1678-1682 John Barbot,
A description of the coasts of North and South-Guinea;
and of Ethiopia Inferior, vulgarly Angola:
being a new and accurate account
of the Western maritime countries of Africa in six books
London, 1732 (1)
- Course to Benin,
- Rio Fermoso or Benin river.
- The kingdom of Ulkamy, Awerri and Usa countries.
- The kingdom of Benin described,
- its product.
- Oedo the capital.
- Trade at Benin.
- Goods imported and exported,
- markets etc.
COURSE TO BENIN
We commonly reckon about fifty-five leagues in a direct course east and by north, from the road of Little Ardra to Rio Fermoso, which is Benin river, called also Argon river; being the usual course the Hollanders take to enter that river, to carry on their trade in the kingdom of Benin. But the English and the Portuguese enter it another way, that is, at the channel of Lagoas, which begins at cape Lagoas, distant about eight or ten leagues east from Little Ardra, from which cape the coast runs in a semi-circle to Rio Fermoso aforesaid, on the north side, and the lands Ichoo, or Curamo islands, lie opposite on the south of it, all along at some distance, forming thus all together the Lagoas channel that leads to Benin river, which channel at some places and for several leagues together is no broader than a large river, especially form the cape of Lagoas aforesaid, and the south-west point of the largest of the Curamo islands to the river Lagoa, which runs form the opposite north country into the Lagoas channel; the shore on either sides, from the cape and the Curamo islands, being low and shallow water, with sands all along, as it is also on either side of the said channel, form Rio Lagoas to Rio Fermoso in Benin; only the channel there, in some parts, is very wide, according as the north or main shore is distant form the south side shore, made up of the low flat islands of Curamo. But the right course of that channel, to Benin river, is on fifteen and fourteen foot of water all along, form west to east, as is likewise the other channel, east of the Curamo islands, which, as I have hinted, is the proper channel used by the Dutch, and both large and deep enough for brigantine sloops and other small craft, commonly made use of by the before-mentioned European nations driving some trade at Benin, among whom the Hollanders have the greatest share.
For the better knowing of the two several channels to Benin river, I must observe, as to that of lagoas or Lagos, which I call the west channel, that at the mouth, or entrance of it into the ocean, betwixt cape Lagos, and the most western island of Curamo, which together with the coast on either side, extending northward form the channel, there is a bar, which choaks it almost across, only on the side of Curamo it leaves a passage, found out by often founding; and through it you enter the channel of Lagos, steering your course north-east, to the river Lagos that runs into it, form the country on the north, and gives its name to the said channel, according to the Portuguese, who first called it Lago de Curamo. That river Lagos has a bar at the entrance into the Lagos channel, which is scarce navigable for boats, because of the mighty surges that render it very difficult. The Portuguese geographers place Ciudade de Jubu, or city of Jubu, several leagues inland of this river. From cape Lagos to Rio lagos is fifteen leagues, the course north-east, having in that space of land the rivers Rio-Albo and Rio-Dodo, at a distance falling into the channel, and the village Almasta on the east point of Rio Lagos; and not far from it, at east again, the town of Curamo, where good fine cloths are made and sold by the natives to foreigners, who have a good vent for them at the Gold Coast; especially the Hollanders, who carry thence great quantities, which turn to a good account. Sloops or bar-canoes are commonly made use of for that trade as being small vessels, navigated at an inconsiderable charge, and making quick voyages.
From Curamo to Rio Palma is seventeen or eighteen leagues east; some towns or villages lying on the shore betwixt them, as Aldea de Almadias, Palmar and Jabum, this last seated west of Rio Palma or Palmar, from which river to Rio Primeira is eleven leagues east; and from Primeira to cape Ruygehoeck, which is on the west side of the mouth of Rio Fermoso, or Benin river, is twelve leagues; the shore betwixt both forming a large bay, in which are three small islands near the main, the course being east south-east to the said Benin river.
The other eastern channel, betwixt the eastermost island of Curamo and the main land of Benin is about ten leagues long, the soundings along the right channel being fifteen, twelve, fourteen and fifteen foot, from south to north, to cape Ruygehoeck, the western point or cape of the river Fermoso, which at a distance looks like a high rock with the top cut off, and with the eastern opposite low, sandy bay, constitutes the mouth of that river, being about eight or nine leagues distant from each other, whence the two lands drawing still more and more together, reduce it to about four English miles in width, but then sailing farther up again, it widens in some places and narrows in others. This river appears very plainly, if entered from the west channel, for from Ardra the land is even and woody, the village Loebo being on the east side of the mouth.
João Alfonso de Aveiro, the first discoverer of Benin, gave this river the name of Rio Fermoso, signifying in Portuguese, the beautiful river; the English, French, Dutch and other northern Europeans call it indifferently Benin or Argon river. Aveiro carried form Benin to Lisbon the first pepper that ever came out of those parts.
FERMOSO, OR BENIN RIVER
This river spreads itself into a multitude of branches, some of them so wide that they might themselves well deserve the name of rivers; on all which there are many towns and villages on both sides, each of them inhabited by a particular nation, govern'd by its own king. Among those many towns and villages are that of Aguma, on the western bank of the Fermoso, betwixt two other rivers, and that of Alambana on the east side somewhat above Sand-bay, with another some leagues to the southward of the latter, and called Rogocam, being on the north mouth of a river running form the eastward into the sea, as Alambana lies on the south side of another river, called by the English, Binnin.
The river Fermoso makes abundance of windings and turnings, as it enters the country of Benin, which, with the multitude of its branches, renders the sailing up it so difficult that a pilot from land is absolutely necessary.
About two leagues within its mouth are two branches, two English miles form each other; upon one of which is a Portuguese lodge and chappel, at the town of Awerri, belonging to a nation independent of Benin, and only an ally and neighbour of it.
The usual trading-place in the river Fermoso is the town of Arebo, or Arbon, above sixty leagues up from its mouth, beyond which place ships may pass up conveniently, sailing all the way by abundance of branches and creeks, some of them very wide. For several leagues up this river the land is every where low and morassy, the banks all along adorned with great numbers of high and low trees, and the country all about it divided into islands by the vast number of its branches. There are also many floating islands, or parcels of land covered all over with rushes, which are often removed or driven from one place to another by the stormy winds and tornados, which sailors often meet with, and are forc'd to steer various courses, for which reason a land-pilot is absolutely necessary, as has been said before.
The town of Arbon is about half a mile long, lying on the east side of the Fermoso, about a quarter of a mile broad, and all open: the country beyond it is all over full of shrubs and thickets, only parted by such narrow roads or paths that two men can scarce walk abreast.
The town of Gotton, by the Portuguese called Hugato or Agatton, being much about the bigness of Arbon, is twenty four leagues farther up towards the north-east, and the river much narrower from Arbon up to Gotton, this latter being about twelve leagues distant form the metropolis of Benin, called by the natives Oedo, north of it.
This river is very pleasant, for which reason the Portuguese gave it the name of Fermoso, but very unwholesome, as most of the rivers of Guinea are: which must proceed form the continual exhalations hovering about them, and more particularly those in low and morassy grounds: to which may be added another inconveniency here and in other places, being the innumerable multitude of gnats, or mosquitos, which are a very great plague to all sea-faring men, especially in the night-time. The lands on each side the river are very woody, which breeds those tormenting vermin in such immense numbers that they attack our sailors at night on all sides, and so pester them that many the next morning are not to be known by their features, their faces being swoln and full of pimples, depriving them at the same time of their natural rest, which, together with the unwholesome air, occasions a great mortality among our Europeans, some sloops or ships in one voyage often losing one half of their crews, and others more, and the survivors remaining very weak and sickly: which strikes such a terror into sailors that few are willing to serve in such voyages and the boldest always afraid of their lives.
The Portuguese tell us, there is in this country a land-road to Calbary, and a passage yet more convenient by water for canoes to go form hence into the neighbouring rivers, and to Rio Volta and Lagos west, and to El-Rey, Camarones and others east, which, as to Rio volta seems improbable, but as to the others, 'tis easy to conceive it may be the rivers in this part of guinea being so near together.
Were it not for the intemperature of the climate and the plague of gnats, this would be a very pleasant place for trade, the river being so agreeable and the country on each side very plain, without hills, only rising gently, which affords a very fine prospect, the trees standing in many parts as regular as if planted by art, but the banks of the river are thinly stored with villages and cottages on both sides, which may be because close by the river the soil is not good: for though what is sown comes up well, yet the contagious damps of the river kill it, but at some distance from it, the land is extraordinary fruitful, and yields a rich crop of every thing planted or sowed. How far it extends itself up the island thro' the kingdom of Benin, none of the Blacks can tell, tho' it is natural to infer, from its wideness below for many leagues, that it comes from very remote countries.
Before I proceed to the description of the kingdom of Benin and of the trade of its river Fermoso, it will be proper to say something of the kingdom or country of Ulkamy, situated betwixt Ardra and Benin, whose name only has been mention'd before.
KINGDOM OF ULKAMY
It borders at east, south and west and at north on an unknown potent nation: the natives call it Alkomy, and represent it as a mighty state, whence the they Ardrasians get most of the slaves they sell to us, whom the Alkomy Blacks take prisoners in their excursions on their neighbours, but are a sort of people who have little communication with them: and therefore can say no more of their manners and religion than that they circumcise men and women when young, the daughters at ten or eleven years of age: which they say is done by means of large ants or pismires of a yellow colour, fastened to a stick, and thus apply'd to the part and left there till they have bit it in many parts so that the blood gushes out of it, which is a very painful operation to the patient, and then the insects are removed.
AWERRI AND USA
To return to Benin. The Blacks of Rio Fermoso and the circumjacent country for a great way up compose many small territories and petty kingdoms, each of which has its peculiar governor or king, but all vassals to him of Benin, except those of Awerri and Usa men, a particular people who live altogether on plunder and piracy on the rivers, seizing men or good, all which they sell to the first that come thither for provisions, being themselves ill furnished at their habitations, which are just at the mouth of the river Fermoso, and are therefore called the pirates of Usa. Those knavish people extend their piracy so far that many men coming from Ardra, Calabary, and several other parts of Guinea east or west of Benin have been taken on that river and sold for slaves by them. Those Usa and Awerri men have always kept themselves free form the jurisdiction of the king of Benin to this time, but are as much tyrannized over by their own kings upon all occasions, and they esteem the qualification of the king's slaves ,a very happy condition.
