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



The Mandingoes and, I believe, the negroes in general, have no artificial method of dividing time. They calculate the years by the number of rainy seasons. They portion the year into moons, and reckon the days by so many suns. The day they divide into morning, midday, and evening; and farther subdivide it, when necessary, by pointing to the sun’s place in the heavens. I frequently inquired of some of them what became of the sun during the night, and whether we should see the same sun, or a different one, in the morning; but I found that they considered the question as very childish. The subject appeared to them as placed beyond the reach of human investigation — they had never indulged a conjecture, nor formed any hypothesis, about the matter. The moon, by varying her form, has more attracted their attention. On the first appearance of the new moon, which they look upon to be newly created, the pagan natives, as well as Mohammedans, say a short prayer; and this seems to be the only visible adoration which the kafirs offer up to the Supreme Being. This prayer is pronounced in a whisper, the party holding up his hands before his face: its purport (as I have been assured by many different people) is to return thanks to God for His kindness through the existence of the past moon, and to solicit a continuation of His favour during that of the new one. At the conclusion they spit upon their hands and rub them over their faces. This seems to be nearly the same ceremony which prevailed among the heathens in the days of Job. 7

7 Chap. xxxi. vv. 26–28.

Great attention, however, is paid to the changes of this luminary in its monthly course, and it is thought very unlucky to begin a journey, or any other work of consequence, in the last quarter. An eclipse, whether of the sun or moon, is supposed to be effected by witchcraft. The stars are very little regarded; and the whole study of astronomy appears to them as a useless pursuit, and attended to by such persons only as deal in magic.

Their notions of geography are equally puerile. They imagine that the world is an extended plain, the termination of which no eye has discovered — it being, they say, overhung with clouds and darkness. They describe the sea as a large river of salt water, on the farther shore of which is situated a country called Tobaubo doo (the land of the white people). At a distance from Tobaubo doo they describe another country, which they allege as inhabited by cannibals of gigantic size, called komi. This country they call Jong sang doo (the land where the slaves are sold). But of all countries in the world their own appears to them as the best, and their own people as the happiest, and they pity the fate of other nations, who have been placed by Providence in less fertile and less fortunate districts.

Some of the religious opinions of the negroes, though blended with the weakest credulity and superstition, are not unworthy attention. I have conversed with all ranks and conditions upon the subject of their faith, and can pronounce, without the smallest shadow of doubt, that the belief of one God and of a future state of reward and punishment is entire and universal among them. It is remarkable, however, that except on the appearance of a new moon, as before related, the pagan natives do not think it necessary to offer up prayers and supplications to the Almighty. They represent the Deity, indeed, as the creator and preserver of all things, but in general they consider Him as a being so remote and of so exalted a nature that it is idle to imagine the feeble supplications of wretched mortals can reverse the decrees and change the purposes of unerring wisdom. If they are asked for what reason then do they offer up a prayer on the appearance of the new moon, the answer is, that custom has made it necessary, they do it because their fathers did it before them. Such is the blindness of unassisted nature! The concerns of this world, they believe, are committed by the Almighty to the superintendence and direction of subordinate spirits, over whom they suppose that certain magical ceremonies have great influence. A white fowl suspended to the branch of a particular tree, a snake’s head or a few handfuls of fruit are offerings which ignorance and superstition frequently present, to deprecate the wrath, or to conciliate the favour, of these tutelary agents. But it is not often that the negroes make their religious opinions the subject of conversation; when interrogated in particular concerning their ideas of a future state, they express themselves with great reverence, but endeavour to shorten the discussion by observing, “Mo o mo inta allo” (“No man knows anything about it”). They are content, they say, to follow the precepts and examples of their forefathers through the various vicissitudes of life, and when this world presents no objects of enjoyment or of comfort they seem to look with anxiety towards another, which they believe will be better suited to their natures, but concerning which they are far from indulging vain and delusive conjectures.

The Mandingoes seldom attain extreme old age. At forty most of them become grey-haired and covered with wrinkles, and but few of them survive the age of fifty-five or sixty. They calculate the years of their lives, as I have already observed, by the number of rainy seasons (there being but one such in the year), and distinguish each year by a particular name, founded on some remarkable occurrence which happened in that year. Thus they say the year of the Farbanna war — the year of the Kaarta war — the year on which Gadou was plundered, etc., etc.; and I have no doubt that the year 1796 will in many places be distinguished by the name of tobaubo tambi sang (the year the white man passed), as such an occurrence would naturally form an epoch in their traditional history.

