A. B. (Alfred Burdon) Ellis.

West African islands online

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ship, and looks at the papers. He don't come
aboard and drink licker- with the passengers, and
catch the infection that's aboard that ship, so that
he can't go ashore again. I couldn't let you
land here, Mr. Customs, after that, I couldn't
really."

The face of that official when this mine was
sprung on him was beautiful to behold. His
vanity, the tenderest point in a negro, was cut
to the bone, and he had made himself ridiculous
before a number of grinning white men. He knew
that to go to Sierra Leone, under the circumstances,
would entail the loss of his situation, for his
neglect of the regulations ; so he could do nothing
but go back on what he had said before, and
give the ship pratique after all.



TEE ISLES BE LOS. 91

This little episode will give the reader some
idea of how much the masters of these trading
steamers care whether they spread sickness or
not. All that most of them care about is to fill
up their vessel with cargo, for they get a percentage
on the profits of the vo3^age ; and, to avoid being
quarantined at any port, they will conceal anything.
I know of a case in which a steamer arrived at
a port and showed a clean bill of health, although
three persons on board had died of yellow fever only a
few days previously. These deaths were kept dark,
and some passengers, little guessing the true state of
the case, embarked in the ship for England. A few
days after sailing yellow fever broke out among these
passengers, and one died. I know of another case in
which a Krooman, belonging to a steamer, was landed
surreptitiously at night, when suffering from confluent
small-pox, in the midst of a populous district where
there was no hospital or medical officer. I wonder
what would be done to the master of a ship who
was found doino^ somethins^ of that kind in Eno-land.
In West Africa it forms a topic of conversation for a
few days, is then forgotten, and nothing more ever
heard of it.

There was only one trading establishment at the
Isles de Los, and that belonged to a French firm,
who consequently had things pretty much their own



92 WEST AFRICAN ISLANDS.

way, and could, to a certain extent, buy and sell at
their own prices. Anyone acquainted with West
Africa could, on landing, tell at a glance that no
English mercantile interest was there represented ;
for there was an air of neatness about the place, and
little things evincing some idea of refinement, such
as is never found in the trading soul of the British
shopkeeper in that part of the world. To one side of
the house was a small garden full of flowers, and
evidently well cared for ; while roses and flowering
creepers were trained up the pillars of the piazza to
the verandah above. The British trader has a great
dislike to having flowers trained over his building ;
he complains that they are useless, since he cannot eat
or sell them, and they do not add to his comfort.
Besides, he has an idea that the fragrance of flowers
is unwholesome, that the plants exhale malaria, and
that they attract mosquitoes. The smell of a pot of
palm-oil is to him better than the perfume of the
sweetest violet yet grown ; as for a garden — if he
were set down in a place where one already existed,
he would at once have everything rooted up, and then
plant cabbages. He is, before everything, utilitarian ;
whereas the French trader, while keeping his eye well
on the main chance, can still find time to beautify his
home in many inexpensive methods.

Leaving the factory to the left, you proceed by a



THE ISLES BE LOS. 93

narrow path, much encumbered with rocks, up the
hill, where you find another track following the high
ground which forms, as it were, the backbone of the
island. On either side is a grove of palms, the
feathered fronds of which, arching over towards each
other, form an umbrageous roof; while rare ferns
spring out from the interstices of the trunks. A
shrub, with a flower something like verbena, fringes
the path with a thick border ; and, beyond the palm
groves, a dense growth of tall underwood, sparsely
studded with scarlet and white flowers, shuts in the
view. A few steps to the brow of the hill, and you
look down upon the calm waters of the inner basin,
barely rippling against the dull red rocks, with the
wooded knoll of Crawford Island in the centre. A
number of white cranes are standing at the water's
edge steadfastly regarding their feet, each with the
air of an old gentleman, with his hands folded under
his coat-tails, looking down in a fit of deep mental
abstraction ; and a couple of fish-hawks are circling
overhead, on the look-out to rob some successful gull
or pelican of his finny prey.

