Land of the Golden Trade - John Lang

Early English Voyages To Guinea: Lok

Up to the year 1481, the Papal Bull granted to Prince Henry had been sufficient to prevent even the suggestion of foreign intrusion on the West African monopoly of the Portuguese. England had not yet broken with Rome; not yet for a while were Englishmen, caring nothing for Papal edicts, to set sacrilegious foot on African soil. But in this year 1481 came the first stirrings of desire to share in the West African plunder. John Tintam and William Fabian, merchant adventurers, fitted out vessels and were preparing to sail on a voyage to the Guinea Coast, when King John of Portugal, hearing of their intention, sent an ambassador to Edward IV. calling on him to prohibit his subjects from encroaching on Portuguese rights. The voyage was accordingly abandoned, and half a century passed ere record is found of an Englishman having visited the coast of Guinea,—though we read in the pages of Hakluyt that near the beginning of the sixteenth century England traded far to the west. It is "gathered out of an olde ligier booke of M. Nicolas Thorne the elder, a worshipful) marchant of the City of Bristol," that long prior to the year 1526 "the English had an ordinary trade to the Canaries."

In 1531-2, however, came the first Englishman to the Guinea Coast. "Olde M. William Hawkins of Plimmouth," father of Sir John Hawkins, "a man for his wisdom, valor experience and skill in sea causes much esteemed, and beloved of King Henry VIII. . . . armed out a tall and goodly ship of his own of the burden of two hundred and fifty tons, called the Paule  of Plimmouth," and whilst engaged in voyaging to Brazil "he touched at the river of Sestos upon the coast of Guinea, where he trafficked with the negroes, and took of them elephants' teeth and other commodities that place yieldeth." "Olde Mr. William Hawkins," however, seems to have kept his hands clean from taint of the Slave Trade. It was left for his son to be the first Englishman who is known to have trafficked in human beings.

Within five-and-twenty years of the date of William Hawkins' voyage began a series of English trading ventures to West Africa; the efficacy of Papal Bulls was no longer a thing to be reckoned on. In 1553 the ships Primrose  and Lion, with a pinnace called the Moone  as tender, were fitted out in London for a voyage to Guinea, "all well furnished as well with men of the lustiest sort to the number of seven score . . . having also two captains, the one a stranger called Anthonie Anes Pinteado, a Portugall . . . a wise, discreet, and sober man, who for his cunning in sailing, being as well an expert Pilot as a politic captain, was sometime in great favour with the King of Portugal, and to whom the coasts of Brazil and Guinea were committed to be kept from the French, to whom he was a terror of the Sea."

Unfortunately the relations between the two captains were far from friendly. Captain Windham, the leader of the expedition, was a man of violent and overbearing temper, one with boundless scorn of foreigners and of all things foreign, a man, indeed—as the old chronicle puts it—"whom virtues few or none adorned." Almost from the start he seems to have laid himself out to thwart and to browbeat Pinteado, whose offence of being a foreigner apparently justified Windham amply in his own eyes for bullying of the vilest character.

At Madeira the ships fell in with a Portuguese galleon, heavily armed and full of men, sent out specially to intercept them. She made, however, no attempt to interfere with the English ships; discretion was the better part of valour, especially as the English craft individually were probably quite equal to tackling the "Portugal."

After Madeira began Pinteado's "sorrow." Windham's behaviour became more and more brutal, and finally he seems to have disrated the Portuguese captain. At the river Sestos they "might for their merchandise have laden their ship with the grains of that country, which is a very hot fruit, and much like unto a fig as it grows on the tree." But Captain Windham would have none of this pepper; he had a soul above mere ordinary trade—only gold dust would satisfy him. With which end in view he took the ships farther along the coast near to Elmina, and then, still dissatisfied, wished to push on yet farther. It is ever the distant prospect that looks the more enticing. Pinteado, to whom the coast was familiar, knowing that at this time of year it was particularly unhealthy, strongly advised Windham to go no farther; but the latter, flying in a rage, called Pinteado "a dirty Jew," with "other opprobrious words," threatened to cut off his ears and nail them to the mast, and finally compelled him to pilot the ships to Benin.

