Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa, 1795-7, by Mungo Park



The Moors, though very indolent themselves, are rigid task-masters, and keep every person under them in full employment. My boy Demba was sent to the woods to collect withered grass for Ali’s horses; and after a variety of projects concerning myself, they at last found out an employment for me: this was no other than the respectable office of barber. I was to make my first exhibition in this capacity in the royal presence, and to be honoured with the task of shaving the head of the young prince of Ludamar. I accordingly seated myself upon the sand, and the boy, with some hesitation, sat down beside me. A small razor, about three inclines long, was put into my hand, and I was ordered to proceed; but whether from my own want of skill, or the improper shape of the instrument, I unfortunately made a slight incision in the boy’s head at the very commencement of the operation; and the king, observing the awkward manner in which I held the razor, concluded that his son’s head was in very improper hands, and ordered me to resign the razor and walk out of the tent. This I considered as a very fortunate circumstance; for I had laid it down as a rule to make myself as useless and insignificant as possible, as the only means of recovering my liberty.

March 18. — Four Moors arrived from Jarra with Johnson my interpreter, having seized him before he had received any intimation of my confinement, and bringing with them a bundle of clothes that I had left at Daman Jumma’s house, for my use in case I should return by the way of Jarra. Johnson was led into Ali’s tent and examined; the bundle was opened, and I was sent for to explain the use of the different articles. I was happy, however, to find that Johnson had committed my papers to the charge of one of Daman’s wives. When I had satisfied Ali’s curiosity respecting the different articles of apparel the bundle was again tied up, and put into a large cow-skin bag that stood in a corner of the tent. The same evening Ali sent three of his people to inform me that there were many thieves in the neighbourhood, and that to prevent the rest of my things from being stolen it was necessary to convey them all into his tent. My clothes, instruments, and everything that belonged to me, were accordingly carried away; and though the heat and dust made clean linen very necessary and refreshing, I could not procure a single shirt out of the small stock I had brought along with me. Ali was, however, disappointed by not finding among my effects the quantity of gold and amber that he expected; but to make sure of everything he sent the same people, on the morning following, to examine whether I had anything concealed about my person. They, with their usual rudeness, searched every part of my apparel, and stripped me of all my gold, amber, my watch, and one of my pocket-compasses; I had, fortunately, in the night, buried the other compass in the sand — and this, with the clothes I had on, was all that the tyranny of Ali had now left me.

The gold and amber were highly gratifying to Moorish avarice, but the pocket-compass soon became an object of superstitious curiosity. Ali was very desirous to be informed why that small piece of iron, the needle, always pointed to the Great Desert; and I found myself somewhat puzzled to answer the question. To have pleaded my ignorance would have created a suspicion that I wished to conceal the real truth from him; I therefore told him that my mother resided far beyond the sands of Sahara, and that whilst she was alive the piece of iron would always point that way, and serve as a guide to conduct me to her, and that if she was dead it would point to her grave. Ali now looked at the compass with redoubled amazement; turned it round and round repeatedly; but observing that it always pointed the same way, he took it up with great caution and returned it to me, manifesting that he thought there was something of magic in it, and that he was afraid of keeping so dangerous an instrument in his possession.

March 20. — This morning a council of chief men was held in Ali’s tent respecting me. Their decisions, though they were all unfavourable to me, were differently related by different persons. Some said that they intended to put me to death; others that I was only to lose my right hand; but the most probable account was that which I received from Ali’s own son, a boy about nine years of age, who came to me in the evening, and, with much concern, informed me that his uncle had persuaded his father to put out my eyes, which they said resembled those of a cat, and that all the bushreens had approved of this measure. His father, however, he said, would not put the sentence into execution until Fatima, the queen, who was at present in the north, had seen me.

