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

CHAPTER XX

NEGRO CUSTOMS

The whole of my route, both in going and returning, having been confined to a tract of country bounded nearly by the 12th and 15th parallels of latitude, the reader must imagine that I found the climate in most places extremely hot, but nowhere did I feel the heat so intense and oppressive as in the camp at Benowm, of which mention has been made in a former place. In some parts, where the country ascends into hills, the air is at all times, comparatively cool; yet none of the districts which I traversed could properly be called mountainous. About the middle of June the hot and sultry atmosphere is agitated by violent gusts of wind (called tornadoes), accompanied with thunder and rain. These usher in what is denominated “the rainy season,” which continues until the month of November. During this time the diurnal rains are very heavy, and the prevailing winds are from the south-west. The termination of the rainy season is likewise attended with violent tornadoes, after which the wind shifts to the north-east, and continues to blow from that quarter during the rest of the year

When the wind sets in from the north-east it produces a wonderful change in the face of the country. The grass soon becomes dry and withered, the rivers subside very rapidly, and many of the trees shed their leaves. About this period is commonly felt the harmattan, a dry and parching wind blowing from the north-east, and accompanied by a thick smoky haze, through which the sun appears of a dull red colour. This wind in passing over the great desert of Sahara acquires a very strong attraction for humidity, and parches up everything exposed to its current. It is, however, reckoned very salutary, particularly to Europeans, who generally recover their health during its continuance. I experienced immediate relief from sickness, both at Dr. Laidley’s and at Kamalia, during the harmattan. Indeed, the air during the rainy season is so loaded with moisture that clothes, shoes, trunks, and everything that is not close to the fire becomes damp and mouldy, and the inhabitants may be said to live in a sort of vapour-bath; but this dry wind braces up the solids, which were before relaxed, gives a cheerful flow of spirits, and is even pleasant to respiration. Its ill effects are, that it produces chaps in the lips, and afflicts many of the natives with sore eyes.

Whenever the grass is sufficiently dry the negroes set it on fire; but in Ludamar and other Moorish countries this practice is not allowed, for it is upon the withered stubble that the Moors feed their cattle until the return of the rains. The burning the grass in Manding exhibits a scene of terrific grandeur. In the middle of the night I could see the plains and mountains, as far as my eye could reach, variegated with lines of fire, and the light, reflected on the sky, made the heavens appear in a blaze. In the daytime pillars of smoke were seen in every direction, while the birds of prey were observed hovering round the conflagration, and pouncing down upon the snakes, lizards, and other reptiles which attempted to escape from the flames. This annual burning is soon followed by a fresh and sweet verdure, and the country is thereby rendered more healthful and pleasant.

Of the most remarkable and important of the vegetable productions mention has already been made; and they are nearly the same in all the districts through which I passed. It is observable, however, that although many species of the edible roots which grow in the West India Islands are found in Africa, yet I never saw, in any part of my journey, either the sugar-cane, the coffee, or the cocoa-tree, nor could I learn, on inquiry, that they were known to the natives. The pine-apple and the thousand other delicious fruits which the industry of civilised man (improving the bounties of nature) has brought to so great perfection in the tropical climates of America, are here equally unknown. I observed, indeed, a few orange and banana trees near the month of the Gambia, but whether they were indigenous, or were formerly planted there by some of the white traders, I could not positively learn. I suspect that they were originally introduced by the Portuguese.

Concerning property in the soil, it appeared to me that the lands in native woods were considered as belonging to the king, or (where the government was not monarchical) to the state. When any individual of free condition had the means of cultivating more land than he actually possessed, he applied to the chief man of the district, who allowed him an extension of territory, on condition of forfeiture if the lands were not brought into cultivation by a given period. The condition being fulfilled, the soil became vested in the possessor, and, for ought that appeared to me, descended his heirs.

The population, however, considering the extent and fertility of the soil, and the ease with which lands are obtained, is not very great in the countries which I visited. I found many extensive and beautiful districts entirely destitute of inhabitants, and, in general, the borders of the different kingdoms were either very thinly peopled or entirely deserted. Many places are likewise unfavourable to population from being unhealthful. The swampy banks of the Gambia, the Senegal, and other rivers towards the coast, are of this description. Perhaps it is on this account chiefly that the interior countries abound more with inhabitants than the maritime districts; for all the negro nations that fell under my observation, though divided into a number of petty independent states, subsist chiefly by the same means, live nearly in the same temperature, and possess a wonderful similarity of disposition. The Mandingoes, in particular, are a very gentle race, cheerful in their dispositions, inquisitive, credulous, simple, and fond of flattery. Perhaps the most prominent defect in their character was that insurmountable propensity, which the reader must have observed to prevail in all classes of them, to steal from me the few effects I was possessed of. For this part of their conduct no complete justification can be offered, because theft is a crime in their own estimation; and it must be observed that they are not habitually and generally guilty of it towards each other.