But notwithstanding that longevity is uncommon among them, it appeared to me that their diseases are but few in number. Their simple diet and active way of life preserve them from many of those disorders which embitter the days of luxury and idleness. Fevers and fluxes are the most common and the most fatal. For these they generally apply saphies to different parts of the body, and perform a great many other superstitious ceremonies — some of which are indeed well calculated to inspire the patient with the hope of recovery, and divert his mind from brooding over his own danger — but I have sometimes observed among them a more systematic mode of treatment. On the first attack of a fever, when the patient complains of cold, he is frequently placed in a sort of vapour-bath. This is done by spreading branches of the nauclea orientalis upon hot wood embers, and laying the patient upon them, wrapped up in a large cotton cloth. Water is then sprinkled upon the branches, which, descending to the hot embers, soon covers the patient with a cloud of vapour, in which he is allowed to remain until the embers are almost extinguished. This practice commonly produces a profuse perspiration, and wonderfully relieves the sufferer.

For the dysentery they use the bark of different trees reduced to powder and mixed with the patient’s food; but this practice is in general very unsuccessful.

The other diseases which prevail among the negroes are the yaws, the elephantiasis, and a leprosy of the very worst kind. This last-mentioned complaint appears at the beginning in scurfy spots upon different parts of the body, which finally settle upon the hands or feet, where the skin becomes withered, and, cracks in many places. At length the ends of the fingers swell and ulcerate, the discharge is acrid and fetid, the nails drop off, and the bones of the fingers become carious, and separate at the joints. In this manner the disease continues to spread, frequently until the patient loses all his fingers and toes. Even the hands and feet are sometimes destroyed by this inveterate malady, to which the negroes give the name of balla ou (incurable).

The guinea worm is likewise very common in certain places, especially at the commencement of the rainy season. The negroes attribute this disease, which has been described by many writers, to bad water, and allege that the people who drink from wells are more subject to it than those who drink from streams. To the same cause they attribute the swelling of the glands of the neck (goitres), which are very common in some parts of Bambarra. I observed also, in the interior countries, a few instances of simple gonorrhoea, but never the confirmed lues. On the whole, it appeared to me that the negroes are better surgeons than physicians. I found them very successful in their management of fractures and dislocations, and their splints and bandages are simple and easily removed. The patient is laid upon a soft mat, and the fractured limb is frequently bathed with cold water. All abscesses they open with the actual cautery, and the dressings are composed of either soft leaves, shea butter, or cow’s dung, as the case seems in their judgment to require. Towards the coast, where a supply of European lancets can be procured, they sometimes perform phlebotomy, and in cases of local inflammation a curious sort of cupping is practised. This operation is performed by making incisions in the part, and applying to it a bullock’s horn with a small hole in the end. The operator then takes a piece of bee’s wax in his mouth, and, putting his lips to the hole, extracts the air from the horn, and by a dexterous use of his tongue stops up the hole with the wax. This method is found to answer the purpose, and in general produces a plentiful discharge.

When a person of consequence dies, the relations and neighbours meet together and manifest their sorrow by loud and dismal howlings. A bullock or goat is killed for such persons as come to assist at the funeral, which generally takes place in the evening of the same day on which the party died. The negroes have no appropriate burial-places, and frequently dig the grave in the floor of the deceased’s hut, or in the shade of a favourite tree. The body is dressed in white cotton, and wrapped up in a mat. It is carried to the grave in the dusk of the evening by the relations. If the grave is without the walls of the town a number of prickly bushes are laid upon it to prevent the wolves from digging up the body; but I never observed that any stone was placed over the grave as a monument or memorial.

Of their music and dances some account has incidentally been given in different parts of my journal. On the first of these heads I have now to add a list of their musical instruments, the principal of which are — the koonting, a sort of guitar with three strings; the korro, a large harp with eighteen strings; the simbing, a small harp with seven strings; the balafou, an instrument composed of twenty pieces of hard wood of different lengths, with the shells of gourds hung underneath to increase the sound; the tangtang, a drum open at the lower end; and, lastly, the tabala, a large drum, commonly used to spread an alarm through the country. Besides these, they make use of small flutes, bow-strings, elephants’ teeth and bells; and at all their dances and concerts clapping of hands appears to constitute a necessary part of the chorus.

