Land of the Golden Trade - John Lang

Old Missions

Against this same Devil went forth also in those days, and from the earliest times of the Portuguese occupation, many missionaries, Capuchin Friars and others, burning to convert the natives to the True Faith. Hard, austere men, the most of them, determined to achieve their purpose by any and every means, even, in the early days, by aid of the lash if need be; but men too much absorbed by their one idea to be relied on to shed much light on the country from a geographical point of view. Converts they must make, and converts in a sense they made, no doubt, by the thousand. With the utmost alacrity the natives came to be baptized, whole villages at a time, man, woman, and child, so that the good and pious priests could scarce find time to eat or sleep. It was a novelty; there was also from the native point of view something to be gained—beads and what not, salt perhaps, to them a prized luxury, but the childish mind of the black converts did not soar higher. In a word, it amused them to become Christians—provided always that it did not interfere with their comfort or their mode of living.

But when the good Fathers, conscientious, earnest men, without doubt seeking to do right according to their lights, began to interfere with ancient custom, the scene somewhat changed. From the point of view of the negro, the possession of many wives and of many concubines was a thing greatly to be desired; each man possessed as many as seemed good to him, or as his means permitted. The higher the rank, the greater number of wives and concubines did he own; the more he had, the greater was his wealth. Women in those latitudes were the beasts of burden, theirs the toil that kept husbands in ease and luxury. Man in those primitive communities was purely a fighting animal, woman the willing toiler, the breadwinner. Except as a slave (probably captured in war), man did not soil his hands by work. The arrangement suited all parties concerned; it was a custom from time immemorial.

But in the eyes of those excellent Fathers it was sin of no ordinary dye, and against this device of Satan they proceeded to wage war fierce and relentless. The faith of even the most zealous and enthusiastic of their native flock was staggered by the announcement that all wives save one must be put away. Concubines were anathema; of them a clean sweep must be made. The situation admitted of no compromise; there must be no evasion, no attempt to change the status of these unholy women by the flimsy device of styling them "servants." Root and branch must the custom be torn up and cast aside for ever.

So, with intemperate zeal ruled the Fathers; and dismay fell on the blacks. It was not for innovations such as this that they had bargained when renouncing their fetishes and clumsy idols. Outraged feeling ran high, and for a time Martyrdom for their Faith was a probability never far removed from the Fathers. But they survived, and even—at least temporarily—made some impression on that custom which so shocked their sense of propriety, an impression short-lived at the best in most instances, one fears.

When about the year 1645 Fathers Gabriel and Anthony undertook a mission to Batta, they found the "Duke" of that kingdom,—they were all "Kings," "Dukes," "Marquises," or "Counts," those black chiefs, in the estimation of the simple-minded Friars,—they found the "Duke" of Batta a particularly hardened sinner in the matter of concubines, and without delay they attacked this powerful chief and endeavoured to persuade him to put away his superfluous womenkind. The abominable sinfulness of the custom was eloquently dwelt upon, the soundest and most potent of arguments against it were advanced, the whole artillery of the Church was brought to bear. But the "Duke" remained unconvinced, he failed wholly to see wherein lay the sin; the custom was an old custom, and a good custom. What! His ancestors, and himself, condemned to perdition and to everlasting torment for the sake of a few trumpery extra wives? It was preposterous, an outrage! Finally, losing temper, he used strong talk with regard to the question of foreigners, newly arrived and ignorant of the habits and requirements of a country, presuming to interfere with, or even to express an opinion on, established use and custom. There is much to be said for the "Duke's" point of view as regards the foreigner yet in a little time he gave way on the other point made a clean sweep of his entire female staff, and was married according to the rites of Holy Church to the daughter of a neighbouring chief. So far so good, and the Fathers Gilbert and Anthony, pleased by their speedy and astonishing success, went on their way rejoicing.

Farther inland the impression those good men made was not so marked; indeed it is grievous to relate that they became to the people subjects for mirth, and the objects of practical joke rather than of reverence or respect. It became popular pastime amongst the youth of the villages to wait until the Fathers were addressing an open-air meeting, then as the preacher, borne on the wave's crest of his own eloquence, approached his climax, to scream "A lion, a lion! Run! Run!" make a dash for the nearest tree, and there cling in helpless ecstasies of mirth while they watched the vain efforts of the unskilled monks to scramble out of danger. Nor was it safe to disregard the warning cry; the lion might  be there. The joke was unfailing in effect, a phenomenal success that added zest to life in the villages.

