Land of the Golden Trade - John Lang

Troubles with the French in West Africa

Whilst Dutch and English were fighting, and cutting each other's throats, at first actually as well as in a commercial sense, the French, under Louis Quatorze, had been steadily consolidating their power to the north and were now a thorn in the side of both English and Dutch. In Goree, which had been captured by Holmes and retaken by de Ruyter so short a time before, the Dutch first suffered at their hands. The year 1677 saw that island seized by the French Admiral d'Estrees, and the forts utterly destroyed. Nor was the position ever recovered by Holland, and from that date Dutch operations were chiefly confined to the Gold Coast.

France, however, was not allowed to sit down on her new possession unassailed. In 1692 the island was seized by England, only to be retaken by the French in the following year. And then came our turn to suffer, Fort James on the Gambia being our vulnerable point. The Sieur de Bre, who went to the Coast in 1697 as Director of the French Company's affairs on the Senegal, says that Fort James would be a strong place if it had "Cisterns and Magazines Bomb-proof . . . but for want of these advantages it has been often taken, plundered and demolished both by the French and Pirates, which at last reduced the English Company's affairs to so low an ebb that nothing could have recovered them but a Parliamentary Assistance."

For this—from an English point of view—deplorable state of affairs, M. de Gennes, a French Admiral who raided the Gold Coast in 1695 with a squadron of four frigates, a corvette, and two "pinks," was the first to be responsible. Profiting by information supplied by an English deserter, he fell on the fort at a time when nearly the entire garrison was prostrate from fever, and provisions at lowest ebb. The Governor was absent on the mainland, and no suspicions were entertained by the garrison when seven sail, showing English colours, ran quietly in and let go their anchors within gunshot of the fort. Sick men concerned themselves not at all; convalescents gazed languidly across the turbid waters and idly speculated on the news that this squadron must be bringing from home; men still fit for duty thought probably only of fresh supplies and the luxury of being no longer on short rations, no longer stinted in the matter of rum. And suspicion slept, nor waked till every vessel was found to have been warped round so that their broadsides bore direct on the fort. Then indeed there was hurry and a running to and fro; but almost ere men had fallen in or guns been manned—such guns as there were crews for in that fever-stricken garrison—an armed gig, making for the landing wharf, brought an officer bearing summons to surrender Fort James to His Majesty of France. Blindfold, the French officer was led inside the fort, nor did surprise and dismay prevent the acting commandant from playing the game to the last trick. Royally the Frenchman was entertained to the best the fort could provide; enthusiastically were drunk the healths of the Kings of England and of France, and merrily ran the carouse into the small hours, when the Frenchman, none too sober, was sent off to his ship with the message to M. de Gennes that the fort would be defended "to the last extremity." Brave words! But there were not men available to make them good. Moreover, the French had cut off all communication with the land, and food supplies of any sort were as unattainable by the Englishmen as if they had been in another hemisphere. The Governor, trying to gain the fort unobserved, was chased so hotly that as a last resource he jumped into the water and lay hid amongst the mangroves, only eventually, by stealth and with great difficulty, finding his way to his friends through the thick darkness of a moonless tropical night. The French had the whip hand of us. There was no possibility of beating them off, no delay could save, nor have other result than to starve men already but half fed. A few days saw the end, and many an Englishman exchanged for the squalor of a French prison such freedom as the Gambia gave,—a fate similar to that which later befell M. de Gennes himself, who ended his gallant life in prison at Plymouth.

Before leaving the Gambia, de Gennes wrecked Fort James, destroyed the cannon, undermined and blew up the walls; so that, says the chronicle, as "the profits they [the English] receive from thence are computed to amount to one million livres yearly . . . the loss of that place cannot be easily repaired."

The English Company, however, speedily reconstructed the fortifications and recommenced trade; but again, in 1702, says the Paris Gazette  of that year, it was retaken, and ransomed this time at a cost of one hundred thousand crowns "that it might not be demolished"; two hundred and fifty slaves and a large quantity of merchandise being carried off in addition to the ransom.

Again in 1709 a similar fate befell it, and "after so many assaults by the French on Fort James . . . the Company thought fit to abandon the said fort during the late war with France, and thus the trade of that river was left open to all Europeans in-differently and has turned to the great advantage of several private adventurers."

Nor was the Gambia the only point on the Guinea Coast where we suffered loss at French hands. On 17th July 1704 the Sieur Guerin, with two small ships of war, took our fort at Sierra Leone "without any resistance made by the English commander, who fled from the fort with about one hundred men before he was attacked." This is the French version of the affair. One must hope that at least there were extenuating circumstances, or that perhaps the commanding officer's cowardice when enquired into might turn out to be (as in Scottish law) "not proven." We have, however, only the French version, and that to a patriotic Briton is sorry reading. But even Monsieur Tessier, the officer who told the tale, admits that there were some gallant soldiers in the garrison of Sierra Leone. The gunner, he says, and eleven or twelve men did what brave men may do, and fired forty or fifty rounds from the big guns before they were forced to surrender. What were a dozen men, however, where there were four-and-forty guns wanting crews! A strong place was this, "very handsomely built with four regular bastions, and had very fine warehouses and lodgings within it . . .; over the gate was a platform and on it four large pieces, which might have done very good service upon occasion." Yet with so pitiful a number of men of spirit left to defend it, the fight was necessarily but short, the end foredoomed. Many a time in later years has our Navy claimed astonishing minor victories over the French, in boat actions, cutting-out expeditions, and what not,—even to the extent on one occasion towards the end of the Eighteenth Century of capturing an armed French vessel, in the fight for which our sailors were armed with nothing more formidable than their boat stretchers,—but it takes many such to wipe out this regrettable little incident of Sierra Leone, if the French account of the affair be a true one.

