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



One whole month had now elapsed since I was led into captivity, during which time each returning day brought me fresh distresses. I watched the lingering course of the sun with anxiety, and blessed his evening beams as they shined a yellow lustre along the sandy floor of my hut; for it was then that my oppressors left me, and allowed me to pass the sultry night in solitude and reflection.

About midnight a bowl of kouskous, with some salt and water, were brought for me and my two attendants. This was our common fare, and it was all that was allowed us to allay the cravings of hunger and support nature for the whole of the following day; for it is to be observed that this was the Mohammedan Lent, and as the Moors keep the fast with a religious strictness, they thought it proper to compel me, though a Christian, to similar observance. Time, however, somewhat reconciled me to my situation. I found that I could bear hunger and thirst better than I expected; and at length I endeavoured to beguile the tedious hours by learning to write Arabic.

April 14. — As Queen Fatima had not yet arrived, Ali proposed to go to the north and bring her back with him; but as the place was two days’ journey from Benowm it was necessary to have some refreshment on the road; and Ali, suspicious of those about him, was so afraid of being poisoned, that he never ate anything but what was dressed under his own immediate inspection. A fine bullock was therefore killed, and the flesh being cut up into thin slices, was dried in the sun; and this, with two bags of dry kouskous, formed his travelling provisions.

Previous to his departure, the black people of the town of Benowm came, according to their annual custom, to show their arms, and bring their stipulated tribute of corn and cloth. They were but badly armed — twenty-two with muskets, forty or fifty with bows and arrows, and nearly the same number of men and boys with spears only. They arranged themselves before the tent, where they waited until their arms were examined, and some little disputes settled.

About midnight on the 16th, Ali departed quietly from Benowm, accompanied by a few attendants. He was expected to return in the course of nine or ten days.

April 18. — Two days after the departure of Ali a shereef arrived with salt and some other articles from Walet, the capital of the kingdom of Biroo. As there was no tent appropriated for him, he took up his abode in the same hut with me. He seemed to be a well-informed man, and his acquaintance both with the Arabic and Bambarra tongues enabled him to travel with ease and safety through a number of kingdoms; for though his place of residence was Walet, he had visited Houssa, and had lived some years at Timbuctoo. Upon my inquiring so particularly about the distance from Walet to Timbuctoo, he asked me if I intended to travel that way; and being answered in the affirmative, he shook his head, and said it would not do; for that Christians were looked upon there as the devil’s children, and enemies to the Prophet. From him I learned the following particulars:— That Houssa was the largest town he had ever seen: that Walet was larger than Timbuctoo, but being remote from the Niger, and its trade consisting chiefly of salt, it was not so much resorted to by strangers: that between Benowm and Walet was ten days’ journey; but the road did not lead through any remarkable towns, and travellers supported themselves by purchasing milk from the Arabs, who keep their herds by the watering-places: two of the days’ journeys was over a sandy country, without water. From Walet to Timbuctoo was eleven days more; but water was more plentiful, and the journey was usually performed upon bullocks. He said there were many Jews at Timbuctoo, but they all spoke Arabic, and used the same prayers as the Moors. He frequently pointed his hand to the south-east quarter, or rather the east by south, observing that Timbuctoo was situated in that direction; and though I made him repeat this information again and again, I never found him to vary more than half a point, which was to the southward.

April 24. — This morning Shereef Sidi Mahomed Moora Abdalla, a native of Morocco, arrived with five bullocks loaded with salt. He had formerly resided some months at Gibraltar, where he had picked up as much English as enabled him to make himself understood. He informed me that he had been five months in coming from Santa Cruz; but that great part of the time had been spent in trading. When I requested him to enumerate the days employed in travelling from Morocco to Benowm, he gave them as follows: To Swera, three days; to Agadier, three; to Jinikin, ten; to Wadenoon, four; to Lakeneig, five; to Zeeriwin-zerimani, five; to Tisheet, ten; to Benowm, ten — in all, fifty days: but travellers usually rest a long while at Jinikin and Tisheet — at the latter of which places they dig the rock salt, which is so great an article of commerce with the negroes.

In conversing with these shereefs, and the different strangers that resorted to the camp, I passed my time with rather less uneasiness than formerly. On the other hand, as the dressing of my victuals was now left entirely to the care of Ali’s slaves, over whom I had not the smallest control, I found myself but ill supplied, worse even than in the fast month: for two successive nights they neglected to send us our accustomed meal; and though my boy went to a small negro town near the camp, and begged with great diligence from hut to hut, he could only procure a few handfuls of ground nuts, which he readily shared with me.

We had been for some days in daily expectation of Ali’s return from Saheel (or the north country) with his wife Fatima. In the meanwhile, Mansong, king of Bambarra, as I have related in Chapter VIII., had sent to Ali for a party of horse to assist in storming Gedingooma. With this demand Ali had not only refused to comply, but had treated the messengers with great haughtiness and contempt; upon which Mansong gave up all thoughts of taking the town, and prepared to chastise Ali for his contumacy.

Things were in this situation when, on the 29th of April, a messenger arrived at Benowm with the disagreeable intelligence that the Bambarra army was approaching the frontiers of Ludamar. This threw the whole country into confusion, and in the afternoon Ali’s son, with about twenty horsemen, arrived at Benowm. He ordered all the cattle to be driven away immediately, all the tents to be struck, and the people to hold themselves in readiness to depart at daylight the next morning.

