Setting forth how the voyager departs from England in a stout vessel and in good company, and reaches in due course the Island of the Grand Canary, and then the Port of Sierra Leone: to which is added some account of this latter place and the comeliness of its women. Wherein also some description of Cape Coast and Accra is given, to which are added divers observations on supplies to be obtained there.
The West Coast of Africa is like the Arctic regions in one particular, and that is that when you have once visited it you want to go back there again; and, now I come to think of it, there is another particular in which it is like them, and that is that the chances you have of returning from it at all are small, for it is a Belle Dame sans merci.
I succumbed to the charm of the Coast as soon as I left Sierra Leone on my first voyage out, and I saw more than enough during that voyage to make me recognise that there was any amount of work for me worth doing down there. So I warned the Coast I was coming back again and the Coast did not believe me; and on my return to it a second time displayed a genuine surprise, and formed an even higher opinion of my folly than it had formed on our first acquaintance, which is saying a good deal.
During this voyage in 1893, I had been to Old Calabar, and its Governor, Sir Claude MacDonald, had heard me expatiating on the absorbing interest of the Antarctic drift, and the importance of the collection of fresh-water fishes and so on. So when Lady MacDonald heroically decided to go out to him in Calabar, they most kindly asked me if I would join her, and make my time fit hers for starting on my second journey. This I most willingly did. But I fear that very sweet and gracious lady suffered a great deal of apprehension at the prospect of spending a month on board ship with a person so devoted to science as to go down the West Coast in its pursuit. During the earlier days of our voyage she would attract my attention to all sorts of marine objects overboard, so as to amuse me. I used to look at them, and think it would be the death of me if I had to work like this, explaining meanwhile aloud that “they were very interesting, but Haeckel had done them, and I was out after fresh-water fishes from a river north of the Congo this time,” fearing all the while that she felt me unenthusiastic for not flying over into the ocean to secure the specimens.
However, my scientific qualities, whatever they may amount to, did not blind this lady long to the fact of my being after all a very ordinary individual, and she told me so — not in these crude words, indeed, but nicely and kindly — whereupon, in a burst of gratitude to her for understanding me, I appointed myself her honorary aide-de-camp on the spot, and her sincere admirer I shall remain for ever, fully recognising that her courage in going to the Coast was far greater than my own, for she had more to lose had fever claimed her, and she was in those days by no means under the spell of Africa. But this is anticipating.
It was on the 23rd of December, 1894, that we left Liverpool in the Batanga, commanded by my old friend Captain Murray, under whose care I had made my first voyage. On the 30th we sighted the Peak of Teneriffe early in the afternoon. It displayed itself, as usual, as an entirely celestial phenomenon. A great many people miss seeing it. Suffering under the delusion that El Pico is a terrestrial affair, they look in vain somewhere about the level of their own eyes, which are striving to penetrate the dense masses of mist that usually enshroud its slopes by day, and then a friend comes along, and gaily points out to the newcomer the glittering white triangle somewhere near the zenith. On some days the Peak stands out clear from ocean to summit, looking every inch and more of its 12,080 ft.; and this is said by the Canary fishermen to be a certain sign of rain, or fine weather, or a gale of wind; but whenever and however it may be seen, soft and dream-like in the sunshine, or melodramatic and bizarre in the moonlight, it is one of the most beautiful things the eye of man may see.
Soon after sighting Teneriffe, Lancarote showed, and then the Grand Canary. Teneriffe is perhaps the most beautiful, but it is hard to judge between it and Grand Canary as seen from the sea. The superb cone this afternoon stood out a deep purple against a serpent-green sky, separated from the brilliant blue ocean by a girdle of pink and gold cumulus, while Grand Canary and Lancarote looked as if they were formed from fantastic-shaped sunset cloud-banks that by some spell had been solidified. The general colour of the mountains of Grand Canary, which rise peak after peak until they culminate in the Pico de las Nieves, some 6,000 feet high, is a yellowish red, and the air which lies among their rocky crevices and swathes their softer sides is a lovely lustrous blue.