March 21. — Anxious to know my destiny, I went to the king early in the morning; and as a number of bushreens were assembled, I thought this a favourable opportunity of discovering their intentions. I therefore began by begging his permission to return to Jarra, which was flatly refused. His wife, he said, had not yet seen me, and I must stay until she came to Benowm, after which I should be at liberty to depart; and that my horse, which had been taken away from me the day after I arrived, should be again restored to me. Unsatisfactory as this answer was, I was forced to appear pleased; and as there was little hope of making my escape at this season of the year, on account of the excessive heat, and the total want of water in the woods, I resolved to wait patiently until the rains had set in, or until some more favourable opportunity should present itself. But “hope deferred maketh the heart sick.” This tedious procrastination from day to day, and the thoughts of travelling through the negro kingdoms in the rainy season, which was now fast approaching, made me very melancholy; and having passed a restless night, I found myself attacked in the morning by a smart fever. I had wrapped myself close up in my cloak with a view to induce perspiration, and was asleep, when a party of Moors entered the hut, and with their usual rudeness pulled the cloak from me. I made signs to them that I was sick, and wished much to sleep, but I solicited in vain; my distress was matter of sport to them, and they endeavoured to heighten it by every means in their power. In this perplexity I left my hut, and walked to some shady trees at a little distance from the camp, where I lay down. But even here persecution followed me, and solitude was thought too great an indulgence for a distressed Christian. Ali’s son, with a number of horsemen, came galloping to the place, and ordered me to rise and follow them. I begged they would allow me to remain where I was, if it was only for a few hours; but they paid little attention to what I said, and, after a few threatening words, one of them pulled out a pistol from a leather bag that was fastened to the pommel of his saddle, and presenting it towards me, snapped it twice. He did this with so much indifference, that I really doubted whether the pistol was loaded. He cocked it a third time, and was striking the flint with a piece of steel, when I begged them to desist, and returned with them to the camp. When we entered Ali’s tent we found him much out of humour. He called for the Moor’s pistol, and amused himself for some time with opening and shutting the pan; at length taking up his powder-horn, he fresh primed it, and, turning round to me with a menacing look, said something in Arabic which I did not understand. I desired my boy, who was sitting before the tent, to inquire what offence I had committed; when I was informed, that having gone out of the camp without Ali’s permission, they suspected that I had some design of making my escape; and that, in future, if I was seen without the skirts of the camp, orders had been given that I should be shot by the first person that observed me.

In the afternoon the horizon to the eastward was thick and hazy, and the Moors prognosticated a sand wind, which accordingly commenced on the morning following, and lasted, with slight intermissions, for two days. The force of the wind was not in itself very great; it was what a seaman would have denominated a stiff breeze; but the quantity of sand and dust carried before it was such as to darken the whole atmosphere.

About this time all the women of the camp had their feet and the ends of their fingers stained of a dark saffron colour. I could never ascertain whether this was done from motives of religion, or by way of ornament.

March 28. — This morning a large herd of cattle arrived from the eastward, and one of the drivers, to whom Ali had lent my horse, came into my hut with the leg of an antelope as a present, and told me that my horse was standing before Ali’s tent. In a little time Ali sent one of his slaves to inform me that in the afternoon I must be in readiness to ride out with him, as he intended to show me to some of his women.

About four o’clock, Ali, with six of his courtiers, came riding to my hut, and told me to follow them. I readily complied. But here a new difficulty occurred. The Moors, accustomed to a loose and easy dress, could not reconcile themselves to the appearance of my NANKEEN BREECHES, which they said were not only inelegant, but, on account of their tightness, very indecent; and as this was a visit to ladies, Ali ordered my boy to bring out the loose cloak which I had always worn since my arrival at Benowm, and told me to wrap it close round me. We visited the tents of four different ladies, at every one of which I was presented with a bowl of milk and water. All these ladies were remarkably corpulent, which is considered here as the highest mark of beauty. They were very inquisitive, and examined my hair and skin with great attention, but affected to consider me as a sort of inferior being to themselves, and would knit their brows, and seem to shudder when they looked at the whiteness of my skin.

