The Mohammedans in Central Africa

The Tuaricks of the Sudan were merely the ruling caste, and were much darkened by harem blood, but they communicated freely with their brethren of the desert, who had dealings with the Berbers beyond the Atlas. When the Andalusia of the Arabs became a polite civilised land crowds of ingenious artisans, descended from the old Roman craftsmen or from the Greek emigrants, or from their Arab apprentices, took architecture over to North Africa. The city of Morocco was filled with magnificent palaces and mosques; it became the metropolis of an independent kingdom; it was called the Baghdad of the west; its doctors were as learned as the doctors of Cordova, its musicians as skilful as the musicians of Seville. A wealthy and powerful Morocco could not exist without its influence being felt across the desert; the position of Timbuktu in reference to Morocco was precisely that of Meroe to Memphis or to Thebes. The Sahara, it is true, is much wider across from Morocco to Timbuktu than from Egypt to Ethiopia, but the introduction of camels brought the Atlas and the Niger near to one another. The Tuaricks, who had previously lived on horses, under whose bellies they tied water-bottles of leather when they went on a long journey, had been able to cross the desert only at certain seasons of the year; but now, with the aid of the camel, which they at once adopted and from which they bred the famous Mehara strain, they could cross the Sahara at its widest part in a few days. A regular trade was established between the two countries, and was conducted by the Berbers. Arab merchants, desirous of seeing with their own eyes the wondrous land of ivory and gold, took passage in the caravans, crossed the yellow seas, sprang from their camels upon the green shores of the Sudan, and kneeling on the banks of the Niger with their faces turned towards Mecca, dipped their hands in its waters and praised the name of the Lord. They journeyed from city to city and from court to court, and composed works of travel which were read with eager delight all over the Moslem world, from Spain to Hindustan.

The Arabs thronged to this newly discovered world. They built factories; they established schools; they converted dynasties. They covered the river with masted vessel; they built majestic temples with graceful minaret and swelling dome. Theological colleges and public libraries were founded; camels came across the desert laden with books; the negroes swarmed to the lectures of the mullahs; Plato and Aristotle were studied by the banks of the Niger, and the glories of Granada were reflected at Timbuktu. That city became the refuge of political fugitives and criminals from Morocco. In the sixteenth century the Emperor dispatched across the desert a company of harquebusiers who, with their strange, terrible weapons, everywhere triumphed like the soldiers of Cortes and Pizarro in Mexico and Peru. These musketeers made enormous conquests not for their master but for themselves. They established an oligarchy of their own; it was afterwards dethroned by the natives, but there yet exist men who, as Barth informs us, are called the descendants of the musketeers and who wear a distinctive dress. But that imperial expedition was the last exploit of the Moors. After the conquest of Granada by the Christians and of Algeria by the Turks, Morocco, encompassed by enemies, became a savage and isolated land; Timbuktu, its commercial dependent, fell into decay, and is now chiefly celebrated as a cathedral town.

The Arabs carried cotton and the art of its manufacture into the Sudan, which is one of the largest cotton-growing areas in the world. Its Manchester is Kano, which manufactures blue cloth and coloured plaids, clothes a vast negro population, and even exports its goods to the lands of the Mediterranean Sea. Denham and Clapperton, who first reached the lands of Haoussa and Bornu, were astonished to find among the negroes magnificent courts; regiments of cavalry, the horses caparisoned in silk for gala days and clad in coats of mail for war; long trains of camels laden with salt and natron and corn and cloth and cowrie shells—which form the currency--and kola nuts, which the Arabs call "the coffee of the negroes." They attended with wonder the gigantic fairs at which the cotton goods of Manchester, the red cloth of Saxony, double-barrelled guns, razors, tea and sugar, Nuremberg ware and writing-paper were exhibited for sale. They also found merchants who offered to cash their bills upon houses at Tripoli, and scholars acquainted with Avicenna, Averroes, and the Greek philosophers.