Depressed by their want of success here, the Fathers decided to return to Batta, a more fruitful field where doubtless they might add to the power already gained, farther extend the influence of the Church, and confirm in their faith those who wavered. So to Batta eagerly they hastened. Alas for their enthusiasm! Not only was the "Duke" a backslider, but he had backslidden to a point never before attained by him; his harem was nearly twice the size that it had been in pre-Gilbert and Anthony days. And not only was this the case, but all the lesser chiefs also had hurried to follow an example so popular. It was a grievous blow to the poor Fathers, one that their influence did not survive, for before they could do more than express pious horror and grief, the "Duke" and all his subsidiary chiefs departed on summons from their lord and master, the King of Congo. Thereupon the women shut themselves and their children up in the houses and refused to listen to, or even to see, the priests. There was nothing for the good Fathers to do, and in bitter disappointment they closed the mission and returned to the Portuguese settlement of San Salvador.

Father Jerome was another who about the same period went about the country, at peril of his life destroying and burning the wooden idols of the natives, converting vi et armis, raking into the Fold of the Church armies of darkened Pagan souls. Fame of the miraculous power of his exorcisms against a devastating horde of locusts aided him in his campaign against the evils of concubinage and plurality of wives. Christianity made great strides.

But the success won by Jerome might have been cause of embarrassment to St. Anthony himself. Far up the River Congo, the King of Concobella, ruler of a barbarous semi-cannibal tribe, eager to obtain the favour of wizard so potent, sent to Jerome as a choice and acceptable gift one of his subjects who for some fault or crime had lately fallen from favour with the King, and had been condemned to die. Now, the custom in these cases was for the recipient of such donation to kill and eat the prisoner. It was a thing well understood that this should be done; etiquette demanded it. No higher mark of appreciation and favour could have been offered to Jerome, and he accepted the gift, with the intention, no doubt, of setting free the wretched victim.

Then the King, gratified by this apparent, appreciation of his bounty, went farther, and pressed on Jerome the hand of his daughter in marriage. Nor was this the end; for thereupon every chief—a great multitude, it seemed to the unhappy priest,—every chief, incited by the royal example and eager to bask in the sun of Jerome's favour, also pressed his daughter on the disconcerted Friar, and would take no denial! "Timeo Danaos," well might Jerome cry, "et dona ferentes." It was an embarrassing situation. For it is ill to flout the matrimonial aspirations of Kings, and of powerful and hasty-tempered Nobles; they cannot always be trusted to view in proper light the motives actuating the person who declines, from whatever cause, the proffered alliance. So much depends on the point of view.

But a veritable St. Anthony was Father Jerome. He said that it cost him nothing to abjure all dealings in the matrimonial market. He even succeeded in convincing the King that to bestow his royal smiles on too many Queens was sinful in the last degree; one Queen there might be, no more. And to one the King adhered—till Jerome went away.

Not so easily were the chiefs or the people pacified. Proffer of their daughters in wedlock had been rejected with scorn and horror! Who was this wretched stranger who put on them a slight so marked? Who was he that went so far as to presume to dictate to them how many wives they should keep, and who even took it on himself to insist that they must give up the cherished practice of eating human flesh? Such interference was intolerable, as indeed they were at some pains to convince him; and the unhappy Jerome found it expedient to quit the scene of his labours.

Alas! poor Father Jerome. He was a good man and a brave, but like most of his kind at that day he did not well understand the negro, nor was capable of plumbing the depths of ignorance and superstition in which the childish native mind lies fathom deep. Not that one desires that he should have wedded, or pretended to wed, all or any of the throng of royal and noble young black ladies who were offered to him in marriage. Heaven forbid! In a priest, it were mortal sin. But there be ways and ways of declining a matrimonial alliance, and in the end the suaviter in modo is probably the more efficacious method. Jerome's was the fortiter in re. Even a bigoted priest may not hope in a benighted land to accomplish great things if the chief weapon in his store of arguments is of the nature of a cudgel.

But Jerome's methods were mild when compared to those employed by two missionaries who in 1655 left Massangano (where for six weary years had pined Andrew Battell) on a mission to Maopongo. It chanced that one of these pious men in the course of his peregrinations fell in with a Queen of that country. Now the Queen, as the fashion was, had taken with her—for an airing, as it were—her favourite idol, a god wooden and hideous, but precious in her eyes. Here indeed was a chance to strike a death-blow to Paganism, and zealously, the ardent priest seized his opportunity. He argued high, he argued low; but all his fervour and eloquence were thrown away; impervious to argument, the Queen at the end still clung to her idol.

There remained one last convincing method, and with zealous soul the fervid missionary adopted it. The lash! Mid shrieks of pain the whip rose and fell, rose and fell, and the Queen's tears flowed as the stripes bit deep into her tender flesh. But never shrank the holy Father from his duty, till the idol was dropped and its owner had ceased to dispute with one so much more powerful in argument than she. Little short of miraculous was the rapidity with which her understanding was quickened.

