George W. Williams.

History of the Negro Race in America From 1619 to 1880. Vol 1 Negroes as Slaves, as Soldiers, and as Citizens online

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very broad and kept remarkably clean. Each house has a door
of wood which is painted in fanciful designs with red,
white, and black. One pattern struck me as simple and
effective; it was a number of black spots margined with
white, painted in regular rows on a red ground. But my
readers must not run away with the idea that the doors are
like those of the houses of civilized people; they are
seldom more than two feet and a half high. The door of my
house was just twenty-seven inches high. It is fortunate
that I am a short man, otherwise it would have been hard
exercise to go in and out of my lodgings. The planks of
which the doors are made are cut with great labor by native
axes out of trunks of trees, one trunk seldom yielding more
than one good plank. My hut, an average-sized dwelling, was
twenty feet long and eight feet broad. It was divided into
three rooms or compartments, the middle one, into which the
door opened, being a little larger than the other two....
Mokenga is a beautiful village, containing about one hundred
and sixty houses; they were the largest dwellings I had yet
seen on the journey. The village was surrounded by a dense
grove of plantain-trees, many of which had to be supported
by poles, on account of the weight of the enormous bunches
of plantains they bore. Little groves of lime-trees were
scattered everywhere, and the limes, like so much golden
fruit, looked beautiful amidst the dark foliage that
surrounded them. Tall, towering palm-trees were scattered
here and there. Above and behind the village was the dark
green forest. The street was the broadest I ever saw in
Africa; one part of it was about one hundred yards broad,
and not a blade of grass could be seen in it. The _Sycobii_
were building their nests everywhere, and made a deafening
noise, for there were thousands and thousands of these
little sociable birds."[69]

The construction of houses in villages in Africa is almost uniform, as
far as our studies have led us.[70] Or, rather, we ought to modify
this statement by saying there are but two plans of construction. One
is where the houses are erected on the rectilinear, the other is where
they are built on the circular plan. In the more warlike tribes the
latter plan prevails. The hillsides and elevated places near the
timber are sought as desirable locations for villages. The plan of
architecture is simple. The diameter is first considered, and
generally varies from ten to fifteen feet. A circle is drawn in the
ground, and then long flexible sticks are driven into the earth. The
builder, standing inside of the circle, binds the sticks together at
the top; where they are secured together by the use of the
"monkey-rope," a thick vine that stretches itself in great profusion
from tree to tree in that country. Now, the reader can imagine a large
umbrella with the handle broken off even with the ribs when closed up,
and without any cloth, - nothing but the ribs left. Now open it, and
place it on the ground before you, and you have a fair idea of the hut
up to the present time. A reed thatching is laid over the frame, and
secured firmly by parallel lashings about fifteen inches apart. The
door is made last by cutting a hole in the side of the hut facing
toward the centre of the contemplated circle of huts.[71] The door is
about eighteen inches in height, and just wide enough to admit the
body of the owner. The sharp points, after the cutting, are guarded by
plaited twigs. The door is made of quite a number of stout sticks
driven into the ground at equal distances apart, through which, in and
out, are woven pliant sticks. When this is accomplished, the maker
cuts off the irregular ends to make it fit the door, and removes it to
its place. Screens are often used inside to keep out the wind: they
are made so as to be placed in whatever position the wind is blowing.
Some of these houses are built with great care, and those with domed
roofs are elaborately decorated inside with beads of various sizes and

The furniture consists of a few mats, several baskets, a milk-pail, a
number of earthen pots, a bundle of assagais, and a few other weapons
of war. Next, to guard against the perils of the rainy season, a ditch
about two feet in width and of equal depth is made about the new
dwelling. Now multiply this hut by five hundred, preserving the
circle, and you have the village. The _palaver-house_, or place for
public debates, is situated in the centre of the circle of huts. Among
the northern and southern tribes, a fence is built around their
villages, when they are called "kraals." The space immediately outside
of the fence is cleared, so as to put an enemy at a disadvantage in an
attack upon the village. Among the agricultural tribes, as, for
example, the Kaffirs, they drive their cattle into the kraal, and for
the young build pens.