With the love of music is naturally connected a taste for poetry; and fortunately for the poets of Africa they are in a great measure exempted from that neglect and indigence which in more polished countries commonly attend the votaries of the Muses. They consist of two classes; the most numerous are the singing men, called jilli kea, mentioned in a former part of my narrative. One or more of these may be found in every town. They sing extempore songs in honour of their chief men, or any other persons who are willing to give “solid pudding for empty praise.” But a nobler part of their office is to recite the historical events of their country; hence in war they accompany the soldiers to the field, in order, by reciting the great actions of their ancestors, to awaken in them a spirit of glorious emulation. The other class are devotees of the Mohammedan faith, who travel about the country singing devout hymns and performing religious ceremonies, to conciliate the favour of the Almighty, either in averting calamity or insuring success to any enterprise. Both descriptions of these itinerant bards are much employed and respected by the people, and very liberal contributions are made for them.

The usual diet of the negroes is somewhat different in different districts; in general the people of free condition breakfast about daybreak upon gruel made of meal and water, with a little of the fruit of the tamarind to give it an acid taste. About two o’clock in the afternoon a sort of hasty pudding, with a little shea butter, is the common meal; but the supper constitutes the principal repast, and is seldom ready before midnight. This consists almost universally of kouskous, with a small portion of animal food or shea butter mixed with it. In eating, the kafirs, as well as Mohammedans, use the right hand only.

The beverages of the pagan negroes are beer and mead, of each of which they frequently drink to excess. The Mohammedan convert drinks nothing but water. The natives of all descriptions take snuff and smoke tobacco; their pipes are made of wood, with an earthen bowl of curious workmanship. But in the interior countries the greatest of all luxuries is salt. It would appear strange to a European to see a child suck a piece of rock salt as if it were sugar. This, however, I have frequently seen, although, in the inland parts, the poorer class of inhabitants are so very rarely indulged with this precious article that to say a man ate salt with his victuals is the same as saying he is a very rich man. I have myself suffered great inconvenience from the scarcity of this article. The long use of vegetable food creates so painful a longing for salt that no words can sufficiently describe it.

The negroes in general, and the Mandingoes in particular, are considered by the whites on the coast as an indolent and inactive people — I think without reason. The nature of the climate is, indeed, unfavourable to great exertion; but surely a people cannot justly be denominated habitually indolent whose wants are supplied, not by the spontaneous productions of nature, but by their own exertions. Few people work harder, when occasion requires, than the Mandingoes; but not having many opportunities of turning to advantage the superfluous produce of their labour, they are content with cultivating as much ground only as is necessary for their own support. The labours of the field give them pretty full employment during the rains; and in the dry season the people who live in the vicinity of large rivers employ themselves in fishing. The fish are taken in wicker baskets or with small cotton nets, and are preserved by being first dried in the sun and afterwards rubbed with shea butter, to prevent them from contracting fresh moisture. Others of the natives employ themselves in hunting. Their weapons are bows and arrows; but the arrows in common use are not poisoned. 8 They are very dexterous marksmen, and will hit a lizard on a tree, or any other small object, at an amazing distance. They likewise kill guinea-fowls, partridges, and pigeons, but never on the wing. While the men are occupied in these pursuits the women are very diligent in manufacturing cotton cloth. They prepare the cotton for spinning by laying it in small quantities at a time upon a smooth stone or piece of wood, and rolling the seeds out with a thick iron spindle; and they spin it with the distaff. The thread is not fine, but well twisted, and makes a very durable cloth. A woman with common diligence will spin from six to nine garments of this cloth in one year, which, according to its fineness, will sell for a minkalli and a half or two minkallies each. 9 The weaving is performed by the men. The loom is made exactly upon the same principle as that of Europe, but so small and narrow that the web is seldom more than four inches broad. The shuttle is of the common construction, but as the thread is coarse the chamber is somewhat larger than the European.

8 Poisoned arrows are used chiefly in war. The poison, which is said to be very deadly, is prepared from a shrub called koono (a species of echites), which is very common in the woods. The leaves of this shrub, when boiled with a small quantity of water, yield a thick black juice, into which the negroes dip a cotton thread: this thread they fasten round the iron of the arrow in such a manner that it is almost impossible to extract the arrow, when it has sunk beyond the barbs, without leaving the iron point and the poisoned thread in the wound.

9 A minkalli is a quantity of gold nearly equal in value to ten shillings sterling.

The women dye this cloth of a rich and lasting blue colour by the following simple process:— The leaves of the indigo, when fresh gathered, are pounded in a wooden mortar, and mixed in a large earthen jar with a strong ley of wood-ashes; chamber-ley is sometimes added. The cloth is steeped in this mixture, and allowed to remain until it has acquired the proper shade. In Kaarta and Ludamar, where the indigo is not plentiful, they collect the leaves and dry them in the sun; and when they wish to use them they reduce a sufficient quantity to powder and mix it with the ley, as before mentioned. Either way the colour is very beautiful, with a fine purple gloss, and equal in my opinion to the best Indian or European blue. This cloth is cut into various pieces and sewed into garments with needles of the natives’ own making.

