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



On the 2nd of December, 1795, I took my departure from the hospitable mansion of Dr. Laidley. I was fortunately provided with a negro servant who spoke both the English and Mandingo tongues. His name was Johnson. He was a native of this part of Africa, and having in his youth been conveyed to Jamaica as a slave, he had been made free, and taken to England by his master, where he had resided many years, and at length found his way back to his native country. As he was known to Dr. Laidley, the Doctor recommended him to me, and I hired him as my interpreter, at the rate of ten bars monthly to be paid to himself, and five bars a month to be paid to his wife during his absence. Dr. Laidley furthermore provided me with a negro boy of his own, named Demba, a sprightly youth, who, besides Mandingo, spoke the language of the Serawoollies, an inland people (of whom mention will hereafter be made) residing on the banks of the Senegal; and to induce him to behave well, the Doctor promised him his freedom on his return, in case I should report favourably of his fidelity and services. I was furnished with a horse for myself (a small but very hardy and spirited beast, which cost me to the value of 7 pounds 10s), and two asses for my interpreter and servant. My baggage was light, consisting chiefly of provisions for two days; a small assortment of beads, amber, and tobacco, for the purchase of a fresh supply as I proceeded; a few changes of linen, and other necessary apparel; an umbrella, a pocket sextant, a magnetic compass, and a thermometer; together with two fowling-pieces, two pair of pistols, and some other small articles.

A free man (a bashreen, or Mohammedan) named Madiboo, who was travelling to the kingdom of Bambara, and two slatees, or slave merchants, of the Serawoolli nation, and of the same sect, who were going to Bondou, offered their services, as far as they intended respectively to proceed, as did likewise a negro named Tami (also a Mohammedan), a native of Kasson, who had been employed some years by Dr. Laidley as a blacksmith, and was returning to his native country with the savings of his labours. All these men travelled on foot, driving their asses before them.

Thus I had no less than six attendants, all of whom had been taught to regard me with great respect, and to consider that their safe return hereafter to the countries on the Gambia would depend on my preservation.

Dr. Laidley himself, and Messrs. Ainsley, with a number of their domestics, kindly determined to accompany me the first two days; and I believe they secretly thought they should never see me afterwards.

We reached Jindey the same day, having crossed the Walli creek, a branch of the Gambia, and rested at the house of a black woman, who had formerly been the paramour of a white trader named Hewett, and who, in consequence thereof, was called, by way of distinction, seniora. In the evening we walked out to see an adjoining village, belonging to a slatee named Jemaffoo Momadoo, the richest of all the Gambia traders. We found him at home, and he thought so highly of the honour done him by this visit, that he presented us with a fine bullock, which was immediately killed, and part of it dressed for our evening’s repast.

The negroes do not go to supper till late, and, in order to amuse ourselves while our beef was preparing, a Mandingo was desired to relate some diverting stories, in listening to which, and smoking tobacco, we spent three hours. These stories bear some resemblance to those in the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, but, in general, are of a more ludicrous cast.

About one o’clock in the afternoon of the 3rd of December, I took my leave of Dr. Laidley and Messrs. Ainsley, and rode slowly into the woods. I had now before me a boundless forest, and a country, the inhabitants of which were strangers to civilised life, and to most of whom a white man was the object of curiosity or plunder. I reflected that I had parted from the last European I might probably behold, and perhaps quitted for ever the comforts of Christian society. Thoughts like these would necessarily cast a gloom over my mind; and I rode musing along for about three miles, when I was awakened from my reverie by a body of people, who came running up, and stopped the asses, giving me to understand that I must go with them to Peckaba, to present myself to the king of Walli, or pay customs to them. I endeavoured to make them comprehend that the object of my journey not being traffic, I ought not to be subjected to a tax like the slatees, and other merchants, who travel for gain; but I reasoned to no purpose. They said it was usual for travellers of all descriptions to make a present to the king of Walli, and without doing so I could not be permitted to proceed. As they were more numerous than my attendants, and withal very noisy, I thought it prudent to comply with their demand; and having presented them with four bars of tobacco, for the king’s use, I was permitted to continue my journey, and at sunset reached a village near Kootacunda, where we rested for the night.