The other method of building villages is to have one long street, with
a row of houses on each side, rectangular in shape. They are about
twenty-five or thirty feet in length, and about twelve to fifteen feet
in width. Six or eight posts are used to join the material of the
sides to. The roofs are flat. Three rooms are allowed to each house.
The two end rooms are larger than the centre one, where the door opens
out into the street. Sometimes these rooms are plastered, but it is
seldom; and then it is in the case of the well-to-do class.[72]

We said, at the beginning of this chapter, that the government in
Africa was largely patriarchal; and yet we have called attention to
four great kingdoms. There is no contradiction here, although there
may seem to be; for even kings are chosen by ballot, and a sort of a
house of lords has a veto power over royal edicts.

"Among the tribes which I visited in my explorations I found
but one form of government, which may be called the
patriarchal. There is not sufficient national unity in any
of the tribes to give occasion for such a despotism as
prevails in Dahomey, and in other of the African
nationalities. I found the tribes of equatorial Africa
greatly dispersed, and, in general, no bond of union between
parts of the same tribe. A tribe is divided up into numerous
_clans_, and these again into numberless little villages,
each of which last possesses an independent chief. The
villages are scattered; are often moved for death or
witchcraft, as I have already explained in the narrative;
and not infrequently are engaged in war with each other.

"The chieftainship is, to a certain extent, hereditary, the
right of succession vesting in the brother of the reigning
chief or king. The people, however, and particularly the
elders of the village, have a veto power, and can, for
sufficient cause, deprive the lineal heir of his succession,
and put in over him some one thought of more worth. In such
cases the question is put to the vote of the village; and,
where parties are equally divided as to strength, there
ensue sometimes long and serious palavers before all can
unite in a choice. The chief is mostly a man of great
influence prior to his accession, and generally an old man
when he gains power.

"His authority, though greater than one would think, judging
from the little personal deference paid to him, is final
only in matters of every-day use. In cases of importance,
such as war, or any important removal, the elders of the
village meet together and deliberate in the presence of the
whole population, which last finally decide the question.

"The elders, who possess other authority, and are always in
the counsels of the chief, are the oldest members of
important families in the village. Respect is paid to them
on account of their years, but more from a certain regard
for 'family,' which the African has very strongly wherever I
have known him. These families form the aristocracy."[73]

Here are democracy and aristocracy blended somewhat. The king's power
seems to be in deciding everyday affairs, while the weighty matters
which affect the whole tribe are decided by the elders and the people.
Mr. Reade says of such government, -

"Among these equatorial tribes the government is
patriarchal, which is almost equivalent to saying that there
is no government at all. The tribes are divided into clans.
Each clan inhabits a separate village, or group of villages;
and at the head of each is a patriarch, the parody of a
king. They are distinguished from the others by the
grass-woven cap which they wear on their heads, and by the
staff which they carry in their hands. They are always rich
and aged: therefore they are venerated; but, though they can
exert influence, they cannot wield power; they can advise,
but they cannot command. In some instances, as in that of
Quenqueza, King of the Rembo, the title and empty honors of
royalty are bestowed upon the most influential patriarch in
a district. This is a vestige of higher civilization and of
ancient empire which disappears as one descends among the
lower tribes."[74]

"The African form of government is patriarchal, and,
according to the temperament of the chief, despotic, or
guided by the counsel of the elders of the tribe. Reverence
for loyalty sometimes leads the mass of the people to submit
to great cruelty, and even murder, at the hands of a despot
or madman; but, on the whole, the rule is mild; and the same
remark applies in a degree to their religion."[75]

When a new king is elected, he has first to repair to the pontiff's
house, who - apropos of priests - is more important than the king
himself. The king prostrates himself, and, with loud cries, entreats
the favor of this high priest. At first the old man inside, with a
gruff voice, orders him away, says he cannot be annoyed; but the king
enumerates the presents he has brought him, and finally the door
opens, and the priest appears, clad in white, a looking-glass on his
breast, and long white feathers in his head. The king is sprinkled,
covered with dust, walked over, and then, finally, the priest lies
upon him. He has to swear that he will obey, etc.; and then he is
allowed to go to the coronation. Then follow days and nights of
feasting, and, among some tribes, human sacrifices.