As the arts of weaving, dyeing, sewing, etc., may easily be acquired, those who exercise them are not considered in Africa as following any particular profession, for almost every slave can weave, and every boy can sew. The only artists who are distinctly acknowledged as such by the negroes, and who value themselves on exercising appropriate and peculiar trades, are the manufacturers of leather and of iron. The first of these are called karrankea (or, as the word is sometimes pronounced, gaungay). They are to be found in almost every town, and they frequently travel through the country in the exercise of their calling. They tan and dress leather with very great expedition, by steeping the hide first in a mixture of wood-ashes and water until it parts with the hair, and afterwards by using the pounded leaves of a tree called goo as an astringent. They are at great pains to render the hide as soft and pliant as possible, by rubbing it frequently between their hands and beating it upon a stone. The hides of bullocks are converted chiefly into sandals, and therefore require less care in dressing than the skins of sheep and goats, which are used for covering quivers and saphies, and in making sheaths for swords and knives, belts, pockets, and a variety of ornaments. These skins commonly are dyed of a red or yellow colour — the red by means of millet stalks reduced to powder; and the yellow by the root of a plant the name of which I have forgotten.

The manufacturers in iron are not so numerous as the karrankeas, but they appear to have studied their business with equal diligence. The negroes on the coast being cheaply supplied with iron from the European traders, never attempt the manufacturing of this article themselves; but in the inland parts the natives smelt this useful metal in such quantities not only to supply themselves from it with all necessary weapons and instruments, but even to make it a article of commerce with some of the neighbouring states. During my stay at Kamalia there was a smelting furnace at a short distance from the hut where I lodged, and the owner and his workmen made no secret about the manner of conducting the operation, and readily allowed me to examine the furnace, and assist them in breaking the ironstone. The furnace was a circular tower of clay, about ten feet high and three feet in diameter, surrounded in two places with withes, to prevent the clay from cracking and falling to pieces by the violence of the heat. Round the lower part, on a level with the ground — but not so low as the bottom of the furnace, which was somewhat concave — were made seven openings, into every one of which were placed three tubes of clay, and the openings again plastered up in such a manner that no air could enter the furnace but through the tubes, by the opening and shutting of which they regulated the fire. These tubes were formed by plastering a mixture of clay and grass round a smooth roller of wood, which, as soon as the clay began to harden, was withdrawn, and the tube left to dry in the sun. The ironstone which I saw was very heavy, of a dull red colour with greyish specks; it was broken into pieces about the size of a hen’s egg. A bundle of dry wood was first put into the furnace, and covered with a considerable quantity of charcoal, which was brought, ready burnt, from the woods. Over this was laid a stratum of ironstone, and then another of charcoal, and so on, until the furnace was quite full. The fire was applied through one of the tubes, and blown for some time with bellows made of goats’ skins. The operation went on very slowly at first, and it was some hours before the flame appeared above the furnace; but after this it burnt with great violence all the first night, and the people who attended put in at times more charcoal. On the day following the fire was not so fierce, and on the second night some of the tubes were withdrawn and the air allowed to have freer access to the furnace; but the heat was still very great, and a bluish flame rose some feet above the top of the furnace. On the third day from the commencement of the operation, all the tubes were taken out, the ends of many of them being vitrified with the heat; but the metal was not removed until some days afterwards, when the whole was perfectly cool. Part of the furnace was then taken down, and the iron appeared in the form of a large irregular mass, with pieces of charcoal adhering to it. It was sonorous; and when any portion was broken off, the fracture exhibited a granulated appearance, like broken steel. The owner informed me that many parts of this cake were useless, but still there was good iron enough to repay him for his trouble. This iron, or rather steel, is formed into various instruments by being repeatedly heated in a forge, the heat of which is urged by a pair of double bellows of a very simple construction, being made of two goats’ skins the tubes from which unite before they enter the forge, and supply a constant and very regular blast. The hammer, forceps, and anvil are all very simple, and the workmanship (particularly in the formation of knives and spears) is not destitute of merit. The iron, indeed, is hard and brittle, and requires much labour before it can be made to answer the purpose.

Such is the chief information I obtained concerning the present state of arts and manufactures in those regions of Africa which I explored in my journey. I might add, though it is scarce worthy observation, that in Bambarra and Kaarta the natives make very beautiful baskets, hats, and other articles, both for use and ornament, from rushes, which they stain of different colours; and they contrive also to cover their calabashes with interwoven cane, dyed in the same manner.

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