Just before the sudden dark came down, and when the sun was taking a curve out of the horizon of sea, all the clouds gathered round the three islands, leaving the sky a pure amethyst pink, and as a good-night to them the sun outlined them with rims of shining gold, and made the snow-clad Peak of Teneriffe blaze with star-white light. In a few minutes came the dusk, and as we neared Grand Canary, out of its cloud-bank gleamed the red flash of the lighthouse on the Isleta, and in a few more minutes, along the sea level, sparkled the five miles of irregularly distributed lights of Puerto de la Luz and the city of Las Palmas.
We reached Sierra Leone at 9 A.M. on the 7th of January, and as the place is hardly so much in touch with the general public as the Canaries are 1 I may perhaps venture to go more into details regarding it. The harbour is formed by the long low strip of land to the north called the Bullam shore, and to the south by the peninsula terminating in Cape Sierra Leone, a sandy promontory at the end of which is situated a lighthouse of irregular habits. Low hills covered with tropical forest growth rise from the sandy shores of the Cape, and along its face are three creeks or bays, deep inlets showing through their narrow entrances smooth beaches of yellow sand, fenced inland by the forest of cotton-woods and palms, with here and there an elephantine baobab.
The first of these bays is called Pirate Bay, the next English Bay, and the third Kru Bay. The wooded hills of the Cape rise after passing Kru Bay, and become spurs of the mountain, 2,500 feet in height, which is the Sierra Leone itself. There are, however, several mountains here besides the Sierra Leone, the most conspicuous of them being the peak known as Sugar Loaf, and when seen from the sea they are very lovely, for their form is noble, and a wealth of tropical vegetation covers them, which, unbroken in its continuity, but endless in its variety, seems to sweep over their sides down to the shore like a sea, breaking here and there into a surf of flowers.
It is the general opinion, indeed, of those who ought to know that Sierra Leone appears at its best when seen from the sea, particularly when you are leaving the harbour homeward bound; and that here its charms, artistic, moral, and residential, end. But, from the experience I have gained of it, I have no hesitation in saying that it is one of the best places for getting luncheon in that I have ever happened on, and that a more pleasant and varied way of spending an afternoon than going about its capital, Free Town, with a certain Irish purser, who is as well known as he is respected among the leviathan old negro ladies, it would be hard to find. Still it must be admitted it IS rather hot.
Free Town its capital is situated on the northern base of the mountain, and extends along the sea-front with most business-like wharves, quays, and warehouses. Viewed from the harbour, “The Liverpool of West Africa,” 2 as it is called, looks as if it were built of gray stone, which it is not. When you get ashore, you will find that most of the stores and houses — the majority of which, it may be remarked, are in a state of acute dilapidation — are of painted wood, with corrugated iron roofs. Here and there, though, you will see a thatched house, its thatch covered with creeping plants, and inhabited by colonies of creeping insects.
Some of the stores and churches are, it is true, built of stone, but this does not look like stone at a distance, being red in colour — unhewn blocks of the red stone of the locality. In the crannies of these buildings trailing plants covered with pretty mauve or yellow flowers take root, and everywhere, along the tops of the walls, and in the cracks of the houses, are ferns and flowering plants. They must get a good deal of their nourishment from the rich, thick air, which seems composed of 85 per cent. of warm water, and the remainder of the odours of Frangipani, orange flowers, magnolias, oleanders, and roses, combined with others that demonstrate that the inhabitants do not regard sanitary matters with the smallest degree of interest.
There is one central street, and the others are neatly planned out at right angles to it. None of them are in any way paved or metalled. They are covered in much prettier fashion, and in a way more suitable for naked feet, by green Bahama grass, save and except those which are so nearly perpendicular that they have got every bit of earth and grass cleared off them down to the red bed-rock, by the heavy rain of the wet season.
In every direction natives are walking at a brisk pace, their naked feet making no sound on the springy turf of the streets, carrying on their heads huge burdens which are usually crowned by the hat of the bearer, a large limpet-shaped affair made of palm leaves. While some carry these enormous bundles, others bear logs or planks of wood, blocks of building stone, vessels containing palm-oil, baskets of vegetables, or tin tea-trays on which are folded shawls. As the great majority of the native inhabitants of Sierra Leone pay no attention whatever to where they are going, either in this world or the next, the confusion and noise are out of all proportion to the size of the town; and when, as frequently happens, a section of actively perambulating burden-bearers charge recklessly into a sedentary section, the members of which have dismounted their loads and squatted themselves down beside them, right in the middle of the fair way, to have a friendly yell with some acquaintances, the row becomes terrific.