The right of succession is generally kept on the male side of the
family. The crown passes from brother to brother, from uncle to
nephew, from cousin to cousin. Where there are no brothers, the son
takes the sceptre. In all our studies on Africa, we have found only
two women reigning. A woman by the name of Shinga ascended the throne
of the Congo empire in 1640. She rebelled against the ceremonies,
sought to be introduced by Portuguese Catholic priests, who incited
her nephew to treason. Defeated in several pitched battles, she fled
into the Jaga country, where she was crowned with much success. In
1646 she won her throne again, and concluded an honorable peace with
the Portuguese. The other queen was the bloodthirsty Tembandumba of
the Jagas. She was of Arab blood, and a cannibal by practice. She
fought many battles, achieved great victories, flirted with beautiful
young savages, and finally was poisoned.

The African is not altogether without law.

"Justice appears, upon the whole, to be pretty fairly
administered among the Makololo. A headman took some beads
and a blanket from one of his men who had been with us; the
matter was brought before the chief; and he immediately
ordered the goods to be restored, and decreed, moreover,
that no headman should take the property of the men who had
returned. In theory all the goods brought back belonged to
the chief; the men laid them at his feet, and made a formal
offer of them all: he looked at the articles, and told the
men to keep them. This is almost invariably the case. Tuba
Mokoro, however, fearing lest Sekeletu might take a fancy to
some of his best goods, exhibited only a few of his old and
least valuable acquisitions. Masakasa had little to show: he
had committed some breach of native law in one of the
villages on the way, and paid a heavy fine rather than have
the matter brought to the doctor's ears. Each carrier is
entitled to a portion of the goods in his bundle, though
purchased by the chief's ivory; and they never hesitate to
claim their rights; but no wages can be demanded from the
chief if he fails to respond to the first application."[76]

We have found considerable civil and criminal law among the different
tribes. We gave an account of the civil and criminal code of Dahomey
in the chapter on that empire. In the Congo country all civil suits
are brought before a judge. He sits on a mat under a large tree, and
patiently hears the arguments _pro_ and _con_. His decisions are
final. There is no higher court, and hence no appeal. The criminal
cases are brought before the _Chitomé_, or priest. He keeps a sacred
fire burning in his house that is never suffered to go out. He is
supported by the lavish and delicate gifts of the people, and is held
to be sacred. No one is allowed to approach his house except on the
most urgent business. He never dies, so say the people. When he is
seriously sick his legal successor steals quietly into his house, and
beats his brains out, or strangles him to death. It is his duty to
hear all criminal cases, and to this end he makes a periodical circuit
among the tribe. Murder, treason, adultery, killing the escaped
snakes from the fetich-house, - and often stealing, - are punished by
death, or by being sold into slavery. A girl who loses her standing,
disgraces her family by an immoral act, is banished from the tribe.
And in case of seduction the man is tied up and flogged. In case of
adultery a large sum of money must be paid. If the guilty one is
unable to pay the fine, then death or slavery is the penalty.

