Description of Africa

Once upon a time Morocco and Spain were one country, and Europe extended to the Atlas mountains, which stood upon the shores of a great salt sea. Beyond that ocean, to the south, lay the Dark Continent, surrounded on all sides by water except on the north-east, where it was joined to Asia near Aden by an isthmus. A geological revolution converted the African ocean into a sandy plain, and the straits of Bab-el-Mandeb and Gibraltar were torn open by the retreating waves. But the Sahara, though no longer under water, is still in reality a sea; the true Africa begins on its southern coast, and is entirely distinct from the European-like countries between the Mediterranean and the Atlas, and from the strip of garden land which is cast down every year in the desert by the Nile. The Black Africa or Sudan is a gigantic tableland; its sides are built of granite mountains which surround it with a parapet or brim, and which send down rivers on the outside towards the sea, on the inside into the plateau. The outside rivers are brief and swift: the inside rivers are long and sluggish in their course, winding in all directions, collecting into enormous lakes, and sometimes flowing forth through gaps in the parapet to the Sahara or the sea.

A tableland is seldom so uniform and smooth as the word denotes. The African plateau is intersected by mountain ranges and ravines, juts into volcanic isolated cones, and varies much in its climate, its aspect, its productions, and its altitude above the sea. It may be divided into platforms or river basins which are true geographical provinces, and each of which should be labelled with the names of its explorers. There is the platform of Abyssinai, which belongs to Bruce; the platform of the White Nile, including the Lakes of Burton (Tanganyika), of Speke (Victoria Nyanza), and of Baker (Albert Nyanza); the platform of the Zambezi, with its lakes Nyasa and Ngami, discovered by Livingstone, the greatest of African explorers; the platform of the Congo, including the regions of Western Equatorial Africa, hitherto unexplored; the platform of South Africa (below 20º S.), which enjoys an Australian climate, and also Australian wealth in its treasure-filled mountains and its wool-abounding plains; and lastly the platform of the Niger, which deserves a place, as will be shown, in universal history. The discoverers of the Niger in its upper are Park (who first saw the Niger), Caillie, and myself: in its central and eastern parts Laing, who first reached Timbuktu; Caillie, who first returned from it; Denham, Clapperton, Lander, and Barth.

The original inhabitants of Africa were the Hottentots or Bushmen, a dwarfish race who have restless, rambling, ape-like eyes, a click in their speech, and bodies which are the wonder of anatomists. They are now found only on the South African platform, or perhaps here and there on the platform of the Congo. They have been driven southward by the negroes, as the Eskimos in America were driven north by the Red Indians and the Finns in Europe by the Celtic tribes, while the negroes themselves have yielded in some parts of Africa to Asiatic tribes, as the Celts in Gaul and Britain yielded to the Germans.

These negroes are sometimes of so deep a brown that the skin appears to be quite black; sometimes their skin is as light as a mulatto’s. The average tint is a rich deep bronze. Their eyes are dark, though blue eyes are occasionally seen; their hair is black, though sometimes of rusty red, and is always of a woolly texture. To this rule there are no exceptions—it is the one constant character, the one infallible sign by which the race may be detected. Their lips are not invariably thick; their noses are frequently well formed. In physical appearance they differ widely from one another. The inhabitants of the swamps, the dark forests and the mountains are flat-nosed, long armed, and thin-calved, with mouths like mussles, broad splay feet, and projecting heels. It was for the most part from this class that the American slave markets were supplied; the negroes of the States and the West Indies represent the African in the same manner as the people of the Pontine Marshes represent the inhabitants of Italy. The negroes of South Africa stand at the opposite extreme. Enjoying an excellent climate and a wholesome supply of food, they are superior to most other people of their race. Yet it is certain that they are negroes, for they have woolly hair, and they do not differ in language or manners from the inhabitants of the other platforms. When the Portuguese first traded on the African coasts they gave the name Caffres (or pagans) to the negroes of Guinea, as well as to those of the Cape and Mozambique. It is quite an accident that the name has been retained for the latter tribes alone, yet such is the power of a name that the Caffres and negroes are universally supposed to be distinct. It is impossible, however, to draw any line between the two. Pure negroes are born on the coast of Guinea and in the interior with complexions as light, with limbs as symmetrical, and with features as near to the European standard as can be found in all Caffraria. Between the hideous being of the Nile and Niger deltas and the robust shepherds of the south, or the aristocratic chieftains of the west, there is a wide difference, no doubt but intermediate gradations exist.

