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



The town of Jarra is of considerable extent; the houses are built of clay and stone intermixed — the clay answering the purpose of mortar. It is situated in the Moorish kingdom of Ludamar; but the major part of the inhabitants are negroes, from the borders of the southern states, who prefer a precarious protection under the Moors, which they purchase by a tribute, rather than continue exposed to their predatory hostilities. The tribute they pay is considerable; and they manifest towards their Moorish superiors the most unlimited obedience and submission, and are treated by them with the utmost indignity and contempt. The Moors of this and the other states adjoining the country of the negroes resemble in their persons the mulattoes of the West Indies to so great a degree as not easily to be distinguished from them; and, in truth, the present generation seem to be a mixed race between the Moors (properly so called) of the north and the negroes of the south, possessing many of the worst qualities of both nations.

Of the origin of these Moorish tribes, as distinguished from the inhabitants of Barbary, from whom they are divided by the Great Desert, nothing further seems to be known than what is related by John Leo, the African, whose account may be abridged as follows:—

Before the Arabian conquest, about the middle of the seventh century, all the inhabitants of Africa, whether they were descended from Numidians, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, or Goths, were comprehended under the general name of Mauri, or Moors. All these nations were converted to the religion of Mohammed during the Arabian empire under the Kaliphs. About this time many of the Numidian tribes, who led a wandering life in the desert, and supported themselves upon the produce of their cattle, retired southward across the Great Desert to avoid the fury of the Arabians; and by one of those tribes, says Leo (that of Zanhaga), were discovered, and conquered, the negro nations on the Niger. By the Niger is here undoubtedly meant the river of Senegal, which in the Mandingo language is Bafing, or the Black River.

To what extent these people are now spread over the African continent it is difficult to ascertain. There is reason to believe that their dominion stretches from west to east, in a narrow line or belt, from the mouth of the Senegal (on the northern side of that river) to the confines of Abyssinia. They are a subtle and treacherous race of people, and take every opportunity of cheating and plundering the credulous and unsuspecting negroes. But their manners and general habits of life will be best explained as incidents occur in the course of my narrative.

The difficulties we had already encountered, the unsettled state of the country, and, above all, the savage and overbearing deportment of the Moors, had so completely frightened my attendants that they declared they would rather relinquish every claim to reward than proceed one step farther to the eastward. Indeed, the danger they incurred of being seized by the Moors, and sold into slavery, became every day more apparent; and I could not condemn their apprehensions. In this situation, deserted by my attendants, and reflecting that my retreat was cut off by the war behind me, and that a Moorish country of ten days’ journey lay before me, I applied to Daman to obtain permission from Ali, the chief or sovereign of Ludamar, that I might pass through his country unmolested into Bambarra; and I hired one of Daman’s slaves to accompany me thither, as soon as such permission should be obtained. A messenger was despatched to Ali, who at this time was encamped near Benowm; and as a present was necessary in order to insure success, I sent him five garments of cotton cloth, which I purchased of Daman for one of my fowling-pieces. Fourteen days elapsed in settling this affair; but on the evening of the 26th of February, one of Ali’s slaves arrived with directions, as he pretended, to conduct me in safety as far as Goomba, and told me I was to pay him one garment of blue cotton cloth for his attendance. My faithful boy, observing that I was about to proceed without him, resolved to accompany me; and told me, that though he wished me to turn back, he never entertained any serious thoughts of deserting me, but had been advised to it by Johnson, with a view to induce me to turn immediately for Gambia.

February 27. — I delivered most of my papers to Johnson, to convey them to Gambia as soon as possible, reserving a duplicate for myself in case of accidents. I likewise left in Daman’s possession a bundle of clothes, and other things that were not absolutely necessary, for I wished to diminish my baggage as much as possible, that the Moors might have fewer inducements to plunder us.

