In which the Voyager discourses on the legal methods of natives of this country, the ideas governing forms of burial, of their manner of mourning for their dead, and the condition of the African soul in the under-world.
Great as are the incidental miseries and dangers surrounding death to all the people in the village in which a death occurs, undoubtedly those who suffer most are the widows of a chief or free man.
The uniform custom among both Negroes and Bantus is that those who escape execution on the charge of having witched the husband to death, shall remain in a state of filth and abasement, not even removing vermin from themselves, until after the soul-burial is complete — the soul of the dead man being regarded as hanging about them and liable to be injured. Therefore, also to the end of preventing his soul from getting damaged, they are confined to their huts; this latter restriction is not rigidly enforced, but it is held theoretically to be the correct thing.
They maintain the attitude of grief and abasement, sitting on the ground, eating but little food, and that of a coarse kind. In Calabar their legal rights over property, such as slaves, are meanwhile considerably in abeyance, and they are put to great expense during the time the spirit is awaiting burial. They have to keep watch, two at a time, in the hut, where the body is buried, keeping lights burning, and they have to pay out of their separate estate for the entertainment of all the friends of the deceased who come to pay him compliment; and if he has been an important man, a big man, the whole district will come, not in a squadron, but just when it suits them, exactly as if they were calling on a live friend. Thus it often happens that even a big woman is bankrupt by the expense. I will not go into the legal bearings of the case here, for they are intricate, and, to a great extent, only interesting to a student of Negro law.
The Bantu women occupy a far inferior position in regard to the rights of property to that held by the Negro women.
The disposal of wives after the death of the husband among the M’pongwe and Igalwa is a subject full of interest; but it is, like most of their law, very complicated. The brothers of the deceased are supposed to take them — the younger brother may not marry the elder brother’s widows, but the elder brothers may marry those of the younger brother. Should any of the women object to the arrangement, they may “leave the family.”
I own that the ground principle of African law practically is “the simple plan that they should take who have the power, and they should keep who can,” and this tells particularly against women and children who have not got living, powerful relations of their own. Unless the children of a man are grown up and sufficiently powerful on their own account, they have little chance of sharing in the distribution of his estate; but in spite of this abuse of power there is among Negroes and Bantus a definite and acknowledged Law, to which an appeal can be made by persons of all classes, provided they have the wherewithal to set the machinery of it in motion. The difficulty the children and widows have in sharing in the distribution of the estate of the father and husband arises, I fancy, in the principle of the husband’s brothers being the true heir, which has sunk into a fossilised state near the trading stations in the face of the white culture. The reason for this inheritance of goods passing from the man to his brother by the same mother has no doubt for one of its origins the recognition of the fact that the brother by the same mother must be a near relation, whereas, in spite of the strict laws against adultery, the relationship to you of the children born of your wives is not so certain. Nevertheless this is one of the obvious and easy explanations for things it is well to exercise great care before accepting, for you must always remember that the African’s mind does not run on identical lines with the European — what may be self-evident to you is not so to him, and vice versa. I have frequently heard African metaphysicians complain that white men make great jumps in their thought-course, and do not follow an idea step by step. You soon become conscious of the careful way a Negro follows his idea. Certain customs of his you can, by the exercise of great patience, trace back in a perfectly smooth line from their source in some natural phenomenon. Others, of course, you cannot, the traces of the intervening steps of the idea having been lost, owing partly to the veneration in which old customs are held, which causes them to regard the fact that their fathers had this fashion as reason enough for their having it, and above all to the total absence of all but oral tradition. But so great a faith have I in the lack of inventive power in the African, that I feel sure all their customs, had we the material that has slipped down into the great swamp of time, could be traced back either, as I have said, to some natural phenomenon, or to the thing being advisable, for reasons of utility.
The uncertainty in the parentage of offspring may seem to be such a utilitarian underlying principle, but, on the other hand, it does not sufficiently explain the varied forms of the law of inheritance, for in some tribes the eldest or most influential son does succeed to his father’s wealth; in other places you have the peculiar custom of the chief slave inheriting. I think, from these things, that the underlying idea in inheritance of property is the desire to keep the wealth of “the house,” i.e. estate, together, and if it were allowed to pass into the hands of weak people, like women and young children, this would not be done. Another strong argument against the theory that it arises from the doubtful relationship of the son, is that certain ju-ju always go to the son of the chief wife, if he is old enough, at the time of the father’s death, even in those tribes where the wealth goes elsewhere.