There is also much variety among the negroes in respect to manners, mental condition, political government, and mode of life. Some tribes live only on the fruit of net and spear, eked out with insects and berries and shells. Property is ill defined among them; if a man makes a canoe the others use it when they please; if he builds a better house than his neighbours they pull it down. Others, though still in the hunting condition, have gardens of plantains and cassada. In this condition the headman of the village has little power, but property is secured by law. Other tribes are pastoral, and resemble the Arabs in their laws and customs; the patriarchal system prevails among them. There are regions in which the federal system prevails; many villages are leagued together; and the headmen, acting as deputies of their respective boroughs, meet in congress to debate questions of foreign policy and to enact laws. Large empires exist in the Sudan. In some of these the king is a despot who possesses a powerful bodyguard equivalent to a standing army, a court with its regulations of etiquette, and a well-ordered system of patronage and surveillance. In others he is merely an instrument in the hands of priests or military nobles, and is kept concealed, giving audience from behind a curtain to excite the veneration of the vulgar. There are also thousands of large walled cities resembling those of Europe in the Middle Ages, or of ancient Greece, or of Italy before the supremacy of Rome, encircled by pastures and by arable estates, and by farming villages to which the citizens repair at harvest-time to superintend the labour of their slaves. But such cities, with their villeggiatura, their municipal government, their agora or forum, their fortified houses, their feuds and street frays of Capulet and Montague, are not indigenous in Africa; their existence is comparatively modern and is due to the influence of religion.

An African village (old style) is usually a street of huts, with walls like hurdles, and the thatch projecting so that its owner may sit beneath it in sun or rain. The door is low—one has to crawl in order to go in. There are no windows. The house is a single room. In its midst burns a fire which is never suffered to go out, for it is a light in darkness, a servant, a companion, and a guardian angel; it purifies the miasmatic air. The roof and walls are smoke-dried but clean; in one corner is a pile of wood neatly cut up into billets, and in another is a large earthen jar filled with water on which floats a gourd or calabash, a vegetable bowl. Spears, bows, quivers, and nets hang from pegs upon the walls. Let us suppose that it is night; four or five black forms are lying in a circle with their feet toward the fire, and two dogs with pricked-up ears creep close to the ashes which are becoming grey and cold.

The day dawns; a dim light appears through the crevices and crannies of the walls. The sleepers rise and roll up their mats, which are their beds, and place on one side the round logs of wood which are their pillows. The man takes down his bow and arrows from the wall, fastens wooden rattles round his dogs’ necks, and goes out into the bush. The women replenish the fire, and lift up an inverted basket whence sally forth a hen and her chickens which make at once for the open door to find their daily bread for themselves outside. The women take hoes and go to the plantation, or they take pitchers to fill at the brook. They wear round the waist, before and behind, two little aprons made from a certain bark, soaked and beaten until it is as flexible as leather. Every man has a plantation of these cloth-trees round his hut. The unmarried girls wear no clothes at all, but they are allowed to decorate themselves with bracelets and anklets of iron, flowers in their ears, necklaces of red berries like coral, girdles of white shells, hair oiled and padded out with the chignon, and sometimes white ashes along the parting.

The ladies fill their pitchers and take their morning bath, discussing the merits or demerits of their husbands. The air is damp and cold, and the trees and grass are heavy with dew; but presently the sun begins to shine, the dewdrops fall heavy and large as drops of rain; the birds chirp; the flowers expand their drowsy leaves and receive the morning calls of butterflies and bees. The forest begins to buzz and hum like a great factory awaking to its work.

When the sun is high, boys come from the bush with vegetable bottles frothing over with palm wine. The cellar of the African, and his glass and china shop, and his clothing warehouse, are in the trees. In the midst of the village is a kind of shed, a roof supported on bare poles. It is the palaver house, in which at this hour the old men sit and debate the affairs of state or decide law suits, each orator holding a spear when he is speaking, and planting it in the ground before him as he resumes his seat. Oratory is the African’s one fine art. His delivery is fluent; his harangues, though diffuse, are adorned with phrases of wild poetry. That building is also the club house of the elders, and there, when business is over, they pass the heat of the day, seated on logs which are smooth and shiny from use. At the hour of noon their wives or children bring them palm wine, and present it on their knees, clapping their hands in a token of respect. And then all is still; it is the hour of silence and tranquillity, the hour which the Portuguese call " the calm." The sun sits enthroned on the summit of the sky; its white light is poured upon the earth; the straw thatch shines like snow. The forest is silent; all nature sleeps.