Thew river Fermoso and all its branches harbour a multitude of crocodiles and sea-horses, great and small, and though not very full of fish towards their heads, yet furnish the natives with it nearer to their mouths. Among the several sorts, there is one called the quaker, because it causes a shivering in the arm of any person that does but lay one finger on it. There is another sort of fish, very common at a place called Boca de la Mar, the mouth of the sea, where they dry, smoak and sell it all about the country, but not being well salter, it has an ill taste, putrifies presently and stinks intolerably.
OF THE KINGDOM OF BENIN
This kingdom in general is by ancient geographers called the Dermones Aethiopes, and the mountain that the mountain that separates it from Ardra, Aranga mons. It borders to the northwest on Alkomy, Jaboe, Isago and Oedobo, to the north on the kingdom of Gaboe, which is eight days journey from Oedo, the metropolis of Benin, to the east on the lands of Istanna, Awerri and Forcado, and to the south on the several little countries and territories next the sea, which are tributaries to and dependants on it, except Awerri and Usa, as I have observed before. And thus Benin may well be said to extend on the south to the Aethiopick ocean.
Its extent form south to north must be near two hundred leagues, and its breadth form west to east about one hundred and twenty five: but is a country not easy to travel in, being for the most part very woody. The lands about Oedo, the metropolis and those near the sea-side are very well peopled, and stored with towns and villages little frequented by Europeans: it is also well inhabited towards Alkomy; however, though there is a vast number of people in the kingdom, yet in proportion to its extent, and in comparison of Fida and Ardra, it is not populous, the towns in many parts being at great distance form each other, especially up the inland and near the river. The Portuguese under John Alfonso de Aveiro, first discovered this kingdom in the reign of Dom John II, king of Portugal. Vasconcelos, an author of that nation, makes it but eighty leagues long and forty in breadth. Alvarez, at his first voyage thither, established a correspondence with the king of Benin, who promised to become a christian, but after some years of commerce, the Portuguese being made sensible how little success their trouble and endeavours used to convert those souls would meet with, because of their obstinacy and perfidiousness, as well in civil as in religious concerns, began to discontinue it in the reign of Dom John III.
This country in general is flat and low and very woody, as has been observed before, cut through in some parts with rivers and swampy grounds, and in other parts is dry and barren, but this is so in a more particular manner about Agatton and Oedo, for which reason the king of Benin keeps constantly several men on the roads to preserve there fresh water in great large vessels for the conveniency and use of travellers, who are to pay a certain toll for it, and no man dares use it without paying.PRODUCT
The land, for the most part produces Indian wheat, but not millet, which makes the former very cheap, and the more, because the natives do not much value it: wherefore but little is sowed, which yet yields a prodigious quantity of grain and very luscious. Instead of corn there is a prodigious plenty of yams, which is their most common diet, for they eat them instead of bread, with all sorts of flesh, and are therefore very cautious to improve the proper times of the year for planting of them.
Potatoes are not very plentiful, but they have two sorts of beans, much like our hose-beans, of a hot disagreeable taste, and not wholesome. There is no rice, though the morassy grounds in many parts seem to give reason to believe it might grow well if sowed.
In the space of land betwixt Oedo and Agatton grows abundance of citrons, oranges and lemons and a sort of red-pepper, much like in colour and taste to the pimento or Guinea pepper, which the natives use most, upon occasion of confirming by oath what they contract or covenant among themselves, crushing it then in their hands, some swearing never to eat of it, and others to eat of it in all sauces.
The fruit trees are the coconut, Cormentyn-apple, banana, baccoven, wild-fig, and the palm and bordon-wine trees, both which last are not the best in Guinea. The cotton trees are also very plentiful, and of the finest sort, the wool whereof they dress, spin and weave into several sort of cloths, which make one branch of the trade of the country, the Europeans buying vast quantities to sell at the Gold coast, as I have observed before.
The Hollanders some years ago planted of this sort of cotton seed at Mouree, which they did in March, and it throve so well, that to this day they have some plants of it there. Some other fruits there are growing on trees, not extraordinary good, and only known and used by the natives.
Indigo grows there abundantly, and they have the art of making very good blue from it, with which they dye their cloth. They also know very well how to make several sorts of green, black, red and yellow dyes, extracted by friction and decoction from certain trees best known to themselves: and being better skill'd in making soap than any other people of Guinea, their cloths are generally very clean. Most people in Benin are clothed with it, besides what is yearly exported by themselves and foreigners to many other parts of Guinea.
They make soap, as at the Gold-Coast, with palm oil, banana leaves and the ashes of a certain wood, and differ very little in the manner of making it.
This country is well stored with small horses, asses, goats, cows, sheep, dogs, cats, poultry and several sorts of deer, all pretty cheap and good, tho' the cattle be very small but well tasted. Dogs and cats are the choicest dishes of the natives. The sheep as at Sestro, are without any wool.
They have likewise abundance of wild beasts, elephants, tygers, lions, leopards, wild boars, civet cats, wild cats, serpents of all sorts, land-tortoises etc. The elephants are in a more particular manner prodigiously plentiful, but lions and tygers are not frequently seen there. Jackalls, or wild dogs, are reported to be very numerous, and apes of all sizes and sorts, among which baboons extraordinary large that will assault men, if not too numerous for them. Their several sorts of deer, wild boars and other eatable wild beasts afford good sport, and a man may very well live upon it.
There is also poultry of all sorts, pheasants, partridges, both green and blue, turtle and ring-doves, a sort of storks, crooked-bills, ducks, water-hens, divers, snipes, a sort of birds almost as big as ostriches, and another that is a crown-bird, besides a vast number of many sorts of birds, large and small, with a multitude of parrots of several kinds.
The Blacks of Benin being no great lovers of fire-arms, and consequently not well skill'd in the use of them, seldom any fowl or wild beasts come to hand, or when they catch any it is by means of nets, tho' sometimes they kill wild boars and deer with their javelins, but that is rare, and those people, being naturally cowards, dare not venture to hunt lions and tygers, of which more hereafter.OEDO THE CAPITAL
Oedo, the metropolis of Benin, is prodigious large, taking up above six leagues of ground in compass, if we include therein the queen's court or palace, so that no town in Guinea can compare to it for extent and beauty. It is seated about twelve leagues north north-west from Agatton, in a vast plain which is as pleasant as could be wished, being all over planted with fine large and ever-green trees, very regularly disposed. It is enclos'd on one side by a double ridge of trunks of trees about ten foot high, set close together in the ground for a fence or palisado to it, the trunks fastened to one another by long pieces of timber athwart, and the interval between the two ridges or rows of trunks filled up with red clammy earth, which at a distance looks like a good thick wall, very even and smooth. The other side of the city is naturally defended by a large morass, which is, besides, covered by thorny shrubby bushes very thick together, so as that the morass can hardly be well come at.
The town has several gates at a distance from each other on the side of the wood and clay-wall, being but ten foot high and five broad and shut with one single piece of wood hung up at each gate, in the manner as we do our gaps of ground in Europe: they keep a guard of soldiers at each gate, which leads to the country through a suburb.
there are in Oedo thirty very great streets, most of them prodigious both in length and breadth, being twenty fathom wide and almost two English miles long, commonly extending from one gate to another in a strait line, and besides these a great number of cross-streets and lanes. In the large wide streets continual markets are kept in the fore and after-noon every day, of cattle, elephants-teeth, cotton wool or yarn, and many sorts of European goods, and all those streets, though never so long and wide, are by the women kept very neat and clean, every woman being charged to sweep before her own door.
The houses in every street are very thick and close built, and all full of inhabitants; the shells of the houses are all of a strong clammy clay, two foot thick, and but one story high, there not being one stone, tho' never so small, to be found in the whole country. The tops are thatched with straw or palm-tree leaves; most houses are very wide, each having a great gallery within, and some another without, where they place forms and benches to sit or lie on, to take the fresh air in hot scorching weather. The ordinary houses have but one door and no windows, receiving light only at a hole left open for that purpose in the middle of the roof, and to let the smoke out in those rooms designed for kitchens. The best houses are very large and handsome, and tolerably well built, if compared with the buildings of other nations of Blacks. Each of those large houses is divided into several little rooms for divers uses. Their galleries are very neatly kept, being, as most of the inside of the house-walls, wash'd over with a red glazy paint, as the king of Sestro's houses are, before mentioned by me. The houses of great and notable persons are yet finer and larger than those of the commonalty, for these have generally galleries within and without, supported by strong planks or pieces of timber ten or twelve foot high, instead of columns, not plained, but hewed out.
This large city is divided into several wards or districts, each of which is govern'd by its respective king of the street, as they call them here, to administer justice and keep good order, being in some manner like our aldermen of wards in London. These kings of the street by their post, and being commonly rich men, have a great authority over the inhabitants of their respective wards.
The royal palace stands on the high road leading from Benin to Agatton, at the right hand, and is so large and spacious, that it takes up as much room as Rochel or Bourdeaux, being all enclosed with a balustrade wall of the same stuff and materials as I have shewn the city is on one side: however this palace is accounted, and in reality makes a part of that great city, being also built on a very great plain, about which there are no houses, but has nothing more of rarity in it than the other buildings of the town, only that it is extraordinary large, the houses and apartments in it being all of the same materials; however, it is remarkable for its large courts and long wide galleries.
The first of which is supported by near sixty stout planks, twelve foot high, in lieu of pilasters, roughly hacked out.
When past this gallery, you come to the clay wall, which has three gates, one at each angle or corner, and one exactly in the middle, adorned with a wooden turret about seventy foot high, narrower above than at the bottom, and on the top of it is place a long large copper snake, its head hanging downwards, either cast or hammer'd, and indifferent good work. Every building or house has also a small turret of a pyramidal form, on some of which is fix'd a cast bird of copper with stretch'd-out wings, which is also a pretty sort of work for Blacks, and induces me to think they have tolerable good workmen that are somewhat skilled in casting brass or copper.
Within those gates appears a plain of about an English mile, almost square, inclosed with a low clay-wall, at the end of which plain is another gallery, like the former in every particular, and beyond it a third, like the other two, with this difference, that the columns or pilasters, on which it rests, are human figures, so ill carved that it is a hard matter to distinguish whether they are the figures of men or brutes, and yet the natives divide them into soldiers, merchants and hunters of wild beasts: and under a white carpet or sheet are eleven men's heads, cast in copper, but of a very odd sort of work, on each of which heads stands an elephant's toot, which are the king's idols.