In among these crowds of country people walk stately Mohammedans, Mandingoes, Akers, and Fulahs of the Arabised tribes of the Western Soudan. These are lithe, well-made men, and walk with a peculiarly fine, elastic carriage. Their graceful garb consists of a long white loose-sleeved shirt, over which they wear either a long black mohair or silk gown, or a deep bright blue affair, not altogether unlike a University gown, only with more stuff in it and more folds. They are undoubtedly the gentlemen of the Sierra Leone native population, and they are becoming an increasing faction in the town, by no means to the pleasure of the Christians.
But to the casual visitor at Sierra Leone the Mohammedan is a mere passing sensation. You neither feel a burning desire to laugh with, or at him, as in the case of the country folks, nor do you wish to punch his head, and split his coat up his back — things you yearn to do to that perfect flower of Sierra Leone culture, who yells your bald name across the street at you, condescendingly informs you that you can go and get letters that are waiting for you, while he smokes his cigar and lolls in the shade, or in some similar way displays his second-hand rubbishy white culture — a culture far lower and less dignified than that of either the stately Mandingo or the bush chief. I do not think that the Sierra Leone dandy really means half as much insolence as he shows; but the truth is he feels too insecure of his own real position, in spite of all the “side” he puts on, and so he dare not be courteous like the Mandingo or the bush Fan.
It is the costume of the people in Free Town and its harbour that will first attract the attention of the newcomer, notwithstanding the fact that the noise, the smell, and the heat are simultaneously making desperate bids for that favour. The ordinary man in the street wears anything he may have been able to acquire, anyhow, and he does not fasten it on securely. I fancy it must be capillary attraction, or some other partially-understood force, that takes part in the matter. It is certainly neither braces nor buttons. There are, of course, some articles which from their very structure are fairly secure, such as an umbrella with the stick and ribs removed, or a shirt. This last-mentioned treasure, which usually becomes the property of the ordinary man from a female relative or admirer taking in white men’s washing, is always worn flowing free, and has such a charm in itself that the happy possessor cares little what he continues his costume with — trousers, loin cloth, red flannel petticoat, or rice-bag drawers, being, as he would put it, “all same for one” to him.
The ladies are divided into three classes; the young girl you address as “tee-tee”; the young person as “seester”; the more mature charmer as “mammy”; but I do not advise you to employ these terms when you are on your first visit, because you might get misunderstood. For, you see, by addressing a mammy as seester, she might think either that you were unconscious of her dignity as a married lady — a matter she would soon put you right on — or that you were flirting, which of course was totally foreign to your intention, and would make you uncomfortable. My advice is that you rigidly stick to missus or mammy. I have seen this done most successfully.
The ladies are almost as varied in their costume as the gentlemen, but always neater and cleaner; and mighty picturesque they are too, and occasionally very pretty. A market-woman with her jolly brown face and laughing brown eyes — eyes all the softer for a touch of antimony — her ample form clothed in a lively print overall, made with a yoke at the shoulders, and a full long flounce which is gathered on to the yoke under the arms and falls fully to the feet; with her head done up in a yellow or red handkerchief, and her snowy white teeth gleaming through her vast smiles, is a mighty pleasant thing to see, and to talk to. But, Allah! the circumference of them!
The stone-built, white-washed market buildings of Free Town have a creditably clean and tidy appearance considering the climate, and the quantity and variety of things exposed for sale — things one wants the pen of a Rabelais to catalogue. Here are all manner of fruits, some which are familiar to you in England; others that soon become so to you in Africa. You take them as a matter of course if you are outward bound, but on your call homeward (if you make it) you will look on them as a blessing and a curiosity. For lower down, particularly in “the Rivers,” these things are rarely to be had, and never in such perfection as here; and to see again lettuces, yellow oranges, and tomatoes bigger than marbles is a sensation and a joy.