Then down, down, down sinks the sun, and its rays shoot slantwise through the trees. The hunters return, and their friends run out and greet them as if they had been gone for years, murmuring to them in a kind of baby language, calling them by their names of love, shaking their right hands, caressing their faces, patting them upon their breasts, embracing them in all ways except with the lips—for the kiss is unknown among the Africans. And so they toy and babble and laugh with one another till the sun turns red, and the air turns dusky, and the giant trees cast deep shadows across the street. Strange perfumes arise from the earth; fireflies sparkle; grey parrots come forth from the forest, and fly screaming round intending to roost in the neighbourhood of man. The women bring their husbands the gourd-dish of boiled plantains or bush-yams, made hot with red pepper, seasoned with fish or venison sauce. And when this simple meal is ended, boom! boom! Goes the big drum; the sweet reed flute pipes forth; the girls and lads begin to sing. In a broad, clean swept place they gather together, jumping up and down with glee; the young men form in one row, the women in another, and dance in two long lines, retreating and advancing with graceful undulations of their bodies and arms waving in the air. And now there is a squealing, wailing, unearthly sound, and out of the wood, with a hop, skip, and jump, comes Mumbo Jumbo, a hideous mask on his face and a scourge in his hand. Woe to the wife who would not cook her husband’s dinner, or who gave him saucy words, for Mumbo Jumbo is the censor of female morals. Well the guilty ones know him as they run screaming to their huts. Then again the dance goes on, and if there is a moon it does not cease throughout the night.

Such is the picturesque part of savage life. But it is not savage life—it merely lies upon the surface as paint lies upon the skin. Let us take a walk through that same village on another day. Here in a hut is a young man with one leg in the stocks, and with his right hand bound to his neck by a cord. The palm wine, and the midnight dance, and the furtive caresses of Asua overpowered his discretion; he was detected, and now he is "put in log." If his relations do not pay the fine he will be sold as a slave; or if there is no demand for slaves in that country he will be killed. His friends reprove him for trying to steal what the husband was willing to sell; and might he not have guessed that Asua was a decoy?

Another day the palaver-house has the aspect of a Crockford’s. An old man who is one of the village grandees is spinning nuts for high stakes, and has drunk too much to see that he is overmatched. He loses his mats, his weapons, his goats, his fowls, his plantation, his house, his slaves whom he took prisoners in his young and warlike days, his wives, his children, and his aged mother who fed him at her breast—all are lost, all are gone. And then, with flushed eyes and trembling hand, he begins to gamble for himself. He stakes his right leg and loses it. He may not move it until he has won it back or until it is redeemed. He loses both legs; he stakes his body and loses that also, and becomes a bond-servant, or is sold as a slave.

Let us give another scene. A young man of family has died; the whole village is convulsed with grief and fear. It does not appear natural to them that a man should die before he has grown old. Some malignant power is at work among them. Is it an evil spirit whom they have unwittingly offended and who is taking its revenge, or is it a witch? The great fetish-man has been sent for, and soon he arrives, followed by his disciples. He wears a cap waving with feathers and a parti-coloured garment covered with charms—horns of gazelles, shells of snails, and a piece of leopards’s liver wrapped up in the leaves of a poison-giving tree. His face is stained with the white juice from a dead man’s brain. He rings an iron bell as he enters the town, and at the same time the drum begins to beat. The drum has its language, so that those who are distant from the village understand what it is saying. With short, lively sounds it summons to the dance; it thunders forth the alarm of fire or war, loudly and quickly with no interval between the beats; and now it tolls the hour of judgment and the day of death. The fetish-man examines the dead man and says it is the work of a witch. He casts lots with knotted cords; he mutters incantations; he passes round the villagers and points out the guilty person, who is usually some old woman whom popular opinion has previously suspected and is ready to condemn. She is, however, allowed the benefit of an ordeal: a gourd filled with the "red water" is given her to drink. If she is innocent it acts as an emetic; if she is guilty it makes her fall senseless to the ground. She is then put to death with a variety of tortures—burnt alive or torn limb from limb; tied on the beach at low water to be drowned by the rising tide; rubbed with honey and laid out in the sun; or buried in an ant-hill, the most horrible death of all.