Beyond this gallery is another large plain with a fourth gallery at the end of it, and beyond that again, the king's dwelling-house, adorned with a turret and a coppercast snake as on the first wall.
The first room in the king's house at the entrance unto the plain or court is the audience-chamber, where strangers are admitted to his presence, he having then always by him the three greatest officers of his court, of whom more shall be said hereafter. There that prince commonly sits on an ivory couch under a silk canopy etc., and on his left hand, against a fine tapistry, are seven white scoured elephant's teeth, on pedestals of ivory, which is the way they have there to place all the king's gods or idols in the palace.
The king has pretty large stables there for his horses, which are small, and not very handsome, the land affording no better, but he has a great number of them.
the inhabitants of this large town must be all natives of the country, for no foreigners are allow'd to settle there.
The Benin Blacks not being very laborious, and many of those that are wealthy living near the court, there are in abundance of families of that sort of gentry in Oedo, attending continually in the palace without any profession, leaving all their concerns, either in trade or husbandry, to their wives and slaves, who are continually at all the fairs and markets in the country round about, to carry on their husbands and masters business, or else serve there for wages, the best part whereof they must very carefully pay to their husbands or masters: which makes the women there as much slaves as they are in any other part of the kingdom of Benin, for, besides their talk of driving their husbands to traffick, and tilling their ground, they must also look after their house-keeping and children, and dress provisions every day for their family. but the female sex is there in a most peculiar way to brisk, jolly and withal so laborious, that they dispatch it all very well, and with a seeming pleasure and satisfaction.
The inhabitants of this great city are for the generality very civil and good-natured people, easy to be dealt with, condescending to what Europeans require of them in a civil way, and very ready to return double the presents we make them; nay, their generous temper goes so far, that they seldom will deny us any thing we ask of them, tho' they have occasion for it themselves: whereas, on the contrary, if treated with haughtiness and rudely, they are as stiff and high, and will not yield upon any account.
They are very nice and exact in all their behaviour and deportment, according to their ancient customs, and will not suffer them to be abolish'd; and to comply with them in this particular is a sure way to gain their friendship, and be used by them with all possible civility, being so liberal as to give Europeans prodigious quantities of refreshments, and more than we really want; nay, some give beyond their ability, to gain a good reputation among us. They are no less studious to be generous in their mutual presents to one another.
They are very tedious in their dealings, insomuch that sometimes it is the work of eight or ten days to bring them to strike a bargain for a parcel of elephant's teeth, but because they behave themselves very civilly all that while, it is almost impossible to be angry at them.
This mention of their way of trading with Europeans induces me to refer many other observations concerning them to another place, and to pursue the discourse of trade, which is the chief subject of this description of Guinea.THE TRADE OF BENIN
there are four principal places where the Europeans trade, and to which, for that reason, the neighbouring inhabitants resort as soon as any of our vessels come to an anchor, viz. Boededoe, Arebo or Arbon, Agatton or Gotton, and Meiborg.
Boededoe is a village of about fifty houses or cottages, built only with rushes and leaves, governed by a magistrate, there called Veador, a Portuguese word, signifying an overseer, with some other of the king's officers, who in his name extend their jurisdiction over the whole country round about in civil affairs, and receiving the king's duties and taxes, for as to criminal cases of great moment they send to court and wait for instructions and authority to decide them.
Arebo, or Arbon, is farther up the river of Benin and a fine lone town, pretty well built and inhabited, the houses much larger than at Boededoe, tho' contriv'd after the same manner. The town is governed by a viceroy, who commands over all the adjacent country, assisted by seven other great officers, as at Boededoe, who are called Veadors or overseers. The English and Dutch have both lodges or factories there, and each of them a factor of the nation, call'd Mercador or Veador, that is, merchant or overseer, in Portuguese, being a sort of brokers.
Gotton or Agatton is a very large town, of which, as well as of Arebo, I have already spoken in another place. It stands on a small hill over the river, just joining to the continent, and is a very large place, much more pleasant and healthful than the others, the country all about it being full of all sorts of fruit-trees and well furnished with several little villages, whose inhabitants go thither to the markets, which are held at Gotton, for five days successively. This town, as I have said, is a day's journey from Great Benin, or Oedo, the metropolis, and governed by five Veadors or overseers.
There is also a village called Meiborg, probably from a Dutch man, who has resided there as factor for his company, and is a pretty considerable factory.
At all these places the merchants and brokers, called, as I have observed, Mercadors and Veadors, are appointed by the government of Benin to deal with the Europeans that resort thither to traffick, by reason they can speak a sort of broken Lingua-Franca and are the very scum of the people of the country, and yet, before we can come to the business of trade we must go thro' many formalities, and no vessel is allowed to go so far up the river as Agatton without a special order form the king of Benin, which he usually grants as soon as the European factor or supercargo has sent notice to court of his arrival in the river below. And then the king orders two of his own Veadors, with twenty or more of these brokers, whom they also call Velhos or old men, who go down all together to Agatton, having the privilege to take every where on the road what carriages, horses, slaves etc. they think convenient for performing their journey, and no subject dares refute them, or if he should, would be severely punished for it.
Those men being come to Agatton or any of the other trading places before mentioned, they pitch on the most proper houses there for themselves and attendants to lodge in, and the house-keepers must maintain and subsist them all the time they stay there, and if any should repine at it, they will certainly be punished for it, and the Veadors may turn them out of their own houses.
The Veadors thus settled at the aforesaid trading towns, first give a welcome visit to the Europeans newly arrived, being commonly dressed to the greatest advantage, according to the country fashion, and compliment them in the name of the king, the queen and the great Veador, kneeling down, and at the same time tender their presents, which are commonly things of small value: the rest of that day is spent in feasting and dancing.
At another visit they examine all the European goods in the factory or lodge, if they are already brought ashore, and agree for the king's customs and their own fees as brokers, the latter whereof are very inconsiderable. And the whole charges put together for every ship that comes to trade there, that is, for the king's customs, the great lords, the governors of towns and places of trade and these Mercadors and Veadors fees, or any other petty charges and duties accruing hereby to any other persons whatever, seldom exceeds six pounds sterling or twenty five crowns.
Next they fix and adjust the price of European goods, which is commonly the same that was set on the last European vessel that was there. But if there be any new sorts of goods, they will spend a whole month in considering and debating on the price of them, and behave themselves during all that time to excuse their slowness, as I have hinted before, so that no man can well fall out with them on that account, they being extraordinary civil and courteous.
When that is done, the commerce is open and free for the Europeans: but it often happens, and is a very great hardship on us, that we are obliged to trust those men with goods till they make cloths for payment, for which we must stay a long time, and sometimes so long that the season being almost spend, provisions consumed and the crew either half dead or very sickly, we are obliged to depart without the payment for the goods so advanced upon credit: but if we return, they never fail to pay the whole with abundance of civility. For those people, above all other Guineans, are very honest and just in their dealings, and have such an aversion for theft and robbery, that by the law of the country, the least act of that sort, tho' a trifle, especially if stolen from us Europeans, is punished with death.
None but the Veadors or brokers can deal with us, and even the greatest person of the nation dare not enter the European factories or lodges, under severe fines: as in like manner the Viadors and brokers are forbid under heavy mulcts, or bodily punishment, to intermeddle in any manner of affairs relating to war.
Here follows an exact catalogue of European goods, commonly imported by way of trade to Benin, and of the goods we export from thence in exchange.GOODS IMPORTED AND EXPORTED
To begin with the latter: Cotton cloths, like those of Rio Lagos, before mentioned, women slaves, for men slaves (tho' they be all foreigners, for none of the natives can be sold as such) are not allowed to be exported, but must stay there. Jasper-stones, a few tyger's or leopard's-skins, Accory, or blue coral, as at Ardra, elephant's-teeth, some piemento, or pepper. The blue coral grows in branchy bushes, like the red coral, at the bottom of the river and lakes in Benin, which the natives have a peculiar art to grind or work into beads like olives, and is a very profitable merchandize at the Gold-Coast, as has been observed.
The Benin cloths are of four bands, striped blue and white, an ell and a half long, only proper for the trade at Sabou river and at Angola, and called by the Blacks Mouponoqua, and the blue narrow cloths Ambasis, the latter much inferior to the former every way, and both sorts made in the inland country.
The European goods are these: cloth of gold and silver, scarlet and red cloth, all sorts of calicoes and fine linen, Haerlem stuffs, with large flowers and well starch'd, iron-bars, strong spirits, rum and brandy, beads or bugles of several colours, red velvet, a good quantity of Boejies or Cawris, as much as for the Ardra trade, being the money of the natives as well as there, false pearls, Dutch cans, with red streaks at one end, bright brass large rings, from five to five ounces and a half weight each, ear-rings of red glass or crystal, gilt looking-glasses, crystal etc.MARKETS
Besides the above-mentioned trading places, which are properly for dealing with Europeans, the king of Benin has appointed publick markets in many provinces of his kingdom for the subjects to trade together, every three days in the week: they have one at Gotton, to which they bring from Oedo, Arebo and other circumjacent countries, abundance of Benin cloths, Accory and several sorts of eatables and provisions, living dogs, roasted apes, monkies and rats; parrots, chickens, yams, malaguetta in stalks, dried lizzards, palm-oil, wood for fewel, calabashes, wooden bowls, troughs and platters; abundance of cotton-yarn, all sorts of fishing-tackle and instruments for husbandry, as also carpenters tools, with all other sorts of weapons, as cutlaces, javelins, bucklers and women-slaves, with all the various species of European goods, usually imported into this country, bought of the Whites at Arebo by the Veadors and brokers, and Koffo cloths, which are commonly exchanged for Benin cloths by the natives. Koffo is a village a day's journey east of Oedo, or Benin, not at all frequented by Europeans.
They have also at certain times of the year publick markets or fairs appointed and kept in large open plains betwixt Oedo and Agatton, near the high-way, to which a great number of people resort from all the neighbouring places to buy and sell goods: and as it is a custom there for the king to send his proper officers to the said markets to keep the peace and good order amongst the people that come to it, appointing every merchant a proper place according to the nature of the goods he deals in etc., for that reason, during the market-time, the ordinary justices of the place have no manner of authority, but it is vested for that time only in the court-officers.