And so Sierra Leone was pillaged very thoroughly, the fortifications levelled to the ground, ere the Sieur Guerin departed, taking with him, amongst other booty, four thousand elephants' tusks from within the fort and three thousand which were found on a small vessel that lay at anchor behind the island. It is consoling, however, to read that Nemesis overtook the French vessels. On their way home from New Spain, whither they had gone from the Guinea Coast, bearing rich cargoes mostly of bullion and gold, they were captured by British men of war. M. de Guerin was unfortunately killed, but "one Tessier, who was an officer in his ship and gave me this account on the 5th December 1706, was brought over from Jamaica and New York to the prison of Southampton,"—where let us hope his stay was not very protracted. Yet, like so many of both nations, perhaps he too died a prisoner; for exchanges were few, and escape not easy.

With all their endeavours, however, the French never succeeded in establishing a permanent footing south of Senegal. They did indeed for a time—from 1702 to 1704—hold a post at the mouth of the Assiny River, a post which the Dutch vainly attempted to capture. According to the Paris Gazette, the Dutch attacked it in force, but "were received with so much bravery by the Sieur Lavie, the Chief Factor, that they were forced to retire with the loss of twenty-five men killed, amongst them their chief engineer, and eleven taken prisoner, leaving their cannon behind them." What the Dutch could not do by force, however, was accomplished by other means. The French failed to establish a trade on that part of the coast, and in 1704, finding it no paying concern, they blew up their "lodge" and retired.

That the Dutch were very bitter over their defeat at Assiny we may gather from the delight with which Bosman relates a story wherein the French are made to appear ridiculous. The French, says Bosman, were in the habit of seizing all blacks who might happen to come aboard their ships for the purpose of trading, and these men they afterwards used to sell in the West Indies. This in itself was little like the French, for they have ever as a nation been noted for making friends with uncivilised races more readily than have any other European people, and where they were endeavouring to gain a footing it is improbable that they would by treachery jeopardise the prospect of attaining their ends. However, Bosman says that they did do so, and that amongst the negroes abducted was one "of more sprightly genius than his other countrymen," who was carried to France and there after a period, by dint of ceaseless priestly persuasion, was baptized and received into the arms of Holy Church. This black convert, says Bosman, did not fail to see on which side his bread was buttered, and craftily he let it be understood that he was the son of the King of Assiny, heir to the throne; and "he so insinuated himself into the good opinion of the Court that the King made him several rich presents and sent him back to his own country." Once there, however, the fraud was exposed. The "Prince" was but a slave after all, a slave even in his own country, and indeed shortly after landing he went back to his former master; and, says Bosman, "instead of converting his subjects to Christianity, is himself returned to Paganism." What most appears to delight Bosman is that the French Court should have been "so ridiculously bubbled" by a slave, and he rejoices that by this means they "lost their aim, which was to get a footing on the Gold Coast." Besides, as he gleefully adds, "the pious intentions of His Most Christian Majesty to convert a heathen prince and establish him on the throne were frustrated; the Cardinal de Noailles and the Bishop of Meaux labored in vain, and in short the whole French Court was disappointed in its expectations."

On the Gold Coast, henceforward English and Dutch were left practically to fight out the question of mastery; to them the chief stations and the chief trade belonged; other nations played but a subsidiary part.

North of the Gold Coast, on the other hand, it was English and French who took and kept the lead, almost to the exclusion of Dutch, Portuguese, and all other European races.

But none, north or south, possessed territory,—excepting perhaps in such instances as the island of Goree; they were there, so to speak, on sufferance, and as occupiers paying a yearly subsidy to the black owners of the soil, a subsidy which in the case of the Danes lasted until the transference of their rights to Britain. It was trade, not colonies, that European nations then sought to establish, and, excepting as regards the Gambia and the Senegal, in those early days little attempt was made to penetrate into the interior. Thompson, as we have seen, and Jobson, amongst Englishmen, ascended the Gambia a great way, and others followed suit, or professed to follow suit. Vermuyden (if indeed he were a real adventurer and not merely a romancer) claimed to have ascended the river farther than any other white man, and he gives a richly glowing account of his discoveries of gold on or near the river-banks. Finally he reached, or says he reached, a spot where "the exceed of gold was such that I was surprised with joy and admiration." In truth, could anything so payable have been found whilst the gold fever generated by the discoveries of 1849 and 1851 in California and Australia still throbbed in the veins of men, West Africa must have seen a Gold Rush the like of which the present generation has known only in Klondyke.

Unfortunately no later traveller has been able to locate the spot where lies Vermuyden's mine covered by the easily wrought river sands; it has vanished as completely as has Sindbad's Valley of Diamonds or the buried Pirates' Treasure of some lonely isle. Not even the infallible virga divina  has been potent to rediscover that seductive pocket. Vermuyden was one of those who hunted for gold, as men sometimes to this day in parched lands hunt for hidden water-springs, with the divining rod. But he does not profess to have found this rich deposit by aid of his rod. On the contrary, he admits that for once in a way it was a failure; and for this failure he accounts by the fact that during the voyage from England the hazel twig had become dry and brittle and had consequently lost virtue. How otherwise, indeed, could it have failed?

Amongst the French, the Sieur Bre, of whom mention has already been made, was by far the most energetic explorer; but prior to his day, in 1637, Claude Jannequin, Sieur de Rochefort, had penetrated some hundreds of miles up the Senegal where, it may be noted, he complains bitterly of the assaults of "certain small flies,"—doubtless mosquitoes. It is Jannequin, too, who gives it as his opinion that the negro youths could by no possibility learn to read and write Arabic without the aid of the Devil. Truly that personage is responsible for many of the troubles of this world, and Arabic is no weighty addition to the load of sin he already bears.