These examples are sufficient to show that the life of the savage is not a happy one, and the existence of each clan or tribe is precarious in the extreme. They are like the wild animals, engaged from day to night in seeking food, and ever watchful against the foes by whom they are surrounded. The men who go out hunting, the girls who go with their pitchers to the village brook, are never sure that they will return, for there is always war with some neighbouring village, and their method of making war is by ambuscade. But besides these real and ordinary dangers, the savage believes himself to be encompassed by evil spirits who may at any moment spring upon him in the guise of a leopard, or cast down upon him the dead branch of a tree. In order to propitiate these invisible beings, his life is entangled with intricate rites; it is turned this way and that way as oracles are delivered or as omens appear. It is impossible to describe, or even to imagine, the tremulous condition of the savage mind, yet the traveller can see from their aspect and manners that they dwell in a state of never-ceasing dread.

Let us now suppose that a hundred years have passed, and let us visit the village again. The place itself and the whole country around have been transformed. The forest has disappeared, and in its stead are fields covered with the glossy blades of the young rice, with the tall red tufted maize, with the millet and the Guinea corn, with the yellow flowers of the tobacco plant growing in wide fields, and with large shrubberies of cotton, the snowy wool peeping forth from the expanding leaves. Before us stands a great town surrounded by walls of red clay flanked by towers, and with heavy wooden gates. Day dawns, and the women come forth to the brook decorously dressed in blue cotton robes passed over the hair as a hood. Men ride forth on horseback, wearing white turbans and swords suspended on their right shoulders by a crimson sash. They are the unmixed descendants of the forest savage; their faces are those of pure negroes, but the expression is not the same. Their manners are grave and composed; they salute one another, saying in the Arabic "Peace be with you." The palaver-house or town-hall is also the mosque; the parliamentary debates and the law trials which are there held have all the dignity of a religious service; they are opened with prayer, and the name of the creator is often solemnly invoked by the orator or advocate, while all the elders touch their foreheads with their hands and murmur in response, Amina! Amina! (Amen! Amen!). The town is pervaded by a bovine smell, sweet to the nostrils of those who have travelled long in the beefless lands of the people of the forest. Sounds of industry may also be heard—not only the clinking of the blacksmith’s hammer, but also the rattling of the loom, the thumping of the cloth-maker, and the song of the cordwainer as he sits cross-legged making saddles or shoes. The women, with bow and distaff and spindle, are turning the soft tree-wool into thread; the work in the fields is done by slaves. The elders smoke or take snuff in their verandahs, and sometimes study a page of the Koran. When the evening draws on there is no sound of flute and drum. A bonfire of brushwood is lighted in the market-place, and the boys of the town collect around it with wooden boards in their hands, and bawl their lessons, swaying their bodies to and fro, by which movement they imagine the memory is assisted. Then rises a long, loud, harmonious cry, "Come to prayers, come to prayers! Come to security! God is great! He liveth and he dieth not! Come to prayers! O thou Bountiful!"

La ilah illa Allah: Mohammed Rasul Allah.

Allahu Akbaru. Allahu Akbar.

Such towns as these may be less interesting to the traveller than the pagan villages—he finds them merely a second-hand copy of Eastern life. But though they are not so picturesque, their inhabitants are happier and better men. Violent and dishonest deeds are no longer arranged by pecuniary compensation. Husbands can no longer set wife-traps for their friends; adultery is treated as a criminal offence. Men can no longer squander away their relations at the gaming table, and stake their own bodies on a throw. Men can no longer be tempted to vice and crime under the influence of palm wine. Women can no longer be married by a great chief in herds, and treated like beasts of burden and like slaves. Each wife has an equal part of her husband’s love by law; it is not permitted to forsake and degrade the old wife for the sake of the young. Each wife has her own house, and the husband may not enter until he has knocked at the door and received the answer, Bismillah! (In the name of God!) Every boy is taught to read and write in Arabic, which is the religious and official language in the Sudan, as Latin was in Europe in the Middle Ages; he also writes his own language with the Arabic character, as we write ours with the Roman letter. In such countries the policy of isolation is at an end; they are open to all the Moslems in the world, and are thus connected with the lands of the East. Here there is a remarkable change, and one that deserves a place in history. It is a movement the more interesting since it is still actively going on. The Mohammedan religion has already overspread a region of Negroland as large as Europe. It is firmly established not only in the Africa of the Mediterranean and the Nile and in the oases of the Sahara, but also throughout that part of the continent which we have termed the platform of the Niger.

