The 1841 Niger expedition
The 1841 Niger expedition

Royal Navy1841 Niger expeditionpart 1 ◄►part 3

Between October 1843 and February 1844 Henry Colburn's "United Service Magazine" contained a four part description of the Niger expedition. Pages 376 to 384 of the edition of November 1843 contained the second part.


(Compiled from Official Documents).

(part 2).

On the 26th of August, the steamers safely reached Ibu, (or more properly Abòh, which is the correct name of the town, and which is mentioned by Lander as Eboe,) belonging to Obi, "Ossai," (or "sovereign" Chief,) who is King of the Abòh country, situated on the banks of the Niger. An interview was at once sought with this Chief, with a view to the conclusion of a treaty being effected for the advancement of the objects of the Expedition.

Capt. William Allen and Mr. Cook reached Abòh, in the Wilberforce, the day before the other two vessels arrived; and they immediately requested to see Obi Ossai. He came on board the following morning, and perfectly remembered Capt. Allen, who had visited him on a former occasion. This circumstance, without doubt, tended materially to bring about the confidence and good feeling the Chief manifested towards the Commissioners at every subsequent interview. The principal men of the town were with him, and several of his sons; but he came without any pomp or state, with the exception of his dress, which was a British scarlet uniform coat, and scarlet cloth trousers, — his appearance was (to use the description of Capt. Trotter) "more that of a keen trader than of a sovereign chief of an extensive country." His manner, however, though friendly and unceremonious, showed a consciousness of power, and his attendants treated him with marked respect. He arrived early, having first sent his second son on board at daylight, on the morning after the arrival of the Wilberforce. He had seen Commander William Allen before, in 1832, when that officer accompanied Messrs. Lander and Laird on their voyage up the river. He soon got tired of the conversation, and the explanation given of the objects of the expedition, and wished to go, but was kept back by the appearance of wine, biscuits, and raisins. He was greatly astonished when he was told that the wine he was drinking was made from the juice of the grape, and that raisins were dried grapes. He showed himself partial to all. He was then shown the portraits of the Queen and Prince Albert, at which he expressed pleasure. After examining the contents of the cabin, he desired to see the other parts of the vessel, and arose. Thus, at the earliest opportunity that presented itself, and before the arrival of the other ships of the Expedition, the principal objects of the visit to his territories having been explained, the King readily promised to go on board the Albert the next morning.

Early on the 27th, accordingly, Obi arrived, in due state, in a canoe paddled by twenty-six of his people, and accompanied by several of his family and headmen, or "nobility." His Majesty was dressed on this occasion in the uniform of an English officer, and wore the pair of scarlet Turkish trousers that were given him by Mr. Lander some years before. Speaking of the King wearing an English uniform, it may be here mentioned that he has also adopted the British Union as the national flag. Lander describes one of these "national flags" as a British Union "sewed on a large piece of plain white cotton, with scollops of blue," which the natives loved to see streaming from a long staff in the bow of their canoes. The change in the King’s costume, since the time when the Landers first saw him, in 1830, was great, and worthy of notice. In lieu of the British uniform he had since adopted he then appeared, on state occasions, in a dress that those travellers describe as altogether brilliant. "From the vast profusion of coral ornaments (they remark) with which he was decorated, Obi might not inappropriately be styled 'the Coral King;' such an idea, at all events, entered our minds, as we contemplated the monarch, sitting on his throne of clay. His head was graced with a cap, shaped like a sugar-loaf, and covered thickly with strings of coral and pieces of broken looking-glass, so as to hide the materials of which it was made; his neck, or rather throat, was encircled with several strings of the same kind of bead, which were fastened so tightly as in some degree to affect his respiration, and to give his throat and cheeks an inflated appearance. In addition to these were four or five others hanging round his neck, and reaching almost to his knees. He wore a short Spanish surtout of red cloth, which fitted close to his person, being much too small. It was ornamented with gold epaulettes, and the front of it was overspread with gold lace, but which, like the cap, was entirely concealed, unless on a close examination, owing to the vast quantity of coral which was fastened to it in strings. Thirteen or fourteen bracelets (for we had the curiosity to count them) decorated each wrist, and, to give them full effect, a few inches of the sleeves of the coat had been cut off purposely. The beads were fastened to the wrist with old copper buttons, which formed an odd contrast to them. The King’s trousers, composed of the same material as his coat, stuck as closely to the skin as that, and were similarly embroidered, but they reached no further than the middle of his legs, the lower part being ornamented like the wrists, and with precisely the same number of strings of beads; beside which a string of little brass bells encircled each leg above the ankles, but the feet were naked. Thus splendidly clothed, Obi, smiling at his own magnificence, vain of the admiration which was bestowed by his attendants, and flattered without doubt, by the presence of white men, who he imagined were struck with amazement at the splendour of his appearance, shook his feet for the bell's to tinkle, sat down with the utmost self-complacency, and looked around him." Verily, he must, in the eyes of the courtiers of Abòh, have appeared "every inch a king!"

