Soon after my return from the East Indies in 1793, having learned that the noblemen and gentlemen associated for the purpose of prosecuting discoveries in the interior of Africa were desirous of engaging a person to explore that continent, by the way of the Gambia river, I took occasion, through means of the President of the Royal Society, to whom I had the honour to be known, of offering myself for that service. I had been informed that a gentleman of the name of Houghton, a captain in the army, and formerly fort-major at Goree, had already sailed to the Gambia, under the direction of the Association, and that there was reason to apprehend he had fallen a sacrifice to the climate, or perished in some contest with the natives. But this intelligence, instead of deterring me from my purpose, animated me to persist in the offer of my services with the greater solicitude. I had a passionate desire to examine into the productions of a country so little known, and to become experimentally acquainted with the modes of life and character of the natives. I knew that I was able to bear fatigue, and I relied on my youth and the strength of my constitution to preserve me from the effects of the climate. The salary which the committee allowed was sufficiently large, and I made no stipulation for future reward. If I should perish in my journey, I was willing that my hopes and expectations should perish with me; and if I should succeed in rendering the geography of Africa more familiar to my countrymen, and in opening to their ambition and industry new sources of wealth and new channels of commerce, I knew that I was in the hands of men of honour, who would not fail to bestow that remuneration which my successful services should appear to them to merit. The committee of the Association having made such inquiries as they thought necessary, declared themselves satisfied with the qualifications that I possessed, and accepted me for the service; and, with that liberality which on all occasions distinguishes their conduct, gave me every encouragement which it was in their power to grant, or which I could with propriety ask.
It was at first proposed that I should accompany Mr. James Willis, who was then recently appointed consul at Senegambia, and whose countenance in that capacity, it was thought, might have served and protected me; but Government afterwards rescinded his appointment, and I lost that advantage. The kindness of the committee, however, supplied all that was necessary. Being favoured by the secretary of the Association, the late Henry Beaufoy, Esq., with a recommendation to Dr. John Laidley (a gentleman who had resided many years at an English factory on the banks of the Gambia), and furnished with a letter of credit on him for 200 pounds, I took my passage in the brig Endeavour — a small vessel trading to the Gambia for beeswax and ivory, commanded by Captain Richard Wyatt — and I became impatient for my departure.
My instructions were very plain and concise. I was directed, on my arrival in Africa, “to pass on to the river Niger, either by way of Bambouk, or by such other route as should be found most convenient. That I should ascertain the course, and, if possible, the rise and termination of that river. That I should use my utmost exertions to visit the principal towns or cities in its neighbourhood, particularly Timbuctoo and Houssa; and that I should be afterwards at liberty to return to Europe, either by the way of the Gambia, or by such other route as, under all the then existing circumstances of my situation and prospects, should appear to me to be most advisable.”
We sailed from Portsmouth on the 22nd day of May, 1795. On the 4th of June we saw the mountains over Mogadore, on the coast of Africa; and on the 21st of the same month, after a pleasant voyage of thirty days, we anchored at Jillifrey, a town on the northern bank of the river Gambia, opposite to James’s Island, where the English had formerly a small fort.
The kingdom of Barra, in which the town of Jillifrey is situated, produces great plenty of the necessaries of life; but the chief trade of the inhabitants is in salt, which commodity they carry up the river in canoes as high as Barraconda, and bring down in return Indian corn, cotton cloths, elephants’ teeth, small quantities of gold dust, &c. The number of canoes and people constantly employed in this trade makes the king of Barra more formidable to Europeans than any other chieftain on the river; and this circumstance probably encouraged him to establish those exorbitant duties which traders of all nations are obliged to pay at entry, amounting to nearly 20 pounds on every vessel, great and small. These duties or customs are generally collected in person by the alkaid, or governor of Jillifrey, and he is attended on these occasions by a numerous train of dependants, among whom are found many who, by their frequent intercourse with the English, have acquired a smattering of our language: but they are commonly very noisy and very troublesome, begging for everything they fancy with such earnestness and importunity, that traders, in order to get quit of them, are frequently obliged to grant their requests.
On the 23rd we departed from Jillifrey, and proceeded to Vintain, a town situated about two miles up a creek on the southern side of the river. This place is much resorted to by Europeans on account of the great quantities of beeswax which are brought hither for sale; the wax is collected in the woods by the Feloops, a wild and unsociable race of people. Their country, which is of considerable extent, abounds in rice; and the natives supply the traders, both on the Gambia and Cassamansa rivers, with that article, and also with goats and poultry, on very reasonable terms. The honey which they collect is chiefly used by themselves in making a strong intoxicating liquor, much the same as the mead which is produced from honey in Great Britain.