In 1797 Mungo Park discovered the Niger in the heart of Africa, at a point where it is as broad as the Thames at Westminster; in 1817 Rene Caillie crossed it at a point considerably higher up; in 1822 Major Laing attempted to reach it by striking inland from Sierra Leone, but was forced by the natives to return when he was only fifty miles distant from the river; and in 1869 I made the same attempt, was turned back at the same place, but made a fresh expedition, and reached the river at a higher point than Caillie and Park. But my success also was incomplete, for native wars made it impossible for me to reach the source, though it was near at hand; and that still remains a splendid prize for one who will walk in my footsteps as I walked in those of Laing. The source of the Niger, as given in the maps; was fixed by Laing from native information which I ascertained to be correct. There is no doubt that this river rises in the backwoods of Sierra Leone, at a distance of only two hundred miles from the coast. It runs for some time as a foaming hill-torrent bearing obscure and barbarous names, and at the point where I found it glides into the broad, calm breast of the plateau, and receives its illustrious name of the Joliba,or Great River.

It flows north-east, and enters the Sahara as if intending, like the Nile, to pour its waters into the Mediterranean Sea. But suddenly it turns towards the east, so that Herodotus, who heard of it when he was at Memphis, supposed that it joined the Nile; and such was the prevailing opinion not only among the Greeks but also among the Arabs in the Middle Ages. They did not know that the eccentric river again wheels round, flows towards the sea near which it rose, passes through the latitude of its birth, and, having thus described three quarters of a circle, debouches by many mouths into the Bight of Benin. So singular a course might well baffle the speculations of geographers and the investigations of explorers. The people who dwell on the banks of the river do not know where it ends. I was told by some that it went to Mecca, by others that it went to Jerusalem. Mungo Park’s own theory was ludicrously incorrect—he believed that the Congo was its mouth. Others declared that it never reached the sea at all. It was Lander who discovered the mouth of the Niger, at one time as mysterious as the sources of the Nile, and so established the hypothesis which Reichard had advanced and which Mannert had declared to be "contrary to nature."

The Niger platform or basin is flat, with here and there a line of rolling hills containing gold. The vegetation consists of high, coarse grass and trees of small stature, except on the banks of streams, where they grow to a larger size. The palm-oil tree is not found on this plateau, but the shea-butter or tallow tree abounds in natural plantations which will some day prove a source of enormous wealth. As the river flows on, these trees disappear; the plains widen and are smoothed out, and the country assumes the character of the Sahara.

The negroes who inhabited the platform of the Niger lived chiefly on the banks of the river, subsisting on lotus root and fish. Like all savages, they were jealous and distrustful; their intercourse was that of war. But nature, by means of a curious contrivance, has rendered it impossible for men to remain eternally apart. Common salt is one of the mineral constituents of the human body, and savages, who live chiefly on vegetable food, are dependent upon it for their life. In Africa children may be seen sucking it like sugar. "Come and eat with us today," says the hospitable African; "we are going to have salt for dinner." It is not in all countries that this mineral food is to be found, but the saltless lands in the Sudan contain gold dust, ivory, and slaves, and so a system of barter is arranged, and isolated tribes are brought into contact with one another.

The two great magazines are the desert and the ocean. At the present day the white, powdery English salt is carried on donkeys and slaves to the upper waters of the Niger, and is driving back the crystalline salt of the Sahara. In the ancient days the salt of the plateau came entirely from the mines of Bilma and Toudeyni, in the desert, which were occupied and worked by negro tribes. But at a period far remote, before the foundations of Carthage were laid, a Berber nation, now called the Tuaricks, overspread the desert and conquered the oases and the mines. This terrible people are yet the scourge of the peaceful farmer and the passing caravan. They camp in leather tents; they are armed with lance and sword, and with shields on which is painted the image of a cross. The Arabs call them "the muffled ones," for their mouths and noses are covered with a bandage, sometimes black, sometimes white, above which sit in deep sockets, like ant-lions in their pits, a pair of dark, cruel, sinister looking eyes. They levy tolls on all travellers, and murder those who have the reputation of unusual wealth—as they did Miss Tinne, whose iron water-tanks they imagined to be filled with gold. When they poured down on the Sahara they were soon attracted by the rich pastures and alluvial plains of the black country. In course of time their raids were converted into conquests, and they established a line of kingdoms from the Niger to the Nile, in the borderland between the Sahara and the parallel 10º N. Timbuktu, Haoussa, Bornu, Bagirmi, Waday, Darfur, and Kordofan were the names of these kingdoms; in all of them Islam is now the religion of the state; all of them belong to the Asiatic world.

Previous Next