In the morning of December 4th I passed Kootacunda, the last town of Walli, and stopped about an hour at a small adjoining village to pay customs to an officer of the king of Woolli; we rested the ensuing night at a village called Tabajang; and at noon the next day (December 5th) we reached Medina, the capital of the king of Woolli’s dominions.

The kingdom of Woolli is bounded by Walli on the west, by the Gambia on the south, by the small river Walli on the north-west, by Bondou on the north-east, and on the east by the Simbani wilderness.

The inhabitants are Mandingoes, and, like most of the Mandingo nations, are divided into two great sects — the Mohammedans, who are called bushreens, and the pagans, who are called indiscriminately kafirs (unbelievers) and sonakies (i.e., men who drink strong liquors). The pagan natives are by far the most numerous, and the government of the country is in their hands; for though the most respectable among the bushreens are frequently consulted in affairs of importance, yet they are never permitted to take any share in the executive government, which rests solely in the hands of the mansa, or sovereign, and great officers of the state. Of these, the first in point of rank is the presumptive heir of the crown, who is called the farbanna. Next to him are the alkaids, or provincial governors, who are more frequently called keamos. Then follow the two grand divisions of free-men and slaves; of the former, the slatees, so frequently mentioned in the preceding pages, are considered as the principal; but, in all classes, great respect is paid to the authority of aged men.

On the death of the reigning monarch, his eldest son (if he has attained the age of manhood) succeeds to the regal authority. If there is no son, or if the son is under the age of discretion, a meeting of the great men is held, and the late monarch’s nearest relation (commonly his brother) is called to the government, not as regent, or guardian to the infant son, but in full right, and to the exclusion of the minor. The charges of the government are defrayed by occasional tributes from the people, and by duties on goods transported across the country. Travellers, on going from the Gambia towards the interior, pay customs in European merchandise. On returning, they pay in iron and shea-toulou. These taxes are paid at every town.

Medina, the capital of the kingdom, at which I was now arrived, is a place of considerable extent, and may contain from eight hundred to one thousand houses. It is fortified in the common African manner, by a surrounding high wall built of clay, and an outward fence of pointed stakes and prickly bushes; but the walls are neglected, and the outward fence has suffered considerably from the active hands of busy housewives, who pluck up the stakes for firewood. I obtained a lodging at one of the king’s near relations, who apprised me that at my introduction to the king I must not presume to SHAKE HANDS WITH HIM. “It was not usual,” he said, “to allow this liberty to strangers.” Thus instructed, I went in the afternoon to pay my respects to the sovereign, and ask permission to pass through his territories to Bondou. The king’s name was Jatta. He was the same venerable old man of whom so favourable an account was transmitted by Major Houghton. I found him seated upon a mat before the door of his hut; a number of men and women were arranged on each side, who were singing and clapping their hands. I saluted him respectfully, and informed him of the purport of my visit. The king graciously replied, that he not only gave me leave to pass through his country, but would offer up his prayers for my safety. On this, one of my attendants, seemingly in return for the king’s condescension, began to sing, or rather to roar an Arabic song, at every pause of which the king himself, and all the people present, struck their hands against their foreheads, and exclaimed, with devout and affecting solemnity, “Amen, amen!” The king told me, furthermore, that I should have a guide the day following, who would conduct me safely to the frontier of his kingdom — I then took my leave, and in the evening sent the king an order upon Dr. Laidley for three gallons of rum, and received in return great store of provisions.

December 6. — Early in the morning I went to the king a second time, to learn if the guide was ready. I found his Majesty seated upon a bullock’s hide, warming himself before a large fire, for the Africans are sensible of the smallest variation in the temperature of the air, and frequently complain of cold when a European is oppressed with heat. He received me with a benevolent countenance, and tenderly entreated me to desist from my purpose of travelling into the interior, telling me that Major Houghton had been killed in his route, and that if I followed his footsteps I should probably meet with his fate. He said that I must not judge of the people of the eastern country by those of Woolli: that the latter were acquainted with white men, and respected them, whereas the people of the east had never seen a white man, and would certainly destroy me. I thanked the king for his affectionate solicitude, but told him that I had considered the matter, and was determined, notwithstanding all dangers, to proceed. The king shook his head, but desisted from further persuasion, and told me the guide should be ready in the afternoon.