Then the good priest, never doubting but that he had gained the day, departed to his own abode the glow caused by sense of duty well done pervading his being, the joy of noted victory won over the Devil simmering within him. Alas! poor man, little did he dream what weapons the Devil was now about to hurl.

Was it the prompting of the little heathen god, outraged and revengeful, or was it the cunning of her own base mind that led the Queen to adopt the course she took? In any event, the weapon she used was—in the case of a holy Father—one well calculated to rain dismay and confusion on the head of him against whom it should be employed.

It chanced that the little hut occupied by the priests stood on the bank of a secluded, shady rivulet, its one door opening almost on to the clear waters of the placid stream. A spot more conducive to thought, better suited to pious meditation, to holy communing, might not be found in all West Africa. Now, the injured woman had taken thought with her fellow-queens, and to them it seemed plain that the only part of the river at all suitable for bathing was that immediately fronting the hut where dwelt the Fathers. Here therefore, morning, noon, and light, collected crowds of young women; shrill laughter and screams disturbed the meditations of the holy men, and never could either issue forth but his eyes were rudely shocked, his mind pained, by sights that drove those simple-minded priests to the verge of despair, and filled them with horror and consternation.

Even the good St. Anthony himself might in such turmoil and trouble have failed for an instant to keep his eyes fixed on the page of his book. But the Fathers ran speedily to the King, never doubting that an end would at once be put to this scandal. Indifferent to their complaint was the King, however; nay, he smiled, smiled broadly; in any but a King, me would have said that he grinned, as if amused, and the scandal waxed greater. There was no peace for the Fathers till they had set to with feverish haste and builded a high impenetrable fence round their modest home; and then, indeed, if still the ear might be troubled, at least the eye no longer was offended; for be sure that the gateway of the fence opened onto the forest and away from the river, so that the good men might go and come unabashed. Nevertheless, their credit and influence waxed thread-bare and died, their favour both with King and people was a thing of the past, and nothing remained to them but to return, sad and halting, whence they had set forth.

Conversion of the natives


Such are a few instances of the early Portuguese missionaries and their methods. All, doubtless, were not of this stamp; there were no doubt some who tried to lead, and not to drive; yet the Age was one of credulity, ignorance, and superstition, and those priests in such matters were no whit in advance of the Age, nay, probably they were even in some respects behind it. Other nations besides the Portuguese also sent out missionaries to West Africa. Carli of Piacenza, for instance, and Merolla of Sorrento, two Italians, visited the Coast in 1666 and 1682, and have left full accounts of all they did and saw. But theirs too are mostly records of conversion by compulsion, as, for example, where Carli began his work, at which place the chief ordered  all the people to bring their children so that they might at once be baptized. The entire village was thus officially "converted,"—each convert, by the way, bringing with him as an offering some small article, such as a fowl or other trifle useful to his reverence. A few, indeed, who had nothing to offer were, as Carli says, "christened for God's sake." After which the natives celebrated the occasion by much beating of drums and blowing of wind instruments, "that they might be heard half a league off." But what they understood of the ceremony of baptism Carli does not venture to tell us.

Once as Carli and his party travelled, a bush fire drove down on to them a terrified horde of wild beasts, lions, rhinoceroses, and many other ravening animals, so many that the entire party "would scarcely have made one good meal for them." To the negroes it was a simple matter to scramble out of the way up some convenient tree, but to the Fathers no such ready means of escape was possible; they had never learned how to climb trees, and after many futile efforts and severe struggles they remained breathless on the ground until rescued ignominiously by the treed natives by aid of ropes. The lions, we are told, eyed the fugitives "very earnestly," but the approaching fire appears to have prevented any attempt on their part to make closer acquaintance with the refugees.

Nor were lions the only trials under which Carli suffered. Rats, rats of giant bulk, infested his hut and ran riot over his body of nights, nor could the poor man devise any plan for getting rid of them; move his bed where he would, they "always found him out." Then he tried the plan of protecting himself by causing his negroes to sleep on the floor, on mats, all round his bed. But the remedy was worse than the disease. Not only did the rats still run over him, but the portentous snoring of the negroes, and what he calls their wild and disagreeable smell," effectually murdered what sleep the rats might otherwise have permitted him to take. Finally, by favour of the Grand Duke, "Carli obtained a monkey which smelt so strongly of musk that it counter-acted the other unbearable odours, whilst its movements were so incessant and so quick that it fairly drove the rats from its master's bed, and the good man slept in peace.