On the other hand, as some counterbalance to this depravity in their nature, allowing it to be such, it is impossible for me to forget the disinterested charity and tender solicitude with which many of these poor heathens (from the sovereign of Sego to the poor women who received me at different times into their cottages when I was perishing of hunger) sympathised with me in my sufferings, relieved my distresses, and contributed to my safety. This acknowledgment, however, is perhaps more particularly due to the female part of the nation. Among the men, as the reader must have seen, my reception, though generally kind, was sometimes otherwise. It varied according to the various tempers of those to whom I made application. The hardness of avarice in some, and the blindness of bigotry in others, had closed up the avenues to compassion; but I do not recollect a single instance of hard-heartedness towards me in the women. In all my wanderings and wretchedness I found them uniformly kind and compassionate; and I can truly say, as my predecessor Mr. Ledyard has eloquently said before me, “To a woman I never addressed myself in the language of decency and friendship without receiving a decent and friendly answer. If I was hungry or thirsty, wet or sick, they did not hesitate, like the men, to perform a generous action. In so free and so kind a manner did they contribute to my relief, that if I was dry, I drank the sweetest draught, and if hungry, I ate the coarsest morsel with a double relish.”

It is surely reasonable to suppose that the soft and amiable sympathy of nature, which was thus spontaneously manifested towards me in my distress, is displayed by these poor people, as occasion requires, much more strongly towards persons of their own nation and neighbourhood, and especially when the objects of their compassion are endeared to them by the ties of consanguinity. Accordingly the maternal affection (neither suppressed by the restraints nor diverted by the solicitudes of civilised life) is everywhere conspicuous among them, and creates a correspondent return of tenderness in the child. An illustration of this has been already given. “Strike me,” said my attendant, “but do not curse my mother.” The same sentiment I found universally to prevail, and observed in all parts of Africa that the greatest affront which could be offered to a negro was to reflect on her who gave him birth.

It is not strange that this sense of filial duty and affection among the negroes should be less ardent towards the father than the mother. The system of polygamy, while it weakens the father’s attachment by dividing it among the children of different wives, concentrates all the mother’s jealous tenderness to one point — the protection of her own offspring. I perceived with great satisfaction, too, that the maternal solicitude extended, not only to the growth and security of the person, but also, in a certain degree, to the improvement of the mind of the infant; for one of the first lessons in which the Mandingo women instruct their children is THE PRACTICE OF TRUTH. The reader will probably recollect the case of the unhappy mother whose son was murdered by the Moorish banditti at Funingkedy. Her only consolation in her uttermost distress was the reflection that the poor boy, in the course of his blameless life, HAD NEVER TOLD A LIE. Such testimony from a fond mother on such an occasion must have operated powerfully on the youthful part of the surrounding spectators. It was at once a tribute of praise to the deceased and a lesson to the living.

The negro women suckle their children until they are able to walk of themselves. Three years’ nursing is not uncommon, and during this period the husband devotes his whole attention to his other wives. To this practice it is owing, I presume, that the family of each wife is seldom very numerous. Few women have more than five or six children. As soon as an infant is able to walk it is permitted to run about with great freedom. The mother is not over solicitous to preserve it from slight falls and other trifling accidents. A little practice soon enables a child to take care of itself, and experience acts the part of a nurse. As they advance in life the girls are taught to spin cotton and to beat corn, and are instructed in other domestic duties; and the boys are employed in the labours of the field. Both sexes, whether bushreens or kafirs, on attaining the age of puberty, are circumcised. This painful operation is not considered by the kafirs so much in the light of a religious ceremony as a matter of convenience and utility. They have, indeed, a superstitious notion that it contributes to render the marriage state prolific. The operation is performed upon several young people at the same time, all of whom are exempted from every sort of labour for two months afterwards. During this period they form a society called solimana. They visit the towns and villages in the neighbourhood, where they dance and sing, and are well treated by the inhabitants. I had frequently, in the course of my journey, observed parties of this description, but they were all males. I had, however, an opportunity of seeing a female solimana at Kamalia.

In the course of this celebration it frequently happens that some of the young women get married. If a man takes a fancy to any one of them, it is not considered as absolutely necessary that he should make an overture to the girl herself. The first object is to agree with the parents concerning the recompense to be given them for the loss of the company and services of their daughter. The value of two slaves is a common price, unless the girl is thought very handsome, in which case the parents will raise their demand very considerably. If the lover is rich enough, and willing to give the sum demanded, he then communicates his wishes to the damsel; but her consent is by no means necessary to the match, for if the parents agree to it and eat a few kolla-nuts, which are represented by the suitor as an earnest of the bargain, the young lady must either have the man of their choice or continue unmarried, for she cannot afterwards be given to another. If the parents should attempt it, the lover is then authorised by the laws of the country to seize upon the girl as his slave. When the day for celebrating the nuptials is fixed on, a select number of people are invited to be present at the wedding — a bullock or goat is killed, and great plenty of victuals is dressed for the occasion. As soon as it is dark the bride is conducted into a hut, where a company of matrons assist in arranging the wedding-dress, which is always white cotton, and is put on in such a manner as to conceal the bride from head to foot. Thus arrayed, she is seated upon a mat in the middle of the floor, and the old women place themselves in a circle round her. They then give her a series of instructions, and point out, with great propriety, what ought to be her future conduct in life. This scene of instruction, however, is frequently interrupted by girls, who amuse the company with songs and dances, which are rather more remarkable for their gaiety than delicacy. While the bride remains within the hut with the women the bridegroom devotes his attention to the guests of both sexes, who assemble without doors, and by distributing among them small presents of kolla-nuts, and seeing that every one partakes of the good cheer which is provided, he contributes much to the general hilarity of the evening. When supper is ended, the company spend the remainder of the night in singing and dancing, and seldom separate until daybreak. About midnight the bride is privately conducted by the women into the hut which is to be her future residence, and the bridegroom, upon a signal given, retires from his company.

