William Allen's Narrative of the 1841 Niger expedition
William Allen's Narrative of the 1841 Niger expedition

Royal Navy1841 Niger expeditionBookChapter IV ◄► Chapter VI



Visit Edina - Gran Bassa - 'Black Will, King of Bassa - Dexterity of the Fishmen in the management of their canoes - Wooding - Huts of the relatives - Grave of 'Jack-be-off' - Foulahs at war with the Fishmen - Senegal larkheel - Naturalist shoots a black boy by mistake, or danger of "hopping the twig" - Trees and plants - Chamelions - Popular belief that the saliva of this reptile produces blindness - Pestilential swamps - Hammer-headed sharks - Cape Palmas - Procure fuel - 'Jack Smoke,' Captain W. Allen's old Kru servant, joins him - Appearance of the town and surrounding country - Dress of the natives - Missionary establishment - Interesting history of an American missionary - Sun-birds - Migratory black ants - Their destructiveness - Geology - Superstitious dread of the natives against planting Cocoa-nut trees - Meteorology.

July 9.- The 'Wilberforce,' in the meantime having soon exhausted her fuel, anchored to-day off the town of Edina, an affiliation of the colony of Liberia, which is rapidly advancing along the coast. At this place, however, there were already jealousies, which induced some to wish to abandon the parent state, and put themselves under the British flag.

The inhabitants were very willing to supply us with wood, at the rate of two and a half dollars the chord; but this would have involved the necessity of crossing the bar of the Grand Bassa, or St. John's River, a risk not to be incurred on any account, though the master of a schooner offered to pilot the vessel, as he said there was sufficient water. The health of the crew would also have been too much endangered: - yet wood we must have. Therefore, after having examined some rocks near a point, the vessel was taken into Bassa Cove, which, considering the nature of the coast, was tolerably convenient for wooding.

Although there was a very heavy swell all along the coast, it could not prevent the adventurous and expert Fishmen from rowing out to "makee trade;" among the foremost was 'Black Will,' the burly, rough-toned chief of Bassa; he came off full of promises as to fuel; nor, indeed, did he deceive us, since, in two days, a tolerable quantity was forthcoming, but at a very dear rate in cotton-cloths, on receiving which they ceased working, so a party of our coloured men were sent on shore to cut the wood; 'Black Will' pretending that his people had not axes, or, in other words, did not like the work. His sable majesty is a stout specimen of his class, very vociferous, and yet plain spoken; his capacity for rum is enormous, and he admitted when he came on board, that he "drink plenty too much, each night make head sing." On the following day, we landed with much difficulty; the surf was very heavy, and nearly swamped our whale-boats in approaching the beach. How the natives contrive to manage their little narrow round-bottomed canoes is a wonder - no Englishman could for a moment retain the frail bark in its upright position; and yet they not only do so in ordinary circumstances, but think nothing of paddling off in the most tremendous surf. In most places where water breaks heavily, it is observed that something like regularity obtains in the interval between the more violent successions of the rollers; and the Fishman, by long experience, knows the exact moment when there will be a lull; in this he pushes off, and is soon beyond the reach of the breakers; when once outside of them, he cares nothing about the water rolling over the gunwale of the tiny canoe: with his foot he expertly and quickly throws it out again, and it is only when he is on the point of sinking, that he uses a rude sort of scoop to bale with. Most of the wood was brought off in these canoes, and yet no accident occurred. The fact is, these people almost live on the water from their earliest years, and therefore become accomplished swimmers; all that is necessary in the management of the canoe is a ready and proper balance of the body to maintain it upright. To attain this must require about the same address that is exerted by a dancer on a tight or slack rope, and only acquired by constant practice and firmness.

A few yards from the shore, we found a lagoon, left by the overflowing of the sea at certain seasons, and as it abounded with fish, the seine was employed with much success.