One of the chief features of Free Town are the jack crows. Some writers say they are peculiar to Sierra Leone, others that they are not, but both unite in calling them Picathartes gymnocephalus. To the white people who live in daily contact with them they are turkey buzzards; to the natives, Yubu. Anyhow they are evil-looking fowl, and no ornament to the roof-ridges they choose to sit on. The native Christians ought to put a row of spikes along the top of their cathedral to keep them off; the beauty of that edifice is very far from great, and it cannot carry off the effect produced by the row of these noisome birds as they sit along its summit, with their wings arranged at all manner of different angles in an “all gone” way. One bird perhaps will have one straight out in front, and the other casually disposed at right-angles, another both straight out in front, and others again with both hanging hopelessly down, but none with them neatly and tidily folded up, as decent birds’ wings should be. They all give the impression of having been extremely drunk the previous evening, and of having subsequently fallen into some sticky abomination — into blood for choice. Being the scavengers of Free Town, however, they are respected by the local authorities and preserved; and the natives tell me you never see either a young or a dead one. The latter is a thing you would not expect, for half of them look as if they could not live through the afternoon. They also told me that when you got close to them, they had a “‘trong, ‘trong ‘niff; ‘niff too much.” I did not try, but I am quite willing to believe this statement.
The other animals most in evidence in the streets are, first and foremost, goats and sheep. I have to lump them together, for it is exceedingly difficult to tell one from the other. All along the Coast the empirical rule is that sheep carry their tails down, and goats carry their tails up; fortunately you need not worry much anyway, for they both “taste rather like the nothing that the world was made of,” as Frau Buchholtz says, and own in addition a fibrous texture, and a certain twang. Small cinnamon-coloured cattle are to be got here, but horses there are practically none. Now and again some one who does not see why a horse should not live here as well as at Accra or Lagos imports one, but it always shortly dies. Some say it is because the natives who get their living by hammock-carrying poison them, others say the tsetse fly finishes them off; and others, and these I believe are right, say that entozoa are the cause. Small, lean, lank yellow dogs with very erect ears lead an awful existence, afflicted by many things, but beyond all others by the goats, who, rearing their families in the grassy streets, choose to think the dogs intend attacking them. Last, but not least, there is the pig — a rich source of practice to the local lawyer.
Cape Coast Castle and then Accra were the next places of general interest at which we stopped. The former looks well from the roadstead, and as if it had very recently been white-washed. It is surrounded by low, heavily-forested hills, which rise almost from the seashore, and the fine mass of its old castle does not display its dilapidation at a distance. Moreover, the three stone forts of Victoria, William, and Macarthy, situated on separate hills commanding the town, add to the general appearance of permanent substantialness so different from the usual ramshackledom of West Coast settlements. Even when you go ashore and have had time to recover your senses, scattered by the surf experience, you find this substantialness a true one, not a mere visual delusion produced by painted wood as the seeming substantialness of Sierra Leone turns out to be when you get to close quarters with it. It causes one some mental effort to grasp the fact that Cape Coast has been in European hands for centuries, but it requires a most unmodern power of credence to realise this of any other settlement on the whole western seaboard until you have the pleasure of seeing the beautiful city of San Paul de Loanda, far away down south, past the Congo.
My experience of Cape Coast on this occasion was one of the hottest, but one of the pleasantest I have ever been through on the Gold Coast. The former attribute was due to the climate, the latter to my kind friends, Mr. Batty, and Mr. and Mrs. Dennis Kemp. I was taken round the grand stone-built houses with their high stone-walled yards and sculpture-decorated gateways, built by the merchants of the last century and of the century before, and through the great rambling stone castle with its water-tanks cut in the solid rock beneath it, and its commodious accommodation for slaves awaiting shipment, now almost as obsolete as the guns it mounts, but not quite so, for these cool and roomy chambers serve to house the native constabulary and their extensive families.
This being done, I was taken up an unmitigated hill, on whose summit stands Fort William, a pepper-pot-like structure now used as a lighthouse. The view from the top was exceedingly lovely and extensive. Beneath, and between us and the sea, lay the town in the blazing sun. In among its solid stone buildings patches of native mud-built huts huddled together as though they had been shaken down out of a sack into the town to serve as dunnage. Then came the snow-white surf wall, and across it the blue sea with our steamer rolling to and fro on the long, regular swell, impatiently waiting until Sunday should be over and she could work cargo. Round us on all the other sides were wooded hills and valleys, and away in the distance to the west showed the white town and castle of Elmina and the nine-mile road thither, skirting the surf-bound seashore, only broken on its level way by the mouth of the Sweet River. Over all was the brooding silence of the noonday heat, broken only by the dulled thunder of the surf.