The Moors are certainly very good horsemen. They ride without fear — their saddles being high before and behind, afford them a very secure seat; and if they chance to fall, the whole country is so soft and sandy that they are very seldom hurt. Their greatest pride, and one of their principal amusements, is to put the horse to its full speed, and then stop him with a sudden jerk, so as frequently to bring him down upon his haunches. Ali always rode upon a milk-white horse, with its tail dyed red. He never walked, unless when he went to say his prayers; and even in the night two or three horses were always kept ready saddled at a little distance from his own tent. The Moors set a very high value upon their horses; for it is by their superior fleetness that they are enabled to make so many predatory excursions into the negro countries. They feed them three or four times a day, and generally give them a large quantity of sweet milk in the evening, which the horses appear to relish very much.

April 3. — This forenoon, a child, which had been some time sickly, died in the next tent; and the mother and relations immediately began the death-howl. They were joined by a number of female visitors, who came on purpose to assist at this melancholy concert. I had no opportunity of seeing the burial, which is generally performed secretly, in the dusk of the evening, and frequently at only a few yards’ distance from the tent. Over the grave they plant one particular shrub, and no stranger is allowed to pluck a leaf, or even to touch it — so great a veneration have they for the dead.

April 7. — About four o’clock in the afternoon a whirlwind passed through the camp with such violence that it overturned three tents, and blew down one side of my hut. These whirlwinds come from the Great Desert, and at this season of the year are so common that I have seen five or six of them at one time. They carry up quantities of sand to an amazing height, which resemble, at a distance, so many moving pillars of smoke.

The scorching heat of the sun, upon a dry and sandy country, makes the air insufferably hot. Ali having robbed me of my thermometer, I had no means of forming a comparative judgment; but in the middle of the day, when the beams of the vertical sun are seconded by the scorching wind from the desert, the ground is frequently heated to such a degree as not to be borne by the naked foot. Even the negro slaves will not run from one tent to another without their sandals. At this time of the day the Moors lie stretched at length in their tents, either asleep, or unwilling to move; and I have often felt the wind so hot, that I could not hold my hand in the current of air which came through the crevices of my hut without feeling sensible pain.

April. 8. — This day the wind blew from the south-west; and in the night there was a heavy shower of rain, accompanied with thunder and lightning.

April 10. — In the evening the tabala, or large drum, was beat to announce a wedding, which was held at one of the neighbouring tents. A great number of people of both sexes assembled, but without that mirth and hilarity which take place at a negro wedding. Here was neither singing nor dancing, nor any other amusement that I could perceive. A woman was beating the drum, and the other women joining at times like a chorus, by setting up a shrill scream, and at the same time moving their tongues from one side of the mouth to the other with great celerity. I was soon tired, and had returned into my hut, where I was sitting almost asleep, when an old woman entered with a wooden bowl in her hand, and signified that she had brought me a present from the bride. Before I could recover from the surprise which this message created, the woman discharged tine contents of the bowl full in my face. Finding that it was the same sort of holy water with which, among the Hottentots, a priest is said to sprinkle a newly-married couple, I began to suspect that the old lady was actuated by mischief or malice; but she gave me seriously to understand that it was a nuptial benediction from the bride’s own person, and which, on such occasions, is always received by the young unmarried Moors as a mark of distinguished favour. This being the case, I wiped my face, and sent my acknowledgments to the lady. The wedding drum continued to beat, and the women to sing, or rather whistle, all night. About nine in the morning the bride was brought in state from her mother’s tent, attended by a number of women who carried her tent (a present from the husband), some bearing up the poles, others holding by the strings; and in this manner they marched, whistling as formerly, until they came to the place appointed for her residence, where they pitched the tent. The husband followed, with a number of men, leading four bullocks, which they tied to the tent strings; and having killed another, and distributed the beef among the people, the ceremony was concluded.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:59