The Benin Blacks, as I have hinted before, are seemingly very courteous and civil, and on all occasions very ready to serve one another in point of trade, yet they very mistrustful and careful not to discover their affairs, fearing if known to be wealthy and rich some criminal imputation would be laid on them by unjust informers of the high rank, in order to fleece them. Some men in authority here, as well as in other countries, make no scruple to oppress their poor fellow-subjects under one pretence or other, though never so unjustly, provided they can fill their pockets. And therefore, abundance of the natives of Benin pretend to be poorer than they really are, the better to escape the rapacious hands of their superiors, and thence chiefly that is, that they profess so much civility and regard to each other, to gain their mutual good-will and avoid being inform'd against.
Europeans are so much honoured and respected at Benin, that the natives give them the emphatick name or title of Owiorisa, in their dialect, which signifies children of God: and in discoursing with us in person, they often tell us in broken Portuguese, Vos sa Dios, or, you are Gods. It is a great misfortune that the malignity of the air is there so fatal to Europeans, as has been observ'd, for there is no nation throughout all Guinea so genteel, courteous and easy to be dealt with in point of traffick, excepting their tiresome irresolutions and that they seldom allow us the liberty of travelling to their chief towns without some guards, under the pretence of civility, but in reality, as if they suspected strangers would spy the country and betray them, especially at Oedo, their metropolis. which however the Dutch nation obtain easily enough, as being their old constant traders and most familiars, and are in great favour at court as well as among the common people, but the Portuguese they don't like so well.
I have already said something of the employments of persons of rank and dignity, and that there are also several rich men attending continually on the court; I must add that the ordinary citizens spend whole days in expectation of European vessels coming into the river, and repair to the place they usually ride at, with what goods they have. If no ships come in some while, they send their slaves to Rio Lagos or other places to buy fish, of which they make a very profitable trade in the inland countries: and the handicrafts keep to their work in the towns etc.
- Habit of Benin
- Marriages and polygamy
- InheritanceHABIT OF BENIN
The men in Benin are generally handsomer than the women, and both sexes dress'd at least as richly as the Ardrasians. Their habit is neat and ornamental, almost to magnificence, especially among the richest sort of people, who wear first a white calico or cotton cloth about a yard long and half as broad, which is in the form of drawers, and over it a finer white cotton, commonly about eighteen or twenty yards long, plaited very ingeniously in the middle, and upon that again a scarf about a yard long and two spans broad, the end of it adorned with fringe or lace, much like the women at the Gold-coast: the upper part of their body is usually naked. In this habit they appear commonly abroad, but at home they wear only a coarse cloth about their waist and no drawers, cover'd with a great painted cloth of their manufacture, instead of a cloak. The dress of the meaner people is much the same, a coarse cloth, and one painted not by an express regulation of the government, for every one there that gets gold may wear it, that is, dress himself as rich as he is able. they don't curl their hair, but let it grow as long as it will, and buckle it in two or three places, to hand a large Accory coral in it.
Women of the highest rank wear fine cloths of their country make, ingeniously chequer'd of several colours, but not very long and buckled together, as is used at Fida, with this difference that here the cloth is left open behind on one side, and close before: for at Fida it is open before. The upper part of the body is covered with a beautiful cloth a yard long or more, instead of a veil, like that which the Gold-Coast women wear.
they adorn their necks with necklaces of coral agreeably disposed, and their arms are drest up with bright copper or iron-rings, called by the Portuguese name Manillas, as are also the legs of some of them, and their fingers as thick crouded with copper-rings, as they can possibly set them on. IN this habit they look pretty tolerable. They turn up their hair very ingeniously into great and small buckles, and divide it on the crown of the head like a coronet, or rather a cock's-comb inverted, by which means the small curls are placed in regular order: and some have their hair divided into twenty or more plats and curls, according as it is thick or thin. Others anoint it with oil extracted from kernels of palm-nuts, by roasting them on the coals, which makes it lose its natural black, and growing old, turns to a sort of yellow or pale green. some again paint one half of their hair red and the other black.
The meaner sort of women differ from the richer only in the goodness of their clothes: some wear a sort of blue calico-frock or jacket, which hangs down almost to their knees, with a small narrow cloth over their breasts, and load their legs and arms with bright copper-rings. Their hairs and heads dress'd like the others.
The boys and girls go naked, the former till ten or eleven years of age, and the latter till nature discovers its maturity, and are both only adorned with some strings of Accory, twisted about their middle. when come to those years, they are permitted to cover themselves with some clothes, with which they are highly pleased, because they are then exposed to publick view, being seated on a fine mat or white sheet, and visited by abundance of people, who come to congratulate and with them joy.
A great number of young men and women above twenty years old go all about the towns stark-naked, with only a red coral or jasper collar-ring at their neck, being such as have not yet obtained leave of the king to habit themselves, and expect an opportunity of getting either a wife or husband, which then certainly qualifies them for being clothed like the other people, and to let their hair grow as long as it can, for there abundance of people wear their hair as long as either sex does in Europe. And it is customary, if a man marries a young woman and is not able to buy her clothes, for her to continue to go naked as she did before, and he is not allowed to lie with her till he can get clothes for her, which is almost infamous among them.
Here is also another law, that no person whatever may enter the king's apartment in his clothes, without a special licence to do so. Otherwise he must strip himself stark-naked, thereby to approve the more that he is the king's slave, a qualification which every individual subject, of whatever dignity so ever, boasts of: tho' they are all, as I have hinted before, free men, and there are not other real male-slaves in Benin than that are brought from foreign nations.MARRIAGES AND POLYGAMY
Every man may marry as many women as he can maintain, and they observe few ceremonies in their marriages, which are generally thus. The man having made his addresses t the parents of the young woman, who seldom deny the demand, on the day appointed, the bridegroom dresses his bride as richly as his circumstances will allow him, with a whole suit of clothes, necklaces and bracelets, and then treats the relations on both sides, not altogether at his own house or elsewhere, but sends each of them to their own habitation part of the victuals and drink that he has provided for that solemnity: this done, the marriage is concluded. The difference betwixt the wedding of great and mean persons is only that the former treat more splendidly than the latter.
Women are commonly married at twelve, thirteen or fourteen years of age, and as son as provided with a husband, the parents think no more of them than if they were out of the world.
Those whose husbands happen to die without leaving issue by them belong to the king, who disposes of them as he thinks fit, and such as become widows before the consummation of matrimony fall to the king's son, who, like his father, can marry them again as he pleases, and if they are very handsome, will marry them himself. Some other such widows are also allowed by the prince to prostitute themselves as publick whores, paying a certain tribute to the king in Boejies, the money of the country: and if they chance in the prosecution of their trade to get a boy, they are, ipso facto, exempted for ever from the tribute and allowed to follow on their calling undisturbed as long as they please: but if, instead of a boy, the harlot has a girl, the tax continues and the girl is maintained at the king's charge, who is afterwards to provide a husband for her, when come to a proper age.
Those publick prostitutes are also by law subordinate to some aged matrons, who share in their profits, and into whose hands they are to pay the tax laid on them, for them to repay it into the great treasurer's hands, for the use of the king.
It is hard to conceive how lascivious and wantonly those common harlots behave themselves to promote their trade, and not only they, but generally speaking, the other women are extremely loose in their behaviour, tho' they are not very ready to give themselves over to Europeans, fearing the punishment the laws of the country inflict on adulterous women: but the Blacks there are not so concerned at our conversing with their wives, as they are jealous of them with their own countrymen. They have so good an opinion of the Whites, that when we give them a visit, if some unavoidable business calls them away, they not only freely leave us alone with their wives but charge them to divert us well, whereas no Black is allowed to come near their apartment, a custom very rigidly observed throughout all the country: for when a man there is visited by another, his wives immediately retire to another part of the house, so as they may not be seen, but if the visitant be an European, they stay in the room, knowing it is the husband's will, and contrive all the ways they can to please, all their happiness depending on them, because the men are absolute masters of their wives.
If a woman is left a widow, and has some male-issue by her deceased husband, she can never marry again without the consent of their son: or if he be too young, and not come to years of discretion, the man who offers to marry her is obliged to present the boy with a woman-slave to wait on him, which, afterwards, may also be his concubine. In case the widow bride should commit any fault that is punishable either by divorce or slavery, the husband cannot dispose of her according to the arbitrary prerogative of husbands over their wives, without the king's consent first had, and next her son's, and if we may credit what the Blacks say of the authority such a son there has over his widow mother, he can even make her a slave.
No Black there is to lie with any of his wives that is brought to bed till the child be twelve or fifteen months old, or can walk of itself, but considering the great number of wives they maintain, they may easily comply exactly with this custom.
The Hebrews abstained form their wives not only whilst they were with child and had other indispositions of women, but also all the time they suckled and nursed their children, which commonly lasted three years: and we do not find that the women were excused from nursing their own children, and after being delivered of a male child, they were by the law, Levit. xii, to keep thirty days of purification, and for a girl two weeks more.
Menstruous women are reckoned so unclean that they are not permitted so much as to enter their husbands houses, to touch anything, dress diet, clean the house, which is the talk of all women there, nor even to look into, much less enter other men's houses: but during their uncleanness, must reside in a separate house, and when it is over they wash themselves and are restored to their former employments in their husbands house.
The Israelites, by the Levitical law, were forbid, not only menstruous women, but any thing that such a woman had touched, Levit. xv. 19 to 28, and those women kept retired in a separate room or place for a fortnight. Those people in general are extremely prolifick, the women being very fruitful and the men lusty and vigorous, and each having a great number of wives. They value a fruitful woman very much, and a barren one is as much despised.
The woman that is big with child is not allowed even her own husband's caresses till she is delivered: and when brought to bed of a male child, it is presented to the king, as of right belonging to him, and therefore all the males of the country are called the king's slaves, as has been observed. If she is deliver'd of a girl, it is accounted to belong properly to her father, who keeps and maintains her till she be capable of matrimony, and then marries her when and to whom he thinks proper.
Both sexes are said to be lascivious, and it is ascribed to the pardon-wine they drink and good eating, which together invigorate nature: however, they are seldom or never heard to talk obscenely, as believing things of that nature are design'd for obscure privacy, and very improper to be talked of, or if any do, it is by circumlocutions and most diverting fables and allegories tending that way, and he that can cleanly express himself in that manner passes for a wit. Wherein they are more polite than the people at the Quaqua and Gold Coast, where the Blacks generally direct all their discourses to lewdness, and that in the most broad and obscene words and even gestures; nor are the Benin Blacks so much addicted to drink to excess, as those at the Gold Coast.