After seeing these things we started down stairs, and on reaching ground descended yet lower into a sort of stone-walled dry moat, out of which opened clean, cool, cellar-like chambers tunnelled into the earth. These, I was informed, had also been constructed to keep slaves in when they were the staple export of the Gold Coast. They were so refreshingly cool that I lingered looking at them and their massive doors, ere being marched up to ground level again, and down the hill through some singularly awful stenches, mostly arising from rubber, into the big Wesleyan church in the middle of the town. It is a building in the terrible Africo–Gothic style, but it compares most favourably with the cathedral at Sierra Leone, particularly internally, wherein, indeed, it far surpasses that structure. And then we returned to the Mission House and spent a very pleasant evening, save for the knowledge (which amounted in me to remorse) that, had it not been for my edification, not one of my friends would have spent the day toiling about the town they know only too well. The Wesleyan Mission on the Gold Coast, of which Mr. Dennis Kemp was at that time chairman, is the largest and most influential Protestant mission on the West Coast of Africa, and it is now, I am glad to say, adding a technical department to its scholastic and religious one. The Basel Mission has done a great deal of good work in giving technical instruction to the natives, and practically started this most important branch of their education. There is still an almost infinite amount of this work to be done, the African being so strangely deficient in mechanical culture; infinitely more so, indeed, in this than in any other particular.
After leaving Cape Coast our next port was Accra which is one of the five West Coast towns that look well from the sea. The others don’t look well from anywhere. First in order of beauty comes San Paul de Loanda; then Cape Coast with its satellite Elmina, then Gaboon, then Accra with its satellite Christiansborg, and lastly, Sierra Leone.
What there is of beauty in Accra is oriental in type. Seen from the sea, Fort St. James on the left and Christiansborg Castle on the right, both almost on shore level, give, with an outcrop of sandy dwarf cliffs, a certain air of balance and strength to the town, though but for these and the two old castles, Accra would be but a poor place and a flimsy, for the rest of it is a mass of rubbishy mud and palm-leaf huts, and corrugated iron dwellings for the Europeans.
Corrugated iron is my abomination. I quite understand it has points, and I do not attack from an aesthetic standpoint. It really looks well enough when it is painted white. There is, close to Christiansborg Castle, a patch of bungalows and offices for officialdom and wife that from a distance in the hard bright sunshine looks like an encampment of snow-white tents among the coco palms, and pretty enough withal. I am also aware that the corrugated-iron roof is an advantage in enabling you to collect and store rain-water, which is the safest kind of water you can get on the Coast, always supposing you have not painted the aforesaid roof with red oxide an hour or two before so collecting, as a friend of mine did once. But the heat inside those iron houses is far greater than inside mud-walled, brick, or wooden ones, and the alternations of temperature more sudden: mornings and evenings they are cold and clammy; draughty they are always, thereby giving you chill which means fever, and fever in West Africa means more than it does in most places.
Going on shore at Accra with Lady MacDonald gave me opportunities and advantages I should not otherwise have enjoyed, such as the hospitality of the Governor, luxurious transport from the landing place to Christiansborg Castle, a thorough inspection of the cathedral in course of erection, and the strange and highly interesting function of going to a tea-party at a police station to meet a king, — a real reigning king, — who kindly attended with his suite and displayed an intelligent interest in photographs. Tackie (that is His Majesty’s name) is an old, spare man, with a subdued manner. His sovereign rights are acknowledged by the Government so far as to hold him more or less responsible for any iniquity committed by his people; and as the Government do not allow him to execute or flagellate the said people, earthly pomp is rather a hollow thing to Tackie.
