Land of the Golden Trade - John Lang

Early English Explorers on the Gambia

By treatment such as was meted out to Andrew Battell and to others, the Portuguese thought to intimidate their rivals, and for a time indeed English and French trade on the Gold Coast did languish. For a period, the French confined themselves chiefly to the river Senegal, the English to the Gambia, Sierra Leone, and Benin, places where gold being little in evidence the Portuguese were less jealous of what they regarded as the intrusion of foreigners. The issuing of patents by Queen Elizabeth in the year of the Great Armada, 1588, and in 1592, to certain merchants of Exeter and Taunton, whereby in the one case they were for a period of ten years granted a monopoly of trade "in and from the river of Senega to and in the river of Gambia"; and in the other, "from the Northermost part of the river of Nonnia to the Southermost parts of the rivers of Madrabumba and Sierra Leona," also served to turn the attention of English merchants towards those regions and away from the more attractive Gold Coast.

In 1591 Richard Rainolds and Thomas Dassel found the French firmly established on the Senegal: "The Frenchmen of Diepe and Newhaven have traded there about thirty years; and commonly with four or five ships a year whereof two small barks go into the river of Senega . . . The Frenchmen never use to go into the river of Gambra: which is a river of secret trade and riches concealed by the Portugals." The "Gambra" already, even at that early date, appears to have become a great slave depôt; Rainolds found that "in the towns of Canton and Cassan in the river of Gambra are many Spaniards and Portugals resident by permission of the Negroes: who have rich trade there along the coast, especially to San Domingo and Rio Grande not far distant from Gambra river; whether they transport the iron which they buy of Frenchmen and us, and exchange it for Negroes; which be carried continually to the West Indies in such ships as came from Spain." A hotbed of scoundrels seem then to have been those places; "the most part of the Spaniards and Portugals that be resident . . . be banished men or fugitives for committing most heinous and incestuous acts; . . . they are of the basest behaviour that we have ever seen of these nations in any other country." Full measure of their baseness, indeed, were Messrs. Rainolds and Dassel like to have tasted; with difficulty did they win free from the wiles and plots of the Portugals.

Though trade with Guinea from this time went on continuously, as yet there was no permanent British settlement in West Africa. We skirted haphazard along the coast, touching here, putting in there, but without attempt so far to establish a permanent footing on shore. In 1618, however, King James I. granted a charter to a body of merchants calling themselves "The Company of Adventurers of London Trading into Africa," whose field of operations was meant to include the Gold Coast as well as the Gambia and Sierra Leone, and by this Company forts were built on the Gambia and at Cormantine on the Gold Coast. It is certain, however, that the garrisons of these forts were of a very temporary nature, if indeed they can be spoken of in any sense as "garrisons." Certainly in the story of Jobson's expedition up the Gambia to the rescue of Captain Thompson in 1621 there is no mention either of fort or of garrison. The account of this expedition, as it appears in The Golden Trade—a Discovery of the river Gambia and the Golden Trade of the Ethiopians, 1620-21 [published in London in 1623], is of much interest, both in itself and as affording evidence that at least up to this date the English had no desire to engage in the Slave Trade.

In September 1618 a certain Captain George Thompson had sailed from London in his ship the Catherine  for the Gambia, with instructions to enter that river, there to leave his ship in some secure anchorage, and with part of his crew to explore the river by boat. Thompson ascended "far up into the river," and during his absence "through the over-much trust of our English hearts . . . the ship was betrayed and every man left in her his throat cut, by a few dejected Portuguese and Mulattoes, whom they gave free recourse aboard, being only banished people and for the most renegades from their country." Thompson, hearing of this disaster, by some means contrived to send home the news, and a small vessel of fifty tons, the St. John, was despatched to the rescue. By the time the St. John  had made her way up the river, however, Thompson had found the prospects of trade so encouraging that he sent her back to England, and in place of her the Company in 1620 sent out the Syon, a ship of two hundred tons, with the St. John  as tender, both vessels under the leadership of Captain Richard Jobson. Meantime, Thompson with his crew of eight men had ascended still farther up the river, finding the prospect of trade ever improving. So sanguine, indeed, did Thompson become, so elated by the ease with which it appeared that wealth might be acquired, that it led to his undoing, for we read that "such an ecstasy of joy possessed him as it is and has been alleged against him, that growing more peremptory than he was wont, and seeming to govern with more contempt, by a general falling out amongst them, one of his Company slew him."