"Adultery is regarded by the Africans as a kind of theft. It
is a vice, therefore, and so common that one might write a
Decameron of native tales like those of Boccaccio. And what
in Boccaccio is more poignant and more vicious than this
song of the Benga, which I have often heard them sing, young
men and women together, when no old men were present? -

'The old men young girls married.
The young girls made the old men fools;
For they love to kiss the young men in the dark,
Or beneath the green leaves of the plantain-tree.
The old men then threatened the young men,
And said, "You make us look like fools;
But we will stab you with our knives till your blood runs forth!"
"Oh, stab us, stab us!" cried the young men gladly,
"_For then your wives will fasten up our wounds_."'"[77]

The laws of marriage among many tribes are very wholesome and
elevating. When the age of puberty arrives, it is the custom in many
tribes for the elderly women, who style themselves _Negemba_, to go
into the forest, and prepare for the initiation of the _igonji_, or
novice. They clear a large space, build a fire, which is kept burning
for three days. They take the young woman into the fetich-house, - a
new one for this ceremony, - where they go through some ordeal, that,
thus far, has never been understood by men. When a young man wants a
wife, there are two things necessary; viz., he must secure her
consent, and then buy her. The apparent necessary element in African
courtship is not a thing to be deprecated by the contracting parties.
On the other hand, it is the _sine qua non_ of matrimony. It is proof
positive when a suitor gives cattle for his sweetheart, first, that he
is wealthy; and, second, that he greatly values the lady he fain would
make his bride. He first seeks the favor of the girl's parents. If she
have none, then her next of kin, as in Israel in the days of Boaz. For
it is a law among many tribes, that a young girl shall never be
without a guardian. When the relatives are favorably impressed with
the suitor, they are at great pains to sound his praise in the
presence of the girl; who, after a while, consents to see him. The
news is conveyed to him by a friend or relative of the girl. The
suitor takes a bath, rubs his body with palm-oil, dons his best armor,
and with beating heart and proud stride hastens to the presence of the
fastidious charmer. She does not speak. He sits down, rises, turns
around, runs, and goes through many exercises to show her that he is
sound and healthy. The girl retires, and the anxious suitor receives
the warm congratulations of the spectators on his noble bearing. The
fair lady conveys her assent to the waiting lover, and the village
rings with shouts of gladness. Next come the preliminary matters
before the wedding. Marriage among most African tribes is a coetaneous
contract. The bride is delivered when the price is paid by the
bridegroom. No goods, no wife. Then follow the wedding and feasting,
firing of guns, blowing of horns, music, and dancing.[78]

Polygamy is almost universal in Africa, and poor woman is the greater
sufferer from the accursed system. It is not enough that she is
drained of her beauty and strength by the savage passions of man: she
is the merest abject slave everywhere. The young women are beautiful,
but it is only for a brief season: it soon passes like the fragile
rose into the ashes of premature old age. In Dahomey she is a soldier;
in Kaffir-land she tends the herds, and builds houses; and in Congo
without her industry man would starve. Everywhere man's cruel hand is
against her. Everywhere she is the slave of his unholy passions.[79]

It is a mistaken notion that has obtained for many years, that the
Negro in Africa is physically the most loathsome of all mankind. True,
the Negro has been deformed by degradation and abuse; but this is not
his normal condition. We have seen native Africans who were jet black,
woolly-haired, and yet possessing fine teeth, beautiful features,
tall, graceful, and athletic.

"In reference to the status of the Africans among the
nations of the earth, we have seen nothing to justify the
notion that they are of a different 'breed' or 'species'
from the most civilized. The African is a man with every
attribute of human kind. Centuries of barbarism have had
the same deteriorating effects on Africans as Prichard
describes them to have had on certain of the Irish who were
driven, some generations back, to the hills in Ulster and
Connaught; and these depressing influences have had such
moral and physical effects on some tribes, that ages
probably will be required to undo what ages have done. This
degradation, however, would hardly be given as a reason for
holding any race in bondage, unless the advocate had sunk
morally to the same low state. Apart from the frightful loss
of life in the process by which, it is pretended, the
Negroes are better provided for than in a state of liberty
in their own country, it is this very system that
perpetuates, if not causes, the unhappy condition with which
the comparative comfort of some of them in slavery is