On landing I was taken in charge by an Assistant Inspector of Police, and after a scrimmage for my chief’s baggage and my own, which reminded me of a long ago landing on the distant island of Guernsey, the inspector and I got into a ‘rickshaw, locally called a go-cart. It was pulled in front by two government negroes and pushed behind by another pair, all neatly attired in white jackets and knee breeches, and crimson cummerbunds yards long, bound round their middles. Now it is an ingrained characteristic of the uneducated negro, that he cannot keep on a neat and complete garment of any kind. It does not matter what that garment may be; so long as it is whole, off it comes. But as soon as that garment becomes a series of holes, held together by filaments of rag, he keeps it upon him in a manner that is marvellous, and you need have no further anxiety on its behalf. Therefore it was but natural that the governmental cummerbunds, being new, should come off their wearers several times in the course of our two mile trip, and as they wound riskily round the legs of their running wearers, we had to make halts while one end of the cummerbund was affixed to a tree-trunk and the other end to the man, who rapidly wound himself up in it again with a skill that spoke of constant practice.
The road to Christiansborg from Accra, which runs parallel to the sea and is broad and well-kept, is in places pleasantly shaded with pepper trees, eucalyptus, and palms. The first part of it, which forms the main street of Accra, is remarkable. The untidy, poverty-stricken native houses or huts are no credit to their owners, and a constant source of anxiety to a conscientious sanitary inspector. Almost every one of them is a shop, but this does not give rise to the animated commercial life one might imagine, owing, I presume, to the fact that every native inhabitant of Accra who has any money to get rid of is able recklessly to spend it in his own emporium. For these shops are of the store nature, each after his kind, and seem homogeneously stocked with tin pans, loud-patterned basins, iron pots, a few rolls of cloth and bottles of American rum. After passing these there are the Haussa lines, a few European houses, and the cathedral; and when nearly into Christiansborg, a cemetery on either side of the road. That to the right is the old cemetery, now closed, and when I was there, in a disgracefully neglected state: a mere jungle of grass infested with snakes. Opposite to it is the cemetery now in use, and I remember well my first visit to it under the guidance of a gloomy Government official, who said he always walked there every afternoon, “so as to get used to the place before staying permanently in it,” — a rank waste of time and energy, by the way, as subsequent events proved, for he is now safe off the Gold Coast for good and all.
He took me across the well-kept grass to two newly dug graves, each covered with wooden hoods in a most business-like way. Evidently those hoods were regular parts of the cemetery’s outfit. He said nothing, but waved his hand with a “take-your-choice,-they-are-both-quite-ready” style. “Why?” I queried laconically. “Oh! we always keep two graves ready dug for Europeans. We have to bury very quickly here, you know,” he answered. I turned at bay. I had had already a very heavy dose of details of this sort that afternoon and was disinclined to believe another thing. So I said, “It’s exceedingly wrong to do a thing like that, you only frighten people to death. You can’t want new-dug graves daily. There are not enough white men in the whole place to keep the institution up.” “We do,” he replied, “at any rate at this season. Why, the other day we had two white men to bury before twelve o’clock, and at four, another dropped in on a steamer.”
“At 4.30,” said a companion, an exceedingly accurate member of the staff. “How you fellows DO exaggerate!” Subsequent knowledge of the Gold Coast has convinced me fully that the extra funeral being placed half-an-hour sooner than it occurred is the usual percentage of exaggeration you will be able to find in stories relating to the local mortality. And at Accra, after I left it, and all along the Gold Coast, came one of those dreadful epidemic outbursts sweeping away more than half the white population in a few weeks.
But to return to our state journey along the Christiansborg road. We soon reached the castle, an exceedingly roomy and solid edifice built by the Danes, and far better fitted for the climate than our modern dwellings, in spite of our supposed advance in tropical hygiene. We entered by the sentry-guarded great gate into the courtyard; on the right hand were the rest of the guard; most of them asleep on their mats, but a few busy saying Dhikr, etc., towards Mecca, like the good Mohammedans these Haussas are, others winding themselves into their cummerbunds. On the left hand was Sir Brandford Griffiths’ hobby — a choice and select little garden, of lovely eucharis lilies mostly in tubs, and rare and beautiful flowers brought by him from his Barbadian home; while shading it and the courtyard was a fine specimen of that superb thing of beauty — a flamboyant tree — glorious with its delicate-green acacia-like leaves and vermilion and yellow flowers, and astonishing with its vast beans. A flight of stone stairs leads from the courtyard to the upper part of the castle where the living rooms are, over the extensive series of cool tunnel-like slave barracoons, now used as store chambers. The upper rooms are high and large, and full of a soft pleasant light and the thunder of the everlasting surf breaking on the rocky spit on which the castle is built.
