The tribes occupying the Gaboon country may roughly be divided into two according to habitat — the maritime and those of the interior, who are quasi-mountaineers. Upon the sea-board dwell the Banôkô (Banaka), Bapuka, and Batanga; the Kombe, the Benga and Mbiko, or people about Corisco; the Shekyani, who extend far into the interior, the Urungu and Aloa, clans of Cape Lopez; the Nkommi, Commi, Camma or Cama, and the Mayumba races beyond the southern frontier. The inner hordes are the Dibwe (M. du Chaillu’s “Ibouay”), the Mbúsha; the numerous and once powerful Bákele, the Cannibal Fán (Mpongwe), the Osheba or ‘Sheba, their congeners, and a variety of “bush-folk,” of whom little is known beyond the names. Linguistically we may distribute them into three, namely, 1. the Banôkô and Batanga; 2. the Mpongwe, including the minor ethnical divisions of Benga, and Shekyani; the Urungu, the Nkommi, the Dongas or Ndiva, and the Mbúsha, and 3. the Mpongwe and the tribes of the interior. Lastly, there are only three peoples of any importance, namely, the Mpongwe, the Bákele, and the Fán.
The Mpongwe, whom the French call “les Gabons,” are the aristocracy of the coast, the Benga being the second, and the Banôkô and Bapuka ranking third. They are variously estimated at 5,000 to 7,000 head, serviles included. They inhabit both sides of the Gaboon, extending about thirty-five miles along its banks, chiefly on the right; on the left only seawards of the Shekyani. But it is a wandering race, and many a “mercator vagus” finds his way to Corisco, Cape Lopez, Batanga, and even Fernando Po. The two great families on the northern river bank are the Quabens and the Glass, who style themselves kings and princes; the southern side lodges King William (Roi Denis) near the mouth, and the powerful King George, about twenty-five miles higher up stream. There are also settlements scattered at various distances from the great highway of commerce to which they naturally cling, and upon the Coniquet and Parrot Islands.
Barbot (iv. 9) describes the “Gaboon blacks” as “commonly tall, robust, and well-shaped;” they appeared to me rather below the average of West Coast size and weight. Both sexes, even when running to polysarcia, have delicate limbs and extremities, and the features, though negroid, are not the negro of the tobacconist’s shop: I noticed several pyramidal and brachycephalic heads, contrary to the rule for African man and simiad. In the remarkable paper read (1861) by Professor Busk before the Ethnological Society, that eminent physiologist proved that the Asiatic apes, typified by the ourang-outang, are brachycephalic, like the Mongolians amongst whom they live, or who live amongst them; whilst the gorillas and the African anthropoids are dolichocephalic as the negroes. The Gaboon men are often almost black, whilst the women range between dark brown and cafe au lait. The beard, usually scanty, is sometimes bien fournie, especially amongst the seniors, but, whenever I saw a light-coloured and well-bearded man, the suspicion of mixed blood invariably obtruded itself. It is said that during the last thirty years they have greatly diminished, yet their habitat is still that laid down half a century ago by Bowdich, and all admit that the population of the river has not been materially affected.
The Mpongwe women have the reputation of being the prettiest and the most facile upon the West African coast. It is easy to distinguish two types. One is large-boned and heavy-limbed, hoarse-voiced, and masculine, like the “Ibos” of Bonny and New Calabar, who equal the men in weight and stature, strength and endurance, suggesting a mixture of the male and female temperaments. Some of the Gaboon giantesses have, unlike their northern sisters, regular and handsome features. The other type is quasi-Hindú in its delicacy of form, with small heads, oval faces, noses à la Roxolane, lips sub-tumid but without prognathism, and fine almond-shaped eyes, with remarkably thick and silky lashes. The throat is thin, the bosom is high and well carried, or, as the admiring Arab says, “nejdá;” the limbs are statuesque, and the hands and feet are Norman rather than Saxon. Many Europeans greatly admire these minois mutins et chiffonés.1
Early in the present century the Mpongwe braided whiskers and side curls, tipping the ends with small beads, and they plaited the front locks to project like horns, after the fashion of the present Fán and other wild tribes. A custom noticed by Barbot, but apparently obsolete in the days of Bowdich, was to bore the upper lip, and to insert a small ivory pin, extending from nose to mouth. The painting and tattooing were fantastic and elaborate; and there was a hideous habit of splitting either lip, so as to “thrust the tongue through on ceremonial occasions.” A curious reason is given for this practice. “They are subject to a certain distemper very common there, which on a sudden seizes them, and casts them into fits of so long a continuance, that they would inevitably be suffocated, if by means of the split at their upper lip they did not pour into their mouths some of the juice of a certain medicinal herb, which has the virtue of easing and curing the diseased person in a very short time.”
All these things, fits included, are now obsolete. The men shave a line in the hair like a fillet round the skull, and what is left is coiffe au coup de vent. The head-dress is a cap, a straw hat, a billy cock, or a tall silk “chimney pot,” the latter denoting a chief; he also sports in full dress a broad coat, ending in a loin cloth of satin stripe or some finer stuff, about six feet long by four and a half broad; it is secured by a kerchief or an elastic waist belt; during work it is tucked up, but on ceremonial occasions it must trail upon the ground. The lieges wear European shirts, stuffed into a waist-cloth of cheaper material, calico or domestics; This Tángá, or kilt, is, in fact, an article of general wear, and it would be an airy, comfortable, and wholesome travelling costume if the material were flannel. The ornaments are necklaces of Venetian beads, the white pound, and the black and yellow seed: Canutille or bugles of various patterns are preferred, and all are loaded with “Mengo,” Grígrís (which old travellers call “gregories”), or talismans, chiefly leopards’ teeth, rude bells, and horns. The Monda are hunting prophylacteries, antelope horns filled with “fetish” medicines, leopard’s hair, burnt and powdered heart mixed with leaves, and filth; the mouths are stopped with some viscid black stuff, probably gum. They are often attached to rude bells of iron or brass (Igelenga, Ngenge, Nkendo, or Wonga), like the Chingufu of the Congo regions and the metal cones which are struck for signals upon the Tanganyika Lake.
A great man is known by his making himself a marvellous “guy,” wearing, for instance, a dingily laced cocked hat, stuck athwart-ships upon an unwashed night-cap, and a naval or military uniform, fifty years old, “swearing” with the loin-cloth and the feet, which are always bare.
The coiffure of the <Greek> is peculiar and elaborate as that of the Gold Coast. These ladies seem to have chosen for their model the touraco or cockatoo — they have never heard of “Kikeriki,”— and the effect is at first wondrously grotesque. Presently the eye learns to admire pretty Fanny’s ways; perhaps the pleureuse, the old English corkscrew ringlet, might strike the stranger as equally natural in a spaniel, and unnatural in a human. Still a style so peculiar requires a toilette in keeping; the “king” in uniform is less ridiculous than the Gaboon lady’s chignon, contrasting with a tight-bodied and narrow-skirted gown of pink calico.