About two o’clock, the guide appearing, I went and took my last farewell of the good old king, and in three hours reached Konjour, a small village, where we determined to rest for the night. Here I purchased a fine sheep for some beads, and my Serawoolli attendants killed it with all the ceremonies prescribed by their religion. Part of it was dressed for supper, after which a dispute arose between one of the Serawoolli negroes, and Johnson, my interpreter, about the sheep’s horns. The former claimed the horns as his perquisite, for having acted the part of our butcher, and Johnson contested the claim. I settled the matter by giving a horn to each of them. This trifling incident is mentioned as introductory to what follows, for it appeared on inquiry that these horns were highly valued, as being easily convertible into portable sheaths, or cases, for containing and keeping secure certain charms or amulets called saphies, which the negroes constantly wear about them. These saphies are prayers, or rather sentences, from the Koran, which the Mohammedan priests write on scraps of paper, and sell to the simple natives, who consider them to possess very extraordinary virtues. Some of the negroes wear them to guard themselves against the bite of snakes or alligators; and on this occasion the saphie is commonly enclosed in a snake’s or alligator’s skin, and tied round the ankle. Others have recourse to them in time of war, to protect their persons against hostile weapons; but the common use to which these amulets are applied is to prevent or cure bodily diseases — to preserve from hunger and thirst — and generally to conciliate the favour of superior powers, under all the circumstances and occurrences of life. 1

1 I believe that similar charms or amulets, under the names of domini, grigri, fetich, &c., are common in all parts of Africa.

In this case it is impossible not to admire the wonderful contagion of superstition, for, notwithstanding that the majority of the negroes are pagans, and absolutely reject the doctrines of Mohammed, I did not meet with a man, whether a bushreen or kafir, who was not fully persuaded of the powerful efficacy of these amulets. The truth is, that all the natives of this part of Africa consider the art of writing as bordering on magic; and it is not in the doctrines of the prophet, but in the arts of the magician, that their confidence is placed. It will hereafter be seen that I was myself lucky enough, in circumstances of distress, to turn the popular credulity in this respect to good account.

On the 7th I departed from Konjour, and slept at a village called Malla (or Mallaing), and on the 8th about noon I arrived at Kolor, a considerable town, near the entrance into which I observed, hanging upon a tree, a sort of masquerade habit, made of the bark of trees, which I was told, on inquiry, belonged to Mumbo Jumbo. This is a strange bugbear, common to all the Mandingo towns, and much employed by the pagan natives in keeping their women in subjection; for as the kafirs are not restricted in the number of their wives, every one marries as many as he can conveniently maintain — and as it frequently happens that the ladies disagree among themselves, family quarrels sometimes rise to such a height, that the authority of the husband can no longer preserve peace in his household. In such cases, the interposition of Mumbo Jumbo is called in, and is always decisive.

This strange minister of justice (who is supposed to be either the husband himself, or some person instructed by him), disguised in the dress that has been mentioned, and armed with the rod of public authority, announces his coming (whenever his services are required) by loud and dismal screams in the woods near the town. He begins the pantomime at the approach of night; and as soon as it is dark he enters the town, and proceeds to the bentang, at which all the inhabitants immediately assemble.

December 9. — As there was no water to be procured on the road, we travelled with great expedition until we reached Tambacunda; and departing from thence early the next morning, the 10th, we reached in the evening Kooniakary, a town of nearly the same magnitude as Kolor. About noon on the 11th we arrived at Koojar, the frontier town of Woolli, towards Bondou, from which it is separated by an intervening wilderness of two days’ journey.

The guide appointed by the king of Woolli being now to return, I presented him with some amber for his trouble; and having been informed that it was not possible at all times to procure water in the wilderness, I made inquiry for men who would serve both as guides and water-bearers during my journey across it. Three negroes, elephant-hunters, offered their services for these purposes, which I accepted, and paid them three bars each in advance; and the day being far spent, I determined to pass the night in my present quarters.

