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



The town of Sibidooloo is situated in a fertile valley, surrounded with high, rocky hills. It is scarcely accessible for horses, and during the frequent wars between the Bambarrans, Foulahs, and Mandingoes has never once been plundered by an enemy. When I entered the town, the people gathered round me and followed me into the baloon, where I was presented to the dooty or chief man, who is here called mansa, which usually signifies king. Nevertheless, it appeared to me that the government of Manding was a sort of republic, or rather an oligarchy — every town having a particular mansa, and the chief power of the state, in the last resort, being lodged in the assembly of the whole body. I related to the mansa the circumstances of my having been robbed of my horse and apparel; and my story was confirmed by the two shepherds. He continued smoking his pipe all the time I was speaking; but I had no sooner finished, than, taking his pipe from his mouth, and tossing up the sleeve of his cloak with an indignant air —“Sit down,” said he; “you shall have everything restored to you; I have sworn it:"— and then turning to an attendant, “Give the white man,” said he, “a draught of water; and with the first light of the morning go over the hills, and inform the dooty of Bammakoo that a poor white man, the king of Bambarra’s stranger, has been robbed by the king of Fooladoo’s people.”

I little expected, in my forlorn condition, to meet with a man who could thus feel for my sufferings. I heartily thanked the mansa for his kindness, and accepted his invitation to remain with him until the return of the messenger. I was conducted into a hut and had some victuals sent me, but the crowd of people which assembled to see me — all of whom commiserated my misfortunes, and vented imprecations against the Foulahs — prevented me from sleeping until past midnight. Two days I remained without hearing any intelligence of my horse or clothes; and as there was at this time a great scarcity of provisions, approaching even to famine, all over this part of the country, I was unwilling to trespass any farther on the mansa’s generosity, and begged permission to depart to the next village. Finding me very anxious to proceed, he told me that I might go as far as a town called Wonda, where he hoped I would remain a few days until I heard some account of my horse, etc.

I departed accordingly on the next morning, the 28th, and stopped at some small villages for refreshment. I was presented at one of them with a dish which I had never before seen. It was composed of the blossoms or antherae of the maize, stewed in milk and water. It is eaten only in time of great scarcity. On the 30th, about noon, I arrived at Wonda, a small town with a mosque, and surrounded by a high wall. The mansa, who was a Mohammedan, acted in two capacities — as chief magistrate of the town, and schoolmaster to the children. He kept his school in an open shed, where I was desired to take up my lodging until some account should arrive from Sibidooloo concerning my horse and clothes; for though the horse was of little use to me, yet the few clothes were essential, The little raiment upon me could neither protect me from the sun by day, nor the dews and mosquitoes by night: indeed, my shirt was not only worn thin like a piece of muslin, but withal so very dirty that I was happy to embrace an opportunity of washing it, which having done, and spread it upon a bush, I sat down naked in the shade until it was dry.

Ever since the commencement of the rainy season my health had been greatly on the decline. I had often been affected with slight paroxysms of fever; and from the time of leaving Bammakoo the symptoms had considerably increased. As I was sitting in the manner described, the fever returned with such violence that it very much alarmed me; the more so as I had no medicine to stop its progress, nor any hope of obtaining that care and attention which my situation required.

I remained at Wonda nine days, during which time I experienced the regular return of the fever every day. And though I endeavoured as much as possible to conceal my distress from my landlord, and frequently lay down the whole day out of his sight, in a field of corn — conscious how burdensome I was to him and his family in a time of such great scarcity — yet I found that he was apprised of my situation; and one morning, as I feigned to be asleep by the fire, he observed to his wife that they were likely to find me a very troublesome and chargeable guest; for that, in my present sickly state, they should be obliged, for the sake of their good name, to maintain me until I recovered or died.

The scarcity of provisions was certainly felt at this time most severely by the poor people, as the following circumstance most painfully convinced me:— Every evening during my stay I observed five or six women come to the mansa’s house, and receive each of them a certain quantity of corn. As I knew how valuable this article was at this juncture, I inquired of the mansa whether he maintained these poor women from pure bounty, or expected a return when the harvest should be gathered in. “Observe that boy,” said he (pointing to a fine child about five years of age); “his mother has sold him to me for forty days’ provision for herself and the rest of her family. I have bought another boy in the same manner.” Good God! thought I, what must a mother suffer before she sells her own child! I could not get this melancholy subject out of my mind; and the next night, when the women returned for their allowance, I desired the boy to point out to me his mother, which he did. She was much emaciated, but had nothing cruel or savage in her countenance; and when she had received her corn, she came and talked to her son with as much cheerfulness as if he had still been under her care.

September 6. — Two people arrived from Sibidooloo, bringing with them my horse and clothes; but I found that my pocket-compass was broken to pieces. This was a great loss, which I could not repair.