April 30. — At daybreak the whole camp was in motion. The baggage was carried upon bullocks — the two tent poles being placed one on each side, and the different wooden articles of the tent distributed in like manner; the tent cloth was thrown over all, and upon this was commonly placed one or two women; for the Moorish women are very bad walkers. The king’s favourite concubines rode upon camels, with a saddle of a particular construction, and a canopy to shelter them from the sun. We proceeded to the northward until noon, when the king’s son ordered the whole company, except the tents, to enter a thick low wood which was upon our right. I was sent along with the two tents, and arrived in the evening at a negro town called Farani: here we pitched the tents in an open place at no great distance from the town.

May 1. — As I had some reason to suspect that this day was also to be considered as a fast, I went in the morning to the negro town of Farani, and begged some provisions from the dooty, who readily supplied my wants, and desired me to come to his house every day during my stay in the neighbourhood. — These hospitable people are looked upon by the Moors as an abject race of slaves, and are treated accordingly.

May 3. — We departed from the vicinity of Farani, and after a circuitous route through the woods, arrived at Ali’s camp in the afternoon. This encampment was larger than that of Benowm, and was situated un the middle of a thick wood, about two miles distant from a negro town called Bubaker. I immediately waited upon Ali, in order to pay my respects to Queen Fatima, who had come with him from Saheel. He seemed much pleased with my coming, shook hands with me, and informed his wife that I was the Christian. She was a woman of the Arab caste, with long black hair, and remarkably corpulent. She appeared at first rather shocked at the thought of having a Christian so near her; but when I had, by means of a negro boy who spoke the Mandingo and Arabic tongues, answered a great many questions which her curiosity suggested respecting the country of the Christians, she seemed more at ease, and presented me with a bowl of milk, which I considered as a very favourable omen.

The heat was now almost insufferable — all nature seemed sinking under it. The distant country presented to the eye a dreary expanse of sand, with a few stunted trees and prickly bushes, in the shade of which the hungry cattle licked up the withered grass, while the camels and goats picked off the scanty foliage. The scarcity of water was greater here than at Benowm. Day and night the wells were crowded with cattle, lowing and fighting with each other to come at the troughs. Excessive thirst made many of them furious; others, being too weak to contend for the water, endeavoured to quench their thirst by devouring the black mud from the gutters near the wells, which they did with great avidity, though it was commonly fatal to them.

One night, having solicited in vain for water at the camp, and been quite feverish, I resolved to try my fortune at the wells, which were about half a mile distant from the camp. Accordingly I set out about midnight, and being guided by the lowing of the cattle, soon arrived at the place, where I found the Moors very busy drawing water. I requested permission to drink, but was driven away with outrageous abuse. Passing, however, from one well to another, I came at last to one where there was only an old man and two boys. I made the same request to this man, and he immediately drew me up a bucket of water; but, as I was about to take hold of it, he recollected that I was a Christian, and fearing that his bucket might be polluted by my lips, he dashed the water into the trough, and told me to drink from thence. Though this trough was none of the largest, and three cows were already drinking from it, I resolved to come in for my share; and kneeling down thrust my head between two of the cows, and drank with great pleasure until the water was nearly exhausted, and the cows began to contend with each other for the last mouthful.

In adventures of this nature I passed the sultry month of May, during which no material change took place in my situation. Ali still considered me as a lawful prisoner; and Fatima, though she allowed me a larger quantity of victuals than I had been accustomed to receive at Benowm, had as yet said nothing on the subject of my release. In the meantime, the frequent changes of the wind, the gathering clouds, and distant lightning, with other appearances of approaching rain, indicated that the wet season was at hand, when the Moors annually evacuate the country of the negroes, and return to the skirts of the Great Desert. This made me consider that my fate was drawing towards a crisis, and I resolved to wait for the event without any seeming uneasiness; but circumstances occurred which produced a change in my favour more suddenly than I had foreseen, or had reason to expect. The case was this:— The fugitive Kaartans, who had taken refuge in Ludamar, as I have related in Chapter VIII., finding that the Moors were about to leave them, and dreading the resentment of their own sovereign, whom they had so basely deserted, offered to treat with Ali for two hundred Moorish horsemen, to co-operate with them in an effort to expel Daisy from Gedingooma; for until Daisy should be vanquished or humbled they considered that they could neither return to their native towns nor live in security in any of the neighbouring kingdoms. With a view to extort money from these people by means of this treaty, Ali despatched his son to Jarra, and prepared to follow him in the course of a few days. This was an opportunity of too great consequence to me to be neglected. I immediately applied to Fatima, who, I found, had the chief direction in all affairs of state, and begged her interest with Ali to give me permission to accompany him to Jarra. This request, after some hesitation, was favourably received. Fatima looked kindly on me, and, I believe, was at length moved with compassion towards me. My bundles were brought from the large cow-skin bag that stood in the corner of Ali’s tent, and I was ordered to explain the use of the different articles, and show the method of putting on the boots, stockings, &c. — with all which I cheerfully complied, and was told that in the course of a few days I should be at liberty to depart.

Believing, therefore, that I should certainly find the means of escaping from Jarra, if I should once get thither, I now freely indulged the pleasing hope that my captivity would soon terminate; and happily not having been disappointed in this idea, I shall pause in this place to collect and bring into one point of view such observations on the Moorish character and country as I had no fair opportunity of introducing into the preceding narrative.

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