The national “tire-valiant” is a galeated crest not unlike the cuirassier’s helmet, and the hair, trained from the sides into a high ridge running along the cranium, not unfrequently projects far beyond the forehead. Taste and caprice produce endless modifications. Sometimes the crest is double, disposed in parallel ridges, with a deep hollow between; or it is treble, when the two lines of parting running along the mastoids make it remarkably like bears’ ears, the central prism rises high, and the side hair is plaited into little pig-tails. Others again train four parallel lines from nape to forehead, forming two cushions along the parietals. The crest is heightened by padding, and the whole of the hair is devoted to magnifying it — at a distance, some of the bushwomen look as if they wore cocked hats. When dreaded baldness appears, rosettes of false hair patch the temples, and plaits of purchased wigs are interwoven to increase the bulk: the last resources of all are wigs and toupets of stained pine-apple fibre. The comb is unknown, its succedaneum being a huge bodkin, like that which the Trasteverina has so often used as a stiletto. This instrument of castigation is made of ivory or metal, with a lozenge often neatly carved and ornamented at the handle. The hair, always somewhat “kinky,” is anointed every morning with palm-oil, or the tallow-like produce of a jungle-nut; and, in full dress, it is copiously powdered with light red or bright yellow dust of pounded camwood, redwood, and various barks.
The ears are adorned with broad rings of native make, and, near the trading stations, with French imitation jewellery. The neck supports many strings of beads, long and short, with the indispensable talismans. The body dress is a Tobe or loin-cloth, like that of the men; but under the “Námbá,” or outer wrapper, which hangs down the feet, there is a “Siri,” or petticoat, reaching only to the knees. Both are gathered in front like the Shukkah of the eastern coast, and the bosom is left bare. Few except the bush-folk now wear the Ibongo, Ipepe, or Ndengi, the woven fibres and grass-cloths of their ancestry; amongst the hunters, however, a Tángá, or grass-kilt, may still be seen. The exposure of the upper person shows the size and tumidity of the areola, even in young girls; being unsupported, the mammae soon become flaccid.
The legs, which are peculiarly neat and well turned, are made by art a fitting set-off to the head. It is the pride of a Mpongwe wife to cover the lower limb between knee and ankle with an armour of metal rings, which are also worn upon the wrists; the custom is not modern, and travellers of the seventeenth century allude to them. The rich affect copper, bought in wires two feet and a half long, and in two sizes; of the larger, four, of the smaller, eight, go to the dollar; the brass are cheaper, as 5: 4; and I did not see iron or tin. The native smiths make the circles, and the weight of a full set of forty varies from fifteen to nineteen pounds. They are separate rings, not a single coil, like that used by the Wagogo and other East African tribes; they press tightly on the limb, often causing painful chafes and sores. The ankle is generally occupied by a brass or iron chain, with small links. Girls may wear these rings, of which the husband is expected to present a considerable number to his bride, and the consequence is, that when in full dress she waddles like a duck.
Commerce and intercourse with whites has made the Mpongwe, once the rudest, now one of the most civilized of African tribes; and, upon the whole, there is an improvement. The exact Barbot (iv. 9) tells us “the Gaboon blacks are barbarous, wild, bloody, and treacherous, very thievish and crafty, especially towards strangers. The women, on the contrary, are as civil and courteous to them, and will use all possible means to enjoy their company; but both sexes are the most wretchedly poor and miserable of any in Guinea, and yet so very haughty, that they are perfectly ridiculous . . . They are all excessively fond of brandy and other strong liquors of Europe and America . . . If they fancy one has got a mouthful more than another, and they are half drunk, they will soon fall a-fighting, even with their own princes or priests . . . Their exceeding greediness for strong liquors renders them so little nice and curious in the choice of them, that, though mixed with half water, and sometimes a little Spanish soap put into it to give it a froth, to appear of proof by the scum it makes, they like it and praise it as much as the best and purest brandy.” Captain Boteler remarks, in 1827: “The women do not speak English; though, for the sake of what trifles they can procure for their husbands, they are in the habit of flocking on board the different vessels which visit the river, and will permit them to remain; and the wives are generally maintained in clothing by the proceeds of their intercourse with the whites.” He further assures us, that mulatto girls thus born are not allowed to marry, although there is no such restriction for the males; and elsewhere, he concludes, that never having seen an infant or an adult offspring of mixed blood, abortion is practised as at Delagoa and Old Calabar, where, in 1862, I found only one child of mixed blood. If so, the Mpongwe have changed for the better. Half-castes are now not uncommon; there are several nice “yaller gals” well known on the river; and the number of old and sick speaks well for the humanity of the tribe.
Devoted to trade and become a people of brokers, of go-betweens, of middle-men, the Mpongwe have now acquired an ease and propriety, a polish and urbanity of manner which contrasts strongly with the Kru-men and other tribes, who, despite generations of intercourse with Europeans, are rough and barbarous as their forefathers. The youths used to learn English, which they spoke fluently and with tolerable accent, but always barbarously; they are more successful with the easier neo-Latin tongues. Their one aim in life is not happiness, but “trust,” an African practice unwisely encouraged by Europeans; so Old Calabar but a few years ago was not a trust-river,” and consequently the consul and the gunboat had little to do there. Many of them have received advances of dollars by thousands, but the European merchant has generally suffered from his credulity or rapacity. In low cunning the native is more than a match for the stranger; moreover, he has “the pull” in the all-important matter of time; he can spend a fortnight haggling over the price of a tooth when the unhappy capitalist is eating his heart. Like all the African aristocracy, they hold agriculture beneath the dignity of man and fit only for their women and slaves; the “ladies” also refuse to work at the plantations, especially when young and pretty, leaving them to the bush-folk, male and female. M. du Chaillu repeatedly asserts (chap xix.) “there is no property in land,” but this is a mistake often made in Africa. Labourers are hired at the rate of two to three dollars per mensem, and gangs would easily be collected if one of the chiefs were placed in command. No sum of money will buy a free-born Mpongwe, and the sale is forbidden by the laws of the land. A half-caste would fetch one hundred dollars; a wild “nigger” near the river costs from thirty to thirty-five dollars; the same may be bought in the Apinji country for four dollars’ worth of assorted goods, the “bundle-trade” as it is called; but there is the imminent risk of the chattel’s running away. A man’s only attendants being now his wives and serviles, it is evident that plurality and domestic servitude will extend —
“Far into summers which we shall not see;”
in fact, till some violent revolution of society shall have introduced a servant class.
The three grades of Mpongwe may be considered as rude beginnings of caste. The first are the “Sons of the Soil,” the “Ongwá ntye” (contracted from Onwana wi ntye), Mpongwes of pure blood; the second are the “Mbámbá,” children of free-men by serviles; and lastly, “Nsháká,” in Bákele “Nsháká,” represents the slaves. M. du Chaillu’s distribution (chap, iii.) into five orders, namely, pure, mixed with other tribes, half free, children of serviles, and chattels, is somewhat over-artificial; at any rate, now it is not generally recognized. Like the high-caste Hindu, the nobler race will marry women of lower classes; for instance, King Njogoni’s mother was a Benga; but the inverse proceeding is a disgrace to the woman, apparently an instinctive feeling on the part of the reproducer, still lingering in the most advanced societies. Old travellers record a belief that, unlike all other Guinea races, the Mpongwe marries his mother, sister, or daughter; and they compare the practice with that of the polished Persians and the Peruvian Incas, who thus kept pure the solar and lunar blood. If this “breeding-in” ever existed, no trace of it now remains; on the contrary, every care is taken to avoid marriages of consanguinity. Bowdich, indeed, assures us that a man may not look at nor converse with his mother-inlaw, on pain of a heavy, perhaps a ruinous fine; “this singular law is founded on the tradition of an incest.”