Here the ships' boats were sent up the river fifty or sixty leagues, "where certain of the merchants with Pinteado were conducted to the King's Court," and arrangements were made under which the King undertook to provide, within thirty days, lading sufficient for both vessels. Meantime the crews "having no rule of themselves, but eating without measure of the fruits of the country and drinking the wine of the Palm tree that drops in the night from the cut of the branches of the same, and in such extreme heat running continually into the water . . . were thereby brought into swellings and agues, in so much that the later time of the year coming on caused them to die, sometimes three and sometimes four or five in a day." This state of affairs did not tend to mollify a temper ever simmering, ever ready to boil over, and, the thirty days having expired without sign of the promised cargoes, Windham sent to Pinteado and the others directions to leave the King's Court and to come on board ship without delay. They "returned answer that already great store of pepper was gathered," and that they "looked daily for more." Thereupon Windham, in uncontrollable temper, peremptorily ordered them to come down at once. The merchants, unwilling to lose their cargo when delay of a few days would complete it, sent down Pinteado to reason with Windham. Worse choice of an ambassador could hardly have been made, even had he arrived in time to remonstrate.

But "in the mean season, Windham, all raging, broke up Pinteado's cabin, broke open his chests, spoiled such provision of cold stilled waters and suckets as he had provided for his health, and left him nothing, neither of his instruments to sail by, nor of his apparel, and in the meantime falling sick, himself died also. Whose death Pinteado coming aboard lamented as much as if he had been the dearest friend he had in the world. But certain of the mariners and other officers did spit in his face, some calling him Jew, saying that he had brought them there to kill them; and some drawing their swords at him, making a show to slay him.

"Then he perceived that they would needs away, desired them to tarry that he might fetch the rest of the merchants that were left at the Court, but they would not grant his request. Then desired he them to give him the ship's boat, with as much of an old sail as might serve for the same, promising them therewith to bring the rest to England. But all way in vain. Then wrote he a letter to the merchants promising them if God would lend him life to return for them with all haste to fetch them. And thus was Pinteado kept ashipboard against his will, thrust among the boys of the ship, not used like a man, nor yet like an honest boy, but glad to find favour at the cook's hand.

"Then departed they, leaving one of their ships behind them, which they sunk for lack of men to carry her. After this, within six or seven days sailing dyed also Pinteado, for very pensiveness and thought that struck him to the heart. A man worthy to serve any prince, and most vilely used."

Thus disastrously ended the first of the English voyages to the Guinea Coast, a voyage redeemed only by the fact that one hundred and fifty pounds weight of gold dust was brought back. "Of seven score men that sailed scarce forty reached Plimmouth," and even of that forty, many died after landing. What befell the unfortunates who were abandoned to their fate in Benin City, we do not read. Probably they, too, perished in no long time. It is an ill climate for Europeans.

Undeterred, however, by the evil fate of Windham's expedition, Captain John Lok, with three "goodly shippes," the Trinitie, of one hundred and forty tons, the Bartholomew, of ninety, and the John Evangelist, of one hundred and forty, dropped down the Thames one October day in 1554, bound for the same regions that had proved so cruel to the first voyagers. Though the venture began with a stroke of ill luck,—one of their two pinnaces was lost, with all her crew, ere the English coast faded out of sight astern,—yet there ended adverse fortune, and the record of trade done along the Gold Coast was highly satisfactory, in spite of trouble with the Portuguese, who near Elmina fired upon the English boats. "Foure hundred pound weight and odd of gold of two and twenty carats and one grain in fineness; also six and thirty buts of grains, and about two hundred and fifty Elephants' teeth," constitute a cargo of no mean value. Some of the tusks were "as big as a man's thigh above the knee, and weighed about four score and ten pounds weight apiece," but "they say that some one has been seen of an hundred and five and twenty pounds." It is quaintly recorded that "these great teeth or tusks grow in the upper jaw downward, and not in the nether jaw upward, wherein the Painters and Arras workers are deceived."