The branches of a neighbouring tree are swung
rapidly, and, looking up, you perceive the black eyes
and grotesque face of a little monkey, parting the
leaves with a fore-paw, and looking at you inquisi-
tively with his head on one side. He aj^pears so



94 WEST AFBICAN ISLANDS.

tame that you step softly towards him to put some
salt, if you have any in your pocket, on his tail ; but
you have scarcely moved your foot before he has gone
like a flash of . lightning, and you see the tops of dis-
tant bushes swaying to and fro, as he hurries off to
tell his friends that a big monkey without a tail,
with a curious white face, is on view. You are
surprised to find so much animal life not three
hundred yards from the factory, and you lean against
a tree, and keep perfectly quiet, to see what will
happen next.

Presently a pretty little zebra-striped mouse
comes running about on the path, peering amongst
the leaves of the wild passion-flower, and stopping
every now and then to nibble at one of the small
golden pods. You kick your heel softly against
the tree, and he at once sits up in an attitude o^
attention, turning an ear towards you to listen ;
for he prefers trusting to his delicate sense of hearing
rather than to his eyesight to warn him of danger.
Then you hear a great twittering and commotion
amongst the yellow palm-birds who have hung their
nests upon the drooping plumes of the palms, and,
turning round cautiously, you see a beautiful green
snake, about three feet in length, glittering in the
sunshine, and bent upon dining on a baby palm-
bird. Every feathered nursery is in a tremendous



THE ISLES BE LOS. 95

uproar ; the papa birds fly round and dart vicious
but inefiective pecks at the snake, when his attention
is engaged with the champion parent who assumes
a pugilistic attitude in front of his head, while the
mamma birds puff" out their feathers and endeavour
to make themselves as much like hawks as possible ;
every now and then hopping into the nursery to
count the children and see that they are all right.

The snake does not seem to care much for the
digs he receives from the parental beaks ; he takes
a couple of turns round the stem of a leaf with
his tail, and then, hanging down, curls his head
round and pushes it up the funnel-shaped opening
of a nest. Violent screams break out in every
direction, and horror and dismay reign around, when
suddenly a brownish-gray squirrel, with a dark
horizontal mark on his side, appears on the scene,
having been attracted by the uproar. He at once
decides to act as lawyer, or umpire, to these dis-
putants, and, springing from branch to branch,
salutes the snake somewhat unceremoniously in the
rear. The latter withdraws his head with sudden
astonishment from the nest, dragging with him a
callow ball of down, vox (at least, beak) et prceterea
nil, who falls to the ground ; and then, discharging
an angry hiss at the squirrel and flourishing his
forked tongue towards him, he casts ofl" from the



96 WEST AFRICAN ISLANDS.

leaf, and, withdrawing from the case, drops into the
shrubs underneath and makes off in an abominable
temper. The squirrel, surrounded by grateful fathers
and moth( ''s, assumes a dignified attitude, while the
papa birds form themselves into a deputation to
deliver an address to their protector ; when the baby,
who is tired of lying on the ground and being
neglected so long, sets up a vigorous squall. The
keen-eyed squirrel at once sees it, and, springing
from the tree, calmly takes it up in its mouth,
and retires with it to some quiet corner to
lunch ; lawyerlike, appropriating the subject of the
litigation.

It may be objected that squirrels are not carni-
vorous, but I only describe what I have seen, and
I believe that they invariably eat young birds when
they can. But they cannot get them out of the hanging
nests themselves, and have to wait till one falls out,
or is dragged out by a snake, as was done in this
case. Neither monkeys nor squirrels appear to have
sufficient vovi to bite away the grass-rope which
suspends the nest to tlie bough, and let the whole
household fall to the ground.

By merely standing still for a few tninutes you
have made the acquaintance of all these strange
creatures, and witnessed a horrible tragedy ; yet you
will find dozens of people who will confidently assert



TEE ISLES BE LOS. 97

that there is no animal life in the bush, and who
will tell you that they have walked in it scores of
times without seeing anything. Neither would you
see anything if you trampled along noisily on a
stony path, blowing out clouds of smoke like a
locomotive, and roaring out every now and then to
your boy to bring u|) that flask.