Certain tribes acknowledge the right of the women and children to share in the dead man’s wealth, given that these are legally married wives, or the children of legally married wives; it is so in Cameroons, for example. An esteemed friend of mine who helps to manage things for the Fatherland down there was trying a palaver the other day with a patience peculiar to him, and that intelligent and elaborate care I should think only a mind trained on the methods of German metaphysicians could impart into that most wearisome of proceedings, wherein every one says the same thing over fourteen different times at least, with a similar voice and gesture, the only variation being in the statements regarding the important points, and the facts of the case, these varying with each individual. This palaver was made by a son claiming to inherit part of his father’s property; at last, to the astonishment, and, of course, the horror, of the learned judge, the defendant, the wicked uncle, pleaded through the interpreter, “This man cannot inherit his father’s property, because his parents married for love.” There is no encouragement to foolishness of this kind in Cameroon, where legal marriage consists in purchase.
In Bonny River and in Opobo the inheritance of “the house” is settled primarily by a vote of the free men of the house; when the chief dies, their choice has to be ratified by the other chiefs of houses; but in Bonny and Opobo the white traders have had immense influence for a long time, so one cannot now find out how far this custom is purely native in idea.
Among the Fans the uncle is, as I have before said, an important person although the father has more rights than among the Igalwa, and here I came across a peculiar custom regarding widows. M. Jacot cited to me a similar case or so, one of which I must remark was in an Ajumba town. The widows were inside the dead husband’s hut, as usual; the Fan huts are stoutly built of sheets of flattened bark, firmly secured together with bark rope, and thatched — they never build them in any other way except when they are in the bush rubber-collecting or elephant-hunting, when they make them of the branches of trees. Well, round the bark hut, with the widows inside, there was erected a hut made of branches, and when this was nearly completed, the Fans commenced pulling down the inner bark hut, and finally cleared it right out, thatch and all, and the materials of which it had been made were burnt. I was struck with the performance because the Fans, though surrounded by intensely superstitious tribes, are remarkably free from superstition 31 themselves, taking little or no interest in speculative matters, except to get charms to make them invisible to elephants, to keep their feet in the path, to enable them to see things in the forest, and practical things of that sort, and these charms they frequently gave me to assist and guard me in my wanderings.
The M’pongwe and Igalwa have a peculiar funeral custom, but it is not confined in its operation to widows, all the near relatives sharing in it. The mourning relations are seated on the floor of the house, and some friend — Dr. Nassau told me he was called in in this capacity — comes in and “lifts them up,” bringing to them a small present, a factor of which is always a piece of soap. This custom is now getting into the survival form in Libreville and Glass. Nowadays the relatives do not thus sit, unwashed and unkempt, keenly requiring the soap. Among the bush Igalwa, I am told, the soap is much wanted.
It is not only the widows that remain, either theoretically or practically unwashed; all the mourners do. The Ibibios seem to me to wear the deepest crape in the form of accumulated dirt, and all the African tribes I have met have peculiar forms of hair cutting — shaving the entire head, not shaving it at all, shaving half of it, etc. — when in mourning. The period of the duration of wearing mourning is, I believe, in all West Coast tribes that which elapses between the death and the burial of the soul. I believe a more thorough knowledge would show us that there is among the Bantu also a fixed time for the lingering of the soul on earth after death, but we have not got sufficient evidence on the point yet. The only thing we know is that it is not proper for the widow to re-marry while her husband’s soul is still in her vicinity.
