Friday 8 July 2022

Travels in Western Africa, in 1845 & 1846, comprising a journey from Whydah, through the kingdom of Dahomey, to Adofoodia, in the interior by John Duncan (1847)

July 2d. — A very singular and interesting incident occurred to my Sierra Leone servant. I sent him out to market to purchase some vegetables, accompanied by another man to carry what he might purchase, as these Sierra Leone black gentry (liberated slaves) are too proud to carry anything when passing along the market. He observed an old woman, whom he thought much to resemble his mother. The poor old woman, too, scrutinized his features with much interest. To the great surprise of both, they soon recognised in each other a mother and son. 

This circumstance would not have come to my knowledge had the mother and her daughter not called at the gate of my house on the following day, requesting to see her son. It happened to be my dinner-hour, and he was absent. Not knowing the reason of his absence at the time when he knew I required him, I asked for an explanation. He then reluctantly told me that his mother had called upon him. As I was very incredulous about the truth of this, for this is a very frequent pretence when an excuse is required, I desired to see her. 

Accordingly the poor old woman, with her daughter and son-in-law, were introduced to me, and I desired them to sit down, that I might have an opportunity of learning something of their history. I asked my servant why he had not mentioned the circumstance on the previous day, whereupon he confessed that he was ashamed to introduce his own mother, because she was old and coarsely clad. 

Their history ran as follows:— About twenty years ago the son, my interpreter, was captured in the Annagoo country, and was carried down to the coast, not by the Dahomans, but by the King of Badagry's people. From Badagry he was shipped on board a slaver for the Brazils, but the ship was taken by an English cruiser, and brought into Sierra Leone. Here, with five hundred more, he was liberated and educated; but, unfortunately, his education proved more to his disadvantage than otherwise, as it tended to aid his villanous disposition. This man being young at the time of his capture could give me no information respecting his native place, consequently no person knew his country, but which could only be ascertained by the scars or marks on the face, with which each country distinguishes its own people. The Yarriba people are very much disfigured; but the Dahomans are not marked at all, except such marks or tattooing as the parents may choose to inflict on the lower parts of the person by way of ornament.

Within the last few years the power of the King of Dahomey has rapidly increased, while that of the neighbouring Kings and Chiefs has decreased in the same proportion; and the kingdom of Dahomey greatly enlarged, sometimes by the addition of twenty towns, and a large extent of country to his dominions, during his annual war, or rather slave-hunt, which is (as I have before stated) carried on with great cruelty and barbarity. This has been probably more particularly cruel on account of all the surrounding Kings and Chiefs having declared an alliance with each other, and a determination to make a distaff of the King of Dahomey's head. Such a declaration is always sufficient for the Dahomans to go to war against any country; and, as the King is very powerful, he is always successful; and consequently, possesses a great number of slaves. 

About six years ago the Annagoos made an attack on one of the Dahoman frontier towns, committing every species of cruelty. In consequence of this, the King of Dahomey determined to punish them, which he effectually did. The Annagoos are a very bad people. Amongst the prisoners taken were the mother and sister of my servant already mentioned. In consequence of the age of the mother, she was placed in one of the country palaces, merely to assist in keeping it clean. They had plenty of food, and the privilege of attending any of the neighbouring markets they may think proper. 

By this means the prisoners (if they may be so termed) obtain any little private luxury. The King is very kind both to his slaves and free people. Although no individual in his dominion can be called free, yet a great distinction is made. His domestic slaves perform all the laborious duties of the household; yet his nobles and head men and women are not less subservient to him in their different capacities. —But I am digressing. 

Twenty years had now elapsed since the son had been separated from his mother, and he supposed his mother to be long since dead; while the mother was quite ignorant of the fate of her son. I felt great interest in this meeting; but such is the general brutality of nature in these slave countries, that the meeting seemed to excite little of the warmer feelings of human nature; in fact, they seemed to regard the circumstance as no more than any ordinary event. 

I asked my servant if he wished his mother to be liberated, and allowed to go home with him to Whydah, his residence. At first he seemed grateful for the proposal; but, after a few days, when his mother again called, and I offered to make a request to the King to grant his mother and sister their liberty, he began to hesitate and calculate the additional expense which it would entail upon himself. Although this could not exceed one half penny per day, he said, that as they seemed to be comfortable, they had better remain where they were. Such was the filial gratitude of an educated African, who had not seen his parent for nearly twenty years; and, although the poor old mother was anxious to be with her son, the heartless fellow seemed glad to shake off the connexion, and to avoid the opportunity, which under such circumstances seldom occurs, of being reunited with the parent from whom he had been so ruthlessly torn.

July 3d.- My white servant being without shoes, I this day made him a pair of untanned bullock's hide. According to his statement, he was a French Canadian. He came to me from an American brig which arrived at Whydah with a cargo of tobacco. The vessel was sold by the captain for four thousand dollars to the Portuguese, and sailed in a few days after with six hundred slaves on board. This circumstance, it will be recollected, is noticed in a former part of my Journal. 

By Kehinde Thompson

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