"Ethnologists reckon the African as by no means the lowest
of the human family. He is nearly as strong physically as
the European; and, as a race, is wonderfully persistent
among the nations of the earth. Neither the diseases nor the
ardent spirits which proved so fatal to North-American
Indians, South-Sea Islanders, and Australians, seem capable
of annihilating the Negroes. Even when subjected to that
system so destructive to human life, by which they are torn
from their native soil, they spring up irrepressibly, and
darken half the new continent. They are gifted by nature
with physical strength capable of withstanding the sorest
privations, and a lightheartedness which, as a sort of
compensation, enables them to make the best of the worst
situations. It is like that power which the human frame
possesses of withstanding heat, and to an extent which we
should never have known, had not an adventurous surgeon gone
into an oven, and burnt his fingers with his own watch. The
Africans have wonderfully borne up under unnatural
conditions that would have proved fatal to most races.

"It is remarkable that the power of resistance under
calamity, or, as some would say, adaptation for a life of
servitude, is peculiar only to certain tribes on the
continent of Africa. Climate cannot be made to account for
the fact that many would pine in a state of slavery, or
voluntarily perish. No Krooman can be converted into a
slave, and yet he is an inhabitant of the low, unhealthy
west coast; nor can any of the Zulu or Kaffir tribes be
reduced to bondage, though all these live on comparatively
elevated regions. We have heard it stated by men familiar
with some of the Kaffirs, that a blow, given even in play by
a European, must be returned. A love of liberty is
observable in all who have the Zulu blood, as the Makololo,
the Watuta, and probably the Masai. But blood does not
explain the fact. A beautiful Barotse woman at NHLe, on
refusing to marry a man whom she did not like, was in a pet
given by the headman to some Mambari slave-traders from
Benguela. Seeing her fate, she seized one of their spears,
and, stabbing herself, fell down dead."[80]

Dr. David Livingstone is certainly entitled to our utmost confidence
in all matters that he writes about. Mr. Archibald Forbes says he has
seen Africans dead upon the field of battle that would measure nine
feet, and it was only a few months ago that we had the privilege of
seeing a Zulu who was eight feet and eleven inches in height. As to
the beauty of the Negro, nearly all African travellers agree.

"But if the women of Africa are brutal, the men of Africa
are feminine. Their faces are smooth; their breasts are
frequently as full as those of European women; their voices
are never gruff or deep; their fingers are long; and they
can be very proud of their rosy nails. While the women are
nearly always ill-shaped after their girlhood, the men have
gracefully moulded limbs, and always after a feminine
type, - the arms rounded, the legs elegantly formed, without
too much muscular development, and the feet delicate and

"When I first went ashore on Africa, viz., at Bathurst, I
thought all the men who passed me, covered in their long
robes, were women, till I saw one of the latter sex, and was
thereby disenchanted.

"While no African's face ever yet reminded me of a man whom
I had known in England, I saw again and again faces which
reminded me of women; and on one occasion, in Angola, being
about to chastise a _carregadore_, he sank on his knees as I
raised my stick, clasped his hands, and looked up
imploringly toward me, - was so like a young lady I had once
felt an affection for, that, in spite of myself, I flung the
stick away, fearing to commit a sacrilege.

"Ladies on reading this will open their eyes, and suppose
that either I have very bad taste, or that I am writing
fiction. But I can assure them that among the Angolas, and
the Mpongwe, and the Mandingoes, and the Fula, I have seen
men whose form and features would disgrace no
petticoats, - not even satin ones at a drawing-room.

"While the women are stupid, sulky, and phlegmatic, the men
are vivacious, timid, inquisitive, and garrulous beyond
belief. They make excellent domestic servants, are cleanly,
and even tedious in the nicety with which they arrange
dishes on a table or clothes on a bed. They have also their
friendships after the manner of woman, embracing one
another, sleeping on the same mat, telling one another their
secrets, betraying them, and getting terribly jealous of one
another (from pecuniary motives) when they happen to serve
the same master.

Online LibraryGeorge W. WilliamsHistory of the Negro Race in America From 1619 to 1880. Vol 1 Negroes as Slaves, as Soldiers, and as Citizens → online text (page 8 of 57)