Among the Calabar tribes the burial of his spirit liberates the woman. Among the Tschwi she requires special ceremonies on her own account. In Togoland, among the Ewe people, I know the period is between five and six weeks, during which time the widow remains in the hut, armed with a good stout stick, as a precaution against the ghost of her husband, so as to ward off attacks should he be ill-tempered. After these six weeks the widow can come out of the hut, but as his ghost has not permanently gone hence, and is apt to revisit the neighbourhood for the next six months, she has to be taken care of during this period. Then, after certain ceremonies, she is free to marry again. So I conclude the period of mourning, in all tribes, is that period during which the soul remains round its old possessions, whether these tribes have a definite soul-burial or devil-making or not.
The ideas connected with the under-world to which the ghost goes are exceedingly interesting. The Negroes and Bantus are at one on these subjects in one particular only, and that is that no marriages take place there. The Tschwis say that this under-world, Srahmandazi, is just the same as this world in all other particulars, save that it is dimmer, a veritable shadow-land where men have not the joys of life, but only the shadow of the joy. Hence, says the Tschwi proverb, “One day in this world is worth a year in Srahmandazi.” The Tschwis, with their usual definiteness in this sort of detail, know all about their Srahmandazi. Its entrance is just east of the middle Volta, and the way down is difficult to follow, and when the sun sets on this world it rises on Srahmandazi. The Bantus are vague on this important and interesting point. The Benga, for example, although holding the absence of marriage there, do not take steps to meet the case as the Tschwis do, and kill a supply of wives to take down with them. This reason for killing wives at a funeral is another instance that, however strange and cruel a custom may be here in West Africa, however much it may at first appear to be the flower of a rootless superstition, you will find on close investigation that it has some root in a religious idea, and a common-sense element. The common-sense element in the killing of wives and slaves among both the Tschwi and the Calabar tribes consists in the fact that it discourages poisoning. A Calabar chief elaborately explained to me that the rigorous putting down of killing at funerals that was being carried on by the Government not only landed a man in the next world as a wretched pauper, but added an additional chance to his going there prematurely, for his wives and slaves, no longer restrained by the prospect of being killed at his death and sent off with him would, on very slight aggravation, put “bush in his chop.” It is sad to think of this thorn being added to the rose-leaves of a West Coast chief’s life, as there are 99.9 per cent. of thorns in it already.
I came across a similar case on the Gold Coast, when a chief complained to me of the way the Government were preserving vermin, in the shape of witches, in the districts under its surveillance. You were no longer allowed to destroy them as of old, and therefore the vermin were destroying the game; for, said he, the witches here live almost entirely on the blood they suck from children at night. They used, in old days, to do this furtively, and do so now where native custom is unchecked; but in districts where the Government says that witchcraft is utter nonsense, and killing its proficients utter murder which will be dealt with accordingly, the witch flourishes exceedingly, and blackmails the fathers and mothers of families, threatening that if they are not bought off they will have their child’s blood; and if they are not paid, the child dies away gradually — poison again, most likely.
I often think it must be the common-sense element in fetish customs that enables them to survive, in the strange way they do, in the minds of Africans who have been long under European influence and education. In witching, for example, every intelligent native knows there is a lot of poison in the affair, but the explanation he gives you will not usually display this knowledge, and it was not until I found the wide diffusion of the idea of the advisability of administering an emetic to the bewitched person, that I began to suspect my black friends of sound judgment.
The good ju-juist will tell you all things act by means of their life, which means their power, their spirit. Dr. Nassau tells me the efficacy of drugs is held to depend on their benevolent spirits, which, on being put into the body, drive away the malevolent disease-causing spirits — a leucocytes-versus-pathogenic-bacteria sort of influence, I suppose. On this same idea also depends the custom of the appeal to ordeal, the working of which is supposed to be spiritual. Nevertheless, the intelligent native, believing all the time in this factor, squares the commonsense factor by bribing the witch-doctor who makes the ordeal drink.