To those voyagers of old, an Elephant ("which some call an Oliphant") was an exceeding strange beast, regarding which many wondrous beliefs are related, such as that "they are made tame by drinking the juice of barley." It is a thing also not generally known to students of natural history of the present day, that the elephants "have continual war against Dragons, which desire their blood, because it is very cold; and therefore the Dragon lying in wait as the Elephant passes by winds his tail (being of exceeding length) about the hinder legs of the Elephant, and so staying him, thrusts his head into his trunk and exhausts his breath, or else bites him in the ear, whereunto he cannot reach with his trunk, and when the Elephant waxes faint he falls down on the serpent, being now full of blood, and with the poise of his body breaketh him: so that his own blood with the blood of the Elephant runs out of him mingled together, which being cold, is congealed into that substance which the Apothecaries call Sanguis Draconis, (that is) Dragon's Blood, otherwise called Cinnabaris, although there be another kind of Cinnabaris commonly called Cinoper or Vermilion, which the painters use in certain colours." Doubtless the "Dragons "were Pythons, but pythons certainly gifted with even more than the proverbial wisdom of the serpent. The belief in a cunning which would prompt a snake to slay an animal so huge and powerful as the elephant by mooring him fore and aft, so to speak, and slowly sucking the breath and the life-blood out of him through his trunk, is indeed remarkable.

Captain Lok during his voyage was not at all favourably impressed by the negroes. "They are," says he, "a people of beastly living, without a God, religion, or common wealth, and so scorched and vexed by the heat of the sun that in many places they curse it when it rises." Yet this very heat, of which complaint is thus made, appears to be turned to account by the natives, for we are told that they are thereby saved some trouble in the baking of their bread. "They grind," says the writer of the account of Lok's voyage, "between two stones with their hands as much corn as they think may suffice their family, and when they have thus brought it to flour, they put thereto a certain quanity of water and make thereof a very thin dough, which they stick upon some part of their houses where it is baked by the heat of the sun, so that when the master of the house or any of his family will eat thereof, they take it down and eat it." The birds of the air must have mourned the day when that form of baking was abandoned.

The wheat from which those negroes made bread appears to have been somewhat brobdingnagian, for we read that "they have very faire wheat, the ear whereof is two handfuls in length, and as big as a great Bulrush, and almost four inches about where it is biggest. The stem or straw seems to be almost as bit as the little finger of a man's hand or little less. The grains of this wheat are as big as our peas, round also and very white, and somewhat shining like pearls that have lost their colour." This wheat no doubt was a kind of maize.

Lok thought that the Senegal and the Niger were one and the same river, and he says of the former that "It is furthermore marvelous and very strange that said of this river; and this is that on the one side thereof the inhabitants are of high stature and black, and on the other side of brown or tawny colour, and low stature, which thing also our men confirm for true." It is the fact that the Senegal does sharply mark the boundary between "dry, bare waste of northern desert, the home of wandering tribes of brown skinned men, and the fixed dwelling places, the towns and cornfields of the negroes who dwell upon its southern bank."

Of the many strange things touched upon in the account of Captain Lok's voyage, it is interesting to note that he, like Sir Walter Raleigh in Guiana near half a century later, mentions a race of men in the interior of the country without heads, with eyes and mouth in their breasts. These people were called "Blemines," and they answer very well to the description given by Raleigh of the Ewaipanoma, of whom he says that "though it may be thought a mere fable, yet for mine own part I am resolved it is true."