Thus when Captain Jobson made the Gambia, after a quick run of twenty days from Dartmouth, there was little for him to learn beyond the fact that Thompson was dead, for the latter had kept no journal nor left any written record of his doings; his knowledge perished with him, and the information to be gained from the survivors of his crew was of no great value. Jobson accordingly set out to explore the river on his own account, and with eight of his ship's crew, two of Thompson's survivors, and four blacks, went through many adventures on their long three hundred and twenty league journey up stream. Strange were the sights they saw, astonishing the information they gleaned, as the little expedition made its toilful upward way through the stagnant heat. They could not travel after dark, because of the danger of staving in the boat against some rock or half-hidden treacherous snag. For some hours before and after noon they could not travel, because in the extreme mid-day heat severe exertion was impossible or dangerous. Their progress, therefore, was confined to a few hours after daylight and a few hours before sunset. Shoals and mud-banks became more frequent the farther up stream they gained, and half their day would be spent in the water with incredible toil "heaving and shoving" the boat over some obstruction. As for the native portion of Jobson's crew, it was with the utmost difficulty that they could be induced to put foot even in shallow water, so "very fearful of the crocodiles" were they. Thus, even when they were compelled to enter the stream to help shove the boat off some shoal, fear caused half their strength to be wasted, so apprehensive were they, so continually on the watch for signs of the dreaded monsters. The chief toil fell on the white men, and even of nights they got little rest; a myriad mosquitoes murdered sleep; lions and other "ravening beasts" roared, monkeys and baboons chattered,—"often, in the night, you shall hear many voices together, when instantly one great voice exalts itself, and that noise is all hushed"; and lastly, "especially towards break of day [the crocodiles] would call one to another, much resembling the sound of a deep well, and might be easily heard a league." Food, too, ran short, and though Jobson tried to shoot an elephant, one of "sixteen great elephants hard by him," he succeeded only in frightening them, for his piece missed fire.

In the upper reaches the river was found to be so infested with crocodiles that the crew could not drink the water, nor even use it to cook with, in consequence of the overpowering taste and smell of musk imparted to it from the glands of these reptiles; and for the same reason fish caught in that part of the stream were uneatable owing to their nauseating musky flavour. Crocodiles the world over have for very long been on the decrease in numbers (possibly also in size), but no doubt in Jobson's day they may have been as numerous as he says they were. As to size, Jobson mentions that he saw some of thirty-three feet in length, stupendous monsters surely. A crocodile of seventeen feet in length is now considered large, though they are said occasionally to grow to far greater lengths. These brobdingnagian monsters of the Gambia kept the natives in a continual state of terror, and nothing would induce the negroes to enter deep water; even to wade knee-deep was considered dangerous. Jobson tried vainly to laugh them out of their fears, but at length, when he himself dived in and swam across the stream, some of the blacks plucked up courage and followed him. Said they, "White man shine more in the water. Bambo" (their name for the crocodile)—"Bambo take him." And one would imagine that Captain Jobson ran a great and very unnecessary risk, for the white man does actually "shine" when seen by a swimmer under water; from a considerable distance he looks almost like a bar of silver. One would imagine that to a hungry thirty-foot crocodile he would prove a quite irresistible bait. Maybe the very strangeness of the lure made them for the moment shy of rising; or perhaps Captain Jobson possessed the secret of that "grease of the water adder," which by naturalists of Shakespeare's day was known to be sure protection against the crocodile. "The grease of the water adder," we read in Friar Bartholomew's book, "helpeth against the biting of the crocodile; and if a man have with him the gall of this adder, the crocodile shall not grieve him nor noy him: and that most jeopardous and fearful beast dare not, nor may do against him in no manner of wise damage nor grief, which beareth the gall of the said Adder." Also says the same writer, "A crocodile is nigh twenty cubits long, and his skin is hard that wrecks not though it be strongly beaten on the back with stones . . . If the crocodile finds a man by the brim of the river, or by the cliff, he slays him if he may, and then he weeps upon him, and swallows him at the last."

Strange indeed was the lore with regard to the crocodile which was collected in the Sixteenth and early Seventeenth Centuries. Thus, it was known that if women, even "old women and rivelled" [wrinkled], were to, anoint their faces with ointment made from certain parts of the reptile, they would again for a time "seem young wenches," the bloom of youth would return. A fortune awaits the lucky rediscoverer of this priceless unguent. It is recorded also of the Crocodile in the account of John Hawkins';second voyage to Guinea, that: "His nature is ever when he would have his prey, to cry and sob like a Christian body, to provoke them to come to him, and then he at them." And in Topsell's History of Four Footed Beasts and Serpents (1608) we learn that, "The Crocodile is a fearful serpent, abhorring all manner of noise especially from the strained voice of a man. The Crocodile runs away from a man if he wink with his left eye and look steadfastly upon him with his right eye." And again, "Because he knows that he is not able to overtake a man in his course or chase, he takes a great deal of water in his mouth, and casts it in the pathways, so that when they endeavour to run from the Crocodile, they fall down in the slippery path." Truly is the crocodile a reptile possessing vast store of low cunning! We read, too, in the Hortus Sanitatis, Book iii. (about A.D. 1500), that that strange bird, which loves wilderness, the Pelican, lives largely "on the milk of the Crocodile."

