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

CHAPTER XXIV

MOHAMMEDAN CUSTOMS; ARRIVAL AT KINYTAKOORO

The schoolmaster to whose care I was entrusted during the absence of Karfa was a man of a mild disposition and gentle manners; his name was Fankooma, and although he himself adhered strictly to the religion of Mohammed, he was by no means intolerant in his principles towards others who differed from him. He spent much of his time in reading, and teaching appeared to be his pleasure as well as employment. His school consisted of seventeen boys, most of whom were sons of Kafirs, and two girls, one of whom was Karfa’s own daughter. The girls received their instruction in the daytime, but the boys always had their lessons, by the light of a large fire, before day break and again late in the evening; for, being considered, during their scholarship, as the domestic slaves of the master, they were employed in planting corn, bringing firewood, and in other servile offices through the day.

Exclusive of the Koran, and a book or two of commentaries thereon, the schoolmaster possessed a variety of manuscripts, which had partly been purchased from the trading Moors, and partly borrowed from bushreens in the neighbourhood and copied with great care. Other manuscripts had been produced to me at different places in the course of my journey; and on recounting those I had before seen, and those which were now shown to me, and interrogating the schoolmaster on the subject, I discovered that the negroes are in possession (among others) of an Arabic version of the Pentateuch of Moses, which they call Taureta la Moosa. This is so highly esteemed that it is often sold for the value of one prime slave. They have likewise a version of the Psalms of David (Zabora Dawidi); and, lastly, the Book of Isaiah, which they call Lingeeli la Isa, and it is in very high esteem. I suspect, indeed, that in all these copies there are interpolations of some of the peculiar tenets of Mohammed, for I could distinguish in many passages the name of the Prophet. It is possible, however, that this circumstance might otherwise have been accounted for if my knowledge of the Arabic had been more extensive. By means of those books many of the converted negroes have acquired an acquaintance with some of the remarkable events recorded in the Old Testament. The account of our first parents, the death of Abel, the Deluge, the lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the story of Joseph and his brethren, the history of Moses, David, Solomon, etc; all these have been related to me, in the Mandingo language, with tolerable exactness by different people; and my surprise was not greater, on hearing these accounts from the lips of the negroes, than theirs on finding that I was already acquainted with them; for although the negroes in general have a very great idea of the wealth and power of the Europeans, I am afraid that the Mohammedan converts among them think but very lightly of our superior attainments in religious knowledge. The white traders in the maritime districts take no pains to counteract this unhappy prejudice, always performing their own devotions in secret, and seldom condescending to converse with the negroes in a friendly and instructive manner. To me, therefore, it was not so much the subject of wonder as matter of regret to observe that, while the superstition of Mohammed has in this manner scattered a few faint beams of learning among these poor people, the precious light of Christianity is altogether excluded. I could not but lament that, although the coast of Africa has now been known and frequented by the Europeans for more than two hundred years, yet the negroes still remain entire strangers to the doctrines of our holy religion. We are anxious to draw from obscurity the opinions and records of antiquity, the beauties of Arabian and Asiatic literature, etc.; but while our libraries are thus stored with the learning of various countries, we distribute with a parsimonious hand the blessings of religious truth to the benighted nations of the earth. The natives of Asia derive but little advantage in this respect from an intercourse with us; and even the poor Africans, whom we affect to consider as barbarians, look upon us, I fear, as little better than a race of formidable but ignorant heathens. When I produced Richardson’s Arabic Grammar to some slatees on the Gambia, they were astonished to think that any European should understand and write the sacred language of their religion. At first they suspected that it might have been written by some of the slaves carried from the coast, but on a closer examination they were satisfied that no bushreen could write such beautiful Arabic, and one of them offered to give me an ass and sixteen bars of goods if I would part with the book. Perhaps a short and easy introduction to Christianity, such as is found in some of the catechisms for children, elegantly printed in Arabic, and distributed on different parts of the coast, might have a wonderful effect. The expense would be but trifling; curiosity would induce many to read it; and the evident superiority which it would possess over their present manuscripts, both in point of elegance and cheapness, might at last obtain it a place among the school-books of Africa.

