the depredations of war. In this obscure retreat he is seldom visited by strangers, but whenever this happens he makes the weary traveller welcome. I soon found myself surrounded by a circle of the harmless villagers. They asked a thousand questions about my country, and, in return for my information, brought corn and milk for myself, and grass for my horse, kindled a fire in the hut where I was to sleep, and appeared very anxious to serve me.

August 25. — I departed from Kooma, accompanied by two shepherds who were going towards Sibidooloo. The road was very steep and rocky, and as my horse had hurt his feet much in coming from Bammakoo, he travelled slowly and with great difficulty, for in many places the ascent was so sharp, and the declivities so great, that if he had made one false step he must inevitably have been dashed to pieces. The shepherds being anxious to proceed, gave themselves little trouble about me or my horse, and kept walking on at a considerable distance. It was about eleven o’clock, as I stopped to drink a little water at a rivulet (my companions being near a quarter of a mile before me), that I heard some people calling to each other, and presently a loud screaming, as from a person in great distress. I immediately conjectured that a lion had taken one of the shepherds, and mounted my horse to have a better view of what had happened. The noise, however, ceased, and I rode slowly towards the place from whence I thought it had proceeded, calling out, but without receiving any answer. In a little time, however, I perceived one of the shepherds lying among the long grass near the road, and though I could see no blood upon him, I concluded he was dead. But when I came close to him, he whispered to me to stop, telling me that a party of armed men had seized upon his companion, and shot two arrows at himself as he was making his escape. I stopped to consider what course to take, and looking round, saw at a little distance a man sitting upon the stump of a tree. I distinguished also the heads of six or seven more, sitting among the grass, with muskets in their hands. I had now no hopes of escaping, and therefore determined to ride forward towards them. As I approached them, I was in hopes they were elephant-hunters; and by way of opening the conversation inquired if they had shot anything, but without returning an answer one of them ordered me to dismount, and then, as if recollecting himself, waved with his hand for me to proceed. I accordingly rode past, and had with some difficulty crossed a deep rivulet, when I heard somebody holloa, and looking behind, saw those I had taken for elephant-hunters running after me, and calling out to me to turn back. I stopped until they were all come up, when they informed me that the king of the Foulahs had sent them on purpose to bring me, my horse, and everything that belonged to me, to Fooladoo, and that therefore I must turn back and go along with them. Without hesitating a moment, I turned round and followed them, and we travelled together nearly a quarter of a mile without exchanging a word; when, coming to a dark place in a wood, one of them said in the Mandingo language, “This place will do,” and immediately snatched my hat from my head. Though I was by no means free of apprehension, yet I resolved to show as few signs of fear as possible, and therefore told them that unless my hat was returned to me I should proceed no farther. But before I had time to receive an answer another drew his knife, and seizing upon a metal button which remained upon my waistcoat, cut it off and put it into his pocket. Their intentions were obvious, and I thought that the easier they were permitted to rob me of everything, the less I had to fear. I therefore allowed them to search my pockets without resistance, and examine every part of my apparel, which they did with the most scrupulous exactness. But observing that I had one waistcoat under another, they insisted that I should cast them both off; and at last, to make sure work, they stripped me quite naked. Even my half-boots (though the sole of one of them was tied on to my foot with a broken bridle rein) were minutely inspected. Whilst they were examining the plunder, I begged them, with great earnestness, to return my pocket-compass; but when I pointed it out to them as it was lying on the ground, one of the banditti, thinking I was about to take it up, cocked his musket, and swore that he would lay me dead upon the spot if I presumed to put my hand upon it. After this, some of them went away with my horse, and the remainder stood considering whether they should leave me quite naked, or allow me something to shelter me from the sun. Humanity at last prevailed; they returned me the worst of the two shirts and a pair of trousers; and, as they went away, one of them threw back my hat, in the crown of which I kept my memorandums, and this was probably the reason they did not wish to keep it. After they were gone, I sat for some time looking round me within amazement and terror. Whichever way I turned, nothing appeared but danger and difficulty. I saw myself in the midst of a vast wilderness, in the depth of the rainy season — naked and alone, surrounded by savage animals, and men still more savage. I was five hundred miles from the nearest European settlement. All these circumstances crowded at once on my recollection, and I confess that my spirits began to fail me. I considered my fate as certain, and that I had no alternative but to lie down and perish. The influence of religion, however, aided and supported me. I reflected that no human prudence or foresight could possibly have averted my present sufferings. I was indeed a stranger in a strange land, yet I was still under the protecting eye of that Providence who has condescended to call Himself the stranger’s Friend. At this moment, painful as my reflections were, the extraordinary beauty of a small moss in fructification irresistibly caught my eye. I mention this to show from what trifling circumstances the mind will sometimes derive consolation; for though the whole plant was not larger than the top of one of my fingers, I could not contemplate the delicate conformation of its roots, leaves, and capsula without admiration. Can that Being, thought I, who planted, watered, and brought to perfection, in this obscure part of the world, a thing which appears of so small importance, look within unconcern upon the situation and sufferings of creatures formed after His own image? Surely not! Reflections like these would not allow me to despair. I started up, and, disregarding both hunger and fatigue, travelled forwards, assured that relief was at hand; and I was not disappointed. In a short time I came to a small village, at the entrance of which I overtook the two shepherds who had come with me from Kooma. They were much surprised to see me; for they said they never doubted that the Foulahs, when they had robbed, had murdered me. Departing from this village, we travelled over several rocky ridges, and at sunset arrived at Sibidooloo, the frontier town of the kingdom of Manding.

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