The Fishmen have settlements on both sides of the little River St. John's: - that on the left is clearer of wood and more cultivated. 'King Will's' town is a scattered village on the right bank, beautifully placed as far as the eye is concerned, amid fine specimens of Palm, Cocoa and Bamboo. The houses are well built, of a somewhat conical shape, but nicely and securely wattled with Bamboo and Palm-leaves; they have generally a raised floor of Bamboo, and are tolerably clean. The inmates were not backward in offering an invitation to enter, but the closeness of the air externally, and the smoke which burst forth at the little doorway, literally choked the rising wish to become more acquainted with the internal arrangements. Near the beach, under a little Palm-tree, lies the burying-place of 'Jack-be-off,' a man who had served on board a vessel of war; his bottle - said to contain rum? - some calabashes, a frying-pan, and brass-pot were scattered over his grave, while the mysterious Fetìche, or god, a little mass of clay enveloped in a bit of rag, and suspended by a stick, kept supposed watch over all that was mortal of "poor Jack." What reader can hear of such absurd superstition, and not wish fervently that some of the numerous Krumen and Fishmen, who frequent Sierra Leone, should be made the objects of express religious solicitude; and that before too much is expected from the interior, we might behold some opening fruit on the immediate coast and among the people with whom our African colonists are holding constant intercourse.

The facilities, however, which the vicinity of this interesting nation affords, and their devoted attachment to the English, has not yet excited the attention of missionaries. Proselytes are seldom made among the Krumen.

10th.- To-day, on going into the country for some little distance, we encountered a small party of Fulahs, who are at present engaged in war with the Fishmen, so that the latter cannot move far into the "bush." The Fulahs we met were certainly very rough-looking fellows, and probably the fear of the white man's double-mouthed guns alone prevented their making free with our clothes. They were very rude in appearance, armed with muskets and spears, and had patches of monkey-skins about their persons, among which we noticed portions of the beautiful Diana Monkey (Cercopithecus Diana). In the woods, we shot several fine specimens of Centropus Senegalensis, the general plumage on the back is a rich brown, while the stiff-hirsute feathers of the neck are a dark olivaceous green, approaching to black; the long tail is fine shining black, the whole bird has a graceful appearance. On returning to the boat, we ascertained that a very unlucky accident had occurred, and which might have been attended with bad consequences, - it turned out, however, slight, and only served as a passing amusement. It appeared that our worthy naturalist had been engaged in the bush, looking for specimens of "rare natives," and seeing a movement among some underwood, concluded it must be a rich prize; he waited in breathless suspense for a second or two, hoping that perhaps he might get a glimpse of the coveted object, but the rustling in the bush continuing, his anxiety got the better of his patience, and bang went his "Manton." A sort of wild shriek followed, and on rushing to pick up what he trusted was a new species of monkey, he found a black boy, wounded in some places by the shot, but more frightened than hurt. The little fellow scrambled off in quick style, not wishing to try any longer the process of "hopping the twig" near a zealous Zoologist. 'Black Will' made some palaver about it, but a douceur - a piece of handkerchiefs and an axe - served to sooth the irritation of the young sufferer's wounds and the ill-feeling of his friends.

Some of our countrymen came on board from a small schooner, trading for palm oil and ivory on the coast. Two of them were sickly, and suffering much from ague and other sequences of the coast fever. They were very grateful for proper medicines and kind treatment on their visit; and we afterwards learned that the remedies had been effectual.

During our stay at Grand Bassa, we had rain every day, sometimes lasting with great violence for many hours, which made our operations of wooding very difficult, and attended with danger to health, though the hard work was principally done by the Krumen.

This unfavourable state of the weather also limited the researches of our Botanist, and confined his observations to the immediate vicinity of the shore, where, however, he found more plants than he was able to preserve in such a damp atmosphere. A collection of one hundred species was made with difficulty; many plants, especially in parasitical Orchideae, were not yet in flower.

The shore is flat and sandy, and the drift is carried far inland. There are here no forests, - only shrubs, intermingled with isolated high trees, the nature of which could not be determined, as they were without blossom or fruit. The African Bombax appeared to be among them, and the same Spondias as at Sierra Leone. It was doubtful whether a considerable tree of this was identical with Myrobalanus.