The reflections which I have thus ventured to submit to my readers on this important subject naturally suggested themselves to my mind on perceiving the encouragement which was thus given to learning (such as it is) in many parts of Africa. I have observed that the pupils at Kamalia were most of them the children of pagans; their parents, therefore, could have had no predilection for the doctrines of Mohammed. Their aim was their children’s improvement; and if a more enlightened system had presented itself, it would probably have been preferred. The children, too, wanted not a spirit of emulation, which it is the aim of the tutor to encourage. When any one of them has read through the Koran, and performed a certain number of public prayers, a feast is prepared by the schoolmaster, and the scholar undergoes an examination, or (in European terms) takes out his degree. I attended at three different inaugurations of this sort, and heard with pleasure the distinct and intelligent answers which the scholars frequently gave to the bushreens, who assembled on those occasions and acted as examiners. When the bushreens had satisfied themselves respecting the learning and abilities of the scholar, the last page of the Koran was put into his hand, and he was desired to read it aloud. After the boy had finished this lesson, he pressed the paper against his forehead and pronounced the word Amen, upon which all the bushreens rose, and, shaking him cordially by the hand, bestowed upon him the title of bushreen.

When a scholar has undergone this examination, his parents are informed that he has completed his education, and that it is incumbent on them to redeem their son by giving to the schoolmaster a slave or the price of a slave in exchange, which is always done if the parents can afford to do it; if not, the boy remains the domestic slave of the schoolmaster until he can, by his own industry, collect goods sufficient to ransom himself.

About a week after the departure of Karfa three Moors arrived at Kamalia with a considerable quantity of salt and other merchandise, which they had obtained on credit from a merchant of Fezzan, who had lately arrived at Kancaba. Their engagement was to pay him his price when the goods were sold, which they expected would be in the course of a month. Being rigid bushreens, they were accommodated with two of Karfa’s huts, and sold their goods to very great advantage.

On the 24th of January Karfa returned to Kamalia with a number of people and thirteen prime slaves whom he had purchased. He likewise brought with him a young girl whom he had married at Kancaba, as his fourth wife, and had given her parents three prime slaves for her. She was kindly received at the door of the baloon by Karfa’s other wives, who conducted their new acquaintance and co-partner into one of the best huts, which they had caused to be swept and whitewashed on purpose to receive her.

My clothes were by this time become so very ragged that I was almost ashamed to appear out of doors, but Karfa, on the day after his arrival, generously presented me with such a garment and trousers as are commonly worn in the country.

The slaves which Karfa had brought with him were all of them prisoners of war; they had been taken by the Bambarra army in the kingdoms of Wassela and Kaarta, and carried to Sego, where some of them had remained three years in irons. From Sego they were sent, in company with a number of other captives, up the Niger in two large canoes, and offered for sale at Yamina, Bammakoo, and Kancaba; at which places the greater number of the captives were bartered for gold dust, and the remainder sent forward to Kankaree.

Eleven of them confessed to me that they had been slaves from their infancy, but the other two refused to give any account of their former condition. They were all very inquisitive, but they viewed me at first with looks of horror, and repeatedly asked if my countrymen were cannibals. They were very desirous to know what became of the slaves after they had crossed the salt water. I told them that they were employed in cultivation the land; but they would not believe me, and one of them, putting his hand upon the ground, said, with great simplicity, “Have you really got such ground as this to set your feet upon?” A deeply-rooted idea that the whites purchase negroes for the purpose of devouring them, or of selling them to others that they may be devoured hereafter, naturally makes the slaves contemplate a journey towards the coast with great terror, insomuch that the slatees are forced to keep them constantly in irons, and watch them very closely, to prevent their escape. They are commonly secured by putting the right leg of one and the left of another into the same pair of fetters. By supporting the fetters with a string, they can walk, though very slowly. Every four slaves are likewise fastened together by the necks with a strong rope of twisted thongs, and in the night an additional pair of fetters is put on their hands, and sometimes a light iron chain passed round their necks.

Such of them as evince marks of discontent are secured in a different manner. A thick billet of wood is cut about three feet long, and, a smooth notch being made upon one side of it, the ankle of the slave is bolted to the smooth part by means of a strong iron staple, one prong of which passes on each side of the ankle. All these fetters and bolts are made from native iron; in the present case they were put on by the blacksmith as soon as the slaves arrived from Kancaba, and were not taken off until the morning on which the coffle departed for Gambia.

In other respects the treatment of the slaves during their stay at Kamalia was far from being harsh or cruel. They were led out in their fetters every morning to the shade of the tamarind-tree, where they were encouraged to play at games of hazard, and sing diverting songs, to keep up their spirits; for, though some of them sustained the hardships of their situation with amazing fortitude, the greater part were very much dejected, and would sit all day in a sort of sullen melancholy, with their eyes fixed upon the ground. In the evening their irons were examined, and their hand-fetters put on, after which they were conducted into two large huts, where they were guarded during the night by Karfa’s domestic slaves. But, notwithstanding all this, about a week after their arrival, one of the slaves had the address to procure a small knife, with which he opened the rings of his fetters, cut the rope, and made his escape; more of them would probably have got off had they assisted each other, but the slave no sooner found himself at liberty than he refused to stop and assist in breaking the chain which was fastened round the necks of his companions.