No wonder, then, that crocodiles were a terror to the negroes of the Gambia. But if they feared them on their own account, and exercised the extreme of caution when anywhere in the immediate neighbourhood of the river-bank, they were equally timorous on account of their cattle. And the manner of getting their beasts over the river was, Jobson tells us, as follows: "When they pass a beef over, he is led into the water, with a rope to his horns, whereby one holds him close to the boat, and another taking up his tail, holds in the like manner: the Priest or Mary-bucke stands over the middle of the beast, praying and spitting on him, according to their ceremonies charming the Crocodile, and another again by him, with his bow and arrows ready drawn to expect when the Crocodile will cease and in this manner if there be twenty at a time, they pass them one after another, never thinking them safe until they be on top of the river bank.

Hippopotamuses too were a danger at times to Jobson's expedition. There was "a world of sea-horses, whose paths as they came on shore to feed, were beaten with tracks as large as London highway." "Behemoth" is not always placid and good-natured; on one occasion one drove his tusks right through the boat's bottom, which I was forced, with a great deal of diligence to stop, or it would have caused our sinking." There was not sufficient powder on board to justify the crew in scaring away the huge ungainly beasts by firing at them, and Jobson was sore put to it now and again to disperse the inquisitive crowds that surrounded the boat. After dark sometimes he adopted a plan which proved effective, that of sending floating lights (candles, he calls them) down stream, from which the hippos "would fly, and make way with a great deal of horror." But as far as the human inhabitants of those regions were concerned, no trouble was experienced; Jobson, indeed, speaks very favourably of a tribe of "Fulbies," as compared, in the matter of freedom from dirt, with certain Irish "kernes," of whom truly he seems to have held no loving memory. "With cleanliness your Irish woman hath no acquaintance," says he. But our ancestors generally, in the Seventeenth Century, had but a nodding acquaintance with soap and water; and even to this day one fears that it is but a section of those of European nationalities who—at least in winter time—worship the morning tub. The "Fulbies" had not the terrors of cold weather and icy water to contend against; they probably bathed, not to keep themselves clean, but to keep themselves cool. And indeed it is humiliating to the white man by whom the daily tub is deemed as indispensable as is his morning meal, when perforce he travels, say on horseback, through a land dry and parched, where is no water or water but sufficient to keep life in horse and man, to find, after a day or two of extreme discomfort, with what startling rapidity he becomes accustomed to conditions which, till he had to do without water, would have filled him with horror. We are creatures of habit. Though we may not desire his company, which of us in very truth can afford to cast a stone at his neighbour?

Unwittingly, in his description of the Fulbies, Jobson is amusing. "Neither are the men ever seen to use any manner of familiar dalliance with" the women, says he, "insomuch as I think there is hardly any Englishman can say he ever saw the black man kiss a woman." One does not know why it should be so, but the idea of a black or tawny Apollo "dallying" familiarly with a dusky, blubber-lipped Amaryllis is irresistibly comic. The women of this tribe appear to have been exceedingly well-behaved and good-natured, or exceedingly well ruled by their husbands. Speaking of the numerous wives of some of the chief men, Jobson says: "Again, which is to be noted . . . it is never heard that they do brawl or scold or fall out among themselves . . . contrary to our English proverb, 'Two women in one house,' etc." Possibly the husband's ideas on the subject of "dallying" were not entirely unconnected with the use of the club. One has known such instances among savage peoples;—and, indeed, the institution of the boot is not entirely foreign to the habits of those of our own lower orders who are resident in large cities.

As to trade, "small beads and poor knives . . . with other trifling things" were the commodities most desired by the Fulbies; "but after they once saw and tasted of salt, which in their language they call 'Ram-Dam,' there was no other thing could so well please them." In exchange they offered hides and elephants' teeth; and slaves might have been had for the asking, had this first African Company (forerunner of those which in later years dipped their hands deep in the foul mire of that trade) desired any such merchandise. At Tenda, for instance, a chief, Buckor Sano by name, brought "certain young black women" and offered them for sale to Jobson, who made answer that we were a people who did not deal in any such commodities, neither did we buy or sell one another, or any that had our own shape; he seemed to marvel much at it, and told us it was the only merchandise they carried down into the country where they fetched all their salt, and that they were sold there to white men . . . We answered, they were another kind of people, different from us, but for our part if they had no other commodities we would return again." Brave words! Pity that circumstances arose which almost necessarily altered the point of view for England in this respect. But there were in Jobson's day no English Colonies in the West Indies; when it came to the pinch, when, thirty or forty years later, her tropical colonies had need of imported labour, England was little, if any, better than her neighbours. In the beginning, slaves were brought to the English Colonies for the most part in Dutch vessels; after 1660 or thereabout we ourselves took a leading part in that horrid traffic; and when the Slave Trade became, as in after years it did become, the one great, all-absorbing industry—if "industry" it may be called—of West Africa, it was in British ships that the bulk of the miserable negroes crossed the ocean. Later, we shall see how the Slave Trade waxed and waned, and how Great Britain, from being the chief of sinners became the principal factor in healing that leprous spot.