From the day the castle was built, now more than a hundred years ago, the surf spray has been swept by the on-shore evening breeze into every chink and cranny of the whole building, and hence the place is mouldy — mouldy to an extent I, with all my experience in that paradise for mould, West Africa, have never elsewhere seen. The matting on the floors took an impression of your foot as a light snowfall would. Beneath articles of furniture the cryptogams attained a size more in keeping with the coal period than with the nineteenth century.
The Gold Coast is one of the few places in West Africa that I have never felt it my solemn duty to go and fish in. I really cannot say why. Seen from the sea it is a pleasant looking land. The long lines of yellow, sandy beach backed by an almost continuous line of blue hills, which in some places come close to the beach, in other places show in the dim distance. It is hard to think that it is so unhealthy as it is, from just seeing it as you pass by. It has high land and has not those great masses of mangrove-swamp one usually, at first, associates with a bad fever district, but which prove on acquaintance to be at any rate no worse than this well-elevated open-forested Gold Coast land. There are many things to be had here and in Lagos which tend to make life more tolerable, that you cannot have elsewhere until you are south of the Congo. Horses, for example, do fairly well at Accra, though some twelve miles or so behind the town there is a belt of tsetse fly, specimens of which I have procured and had identified at the British Museum, and it is certain death to a horse, I am told, to take it to Aburi.
The food-supply, although bad and dear, is superior to that you get down south. Goats and sheep are fairly plentiful. In addition to fresh meat and tinned you are able to get a quantity of good sea fish, for the great West African Bank, which fringes the coast in the Bight of Benin, abounds in fish, although the native cook very rarely knows how to cook them. Then, too, you can get more fruit and vegetables on the Gold Coast than at most places lower down: the plantain, 3 not least among them and very good when allowed to become ripe, and then cut into longitudinal strips, and properly fried; the banana, which surpasses it when served in the same manner, or beaten up and mixed with rice, butter, and eggs, and baked. Eggs, by the way, according to the great mass of native testimony, are laid in this country in a state that makes them more fit for electioneering than culinary purposes, and I shall never forget one tribe I was once among, who, whenever I sat down on one of their benches, used to smash eggs round me for ju-ju. They meant well. But I will nobly resist the temptation to tell egg stories and industriously catalogue the sour-sop, guava, grenadilla, aubergine or garden-egg, yam, and sweet potato.
The sweet potato should be boiled, and then buttered and browned in an oven, or fried. When cooked in either way I am devoted to them, but in the way I most frequently come across them I abominate them, for they jeopardise my existence both in this world and the next. It is this way: you are coming home from a long and dangerous beetle-hunt in the forest; you have battled with mighty beetles the size of pie dishes, they have flown at your head, got into your hair and then nipped you smartly. You have been also considerably stung and bitten by flies, ants, etc., and are most likely sopping wet with rain, or with the wading of streams, and you are tired and your feet go low along the ground, and it is getting, or has got, dark with that ever-deluding tropical rapidity, and then you for your sins get into a piece of ground which last year was a native’s farm, and, placing one foot under the tough vine of a surviving sweet potato, concealed by rank herbage, you plant your other foot on another portion of the same vine. Your head you then deposit promptly in some prickly ground crop, or against a tree stump, and then, if there is human blood in you, you say d — n!