Obi was received at the gangway by the Commissioners, and ushered aft on the quarter-deck, where seats had been arranged for the conference. He stated that he had brought a present, consisting of two oxen, two sheep, and two hundred and fifty yams; for which he was thanked, and business was then proceeded with. The objects of the mission, as well as each article of the treaty submitted to him, were fully explained by an intelligent interpreter from Sierra Leone; and all were pleased with the intelligence, judgment, and apparent sincerity of Obi's remarks. His agreement to the various matters propounded to him, and his gratification thereat, were signified in a curious manner. At the end of each sentence, he usually expressed his ready acquiescence by uttering the emphatic word "makka" (it is good); and his pleasure was exhibited by repeatedly snapping his fingers. That he clearly understood the object of the treaty was proved by the momentary opposition elicited by some of its articles, that were not so acceptable to His Majesty as most of the others.

He said he was willing to do away with the Slave Trade, and that he did not sell his own people as slaves, but that they were "bought far away." He was asked whether he made war to get slaves, whereupon he answered that he did so, "when they have a quarrel, not otherwise." During the conference some presents were brought forward, and Obi seemed, for the time, too much attracted by them to attend to anything else. When the conversation was renewed, Commander B. Allen asked him whether he had the power to make an agreement with the Commissioners in the name of all his people. His "absolute" Majesty's answer was: "I am the King — what I say is law. Are there two Kings in England? There is only one here." Mr. Schön, the Missionary, was then directed by the Commissioners concisely to inform Obi of the difference between the Christian and heathen religion, and the advantages of the former, illustrating it with reference to the white and black residents at Sierra Leone. The King was accordingly informed that there is only one God; but he remarked that he had heard there were two. The principal tenets of the Christian religion were then enumerated, and he was asked whether it was not a very good religion, in which he entirely acquiesced, and said he should like to have a Christian to teach him. In answer to questions afterwards put, he said that they did not sacrifice human beings in the Abòh country, but only animals; and that he had never heard of women killing twins when they gave them birth. The contrary, however, seemed to be the fact; and he agreed that, where he had the power, no human sacrifice should be made, no murder committed, and that the treaty should not be broken in any way. He was asked whether, if the Queen made the treaty and he died, his successor would abide by its provisions. His answer was, "They will do as I command."

His Majesty, however, had, by this time, become thoroughly wearied, and exclaimed, "I wish the palaver to be settled, as I do not like so much talking." He then retired to the shore for the evening — some of the officers, with the interpreters, accompanying him, to visit the town, and see the character of the people. An Ibuan Witena-gemot, or parliament, consisting of an assembly of the headmen and principal inhabitants of the town, was held that evening, in consequence of the proceedings of the day; and their Sovereign explained, "in a most; gracious speech from the throne," the object which the Expedition had in view, in visiting the country, and the nature of the agreement he was about to make for the abolition of the Slave Trade. The officers, who had accompanied the King from the vessels, were present on this occasion; and they record that the statement made by Obi was received with evident satisfaction by all who heard it. In this country, possibly, its reception would have been marked by "loud and long-continued cheering;" but the natives of the Obi country have not yet attained to all the manners and customs of civilization!

The officers, taking advantage of the opportunity, explored all they could of the town and neighbourhood. They found the paths, however, to be so flooded, from the high state of the river, as to be nearly impassable. The town itself was almost under water; and they had to wade through the mud up to their knees to the very palace of the King, and, on a subsequent visit, on their return, they got up in the boat to the gate itself of the royal residence. The King admitted that his town was unhealthy, and that "there was too much water." He, however, said that he could point out much better spots to European and other settlers, for their residence. The town is situated near the apex of the Delta, and, consequently, commands the whole traffic between it and the sea-coast; and as Obi is principal merchant, as well as sovereign of the country, (in that respect, at least, being a modern Doge,) the due performance of the treaty would, of course, be a very great obstacle to the transmission of slaves for sale down this river. Indeed, this afterwards proved to be the result, for the Bonny people used to carry slaves for sale to Abòh; but lately were told that Obi had given up the Slave Trade, and that therefore they must not expect a continuance of' the demand for their goods, as heretofore.