As to his converts, Carli mentions a most gratifying instance of their piety. One night, it seems, his ears were deafened by a loud and very piteous wailing, which on investigation was found to be caused by the arrival of the entire population of a neighbouring village, come to do penance for their sins, beating their breasts and with shoulders bent low under the penitential weight of great logs of wood. The good priest preached long and earnestly, and great was his gratification on the lights being put out to hear those erring sinners draw out scourges of leather and cords of bark, and continue for an entire hour to flagellate themselves. Thus, says Carli, did those "miserable Ethiopians" put to shame European Christians, who are more inclined shamelessly to cast ridicule on such piety than themselves to emulate the example.

They were indeed very pious, these Ethiopians—so long as they remained in good health. But, (to reverse the old saw concerning the Devil), no sooner did they become sick than their former errors were apt to recapture them, and they would have resort to the magicians of their tribe. And who can blame them? They and their fathers for centuries had been wont in cases of sickness to consult the tribal wizard. Now they were asked to put their trust in a Faith which was new to them, and to abandon that which was familiar. If a patient under these circumstances should die, was it not to them proof positive that the old was more powerful than the new plan? And so the faith even of the most steadfast was occasionally shaken to the foundations during the long conflict between priest and wizard. Has that conflict even to this day altogether ceased on the West Coast?

Merolla, also, was a priest who strove forcefully against the magicians, a preacher whose eloquence carried all before it. At least so it pleased him to think. There was in the neighbourhood where the good Merolla lived a black lady of high rank whom the Friar believed to be a witch, for she openly practised certain doubtful arts; and not only this but she wore her hair in a scandalously rumpled condition, and had a drum beaten in front of her as she walked. A witch? Of course she was a witch! And not only so, but she was bringing up her son to follow the same evil course. It must be put a stop to, said Merolla. Accordingly, the lady and her son were pursued rigorously, till captured and brought before "the Count," (as Merolla styled the local chief). But that prince, though anxious to oblige the Father, was unaccountably prejudiced in favour of the prisoners, whom he caused to be smuggled off to an island in the river, to the great scandal and grief of Merolla, who with his tongue unmercifully lashed the miserable backslider, reminding him of the glorious example of the late "Count," who, whenever a wizard was known to exist in the country, at once had his head lopped off without further ceremony. However, if Merolla's eloquence on this occasion failed, he had later a gratifying tribute to its power. So convincing were the burning words that flowed from him as he addressed his hearers one day on the evil of their ways, that a repentant sinner straightway arose, and, running home, beat his wife and daughter "without intermission" till they were persuaded to come and confess that they were in truth addicted to magic.

"The Portuguese Missionaries," we read in that part of Astley's Travels and Voyages  which deals with Sierra Leone, "made many Converts formerly in this Country, the People following the example of their King Fatima and some Grandees, whom the Jesuit Bareira baptized about the year 1607. But they all returned again to their own more natural Idolatry."

They meant well, those early missionaries, but their methods were a trifle over-masterful. Brave even to rashness, passionately devoted as they were to the cause they had at heart, their very excess of zeal defeated its own object. It was reserved for other and less masterful hands to leave more permanent impression on the unstable negro mind, to make a beginning, at least, with the slaying of ignorance and brutal superstition in West Africa.

Yet in all the years since European occupation began, how comparatively small has been the result of the labours undertaken, how great is the work that remains to do. Little was accomplished, little, indeed, could be accomplished, so long as the Slave Trade with all its horrors poisoned the atmosphere of West Africa. But even since that foul plant in the early part of the Nineteenth Century began to wither, even since at a later date its roots were finally torn up, progress has been slow, and we have yet, in spite of vast efforts, as it were but touched the fringe of the great work that must be done.

Good men in our own day have taken their lives in their hands, and have gone forth upon their Master's business, every whit as fearless as were the Portuguese missionaries of old, as much in earnest, as devoted as were the most zealous of the Friars, but with infinitely more of tact and sympathy, and less of intolerance, wider-minded, and better equipped in every way for the fight. Yet for all their efforts, all their devotion, can we claim that much more than the fringe has been attacked?

The West African negro is the product of a race corrupted by countless centuries of idleness, debased by ages of ignorance, bloodshed, and superstition, a race in whose midst Slavery has ever been present, and which, less than one hundred years ago, still was subject to the awful atrocities of the over-sea traffic in Slaves. Necessarily the field is one of difficulty; the outcome of ages cannot be reconstructed in a generation or two. The wonder may perhaps rather be, not that so little, but that so much, has already been accomplished. A beginning at least has been made, and magnificent work is being done.