September 7. — As my horse was grazing near the brink of a well the ground gave way and he fell in. The well was about ten feet in diameter, and so very deep that when I saw my horse snorting in the water I thought it was impossible to save him. The inhabitants of the village, however, immediately assembled, and having tied together a number of withes, 5 they lowered a man down into the well, who fastened those withes round the body of the horse; and the people, having first drawn up the man, took hold of the withes and, to my surprise, pulled the horse out with the greatest facility. The poor animal was now reduced to a mere skeleton, and the roads were scarcely passable, being either very rocky, or else full of mud and water. I therefore found it impracticable to travel with him any farther, and was happy to leave him in the hands of one who, I thought, would take care of him. I accordingly presented him to my landlord, and desired him to send my saddle and bridle as a present to the mansa of Sibidooloo, being the only return I could make him for having taken so much trouble in procuring my horse and clothes.

5 From a plant called kabba, that climbs like a vine upon the trees.

I now thought it necessary, sick as I was, to take leave of my hospitable landlord. On the morning of September 8th, when I was about to depart, he presented me with his spear, as a token of remembrance, and a leather bag to contain my clothes. Having converted my half-boots into sandals, I travelled with more ease, and slept that night at a village called Ballanti. On the 9th I reached Nemacoo; but the mansa of the village thought fit to make me sup upon the chameleon’s dish. By way of apology, however, he assured me the next morning that the scarcity of corn was such that he could not possibly allow me any. I could not accuse him of unkindness, as all the people actually appeared to be starving.

September 10. — It rained hard all day, and the people kept themselves in their huts. In the afternoon I was visited by a negro, named Modi Lemina Taura, a great trader, who, suspecting my distress, brought me some victuals, and promised to conduct me to his own house at Kinyeto the day following.

September 11. — I departed from Nemacoo, and arrived at Kinyeto in the evening; but having hurt my ankle in the way, it swelled and inflamed so much that I could neither walk nor set my foot to the ground the next day without great pain. My landlord, observing this, kindly invited me to stop with him a few days, and I accordingly remained at his house until the 14th, by which the I felt much relieved, and could walk with the help of a staff. I now set out, thanking my landlord for his great care and attention; and being accompanied by a young man who was travelling the same way, I proceeded for Jerijang, a beautiful and well-cultivated district, the mansa of which is reckoned the most powerful chief of any in Manding.

On the 15th I reached Dosita, a large town, where I stayed one day on account of the rain; but I continued very sickly, and was slightly delirious in the night. On the 17th I set out for Mansia, a considerable town, where small quantities of gold are collected. The road led over a high, rocky hill, and my strength and spirits were so much exhausted that before I could reach the top of the hill I was forced to lie down three times, being very faint and sickly. I reached Mansia in the afternoon. The mansa of this town had the character of being very inhospitable; he, however, sent me a little corn for my supper, but demanded something in return; and when I assured him that I had nothing of value in my possession, he told me (as if in jest) that my white skin should not defend me if I told him lies. He then showed me the hut wherein I was to sleep, but took away my spear, saying that it should be returned to me in the morning. This trifling circumstance, when joined to the character I had heard of the man, made me rather suspicious of him, and I privately desired one of the inhabitants of the place, who had a bow and a quiver, to sleep in the same hunt with me. About midnight I heard somebody approach the door, and, observing the moonlight strike suddenly into the hut, I started up and saw a man stepping cautiously over the threshold. I immediately snatched up the negro’s bow and quiver, the rattling of which made the man withdraw; and my companion, looking out, assured me that it was the mansa himself, and advised me to keep awake until the morning. I closed the door, and placed a large piece of wood behind it, and was wondering at this unexpected visit, when somebody pressed so hard against the door that the negro could scarcely keep it shut; but when I called to him to open the door, the intruder ran off as before.

September 16. — As soon as it was light the negro, at my request, went to the mansa’s house and brought away my spear. He told me that the mansa was asleep, and lest this inhospitable chief should devise means to detain me, he advised me to set out before he was awake, which I immediately did, and about two o’clock reached Kamalia, a small town situated at the bottom of some rocky hills, where the inhabitants collect gold in considerable quantities.