Obi, like many of the other monarchs of the earth, indulged in the possession of a plurality of wives — his harem containing no fewer than one hundred Queens Consort! Under the piazza of his palace was seen an idol of wood; in the left hand of which was held a pistol, while in its right was a sword. This was the Ibuan Mars — their God of War; and in times of trouble, every soldier is required to lay his hands on this idol, who then secures him, as the natives believe, a safe return from the perils of the field, and immunity from all the dangers that attend the contest. Before the door of the outward yard of the palace also was the statue, mentioned by Lander, of a woman in a sitting posture, made of clay, but very rude and very ugly; and, in different parts of the various enclosures of the Royal residence were "little squat figures;", but as Lander truly remarks, whether they were intended to represent males or females, it is impossible to conjecture.

From inquiries that were instituted by the Rev. J.F. Schön (the Missionary of the Church Missionary Society) who belonged to the Wilberforce, he became satisfied of the correctness of many things which he had long before learned, respecting some of the superstitions of the Ibu people.

It appears but too true that human sacrifices were offered by them, and that in the most barbarous manner. The poor devoted victim is tied by his legs and dragged from place to place till he expires, when his body is cast into the sea. Infanticide was likewise committed, and was of a peculiar kind; the origin or cause of which could not be ascertained. Twins were never allowed to live; as soon as they were born they were put into two earthen pots and exposed in the forest. The unfortunate mother, in addition to the anguish of being thus cruelly bereft of her infants, was ever after exposed to troubles and hardships. A small hut was built for her in the bush, where she had to submit to many ceremonies for her purification, and remained separated from society for a considerable time. Her conjugal connexion with her husband was for ever dissolved, and she was never after permitted to sit down with other women in the same market or in the same house. To give birth to twins was, therefore, justly considered the greatest misfortune that could befall a woman. Another of the superstitions of the people is that, if a child happen to cut its top teeth first, it would be a very wicked person in after life, if it were allowed to survive; and it is, therefore, invariably put to death. In the Treaty, however, that was agreed to between Obi and this country, an additional article was signed to this effect:- "The Chief of Abòh declares that no human beings are sacrificed on account of religious or other ceremonies or customs in the Abòh country, and hereby stipulates that he will prevent the introduction of such barbarous and inhuman customs and ceremonies into his country." We may, consequently, hope that these superstitions, attended with such cruelty, have ceased; and there seems to be the more ground for hoping such to be the case, as the Commissioners were impressed with the conviction that the King would fulfil the promises he had given. The Rev. Mr. Schön also expresses a like opinion, arguing that Obi’s wish that Simon Jonas, (a native of the Ibu country, and one of the interpreters of the Expedition,) should stop with him, proved his sincerity in his profession to act up to the terms of the Treaty. If he had had any intention of acting contrary to it, he would not have desired to have a person about him who understood his language, and could watch and observe all his proceedings, and who, as he well knew, would join the Expedition again, and would make known to the Commissioners anything that he might have considered wrong. This wish, expressed by the King, also showed that the objection so often raised, that the Africans would not listen to their own countrymen in matters of religion or anything else in the way of instruction, (and especially not to those who had been slaves before,) was perfectly gratuitous and unfounded. The King was not ashamed to confess his ignorance, and to express his readiness to learn of one of his own country people something better.

In accordance with the desire so expressed by Obi, Simon Jonas was left at Abòh, where he resided from the 20th of September to the 11th of October, 1841, on which day he rejoined the Albert on her passage down the river. From him much curious and interesting information respecting the natives was obtained. He afterwards stated that the children flocked round him every day to learn something, showing much anxiety to acquire knowledge. So great was the number that thus sought information from him, that he counted above 2600 school children. The number of domestic slaves is, in his opinion, greater than that of the free people; but the treatment they receive at the hands of their owners is kind and humane. They are allowed, after some years' service, to build houses for themselves. Some have five or six wives, which is considered as the surest sign of their acquiring property. After they have built their own house they are free, and cannot be called on by Obi or their former masters to work for them afterwards. An annual tax is required of them by the King, proportioned to the property they possess. Each must pay forty yams to Obi in the yam season, and those who have many sheep or goats must pay him some of them also. The Benin people come up as far as the town of Abòh with their canoes for palm oil, for which they pay, chiefly, rum, guns, and gunpowder. A very few articles of clothing, &c., find their way to Abòh. The King, according to the same informant, Simon, had a large quantity of rum and powder, and was very liberal in the distribution of the former. It is the custom of the principal people of the town to wait on him every morning in several divisions, each comprising six persons. Each party that is thus present at the early levee of His Ibuan Majesty receives one bottle of rum, to preserve, we suppose, his spirit of loyalty and affection to his Sovereign.

