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

CHAPTER XXIII

GOLD AND IVORY

Those valuable commodities, gold and ivory (the next objects of our inquiry), have probably been found in Africa from the first ages of the world. They are reckoned among its most important productions in the earliest records of its history.

It has been observed that gold is seldom or never discovered except in mountainous and barren countries — nature, it is said, thus making amends in one way for her penuriousness in the other. This, however, is not wholly true. Gold is found in considerable quantities throughout every part of Manding, a country which is indeed hilly, but cannot properly be called mountainous, much less barren. It is also found in great plenty in Jallonkadoo (particularly about Boori), another hilly, but by no means an unfertile, country. It is remarkable that in the place last mentioned (Boori), which is situated about four days’ journey to the south-west of Kamalia, the salt market is often supplied at the same time with rock-salt from the Great Desert and sea-salt from the Rio Grande; the price of each, at this distance from its source, being nearly the same. And the dealers in each, whether Moors from the north or negroes from the west, are invited thither by the same motives — that of bartering their salt for gold.

The gold of Manding, so far as I could learn, is never found in any matrix or vein, but always in small grains nearly in a pure state, from the size of a pin’s head to that of a pea, scattered through a large body of sand or clay, and in this state it is called by the Mandingoes sanoo munko (gold powder). It is, however, extremely probable, by what I could learn of the situation of the ground, that most of it has originally been washed down by repeated torrents from the neighbouring hills. The manner in which it is collected is nearly as follows:—

About the beginning of December, when the harvest is over and the streams and torrents have greatly subsided, the mansa or chief of the town appoints a day to begin sanoo koo (gold-washing), and the women are sure to have themselves in readiness by the time appointed. A hoe or spade for digging up the sand, two or three calabashes for washing it in, and a few quills for containing the gold dust, are all the implements necessary for the purpose. On the morning of their departure a bullock is killed for the first day’s entertainment, and a number of prayers and charms are used to insure success, for a failure on that day is thought a bad omen.

The mansa of Kamalia, with fourteen of his people, were, I remember, so much disappointed in their first day’s washing that very few of them had resolution to persevere, and the few that did had but very indifferent success: which indeed is not much to be wondered at, for instead of opening some untried place they continued to dig and wash in the same spot where they had dug and washed for years, and where, of course, but few large grains could be left.

The washing of the sands of the streams is by far the easiest way of obtaining the gold dust; but in most places the sands have been so narrowly searched before, that unless the stream takes some new course the gold is found but in small quantities. While some of the party are busied in washing the sands, others employ themselves farther up the torrent, where the rapidity of the stream has carried away all the clay, sand, etc., and left nothing but small pebbles. The search among these is a very troublesome task. I have seen women who have had the skin worn off the tops of their fingers in this employment. Sometimes, however, they are rewarded by finding pieces of gold, which they call sanoo birro (gold stones), that amply repay them for their trouble. A woman and her daughter, inhabitants of Kamalia, found in one day two pieces of this kind; one of five drachms and the other of three drachms weight. But the most certain and profitable mode of washing is practised in the height of the dry season, by digging a deep pit, like a draw-well, near some hill which has previously been discovered to contain gold. The pit is dug with small spades or corn-hoes, and the earth is drawn up in large calabashes. As the negroes dig through the different strata of clay or sand, a calabash or two of each is washed by way of experiment; and in this manner the labourers proceed, until they come to a stratum containing gold, or until they are obstructed by rocks, or inundated by water. In general, when they come to a stratum of fine reddish sand, with small black specks therein, they find gold in some proportion or other, and send up large calabashes full of the sand for the women to wash; for though the pit is dug by the men, the gold is always washed by the women, who are accustomed from their infancy to a similar operation in separating the husks of corn from the meal.