The feeling regarding the importance of funeral observances is quite Greek in its intensity. Given a duly educated African, I am sure that he would grasp the true inwardness of the Antigone far and away better than any European now living can. A pathetic story which bears on this feeling was told me some time ago by Miss Slessor when she was stationed at Creek Town. An old blind slave woman was found in the bush, and brought into the mission. She was in a deplorable state, utterly neglected and starving, her feet torn by thorns and full of jiggers, and so on. Every care was taken of her and she soon revived and began to crawl about, but her whole mind was set on one thing with a passion that had made her alike indifferent to her past sufferings and to her present advantages. What she wanted was a bit, only a little bit, of white cloth. Now, I may remark, white cloth is anathema to the Missions, for it is used for ju-ju offerings, and a rule has to be made against its being given to the unconverted, or the missionary becomes an accessory before the fact to pagan practices, so white cloth the old woman was told she could not have, she had been given plenty of garments for her own use and that was enough. The old woman, however, kept on pleading and saying the spirit of her dead mistress kept coming to her asking and crying for white cloth, and white cloth she must get for her, and so at last, finding it was not to be got at the Mission station, she stole away one day, unobserved, and wandered off into the bush, from which she never again reappeared, doubtless falling a victim to the many leopards that haunted hereabouts.
To provide a proper burial for the dead relation is the great duty of a negro’s life, its only rival in his mind is the desire to avoid having a burial of his own. But, in a good negro, this passion will go under before the other, and he will risk his very life to do it. He may know, surely and well, that killing slaves and women at a dead brother’s grave means hanging for him when their Big Consul knows of it, but in the Delta he will do it. On the Coast, Leeward and Windward, he will spend every penny he possesses and, on top, if need be, go and pawn himself, his wives, or his children into slavery to give a deceased relation a proper funeral.
This killing at funerals I used to think would be more easily done away with in the Delta than among the Tschwi tribes, but a little more knowledge of the Delta’s idea about the future life showed me I was wrong.
Among the Tschwi the slaves and women killed are to form for the dead a retinue, and riches wherewith to start life in Srahmandazi (Yboniadse of the Oji), where there are markets and towns and all things as on this earth, and so the Tschwi would have little difficulty in replacing human beings at funerals with gold-dust, cloth, and other forms of riches, and this is already done in districts under white influence. But in the Delta there is no under-world to live in, the souls shortly after reaching the under-world being forwarded back to this, in new babies, and the wealth that is sent down with a man serves as an indication as to what class of baby the soul is to be repacked and sent up in. As wealth in the Delta consists of women and slaves I do not believe the under-world gods of the Niger would understand the status of a chief who arrived before them, let us say, with ten puncheons of palm oil, and four hundred yards of crimson figured velvet; they would say, “Oh! very good as far as it goes, but where is your real estate? The chances are you are only a trade slave boy and have stolen these things”; and in consequence of this, killing at funerals will be a custom exceedingly difficult to stamp out in these regions. Try and imagine yourself how abhorrent it must be to send down a dear and honoured relative to the danger of his being returned to this world shortly as a slave. There is no doubt a certain idea among the Negroes that some souls may get a rise in status on their next incarnation. You often hear a woman saying she will be a man next time, a slave he will be a freeman, and so on, but how or why some souls obtain promotion I have not yet sufficient evidence to show. I think a little more investigation will place this important point in my possession. I once said to a Calabar man, “But surely it would be easy for a man’s friends to cheat; they could send down a chief’s outfit with a man, though he was only a small man here?”
“No,” said he, “the other souls would tell on him, and then he would get sent up as a dog or some beast as a punishment.”
My first conception of the prevalence of the incarnation idea was also gained from a Delta negro. I said, “Why in the world do you throw away in the bush the bodies of your dead slaves? Where I have been they tie a string to the leg of a dead slave and when they bury him bring the string to the top and fix it to a peg, with the owner’s name on, and then when the owner dies he has that slave again down below.”
“They be fool men,” said he, and he went on to explain that the ghost of that slave would be almost immediately back on earth again growing up ready to work for some one else, and would not wait for its last owner’s soul down below, and out of the luxuriant jungle of information that followed I gathered that no man’s soul dallies below long, and also that a soul returning to a family, a thing ensured by certain ju-jus, was identified. The new babies as they arrive in the family are shown a selection of small articles belonging to deceased members whose souls are still absent; the thing the child catches hold of identifies him. “Why he’s Uncle John, see! he knows his own pipe;” or “That’s cousin Emma, see! she knows her market calabash,” and so on.
I remember discoursing with a very charming French official on the difficulty of eradicating fetish customs.