Marriage amongst the Mpongwe is a purely civil contract, as in Africa generally, and so perhaps it will some day be in Europe, Asia, and America. Cœlebs pays a certain sum for the bride, who, where “marriage by capture” is unknown, has no voice in the matter. Many promises of future “dash” are made to the girl’s parents; and drinking, drumming, and dancing form the ceremony. The following is, or rather I should say was, a fair list of articles paid for a virgin bride. One fine silk hat, one cap, one coat; five to twenty pieces of various cottons, plain and ornamental; two to twenty silk kerchiefs; three to thirty jars of rum; twenty pounds of trade tobacco; two hatchets; two cutlasses; plates and dishes, mugs and glasses, five each; six knives; one kettle; one brass pan; two to three Neptunes (caldrons, the old term being “Neptune’s pots”), a dozen bars of iron; copper and brass rings, chains with small links, and minor articles ad libitum. The “settlement” is the same in kind, but has increased during the last forty years, and specie has become much more common.2
After marriage there is a mutual accommodation system suggesting the cicisbeo or mariage à trois school; hence we read that wives, like the much-maligned Xantippe, were borrowed and lent, and that not fulfilling the promise of a loan is punishable by heavy damages. Where the husband acts adjutor or cavaliere to his friend’s “Omantwe”— female person or wife — and the friend is equally complaisant, wedlock may hardly be called permanent, and there can be no tie save children. The old immorality endures; it is as if the command were reversed by accepting that misprint which so scandalized the Star Chamber, “Thou shalt commit adultery.” Yet, unpermitted, the offence is one against property, and Moechus may be cast in damages ranging from $100 to $200: what is known in low civilization as the “panel dodge” is an infamy familiar to almost all the maritime tribes of Africa. He must indeed be a Solomon of a son who, sur les bords du Gabon, can guess at his own sire; a question so impertinent is never put by the ex-officio father. The son succeeds by inheritance to his father’s relict, who, being generally in years, is condemned to be useful when she has ceased to be an ornament, and, if there are several, they are equally divided amongst the heirs.
Trading tribes rarely affect the pundonor which characterizes the pastoral and the predatory; these people traffic in all things, even in the chastity of their women. What with pre-nuptial excesses, with early unions, often infructuous, with a virtual system of community, and with universal drunkenness, it is not to be wondered at if the maritime tribes of Africa degenerate and die out. Such apparently is the modus operandi by which Nature rids herself of the effete races which have served to clear the ground and to pave the way for higher successors. Wealth and luxury, so generally inveighed against by poets and divines, injure humanity only when they injuriously affect reproduction; and poverty is praised only because it breeds more men. The true tests of the physical prosperity of a race, and of its position in the world, are bodily strength and the excess of births over deaths.
Separation after marriage can hardly be dignified on the Gaboon by the name of divorce. Whenever a woman has or fancies she has a grievance, she leaves her husband, returns to “the paternal” and marries again. Quarrels about the sex are very common, yet, in cases of adultery the old murderous assaults are now rare except amongst the backwoodsmen. The habit was simply to shoot some man belonging to the seducer’s or to the ravisher’s village; the latter shot somebody in the nearest settlement, and so on till the affair was decided. In these days “violent retaliation for personal jealousy always ‘be-littles’ a man in the eyes of an African community.” Perhaps also he unconsciously recognizes the sentiment ascribed to Mohammed, “Laysa bi-zányatin ilia bi záni,” “there is no adulteress without an adulterer,” meaning that the husband has set the example.
Polygamy is, of course, the order of the day; it is a necessity to the men, and even the women disdain to marry a “one-wifer.” As amongst all pluralists, from Moslem to Mormon, the senior or first married is No. 1; here called “best wife:” she is the goodman’s viceroy, and she rules the home-kingdom with absolute sway. Yet the Mpongwe do not, like other tribes on the west coast, practise that separation of the sexes during gestation and lactation, which is enjoined to the Hebrews, recommended by Catholicism, and commanded by Mormonism — a system which partly justifies polygamy. In Portuguese Guinea the enceinte is claimed by her relatives, especially by the women, for three years, that she may give undivided attention to her offspring, who is rightly believed to be benefited by the separation, and that she may return to her husband with renewed vigour. Meanwhile custom allows the man to co-habit with a slave girl.
Polygamy, also, in Africa is rather a political than a domestic or social institution. A “judicious culture of the marriage tie” is necessary amongst savages and barbarians whose only friends and supporters are blood relations and nuptial connections; besides which, a multitude of wives ministers to the great man’s pride and influence, as well as to his pleasures and to his efficiency. When the head wife ages, she takes charge of the girlish brides committed to her guardianship by the husband. I should try vainly to persuade the English woman that there can be peace in households so constituted: still, such is the case. Messrs. Wilson and Du Chaillu both assert that the wives rarely disagree amongst themselves. The sentimental part of love is modified; the common husband becomes the patriarch, not the paterfamilias; the wife is not the mistress, but the mère de famille. The alliance rises or sinks to one of interest and affection instead of being amorous or uxorious, whilst the underlying idea, “the more the merrier,” especially in lands where free service is unknown, seems to stifle envy and jealousy. Everywhere, moreover, amongst polygamists, the husband is strictly forbidden by popular opinion to show preference for a favourite wife; if he do so, he is a bad man.
But polygamy here has not rendered the women, as theoretically it should, a down-trodden moiety of society; on the contrary, their position is comparatively high. The marriage connection is not “one of master and slave,” a link between freedom and serfdom; the “weaker vessel” does not suffer from collision with the pot de fer; generally the fair but frail ones appear to be, as amongst the Israelites generally, the better halves. Despite the Okosunguu or cow-hide “peacemaker,” they have conquered a considerable latitude of conducting their own affairs. When poor and slaveless and, naturally, when no longer young, they must work in the house and in the field, but this lot is not singular; in journeys they carry the load, yet it is rarely heavier than the weapons borne by the man. On the other hand, after feeding their husbands, what remains out of the fruits of their labours is their own, wholly out of his reach — a boon not always granted by civilization. As in Unyamwezi, they guard their rights with a truly feminine touchiness and jealousy. There is always, in the African mind, a preference for descent and inheritance through the mother, “the surer side,”— an unmistakable sign, by the by, of barbarism. The so-called royal races in the eight great despotisms of Pagan Africa — Ashanti, Dahome, and Benin; Karagwah, Uganda, and Unyoro; the Mwátá yá Nvo, and the Mwátá Cazembe — allow the greatest liberty even to the king’s sisters; they are expected only to choose handsome lovers, that the race may maintain its physical superiority; and hence, doubtless, the stalwart forms and the good looks remarked by every traveller. As a rule, the husband cannot sell his wife’s children whilst her brother may dispose of them as he pleases — the vox populi exclaims, “What! is the man to go hungry when he can trade off his sister’s brats?”