On my arrival at Kamalia I was conducted to the house of a bushreen named Karfa Taura, the brother of him to whose hospitality I was indebted at Kinyeto. He was collecting a coffle of slaves, with a view to sell them to the Europeans on the Gambia as soon as the rains should be over. I found him sitting in his baloon, surrounded by several slatees who proposed to join the coffle. He was reading to them from an Arabic book, and inquired with a smile if I understood it. Being answered in the negative, he desired one of the slatees to fetch the little curious book which had been brought from the west country. On opening this small volume I was surprised and delighted to find it our Book of Common Prayer, and Karfa expressed great joy to hear that I could read it; for some of the slatees, who had seen the Europeans upon the coast, observing the colour of my skin (which was now become very yellow from sickness), my long beard, ragged clothes, and extreme poverty, were unwilling to admit that I was a white man, and told Karfa that they suspected I was some Arab in disguise. Karfa, however, perceiving that I could read this book, had no doubt concerning me, and kindly promised me every assistance in his power. At the same time he informed me that it was impossible to cross the Jallonka wilderness for many months yet to come, as no less than eight rapid rivers, he said, lay in the way. He added that he intended to set out himself for Gambia as soon as the rivers were fordable and the grass burnt, and advised me to stay and accompany him. He remarked that when a caravan of the natives could not travel through the country it was idle for a single white man to attempt it. I readily admitted that such an attempt was an act of rashness, but I assured him that I had no alternative, for, having no money to support myself, I must either beg my subsistence by travelling from place to place, or perish for want. Karfa now looked at me with great earnestness, and inquired if I could eat the common victuals of the country, assuring me he had never before seen a white man. He added that if I would remain with him until the rains were over, he would give me plenty of victuals in the meantime, and a hut to sleep in; and that after he had conducted me in safety to the Gambia, I might then make him what return I thought proper. I asked him if the value of one prime slave would satisfy him. He answered in the affirmative, and immediately ordered one of the huts to be swept for my accommodation. Thus was I delivered, by the friendly care of this benevolent negro, from a situation truly deplorable. Distress and famine pressed hard upon me. I had before me the gloomy wilds of Jallonkadoo, where the traveller sees no habitation for five successive days. I had observed at a distance the rapid course of the river Kokoro. I had almost marked out the place where I was doomed, I thought, to perish, when this friendly negro stretched out his hospitable hand for my relief.

In the hut which was appropriated for me I was provided with a mat to sleep on, an earthen jar for holding water, and a small calabash to drink out of; and Karfa sent me, from his own dwelling, two meals a day, and ordered his slaves to supply me with firewood and water. But I found that neither the kindness of Karfa nor any sort of accommodation could put a stop to the fever which weakened me, and which became every day more alarming. I endeavoured as much as possible to conceal my distress; but on the third day after my arrival, as I was going with Karfa to visit some of his friends, I found myself so faint that I could scarcely walk, and before we reached the place I staggered and fell into a pit, from which the clay had been taken to build one of the huts. Karfa endeavoured to console me with the hopes of a speedy recovery, assuring me that if I would not walk out in the wet I should soon be well. I determined to follow his advice, and confine myself to my hut, but was still tormented with the fever, and my health continued to be in a very precarious state for five ensuing weeks. Sometimes I could crawl out of the hut, and sit a few hours in the open air; at other times I was unable to rise, and passed the lingering hours in a very gloomy and solitary manner. I was seldom visited by any person except my benevolent landlord, who came daily to inquire after my health.

When the rains became less frequent, and the country began to grow dry, the fever left me, but in so debilitated a condition that I could scarcely stand upright; and it was with great difficulty that I could carry my mat to the shade of a tamarind-tree, at a short distance, to enjoy the refreshing smell of the cornfields, and delight my eyes with a prospect of the country. I had the pleasure at length to find myself in a state of convalescence, towards which the benevolent and simple manners of the negroes, and the perusal of Karfa’s little volume, greatly contributed.

In the meantime many of the slatees who reside at Kamalia having spent all their money, and become in a great measure dependent upon Karfa’s hospitality, beheld me with an eye of envy, and invented many ridiculous and trifling stories to lessen me in Karfa’s esteem. And in the beginning of December a Serawoolli slatee, with five slaves, arrived from Sego; this man, too, spread a number of malicious reports concerning me, but Karfa paid no attention to them, and continued to show me the same kindness as formerly. As I was one day conversing with the slaves which this slatee had brought, one of them begged me to give him some victuals. I told him I was a stranger, and had none to give. He replied, “I gave you victuals when you were hungry. Have you forgot the man who brought you milk at Karrankalla? But,” added he with a sigh, “THE IRONS WERE NOT THEN UPON MY LEGS!” I immediately recollected him, and begged some ground nuts from Karfa to give him, as a return for his former kindness.

In the beginning of December, Karfa proposed to complete his purchase of slaves, and for this purpose collected all the debts which were owing to him in his own country; and on the 19th, being accompanied by three slatees, he departed for Kancaba, a large town on the banks of the Niger and a great slave-market. Most of the slaves who are sold at Kancaba come from Bambarra; for Mansong, to avoid the expense and danger of keeping all his prisoners at Sego, commonly sends them in small parties to be sold at the different trading towns; and as Kancaba is much resorted to by merchants it is always well supplied with slaves, which are sent thither up the Niger in canoes. When Karfa departed from Kamalia he proposed to return in the course of a month, and during his absence I was left to the care of a good old bushreen, who acted as schoolmaster to the young people of Kamalia.

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