But the pride of these shores is the Elais. Clumps of a dozen or more of these graceful trees, exhibiting under different circumstances a modified appearance, give a great variety of aspect to the country. It is a Palm of moderate height, and forms, with various Figs, the chief mass of the woods. The underwood consists of shrubby Rubiaceae, with shining leaves, intermingled with Gloriosa superba, Cissi, Leguminosae and Banisteria as creepers, leaving hardly room for Melastomae, and other low plants that peep through with their lovely blossoms. Nothing can be more beautiful than a clump of a few Oil Palms, with the remaining stumps of the lower leaves covered with the fresh verdure of parasitical Ferns and Orchidaceae.

Of single plants may be mentioned Sarcocephalus, occurring frequently; the same Phyllanthus as in Liberia, Schmidelia Africana, a genus of Apocyneae, which seems new, Tabernae montana, remarkable on account of its double fruit, as large as a child's head, the seeds nestling in the almost woody pulp; wild sugar-cane, not in blossom; Conocarpus erectus was a small shrub; Haronga, probably new; Cassytha, Scaevola, different from Sc. Lobelia, Canna, Indigo, Cassia occidentalis, cultivated, Borreria Kohauntiana, &c. Stylosanthus with erect and very branching stems, formed a close jungle, about one foot and a half high, on the sandy shore.

A few open spaces amongst the shrubby woods were covered, as if cultivated, with Cyperaceae, amongst which, frequently, a species of Eriocaulon.

A few other watered spots shewed grasses with a beautiful Orchideae. Near the village, Euphorbia drussifera (Schum.) was found. An excursion to the river enabled the Doctor to examine the Mangrove woods: Rhyzophora, different from Rhyz-Mangli, had not yet any ripe fruit. It formed the bulk of the wood. Amongst it was Avicennia, according to the leaves different from that at Sierra Leone, (Nitida) was frequent, and as a shrub. Conocarpus racemosus, it is doubtful whether this is identical with the American species, which has not been enumerated among African plants, but occurs at Sierra Leone in similar situations. Intermixed with these, Drepanocarpus lunatus, as a small tree with its thorns, rendered walking very difficult. Pandanus candelabrum, without leaves, was met here for the first time in the swamps. An Anona, a tree ten or twelve feet high, had fruit, and appeared to be very similar to Chrysocarpa Lepr. if not the same, it was not rare in these swamps. Leguminous trees were hardly met with here, and none of a large size; no Mimoseae or Caesalpineae. Of cultivated plants, the Sweet Cassada is much valued; also rice, various sorts of Capsicum, Papayas, and Plantains; Holcus, or Indian corn, here and there. Ananas grew in great quantities among the shrubs.

One of the most interesting inhabitants of the bushes all over this coast, is the Chameleon Senegalensis. The usual colour is an obscure green; the body is lizard-shaped, with the exception of the tail, which is generally longer, rounder, and thicker, often curled up, and, moreover, somewhat prehensile, or capable, when twisted round any object, of supporting the body. It is very inactive in its habits, and moves but slowly or seldom from a convenient resting-place. The tongue is long, and easily and rapidly extended in any direction, so that it answers all the purposes of procuring food. The eye of the Chameleon, though small soon detects the insects hovering about its neighbourhood, and with the utmost celerity it secures them by means of that member. In one which we kept on board some time, attached to a slender branch, it was amusing now and then to see an unwary fly rest for a moment on the sensitive creature; if within reach of the tongue, the little intruder was soon seized.

The colour of the skin changes, according to excitement of different degrees, mostly light, heat, or irritation from other causes.

We are inclined to believe that the variation in hue depends on the more or less elevation of the little scaly bodies; with which the skin is studded. A process similar to blushing takes place - the minute capillaries of the skin are distended - the animal, as if by a long inspiration, puffs the body out; thereby separating the little scales, and modifying the light as it falls on the altered surface. The change is very gradual.

The natives along the coast say, that when the animal is highly irritated, it spits out a fluid so acrid, that if it enter the eye, it will produce much inflammation, and consequent loss of sight; but as we could never meet with a person who had suffered from it, we suppose it to be a popular error. We have often endeavoured to provoke the sensitive reptile to this act of rudeness; but it never proceeded further than to open the mouth very wide, as if gasping.