Strolling quietly along the path you presently
arrive at a cluster of thatched huts, each standins:
in an enclosure of its own. Cigar-coloured men and
women come out and greet you with some unin-
telligible sounds, which you at once know, from the
smiling faces, are indicative of good-will ; and naked
little children, with enormous corporations that would
arouse a pang of envy in the aldermanic bosom,
scratch themselves shyly against the posts of the
enclosures, and gaze upon you with open mouths.
Then the great man of the village, with many genu-
flexions, invites you by courteous gestures to enter
his humble abode, and rest from the heat of the
day. You cross his yard, all the inhabitants of the
place following, and sit down on a diminutive wooden
chair placed on the clean and smooth mud floor of
the one room of the house. There is not much
furniture to encumber the space : a few sleeping
mats of plaited grass, dyed with various vegetable
dyes, an earthen pot or two, an old flint-lock musket,



9e WEST AFRICAN ISLANDS.

with a deer- skin cover to protect the lock, some
gourd calabashes, a few strings of beads hanging to
a tie-beam, blackened wdth the smoke of fires lighted
indoors during the rainy season, and a stray fowl or
so, form, with the chair on which you are sitting,
the entire personal effects of the village chief.

While you have been looking round, a boy has
been climbing up the smooth column of a cocoa-nut
palm, grappling it with his fingers and toes, and
carrying a cutlass between his teeth ; and you hear
the thump, thump, of the green cocoa-nuts as they
fall to the ground. In a fev;- minutes the husks of
one or two are struck off with a few skilful blows
of the cutlass, and the water, miscalled milk, poured
out into a prettily- carved calabash ready for you
to drink. As these people do not keep asking for
a " dash," are aflable and courteous without any
aggressive self-assertion, and wear loose Arab-like
robes instead of disfiguring themselves in misshapen
coats, trousers, and print gowns, you conclude that
they have not as yet been much contaminated by mis-
sionaries or traders. And you would be quite right.
The French clerks at the factory do not interfere
with them much, and the missionary is an almost
unknown bird of prey in these islands.

The trader and the missionary are what are called
the pioneers of civilisation. It does not matter



THE ISLES BE LOS. 99

which comes first, for the other is sure to follow
soon, and each pioneers in his own groove. When
the trader makes his appearance, he finds the un-
sophisticated natives living contentedly, and not
bothering to do much work, because a bountiful
nature has done so much for them. When they
want to become a little festive, they go and tap a
palm, and extract that sap which is known as palm
wine ; and at which they have to work hard to get
drunk on, as four or five pints are only sufiicient to
produce a very slight feeling of exhilaration. The
trader at once introduces to their notice two new
liquids, which he calls ironically rum and gin ; he
explains their advantages, how a man can get drunk
on them in half an hour with a mere half-pint, and
points out what a lot of time will now be saved
in gettino; intoxicated with these drinks, instead of
going through the old tedious process with palm
wine. The natives soon learn to like these "strong
waters," but the trader will not let them have them
for nothing, so they go prowling out into the forest
and collect a few bushels of palm-nuts to exchange
for them. Then when their orgie is over and they
want more, they, having a strange and new sensation
in the head, which we call headache, send out their
wives and children to pick up nuts, and thrash them

if they do not bring enough. Trade thus goes on,

H 2



100 WEST AFRICAN ISLANDS.

and the pliilantliropist in England rubs liis hands,
and congratulates himself upon the native being at
last taught to understand the dignity of labour, and
to appreciate the civilising influence of trade.

The trader, also, probably finds the people armed
with ridiculous spears, or bows and arrows, which
are so innocuous that after a battle has raged for
hours there will be no killed, and only two or three
slightly wounded. In the interests of humanity, as
a pioneer of civilisation, he makes known to them the
uses of gunpowder and lead ; and sells them muskets
which are anything but innocuous, since, if they do
not damage the persons at whom they are discharged,
they maim and kill those who discharge them.
When the men of the village adjacent to the factory
have supplied themselves with these deadly weapons,
it immediately occurs to them that the people of the
next village, who are still grovelling in the bow-and-
arrow stage, have some goats and fowls that would
be much better looked after if transplanted to their
own village. As they want to try their new weapons
as well, they take them with them; and, marching
out about dusk, they set fire to the next vilktge, and
shoot the men, and capture the women and children
as they run out of the burning houses. They return
home with the goats and fowls, and when they have
eaten them, or exchanged them with the trader for



TEE ISLES BE LOS. 101

rum, they suddenly remember another village, a little
further off, where somebody's aunt was insulted many
years ago by a small boy ; and off they go to revenge
the deadly insult, and get some more things to
exchange for rum and gunpowder. The trader
generally takes care that the philanthropist shall
not hear about these raids, but sometimes a garbled
and totally untrustworthy account reaches him, and
he deplores the savage atrocities of the natives, but
says that we must not expect too much at once, for
the civilising influence of trade has done much to
reclaim these barbarians and check village feuds, and
will in time establish confidence and friendly relations
between man and man, and render such things
impossible.