We now return from this general description of the town and people of Abòh to the affairs connected with the Treaty. On the evening of the 27th of August, (1841,) the King retired from the Albert to the shore for the evening, and without concluding the agreement with Her Majesty’s Commissioners. He, however, called together and addressed his Parliament that night, as before stated, and announced the progress that had been made.

On the following morning, (28th August,) the Commissioners assembled on board the Albert at seven o'clock, at which time King Obi came, accompanied by his eldest son and heir apparent, Chikuna; by six other of his children; by Aribunda and Ajeh, his brothers, and a few headmen and numerous official attendants in his suite. He breakfasted with Capt. Trotter, but declined to give any information as to the manner in which the Slave Trade had been carried on, saying that, "Slave palaver (of which His Majesty seems to have been little fond in any shape,) was all over now." The Treaty being ready for signature, Capt. Trotter proposed that the blessing of Almighty God should be asked on this commencement of their labours. The Captain then explained to Obi, through the interpreter, that the Rev. Mr. Muller, the Chaplain, was going to pray that the blessing of the Deity might be bestowed on both parties making the Treaty, and that he and his son might, if they pleased, join in the prayer. After it was finished Obi appeared agitated, and wished to perform "Fetish" (or charm) for himself; but when Capt. Trotter explained that they had not prayed to have any advantage over him, but that he and his people might be benefitted through their instrumentality, he seemed more composed, and shook hands cordially with the Commissioners, and gave up all idea of performing fetish.

The Commissioners then proceeded with Obi to the quarter-deck, where his headmen were assembled, and explained again to him, in their presence, the meaning of each article in the treaty, to all of which he gave his assent; observing, however, that some of his people were absent, and did not know the law. Was he, he asked, in each case to seize their boats, and punish them if they brought slaves? The Commissioners said they would allow him to the end of the present moon to make all his people to know the law. Obi then said, "You must send ships to trade." He examined with great curiosity and pleasure, the presents that were to be his property, when the treaty was signed; and then the requisite marks were put by the chief, his brothers, and son, to the document, in the presence of the four Commissioners, of Dr. M‘William, the Rev. Mr. Schön, and Mr. Bowden, the Secretary. Flags were displayed, and guns fired, and presents given to Obi and his headmen, with which they were much pleased.

The king and his chief men and suite then returned to the shore, with the various presents (to the value of about 49l.,) of guns, pistols, velvet, printed Manchester goods, necklaces, several articles of dress, buttons, spoons, one Arabic Bible, &c. among these articles it is curious to see enumerated, "half a piece of caricature handkerchiefs.” Doubtlessly, this remains one of the principal favourites with his Majesty, and his "hundred wives." Obi proclaimed the treaty he had entered into, that same evening, to his people.

During the conference, the Commissioners intimated to the King that, in return for the permission he had granted for British agents and others to reside in his territory, he was at liberty, if he thought proper, to send people from Abòh to England. He, however, answered, that he had already sent two of his people on board the Quorra steamer, on her passage down the river, and had never heard of them since. How then, he asked, could he send his sons to England? Inquiry was subsequently instituted into the grounds that existed for this remark; and it ultimately appeared, from the statement of Mr. M‘Gregor Laird, who had had command of the Quorra, that, on the 10th July, 1833, he (being then at anchor in the river Niger, about sixty miles above the town of Eboe,) received on board four native boys from the late Mr. Richard Lander, who had borrowed them from King Obi, to assist the crew of the row-boat, in which he was ascending the river. Two of these boys afterwards desired to remain on board; and, on visiting the chief, Mr. Laird asked for them. They were readily given, and accompanied him to Fernando Po. One was left there, and became comfortably settled; and the other, after having acted as a servant for some time in this country, went to Sierra Leone, where he now is, and is known by the name of "Snowball." This circumstance showed the tenacity of Obi's memory; and it was certainly most advisable to be able to explain as soon as possible to that chief, what had become of his subjects.

As soon as the King had left the Albert, the Expedition (urged on by the high state of the river, and the advanced state of the season, and their desire to proceed as rapidly as possible to the upper parts of the river,) determined not to wait to witness any further promulgation of the treaty. They therefore continued their voyage, being convinced that Obi would make the law of abolition, (which, by the treaty, he was to have prepared, within forty-eight hours of the date of the agreement,) as quickly as possible known through all the towns and villages under his jurisdiction.

