The Life of Sir Richard Burton, by Thomas Wright

Chapter XII

29th November 1863 to 15th September 1865



23. A Mission to the King of Dahome. 2 vols., 1864.

24. Notes on Marcy’s Prairie Traveller. Anthropological Review, 1864.

47. Whydah and its Deity. 29th November 1863.

In November 1863 the welcome intelligence reached Burton that the British Government had appointed him commissioner and bearer of a message to Gelele, King of Dahomey. He was to take presents from Queen Victoria and to endeavour to induce Gelele to discontinue both human sacrifices and the sale of slaves. Mrs. Burton sadly wanted to accompany him. She thought that with a magic lantern and some slides representing New Testament scenes she could convert Gelele and his court from Fetishism to Catholicism.204 But Burton, who was quite sure that he could get on better alone, objected that her lantern would probably be regarded as a work of magic, and that consequently both he and she would run the risk of being put to death for witchcraft. So, very reluctantly, she abandoned the idea. Burton left Fernando Po in the “Antelope” on 29th November 1863, and, on account of the importance attached by savages to pageantry, entered Whydah, the port of Dahomey, in some state. While waiting for the royal permit to start up country he amused himself by looking round the town. Its lions were the Great Market and the Boa Temple. The latter was a small mud hut, with a thatched roof; and of the ‘boas,’ which tuned out to be pythons, he counted seven, each about five feet long. The most popular deity of Whydah, however, was the Priapic Legba, a horrid mass of red clay moulded into an imitation man with the abnormalities of the Roman deity. “The figure,” he tells us, “is squat, crouched, as it were, before its own attributes, with arms longer than a gorilla’s. The head is of mud or wood rising conically to an almost pointed poll; a dab of clay represents the nose; the mouth is a gash from ear to ear. This deity almost fills a temple of dwarf thatch, open at the sides. . . . Legba is of either sex, but rarely feminine. . . . In this point Legba differs from the classical Pan and Priapus, but the idea involved is the same. The Dahoman, like almost all semi-barbarians, considers a numerous family the highest blessing.” The peculiar worship of Legba consisted of propitiating his or her characteristics by unctions of palm oil, and near every native door stood a clay Legba-pot of cooked maize and palm oil, which got eaten by the turkey-buzzard or vulture. This loathsome fowl, perched upon the topmost stick of a blasted calabash tree, struck Burton as the most appropriate emblem of rotten and hopeless Dahomey.

204 See Wanderings in West Africa, vol. 2, p. 91. footnote.

48. The Amazons.

Gelele’s permit having arrived, the mission lost no time in proceeding northward. Burton was accompanied by Dr. Cruikshank of the “Antelope,” a coloured Wesleyan minister of Whydah, named Bernisco, and a hundred servants. At every halting place the natives capered before them and tabored a welcome, while at Kama, where Gelele was staying, they not only played, but burst out with an extemporaneous couplet in Burton’s honour:

“Batunu205he hath seen the world with its kings and caboceers, He now cometh to Dahomey, and he shall see everything here.”

Burton presently caught sight of Gelele’s body-guard of 1,000 women — the famous Amazons, who were armed with muskets, and habited in tunics and white calottes. With great protruding lips, and no chin to speak of, they were surely the ugliest women in the world. Of their strength, however, there was no question, and Burton says that all the women of Dahomey are physically superior to the men, which accounts for the employment of so many of them as soldiers. The Amazons were bound to celibacy, and they adhered to it so scrupulously that when Burton arrived, there were only 150 under confinement for breaking their vow. Gelele who was 45 years of age, and six feet high, sat under the shade of a shed-gate, smoking a pipe, with a throng of his wives squatted in a semi-circle round him. All were ugly to a wonder, but they atoned for their deplorable looks by their extreme devotion to, or rather adulation of their master. When perspiration appeared upon the royal brow, one of them at once removed it with the softest cloth, if his dress was disarranged it was instantly adjusted, when he drank every lip uttered an exclamation of blessing. Gelele, drowsy with incense, received Burton kindly, and treated him during the whole of his stay with hospitality. He also made some display of pageantry, though it was but a tawdry show. At the capital, Abomey, “Batunu” was housed with a salacious old “Afa-diviner”206 called Buko-no, who was perpetually begging for aphrodisiacs.