The Mohammedan religion was spread in Central Africa to a great extent by the travelling Arab merchants, who were welcomed everywhere at the negro or semi-negro courts, and who frequently converted the pagan kings by working miracles—that is to say, by means of events which accidentally followed their solemn prayers, such as the healing of a disease, rain in the midst of drought, or a victory in war. But the chief instrument of conversion was the school. It is much to the credit of the negroes that they keenly appreciate the advantages of education; they appear to possess an instinctive veneration and affection for the book. Wherever Mohammedans settled the sons of chiefs were placed under their tuition. A Mohammedan quarter was established; it was governed by its own laws; its sheikh rivalled in power and finally surpassed the native kings. The machinery of the old pagan court might still go on; the negro chief might receive the magnificent title of sultan; he might be surrounded by albinos and dwarfs and big-headed men and buffoons; he might sit in a cage, or behind a curtain in a palace with seven gates, and receive the ceremonial visits of his nobles, who stripped off a garment at each gate and came into his presence naked, and cowered on the ground, and clapped their hands, and sprinkled their heads with dust, and then turned round and sat with their backs presented in reverence towards him, as if they were unable to bear the sight of his countenance shining like a well-blacked boot. But the Arab or Moorish sheikh would be in reality the king, deciding all questions of foreign policy, of peace and war, of laws and taxes and commercial regulations, holding a position resembling that of the Gothic generals who placed Libius Severus and Augustulus upon the throne—of the mayors of the palace beside the Merovingian princes, of the Company’s servants at the court of the great Mogul. And when the Mohammedans had become numerous, and a fitting season had arrived, the sheikh would point out a well known Koran text and would proclaim war against the surrounding pagan kings. And so the movement which had been begun by the school would be continued by the sword.

It may, however, be doubted whether the Arab merchants alone would have spread Islam over the Niger plateau. On the east coast of Africa they have possessed settlements from time immemorial. Before the Greeks of Alexandria sailed into the Indian Ocean, before the Tyrian vessels, with Jewish supercargoes, passed through the straits of Bab-el-Mandeb, the Arabs of Yemen had established factories in Mozambique and on the opposite coast of Malabar, and had carried on a trade between the two lands, selling to the Indians ivory, ebony, slaves, bees-wax, and gold-dust brought down in quills from the interior by the negroes, to whom they sold in return the sugar beads, and blue cotton goods of Hindustan. In the period of the caliphs these settlements were strengthened and increased, in consequence of civil war, by fugitive tribes from Oman and other parts of the Arabian peninsula. The emigrants made Africa their home; they built large towns which they surrounded with orchards of the orange-tree and plantations of the date; they introduced the culture of tobacco, sugar-cane and cotton. They were loved and revered by the negroes; they made long journeys into the interior for the purposes of trade. Yet their religion has made no progress, and they do not attempt to convert the blacks. Their towns resemble those of the Europeans; they dwell apart from the natives, and above them.

The Mohammedans who entered the Niger regions were not only the Arab merchants but also the Berbers of the desert, who, driven by war or instigated by ambition, poured into the Sudan by tribes, seized lands and women, and formed mulatto nationalities. Of these the Fulahs are the most famous. They were originally natives of Northern Africa; having intermarried during many generations with the natives, they have often the appearance of pure Negroes, but they always call themselves white men, however black their skins may seem to be. In the last century they were dispersed in small and puny tribes. Some wandered as gipsies selling wooden bowls; others were roaming shepherd clans, paying tribute to the native kings and suffering much ill-treatment. In other parts they lived a bandit life. Sometimes, but rarely, they resided in towns which they had conquered, pursued commerce, and tilled the soil. Yet in war they were far superior to the Negroes: if only they could be united the most powerful kingdoms would be unable to withstand them. And finally their day arrived. A man of their own race returned from Mecca, a pilgrim and a prophet, gathered them like wolves beneath his standard, and poured them forth on the Sudan.

The pilgrimage to Mecca is incumbent only on those who can afford it, but hundreds of devout Negroes every year put on their shrouds and beg their way across the continent to Massowah. There, taking out a few grains of gold-dust cunningly concealed between the leaves of their Korans, they pay their passage across the Red Sea and tramp it from Jidda to Mecca, feeding as they go on the bodies of the camels that have been left to die, and whose meat is lawful if the throat is cut before the animal expires. As soon as the Negroes—or Takrouri, as they are called—arrive in the Holy City they at once set to work, some as porters and some as carriers of water in leather skins; others manufacture baskets and mats of date leaves; others establish a market for firewood, which they collect in the neighbouring hills. They inhabit miserable huts or ruined houses in the quarter of the lower classes, where the sellers of charcoal dwell and where locusts are sold by the measure. Some of these poor and industrious creatures spread their mats in the cloisters of the great Mosque, and stay all the time beneath that sacred and hospitable roof. They are subject to the exclamatory fits and pious convulsions so common among the Negroes of the Southern States. Often they may be seen prostrate on the pavement, beating their foreheads against the stones, weeping bitterly, and pouring forth the wildest ejaculations.