As no independent chief intervened between Abòh and the King of Egarrah, the Expedition proceeded at once towards Iddah, the capital of this Sovereign. The several vessels left Abòh on the 28th of August; they had entered Obi’s territory about 20 miles below that town, and came to its northern limits at the Oniah market, 170 miles from the sea. To what distance the Abòh country extends on each side from the river there were no means of ascertaining. The banks of the river the whole way up, to nearly the northern limit of the Abòh country, were perfectly flat, and presented, with few exceptions, a continuance of the same impenetrable forest that has been already described, which, though beautiful and at first most pleasing to the eye, wearied at length by its sameness. It was a great relief, therefore, to find the ground afterwards slightly elevated and undulating, and the country more open.

On the 2nd of September, the Expedition came in sight of the high cliffs on which the town of Iddah is situated, detached hills appearing still further up the river. On the evening of that day the Albert, Wilberforce, and the Amelia, came to an anchor off the town, the Soudan arriving the following morning.

Capt. Trotter at once despatched Dr. McWilliam, accompanied by the Rev. Mr. Schön, with a message to the King of Egarrah, to the effect that there were Commissioners on board the British ships in the river, charged with a message to him from the Queen of Great Britain, and that they would be happy to see him on board the Albert to confer with them. Capt. Trotter, understanding that it was customary to send a present by any one seeking a conference with His Majesty, selected a few articles as gifts. The gentlemen experienced some difficulty in obtaining an interview, being taken in the first instance to the residence of the Attàh’s sister, the Princess Ammada Bue, a clever intelligent woman, by whose counsels it is said the Sovereign was much guided. Here they were detained some hours; but at length they succeeded in seeing the King, who was seated on his throne, and attended by his judges, malams (or priests), and eunuchs, &c., to receive them.

The interpreter, Dr. McWilliam and Mr. Schön had taken with them, was then directed to state that they had come from the Captain of the big ship, who had a message to the Attàh from the Queen of Great Britain, who hoped that the King was well. It was further told him that Her Majesty was desirous to make friends with him and with all good black men; and that the Captain would be very glad if the Attàh would come on board and receive the Queen’s message from him. The interpreter also stated that he himself was once a slave, when a little boy, from this very place; but that, through the instrumentality of the British Queen, he was now a free man, such as Her Majesty wished all on earth to be. The small present sent by the Commissioners was then shown to the King.

His Majesty wished to know if they had said all —if they had done speaking? He was informed, in answer, that for the present they had finished. The King then, through his "mouth," or speaker, delivered the following speech:—

"I am glad, and I thank God first to see white people near me. If the white people are glad to see me, they must hear what I say. The late King wished white people to come to his dominions, but he did not really want to see them. I am now the King, and white people have come to see me, and I am very glad to see them. If they wish to be friends for true with me, they must not be in a hurry, for I like my friends to eat and drink with me for several days. If a stranger comes to me, I wish him not to part without a proper and fair understanding. I wished not to come out in the rain; but the white men were resolved to see me, and I imagined from that that they had the power to stop rain coming, but it now rains as much as ever. The river belongs to me a long way up and down on both sides, and I am King. The Queen of white men has sent a friend to see me. I have only just now seen a present, which is not worthy to be presented to me; it is only fit for a servant."

The King, looking at Mr. Schön’s spectacles, expressed a wish to have a pair; and then asked whether he might send a messenger to the Queen of the white people. Dr. McWilliam answered, "Most certainly. The Queen would be delighted to hear from the Attàh of Egarrah, and to make trade with him."

The King, continuing his observations, said: "You wish me to go on board of ship. A King in this country never goes on board ship: he never puts his foot in a canoe. When white people were here before, the King never went on board. If any one wishes to see me, he must come to me: if he wishes to speak privately, I will dismiss my people: if it be a public matter, then I will allow them to remain; but King never goes on board ship."

He was then informed that they were only messengers, and were not at liberty to say anything more; but that they would convey what the King had said to the Captain, and felt assured that if "a palaver" were held with him, the King would be much more satisfied.

They then left the presence, the Attàh saying, "Very well, I will see no one, unless the chief man comes. Good night. God bless you."

Dr. McWilliam and his companions returned on board about four o’clock in the afternoon, when they reported to the Commissioners what had occurred, and the latter resolved on having a conference on shore with the Attàh on the following morning. They attributed the King’s delays to a wish to obtain as much information as he could beforehand of the objects of the visit to his country; for his reception of them afterwards, though much appearance of state was kept up, was very cordial.

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