“Why not take the native in the rear, Mademoiselle,” said he, “and convert the native gods?”
I explained that his ingenious plan was not feasible, because you cannot convert gods. Even educating gods is hopeless work. All races of men through countless ages, have been attempting to make their peculiar deities understand how they are wanted to work, and what they are wanted to do, and the result is anything but encouraging.
As I have dwelt on the repellent view of Negro funeral custom, I must in justice to them cite their better view. There is a custom that I missed much on going south of Calabar, for it is a pretty one. Outside the villages in the Calabar districts, by the sides of the most frequented roads, you will see erections of boughs. I do not think these are intended for huts, but for beds, for they are very like the Calabar type of bed, only made in wood instead of clay. Over them a roof of mats is put, to furnish a protection against rain.
These shelters — graves or fetish huts they are wrongly called by Europeans — are made by driving four longish stout poles into the ground while at the height of about three feet or so four more poles are tied so as to make a skeleton platform which is filled in with withies and made flat. Another set of five poles is tied above, and to these the roof is affixed. On the platform, is placed the bedding belonging to the deceased, the undercloth, counterpane, etc., and at the head are laid the pillows, bolster-shaped and stuffed with cotton-tree fluff, or shredded palm-leaves, and covered with some gaily-coloured cotton cloth. In every case I have seen — and they amount to hundreds, for you cannot take an hour’s walk even from Duke Town without coming upon a dozen or so of these erections--the pillows are placed so that the person lying on the bed would look towards the village.
On the roof and on the bed, and underneath it on the ground, are placed the household utensils that belonged to the deceased; the calabashes, the basins, the spoons cut out of wood, and the boughten iron ones, as we should say in Devon, and on the stakes are hung the other little possessions; there is one I know of made for the ghost of a poor girl who died, on to the stakes of which are hung the dolls and the little pincushions, etc., given her by a kind missionary.
Food is set out at these places and spirit poured over them from time to time, and sometimes, though not often, pieces of new cloth are laid on them. Most of the things are deliberately damaged before they are put on the home for the spirit; I do not think this is to prevent them from being stolen, because all are not damaged sufficiently to make them useless. There was a beautifully made spoon with a burnt-in pattern on one of these places when I left Calabar to go South, and on my return, some six months after, it was still there. On another there was a very handsome pair of market calabashes, also much decorated, that were only just chipped and in better repair than many in use in Calabar markets, and I make no doubt the spoon and they are still lying rotting among the debris of the pillows, etc. These places are only attended to during the time the spirit is awaiting burial, as they are regarded merely as a resting-place for it while it is awaiting this ceremony. The body is not buried near them, I may remark.
In spite, however, of the care that is taken to bury spirits, a considerable percentage from various causes — poverty of the relations, the deceased being a stranger in the land, accidental death in some unknown part of the forest or the surf — remain unburied, and hang about to the common danger of the village they may choose to haunt. Many devices are resorted to, to purify the villages from these spirits. One which was in use in Creek Town, Calabar, to within a few years ago, and which I am informed is still customary in some interior villages, was very ingenious, and believed to work well by those who employed it.
In the houses were set up Nbakim, — large, grotesque images carved of wood and hung about with cloth strips and gew-gaws. Every November in Creek Town (I was told by some authorities it was every second November) there was a sort of festival held. Offerings of food and spirits were placed before these images; a band of people accompanied by the rest of the population used to make a thorough round of the town, up and down each street and round every house, dancing, singing, screaming and tom-toming, in fact making all the noise they knew how to — and a Calabar Effik is very gifted in the power of making noise. After this had been done for what was regarded as a sufficient time, the images were taken out of the houses, the crowd still making a terrific row and were then thrown into the river, and the town was regarded as being cleared of spirits.
The rationale of the affair is this. The wandering spirits are attracted by the images, and take shelter among their rags, like earwigs or something of that kind. The charivari is to drive any of the spirits who might be away from their shelters back into them. The shouting of the mob is to keep the spirits from venturing out again while they are being carried to the river. The throwing of the images, rags and all, into the river, is to destroy the spirits or at least send them elsewhere. They did not go and pour boiling water on their earwig-traps, as wicked white men do, but they meant the same thing, and when this was over they made and set up new images for fresh spirits who might come into the town, and these were kept and tended as before, until the next N’dok ceremony came round.