If we may credit the natives, their king has above fifteen hundred wives, as by right inheriting all the wives of his predecessor and those of many private persons.
It seems probable, from the words of the prophet Nathan to king David, 2 Sam. xii, 8: And I gave thee they master's house and they master's wives into thy bosom etc., that his custom was established among the eastern kings, after which model it is apparent enough, king Saul, predecessor to David, had form'd his court and family, of all which David had taken possession after his untimely death, and by the toleration of polygamy in those days among the Israelites: however, interpreters exclude the mother of Mical, one of Saul's wives, with whom they suppose David could not co-habit, Mical being his first wife.
Those women with whom the king has co-habited can never marry again after his death, but are then shut up in a kind of seraglio and there kept and waited on by eunuchs: and if any of them should be found to have to do with a man, she suffers death without any remission, as does the adulterer, tho' of never so great quality.
In all parts of Benin, except at Arebon, they honour women who have two children at a birth and look upon it as a good presage, and the king is immediately inform'd of it, who causes publick rejoicings to be made with all sorts of musick, and if the woman so delivered of twins is not capable of suckling both the babes, her husband provides a wet nurse, whose child is dead, for one of them. But at Arebon, by a municipal law, they treat the twin-bearing woman barbarously and kill both the mother and infants immediately as a sacrifice to a certain demon, which they firmly believe to be hovering continually in a wood near Arebon, unless the husband be so fond of her as to buy her off, by sacrificing a woman-slave in her place, and it is but very seldom that any man fails of doing so. But as for the innocent twins, they are to die without redemption, and must be offered up in sacrifice by an irrevocable and savage law: which barbarous custom is very grievous to the tender mothers of such miserable victims.
This savage law is of such force at Arebon that there have been examples of a priest whose wife being so delivered of two children at birth, and she redeemed by the offering of slave, according to custom, the poor priest was obliged with his own hands to sacrifice his own twin-infants, as indispensably bound to it by his priesthood. And thus, as the Psalmist says of pagans, Psal. xvi, 37,38:To fiends their sons and daughters they,
Did offer up and slay:
Yea, with unkindly murthering knife,
The guiltless blood they split,
Yea, their own sons and daughters blood
Without all cause of guilt.
However, this savage custom has in process of time made such impressions on married men that when the time of their wives delivery draws near, they send them to another country, fearing a twin-birth: and perhaps by degrees they may abolish such an inhuman law, founded on this extravagant notion that it is impossible for a man to get a woman with child of two children at a time, and therefore look upon it as a prodigy or monstrous, and that they ought to be made away presently to atone their gods, who otherwise would certainly plague the whole land with some terrible calamities.
The wood near Arebon, where the Blacks fondly believe the demon lies lurking, is so venerable and sacred to the inhabitants of that district, that they never permit any foreign men or women to enter it.
If any native unawares happens on a path which leads to his wood, he is obliged to go to the end of it before he turns back, and they are firmly prepossessed that if the law concerning twin-births be violated in the least particular, the land will certainly be afflicted with some great plague. However, looking upon us White men as a sort of gods, as I have hinted before, they do not think the sacred wood defiled by our entering it as often as we think fit to shoot, or by our turning us back before we have gone half way to the end of the path, which some Europeans have done, designedly, to ridicule their stupid credulity, which doth not a little stagger the faith of some, when they see their boldness attended by no ill events. But the cunning priests immediately satisfy such doubtful persons by telling them that the demon, to whom they sacrifice human blood does not trouble himself with White men, who are gods as well as himself, but if any Black should presume so to do he would soon feel, by some dreadful accident, the indignation of the god inhabiting the sacred grove.
Those people precisely observe the ceremony of circumcising every individual person, either male or female, some at eight, others fourteen days after they are born. The boys, as usual, by taking off the fore-skin, and the girls by a small amputation in the private parts. Besides which, they make small incisions all over the bodies of infants, representing some figures, but more of them are usually made on the girls for the greater ornament, according to their parents fancies: tho' this sort of operation is very painful to the poor tender babes, as mangling their bodies, but being a great fashion, every body will adorn their children after that manner.
When children are seven days old, the parents make a small feast, believing them to be then past danger: and to prevent evil spirits form doing them any mischief, they strew all the ways with eatables, ready dressed, to appease and render them favourable to the babe.
When we ask those Blacks who introduced circumcision and the looking upon menstruous women as unclean, because it savours much of Judaism, they generally answer they do not know, but that those customs have been handed down from their fore-fathers, form generation to generation.
The chief handicrafts there are smiths, carpenters, leather-dressers and weavers, but all their workmanship is so very clumsy, that a boy who has serv'd a few months apprenticeship in Europe would out-do them.
The natives of Benin are generally wealthy, and eat and drink of the best the country affords. The ordinary diet of the rich people is beef, mutton and chickens, with yams for bread, which, after they have boiled, they beat very fine and make cakes of them. they frequently treat one another, and are very ready to give part of what they can spare to the poor. Their drink is water and brandy, when they can get it. The meaner sort feed usually on smoak'd or dried fish. Their bread is yams, as with the former, bananas and beans; their drink is water and pardon-wine, which, as I said before, is none of the best.
The king, great lords and officers in government, who are indifferently rich, subsist many poor at their place of residence on their charity, employing those who are fit for any work, to help them to live, all for God's sake, as they say, and to obtain the character of being charitable, so that there are no beggars, nor many remarkably poor in this nation.
These people are nothing near so concern'd or afraid of death as those of Fida and Ardra, but ascribe the brevity or length of life to God's determination: yet are very ready, on the least indisposition, to seek all proper remedies and means to prolong life as much as they can. Besides, when sick, they immediately send for the priest, who is commonly their physician, as they are on the Gold-Coast. He first administers the usual herbs, and if they prove ineffectual, he has recourse to sacrifices to their idols, and, as is done at the Gold-Coast, if the patient doth not recover, the doctor is dismissed and another called, in hopes that his skill may be greater. If the sick person recovers, that priest and physician is well paid, and much valued and respected. Such a priest will soon grow rich by his physick, which is most of their dependance, for as to offerings and religious services, except in this particular, every man there offers his own sacrifices to his idols, without a priest.
As soon as a person expires, his corps is washed and cleansed, and that of a native of Oedo, the metropolis, who happens to die at a very distant place, is perfectly dried up over a gentle fire and put into a coffin, close glued, and so convey'd to that city to be there interred: and tho' a conveniency to carry it does not offer in several years, they keep the corps in the coffin above ground.
They observe publick mourning for their dead fourteen days: the nearest relations, husband or wives, with their slaves, lamenting and crying about the corps, to the tune of several musical instruments, but with considerable stops and intervals, during which they drink very plentifully.
When a woman dies, her friends commonly take the trunks, kettles, pots and other necessaries she had made use of in her life-time, and carry them on their heads all about the streets of the town, attended by musicians, drummers etc., singing her praises.
If she was a person of distinction, they massacre thirty or forty slaves on the day of her burial; and one who has been known to have had seventy-eight slaves thus sacrificed on her account, which were all her own, and to complete the even number of eighty, as she had ordered before her death, they murdered two young children, a boy and a girl, whom she had loved extremely. Thus few or no persons of note die there, but it costs the lives of many others, who are inhumanly slaughtered to wait on the deceased in the grave: but this horrid tragedy is more cruelly acted at a king's death, as shall be observed hereafter.
They commonly bury the dead in their best apparel, and kill more or less slaves to wait on them, according to their quality. The funeral ceremonies commonly last seven or eight days, with lamentations, songs, dances and hard drinking: and some have taken up a corps again after it was interred in all due formalities, to repeat the ceremonials of mourning and burial, and to slaughter as many more men and beasts on their account, as was done at first. When the funeral is over, every person retires to his own home, and the next relations, which continue in mourning, bewail the dead for several months successively, some with their hair shaved, others their beards or half their heads.
The right of inheritance devolves in the following manner. A husband is the sole heir to his wife, her children being deprived of all she possessed, except what she was pleased to bestow on them during her life-time; but, on the other hand, women cannot inherit their husband's estate, not the very least thing, but all is at the king's disposal, and even the woman herself, as has been already observed.
Among deceased persons of distinction, the eldest son is the sole heir, upon condition he play the king a slave by way of herriot, and another to the great lords, and petitions them ad formam, that he may be allowed to succeed his dead father in the same quality: which the king commonly grants, and so he is declared the lawful heir of all his father's goods and chattels, of which he bestows no more on his younger brothers than what he pleases. If his mother be still alive, he allows her a maintenance suitable to her rank, besides permitting her to keep whatever his father had given her in his life-time. And as to his father's other wives, especially those that never had any child by him, he takes them home to him and uses them as his own; those he does not like so well are also taken home with their children, but set to work, the better to subsist them, and he has no manner of commerce with them, in the nature of married people: and of this last sort of widows there are great numbers.
If the deceased person leaves no issue of his body, his brother inherits all he was possessed of, and when no brother, the next a-kin is his heir: and if no heir at all, then the king is the heir, according to law.
The crown of Benin is likewise hereditary, first to the eldest son of the king, and in default of issue form him, to the king's brother, or his issue male, as I shall shew hereafter: which brings me to speak, in the following chapter, of the government of Benin, of the king's prerogative, administration of justice, and religion of the natives.
- Government of Benin
- The king's prerogative
- His revenue, wars, army
- His appearing abroad
- Audience to Europeans
- Burial of kings
- Enthroning of them
- Punishments for crimes
- Several trials
- Issabo, Jaboe, Oedoba, Biafra and other kingdoms briefly described
The government of Benin is principally vested in the king and three chief ministers, called great Veadors, that is, intendants or overseers: besides, the great marshal of the crown, who is entrusted with the affairs relating to war, as the three others are with the administration of justice and the management of the revenue, and all four are obliged to take their circuits throughout the several provinces, from time to time, to inspect into the condition of the country and the administration of the governors and justices in each district, that peace and good order may be kept as much as possible. Those chief ministers of state have under them each his own particular officers and assistants in the discharge of their posts and places. They call the first of the three aforementioned ministers of state the Onegwa, the second Ossade, and the third Arribon.