While we were lying here, a schooner, having all the appearance of a slaver, stood close in shore, evidently for the purpose of reconnoitring us. We learned, in fact, from the Krumen, that a cargo of human beings was collected at a short distance to the southward, and no doubt the slave-owner was waiting for our departure to embark them, as we found that he watched us until we were well out of his way.

Wednesday, July 14th.- Having procured all the fuel we could stow, we weighed at four P.M., and proceeded along the coast, which was found to be very low, and covered with thick forest and underwood down to the beach: this was sandy, with a heavy and incessant surf breaking on it. One would imagine that malaria and fevers must hold undisputed possession of these impenetrable forests and noisome swamps; but the wreathing smoke which appeared in many places, proved that He who "tempers the wind to the shorn lamb," has given in His mercy, such a constitution to the creatures whom He has placed here, as to enable them to resist a climate which would speedily show to those not so adapted, that they could not tempt its dangerous atmosphere with impunity.

We had an opportunity of seeing two of those hideous monsters of the deep, the hammer-headed shark, Zygaena malleus, which as we slowly moved along, followed us some time, to the dismay of the superstitious among the sailors. It is certainly one of the most singular and horrible looking of fishes. The head is depressed, more or less truncated in front; on each side extending horizontally to some length, which gives it the hammer shape. The eyes are placed at the extremity of this curious formation; and as the animal in its zigzag movements, slightly raises one side and depresses the other, the eye has a most revolting aspect; they are furnished with lids, which proceed from the internal part of the orbits; the pupil is black, surrounded by a rich yellow iris. In a small one we procured, the conjunctiva was of a reddish tinge. The semi-circular mouth is furnished with four or five rows of serrated teeth, according to age, directed towards the corners of the mouth. The elongated nostrils are immediately below the central notch, which, as it were, divides the laterally elongate head. The bronchial openings, five in number, are all before the base of the pectoral fin. The inferior division of the tail is small; the superior portion long, pointed and very powerful, and it is chief by this it is enabled to turn with any facility; but the conformation of the head prevents it from moving with the dexterity of most other sharks; and, therefore, though voracious, it is less dangerous. The body is tapering and of a greyish brown. Its whole appearance is most repulsive.

Like many of the Squalus, or shark family, it brings forth its young alive, ten or twelve at a time; these usually keep together, unless destroyed, so that where one small one is seen, there are generally others not far off.

The pretty little pilot fish, which is so often the companion of the other monsters of this genus, we have never seen with the hammer-head.

Friday, July 16th.- We anchored at Cape Palmas, again for the purpose of replenishing our rapidly consumed stock of fuel, The incessant surf made landing at this place, even more difficult than the last. It was impossible for the boats to pass the bar of the little river; we were, therefore, obliged to make use of another but difficult place outside the river, where it required the greatest care to prevent their being knocked to pieces. In order to be as near as possible, to facilitate the conveyance of their loads to and fro, the vessel was also here taken inside some rocks, which afforded tolerable shelter from everything except the swell, that sweeps around the rocks, and is, however, almost the only danger, as it rarely blows hard on this coast.

The paddle-box boats were found to be of incalculable service; no others could have borne such rude work. We used the utmost dispatch in getting the wood off, employing such natives as would work for hire, as well as our own black-men; and it was fortunate we had completed at the time we did, for within a quarter of an hour after the last boat-load had left the shore, the swell became so violent, lashing the rock which we had selected as a landing-place with such fury, that approach would have been impossible.

Watering place, Cape Palmas

The Americans have also a settlement here, with some respectable-looking houses; but Cape Palmas is chiefly important as being the head-quarters of the Fishmen. The native town at some little distance apart from the American location, is a collection of mud huts with raised floors, and roofs generally conical. Their town is kept very dean, though straggling. Commander Allen went thither in search of his old and faithful servant 'Jack Smoke,' who had served him with such unwearied attention during his frequent and long illnesses on the former expedition; when there was no other person to assist him, poor 'Jack Smoke' performed the part of servant, nurse and friend, for which he was held in most grateful recollection.