The Great Mosque at Mecca is a spacious square surrounded by a colonnade. In the midst of the quadrangle is the small building called the Caaba. It has no windows; its door, which is seldom opened, is coated with silver; its padlock, once of pure gold, is now of silver gilt. On its threshold are placed every night various small wax candles and perfuming pans filled with aloeswood and musk. The walls of the building are covered with a veil of black silk, tucked up on one side, so as to leave exposed the famous Black Stone which is niched in the wall outside. The veil is not fastened close to the building, so that the least breath of air causes it to wave in slow, undulating movements, hailed with prayer by the kneeling crowd around. They believe that it is caused by the wings of guardian angels who will transport the Caaba to paradise when the last trumpet sounds.

At a little distance from this building is the Zemzem well, and while some of the pilgrims are standing by its mouth waiting to be served, or walking round the Caaba, or stooping to kiss the stone, other scenes may be observed in the cloisters and the square; and, as in the Temple at Jerusalem, these are not all of the most edifying nature. Children are playing at games, or feeding the wild pigeons whom long immunity has rendered tame. Numerous schools are going on, the boys chanting in a loud voice, and the master’s baton sometimes falling on their backs. In another corner a religious lecture is being delivered. Men of all nations are clustered in separate groups—the Persian heretics, with their caps mounting to heaven and their beards descending to the earth; the Tartar, with oblique eyes and rounded limbs and light silk handkerchief tied round his brow; Turks with shaven faces and in red caps; the lean Indian pauper, begging with a miserable whine; and one or two wealthy Hindu merchants not guiltless of dinners given to infidels, and of iced champagne. At the same time an active business is being done in sacred keepsakes—rosaries made of camel bone, bottles of Zemzem water, dust collected from behind the veil, tooth-sticks made of a fibrous root such as that which Mohammed himself was wont to use, and coarsely executed pictures of the Caaba. Mecca itself, like most cities frequented by strangers, whether pilgrims or mariners, is not an abode of righteousness and virtue. As the Tartars say of it, "The Torch is dark at its foot," and many a pilgrim might exclaim with the Arabian Ovid;

"I set out in the hopes of lightening my sins,

And returned, bringing home with me a fresh load of transgressions."

But the very wickedness of a holy city deepens real enthusiasm into severity and wrath. When Abd-ul-Wahhab saw taverns opened in Mecca itself, and the inhabitants alluring the pilgrims to every kind of vice; when he found that the sacred places were made a show, that the mosque was inhabited by guides and officials who were as greedy as beasts of prey, that wealth, not piety, was the chief object of consideration in a pilgrim, he felt as Luther felt at Rome. The disgust which was excited in his mind by the manners of the day was extended also to the doctrines that were in vogue. The prayers that were offered up to Mohammed and the saints resembled the prayers that were once offered up to the Daughters of Heaven, the intercessors of the ancient Arabs. The pilgrimages that were made to the tombs of holy men were the old journeys to the ancestral graves. The worship of one God, which Mohammed had been sent to restore, had again become obscured; the days of darkness had returned. He preached a Unitarian revival; he held up as his standard and his guide the Koran, and nothing but the Koran; he founded a puritan sect which is now a hundred years of age, and still remains an element of power and disturbance in the East.