They reside constantly at court, as being the king's privy council, to advise him on all emergencies and affairs of the nation, and any person that wants to apply to the prince must address himself first to them, and they acquaint the king with the petitioner's business, and return his answer accordingly: but commonly, as in other countries, they will only inform the king with what they please themselves, and so, in his name, act very arbitrarily over the subjects. Whence it may well be inferred that the government is entirely in their hands, for it is very seldom they will favour a person so far as to admit him to the king's presence, to represent his own affairs to that prince: and every boy knowing their great authority, endeavours on all occasions to gain their favour as much as possible by large gratifications and presents, in order to succeed in their affairs at court, for which reason their offices and posts are of very great profit to them.
Besides these four chief ministers of state, there are two other inferior ranks about the king: the first is composed of those they call Reis de Ruas, signifying in Portuguese, kings of streets, some of whom preside over the commonalty, and others over the slaves, some again over military affairs, others over affairs relating to cattle and the fruits of the earth etc., there being supervisors or intendants over every thing that can be thought of, in order to keep all things in a due regular way.
From among those Reis de Ruas, they commonly chuse the governors of provinces and towns, but every one of them is subordinate to and dependent on the afore-mentioned great Veadors, as being generally put into those employments by their recommendation to the king, who usually presents each of them, when so promoted to the government of provinces, towns or districts, with a string of coral, as an ensign or badge of this office, being there equivalent to an order of knighthood in European courts.
They are obliged to wear that string continually about their necks, without ever daring to put it off on any account whatsoever; and in case the lose it by carelessness or any other accident, or if stolen form them, they forfeit their heads and are accordingly executed without remission. and there have been instances of this nature, five men having been put to death for a string of coral so lost, tho' not intrinsically worth two-pence: the officer, to whom the chain or string belonged,because he had suffered it to be stolen form him, the thief who own'd he had stolen it, and three more who were privy to it and did not timely discover it.
This law is so rigidly observed, that the officers so entrusted with a string of coral by the king, whensoever they happen to lose it, though it be taken from about their necks by main force, immediately say I am a dead man, and therefore regard no perils, though ever so great, if there be hopes of recovering it by force from those who have stolen it. Therefore, I advise all sea-faring Europeans trading to those parts never to meddle with the strings of coral belonging to any such officers, not even in jest, because the Black that permits it is immediately sent for to the king, and by his order close imprisoned and put to death.
The same punishment is inflicted on any person whatsoever that counterfeits those strings of coral, or has nay in his possession without the king's grant.
That we have here called coral is made of a pale red coctile earth or stone, and very well glazed, much resembling red speckled marble, which the king keeps in his own custody, and no body is allowed, as I have said, to wear it, unless honoured by the prince with some post of trust in the nation.
The third rank of publick ministers or officers is that of the Mercadors, or merchants, fulladors or intercessors, the veilhos, or elders, employed by the king in affairs relating to trade: all which are also distinguished form the other subjects, not in office or post, by the same badge of a coral-string at their neck given each of them by the king as a mark of honour.
All the said officers, from the highest to the lowest, being men that love money, are easily bribed: so that a person sentenc'd to death may purchase his life, if he is wealthy in Boejies, the money of this country, and only poor people are made examples of justice, as we see is no less practised in Europe: yet it being the king's intention that justice should be distributed, without exception of persons, and malefactors rigidly punished according to the laws of the realm, the officers take all possible care to conceal form him that they have been bribed, for preventing the execution of any person condemn'd.
THE KING'S PREROGATIVE
The king of benin is absolute, his will being a law and a bridle to his subjects, which none of them dare oppose; and, as I have hinted before, the greatest men of the nation, as well as the inferior sort, esteem it an honour to be called the king's slave, which title no person dares assume without the king's particular grant; and that he never allows but to those who, as soon as born, are by their parents presented to him: for which reason some geographers have thought that the king of Benin was religiously adored by all his subjects as a deity. But that is a mistake, for the qualification of the king's slaves is but a bare compliment to majesty, since none of the natives of Benin can by the law of the land be made slaves on any account, as has been observed before.
The present king is a young man, of affable behaviour. His mother is still living, to whom he pays very great respect and reverence, and all the people after his example honour her. She lives apart form her son in her own palace out of the city Oedo, where she keeps her court, waited on and served by her proper officers, women and maids. The king, her son, uses to take her advice on many important affairs of state by the ministry of his statesmen and counsellors: for the king there is not to see his own mother without danger of an insurrection of the people against him, according to their constitutions. The palace of that dowager is very large and spacious, built much after the manner and of the same materials as the king's and those of other great persons.
The king's household is compos'd of a great number of officers of sundry sorts, and slaves of both sexes, whose business is to furnish all the several apartments with all manner of necessaries for life and conveniency, as well as the country affords. The men officers, being to take care of all that concerns the king's tables and stables, and the women for that which regards his wives and concubines: which all together makes the concourse of people so great at court, with the strangers resorting continually to it every day about business, that there is always a vast croud running to and fro, from one quarter to another. It appears by ancient history that it was the custom of the eastern nations to have only women to serve them within doors, as officers in the king's houses. David being forced to fly before Absolom his son and to leave Jerusalem his capital, to shelter himself in some of his strong cities beyond Jordan, left ten of his concubines for the guard of his palace.
The king being very charitable, as well as his subjects, has peculiar officers about him whose chief employment is, on certain days, to carry a great quantity of provisions, ready dressed, which the king sends into the town for the use of the poor. those men make a sort of procession, marching two and two with those provisions in great order, preceded by the head officer, with a long white staff in his hand, like the prime court-officers in England, and everybody is obliged to make way for him, tho' of never so great quality.
Besides this good quality of being charitable, the king might be reckoned just and equitable, as desiring continually his officers to administer justice exactly and to discharge their duties conscientiously: besides that, he is a great lover of Europeans, whom he will have to be well treated and honoured, more especially the Dutch nation, as I have before observed. But his extortions from such of his subjects as are wealthy, on one unjust pretence or other, which has so much impoverished many of them, will not allow him to be look'd upon as very just.
He seldom passes one day without holding a cabinet council with his chief ministers, for dispatching of the many affairs brought before him, with all possible expedition, besides the appeals from inferior courts of judicature in all the parts of the kingdom and audiences to strangers, or concerning the affairs of war, or other emergencies of state.
The king's income is very great, his dominions being so large, and having such a number of governors and other inferior officers, each of whom is obliged, according to his post, to pay into the king's treasury so many bags of Boejies, some more, some less, which all together amount to a prodigious sum; and other officers of inferior rank are to pay in their taxes in cattle, chicken, fruits, roots and cloths or any other things that can be useful to the king's houshold: which is so great a quantity that it doth not cost the king a penny throughout the year to maintain and subsist his family, so that there is yearly a considerable increase of money in his treasury. Add to all this the duties and tolls on imported or exported goods, paid in all trading places to the respective Veadors and other officers, which are also partly conveyed to the treasury; and were the collectors thereof just and honest, so as not to defraud the prince of a considerable part, there would amount to an incredible sum.
This prince is perpetually at war with one nation or other that borders on the northern part of his dominions, and sometimes with another north-west of his kingdom, which are all potent people, but little or not at all know to Europeans, over whom he obtains from time to time considerable advantages, subduing large portions of those unknown countries and raising great contributions which are partly paid him in jasper and other valuable goods of the product of those countries. Wherewith, together with his own plentiful revenue, he is able upon occasion to maintain an army of an hundred thousand horse and foot; but, for the most part, he doth not keep above thirty thousand men, which renders him more formidable to his neighbours than any other Guinea king: nor is there any other throughout all Guinea that has so many vassals and tributary kings under him, as for instance those of Istanna, Forcado, Jaboe, Issabo and Oedoba, from whom he receives considerable yearly tributes, except from him of Issabo, who tho' much more potent than all the others, yet pays the least.
To speak now something of the soldiery in the kings pay. They generally wear no other clothes but a narrow silk clout about their middle, all the other parts of their body being naked, and are armed with pikes, javelins, bows and poisoned arrows, cutlaces and bucklers of shields, but so slight and made of small Bamboes, that they cannot ward off any thing that is forcible, and so are rather for show than for defence. some, besides all these weapons, have also a kind of hooked bill, much of the form of those we use in Europe, for cutting of small wood, whereof bavins and faggots are made, and some others have small poniards.
These soldiers are commonly distributed into companies and bands, each band commanded by its respective officer, with others of lower rank under him: but what is pretty singular there, those officers do not post themselves in the front of their troops, but in the very centre, and generally wear a cymiter hanging at their side, by a leather girdle fastened under their arm-pits, instead of a belt, and march with a grave resolute mien, which has something of stateliness.
The king's armies are composed of a certain number of those bands, which is greater or smaller according to circumstances, and they always march like the ancient Salij, dancing and skipping into measure and merrily, and yet keep their ranks, being in this particular better disciplined than any other Guinea nation; however, they are no braver than the Fida and Ardra men, their neighbours westward, so that nothing but absolute necessity can oblige them to fight: and even then they had rather suffer the greatest losses than defend themselves. When their flight is prevented, they return to the enemy, but with so little courage and order, that they soon fling down their arms, either to run the lighter or to surrender themselves prisoners of war. In short, they have so little conduct, that many of them are ashamed of it; their officers being no braver than the soldiers, every man takes his own course without any regard to the rest.
The great officers appear very richly habited in the field, every one rather endeavouring to outdo another in that particular than to surpass him in valour and conduct. Their common garment is a short jacket or frock of scarlet cloth over their fine clothes, and some hang over that an ivory quiver, lined with a tyger's-skin or a civet-cat's, and a long wide cap on their heads like the dragoons caps in France, with a horse-tail pretty long hanging at the tip of it. Thus equip'd, they mount their horses, to hose necks they commonly tie a tinkling bell, which rings as the horse moves. Thus they ride with an air of fierceness, attended by a slave on foot on each side, and followed by many others, one carrying the large Bamboe shield, another leading the horse, and others playing on their usual musical instruments, that is, drums, horns, flutes, an iron hollow pipe on which they beat with a wooden stick, and another instrument, the most esteemed among them, being a sort of large dry bladder, well swelled with air, cover'd with a net, fill'd with peas and brass bells, and hung or died at the end of a wooden handle to hold it by.
when returned home form a warlike expedition, every man delivers back to the king's stores the quivers and arrows he has left. That store-house or arsenal is divided into many chambers, and immediately the priests are set to work to poison new arrows, that there may be always a sufficient stock for the next occasion.