As I never descended into any one of these pits, I cannot say in what manner they are worked underground. Indeed, the situation in which I was placed made it necessary for me to be cautious not to incur the suspicion of the natives by examining too far into the riches of their country; but the manner of separating the gold from the sand is very simple, and is frequently performed by the women in the middle of the town; for when the searchers return, from the valleys in the evening, they commonly bring with them each a calabash or two of sand, to be washed by such of the females as remain at home. The operation is simply as follows:—

A portion of sand or clay (for the gold is sometimes found in a brown-coloured clay) is put into a large calabash and mixed with a sufficient quantity of water. The woman whose office it is, then shakes the calabash in such a manner as to mix the sand and water together, and give the whole a rotatory motion — at first gently, but afterwards more quickly, until a small portion of sand and water, at every revolution, flies over the brim of the calabash. The sand thus separated is only the coarsest particles mixed with a little muddy water. After the operation has been continued for some time, the sand is allowed to subside, and the water poured off; a portion of coarse sand, which is now uppermost in the calabash, is removed by the hand, and, fresh water being added, the operation is repeated until the water comes off almost pure. The woman now takes a second calabash, and shakes the sand and water gently from the one to the other, reserving that portion of sand which is next the bottom of the calabash, and which is most likely to contain the gold. This small quantity is mixed with some pure water, and, being moved about in the calabash, is carefully examined. If a few particles of gold are picked out, the contents of the other calabash are examined in the same manner, but in general the party is well contented if she can obtain three or four grains from the contents of both calabashes. Some women, however, by long practice, become so well acquainted with the nature of the sand, and the mode of washing it, that they will collect gold where others cannot find a single particle. The gold dust is kept in quills stopped up with cotton; and the washers are fond of displaying a number of these quills in their hair. Generally speaking, if a person uses common diligence in a proper soil, it is supposed that as much gold may be collected by him in the course of the dry season as is equal to the value of two slaves.

Thus simple is the process by which the negroes obtain gold in Manding; and it is evident from this account that the country contains a considerable portion of this precious metal, for many of the smaller particles must necessarily escape the observation of the naked eye; and as the natives generally search the sands of streams at a considerable distance from the hills, and consequently far removed from the mines where the gold was originally produced, the labourers are sometimes but ill-paid for their trouble. Minute particles only of this heavy metal can be carried by the current to any considerable distance; the larger must remain deposited near the original source from whence they came. Were the gold-bearing streams to be traced to their fountains, and the hills from whence they spring properly examined, the sand in which the gold is there deposited would no doubt be found to contain particles of a much larger size; and even the small grains might be collected to considerable advantage by the use of quicksilver and other improvements, with which the natives are at present unacquainted.

Part of this gold is converted into ornaments for the women, but in general these ornaments are more to be admired for their weight than their workmanship. They are massy and inconvenient, particularly the earrings, which are commonly so heavy as to pull down and lacerate the lobe of the ear; to avoid which, they are supported by a thong of red leather, which passes over the crown of the head from one ear to the other. The necklace displays greater fancy, and the proper arrangement of the different beads and plates of gold is the great criterion of taste and elegance. When a lady of consequence is in full dress, her gold ornaments may be worth altogether from fifty to eighty pounds sterling.

A small quantity of gold is likewise employed by the slatees in defraying the expenses of their journeys to and from the coast, but by far the greater proportion is annually carried away by the Moors in exchange for salt and other merchandise. During my stay at Kamalia, the gold collected by the different traders at that place for salt alone was nearly equal to one hundred and ninety-eight pounds sterling; and as Kamalia is but a small town, and not much resorted to by the trading Moors, this quantity must have borne a very small proportion to the gold collected at Kancaba, Kankaree, and some other large towns. The value of salt in this part of Africa is very great. One slab, about two feet and a half in length, fourteen inches in breadth, and two inches in thickness, will sometimes sell for about two pounds ten shillings sterling; and from one pound fifteen shillings to two pounds may be considered as the common price. Four of these slabs are considered as a load for an ass, and six for a bullock. The value of European merchandise in Manding varies very much according to the supply from the coast, or the dread of war in the country; but the return for such articles is commonly made in slaves. The price of a prime slave, when I was at Kamalia, was from twelve to nine minkallies, and European commodities had then nearly the following value:—

18 gun-flints,
48 leaves of tobacco, } one
20 charges of gunpowder, } minkalli.
A cutlass, }
A musket, from three to four minkallies.