In talking of the country in the interior, to the East of Benin, mention is made of an island called Meroe, "embraced round about with the streams of the river Nile," in which island in days of old, women reigned. "Josephus writeth that it was sometime called Sabea, and that the Queen of Saba came from thence to Jerusalem to hear the wisdom of Solomon." East of this again lies the empire of Prester John, "whom some call Papa Johannes."

Of the derivation of the word "Africa," we read also that it was so named by the Greeks "because it is without cold. For the Greek letter Alpha or A signifies privation, void, or without; and Phrice signifies cold: for indeed although in the stead of winter they have a cloudy and tempestuous season, yet it is not cold, but rather something hot, with hot showers of rain also, and somewhere such scorching winds that what by one means and other, they seem at certain times to live as it were in furnaces, and in manner already halfway in Purgatory or Hell."

Strange lore of the sea, too, we find in the account of this voyage. Mention is made of certain parts of the ocean in which Lok's vessels found themselves, where they saw "streams of water which they call spouts, falling out of the airinto the sea," some of them as big as the great pillars of churches, insomuch that sometimes they fall into ships and put them in great danger of drowning. Some fain that these should be the cataracts of heaven, which were all opened at Noe's floud. . . . But I think them rather to be such fluxions or eruptions as Aristotle in his book de Mundo saith to chance in the sea . . . Richard Chancellor told me that he heard Sebastian Cabot report, that (as far as I remember) either about the coasts of Brasile or Rio de Plata, his ship or pinnace was suddenly lifted from the sea and cast upon land, I know not how far."

Although in this second English voyage to the Guinea Coast the mortality amongst the ships' crews was on no such formidable scale as had been the case during Windham's voyage, yet even Lok lost many of whom died on reaching the colder weather experienced between the Azores and London. The voyage was very long drawn out, which might have given the men a fair chance of becoming gradually acclimatized but probably they were saturated with African fever, and the chill northern air killed them as frost in autumn kills flies. We know, too, how appalling were the arrangements for the sick on shipboard in days even later than those. It had taken the ships seven weeks to reach the Coast from London on the outward voyage; homeward bound from the Coast to the Thames they were at sea for twenty weeks,—"the cause whereof they say to be this: That about the coast of Cabo Verde the wind is ever at the East, by reason whereof they were enforced to sail far out of their course into the main Ocean to find the wind at the West to bring them home." Were a sailing vessel in our day to make the unusually tardy passage of one hundred and forty days even over the long twelve thousand mile waste of waters that stretches between Port Phillip Heads and England, many a face would lengthen as day followed day and still she continued unreported. One hundred and forty days between Cape Coast Castle and the Thames is phenomenal, and must have entailed an enormous amount of suffering in those scurvy-smitten days, when every ship was a hotbed of that fell disease. It was no unusual thing then, and even up to the end of the Eighteenth Century, for whole crews to be stricken down by this one loathsome disease, and its ravages generally amongst seamen were incredibly great. In the Eighteenth Century, in all the naval battles during the Seven Years' War, it was found that of a total of nearly 136,000 casualties, little over 1500 were due to the actual fighting, but that close on 134,000 men died of disease, or were "missing." And the disease chiefly responsible for this vast total was Scurvy.

One of Lok's vessels on this trip brought away with her four negroes, who were said to have been taken for the purpose of having them taught English, so that in the future they might act as interpreters. It does not appear, however, that their consent was asked. Towrson reported a year later that on a certain part of the coast the natives were hostile because "that the last year M. Gaynsh did take away the Captaine's [Chief's] son and three others from the place with their gold and all they had about them; which was the cause that they became friends with the Portugals, whom before they hated." The men were, however, restored to their homes in 1557, though the fate of "their golde" is not recorded. They are said to have been "tall and strong men, and could well agree on our meats and drinks. The cold and moist air doth somewhat offend them. Yet doubtless men that are born in hot Regions may better abide cold, than men that are born in cold Regions may abide heat."