The strong-minded of London and New York have not yet succeeded in thoroughly organizing and popularizing their clubs; the belles sauvages of the Gaboon have. There is a secret order, called “Njembe,” a Rights of Woman Association, intended mainly to counterbalance the Nda of the lords of creation, which will presently be described. Dropped a few years ago by the men, it was taken up by their wives, and it now numbers a host of initiated, limited only by heavy entrance fees. This form of freemasonry deals largely in processions, whose preliminaries and proceedings are kept profoundly secret. At certain times an old woman strikes a stick upon an “Orega” or crescent-shaped drum, hollowed out of a block of wood; hearing this signal, the worshipful sisterhood, bedaubed, by way of insignia, with red and white chalk or clay, follow her from the village to some remote nook in the jungle, where the lodge is tiled. Sentinels are stationed around whilst business is transacted before a vestal fire, which must burn for a fortnight or three weeks, in the awe-compelling presence of a brass pipkin filled with herbs, and a basin, both zebra’d like the human limbs. The Rev. William Walker was once detected playing “Peeping Tom” by sixty or seventy viragos, who attempted to exact a fine of forty dollars, and who would have handled him severely had he not managed to escape. The French officers, never standing upon ceremony in such matters, have often insisted upon being present.
Circumcision, between the fourth and eighth year, is universal in Pongo-land, and without it a youth could not be married. The operation is performed generally by the chief, often by some old man, who receives a fee from the parents: the thumb nails are long, and are used after the Jewish fashion:3 neat rum with red pepper is spirted from the mouth to “kill wound.” It is purely hygienic, and not balanced by the excisio Judaica, Some physiologists consider the latter a necessary complement of the male rite; such, however, is not the case. The Hebrews, who almost everywhere retained circumcision, have, in Europe at least, long abandoned excision. I regret that the delicacy of the age does not allow me to be more explicit.
The Mpongwe practise a rite so resembling infant baptism that the missionaries have derived it from a corruption of Abyssinian Christianity which, like the flora of the Camarones and Fernandian Highlands, might have travelled across the Dark Continent, where it has now been superseded by El Islam. I purpose at some period of more leisure to prove an ancient intercourse and rapprochement of all the African tribes ranging between the parallels of north latitude 20° and south latitude 30°. It will best be established, not by the single great family of language, but by the similarity of manners, customs, and belief; of arts and crafts; of utensils and industry. The baptism of Pongo-land is as follows. When the babe is born, a crier, announcing the event, promises to it in the people’s name participation in the rights of the living. It is placed upon a banana leaf, for which reason the plantain is never used to stop the water-pots; and the chief or the nearest of kin sprinkles it from a basin, gives it a name, and pronounces a benediction, his example being followed by all present. The man-child is exhorted to be truthful, and the girl to “tell plenty lie,” in order to lead a happy life. Truly a new form of the regenerative rite!
A curious prepossession of the African mind, curious and yet general, in a land where population is the one want, and where issue is held the greatest blessing, is the imaginary necessity of limiting the family. Perhaps this form of infanticide is a policy derived from ancestors who found it necessary. In the kingdom of Apollonia (Guinea) the tenth child was always buried alive; never a Decimus was allowed to stand in the way of the nine seniors. The birth of twins is an evil portent to the Mpongwes, as it is in many parts of Central Africa, and even in the New World; it also involves the idea of moral turpitude, as if the woman were one of the lower animals, capable of superfetation. There is no greater insult to a man, than to point at him with two fingers, meaning that he is a twin; of course he is not one, or he would have been killed at birth. Albinos are allowed to live, as in Dahome, in Ashanti, and among some East African tribes, where I have been “chaffed” about a brother white, who proved to be an exceptional negro without pigmentum nigrum.
There is no novelty in the Mpongwe funeral rites; the same system prevails from the Oil Rivers to Congo-land, and extends even to the wild races of the interior. The corpse, being still sentient, is accompanied by stores of raiment, pots, and goats’ flesh; a bottle is placed in one hand and a glass in the other, and, if the deceased has been fond of play, his draught-board and other materials are buried with him. The system has been well defined as one in which the “ghost of a man eats the ghost of a yam, boiled in the ghost of a pot, over the ghost of a fire.” The body, after being stretched out in a box, is carried to a lonely place; some are buried deep, others close to the surface. There is an immense show of grief, with keening and crocodiles’ tears, perhaps to benefit the living by averting a charge of witchcraft, which would inevitably lead to “Sassy” or poison-water. The wake continues for five days, when they “pull the cry,” that is to say, end mourning. If these pious rites be neglected, the children incur the terrible reproach, “Your father he be hungry.” The widow may re-marry immediately after “living for cry,” and, if young and lusty, she looks out for another consort within the week. The slave is thrown out into the bush — no one will take the trouble to dig a hole for him.
The industry of the Mpongwe is that of the African generally; every man is a host in himself; he builds and furnishes his house, he makes his weapons and pipes, and he ignores division of labour, except in the smith and the carpenter; in the potter, who works without a wheel, and in the dyer, who knows barks, and who fixes his colours with clay. The men especially pride themselves upon canoe-making; the favourite wood is the buoyant Okumeh or bombax, that monarch of the African forest. I have seen a boat, 45 feet 10 inches by 5 feet 11 inches in beam, cut out of a single tree, with the Mpáno or little adze, a lineal descendant of the Silex implement, and I have heard of others measuring 70 feet. These craft easily carry 10 tons, and travel 200 to 300 miles, which, as Mr. Wilson remarks, would land them, under favourable circumstances, in South America. Captain Boteler found that the Mpongwe boat combined symmetry of form, strength, and solidity, with safeness and swiftness either in pulling or sailing. And of late years the people have succeeded in launching large and fast craft built after European models.
The favourite pleasures of the Mpongwe are gross and gorging “feeds,” drinking and smoking. They recall to mind the old woman who told “Monk Lewis” that if a glass of gin were at one end of the table, and her immortal soul at the other, she would choose the gin. They soak with palm-wine every day; they indulge in rum and absinthe, and the wealthy affect so-called Cognac, with Champagne and Bordeaux, which, however, they pronounce to be “cold.” I have seen Master Boro, a boy five years old, drain without winking a wineglassful of brandy. It is not wonderful that the adults can “stand” but little, and that a few mouthfuls of well-watered spirit make their voices thick, and paralyze their weak brains as well as their tongues. The Persians, who commence drinking late in life, can swallow strong waters by the tumbler.