The chief object of Jobson's wanderings, however, had not yet been attained; he had not, up to the time of meeting Buckor Sano, come across any gold. The natives had offered so far in exchange for Jobson's goods, only hides and elephants' teeth, and those female slaves already mentioned, but of gold they brought none. Now this, "the principal we came for," Jobson was determined to get, and he set about the task with much commercial cunning. "We never talked unto them of gold," he says, "but waited opportunity and notwithstanding we saw it worn in their women's ears, warning was given none of our people should take any great notice of it as a thing we should generally desire, until occasion was given by Buckor Sano himself, who taking note of our guilt swords and some other things we had, although but poorly set out, with some show of gold trimming, did ask if that were gold: he was answered, Yes: it should seem, said he, you have much of this in your country: We affirmed the same, and that it was a thing our men did all use to wear, and therefore if they had any we would buy it of them, because we had more use than they for it. You shall have, said he, what is amongst our women here, but if I did know you would esteem of that, I would be provided to bring you such quantity as should buy all things you brought."

Then Buckor Sano began to draw from the stores of a florid imagination. With his own eyes, said he, he had seen "a great Towne the houses whereof are covered only with gold"; that town was four moons' journey from the place in which they now were. Probably he was alluding to the fabled wealth of the cities of Timbuctoo and Gago. "Tombuctoo" was believed by Europeans to be the centre of a district passing rich in gold; it was, indeed, the objective of the Company for which Thompson and Jobson both worked, and it was by way of the rivers Senegal or Gambia that white men believed the city might be reached. In August 1594 a merchant in Morocco reports to a friend in London that "not ten days past here came a Cahaia of the Andaluzes home from Gago, and another principal Moore, whom the king sent thither at first with Alcaide Hamode, and they brought with them thirty mules laden with gold."Writing on a later date the same merchant continues: "There went with Alcaide Hamode for these parts seventeen hundred men; who passing over the sands, for want of water perished one third part of them; and at their coming to the city of Tombuctoo, the negroes made some resistance; but to small purpose, for that they had no defence but with their asegaies and javelins poisoned. So they took it and proceeded to the city of Gago, where the negroes were in number infinite, and meant to stand to the uttermost for their country; but the Moors slew them so fast that they were faine to yield, and to pay tribute by the year. The rent of Tombuctoo is sixty quintals of gold by the year, the goodness whereof you know. The report is, that Mahomet bringeth with him such an infinite treasure as I never heard of; it does appear that they have more gold than any other part of the world beside. The King of Marocco is like to be the greatest Prince in the world for money, if he keep this country."

But Jobson never attained to this African "City of Manoa," any more than did Sir Walter Raleigh and his men to that shining city on the Orenoque where Martinez affirmed that he had sojourned. On the contrary, for reasons not clearly stated, Jobson returned to his ship. Perhaps he had got as much gold as could safely be stowed away; or perhaps Buckor Sano's story did not hang together very well; the natives at all times seem to have made more or less of a mystery of the source of their gold supply. (Writing at a later date, Bosman, the Dutch Historian of the Gold Coast, says of the gold-mines of that country—" nor do I believe that any of our people have ever seen one of them . . . the negroes esteem them sacred, and consequently take all possible care to keep us from them.") Jobson does not take us very fully into his confidence as to his reasons for returning. Maybe the Fulbies on prolonged acquaintance showed themselves to be not so wholly admirable as at first they had appeared in his eyes; he complains that of nights they made "a heathenish noise, most commonly until the day begins to break." One does not need to be a fever-stricken wreck to realise the misery of such nights; even to the healthy man the irritation quickly becomes intolerable. All Afric's golden sands might not recompense him for nights made hideous by the drum-beating, the singing, the chatter and bawling of innumerable negroes. In any case, Jobson's stay had been over long for the good of that portion of his ships' crews which he had left on board in the lower reaches of the river. Great part of them had died, and Jobson on his arrival at Kassan found but four men fit for duty, barely enough with his own men to enable him to work his way out to sea, away from those fever-haunted river-banks.