205 Burton.

206 Afa is the messenger of fetishes and of deceased friends. Thus by the Afa diviner people communicate with the dead.

49. “The Customs.”

Upon Gelele’s arrival at Abomey the presents from the Queen were delivered; and on December 28th what was called “The Customs” began, that is the slaughtering of criminals and persons captured in war. Burton begged off some of the victims, and he declared that he would turn back at once if any person was killed before his eyes. He tells us, however, that in the case of the King of Dahomey, human sacrifice is not attributable to cruelty. “It is a touching instance of the King’s filial piety, deplorably mistaken, but perfectly sincere.” The world to come is called by the Dahomans “Deadland.” It receives the ‘nidon’ or soul; but in “Deadland” there are no rewards or punishments. Kings here are kings there, the slave is a slave for ever and ever; and people occupy themselves just the same as on earth. As the Dahoman sovereign is obliged to enter Deadland, his pious successor takes care that the deceased shall make this entrance in royal state, “accompanied by a ghostly court of leopard wives, head wives, birthday wives, Afa wives, eunuchs, singers, drummers, bards and soldiers.” Consequently when a king dies some 500 persons are put to death, their cries being drowned by the clangour of drums and cymbals. This is called the “Grand Customs.” Every year, moreover, decorum exacts that the firstfruits of war and all criminals should be sent as recruits to swell the king’s retinue. Hence the ordinary “Annual Customs,” at which some 80 perish. Burton thus describes the horrors of the approach to the “palace” — that is to say, a great thatched shed — on the fifth day of the “Customs.” “Four corpses, attired in their criminal’s shirts and night-caps, were sitting in pairs upon Gold Coast stools, supported by a double-storied scaffold, about forty feet high, of rough beams, two perpendiculars and as many connecting horizontals. At a little distance on a similar erection, but made for half the number, were two victims, one above the other. Between these substantial structures was a gallows of thin posts, some thirty feet tall, with a single victim hanging by the heels head downwards.” Hard by were two others dangling side by side. The corpses were nude and the vultures were preying upon them, and squabbling over their hideous repast. All this was grisly enough, but there was no preventing it. Then came the Court revels. The king danced in public, and at his request, Burton and Dr. Cruikshank also favoured the company. Bernisco, when called upon, produced a concertina and played “O, let us be joyful, when we meet to part no more.” The idea, however, of getting to any place where he would never be separated from Gelele, his brutish court, his corpses and his vultures severely tried Burton’s gravity. Gelele, who was preparing for an unprovoked attack upon Abeokuta, the capital of the neighbouring state of Lagos, now made some grandiose and rhapsodical war speeches and spoke vauntingly of the deeds that he and his warriors meant to perform, while every now and then the younger bloods, eager to flesh their spears, burst out with:

“When we go to war we must slay men,

And so must Abeokuta be destroyed.”

The leave-taking between Gelele and “Batunu” was affecting. Burton presented his host with a few not very valuable presents, and Gelele in return pressed upon his guest a cheap counterpane and a slave boy who promptly absconded.

Whydah was reached again on 18th February 1864, and within a week came news that Gelele, puffed up with confidence and vainglory, had set out for Abeokuta, and was harrying that district. He and his Amazons, however, being thoroughly defeated before the walls of the town, had to return home in what to any other power would have been utter disgrace. They manage things differently, however, in Dahomey, for Gelele during his retreat purchased a number of slaves, and re-entered his capital a triumphing conqueror. Burton considered Gelele, despite his butcherings and vapourings, as, on the whole, quite a phoenix for an African. Indeed, some months after his mission, in conversations with Froude, the historian, he became even warm when speaking of the lenity, benevolence and enlightenment of this excellent king. Froude naturally enquired why, if the king was so benevolent, he did not alter the murderous “Customs.” Burton looked up with astonishment. “Alter the Customs!” he said, “Would you have the Archbishop of Canterbury alter the Liturgy!”

To a friend who observed that the customs of Dahomey were very shocking, Burton replied: “Not more so than those of England.”

“But you admit yourself that eighty persons are sacrificed every year.”