Men, women, and children when hardly “cremnobatic,” have always the pipe in mouth. The favourite article is a “dudheen,” a well culotté clay, used and worn till the bowl touches the nose. The poor are driven to a “Kondukwe,” a yard of plantain leaf, hollowed with a wire, and charged at the thicker end. The “holy herb” would of course grow in the country, and grow well, but it is imported from the States without trouble, and perhaps with less expense. Some tribes make a decent snuff of the common trade article, but I never saw either sex chew — perhaps the most wholesome, and certainly the most efficacious form. The smoking of Lyámbá, called Dyámbá in the southern regions, is confined to debauchees. M. du Chaillu asserts that this Cannabis sativa is not found wild, and the people confirm his statement; possibly it has extended from Hindostan to Zanzibar, and thence across the continent. Intoxicating hemp is now grown everywhere, especially in the Nkommi country, and little packages, neatly bound with banana leaves, sell on the river for ten sous each. It is smoked either in the “Kondukwe” or in the Ojo. The latter, literally meaning a torch, is a polished cow-horn, closed at the thick end with wood, and banded with metal; a wooden stem, projecting from the upper or concave side, bears a neat “chillam” (bowl), either of clay or of brown steatite brought from the upper Gaboon River. This rude hookah is half filled with water; the dried hemp in the bowl is covered with what Syrians call a “Kurs,” a bit of metal about the size of half-a-crown, and upon it rests the fire. I at once recognized the implement in the Brazil, where many slave-holders simply supposed it to be a servile and African form of tobacco-pipe. After a few puffs the eyes redden, a violent cough is caused by the acrid fumes tickling the throat; the brain, whirls with a pleasant swimming, like that of chloroform, and the smoker finds himself in gloriâ. My Spanish friends at Po tried but did not like it. I can answer for the hemp being stronger than the Egyptian hashísh or the bhang of Hindostan; it rather resembled the Fasúkh of Northern Africa, the Dakha and Motukwane of the southern regions, and the wild variety called in Sind “Bang i Jabalí.”
The religion of African races is ever interesting to those of a maturer faith; it is somewhat like the study of childhood to an old man. The Jew, the high-caste Hindú, and the Guebre, the Christian and the Moslem have their Holy Writs, their fixed forms of thought and worship, in fact their grooves in which belief runs. They no longer see through a glass darkly; nothing with them is left vague or undetermined. Continuation, resurrection, eternity are hereditary and habitual ideas; they have become almost inseparable and congenital parts of the mental system. This condition renders it nearly as difficult for us to understand the vagueness and mistiness of savage and unwritten creeds, as to penetrate into the modus agendi of animal instinct. And there is yet another obstacle in dealing with such people, their intense and childish sensitiveness and secretiveness. They are not, as some have foolishly supposed, ashamed of their tenets or their practices, but they are unwilling to speak about them. They fear the intentions of the cross-questioner, and they hold themselves safest behind a crooked answer. Moreover, every Mpongwe is his own “pontifex maximus,” and the want, or rather the scarcity, of a regular priesthood must promote independence and discrepancy of belief.
Whilst noticing the Fetishism of the Gaboon I cannot help observing, by the way, how rapidly the civilization of the nineteenth century is redeveloping, together with the “Religion of Humanity” the old faith, not of Paganism, but of Cosmos, of Nature; how directly it is, in fact, going back to its oldergods. The UNKNOWABLE of our day is the Brahm, the Akarana–Zaman, the Gaboon Anyambía, of which nothing can be predicated but an existence utterly unintelligible to the brain of man, a something free from the accidents of personality, of volition, of intelligence, of design, of providence; a something which cannot be addressed by veneration or worship; whose sole effects are subjective, that is, upon the worshipper, not upon the worshipped. Nothing also can be more illogical than the awe and respect claimed by Mr. Herbert Spencer for a being of which the very essence is that nothing can be known of it. And, as the idea grows, the several modes and forms of the UNKNOWABLE, the Hormuzd and Ahriman of the Dualist, those personifications of good and evil; the Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, creation, preservation, and destruction; the beginning, the middle, and the end of all things; the Triad, adored by all Triadists under some modification, as that of Osiris, Isis, and Horus, father, mother, and son, type of the family; or Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto, the three great elements; these outward and visible expressions lose force and significance, making place for that Law of which they are the rude exponents. The marvellous spread of Spiritualism, whose god is the UNKNOWABLE, and whose prophet was Swedenborg, is but the polished form of the Mpongwe Ibambo and Ilogo; the beneficent phantasms have succeeded to the malevolent ghosts, the shadowy deities of man’s childhood; as the God of Love formerly took the place of the God of Fear. The future of Spiritualism, which may be defined as “Hades with Progress,” is making serious inroads upon the coarse belief, worthy of the barbarous and the middle ages, in an eternity of punishment, easily expressed by everlasting fire, and in ineffable joys, which no one has ever successfully expressed. The ghosts of our childhood have now become bonâ fide objective beings, who rap, raise tables, display fireworks, rain flowers, and brew tea. We explain by “levitation” the riding of the witch upon the broom-stick to the Sabbath; we can no longer refuse credence to Canidia and all her spells. And the very vagueness of the modern faith serves to assimilate it the more to its most ancient forms, one of which we are studying upon the Gaboon River.
The missionary returning from Africa is often asked what is the religion of the people? If an exact man, he will answer, “I don’t know.” And how can he know when the people themselves, even the princes and priests, are ignorant of it? A missionary of twenty years’ standing in West Africa, an able and conscientious student withal, assured me that during the early part of his career he had given much time to collecting and collating, under intelligent native superintendence, negro traditions and religion. He presently found that no two men thought alike upon any single subject: I need hardly say that he gave up in despair a work hopeless as psychology, the mere study of the individual.
Fetishism, I believe, is held by the orthodox to be a degradation of the pure and primitive “Adamical dispensation,” even as the negro has been supposed to represent the accursed and degraded descendants of Ham and Canaan. I cannot but look upon it as the first dawn of a faith in things not seen. And it must be studied by casting off all our preconceived ideas. For instance, Africans believe, not in soul nor in spirit, but in ghost; when they called M. du Chaillu a “Mbwiri,” they meant that the white man had been bleached by the grave as Dante had been darkened by his visit below, and consequently he was a subject of fear and awe. They have a material, evanescent, intelligible future, not an immaterial, incomprehensible eternity; the ghost endures only for awhile and perishes like the memory of the little-great name. Hence the ignoble dread in East and West Africa of a death which leads to a shadowy world, and eventually to utter annihilation. Seeing nought beyond the present-future, there is no hope for them in the grave; they wail and sorrow with a burden of despair. “Ame-kwisha”— he is finished — is the East African’s last word concerning kinsman and friend. “All is done for ever,” sing the West Africans. Any allusion to loss of life turns their black skins blue; “Yes,” they exclaim, “it is bad to die, to leave house and home, wife and children; no more to wear soft cloth, nor eat meat, nor “drink” tobacco, and rum.” “Never speak of that” the moribund will exclaim with a shudder; such is the ever-present horror of their dreadful and dreary times of sickness, always aggravated by suspicions of witchcraft, the only cause which their imperfect knowledge of physics can assign to death — even Van Helmont asserted, “Deus non fecit mortem.” The peoples, who, like those of Dahome, have a distinct future world, have borrowed it, I cannot help thinking, from Egypt. And when an African chief said in my presence to a Yahoo-like naval officer, “When so be I die, I come up for white man! When so be you die, you come up for monkey!” my suspicion is that he had distorted the doctrine of some missionary. Man would hardly have a future without a distinct priestly class whose interest it is to teach “another and a better,”— or a worse.
