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



The natives of the countries bordering on the Gambia, though distributed into a great many distinct governments, may, I think, be divided into four great classes — the Feloops, the Jaloffs, the Foulahs, and the Mandingoes. Among all these nations, the religion of Mohammed has made, and continues to make, considerable progress; but in most of them the body of the people, both free and enslaved, persevere in maintaining the blind but harmless superstitions of their ancestors, and are called by the Mohammedans kafirs, or infidels.

Of the Feloops, I have little to add to what has been observed concerning them in the former chapter. They are of a gloomy disposition, and are supposed never to forgive an injury. They are even said to transmit their quarrels as deadly feuds to their posterity, insomuch that a son considers it as incumbent on him, from a just sense of filial obligation, to become the avenger of his deceased father’s wrongs. If a man loses his life in one of these sudden quarrels which perpetually occur at their feasts, when the whole party is intoxicated with mead, his son, or the eldest of his sons (if he has more than one), endeavours to procure his father’s sandals, which he wears ONCE A YEAR, on the anniversary of his father’s death, until a fit opportunity offers of revenging his fate, when the object of his resentment seldom escapes his pursuit. This fierce and unrelenting disposition is, however, counterbalanced by many good qualities: they display the utmost gratitude and affection towards their benefactors, and the fidelity with which they preserve whatever is entrusted to them is remarkable. During the present war, they have more than once taken up arms to defend our merchant vessels from French privateers; and English property of considerable value has frequently been left at Vintain for a long time entirely under the care of the Feloops, who have uniformly manifested on such occasions the strictest honesty and punctuality. How greatly is it to be wished that the minds of a people so determined and faithful could be softened and civilised by the mild and benevolent spirit of Christianity!

The Jaloffs (or Yaloffs) are an active, powerful, and warlike race, inhabiting great part of that tract which lies between the river Senegal and the Mandingo states on the Gambia; yet they differ from the Mandingoes not only in language, but likewise in complexion and features. The noses of the Jaloffs are not so much depressed, nor the lips so protuberant, as among the generality of Africans; and although their skin is of the deepest black, they are considered by the white traders as the most sightly negroes on this part of the continent.

Their language is said to be copious and significant, and is often learnt by Europeans trading to Senegal.

The Foulahs (or Pholeys), such of them at least as reside near the Gambia, are chiefly of a tawny complexion, with soft silky hair, and pleasing features. They are much attached to a pastoral life, and have introduced themselves into all the kingdoms on the windward coast as herdsmen and husbandmen, paying a tribute to the sovereign of the country for the lands which they hold. Not having many opportunities, however, during my residence at Pisania, of improving my acquaintance with these people, I defer entering at large into their character until a fitter occasion occurs, which will present itself when I come to Bondou.

The Mandingoes, of whom it remains to speak, constitute, in truth, the bulk of the inhabitants in all those districts of Africa which I visited; and their language, with a few exceptions, is universally understood and very generally spoken in that part of the continent.

They are called Mandingoes, I conceive, as having originally migrated from the interior state of Manding, of which some account will hereafter be given.

In every considerable town there is a chief magistrate, called the alkaid, whose office is hereditary, and whose business it is to preserve order, to levy duties on travellers, and to preside at all conferences in the exercise of local jurisdiction and the administration of justice. These courts are composed of the elders of the town (of free condition), and are termed palavers; and their proceedings are conducted in the open air with sufficient solemnity. Both sides of a question are freely canvassed, witnesses are publicly examined, and the decisions which follow generally meet with the approbation of the surrounding audience.

As the negroes have no written language of their own, the general rule of decision is an appeal to ANCIENT CUSTOM; but since the system of Mohammed has made so great progress among them, the converts to that faith have gradually introduced, with the religious tenets, many of the civil institutions of the prophet; and where the Koran is not found sufficiently explicit, recourse is had to a commentary called Al Sharra, containing, as I was told, a complete exposition or digest of the Mohammedan laws, both civil and criminal, properly arranged and illustrated.