The negroes, as hath been frequently observed, whether Mohammedan or pagan, allow a plurality of wives. The Mohammedans alone are by their religion confined to four, and as the husband commonly pays a great price for each, he requires from all of them the utmost deference and submission, and treats them more like hired servants than companions. They have. however, the management of domestic affairs, and each in rotation is mistress of the household, and has the care of dressing the victuals, overlooking the female slaves, etc. But though the African husbands are possessed of great authority over their wives I did not observe that in general they treat them with cruelty, neither did I perceive that mean jealousy in their dispositions which is so prevalent among the Moors. They permit their wives to partake of all public diversions, and this indulgence is seldom abused, for though the negro women are very cheerful and frank in their behaviour, they are by no means given to intrigue — I believe that instances of conjugal infidelity are not common. When the wives quarrel among themselves — a circumstance which, from the nature of their situation, must frequently happen — the husband decides between them, and sometimes finds it necessary to administer a little corporal chastisement before tranquillity can be restored. But if any one of the ladies complains to the chief of the town that her husband has unjustly punished her, and shown an undue partiality to some other of his wives, the affair is brought to a public trial. In these palavers, however, which are conducted chiefly by married men, I was informed that the complaint of the wife is not always considered in a very serious light, and the complainant herself is sometimes convicted of strife and contention and left without remedy. If she murmurs at the decision of the court the magic rod of Mumbo Jumbo soon puts an end to the business.

The children of the Mandingoes are not always named after their relations, but frequently in consequence of some remarkable occurrence. Thus my landlord at Kamalia was called Karfa, a word signifying to replace, because he was born shortly after the death of one of his brothers. Other names are descriptive of good or bad qualities — as Modi, a good man; Fadibba, father of the town, etc Indeed, the very names of their towns have something descriptive in them, as Sibidooloo, the town of ciboa-trees; Kenneyeto, victuals here; Dosita, lift your spoon. Others appear to be given by way of reproach — as Bammakoo, wash a crocodile; Karrankalla, no cup to drink from, etc. A child is named when it is seven or eight days old. The ceremony commences by shaving the infant’s head; and a dish culled dega, made of pounded corn and sour milk, is prepared for the guests. If the parents are rich, a sheep or goat is commonly added. The feast is called ding koon lee (the child’s head-shaving). During my stay at Kamalia I was present at four different feasts of this kind, and the ceremony was the same in each, whether the child belonged to a bushreen or a kafir. The schoolmaster, who officiated as priest on those occasions, and who is necessarily a bushreen, first said a long prayer over the dega, during which every person present took hold of the brim of the calabash with his right hand. After this the schoolmaster took the child in his arms and said a second prayer, in which he repeatedly solicited the blessing of God upon the child and upon all the company. When this prayer was ended he whispered a few sentences in the child’s ear and spat three times in its face, after which he pronounced its name aloud, and returned the infant to the mother. 6 This part of the ceremony being ended, the father of the child divided the dega into a number of balls, one of which he distributed to every person present; and inquiry was then made if any person in the town was dangerously sick, it being usual in such cases to send the party a large portion of the dega, which is thought to possess great medical virtues.

6 Soon after baptism the children are marked in different parts of the skin, in a manner resembling what is called tattooing in the South Sea Islands.

Among the negroes every individual, besides his own proper name, has likewise a kontong, or surname, to denote the family or clan to which he belongs. Some of these families are very numerous and powerful. It is impossible to enumerate the various kontongs which are found in different parts of the country, though the knowledge of many of them is of great service to the traveller; for as every negro plumes himself upon the importance or the antiquity of his clan, he is much flattered when he is addressed by his kontong.

Salutations among the negroes to each other when they meet are always observed, but those in most general use among the kafirs are, “Abbe haeretto,” “‘E ning seni,” “Anawari,” etc., all of which have nearly the same meaning, and signify “Are you well?” or to that effect. There are likewise salutations which are used at different times of the day, as “E ning somo” (“Good morning”), etc. The general answer to all salutations is to repeat the kontong of the person who salutes, or else to repeat the salutation itself, first pronouncing the word marhaba (“My friend”).

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