Things being thus adjusted, we departed from Jarra in the forenoon, and slept at Troomgoomba, a small walled village, inhabited by a mixture of negroes and Moors. On the day following (February 28th) we reached Quira; and on the 29th, after a toilsome journey over a sandy country, we came to Compe, a watering-place belonging to the Moors; from whence, on the morning following, we proceeded to Deena, a large town, and, like Jarra, built of stone and clay. The Moors are here in greater proportion to the negroes than at Jarra. They assembled round the hut of the negro where I lodged, and treated me with the greatest insolence; they hissed, shouted, and abused me; they even spat in my face, with a view to irritate me, and afford them a pretext for seizing my baggage. But finding such insults had not the desired effect, they had recourse to the final and decisive argument, that I was a Christian, and of course that my property was lawful plunder to the followers of Mohammed. They accordingly opened my bundles, and robbed me of everything they fancied. My attendants, finding that everybody could rob me with impunity, insisted on returning to Jarra.

The day following (March 2nd), I endeavoured, by all the means in my power, to prevail upon my people to go on, but they still continued obstinate; and having reason to fear some further insult from the fanatic Moors, I resolved to proceed alone. Accordingly, the next morning, about two o’clock, I departed from Deena. It was moonlight, but the roaring of the wild beasts made it necessary to proceed with caution.

When I had reached a piece of rising ground about half a mile from the town, I heard somebody halloo, and, looking back, saw my faithful boy running after me. He informed me that Ali’s men had gone back to Benowm, and that Daman’s negro was about to depart for Jarra; but he said he had no doubt, if I would stop a little, that he could persuade the latter to accompany us. I waited accordingly, and in about an hour the boy returned with the negro; and we continued travelling over a sandy country, covered chiefly with the Asclepias gigantea, until mid-day, when we came to a number of deserted huts; and seeing some appearances of water at a little distance, I sent the boy to fill a soofroo; but as he was examining the place for water, the roaring of a lion, that was probably on the same pursuit, induced the frightened boy to return in haste, and we submitted patiently to the disappointment. In the afternoon we reached a town inhabited chiefly by Foulahs, called Samaming-koos.

Next morning (March 4th), we set out for Sampaka, which place we reached about two o’clock. On the road we observed immense quantities of locusts; the trees were quite black with them.

Sampaka is a large town, and when the Moors and Bambarrans were at war was thrice attacked by the former; but they were driven off with great loss, though the king of Bambarra was afterwards obliged to give up this, and all the other towns as far as Goomba, in order to obtain a peace. Here I lodged at the house of a negro who practised the art of making gunpowder. He showed me a bag of nitre, very white, but the crystals were much smaller than common. They procure it in considerable quantities from the ponds, which are filled in the rainy season, and to which the cattle resort for coolness during the heat of the day. When the water is evaporated, a white efflorescence is observed on the mud, which the natives collect and purify in such a manner as to answer their purpose. The Moors supply them with sulphur from the Mediterranean; and the process is completed by pounding the different articles together in a wooden mortar. The grains are very unequal, and the sound of its explosion is by no means so sharp as that produced by European gunpowder.

March 5. — We departed from Sampaka at daylight. About noon we stopped a little at a village called Dangali, and in the evening arrived at Dalli. We saw upon the road two large herds of camels feeding. When the Moors turn their camels to feed they tie up one of their fore-legs to prevent their straying. This happened to be a feast-day at Dalli, and the people were dancing before the dooty’s house. But when they were informed that a white man was come into the town they left off dancing and came to the place where I lodged, walking in regular order, two and two, with the music before them. They play upon a sort of flute; but instead of blowing into a hole in the side they blow obliquely over the end, which is half shut by a thin piece of wood; they govern the holes on the side with their fingers, and play some simple and very plaintive airs. They continued to dance and sing until midnight, during which time I was surrounded by so great a crowd as made it necessary for me to satisfy their curiosity by sitting still.

March 6. — We stopped here this morning because some of the townspeople, who were going for Goomba on the day following, wished to accompany us; but in order to avoid the crowd of people which usually assembled in the evening we went to a negro village to the east of Dalli, called Samee, where we were kindly received by the hospitable dooty, who on this occasion killed two fine sheep, and invited his friends to come and feast with him.