The produce of the country and the different necessaries of life, when exchanged for gold, sold as follows:—

Common provisions for one day, the weight of one teeleekissi (a black bean, six of which make the weight of one minkalli); a chicken, one teeleekissi; a sheep, three teeleekissi; a bullock, one minkalli; a horse, from ten to seventeen minkallies.

The negroes weigh the gold in small balances, which they always carry about them. They make no difference, in point of value, between gold dust and wrought gold. In bartering one article for another, the person who receives the gold always weighs it with his own teeleekissi. These beans are sometimes fraudulently soaked in shea-butter to make them heavy, and I once saw a pebble ground exactly into the form of one of them; but such practices are not very common.

Having now related the substance of what occurs to my recollection concerning the African mode of obtaining gold from the earth, and its value in barter, I proceed to the next article of which I proposed to treat — namely, ivory.

Nothing creates a greater surprise among the negroes on the sea-coast than the eagerness displayed by the European traders to procure elephants’ teeth, it being exceedingly difficult to make them comprehend to what use it is applied. Although they are shown knives with ivory handles, combs and toys of the same material, and are convinced that the ivory thus manufactured was originally parts of a tooth, they are not satisfied. They suspect that this commodity is more frequently converted in Europe to purposes of far greater importance, the true nature of which is studiously concealed from them, lest the price of ivory should be enhanced. They cannot, they say, easily persuade themselves that ships would be built and voyages undertaken to procure an article which had no other value than that of furnishing handles to knives, etc., when pieces of wood would answer the purpose equally well.

Elephants are very numerous in the interior of Africa, but they appear to be a distinct species from those found in Asia. Blumenbach, in his figures of objects of natural history, has given good drawings of a grinder of each, and the variation is evident. M. Cuvier also has given in the Magasin Encyclopedique a clear account of the difference between them. As I never examined the Asiatic elephant, I have chosen rather to refer to those writers than advance this as an opinion of my own. It has been said that the African elephant is of a less docile nature than the Asiatic, and incapable of being tamed. The negroes certainly do not at present tame them; but when we consider that the Carthaginians had always tame elephants in their armies, and actually transported some of them to Italy in the course of the Punic wars, it seems more likely that they should have possessed the art of taming their own elephants than have submitted to the expense of bringing such vast animals from Asia. Perhaps the barbarous practice of hunting the African elephants for the sake of their teeth has rendered them more untractable and savage than they were found to be in former times.

The greater part of the ivory which is sold on the Gambia and Senegal rivers is brought from the interior country. The lands towards the coast are too swampy and too much intersected with creeks and rivers for so bulky an animal as the elephant to travel through without being discovered; and when once the natives discern the marks of his feet in the earth, the whole village is up in arms. The thoughts of feasting on his flesh, making sandals of his hide, and selling the teeth to the Europeans, inspire every one with courage, and the animal seldom escapes from his pursuers; but in the plains of Bambarra and Kaarta, and the extensive wilds of Jallonkadoo, the elephants are very numerous, and, from the great scarcity of gunpowder in those districts, they are less annoyed by the natives.

Scattered teeth are frequently picked up in the woods, and travellers are very diligent in looking for them. It is a common practice with the elephant to thrust his teeth under the roots of such shrubs and bushes as grow in the more dry and elevated parts of the country, where the soil is shallow. These bushes he easily overturns, and feeds on the roots, which are in general more tender and juicy than the hard, woody branches or the foliage; but when the teeth are partly decayed by age, and the roots more firmly fixed, the great exertions of the animal in this practice frequently cause them to break short. At Kamalia I saw two teeth, one a very large one, which were found in the woods, and which were evidently broken off in this manner. Indeed, it is difficult otherwise to account for such a large proportion of broken ivory as is daily offered for sale at the different factories, for when the elephant is killed in hunting, unless he dashes himself over a precipice, the teeth are always extracted entire.