“True, and the number of deaths in England caused by the crinoline alone numbers 72.”207

207 This was Dr. Lancaster’s computation.

50. Death of Speke, 15th September 1864.

In August 1864 Burton again obtained a few months’ leave, and before the end of the month he arrived at Liverpool. It will be remembered that after the Burton and Speke Expedition of 1860 Speke was to go out to Africa again in company with Captain J. Grant. The expedition not only explored the western and northern shores of the Victoria Nyanza, but followed for some distance the river proceeding northwards from it, which they held, and as we now know, correctly, to be the main stream of the Nile. Burton, however, was still of the opinion that the honour of being the head waters of that river belonged to Tanganyika and its affluents. The subject excited considerable public interest and it was arranged that at the approaching Bath meeting of the British Association, Speke and Burton should hold a public disputation upon the great question. Speke’s attitude towards Burton in respect to their various discoveries had all along been incapable of defence, while Burton throughout had exhibited noble magnanimity. For example, he had written on 27th June 1863 from the Bonny River to Staff-Commander C. George, “Please let me hear all details about Captain Speke’s discovery. He has performed a magnificent feat and now rises at once to the first rank amongst the explorers of the day.”208 Though estranged, the two travellers still occasionally communicated, addressing each other, however, not as “Dear Dick” and “Dear Jack” as aforetime — using, indeed, not “Dear” at all, but the icy “Sir.” Seeing that on public occasions Speke still continued to talk vaingloriously and to do all in his power to belittle the work of his old chief, Burton was naturally incensed, and the disputation promised to be a stormy one. The great day arrived, and no melodramatic author could have contrived a more startling, a more shocking denouement. Burton, notes in hand, stood on the platform, facing the great audience, his brain heavy with arguments and bursting with sesquipedalian and sledge-hammer words to pulverize his exasperating opponent. Mrs. Burton, who had dressed with unusual care, occupied a seat on the platform. “From the time I went in to the time I came out,” says one who was present, “I could do nothing but admire her. I was dazed by her beauty.” The Council and other speakers filed in. The audience waited expectant. To Burton’s surprise Speke was not there. Silence having been obtained, the President advanced and made the thrilling announcement that Speke was dead. He had accidentally shot himself that very morning when out rabbiting.

Burton sank into a chair, and the workings of his face revealed the terrible emotion he was controlling and the shock he had received. When he got home he wept like a child. At this point the grotesque trenches on the tragic. On recovering his calmness, Burton expressed his opinion, and afterwards circulated it, that Speke had committed suicide in order to avoid “the exposure of his misstatements in regard to the Nile sources.” In other words, that Speke had destroyed himself lest arguments, subsequently proved to be fundamentally correct, should be refuted. But it was eminently characteristic of Burton to make statements which rested upon insufficient evidence, and we shall notice it over and over again in his career. That was one of the glorious man’s most noticeable failings. It would here, perhaps, be well to make a brief reference to the expeditions that settled once and for ever the questions about Tanganyika and the Nile. In March 1870, Henry M. Stanley set out from Bagamoro in search of Livingstone, whom he found at Ujiji. They spent the early months of 1872 together exploring the north end of Tanganyika, and proved conclusively that the lake had no connection with the Nile basin. In March 1873, Lieutenant Verney Lovett Cameron, who was appointed to the command of an expedition to relieve Livingstone, arrived at Unyanyembe, where he met Livingstone’s followers bearing their master’s remains to the coast. Cameron then proceeded to Ujiji, explored Tanganyika and satisfied himself that this lake was connected with the Congo system. He then continued his way across the continent and came out at Banguelo, after a journey which had occupied two years and eight months, Stanley, who, in 1874, made his famous journey from Bagamoro via Victoria Nyanza to Tanganyika and then followed the Congo from Nyangwe, on the Lualaba, to the sea, verified Cameron’s conjecture.

At the end of the year 1864 the Burtons made the acquaintance of the African traveller Winwood Reade; and we next hear of a visit to Ireland, which included a day at Tuam, where “the name of Burton was big,” on account of the Rector and the Bishop,209 Burton’s grandfather and uncle.

208 Communicated to me by Mr. W. H. George, son of Staff-Commander C. George, Royal Navy.

209 Rev. Edward Burton, Burton’s grandfather, was Rector of Tuam. Bishop Burton, of Killala, was the Rev. Edward Burton’s brother.

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