Having observed what little courage there is in this nation, we shall not have much to say of their wars, nor is it easy to account for their becoming so formidable among their neighbours to the north and north-west, but by concluding those nations to be as bad soldiers as themselves, and not so populous, for there are other nations south and east of them who value not their power, amongst whom are the pirates of Usa, who give them no little disturbance, as has been hinted before.
THE KING APPEARING ABROAD
the king of benin, at a certain time of the year, rides our to be seen by his people. That day he rides one of his best horses, which, ass has been observed, are but ordinary at best, richly equipped and habited, followed by three or four hundred of his principal ministers and officers of state, some on horseback and some on foot, armed with their shields and javelins, preceded and followed by a great number of musicians, playing on all sorts of their instruments, sounding at the same time something rude and pleasant. at the head of this royal procession are led some tame leopards or tygers in chains, attended by some dwarfs and mutes.
this procession commonly ends with the death of ten or twelve slaves, sacrificed in honour of the king and paid by the people, who very grossly imagine those wretched victims will in a little time after return to life again in remote fertile countries and there live happily.
There is another royal feast at a fixed time of the year, call'd the coral-feast, during which the king causes his treasure to be exposed to publick view in the palace, to show his grandeur.
On that day the king appears in publick again, magnificently dressed, in the second court or plain of his palace, where he sis under avery fine canopy, encompassed by all his wives and a vast croud of his principal ministers and officers of state, all in their richest apparel, who range themselves about him and soon after begin a procession, at which time the king rising from his place, goes to offer sacrifices to his idols in the open air, and there begins the feast, which is attended with the universal loud acclamations of his subjects. Having spent about a quarter of an hour in that ceremony, he returns to his former place under the canopy, where he stays two hours, to give the people time to perform their devotions to their idols; which done, he goes home in the same manner he came thither, and the remaining part of that day is spent in splendid treating and feasting, the king causing all sorts of provisions and pardon-wine to be distributed among the people, which is also done by every great lord, in imitation of the prince. so that nothing is seen throughout the whole city but all possible marks of rejoicings and mirth.
The king on that day also uses to distribute men and women slaves among such persons as have done the nation some service, and to confer greater offices on them; but for his jasper-stone and corals, which, with the Boejies, make the greatest part of his treasure, he keeps them to himself.
AUDIENCE TO EUROPEANS
At the audiences the king gives to some european factors, or commanders of ships, who are seldom denied that favour when the ask it, he sits in the room appointed for that purpose before a fine tapestry, having on his left hand seven very clean bright elephant's teeth on pedestals of ivory, as his idols, plac'd against the tapestry. The person is, according to custom, to stand about twenty five or thirty paces from that prince at his first coming in. If the king has a particular kindness for the nation such person belongs to, he perhaps will allow him to come within ten paces of him, and whatever the European has to propose must be first told to the three chief ministers of state before mentioned, who constantly wait and are present at those audiences. They report it to him and bring an answer, going thus continually to and from him: but no body being permitted, besides them, to approach the prince, we do not know whether they deliver the proposals or petitions of foreigners fairly, nor whether they return his true answer. Next, the European's presents, consisting of some silk garment or night-gown, are presented to him, covered with mats, according to their custom; and behind and before the presents several men march with white staves, denoting their office, in their hands, to make way for them; and if any person should not stand out of their way when ordered, he would be very well beaten, which they say is practised to prevent poisoning of the king's idols or murdering him.
The presents are never showed to the king till after the foreigner is withdrawn, so that we do not know whether he liked them or not but by the report of the great officers.
BURIAL OF KINGS
They say that as soon as a king of Benin expires, the custom is to dig a very large pit in the ground at the palace, and so deep that sometimes the workmen are in danger of being drowned by the great quantity of water. this pit is wide at the bottom and very narrow above. They let down the royal corps and then his most beloved domesticks of both sexes earnestly beg to be allowed the favour of going into it to wait and attend on their master in the other life; but this honour is granted only to the best qualified among them, and those the deceased king seemed to be most fond of, which often occasions great murmurings and dissensions among them. The persons allowed the preference of accompanying their royal master in his grave, being let down into the pit, they shut up the mouth with a large stone in the presence of a multitude of people waiting there day and night. The next morning they remove the stone and some proper officers ask those persons who were put in the day before whether they have found the king. If they answer, the pit is again shut up and open'd anew the day following, to put the same question, which is answered by such as are still living in the pit, who also name such of their companions as are already dead. In short, this strange fanatical ceremony lasts sometimes five or six days, and every day they put the same question to the men let down into the pit, till they being all dead with hunger and cold, no answer is returned. when that is made publick, the people spend all their rhetorick in the praises and encomiums of those persons who have been so happily distinguished from all others as to wait for ever on the deceased prince. This inhuman practice of depositing living persons in the graves or sepulchres of the deceased was formerly in use at St. Domingo, near Jamaica, where, when any of their Caciques, that is, chiefs or governors died, they put down into his grave several living women to serve and wait on him in the other world. Alexander ab Alexandro reports that before the laws of the twelve tables were brought to Rome, the Romans buried their dead in their houses, in large casks and other vessels, which gave birth to the gods Lares.
After this, the chief ministers take care to inform the person who is by right to succeed in the royal dignity, who immediately repairs to the burial-place of the late king, and causing the pit to be well shut up with the stone, orders abundance of all sorts of meat to be roasted on it, to feast all the people and to express his satisfaction for their readiness to receive him to sit on the throne of the deceased.
The people having thus eaten and drank plentifully, run all about the city in the night-time, committing abundance of outrages, and even killing some persons they meet with, chopping off their heads and bringing their corps to the late king's burial-place for a present to him, to be thrown into the pit, with the garments, houshold goods and Boejies of the persons so kill'd.
ENTHRONING OF A KING
The usual manner of enthroning a new king is as follows.
When the reigning king finds himself dying, he sends for the Onegwa, one of his chief ministers, whom he commands, upon pain of death, to keep his last will and testament secret till after his decease, the purport of it being to acquaint him which of his sons he will have to succeed him in the government. When the king expires, that minister immediately takes into his custody all his treasure and effects, and receives the homage of all his sons, they being on their knees, each of them studying how to honour him, being uncertain which of them he is order'd by their deceased father to set on the throne; but it is commonly the method of that minister so to behave himself with them all during the interregnum as to show no more favour and regard to the one than to the other.
The time approaching to proclaim the new king, the Onegwa sends for the great marshal of the crown, who, as soon as he comes into his presence, asks what he desires of him, and being told by the Onegwa what the late king commanded him to observe concerning his successor, the great marshal causes the Onegwa to repeat the same five or six times, after which he returns home and there confines himself, without declaring to any person, what the Onegwa has revealed to him of the late king's intentions.
During that time the Onegwa sends for the late king's son, who was proposed by him to succeed in the throne, orders him immediately to wait on the great marshal at his house, and desire he would be pleased to give a king to the state, after which the prince returns to the palace as the great marshal orders. Five or six days after, the marshal comes to the palace to confer farther with the Onegwa about proclaiming the new king, and after having caused him again to repeat which of the late king's sons is appointed by him to be inaugurated, at last, asking him if he does not mistake the name of that son, and the other persisting in his saying, they both send for the young prince, whom they bid to kneel down, and in that posture declare to him the will of his father. The young prince returning thanks to them for their fidelity in the discharge of their trust, rises up and immediately is dressed in the proper habit for the ceremony of his inauguration, proclaimed king of Benin accordingly, and invested with all the prerogatives of royal authority: after which all the ministers of state and persons of quality come and pay their homages, and after them all the people, every one wishing him a prosperous reign.
When thus inaugurated, the new king usually retires to the village Ooseboe, not far from Oedo, the metropolis, there to keep his court till he be of age to govern, the queen-mother, the Onegwa and great marshal being regents in Oedo till that time.
The new king being at age, the great marshal fetches him from Ooseboe; he takes possession of the government, settles his residence in the palace, and after the manner of the Ottomans, causes all his brothers and such other persons as are suspicious to him to be put to death: or if any escapes it at that time by absconding or otherwise, he will sooner or later be sacrificed to the jealousy of the new king: and the very children of those unfortunate persons are used as their fathers, but all of them buried with great pomp. The manner of sacrificing such state victims is to fill their mouth and ears with rags and suffocate them, because the law forbids spilling the royal blood.
The kings of Benin celebrate anniversaries in honour of their predecessors, and then commonly sacrifice a great number of beasts and men to them, but those men are commonly malefactors sentenced to death and kept for those solemnities. When it happens that there are not five and twenty of them, which is the fix'd number ordained to be slaughter'd on such an occasion, the king orders his officers to go in the night-time about the streets of Oedo, to seize on all such persons indifferently, as they chance to meet carrying no light, and to secure them.
if the persons so seized are rich in Boejies, they are commonly allowed to redeem their lives, but if they are too poor, they are made a sacrifice on the day of the solemnity. The slaves of considerable men and officers, thus seized, may also be redeem'd by their masters putting other slaves of less value in their place.
This strange way of seizing on men indifferently in the night-time, turns to a considerable advantage to the priests, it being their proper province to redeem from death the persons thus taken, and they make the people believe that those who are so redeem'd have been sacrificed privately.
Their musical instruments chiefly consist in large and small drums, not very different form those made use of at the Gold-Coast, being shaped like them, and cover'd with skins of beasts, and beaten in the same manner. They have besides, a sort of iron bells, on which they play: as also calabashes hung round with Boejies, which serve them instead of castagnets, all which together afford a disagreeable and jarring sound.
They have another instrument, which, by its form, may be called a sort of harp, being strung with six or seven reeds, on which they play very artfully, sing finely and dance to justly to the tune, that it is agreeably diverting to see it, and really the Benin Blacks are the best dancers of all the Guineans, or if any of those can be accounted to come somewhat near them in point of dancing, it must be the people of Axim, when they celebrate the annual feast of driving out the devil, but still they are much short of the natives of Benin.
Here few or none are addicted to gaming, for they know no other games than those play'd with beans, only for diversion and pastime, but never for money.
As for adultery, if a man and a woman of any quality be surpriz'd in the act, they kill both on the very spot; their dead bodies are thrown on the dunghil and left there for prey to wild beasts.