The missionary may arrive at this stage, or he
may have had a clear field to himself first ; but
it does not make much difi'erence. He finds that
the natives do not appear to think much about
religion. They believe in one great deity, whom
they call the lord of the universe, and whom they
consider to be much too exalted a personage to
•have direct dealings with them, or even to care
much about them. They believe that this supreme
being has appointed a number of subordinate deities,
■or fetishes, some well disposed towards man, and
some maliciously disposed ; and it is with these



102 WEST AFBICAN ISLANDS.

that tliey most concern themselves, especially trying
to propitiate the unfriendly ones. Each of these
fetishes is represented by some tangible object, which
takes the name of the deity or fetish it represents ;
and these objects are worshipped in exactly the same
way as the images in a Roman Catholic church are
worshipped — no more, and no less : that is to say,
the worship is idolatrous, or otherwise, according to
the intelligence, education, and imagination of the
worshipper.

The missionary is horrified at finding these people
contented and happy, and utterly blind to the
miseries of their condition. They laugh, and sing,
and dance, entirely ignorant of the fact that, because
Mrs. Adam eat some apples, a benign Deity has
doomed them to never-ending torment. He tries
to awake them to a sense of sin, and the horrible
future of baked meats which awaits them. He finds
this sufficiently difficult, because they have a way
of asking direct questions, and following things up
to their logical conclusions, that is rather puzzling ;
but he finds no difficulty in upsetting their existing
simple beliefs. They are inclined to regard the
white man as a kind of superior being, and when he
tells them anything they go and try it. He says
that the fetishes are all nonsense, whereupon Mr,
Farama, who is a bold spirit, when passing Mrs. Boye



THE ISLES BE LOS. 103

Banna's corn patcli, in which the customary piece of
stick and rag is placed to represent the fetish who
protects property from thieves, thinks he would like
some corn to eat ; and as the missionary has told him
the fetish is nothing, he goes in and helps himself.
After a day or two, finding that no dreadful punish-
ment has fallen upon him from the enraged fetish,
he is filled with joy, and blesses the kind missionary
who has made it clear to him that he can go and
steal anything he pleases, without running any risks
beyond the commonplace one of detection by the
owner. By-and-by his fellow villagers become
equally enlightened ; those who possess property
find that a ragj and stick are no lono;er sufiicient
for its protection ; they become suspicious of one
another, and their simple trust disappears.

At this stage, the missionary, having succeeded,
as he thinks, in rooting up their old beliefs, tries to
impose a new one on them ; but they, having j ust
freed themselves from the yoke of one superstition,
are not at all in a hurry to hang another round
their necks. Besides, the teaching and belief of
years has been upset so suddenly and so rudely
that they feel rather at sea, and are disposed to
regard every new theory of the supernatural with
suspicion. Some of them, however, seeing that the
missionary lives in a fine house, has plenty to eat



104 WEST AFRICAN ISLANDS.

and drink, and does no hard work, tliink that
perhaps if they do what he tells them they will
arrive at an equally happy state, so they profess
themselves to be believers of the white man's fetish.
After a little time most of them find that they are
no better off than they were before, and so leave
ojff pretending : these are described in the mission
reports as relapses into heathendom.