Othman Dan Fodio, the Black Prophet, also went out of Mecca, his soul burning with zeal. He determined to reform the Sudan. He forbade, like Abd-ul-Wahhab, the smoking of tobacco, the wearing of ornaments and finery. But he had to contend with more gross abuses still. In many negro lands which professed Islam, palm wine and millet beer were largely consumed; the women did not veil their faces nor even their bosoms; immodest dances were performed to the profane music of the drum; learned men gained a livelihood by writing charms, the code of the Koran was often supplanted by the old customary laws. Dan Fodio sent letters to the great kings of Timbuktu, Haoussa, and Bornu, commanding them to reform their own lives and those of their subjects, or he would chastise them in the name of God. They received these instructions from an unknown man, as the King of Kings received the letter of Mohammed, and their fate resembled his. Dan Fodio united the Fulah tribes into an army which he inspired with his own spirit. Thirsting for plunder and paradise, the Fulahs swept over the Sudan; they marched into battle with shouts of frenzied joy, singing hymns and waving their green flags on which texts of the Koran were embroidered in letters of gold. The empire which they established at the beginning of this century is now crumbling away, but the fire is still burning on the frontiers. Wherever the Fulahs are settled in the neighbourhood of pagan tribes they are extending their power, and although the immediate effects are disastrous—villages being laid in ashes, men slaughtered by thousands, women and children sold as slaves—yet in the end these crusades are productive of good. The villages are converted into towns; a new land is brought within the sphere of commercial and religious intercourse, and is added to the Asiatic world.

The phenomenon of a religious Tamerlane has been repeated more than once in Central Africa. The last example was that of Oumar the Pilgrim, whose capital was Segou, and whose conquests extended from Timbuktu to Senegal, where he came into contact with French artillery and for ever lost his prestige as a prophet. But we are taught by the science of history that these military empires can never long endure. It is probable that Mohammedan Sudan will in time become a province of the Turks. Central Africa, as we have shown, received its civilisation not from Egypt but from the grand Morocco of the Middle Ages. Egypt has always lived with its back to Africa, its eyes and often its hands on Syria and Arabia. Abyssinia was not subdued by the caliphs because it was not coveted by them, and there was little communication between Egypt and the Sudan. Mohammed Ali was the first to re-establish the kingdom of the Pharaohs in Ethiopia, and to organise negro regiments. Since his time the Turkish power has been gradually spreading towards the interior, and the expedition of Baker Pasha, whatever may be its immediate result, is the harbinger of great events to come. Should the Turks be driven out of Europe, they would probably become the emperors of Africa, which in the interests of civilisation would be a fortunate occurrence. The Turkish government is undoubtedly defective in comparison with the governments of Europe, but it is perfection itself in comparison with the governments of Africa. If the Egyptians had been allowed to conquer Abyssinia there would have been no need of an Abyssinian expedition, and nothing but Egyptian occupation will put an end to the wars which are always being waged and always have been waged in that country between bandit chiefs. Those who are anxious that Abyssinian Christianity should be preserved need surely not be alarmed, for the Pope of Abyssinia is the Patriarch of Cairo, a Turkish subject, and the aboona or archbishop has always been an Egyptian. But the Turks no longer have it in their power to commit actions which Europeans would condemn. They now belong to the civilised system; they are subject to the law of opinion. Already they have been compelled by that mysterious power to suppress the slave-making wars which were formerly waged every year from Kordofan and Sennaar, and which are still being waged from the independent kingdoms of Darfur, Waday, Bagirmi, and Bornu. Wherever the Turks reign a European is allowed to travel; wherever a European travels a word is spoken on behalf of the oppressed. That word enters the newspapers, passes into a diplomatic remonstrance, becomes a firman, and a governor or commandant in some sequestered province of an Oriental empire suffers the penalty of his misdeeds. It should be the policy of European Powers to aid the destruction of all savage kingdoms, or at least never to interfere on their behalf.

It has now been shown that a vast region within the Dark Continent, the world beyond the sandy ocean, is governed by Asiatic laws and has attained an Asiatic civilisation. We must next pass to the Atlantic side, and study the effects which have been produced among the negroes by the intercourse of Europeans. It will be found that the transactions on the coast of Guinea belong not only to the biography of Africa but also to universal history, and that the domestication of the negro has indirectly assisted the material progress of Europe and the development of its morality. The programme of the next chapter will be as follows: The rise of Europe out of darkness; the discovery of Western Africa by the Portuguese; the institution of the slave-trade, and the history of that great republican and philanthropic movement which won its first victory in the abolition of the slave-trade in 1807, its last in the taking of Richmond in 1865.

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