March 7. — Our landlord was so proud of the honour of entertaining a white man that he insisted on my staying with him and his friends until the cool of the evening, when he said he would conduct me to the next village. As I was now within two days’ journey of Goomba, I had no apprehensions from the Moors, and readily accepted the invitation. I spent the forenoon very pleasantly with these poor negroes; their company was the more acceptable, as the gentleness of their manners presented a striking contrast to the rudeness and barbarity of the Moors. They enlivened their conversation by drinking a fermented liquor made from corn — the same sort of beer that I have described in a former chapter; and better I never tasted in Great Britain.

In the midst of this harmless festivity, I flattered myself that all danger from the Moors was over. Fancy had already placed me on the banks of the Niger, and presented to my imagination a thousand delightful scenes in my future progress, when a party of Moors unexpectedly entered the hut, and dispelled the golden dream. They came, they said, by Ali’s orders, to convey me to his camp at Benowm. If I went peaceably, they told me, I had nothing to fear; but if I refused they had orders to bring me by force. I was struck dumb by surprise and terror, which the Moors observing endeavoured to calm my apprehensions by repeating the assurance that I had nothing to fear. Their visit, they added, was occasioned by the curiosity of Ali’s wife Fatima, who had heard so much about Christians that she was very anxious to see one: as soon as her curiosity should be satisfied, they had no doubt, they said, that Ali would give me a handsome present, and send a person to conduct me to Bambarra. Finding entreaty and resistance equally fruitless, I prepared to follow the messengers, and took leave of my landlord and his company with great reluctance. Accompanied by my faithful boy (for Daman’s slave made his escape on seeing the Moors), we reached Dalli in the evening, where we were strictly watched by the Moors during the night.

March 8. — We were conducted by a circuitous path through the woods to Dangali, where we slept.

March 9. — We continued our journey, and in the afternoon arrived at Sampaka.

Next morning (March 10th) we set out for Samaming-koos. On the road we overtook a woman and two boys with an ass; she informed us that she was going for Bambarra, but had been stopped on the road by a party of Moors, who had taken most of her clothes and some gold from her; and that she would be under the necessity of returning to Deena till the fast moon was over. The same even the new moon was seen which ushered in the month Ramadan. Large fires were made in different parts of the town, and a greater quantity of victuals than usual dressed upon the occasion.

March 11. — By daylight the Moors were in readiness; but as I had suffered much from thirst on the road I made my boy fill a soofroo of water for my own use, for the Moors assured me that they should not taste either meat or drink until sunset. However, I found that the excessive heat of the sun, and the dust we raised in travelling, overcame their scruples, and made my soofroo a very useful part of our baggage. On our arrival at Deena, I went to pay my respects to one of Ali’s sons. I found him sitting in a low hut, with five or six more of his companions, washing their hands and feet, and frequently taking water into their mouths, gargling and spitting it out again. I was no sooner seated than he handed me a double-barrelled gun, and told me to dye the stock of a blue colour, and repair one of the locks. I found great difficulty in persuading him that I knew nothing about the matter. “However,” says he, “if you cannot repair the gun, you shall give me some knives and scissors immediately;” and when my boy, who acted as interpreter, assured him that I had no such articles, he hastily snatched up a musket that stood by him, cocked it, and putting the muzzle close to the boy’s ear, would certainly have shot him dead upon the spot had not the Moors wrested the musket from him, and made signs for us to retreat.

March 12. — We departed from Deena towards Benowm, and about nine o’clock came to a korree, whence the Moors were preparing to depart to the southward, on account of the scarcity of water; here we filled our soofroo, and continued our journey over a hot sandy country, covered with small stunted shrubs, until about one o’clock, when the heat of the sun obliged us to stop. But our water being expended, we could not prudently remain longer than a few minutes to collect a little gum, which is an excellent succedaneum for water, as it keeps the mouth moist, and allays for a time the pain in the throat.