In their traffic with Europeans, the Feloops generally employ a factor or agent of the Mandingo nation, who speaks a little English, and is acquainted with the trade of the river. This broker makes the bargain; and, with the connivance of the European, receives a certain part only of the payment, which he gives to his employer as the whole; the remainder (which is very truly called the cheating money) he receives when the Feloop is gone, and appropriates to himself as a reward for his trouble.
The language of the Feloops is appropriate and peculiar; and as their trade is chiefly conducted, as hath been observed, by Mandingoes, the Europeans have no inducement to learn it.
On the 26th we left Vintain, and continued our course up the river, anchoring whenever the tide failed us, and frequently towing the vessel with the boat. The river is deep and muddy; the banks are covered with impenetrable thickets of mangrove; and the whole of the adjacent country appears to be flat and swampy.
The Gambia abounds with fish, some species of which are excellent food; but none of them that I recollect are known in Europe. At the entrance from the sea sharks are found in great abundance, and, higher up, alligators and the hippopotamus (or river-horse) are very numerous.
In six days after leaving Vintain we reached Jonkakonda, a place of considerable trade, where our vessel was to take in part of her lading. The next morning the several European traders came from their different factories to receive their letters, and learn the nature and amount of her cargo; and the captain despatched a messenger to Dr. Laidley to inform him of my arrival. He came to Jonkakonda the morning following, when I delivered him Mr. Beaufoy’s letter, and he gave me a kind invitation to spend my time at his house until an opportunity should offer of prosecuting my journey. This invitation was too acceptable to be refused, and being furnished by the Doctor with a horse and guide, I set out from Jonkakonda at daybreak on the 5th of July, and at eleven o’clock arrived at Pisania, where I was accommodated with a room and other conveniences in the Doctor’s house.
Pisania is a small village in the king of Yany’s dominions, established by British subjects as a factory for trade, and inhabited solely by them and their black servants. It is situated on the banks of the Gambia, sixteen miles above Jonkakonda. The white residents, at the time of may arrival there, consisted only of Dr. Laidley, and two gentlemen who were brothers, of the name of Ainsley; but their domestics were numerous. They enjoyed perfect security under the king’s protection, and being highly esteemed and respected by the natives at large, wanted no accommodation or comfort which the country could supply, and the greatest part of the trade in slaves, ivory, and gold was in their hands.
Being now settled for some time at my ease, my first object was to learn the Mandingo tongue, being the language in almost general use throughout this part of Africa, and without which I was fully convinced that I never could acquire an extensive knowledge of the country or its inhabitants. In this pursuit I was greatly assisted by Dr. Laidley.
In researches of this kind, and in observing the manners and customs of the natives, in a country so little known to the nations of Europe, and furnished with so many striking and uncommon objects of nature, my time passed not unpleasantly, and I began to flatter myself that I had escaped the fever, or seasoning, to which Europeans, on their first arrival in hot climates, are generally subject. But on the 31st of July I imprudently exposed myself to the night-dew in observing an eclipse of the moon, with a view to determine the longitude of the place; the next day I found myself attacked with a smart fever and delirium, and such an illness followed as confined me to the house during the greatest part of August. My recovery was very slow, but I embraced every short interval of convalescence to walk out, and make myself acquainted with the productions of the country.
In one of those excursions, having rambled farther than usual, on a hot day, I brought on a return of my fever, and on the 10th of September I was again confined to my bed. The fever, however, was not so violent as before; and in the course of three weeks I was able, when the weather would permit, to renew my botanical excursions; and when it rained, I amused myself with drawing plants, &c., in my chamber. The care and attention of Dr. Laidley contributed greatly to alleviate my sufferings; his company and conversation beguiled the tedious hours during that gloomy season, when the rain falls in torrents; when suffocating heats oppress by day, and when the night is spent by the terrified travellers in listening to the croaking of frogs (of which the numbers are beyond imagination), the shrill cry of the jackal, and the deep howling of the hyaena, a dismal concert, interrupted only by the roar of such tremendous thunder as no person can form a conception of but those who have heard it.
The country itself being an immense level, and very generally covered with wood, presents a tiresome and gloomy uniformity to the eye; but although Nature has denied to the inhabitants the beauties of romantic landscapes, she has bestowed on them, with a liberal hand, the more important blessings of fertility and abundance. A little attention to cultivation procures a sufficiency of corn, the fields afford a rich pasturage for cattle, and the natives are plentifully supplied with excellent fish, both from the Gambia river and the Walli creek.