Certain missionaries in the Gaboon River have detected evidences of Judaism amongst the Mpongwe, which deserve notice but which hardly require detailed refutation. 1. Circumcision, even on the eighth day as amongst the Efik of the old Calabar River; but this is a familiar custom borrowed from Egypt by the Semites; it is done in a multitude of ways, which are limited only by necessity; the resemblance of the Mpongwe rite to that of the Jews, though remarkable, is purely accidental. 2. The division of tribes into separate families and frequently into the number twelve; but this again appears fortuitous; almost all the West African people have some such division, and they range upwards from three, as amongst the Kru-men, the Gallas, the Wakwafi,and the Wanyika.4 3. Exogamy or the rigid interdiction of marriage between clans and families nearly related; here again the Hindu and the Somal observe the custom rigidly, whilst the Jews and Arabs have ever taken to wife their first cousins. 4. Sacrifices with blood-sprinkling upon altars and door-posts; a superstition almost universal, found in Peru and Mexico as in Palestine, preserved in Ashanti and probably borrowed by the Hebrews from the African Egyptians. 5. The formal and ceremonial observance of new moons; but the Wanyamwezi and other tribes also hail the appearance of the lesser light, like the Moslems, who, when they sight the Hilal (crescent), ejaculate a short prayer for blessings throughout the month which it ushers in. 6. A specified time of mourning for the dead (common to all barbarians as to civilized races), during which their survivors wear soiled clothes (an instinctive sign of grief, as fine dresses are of joy), and shave their heads (doubtless done to make some difference from every-day times), accompanied with ceremonial purifications (what ancient people has not had some such whim?). 7. The system of Runda or forbidden meats; but every traveller has found this practice in South as in East Africa, and I noticed it among the Somal who, even when starving, will not touch fish nor fowl. Briefly, external resemblances and coincidences like these could be made to establish cousinhood between a cockney and a cockatoo; possibly such discovery of Judaism dates from the days about 1840, when men were mad to find the “Lost Tribes,” as if they had not quite enough to do with the two which remain to them.
The Mpongwe and their neighbours have advanced a long step beyond their black brethren in Eastern Africa. No longer contented with mere Fetishes, the Egyptian charms in which the dreaded ghost “sits,”5 meaning, is “bound,” they have invented idols, a manifest advance toward that polytheism and pantheism which lead through a triad and duad of deities to monotheism, the finial of the spiritual edifice. In Eastern Africa I know but one people, the Wanyika near Mombasah, who have certain images called “Kisukas;” they declare that this great medicine, never shown to Europeans, came from the West, and Andrew Battel (1600) found idols amongst the people whom he calls Giagas or Jagas, meaning Congoese chiefs. Moreover, the Gaboon pagans lodge their idols. Behind each larger establishment there is a dwarf hut, the miniature of a dwelling-place, carefully closed; I thought these were offices, but Hotaloya Andrews taught me otherwise. He called them in his broken English “Compass-houses,” a literal translation of “Nágo Mbwiri,” and, sturdily refusing me admittance, left me as wise as before. The reason afterwards proved to be that “Ologo he kill man too much.”
I presently found out that he called my pocket compass, “Mbwiri,” a very vague and comprehensive word. It represents in the highest signification the Columbian Manitou, and thus men talk of the Mbwiri of a tree or a river; as will presently be seen, it is also applied to a tutelar god; and I have shown how it means a ghost. In “Nágo Mbwiri” the sense is an idol, an object of worship, a “medicine” as the North–American Indians say, in contradistinction to Munda, a grigri, talisman, or charm. Every Mpongwe, woman as well as man, has some Mbwiri to which offerings are made in times of misfortune, sickness, or danger. I afterwards managed to enter one of these rude and embryonal temples so carefully shut. Behind the little door of matting is a tall threshold of board; a bench lines the far end, and in the centre stands “Ologo,” a rude imitation of a human figure, with a gum-torch planted in the ground before it ready for burnt offerings. To the walls are suspended sundry mystic implements, especially basins, smeared with red and white chalk-mixture, and wooden crescents decorated with beads and ribbons.
During worship certain objects are placed before the Joss, the suppliant at the same time jangling and shaking the Ncheke a rude beginning of the bell, the gong, the rattle, and the instruments played before idols by more advanced peoples. It is a piece of wood, hour-glass-shaped but flat, and some six inches and a half long; the girth of the waist is five inches, and about three more round the ends. The wood is cut away, leaving rude and uneven raised bands horizontally striped with white, black, and red. Two brass wires are stretched across the upper and lower breadth, and each is provided with a ring or hinge holding four or five strips of wire acting as clappers.
This “wicker-work rattle to drive the devil out” (M. du Chaillu, chap, xxvi.) is called by the Mpongwe “Soke,” and serves only, like that of the Dahomans and the Ashantis (Bowdich, 364) for dancing and merriment. The South American Maraca was the sole object of worship known to the Tupi or Brazilian “Indians.”6
The beliefs and superstitions popularly attributed to the Mpongwe are these. They are not without that which we call a First Cause, and they name it Anyambia, which missionary philologists consider a contraction of Aninla, spirit (?), and Mbia, good. M. du Chaillu everywhere confounds Anyambía, or, as he writes the word, “Aniambié,” with Inyemba, a witch, to bewitch being “punga inyemba.” Mr. W. Winwood Reade seems to make Anyambía a mysterious word, as was Jehovah after the date of the Moabite stone. Like the Brahm of the Hindus, the god of Epicurus and Confucius, and the Akárana-Zaman or Endless Time of the Guebres, Anyambia is a vague being, a vox et præterea nihil, without personality, too high and too remote for interference in human affairs, therefore not addressed in prayer, never represented by the human form, never lodged in temples. Under this “unknown God” are two chief agencies, working partners who manage the business of the world, and who effect what the civilized call “Providence.” Mbwírí here becomes the Osiris, Jove, Hormuzd or Good God, the Vishnu, or Preserver, a tutelar deity, a Lar, a guardian. Onyámbe is the Bad God, Typhon, Vejovis, the Ahriman or Semitic devil; Shiva the Destroyer, the third person of the Aryan triad; and his name is never mentioned but with bated breath. They have not only fear of, but also a higher respect for him than for the giver of good, so difficult is it for the child-man’s mind to connect the ideas of benignity and power. He would harm if he could, ergo so would his god. I once hesitated to believe that these rude people had arrived at the notion of duality, at the Manichaeanism which caused Mr. Mill (sen.) surprise that no one had revived it in his time; at an idea so philosophical, which leads directly to the ne plus ultra of faith, El Wahdaníyyeh or Monotheism. Nor should I have credited them with so logical an apparatus for the regimen of the universe, or so stout-hearted an attempt to solve the eternal riddle of good and evil. But the same belief also exists amongst the Congoese tribes, and even in the debased races of the Niger. Captain William Alien (“Niger Expedition,” i. 227) thus records the effect when, at the request of the commissioners, Herr Schon, the missionary, began stating to King Obi the difference between the Christian religion and heathenism:
“Herr Schön. There is but one God.