Then there are also alligator-pears, limes, and oranges. There is something about those oranges I should like to have explained. They are usually green and sweetish in taste, nor have they much white pith, but now and again you get a big bright yellow one from those trees that have been imported, and these are very pithy and in full possession of the flavour of verjuice. They have also got the papaw on the Coast, the Carica papaya of botanists. It is an insipid fruit. To the newcomer it is a dreadful nuisance, for no sooner does an old coaster set eyes on it than he straightway says, “Paw-paws are awfully good for the digestion, and even if you just hang a tough fowl or a bit of goat in the tree among the leaves, it gets tender in no time, for there is an awful lot of pepsine in a paw-paw,” — which there is not, papaine being its active principle. After hearing this hymn of praise to the papaw some hundreds of times, it palls, and you usually arrive at this tired feeling about the thing by the time you reach the Gold Coast, for it is a most common object, and the same man will say the same thing about it a dozen times a day if he gets the chance. I got heartily sick of it on my first voyage out, and rashly determined to check the old coaster in this habit of his, preparatory to stamping the practice out. It was one of my many failures. I soon met an old coaster with a papaw fruit in sight, and before he had time to start, I boldly got away with “The paw-paw is awfully good for the digestion,” hoping that this display of knowledge would impress him and exempt me from hearing the rest of the formula. But no. “Right you are,” said he solemnly. “It’s a powerful thing is the paw-paw. Why, the other day we had a sad case along here. You know what a nuisance young assistants are, bothering about their chop, and scorpions in their beds and boots, and what not and a half, and then, when you have pulled them through these, and often enough before, pegging out with fever, or going on the fly in the native town. Did you know poor B——? Well! he’s dead now, had fever and went off like a babe in eight hours though he’d been out fourteen years for A—— and D——. They sent him out a new book-keeper, a tender young thing with a dairymaid complexion and the notion that he’d got the indigestion. He fidgeted about it something awful. One night there was a big paw-paw on the table for evening chop, and so B—— who was an awfully good chap, told him about how good it was for the digestion. The book-keeper said his trouble always came on two hours after eating, and asked if he might take a bit of the thing to his room. ‘Certainly,’ says B—— and as the paw-paw wasn’t cut at that meal the book-keeper quietly took it off whole with him.
“In the morning time he did not turn up. B—— just before breakfast, went to his room and he wasn’t there, but he noticed the paw-paw was on the bed and that was all, so he thought the book-keeper must have gone for a walk, being, as it were, a bit too tender to have gone on the fly as yet. So he just told the store clerk to tell the people to return him to the firm when they found him straying around lost, and thought no more about it, being, as it was, mail-day, and him busy.
“Well! Fortunately the steward boy put that paw-paw on the table again for twelve o’clock chop. If it hadn’t been for that, not a living soul would have known the going of the book-keeper. For when B—— cut it open, there, right inside it, were nine steel trouser-buttons, a Waterbury watch, and the poor young fellow’s keys. For you see, instead of his digesting his dinner with that paw-paw, the paw-paw took charge and digested him, dinner and all, and when B—— interrupted it, it was just getting a grip on the steel things. There’s an awful lot of pepsine in a paw-paw, and if you hang, etc., etc.”
I collapsed, feebly murmuring that it was very interesting, but sad for the poor young fellow’s friends.
“Not necessarily,” said the old coaster. So he had the last word, and never again will I attempt to alter the ways of the genuine old coaster. What you have got to do with him is to be very thankful you have had the honour of knowing him.
Still I think we do over-estimate the value of the papaw, although I certainly did once myself hang the leg of a goat no mortal man could have got tooth into, on to a papaw tree with a bit of string for the night. In the morning it was clean gone, string and all; but whether it was the pepsine, the papaine, or a purloining pagan that was the cause of its departure there was no evidence to show. Yet I am myself, as Hans Breitmann says, “still skebdigal” as to the papaw, and I dare say you are too.
But I must forthwith stop writing about the Gold Coast, or I shall go on telling you stories and wasting your time, not to mention the danger of letting out those which would damage the nerves of the cultured of temperate climes, such as those relating to the youth who taught himself French from a six months’ method book; of the man who wore brass buttons; the moving story of three leeches and two gentlemen; the doctor up a creek; and the reason why you should not eat pork along here because all the natives have either got the guinea-worm, or kraw-kraw or ulcers; and then the pigs go and — dear me! it was a near thing that time. I’ll leave off at once.
1 Sierra Leone has been known since the voyage of Hanno of Carthage in the sixth century B.C., but it has not got into general literature to any great extent since Pliny. The only later classic who has noticed it is Milton, who in a very suitable portion of Paradise Lost says of Notus and Afer, “black with thunderous clouds from Sierra Lona.” Our occupation of it dates from 1787.
2 Lagos also likes to bear this flattering appellation, and has now-a-days more right to the title.
3 Along the Coast, and in other parts of Africa, the coarser, flat-sided kinds of banana are usually called plantains, the name banana being reserved for the finer sorts, such as the little “silver banana.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10