'Jack Smoke' was now enjoying the otium cum dignitate on the profits of that voyage, which could not have been small. He was not at home to receive his visitor, but at the door of his neat hut, Commander Allen saw an interesting young black woman, playing with a very pretty chubby little naked negro-boy These proved to be Mrs. Smoke and Master Jacky. Papa was soon sent for, and expressed much gratification, in his quiet way, at the sight of his old master; who now had an opportunity of showing the estimation in which he held him by offering the berth of second head Kruman, which, after a slight consultation with Madame his better half, he joyfully accepted, and entered at once on his office, having no preparation, and small adieux to make; he came indeed in a very light marching order, with nothing but his waist-cloth about him.

Most of the women were busily engaged preparing rice and indian corn, by pounding it in large wooden mortars, several of them had a little infant suspended to the back, which slept on, regardless of the incessant and jerking motion of the mother.

A good many of the men speak imperfect English, either acquired from the Americans, or on board our ships, where most of them have spent more or less time.

The natives here, as at all other points on the coast, do not expend much time or clothing on their persons. A plain cotton cloth, folded from above the breast and round the middle, is considered sufficient for the women, while the men are content to walk in the more simple and convenient, waist-cloth.

17th.- At an early hour we went on shore and wandered into the country surrounding Cape Palmas; passing through an irregular street of detached houses, inhabited mostly by American blacks who have been settled here. The country is well cleared of large trees, and occasionally some patches of rice were met with, which the natives were cutting down and bearing home on their heads, accompanied with the usual garrulous din of the Negro. About two miles from the town, we were agreeably startled by hearing numerous voices engaged in a hymn well-known in boyish days, and which falling on the ear in a sequestered African palm grove, raised pleasing, yet sad emotions: on approaching we were surprised to find the vocal harmony proceeded from a large well-built house, used as a school, and from which on our coming nearer, the good superintendent - leaving his pupils - made his appearance, and in the kindest manner proffered his services to show us anything worthy of notice in his neighhourhood.

In the course of a long walk through the surrounding woods, he explained many interesting features in the natural history of the country, as well as the more important ones of the social and moral condition of the natives.

His own story was one, indeed, illustrative of that perfect benevolence and self denial, which may even yet be found occasionally in fallen man. He was a missionary from the United States, descended from a highly respectable family, of English extraction, that had - only a generation previously - settled in one of the southern States. He had always been opposed to slavery in any shape, and being truly concerned for the welfare of the African in his native wilds, becoming on his father's demise proprietor of the estate and negroes, he resolved on liberating the latter; and in order that they might "sit down" in the country from whence they were descended, a useful example to those whom they might be located near, he sold the property, paid the expenses of the passage and maintenance of his father's slaves, and had settled near Cape Palmas. His generous disposition would not allow him to breathe a syllable on the subject of the ingratitude of those for whom he had sacrificed all; but enough was elicited to show that many of his brightest hopes had been disappointed. He had a school, containing forty or fifty youths, children of Fishmen and liberated American blacks; but he said he found it difficult to induce them to continue long under tuition, and that when once they had acquired a little knowledge of writing and reading they were removed. In the case of the natives, probably the Gregree men, or priests, are the cause of this, inasmuch as knowledge, even in a limited degree, must soon overthrow the system of imposition by which they subsist and exert such influence over the people.

We shot some most beautiful species of Cinnyris, or sun-bird - the African humming-bird - and returned to our kind friend's residence, where we met his wife, a very intelligent and interesting person, and partook of their hospitality.

On hinting to him our regrets that he and his good partner should remain there in such miserably bad health as they were evidently suffering from, he replied in a resigned and quiet tone, "I have staked all my little worldly property for these people, and to advance the cause of Christ in this country; and although I have so indifferent a prospect to cheer me at present, if it please God I will continue, and if need be, end my days in this land of my adoption."

The attenuated forms and sickly look of this devoted couple, and their quiet, unostentatious demeanour, filled us all with respect and admiration. If there were but a few more of such sincere practical philanthropists, how much might be done for heathen Africa?