As all the slatees and slaves belonging to the coffle were now assembled either at Kamalia or at some of the neighbouring villages, it might have been expected that we should set out immediately for Gambia; but though the day of our departure was frequently fixed, it was always found expedient to change it. Some of the people had not prepared their dry provisions; others had gone to visit their relations; or collect some trifling debts; and, last of all, it was necessary to consult whether the day would be a lucky one. On account of one of these, or other such causes, our departure was put off, day after day, until the month of February was far advanced, after which all the slatees agreed to remain in their present quarters until the FAST MOON WAS OVER. And here I may remark that loss of time is an object of no great importance in the eyes of a negro. If he has anything of consequence to perform, it is a matter of indifference to him whether he does it today or tomorrow, or a month or two hence; so long as he can spend the present moment with any degree of comfort, he gives himself very little concern about the future.

The fast of Ramadan was observed with great strictness by all the bushreens, but instead of compelling me to follow their example, as the Moors did on a similar occasion, Karfa frankly told me that I was at liberty to pursue my own inclination. In order, however, to manifest a respect for their religious opinions, I voluntarily fasted three days, which was thought sufficient to screen me from the reproachful epithet of kafir. During the fast all the slatees belonging to the coffle assembled every morning in Karfa’s house, where the schoolmaster read to them some religious lessons from a large folio volume, the author of which was an Arab of the name of Sheiffa. In the evening such of the women as had embraced Mohammedanism assembled and said their prayers publicly at the missura. They were all dressed in white, and went through the different prostrations prescribed by their religion with becoming solemnity. Indeed, during the whole fast of Ramadan the negroes behaved themselves with the greatest meekness and humility, forming a striking contrast to the savage intolerance and brutal bigotry which at this period characterise the Moors.

When the fast month was almost at an end, the bushreens assembled at the missura to watch for the appearance of the new moon, but, the evening being rather cloudy, they were for some time disappointed, and a number of them had gone home with a resolution to fast another day, when on a sudden this delightful object showed her sharp horns from behind a cloud, and was welcomed with the clapping of hands, beating of drums, firing of muskets, and other marks of rejoicing. As this moon is reckoned extremely lucky, Karfa gave orders that all the people belonging to the coffle should immediately pack up their dry provisions and hold themselves in readiness; and on the 16th of April the slatees held a consultation and fixed on the 19th of the same month as the day on which the coffle should depart from Kamalia. This resolution freed me from much uneasiness, for our departure had already been so long deferred that I was apprehensive it might still be put off until the commencement of the rainy season; and although Karfa behaved towards me with the greatest kindness, I found my situation very unpleasant. The slatees were unfriendly to me, and the trading Moors who were at this time at Kamalia continued to plot mischief against me from the first day of their arrival. Under these circumstances I reflected that my life in a great measure depended on the good opinion of an individual who was daily hearing malicious stories concerning the Europeans, and I could hardly expect that he would always judge with impartiality between me and his countrymen. Time had, indeed, reconciled me in some degree to their mode of life, and a smoky hut or a scanty supper gave me no great uneasiness; but I became at last wearied out with a constant state of alarm and anxiety, and felt a painful longing for the manifold blessings of civilised society.