This frequency of appeal to written laws, with which the pagan natives are necessarily unacquainted, has given rise in their palavers to (what I little expected to find in Africa) professional advocates, or expounders of the law, who are allowed to appear and to plead for plaintiff or defendant, much in the same manner as counsel in the law-courts of Great Britain. They are Mohammedan negroes, who have made, or affect to have made, the laws of the prophet their peculiar study; and if I may judge from their harangues, which I frequently attended, I believe, that in the forensic qualifications of procrastination and cavil, and the arts of confounding and perplexing a cause, they are not always surpassed by the ablest pleaders in Europe. While I was at Pisania, a cause was heard which furnished the Mohammedan lawyers with an admirable opportunity of displaying their professional dexterity. The case was this:— An ass belonging to a Serawoolli negro (a native of an interior country near the river Senegal) had broke into a field of corn belonging to one of the Mandingo inhabitants, and destroyed great part of it. The Mandingo having caught the animal in his field, immediately drew his knife and cut his throat. The Serawoolli thereupon called a palaver (or in European terms, brought an action) to recover damages for the loss of his beast, on which he set a high value. The defendant confessed he had killed the ass, but pleaded a SET-OFF, insisting that the loss he had sustained by the ravage in his corn was equal to the sum demanded for the animal. To ascertain this fact was the point at issue, and the learned advocates contrived to puzzle the cause in such a manner that, after a hearing of three days, the court broke up without coming to any determination upon it; and a second palaver was, I suppose, thought necessary.

The Mandingoes, generally speaking, are of a mild, sociable, and obliging disposition. The men are commonly above the middle size, well-shaped, strong, and capable of enduring great labour. The women are good-natured, sprightly, and agreeable. The dress of both sexes is composed of cotton cloth of their own manufacture: that of the men is a loose frock, not unlike a surplice, with drawers which reach half-way down the leg; and they wear sandals on their feet, and white cotton caps on their heads. The women’s dress consists of two pieces of cloth, each of which is about six feet long and three broad. One of these they wrap round their waist, which, hanging down to the ankles, answers the purpose of a petticoat; the other is thrown negligently over the bosom and shoulders.

This account of their clothing is indeed nearly applicable to the natives of all the different countries in this part of Africa; a peculiar national mode is observable only in the head-dresses of the women.

Thus, in the countries of the Gambia, the females wear a sort of bandage, which they call jalla. It is a narrow strip of cotton cloth wrapped many times round, immediately over the forehead. In Bondou, the head is encircled with strings of white beads, and a small plate of gold is worn in the middle of the forehead. In Kasson the ladies decorate their heads in a very tasteful and elegant manner with white seashells. In Kaarta and Ludamar, the women raise their hair to a great height by the addition of a pad (as the ladies did formerly in Great Britain), which they decorate with a species of coral brought from the Red Sea by pilgrims returning from Mecca, and sold at a great price.

In the construction of their dwelling-houses the Mandingoes also conform to the general practice of the African nations in this part of the continent, contenting themselves with small and incommodious hovels. A circular mud wall, about four feet high, upon which is placed a conical roof, composed of the bamboo cane, and thatched with grass, forms alike the palace of the king and the hovel of the slave. Their household furniture is equally simple. A hurdle of canes placed upon upright sticks, about two feet from the ground, upon which is spread a mat or bullock’s hide, answers the purpose of a bed; a water jar, some earthen pots for dressing their food; a few wooden bowls and calabashes, and one or two low stools, compose the rest.

As every man of free condition has a plurality of wives, it is found necessary (to prevent, I suppose, matrimonial disputes) that each of the ladies should be accommodated with a hut to herself; and all the huts belonging to the same family are surrounded by a fence constructed of bamboo canes, split and formed into a sort of wicker-work. The whole enclosure is called a sirk, or surk. A number of these enclosures, with narrow passages between them, form what is called a town; but the huts are generally placed without any regularity, according to the caprice of the owner. The only rule that seems to be attended to is placing the door towards the south-west, in order to admit the sea-breeze.

In each town is a large stage called the bentang, which answers the purpose of a public hall or town house. It is composed of interwoven canes, and is generally sheltered from the sun by being erected in the shade of some large tree. It is here that all public affairs are transacted and trials conducted; and here the lazy and indolent meet to smoke their pipes, and hear the news of the day. In most of the towns the Mohammedans have also a missura, or mosque, in which they assemble and offer up their daily prayers, according to the rules of the Koran.

In the account which I have thus given of the natives, the reader must bear in mind that my observations apply chiefly to persons of FREE CONDITION, who constitute, I suppose, not more than one-fourth part of the inhabitants at large. The other three-fourths are in a state of hopeless and hereditary slavery, and are employed in cultivating the land, in the care of cattle, and in servile offices of all kinds, much in the same manner as the slaves in the West Indies. I was told, however, that the Mandingo master can neither deprive his slave of life, nor sell him to a stranger, without first calling a palaver on his conduct, or in other words, bringing him to a public trial. But this degree of protection is extended only to the native or domestic slave. Captives taken in war, and those unfortunate victims who are condemned to slavery for crimes or insolvency — and, in short, all those unhappy people who are brought down from the interior countries for sale — have no security whatever, but may be treated and disposed of in all respects as the owner thinks proper. It sometimes happens, indeed, when no ships are on the coast, that a humane and considerate master incorporates his purchased slaves among his domestics; and their offspring at least, if not the parents, become entitled to all the privileges of the native class.