“King Obi. I always understood there were two,” &c.
The Mpongwe “Mwetye” is a branch of male freemasonry into which women and strangers are never initiated. The Bakele and Shekyani, according to “Western Africa” (Wilson, pp. 391–2), consider it a “Great Spirit.” Nothing is more common amongst adjoining negro tribes than to annex one another’s superstitions, completely changing, withal, their significance. “Ovengwá” is a vampire, the apparition of a dead man; tall as a tree, always winking and clearly seen, which is not the case with the Ibámbo and Ilogo, plurals of Obambo and Ologo. These are vulgar ghosts of the departed, the causes of “possession,” disease and death; they are propitiated by various rites, and everywhere they are worshipped in private. Mr. Wilson opines that the “Obambo are the spirits of the ancestors of the people, and Inlâgâ are the spirits of strangers and have come from a distance,” but this was probably an individual tenet. The Mumbo–Jumbo of the Mandengas; the Semo of the Súsús; the Tassau or “Purrah-devil” of the Mendis; the Egugun of the Egbas; the Egbo of the Duallas; and the Mwetye and Ukukwe of the Bakele, is represented in Pongo-land by the Ndá, which is an order of the young men. Ndá dwells in the woods and comes forth only by night bundled up in dry plantain leaves7 and treading on tall stilts; he precedes free adult males who parade the streets with dance and song. The women and children fly at the approach of this devil on two sticks, and with reason: every peccadillo is punished with a merciless thrashing. The institution is intended to keep in order the weaker sex, the young and the “chattels:” Ndá has tried visiting white men and missionaries, but his visits have not been a success.
The civilized man would be apt to imagine that these wild African fetishists are easily converted to a “purer creed.” The contrary is everywhere and absolutely the case; their faith is a web woven with threads of iron. The negro finds it almost impossible to rid himself of his belief; the spiritual despotism is the expression of his organization, a part of himself. Progressive races, on the other hand, can throw off or exchange every part of their religion, except perhaps the remnant of original and natural belief in things unseen — in fact, the Fetishist portion, such as ghost-existence and veneration of material objects, places, and things. I might instance the Protestant missionary who, while deriding the holy places at Jerusalem, considers the “Cedars of Lebanon” sacred things, and sternly forbids travellers to gather the cones.
The stereotyped African answer to Europeans ridiculing these institutions, including wizard-spearing and witch-burning is, “There may be no magic, though I see there is, among you whites. But we blacks have known many men who have been bewitched and died.” Even in Asia, whenever I spoke contemptuously to a Moslem of his Jinns, or to a Hindu of his Rákshasa, the rejoinder invariably was, “You white men are by nature so hot that even our devils fear you.”
Witchcraft, which has by no means thoroughly disappeared from Europe, maintains firm hold upon the African brain. The idea is found amongst Christians, for instance, the “reduced Indians” of the Amazonas River; and it is evidently at the bottom of that widely spread superstition, the “evil eye,” which remains throughout Southern Europe as strong as it was in the days of Pliny. As amongst barbarians generally, no misfortune happens, no accident occurs, no illness nor death can take place without the agency of wizard or witch. There is nothing more odious than this crime; it is hostile to God and man, and it must be expiated by death in the most terrible tortures. Metamorphosis is a common art amongst Mpongwe magicians: this vulgar materialism, of which Ovid sang, must not be confounded with the poetical Hindu metempsychosis or transmigration of souls which explains empirically certain physiological mysteries. Here the adept naturally becomes a gorilla or a leopard, as he would be a lion in South Africa, a hyena in Abyssinia and the Somali country, and a loup-garou in Brittany.8
The poison ordeal is a necessary corollary to witchcraft. The plant most used by the Oganga (medicine man) is a small red rooted shrub, not unlike a hazel bush, and called Ikázyá or Ikájá. Mr. Wilson (p. 225) writes “Nkazya:” Battel (loc. cit. 334) terms the root “Imbando,” a corruption of Mbundú. M. du Chaillu (chap. xv.) gives an illustration of the “Mboundou leaf” (half size): Professor John Torrey believes the active principle to be a vegeto-alkali of the Strychnos group, but the symptoms do not seem to bear out the conjecture. The Mpongwe told me that the poison was named either Mbundú or Olondá (nut) werere — perhaps this was what is popularly called “a sell.” Mbundú is the decoction of the scraped bark which corresponds with the “Sassy-water” of the northern maritime tribes. The accused, after drinking the potion, is ordered to step over sticks of the same plant, which are placed a pace apart. If the man be affected, he raises his foot like a horse with string-halt, and this convicts him of the foul crime. Of course there is some antidote, as the medicine-man himself drinks large draughts of his own stuff: in Old Calabar River for instance, Mithridates boils the poison-nut; but Europeans could not, and natives would not, tell me what the Gaboon “dodge” is. According to vulgar Africans, all test-poisons are sentient and reasoning beings, who search the criminal’s stomach, that is his heart, and who find out the deep hidden sin; hence the people shout, “If they are wizards, let it kill them; if they are innocent, let it go forth!” Moreover, the detected murderer is considered a bungler who has fallen into the pit dug for his brother. Doubtless many innocent lives have been lost by this superstition. But there is reason in the order, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” without having recourse to the supernaturalisms and preternaturalisms, which have unobligingly disappeared when Science most wants them. Sorcery and poison are as closely united as the “Black Nightingales,” and it evidently differs little whether I slay a man with my sword or I destroy him by the slow and certain torture of a mind diseased.
The Mpongwe have also some peculiarities in their notions of justice. If a man murder another, the criminal is put to death, not by the nearest of kin, as amongst the Arabs and almost all wild people, but by the whole community; this already shows an advanced appreciation of the act and its bearings. The penalty is either drowning or burning alive: except in the case of a chief or a very rich man, little or no difference is made between wilful murder, justifiable homicide, and accidental manslaughter — the reason of this, say their jurists, is to make people more careful. Here, again, we find a sense of the sanctity of life the reverse of barbarous. Cutting and maiming are punished by the fine of a slave.
And now briefly to resume the character of the Mpongwe, a nervous and excitable race of negroes. The men are deficient in courage, as the women are in chastity, and neither sex has a tincture of what we call morality. To commercial shrewdness and eagerness they add exceptional greed of gain and rascality; foreign rum and tobacco, dress and ornaments, arms and ammunition have been necessaries to them; they will have them, and, unless they can supply themselves by licit, they naturally fly to illicit means. Yet, despite threats of poison and charges of witchcraft, they have arrived at an inkling of the dogma that “honesty is the best policy:” the East African has never dreamed it in the moments of his wildest imagination. Pre-eminent liars, they are, curious to say, often deceived by the falsehoods of others, and they fairly illustrate the somewhat paradoxical proverb:
“He who hates truth shall be the dupe of lies.”