On our way back to the boat, we came across a migratory band of black ants - Termites. Their path was about three inches broad, and very much resembled a long black snake, as the tumultuous mass struggled along, each insect trying to advance before its fellows.

How numerous must be a colony like this, which has its multitude in every square inch, and yet the line of emigration sometimes extends for miles. Whatever lies in their path that can serve as food, is quickly devoured by such hosts of hungry travellers. Snakes often become their prey, when, after repletion, they are met in a state of torpor; and it is said that cases have occurred where infirm and sickly persons, unable to move out of their way, have been literally eaten up alive by them. It seems hardly credible, and yet we can easily believe on looking at the black mass as it pours onwards, that nothing edible would long resist them.

The day was fine, and we returned to the vessel much pleased with what we had seen, and above all with the good and generous missionary whose acquaintance we were so fortunate as to have made.

The rocks, hornblende-slate or mica-slate, protrude through the soil, which is very bad on this part of the coast; a stiff iron-clay, having its origin, according to Roscher, in the débris of granite veins piercing through the rock; though in all probability the rock itself has a great deal to do with the formation.

Farther up the river the soil is said to be good.

The river to the north of the Cape, by the statement of the Governor, is navigable for canoes to the extent of seven miles, and enters the sea by several channels.

At a distance, the Cape itself is a pleasing object, the neck of land is well covered, and beyond, the beautiful forms of the oil and wine palms form a graceful and prominent feature.

Our Botanist's excursions were limited to the isthmus and adjacent parts. On the isthmus grew Phoenix spinosae, a low shrub: beyond the river, it was said to have flowers and fruit.

A few Cocoas had been planted some years back, and had not as yet attained much height. There is here a strong and very prejudicial superstition relative to the planting of that most invaluable tree, the Cocoa palm; they believe that whoever plants one will surely die before it produces fruit, that is to say in about seven years. The chief of the Fishmen yielded at last to the exhortations of the American Governor, though not convinced by his arguments of the folly of the superstition, and the real evil which such a belief entails. He was fully sensible of the great uses of the tree, and desirous of possessing some; therefore, in order to avoid the fatal consequences supposed to attach to those who are directly instrumental in sowing them, he devised an ingenious method of providing a subterfuge. Having placed some nuts at the brink of holes previously drilled, he caused cattle to be driven about over the ground thus prepared, until all the nuts were thrown into the spaces and covered over by the hoofs of the beasts.

There were also some small trees of the Sour-sop or Anona muricata. The plants chiefly cultivated seemed to be Cassada, Sweet Potatoes, Convolvolus batatas; Bananas, Musa sapientum; Plantains, Musa paradasaica; Indian Corn, Sorghum rubens; Rice, and Cassia occidentalis.

The same Spondias as we had before seen were also here. Coffee had been introduced from Monrovia. Here and there, the indigenous species of cotton had been planted. The Ground-nut Arachis hypogaea Africana, was found planted at one spot. Leguminosae were very conspicuous.

Of the native Flora, which however was but imperfectly examined, we found here Rubiacae, Convolvulaceae, Anona near Chrysocarpa, as in Grand Bassa. Pandanus candelabrum grew here on dry ground; several sorts of Figs, amongst which the small-fruited one of Grand Bassa. The common Physic-nut, or Jatropha curcas, was frequently employed for fences. Among the underwood was found a small shrubby tree related to Belvisia Napoleona, and probably a separate genus nearly approaching it. It had blossoms and fruit. From the latter, Dr. Vogel was convinced that the same plant, or a species very little differing from it, was seen at Grand Bassa.

The rainy season commences at Cape Palmas about May, and continues almost without intermission until October; but even during the dry season there are frequent heavy showers of some hours' duration, chiefly in the forenoon.

The sea-breeze sets in about nine or ten A.M., and declines towards sunset, when the close and insalubrious land-wind succeeds.

According to Dr. McGill the amount of rain deduced from two years' observations, 1840, 1841, is 80.76 inches per annum, of which 28 to 30 inches fell either in May or June, which are the months of heaviest rain; the winds are then variable, or southerly and easterly.

The tornadoes, at the opening and conclusion of the rains, occur generally every five or six days.

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