The earliest European establishment on this celebrated river was a factory of the Portuguese, and to this must be ascribed the introduction of the numerous words of that language which are still in use among the negroes. The Dutch, French, and English afterwards successively possessed themselves of settlements on the coast; but the trade of the Gambia became, and continued for many years, a sort of monopoly in the hands of the English. In the travels of Francis Moore is preserved an account of the Royal African Company’s establishments in this river in the year 1730; at which the James’s factory alone consisted of a governor, deputy-governor, and two other principal officers; eight factors, thirteen writers, twenty inferior attendants and tradesmen; a company of soldiers, and thirty-two negro servants; besides sloops, shallops, and boats, with their crews; and there were no less than eight subordinate factories in other parts of the river.

The trade with Europe, by being afterwards laid open, was almost annihilated. The share which the subjects of England at this time hold in it supports not more than two or three annual ships; and I am informed that the gross value of British exports is under 20,000 pounds. The French and Danes still maintain a small share, and the Americans have lately sent a few vessels to the Gambia by way of experiment.

The commodities exported to the Gambia from Europe consist chiefly of firearms and ammunition, iron-ware, spirituous liquors, tobacco, cotton caps, a small quantity of broadcloth, and a few articles of the manufacture of Manchester; a small assortment of India goods, with some glass beads, amber, and other trifles, for which are taken in exchange slaves, gold dust, ivory, beeswax, and hides. Slaves are the chief article, but the whole number which at this time are annually exported from the Gambia by all nations is supposed to be under one thousand.

Most of these unfortunate victims are brought to the coast in periodical caravans; many of them from very remote inland countries, for the language which they speak is not understood by the inhabitants of the maritime districts. In a subsequent part of my work I shall give the best information I have been able to collect concerning the manner in which they are obtained. On their arrival at the coast, if no immediate opportunity offers of selling them to advantage, they are distributed among the neighbouring villages, until a slave ship arrives, or until they can be sold to black traders, who sometimes purchase on speculation. In the meanwhile, the poor wretches are kept constantly fettered, two and two of them being chained together, and employed in the labours of the field, and, I am sorry to add, are very scantily fed, as well as harshly treated. The price of a slave varies according to the number of purchasers from Europe, and the arrival of caravans from the interior; but in general I reckon that a young and healthy male, from sixteen to twenty-five years of age, may be estimated on the spot from 18 pounds to 20 pounds sterling.

The negro slave-merchants, as I have observed in the former chapter, are called slatees, who, besides slaves, and the merchandise which they bring for sale to the whites, supply the inhabitants of the maritime districts with native iron, sweet-smelling gums and frankincense, and a commodity called shea-toulou, which, literally translated, signifies tree-butter.

In payment of these articles, the maritime states supply the interior countries with salt, a scarce and valuable commodity, as I frequently and painfully experienced in the course of my journey. Considerable quantities of this article, however, are also supplied to the inland natives by the Moors, who obtain it from the salt pits in the Great Desert, and receive in return corn, cotton cloth, and slaves.

In their early intercourse with Europeans the article that attracted most notice was iron. Its utility, in forming the instruments of war and husbandry, make it preferable to all others, and iron soon became the measure by which the value of all other commodities was ascertained. Thus, a certain quantity of goods, of whatever denomination, appearing to be equal in value to a bar of iron, constituted, in the traders’ phraseology, a bar of that particular merchandise. Twenty leaves of tobacco, for instance, were considered as a bar of tobacco; and a gallon of spirits (or rather half spirits and half water) as a bar of rum, a bar of one commodity being reckoned equal in value to a bar of another commodity.

As, however, it must unavoidably happen that, according to the plenty or scarcity of goods at market in proportion to the demand, the relative value would be subject to continual fluctuation, greater precision has been found necessary; and at this time the current value of a single bar of any kind is fixed by the whites at two shillings sterling. Thus, a slave whose price is 15 pounds, is said to be worth 150 bars.

In transactions of this nature it is obvious that the white trader has infinitely the advantage over the African, whom, therefore, it is difficult to satisfy, for conscious of his own ignorance, he naturally becomes exceedingly suspicious and wavering; and, indeed, so very unsettled and jealous are the negroes in their dealings with the whites, that a bargain is never considered by the European as concluded until the purchase money is paid and the party has taken leave.

Having now brought together such general observations on the country and its inhabitants as occurred to me during my residence in the vicinity of the Gambia, I shall detain the reader no longer with introductory matter, but proceed, in the next chapter, to a regular detail of the incidents which happened, and the reflections which arose in my mind, in the course of my painful and perilous journey, from its commencement until my return to the Gambia.

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