The grains which are chiefly cultivated are — Indian corn (zea mays); two kinds of holcus spicatus, called by the natives soono and sanio; holcus niger, and holcus bicolor, the former of which they have named bassi woolima, and the latter bassiqui. These, together with rice, are raised in considerable quantities; besides which, the inhabitants in the vicinity of the towns and villages have gardens which produce onions, calavances, yams, cassavi, ground nuts, pompions, gourds, water-melons, and some other esculent plants.
I observed likewise, near the towns, small patches of cotton and indigo. The former of these articles supplies them with clothing, and with the latter they dye their cloth of an excellent blue colour, in a manner that will hereafter be described.
In preparing their corn for food, the natives use a large wooden mortar called a paloon, in which they bruise the seed until it parts with the outer covering, or husk, which is then separated from the clean corn by exposing it to the wind, nearly in the same manner as wheat is cleared from the chaff in England. The corn thus freed from the husk is returned to the mortar and beaten into meal, which is dressed variously in different countries; but the most common preparation of it among the nations of the Gambia is a sort of pudding which they call kouskous. It is made by first moistening the flour with water, and then stirring and shaking it about in a large calabash, or gourd, till it adheres together in small granules resembling sago. It is then put into an earthen pot, whose bottom is perforated with a number of small holes; and this pot being placed upon another, the two vessels are luted together either with a paste of meal and water, or with cows’ dung, and placed upon the fire. In the lower vessel is commonly some animal food and water, the steam or vapour of which ascends through the perforations in the bottom of the upper vessel, and softens and the kouskous, which is very much esteemed throughout all the countries that I visited. I am informed that the same manner of preparing flour is very generally used on the Barbary coast, and that the dish so prepared is there called by the same name. It is therefore probable that the negroes borrowed the practice from the Moors.
Their domestic animals are nearly the same as in Europe. Swine are found in the woods, but their flesh is not esteemed. Probably the marked abhorrence in which this animal is held by the votaries of Mohammed has spread itself among the pagans. Poultry of all kinds, the turkey excepted, is everywhere to be had. The guinea-fowl and red partridge abound in the fields, and the woods furnish a small species of antelope, of which the venison is highly and deservedly prized.
Of the other wild animals in the Mandingo countries, the most common are the hyaena, the panther, and the elephant. Considering the use that is made of the latter in the East Indies, it may be thought extraordinary that the natives of Africa have not, in any part of this immense continent, acquired the skill of taming this powerful and docile creature, and applying his strength and faculties to the service of man. When I told some of the natives that this was actually done in the countries of the East, my auditors laughed me to scorn, and exclaimed, “Tobaubo fonnio!” (“A white man’s lie!”) The negroes frequently find means to destroy the elephant by firearms; they hunt it principally for the sake of the teeth, which they transfer in barter to those who sell them again to the Europeans. The flesh they eat, and consider it as a great delicacy.
On the 6th of October the waters of the Gambia were at the greatest height, being fifteen feet above the high-water mark of the tide, after which they began to subside, at first slowly, but afterwards very rapidly, sometimes sinking more than a foot in twenty-four hours. By the beginning of November the river had sunk to its former level, and the tide ebbed and flowed as usual. When the river had subsided, and the atmosphere grew dry, I recovered apace, and began to think of my departure, for this is reckoned the most proper season for travelling. The natives had completed their harvest, and provisions were everywhere cheap and plentiful.
Dr. Laidley was at this time employed in a trading voyage at Jonkakonda. I wrote to him to desire that he would use his interest with the slatees, or slave-merchants, to procure me the company and protection of the first coffle (or caravan) that might leave Gambia for the interior country; and, in the meantime, I requested him to purchase for me a horse and two asses. A few days afterwards the Doctor returned to Pisania, and informed me that a coffle would certainly go for the interior in the course of the dry season; but that, as many of the merchants belonging to it had not yet completed their assortment of goods, he could not say at what time they would set out.
As the characters and dispositions of the slatees, and people that composed the caravan, were entirely unknown to me — and as they seemed rather averse to my purpose, and unwilling to enter into any positive engagements on my account — and the time of their departure being withal very uncertain, I resolved, on further deliberation, to avail myself of the dry season, and proceed without them.
Dr. Laidley approved my determination, and promised me every assistance in his power to enable me to prosecute my journey with comfort and safety.
This resolution having been formed, I made preparations accordingly.
And now, being about to take leave of my hospitable friend (whose kindness and solicitude continued to the moment of my departure), and to quit for many months the countries bordering on the Gambia, it seems proper, before I proceed with my narrative, that I should in this place give some account of the several negro nations which inhabit the banks of this celebrated river, and the commercial intercourse that subsists between them, and such of the nations of Europe as find their advantage in trading to this part of Africa. The observations which have occurred to me on both these subjects will be found in the following chapter.
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