Unblushing mendicants, cunning and calculating, their obstinacy is remarkable; yet, as we often find the African, they are at the same time irresolute in the extreme. Their virtues are vivacity, mental activity, acute observation, sociability, politeness, and hospitality: the fact that a white man can wander single-handed through the country shows a kindly nature. The brightest spot in their character is an abnormal development of adhesiveness, popularly called affection; it is somewhat tempered by capricious ruffianism, as in children; yet it entitles them to the gratítude of travellers.
The language of the Mpongwe has been fairly studied. T. Edward Bowdich (“Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee,” London, Murray, 1819) when leaving the West Coast for England, touched at the Gaboon in a trading vessel, and visited Naango (King George’s Town), on Abaaga Creek, which he places fifty miles up stream. He first gave (Appendix VI.) a list of the Mpongwe numerals. In 1847 the “Missionaries of the A. B. C. F. M.” Gaboon Mission, Western Africa, printed a “Grammar of the Mpongwe Language, with Vocabularies” (New York,Snowden and Pratt, Vesey Street), perhaps a little prematurely; it is the first of the four dialects on this part of the coast reduced to system by the American Missionaries, especially by the Rev. Mr. Leighton Wilson, the others being Bakele, Benga, and Fán.
In 1856, the same gentleman, who had taken the chief part in the first publication, made an able abstract and a comparison with the Grebo and Mandenga tongues (“Western Africa,” part iv. chap. iv.). M. du Chaillu further abridged this abridgement in his Appendix without owning his authority, and in changing the examples he did all possible damage. In the Transactions of the Ethnological Society of London (part ii. vol. i. new series), he also gave an abstract, in which he repeats himself. A “vocabulaire de la langue Ponga” was printed in the “Mémoires de la Société Ethnologique,” tome ii., by M. P. H. Delaporte.
The other publications known to me are:—
1. The Book of Proverbs, translated into the Mpongwe language at the mission of the A. B. C. F. M., Gaboon, West Africa. New York. American Bible Society, instituted in the year MDCCCXVI. 1859.
2. The Books of Genesis, part of Exodus, Proverbs, and Acts, by the same, printed at the same place and in the same year.
The missionary explorers of the language, if I may so call them, at once saw that it belongs to the great South African family Sichwáná, Zulu, Kisawahíli, Mbundo (Congoese), Fiote, and others, whose characteristics are polysyllabism, inflection by systematic prefixes, and an alliteration, the mystery of whose reciprocal letters is theoretically explained by a euphony in many cases unintelligible, like the modes of Hindú music, to the European ear.9 But they naturally fell into the universally accepted error of asserting “it has no known affinities to any of the languages north of the Mountains of the Moon,” meaning the equatorial chain which divides the Niger and Nile valleys from the basin of the Congo.
This branch has its peculiarities. Like Italian — the coquette who grants her smiles to many, her favours to few — one of the easiest to understand and to speak a little, it is very difficult to master. Whilst every native child can thread its way safely through its intricate, elaborate, and apparently arbitrary variations, the people comprehend a stranger who blunders over every sentence. Mr. Wilson thus limits the use of the accent: “Whilst the Mandenga (“A Grammar of the Mandenga Language,” by the Rev. R. Maxwell Macbriar, London, John Mason) and the Grebo (“Grammar,” by the Right Rev. John Payne, D.D. 150, Nassau Street, New York, 1864), distinguish between similar words, especially monosyllables, by a certain pitch of voice, the Mpongwe repel accent, and rely solely upon the clear and distinct vowel sounds.” But I found the negative past, present, and future forms of verbs wholly dependent upon a change of accent, or rather of intonation or voice-pitch, which the stranger’s ear, unless acute, will fail to detect. For instance, Mi Taund would mean “I love;” Mi taundá, “I do not love.” The reverend linguist also asserts that it is almost entirely free from guttural and nasal sounds; the latter appeared to me as numerous and complicated as in the Sanskrit. Mr. Wilson could hardly have had a nice ear, or he would not have written Nchígo “Ntyege,” or Njína “Engena,” which gives a thoroughly unAfrican distinctness to the initial consonant.
The adjectival form is archaically expressed by a second and abstract substantive. This peculiarity is common in the South African family, as in Ashanti; but, as Bowdich observes, we also find it in Greek, e.g. <Greek>, “heresies of destruction” for destructive. Another notable characteristic is the Mpongwe’s fondness for the passive voice, never using, if possible, the active; for instance, instead of saying, “He was born thus,” he prefers, “The birth that was thus borned by him.” The dialect changes the final as well as the initial syllable, a process unknown to the purest types of the South African family. As we advance north we find this phenomenon ever increasing; for instance in Fernando Po; but the Mpongwe limits the change to verbs.
Another distinguishing point of these three Gaboon tongues, as the Rev. Mr. Mackey observes, is “the surprizing flexibility of the verb, the almost endless variety of parts regularly derived from a single root. There are, perhaps, no other languages in the world that approach them in the variety and extent of the inflections of the verb, possessing at the same time such rigid regularity of conjugation and precision of the meaning attached to each part.” It is calculated that the whole number of tenses or shades of meaning which a Mpongwe radical verb may be made to express, with the aid of its auxiliary particles, augmentatives, and negatives — prefixes, infixes, and suffixes — is between twelve and fifteen hundred, worse than an Arabic triliteral.
Liquid and eminently harmonious, concise and capable of contraction, the Mpongwe tongue does not deserve to die out. “The genius of the language is such that new terms may be introduced in relation to ethics, metaphysics, and science; even to the great truths of the Christian religion.”
The main defect is that of the South African languages generally — a deficiency of syntax, of gender and case; a want of vigour in sound; a too great precision of expression, rendering it clumsy and unwieldy; and an absence of exceptions, which give beauty and variety to speech. The people have never invented any form of alphabet, yet the abundance of tale, legend, and proverb which their dialect contains might repay the trouble of acquiring it.
1 M. du Chaillu ends his chapter i. with an “illustration of a Mpongwe woman,” copied without acknowledgment from Mr. Wilson’s “Portrait of Yanawaz, a Gaboon Princess.”
2 Everywhere on the lower river “hard dollars” are highly valued. The Spanish, formerly the favourite, and always worth 4s. 2d., command only a five-franc piece at Le Plateau; moreover, the “peseta,” like the shilling, is taken as a franc.
3 “The British Jews,” by the Rev. John Mills. London: Houlston and Stoneman, 1853.
4 For further details see “Zanzibar City, Island, and Coast,” vol. ii. chap. iv.
5 See “Zanzibar City, Island, and Coast,” vol. ii. chap. v.
6 See part ii. chap. xxii. “Hans Stade,” translated by Mr. Albert Tootal, annotated by myself, and published by the Hakluyt Society, 1874.
7 Captain Boteler (v. ii. p. 374) gives a sketch of the “Fetiche dance, Cape Lopez,” and an admirable description of Ndá, who is mounted on stilts with a white mask, followed by negroes with chalked faces.
8 See “Zanzibar, City, Island, and Coast,” vol. i. chap. vii.
9 I have discussed this subject in my “Zanzibar,” vol. i. chap. xi.
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