About five o’clock we came in sight of Benowm, the residence of Ali. It presented to the eye a great number of dirty-looking tents, scattered without order over a large space of ground; and among the tents appeared large herds of camels, cattle, and goats. We reached the skirts of this camp a little before sunset, and, with much entreaty, procured a little water. My arrival was no sooner observed than the people who drew water at the wells threw down their buckets; those in the tents mounted their horses, and men, women, and children, came running or galloping towards me. I soon found myself surrounded by such a crowd that I could scarcely move; one pulled my clothes, another took off my hat, a third stopped me to examine my waistcoat-buttons, and a fourth called out, “La illah el Allah, Mahamet rasowl allahi”—(“There is but one God, and Mohammed is his Prophet”)— and signified, in a threatening manner, that I must repeat those words. We reached at length the king’s tent, where we found a great number of people, men and women, assembled. Ali was sitting upon a black leather cushion, clipping a few hairs from his upper lip, a female attendant holding up a looking-glass before him. He appeared to be an old man of the Arab cast, with a long white beard; and he had a sullen and indignant aspect. He surveyed me with attention, and inquired of the Moors if I could speak Arabic. Being answered in the negative, he appeared much surprised, and continued silent. The surrounding attendants, and especially the ladies, were abundantly more inquisitive: they asked a thousand questions, inspected every part of my apparel, searched my pockets, and obliged me to unbutton my waistcoat, and display the whiteness of my skin; they even counted my toes and fingers, as if they doubted whether I was in truth a human being. In a little time the priest announced evening prayers; but before the people departed, the Moor who had acted as interpreter informed me that Ali was about to present me with something to eat; and looking round, I observed some boys bringing a wild hog, which they tied to one of the tent strings, and Ali made signs to me to kill and dress it for supper. Though I was very hungry, I did not think it prudent to eat any part of an animal so much detested by the Moors, and therefore told him that I never ate such food. They then untied the hog, in hopes that it would run immediately at me — for they believe that a great enmity subsists between hogs and Christians — but in this they were disappointed, for the animal no sooner regained his liberty than he began to attack indiscriminately every person that came in his way, and at last took shelter under the couch upon which the king was sitting. The assembly being thus dissolved, I was conducted to the tent of Ali’s chief slave, but was not permitted to enter, nor allowed to touch anything belonging to it. I requested something to eat, and a little boiled corn, with salt and water, was at length sent me in a wooden bowl; and a mat was spread upon the sand before the tent, on which I passed the night, surrounded by the curious multitude.

At sunrise, Ali, with a few attendants, came on horseback to visit me, and signified that he had provided a hut for me, where I would be sheltered from the sun. I was accordingly conducted thither, and found the hut comparatively cool and pleasant.

I was no sooner seated in this my new habitation than the Moors assembled in crowds to behold me; but I found it rather a troublesome levee, for I was obliged to take off one of my stockings, and show them my foot, and even to take off my jacket and waistcoat, to show them how my clothes were put on and off; they were much delighted with the curious contrivance of buttons. All this was to be repeated to every succeeding visitor; for such as had already seen these wonders insisted on their friends seeing the same; and in this manner I was employed, dressing and undressing, buttoning and unbuttoning, from noon till night. About eight o’clock, Ali sent me for supper some kouskous and salt and water, which was very acceptable, being the only victuals I had tasted since morning.

I observed that in the night the Moors kept regular watch, and frequently looked into the hut to see if I was asleep; and if it was quite dark, they would light a wisp of grass. About two o’clock in the morning a Moor entered the hut, probably with a view to steal something, or perhaps to murder me; and groping about he laid his hand upon my shoulder. As night visitors were at best but suspicious characters, I sprang up the moment he laid his hand upon me; and the Moor, in his haste to get off, stumbled over my boy, and fell with his face upon the wild hog, which returned the attack by biting the Moor’s arm. The screams of this man alarmed the people in the king’s tent, who immediately conjectured that I had made my escape, and a number of them mounted their horses, and prepared to pursue me. I observed upon this occasion that Ali did not sleep in his own tent, but came galloping upon a white horse from a small tent at a considerable distance; indeed, the tyrannical and cruel behaviour of this man made him so jealous of every person around him that even his own slaves and domestics knew not where he slept. When the Moors had explained to him the cause of this outcry they all went away, and I was permitted to sleep quietly until morning.

March 13. — With the returning day commenced the same round of insult and irritation — the boys assembled to beat the hog, and the men and women to plague the Christian. It is impossible for me to describe the behaviour of a people who study mischief as a science, and exult in the miseries and misfortunes of their fellow-creatures.

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