April 19. — The long-wished-for day of our departure was at length arrived; and the slatees, having taken the irons from their slaves, assembled with them at the door of Karfa’s house, where the bundles were all tied up, and every one had his load assigned him. The coffle, on its departure from Kamalia, consisted of twenty-seven slaves for sale, the property of Karfa and four other slatees; but we were afterwards joined by five at Maraboo and three at Bala — making in all thirty-five slaves. The freemen were fourteen in number, but most of them had one or two wives and some domestic slaves; and the schoolmaster, who was now upon his return for Woradoo, the place of his nativity, took with him eight of his scholars, so that the number of free people and domestic slaves amounted to thirty-eight, and the whole amount of the coffle was seventy-three. Among the freemen were six jillikeas (singing men), whose musical talents were frequently exerted either to divert our fatigue or obtain us a welcome from strangers. When we departed from Kamalia, we were followed for about half a mile by most of the inhabitants of the town, some of them crying and others shaking hands with their relations who were now about to leave them; and when we had gained a piece of rising ground, from which we had a view of Kamalia, all the people belonging to the coffle were ordered to sit down in one place with their faces towards the west, and the townspeople were desired to sit down in another place with their faces towards Kamalia. In this situation the schoolmaster, with two of the principal slatees, having taken their places between the two parties, pronounced a long and solemn prayer, after which they walked three times round the coffle, making an impression in the ground with the ends of their spears, and muttering something by way of charm. When this ceremony was ended, all the people belonging to the coffle sprang up and, without taking a formal farewell of their friends, set forwards. As many of the slaves had remained for years in irons, the sudden exertion of walking quick with heavy loads upon their heads occasioned spasmodic contractions of their legs; and we had not proceeded above a mile before it was found necessary to take two of them from the rope, and allow them to walk more slowly until we reached Maraboo, a walled village, where some people were waiting to join the coffle. Here we stopped about two hours, to allow the strangers time to pack up their provisions, and then continued our route to Bala, which town we reached about four in the afternoon. The inhabitants of Bala at this season of the year subsist chiefly on fish, which they take in great plenty from the streams in the neighbourhood. We remained here until the afternoon of the next day, the 20th, when we proceeded to Worumbang, the frontier village of Manding, towards Jallonkadoo. As we proposed shortly to enter the Jallonka Wilderness, the people of this village furnished us with great plenty of provisions, and on the morning of the 21st we entered the woods to the westward of Worumbang. After having travelled some little way, a consultation was held whether we should continue our route through the wilderness, or save one day’s provisions by going to Kinytakooro, a town in Jallonkadoo. After debating the matter for some time, it was agreed that we should take the road for Kinytakooro; but as that town was a long day’s journey distant, it was necessary to take some refreshment. Accordingly every person opened his provision-bag and brought a handful or two of meal to the place where Karfa and the slatees were sitting. When every one had brought his quota, and the whole was properly arranged in small gourd-shells, the schoolmaster offered up a short prayer, the substance of which was that God and the holy Prophet might preserve us from robbers and all bad people, that our provisions might never fail us, nor our limbs become fatigued. This ceremony being ended, every one partook of the meal and drank a little water, after which we set forward (rather running than walking) until we came to the river Kokoro, a branch of the Senegal, where we halted about ten minutes. The banks of this river are very high, and from the grass and brushwood which had been left by the stream it was evident that at this place the water had risen more than twenty feet perpendicular during the rainy season. At this time it was only a small stream, such as would turn a mill, swarming with fish; and on account of the number of crocodiles, and the danger of being carried past the ford by the force of the stream in the rainy season, it is called Kokoro (dangerous). From this place we continued to travel with the greatest expedition, and in the afternoon crossed two small branches of the Kokoro. About sunset we came in sight of Kinytakooro, a considerable town, nearly square, situated in the middle of a large and well-cultivated plain: before we entered the town, we halted until the people who had fallen behind came up. During this day’s travel two slaves, a woman and a girl, belonging to a slates of Bala, were so much fatigued that they could not keep up with the coffle; they were severely whipped, and dragged along until about three o’clock in the afternoon, when they were both affected with vomiting, by which it was discovered that they had EATEN clay. This practice is by no means uncommon amongst the negroes; but whether it arises from a vitiated appetite, or from a settled intention to destroy themselves, I cannot affirm. They were permitted to lie down in the woods, and three people remained with them until they had rested themselves; but they did not arrive at the town until past midnight, and were then so much exhausted that the slatee gave up all thoughts of taking them across the woods in their present condition, and determined to return with them to Bala and wait for another opportunity.

As this was the first town beyond the limits of Manding, greater etiquette than usual was observed. Every person was ordered to keep in his proper station, and we marched towards the town in a sort of procession nearly as follows:— In front five or six singing men, all of them belonging to the coffle; these were followed by the other free people; then came the slaves, fastened in the usual way by a rope round their necks, four of them to a rope, and a man with a spear between each four; after them came the domestic slaves; and in the rear the women of free condition, wives of the slatees, etc. In this manner we proceeded until we came within a hundred yards of the gate, when the singing men began a loud song, well calculated to flatter the vanity of the inhabitants, by extolling their known hospitality to strangers and their particular friendship for the Mandingoes. When we entered the town we proceeded to the bentang, where the people gathered round us to hear our dentegi (history); this was related publicly by two of the singing men — they enumerated every little circumstance which had happened to the coffle, beginning with the events of the present day and relating everything in a backward series until they reached Kamalia. When this history was ended, the master of the town gave them a small present, and all the people of the coffle, both free and enslaved, were invited by some person or other and accommodated with lodging and provisions for the night.

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