There are certain seasons of the year when the elephants collect into large herds, and traverse the country in quest of food or water; and as all that part of the country to the north of the Niger is destitute of rivers, whenever the pools in the woods are dried up the elephants approach towards the banks of that river. Here they continue until the commencement of the rainy season, in the months of June or July, and during this time they are much hunted by such of the Bambarrans as have gunpowder to spare. The elephant-hunters seldom go out singly — a party of four or five join together, and having each furnished himself with powder and ball, and a quantity of corn-meal in a leather bag sufficient for five or six days’ provision, they enter the most unfrequented parts of the wood, and examine with great care everything that can lead to the discovery of the elephants. In this pursuit, notwithstanding the bulk of the animal, very great nicety of observation is required. The broken branches, the scattered dung of the animal, and the marks of his feet are carefully inspected; and many of the hunters have, by long experience and attentive observation, become so expert in their search that as soon as they observe the foot-marks of an elephant they will tell almost to a certainty at what time it passed and at what distance it will be found.

When they discover a herd of elephants, they follow them at a distance, until they perceive some one stray from the rest and come into such a situation as to be fired at with advantage. The hunters then approach with great caution, creeping amongst the long grass, until they have got near enough to be sure of their aim. They then discharge all their pieces at once, and throw themselves on their faces among the grass; the wounded elephant immediately applies his trunk to the different wounds, but being unable to extract the balls, and seeing nobody near him, he becomes quite furious and runs about amongst the bushes until by fatigue and loss of blood he has exhausted himself, and affords the hunters an opportunity of firing a second time at him, by which he is generally brought to the ground.

The skin is now taken off, and extended on the ground with pegs to dry; and such parts of the flesh as are most esteemed are cut up into thin slices, and dried in the sun, to serve for provisions on some future occasion. The teeth are struck out with a light hatchet which the hunters always carry along with them, not only for that purpose, but also to enable them to cut down such trees as contain honey; for though they carry with them only five or six days’ provisions, they will remain in the woods for months if they are successful, and support themselves upon the flesh of such elephants as they kill and wild honey.

The ivory thus collected is seldom brought down to the coast by the hunters themselves. They dispose of it to the itinerant merchants who come annually from the coast with arms and ammunition to purchase this valuable commodity. Some of these merchants will collect ivory in the course of one season sufficient to load four or five asses. A great quantity of ivory is likewise brought from the interior by the slave coffles; there are, however, some slatees of the Mohammedan persuasion who, from motives of religion, will not deal in ivory, nor eat of the flesh of the elephant, unless it has been killed with a spear.

The quantity of ivory collected in this part of Africa is not so great, nor are the teeth in general so large, as in the countries nearer the Line: few of them weigh more than eighty or one hundred pounds, and upon an average a bar of European merchandise may be reckoned as the price of a pound of ivory.

I have now, I trust, in this and the preceding chapters explained with sufficient minuteness the nature and extent of the commercial connection which at present prevails, and has long subsisted, between the negro natives of those parts of Africa which I visited and the nations of Europe; and it appears that slaves, gold, and ivory, together with the few articles enumerated in the beginning of my work — viz., bees’ wax and honey, hides, gums, and dye-woods — constitute the whole catalogue of exportable commodities. Other productions, however, have been incidentally noticed as the growth of Africa, such as grain of different kinds, tobacco, indigo, cotton-wool and perhaps a few others; but of all these (which can only be obtained by cultivation and labour) the natives raise sufficient only for their own immediate expenditure; nor, under the present system of their laws, manners, trade, and government, can anything further be expected from them. It cannot, however, admit of a doubt that all the rich and valuable productions both of the East and West Indies might easily be naturalised and brought to the utmost perfection in the tropical parts of this immense continent. Nothing is wanting to this end but example to enlighten the minds of the natives, and instruction to enable them to direct their industry to proper objects. It was not possible for me to behold the wonderful fertility of the soil, the vast herds of cattle, proper both for labour and food, and a variety of other circumstances favourable to colonisation and agriculture — and reflect, withal, on the means which presented themselves of a vast inland navigation without — lamenting that a country so abundantly gifted and favoured by nature should remain in its present savage and neglected state. Much more did I lament that a people of manners and disposition so gentle and benevolent should either be left as they now are, immersed in the gross and uncomfortable blindness of pagan superstition, or permitted to become converts to a system of bigotry and fanaticism which, without enlightening the mind, often debases the heart. On this subject many observations might be made, but the reader will probably think that I have already digressed too largely; and I now, therefore, return to my situation at Kamalia.

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