The inhabitants of Koojar, though not wholly unaccustomed to the sight of Europeans (most of them having occasionally visited the countries on the Gambia), beheld me with a mixture of curiosity and reverence, and in the evening invited me to see a neobering, or wrestling-match, at the bentang. This is an exhibition very common in all the Mandingo countries. The spectators arranged themselves in a circle, leaving the intermediate space for the wrestlers, who were strong active young men, full of emulation, and accustomed, I suppose, from their infancy to this sort of exertion. Being stripped of their clothing, except a short pair of drawers, and having their skin anointed with oil, or shea butter, the combatants approached each other on all-fours, parrying with, and occasionally extending a hand for some time, till at length one of them sprang forward, and caught his rival by the knee. Great dexterity and judgment were now displayed, but the contest was decided by superior strength; and I think that few Europeans would have been able to cope with the conqueror. It must not be unobserved, that the combatants were animated by the music of a drum, by which their actions were in some measure regulated.

The wrestling was succeeded by a dance, in which many performers assisted, all of whom were provided with little bells, which were fastened to their legs and arms; and here, too, the drum regulated their motions. It was beaten with a crooked stick, which the drummer held in his right hand, occasionally using his left to deaden the sound, and thus vary the music. The drama is likewise applied on these occasions to keep order among the spectators, by imitating the sound of certain Mandingo sentences. For example, when the wrestling-match is about to begin, the drummer strikes what is understood to signify ali bae see (sit all down), upon which the spectators immediately seat themselves; and when the combatants are to begin, he strikes amuta! amuta! (take hold! take hold!)

In the course of the evening I was presented, by way of refreshment, with a liquor, which tasted so much like the strong beer of my native country (and very good beer too), as to induce me to inquire into its composition; and I learnt, with some degree of surprise, that it was actually made from corn which had been previously malted, much in the same manner as barley is malted in Great Britain. A root yielding a grateful bitter was used in lieu of hops, the name of which I have forgotten; but the corn which yields the wort is the holcus spicatus of botanists.

Early in the morning (the 12th) I found that one of the elephant-hunters had absconded with the money he had received from me in part of wages; and in order to prevent the other two from following his example, I made them instantly fill their calabashes (or gourds) with water; and as the sun rose, I entered the wilderness that separates the kingdoms of Woolli and Bondou.

We continued our journey without stopping any more until noon, when we came to a large tree, called by the natives neema taba. It had a very singular appearance, being decorated with innumerable rags or scraps of cloth, which persons travelling across the wilderness had at different times tied to the branches, probably at first to inform the traveller that water was to be found near it; but the custom has been so greatly sanctioned by time, that nobody now presumes to pass without hanging up something. I followed the example, and suspended a handsome piece of cloth on one of the boughs; and being told that either a well, or pool of water, was at no great distance, I ordered the negroes to unload the asses, that we might give them corn, and regale ourselves with the provisions we had brought. In the meantime, I sent one of the elephant-hunters to look for the well, intending, if water was to be obtained, to rest here for the night. A pool was found, but the water was thick and muddy, and the negro discovered near it the remains of a fire recently extinguished, and the fragments of provisions, which afforded a proof that it had been lately visited, either by travellers or banditti. The fears of my attendants supposed the latter; and believing that robbers lurked near as, I was persuaded to change my resolution of resting here all night, and proceed to another watering-place, which I was assured we might reach early in the evening.

We departed accordingly, but it was eight o’clock at night before we came to the watering-place; and being now sufficiently fatigued with so long a day’s journey, we kindled a large fire and lay down, surrounded by our cattle, on the bare ground, more than a gunshot from any bush, the negroes agreeing to keep watch by turns to prevent surprise.

I know not, indeed, that any danger was justly to be dreaded, but the negroes were unaccountably apprehensive of banditti during the whole of the journey. As soon, therefore, as daylight appeared, we filled our soofroos (skins) and calabashes at the pool, and set out for Tallika, the first town in Bondou, which we reached about eleven o’clock in the forenoon (the 13th of December).

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