It is owing to the spiritual view which the African takes of existence at large that ceremonial observances form the greater part of even his common-law procedure.
There is, both among the Negro and Bantu, a recognised code of law, founded on principles of true but merciless justice. It is not often employed, because of the difficulty and the danger to the individual who appeals to it, should that individual be unbacked by power, but nevertheless the code exists.
The African is particularly hard on theft; he by no means “compounds for sins he is inclined to by damning those he has no mind to,” for theft is a thing he revels in.
Persons are tried for theft on circumstantial evidence, direct testimony, and ordeal. Laws relating to mortgage are practically the same among Negroes and Bantu and Europeans. Torts are not recognised; unless the following case from Cameroon points to a vague realisation of them. A. let his canoe out to B., in good order, so that B. could go up river, and fetch down some trade. B. did not go himself, but let C., who was not his slave, but another free man who also wanted to go up for trade, have the canoe on the understanding that in payment for the loan of the said canoe C. should bring down B’s. trade.
A. was not told about this arrangement at all. B. says A. was, only A. was so blind drunk at the time he did not understand. Well, up river C. goes in the canoe, and fetches up on a floating stump in the river, and staves a hole you could put your head in, in the bow of the said canoe. C. returns it to B. in this condition. B. returns it to A. in this condition. A. sues B. before native chief, saying he lent his canoe to B. on the understanding, always implied in African loans, that it was to be returned in the same state as when lent, fair wear and tear alone excepted. B. tries first to get C. to pay for the canoe, and for the rent of the canoe on top, as a compensation for the delay in bringing down his, B’s., trade. C. calls B. the illegitimate offspring of a greenhouse-lizard, and pleads further that the floating log was a force majeure — an act of God, and denies liability on all counts. B. then pleads this as his own defence in the case of A. and B. (authorities cited in support of this view); he also pleads he is not liable, because C. is a free man, and not his slave.
The case went on for a week; the judge was drunk for five days in his attempt to get his head clear. The decision finally was that B. was to pay A. full compensation. B. v. C. is still pending.
The laws against adultery are, theoretically, exceedingly severe. The punishment is death, and this is sometimes carried out. The other day King Bell in Cameroon flogged one of his wives to death, and the German Government have deposed and deported him, for you cannot do that sort of thing with impunity within a stone’s throw of a Government head-quarters. But as a general rule all along the Coast the death penalty for murder or adultery is commuted to a fine, or you can send a substitute to be killed for you, if you are rich. This is frequently done, because it is cheaper, if you have a seedy slave, to give him to be killed in your stead than to pay a fine which is often enormous.
The adultery itself is often only a matter of laying your hand, even in self-defence from a virago, on a woman — or brushing against her in the path. These accusations of adultery are, next to witchcraft, the great social danger to the West Coast native, and they are often made merely from motives of extortion or spite, and without an atom of truth in them.
It is customary for a chief to put his wives frequently to ordeal on this point, and this is almost always done after there has been a big devil-making, or a dance, which his family have been gracing with their presence. The usual method of applying the ordeal is by boiling palm-oil — a pot is nearly filled with the oil, which is brought to the boil over a fire; when it is seething, the woman to be tried is brought out in front of it. She first dips her hands into water, and then has administered to her the M’biam oath saying or having said for her that long elaborate formula, in a form adjusted to meet the case. Then she plunges her hand into the boiling oil for an instant, and shakes the oil off with all possible rapidity, and the next woman comes forward and goes through the same performance, and so on. Next day, the hands of the women are examined, and those found blistered are adjudged guilty, and punished. In order to escape heavy punishment the woman will accuse some man of having hustled against her, or sat down on a bench beside her, and so on, and the accused man has to pay up. If he does not, in the Calabar district, Egbo will come and “eat the adultery,” and there won’t be much of that man’s earthly goods left. Sometimes the accusation is volunteered by the woman, and frequently the husband and wife conspire together and cook up a case against a man for the sake of getting the damages. There is nothing that ensures a man an unblemished character in West Africa, save the possession of sufficient power to make it risky work for people to cast slurs on it.