When the missionary has succeeded in rallying a
few hypocrites round him, he promulgates a most
curious doctrine. Because he happens to have been
brought up in a part of the globe where people have
white skins, which do not look well when uncovered,
and where the climate renders tight-fitting clothing-
necessary for warmth, he lays down the dogmatic rule
that the loose drapery of the natives is immoral and
indecent. He seems to have an idea that Providence
specially designed trowsers to go hand-in-hand with
the Gospel, and to be introduced into every country,
whether suited to it or not, for the ultimate benefit
of tailors. He never pauses to think that what may
be all very well in England may be very much out of
place in Africa ; but because the costume of the negro
exposes a little of brown arms, legs, and chests, he at
once stigmatises it as improper. Now, as the natives
have been accustomed to go about and see each other
thus attired from infancy, they think no more of ic



THE ISLES DE LOS. 105

than we do of seeing persons dressed in the ordinary
manner; and some people might say that when a
person goes out of his way to see impropriety where
none is thought of or intended and where it does not
really exist, it is fairly clear that the impropriety
must exist in the mind of that person himself; but
of course that would be quite wrong, as no such bad
quality could have anything to do with the mental
machinery of a missionary. For my part, I often
wish, when I am in the tropics, that I could dispense
with clothes and attire myself in a striped counter-
pane ; and if I only had a brown skin, instead of a
glaring white one, I would do so at once and set
missionaries at defiance.

The natives, not being utter fools, are not taken
in with all this twaddle about impropriety ; and they
do not at all see why they should burden themselves
with close-fitting clothing in a climate already suf-
ficiently hot, and curb the natural freedom of their
limbs with strajDs, belts, collars, and so on. The
missionary, receiving a slight check on this point,
goes to work on another tack. He has either found
out for himself, or has read, or heard, that negroes are
inordinately vain ; so, working on this fact, he goes
about amongst his proselytes, telling them that they
have only to adopt boots and clothes to be as good as
white men, and perhaps better. The result of this is



106 WEST AFRICAN ISLANDS.

that at every mission-scliool you see the boys looking
like so many monkeys in dreadfully fitting coats and
trowsers made of cotton print of the most gaudy and
exaggerated patterns, and the girls attired in print
frocks with waists up under their arms, and tawdry hats
adorned with common ribbons perched on the top of
their wool. Vanity is thus encouraged to such an
extent that many of the natives squeeze their feet,
which are themselves as hard as leather, into boots,
although it is perfect torture to them to move in them.
To the one-ideaed missionary mind, the picturesque
and ample flowing robe and the handkerchief tastefully
knotted round the head smack of the devil, and so
these are left to the unregenerate.

The missionary next gathers together his flock,
and tells them that their old custom of taking a wife
without any further ceremony than her consent and
that of her parents is a damnable sin, and that if they
would escape future perdition they must come to him
and have a few words read over them. To begin
with, he attacks an aged couple, who have probably
grandchildren of their own, and tells them that to
atone for their past years of illicit love they must at
once be married according to his fashion. The aged
couple do not see any advantage to be derived from
this book palaver, and want to know if the trader is
doomed to a sulphurous future, since Bundoo's daughter



TBE ISLES DE LOS. 107

resides with him, and no marriage ceremony beyond
the old native one has been performed. This, and
the fact that the trader will not attend " meeting,"
has long been a sore point w^ith the missionary ; and
he breaks out into a furious tirade against the trader,
whom he describes as beina^ much more wicked than
his hearers, because he ought to know better ; and he
prophesies with much complacency that his lot in the
next world will not be as comfortable as it might be.
The natives are astonished to find that this new religion
is not accepted by all white men ; and, as the trader
is rather better ofi' than the missionary, they at once
see that they were quite wrong in attributing wealth
and power to the new fetish. The uncomplimentary
remarks of the missionary are retailed to the trader,
and he at once retorts that the former is an idle ass,
who, being too lazy or stupid to make a living in an}'
other way, has adopted that of deluding greater fools
than himself with silly fabrications — all this, of course,
being expressed in much more vigorous language.
This, again, is carried to the missionary, who retaliates
by preaching a sermon in which the trader is alluded
to, and likened to Judas Iscariot, or any other unfor-
tunate who is commonly held up to the execration of
mankind. The natives now begin to ally themselves
with one or the other of these adversaries, and this
dispute, besides dividing the village into two veno-



108 WEST AFRICAN ISLANDS.

mous factions, brings into prominence backbiting and
scandal, wliich pastimes they formerly held in but


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Online LibraryA. B. (Alfred Burdon) EllisWest African islands → online text (page 6 of 22)