But the task is great. Do not, for instance, the native Secret Societies still exist? Is it certain that their malign influence, their hideous power, are things of the past, that no exciting cause could now re-awaken the old evil? Is the noxious thing in truth slain?

Writing in 1903, Mr. C. Braithwaite Wallis, late Acting District Commissioner Sierra Leone Protectorate, says regarding the Human Alligator and Leopard Societies: "Their objective and their operation were fiendish and devilish even in a land where deviltry flourished practically unchecked. No one, whether of high rank or of low, was safe from their bloody machinations. They struck swiftly, stealthily, and in the dark; and always their blow meant—death . . . In very many directions Great Britain has, through her faithful servants, done splendid and enduring work in Western Africa; and in nothing more than by the placing of a sharp check upon these dreadful practices has she deserved the plaudits of humanity at large. I used the phrase 'placed a check' advisedly. It is generally thought that these societies, and others like them, have been absolutely and finally eradicated. I wish that I were in a position to say that this was a fait accompli. Unfortunately I am afraid that matters are not so well as that. Although their machinations are no longer so openly devised as was the case, say, ten years ago, it is not possible to deny that these odious cults are still existent; as the ghastly details of some crime which, for want of direct evidence for conviction, has to remain unpunished, still occasionally go to show."

Where Government and Christianity combined have taken strong hold, doubtless the Societies are now seldom harmful, but the bush is vast and dense, and the arm of the law cannot everywhere stretch with equal promptitude. What but our determination to make an end of the iniquitous and degrading practices of these Societies led to the terrible native rising of 1898-9? Terrible indeed was that outbreak. And yet how little is its story known to the general public. "I will wager a moderate stake," writes Mr. Braithwaite Wallis, "that a very considerable portion of the British Public have never so much as heard, even, of the rising in Sierra Leone and the terrible massacre which followed it. Nevertheless, the latter was the immediate outcome of a widespread plot, hatched with all the diabolical cunning, allied to secrecy, which forms so conspicuous a trait in the character of the indigenous African. Spreading, as it did, almost in a day, over an immense area, this conspiracy showed the nature of the Negro in all his primitive savagery and barbarism, a barbarism which generations of missionary effort towards civilization seem, somehow, to have failed to eradicate, although one must confess that enormous strides in the right direction have been made."

It is of the Hinterland, of course, rather than of the actual colony of Sierra Leone, that Mr. Wallis speaks. Here, he says, is "a land reeking with fetish and superstition, and teeming with dark and bloody secrets. And here it was that in 1898 and part of the year succeeding, a handful of British troops fought grimly to maintain the supremacy of the old Flag . . . Here some of the most atrocious and treacherous murders recorded in history occurred—murders preceded by all the ingenious devices of torture of which the depraved mind of the African bush savage is capable. Black and white, old and young alike, were cut down and butchered in cold blood. Delicate white ladies were first outraged and then brutally done to death. Hundreds of educated Sierra Leoneans, clergymen, missionaries, traders, and even innocent little children were tortured and afterwards hacked literally to pieces, or burnt alive. It was a very carnival of slaughter, engineered by hordes of ruffians in whose veins ran some of the cruellest blood in all wild Africa . . . And ever their rallying cry was 'Death to the White Man.'"

Ten years ago, no farther back, these awful atrocities were perpetrated! And how little already are those dark days remembered by the stay-at-home public of Great Britain! How much indeed of the terrible tale was ever known, save by the few?

We heard much frothy talk some few years back on the subject of so-called Chinese Slavery. Certain persons, cursed with the cacoethes loquendi, persons whose positions cause them to be more or less conspicuous, and lend to them an ill-deserved publicity have "in a fine frenzy" spoken on that question. From time to time also, these persons continue to speak injudicious and misleading words with regard to the supposed wrongs of our Indian brethren, words the disastrous effect of which they do not pause to calculate. All their compassion is lavished on the alien; it is to them apparently a thing not worthy of consideration that their words may incite that alien to crime, even to the crime of assassination. Is there not one of them to dilate on the wrongs of his own countrymen abroad, none whose heart is tender to the sufferings and misfortunes of Britons in parts of the Empire remote and ill-defended? There is room and to spare, Heaven knows, for sympathy with the hapless victims, and with the sorrowing relatives of the victims, of tragedies such as this of Sierra Leone. It were better, surely, to be for ever dumb than by wild talk to run risk of moving the passions which lead to like tragedies. Responsibility for murder is an ill thing to bear. Is not the man who incites to that crime, whether wilfully or through want of thought, as much guilty as is he who commits the crime? In truth,

"It hath the primal eldest curse upon 't, A brother's murder."