The ownership of children is a great source of palaver. The law among Negroes and Bantus is that the children of a free woman belong to her. In the case of tribes believing in the high importance of uncles considerable powers are vested in that relative, while in other tribes certain powers are vested in the father.
The children of slave wives are the only children the father has absolute power over if he is the legal owner of the slave woman. If, as is frequently the case, a free man marries a slave woman who belongs to another man, all her children are the absolute property of her owner, not her husband; and the owner of the woman can take them and sell them, or do whatsoever he chooses with them, unless the free man father redeems them, as he usually does, although the woman may still remain the absolute property of the owner, recallable by him at any time.
This law is the cause of the most brain-spraining palavers that come before the white authorities. There is naturally no statute of limitations in West Africa, because the African does not care a row of pins about time. The wily A. will let his slave woman live with B. without claiming the redemption fees as they become due — letting them stand over, as it were, at compound interest. All the male as well as the female children of the first generation are A.‘s property, and all the female children of these children are his property even unto the second and third generation and away into eternity. A. may die before he puts in his claim, in which case the ownership passes on into the hands of his heir or assignees, who may foreclose at once, on entering into their heritage, or may again let things accumulate for their heirs. Anyhow, sooner or later the foreclosure comes and then there is trouble. X., Y., Z., etc., free men, have married some of the original A.‘s slave woman’s descendants. They have either bought them right out, or kept on conscientiously redeeming children of theirs as they arrived. Of course A., or his heirs, contend that X., Y., Z., etc. have been wasting time and money by so doing, because the people X., Y., Z. have paid the money to had no legal title to the women. Of course X., Y., Z. contend that their particular woman, or her ancestress, was duly redeemed from the legal owner.
Remember there is no documentary evidence available, and squads of equally reliable and oldest inhabitants are swearing hard — all both ways. Just realise this, and that your Government says that whenever native law is not blood-stained it must be supported, and you may be able to realise the giddy mazes of a native palaver, which if you conscientiously attempt to follow with the determination that justice shall be duly administered, will for certain lay you low with an attack of fever.
The law of ownership is not all in favour of the owner, masters being responsible for damage done by their slaves, and this law falls very heavily and expensively on the owner of a bad slave. Indeed, when one lives out here and sees the surrounding conditions of this state of culture, the conviction grows on you that, morally speaking, the African is far from being the brutal fiend he is often painted, a creature that loves cruelty and blood for their own sake. The African does not; and though his culture does not contain our institutions, lunatic asylums, prisons, workhouses, hospitals, etc., he has to deal with the same classes of people who require these things. So with them he deals by means of his equivalent institutions, slavery, the lash, and death. You have just as much right, my logical friend, to call the West Coast Chief hard names for his habit of using brass bars, heads of tobacco, and so on, in place of sixpenny pieces, as you have to abuse him for clubbing an inveterate thief. It’s deplorably low of him, I own, but by what alternative plan of government his can be replaced I do not quite see, under existing conditions. In religious affairs, the affairs which lead him into the majority of his iniquities, his real sin consists in believing too much. In his witchcraft, the sin is the same. Toleration means indifference, I believe, among all men. The African is not indifferent on the subject of witchcraft, and I do not see how one can expect him to be. Put yourself in his place and imagine you have got hold of a man or woman who has been placing a live crocodile or a catawumpus of some kind into your own or a valued relative’s, or fellow-townsman’s inside, so that it may eat up valuable viscera, and cause you or your friend suffering and death. How would you feel? A little like lynching your captive, I fancy.
I confess that the more I know of the West Coast Africans the more I like them. I own I think them fools of the first water for their power of believing in things; but I fancy I have analogous feelings towards even my fellow-countrymen when they go and violently believe in something that I cannot quite swallow.
31 In speaking of native ideas I should prefer to use the good Yorkshire term of “overthrowing” in place of “superstition,” but as the latter is the accepted word for such matters I feel bound to employ it.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52