Sometimes the woman's relations, to prevent the dishonour of their family, prevail with the injur'd husband by means of a large sum of Boejies, to keep her still as his wife, and then she passes for a virtuous woman as before the crime committed, both with her husband and amongst all her neighbours.
Among the commonalty, if a man is suspicious of the levity of any of his wives, he seeks all opportunities to surprize her in the fact; and if he succeeds, by the laws of the country, he is entitled to all the goods and effects of the gallant, which he seizes immediately and uses as his own. The adulterous wife is either stoutly beaten or turned out of his house, destitute of all things to maintain her; and seldom or never any man offers to marry women so divorced: but they commonly retire to another place, remote from their husbands, and there pass for widows, and thus may chance to get husbands again; or if they miss of their aim that way, they commonly set up for publick harlots, to get a livelihood.
The severity of the law in Benin against adultery, among all the orders of people, deters them from venturing, so that it is but very seldom any persons are punished for that crime.
the most usual way of executing persons judicially sentenced to death for some capital crime, as murder etc., is to bind the criminal's hands to his back, to cover his eyes with a piece of stuff or linen, and so put him into the hands of the publick executioner, who causes him to lift up his arms as high and to stoop down his head as low as he can possible; and thus chops off his head very dexterously: which done, he quarters the body and throws it on the dunghil, exposed to the ravenous beasts, and especially to a sort of large birds of prey which love carrion and are so much regarded by the natives of Benin that they not only carefully avoid hurting them,but on the contrary, constantly lay down provisions for them in places appointed for that purpose.
If the king's son murders a man wilfully, they lead him under a strong guard to the frontiers, and there put the sentence in execution in the same manner as above recited; for there being no more heard of him, it is more probable that they put him to death, than to think, as the commonalty of the Blacks do, that he is convey'd into foreign countries in perpetual exile.
If a man accidentally kills another, so as the dead has not bled, the offender may redeem himself form the punishment of the law by being at all the expences of the burial of the murder'd person, and giving a slave to be put to death in his place, after he has touched, on his knees with his forehead the doom'd slave, just as he is executed, and to pay a large sum of money to the governors: all this thus perform'd, the offender is free, and the relations of the person kill'd must rest contented with this atonement for the crime, whether they like it or not.
As to theft, which is seldom heard of there, the natives, as I have hinted before, not being addicted to it, if the thief be taken in the fact, stealing any private person's effects or goods, he is not only obliged to the total restitution of whatever ;he has stolen, but likewise to pay a fine in money if he is able; and if not, he is well beaten. But a robbery committed on any one who is entrusted with government is punished with death, and therefore is very rare.
All other crimes are atonable by fines, proportionable to the ability of persons; but he who has no money is liable to corporal punishment.
Persons accused of crimes which are not clearly proved by evidences are obliged to purge themselves by four several sorts of trials for slight offences, or in civil causes.
The first trial is to carry the accused person to the priest, who greases a cock's feather and therewith pierces his tongue. If it passes easily, they account him innocent, and the wound will soon close and heal up without pain: but if, on the contrary, the quill remains sticking in the tongue, they conclude him guilty of the accusation.
The second trial is that the priest takes an oblong clod of earth, in which he sticks either nine or seven cock's quills, which the accused person is to draw out successively; if the quills come out easily, he is acquitted; if on the contrary they stick fast, he is reputed guilty of the indictment.
The third trial is made by spurting the juice of certain green herbs into the eyes of the accused person: if it doth not hurt him, he is absolved; but if it causes the eyes to turn red and enflames them, he is dealt with as convicted.
The fourth trial is that the priest strokes the accused three times over the tongue with a red-hot copper arm-ring; if it does not burn him, he is discharged; if it does, he is reputed guilty.
It is easy enough to infer from the nature of such trials, left to the discretion of covetous priests, greedy of money, how few can well avoid being found guilty, and consequently being liable to be fined at discretion.
The trial for high crimes is only allowed to persons of distinction and by special order form the king, but it happens very seldom, and is reported to be managed after this manner.
The person accused having petitioned the prince to be allowed to clear himself of his indictment, and ti being granted, is conducted to a certain river, to which the natives of Benin ascribe the ridiculous property of gently wafting innocent persons plunged in it safe ashore, tho' never so unskill'd in swimming; and of sinking guilty persons to the bottom; tho' never so good swimmers, and using all possible means by that art to gain the land, it all proves vain, and only renders their death the more painful: for the water of the river, say they, upon casting in of a criminal, tho' before very still, immediately rises and continues as turbulent as a whirl-pool, till the malefactor is drowned and gone to the bottom, and then returns to its former calmness. What can be more absurd than this?
The fines imposed for the above-mention'd offences, either civil or criminal, are commonly divided among the justices, governors and priests, who take care the king shall receive as little of them as is possible, he being seldom informed of any causes or trials; and his three chief ministers of state either content themselves with what share the others are pleased to send them, or if they think it not competent to the nature of the offences, send it back to those inferior justices and governors, telling them, in the king's name, the fines are too small, and fixing what they must be; whereupon they will perhaps send up again to the three minsters of state double the former value, for fear of falling under their lash, who would not fail to do them some ill office.
As for fines on account of robberies, the person injured is first satisfied out of them, and then the governors and the chief ministers have their shares.
To come to the religion in Benin, it is so absurd and perplexed that it will be a very difficult task to give a just idea thereof.
It might seem rational to believe that this nation being so near neighbour to Ardra and Fida, should have much the same tenets and worship with them; however, they differ very much in several particulars, tho' not in the main, being no less gross, absurd and superstitious pagans, as will appear by what follows.
They form to themselves a notion of an invisible supreme deity, called Orissa, which they own created heaven and earth, and maintains and governs them absolutely, and being invisible, cannot be represented under any form or figure whatsoever, nor is it to be worshipped or served directly, because it is a being always doing good innumerable ways. Whereas, on the contrary, the devil, whom they also look upon as a deity of great authority, but naturally very hurtful to human race, is to be appeased and rendered less mischievous by continual offerings and other religious practices, and therefore they think they must sacrifice to him not only beasts, but human creatures, to satiate the thirst he has for blood. so that it may well be said of the people of Benin in general that they worship both God and devil.
From these absurd erroneous notions of the supreme true God is sprung another no less injurious to the deity, which is to imagine an innumerable number of other divine beings, which they set up in human and brutal images, as elephant's teeth, claws, dead men's heads, skeletons and every other thing that seems extraordinary in nature, for idol gods, and so worship and offer sacrifices to them according to their deluded fancies, every man there being his own spiritual guide and even sacrificer: and thence it is they have such multitudes of idols, notwithstanding they have also established priests, as has been observed before, to perform the religious services upon some publick national occasions.
The devil is not represented among them by any particular figure, or distinguished from their idol-gods any otherwise than in their intention only; for thro' the very same idols they sometimes make offerings to God and sometimes to the devil, with whom they think their priests have a frequent communication, and that he renders them well skilled in necromancy.
Every man has his peculiar priest, with whom he advises in all religious affairs, how he is to behave himself, and acts accordingly; especially when to undertake a journey or any other matter of moment, they desire the priest to enquire of the devil what the success thereof will be; and in this case the priest puts the questions much after the same manner as those of Ardra use to do on the like occasions.
Thus the priests gain much credit among the blind deluded people, and lead them at pleasure in all vain gross errors, moulding and framing idols to their several uses, as they think suitable to their own interest, either out of pieces of timber or herbs or other trash worked together, which, when they have formally consecrated, the stupid natives fondly keep as sacred treasure and attribute to them infinite virtues to help and assist them upon all emergencies, which every body there firmly believes they are able to do, and therefore their houses are full of such idols. Besides which, there are also several huts erected without doors, which are likewise filled with them, and thither they sometimes repair to sacrifice.
The daily offerings they make to their idols are only a few boiled yams mixt with palm-oil, which they lay before them, but when they are advised to offer a cock, the idol has nothing for himself but the blood of the victim, and they eat the flesh of it.
Persons of high rank use to celebrate an annual feast to their idols, which they perform with great state and expence, both for the great number of all sorts of cattle and sheep they cause to be sacrificed, and for entertaining and feasting the people invited to such solemnities, and dismissing them again with presents very honourably, as being all very generous in that respect.
The natives of Benin have all a singular veneration for the sea, and use to sear by it in matters of concern. they celebrate a feast on a certain appointed day in the year that i may prove a beneficent deity to their country at all times; and they as ridiculously imagine the state of bliss or torment in the other life will be in the sea. We read in the history of the Yncas kings of Peru in South America, written in Spanish by the Ynca Garcilasso de la Vega, lib. 1, c. 10, that the inhabitants of the coasts of Peru, before they came to be governed by the Yncas, among that multitude of natural and terrestrial divinities there honoured in general, did pay the greatest veneration to the sea, as the most potent of all their gods, calling it in their idiom Mamacocha, i.e. my mother: to signify that it was their nurse in affording fish to support them, and did also adore the whale for its monstrous bigness. The people of Benin in great concerns sometimes swear by the king's person.
Most men there talks much of the apparition of spirits or ghosts of their deceased ancestors or kindred, which however they say happens only in their sleep, when those ghosts come to charge them to offer this or that sacrifice to the idols; and they are so fond of this vain effect of their deluded fancies, that as soon as the light of day appears, they immediately perform what is enjoined them; and if unable to do it, rather than fail, they borrow of others, firmly believing their neglect would infallibly draw down some judgment upon them: tho' when some of us scoff at their stupidity in this particular, they are very ready to won those are but dreams; but then, at the same time, add it is a custom introduced by their ancestors which has been practised from generation to generation, and therefore they are obliged to follow it.
They imagine the shadow of a man, which they call Passador, a Portuguese word, importing a thing that passes along, shall testify whether he has lived well or ill; if well, they believe that man shall be invested with great dignities in the sea; but if ill, he is to perish there in misery through hunger and poverty: thus assigning the same place for the state of bliss and torment.
It is also the custom one day in the year for every wealthy person to celebrate a feast at a very great charge in remembrance of their deceased ancestors or relations. Besides which, they keep many other festivals on several accounts, too tedious to be observed, among which is the famous one of the coral, in the month of May, at which the king assists in person, and is so expensive to him, as has been already observed.
They divide time into years, months, weeks and days, each of which has its particular name, but they reckon fourteen months to a year.
To conclude this account of the religion in Benin, it is an inviolable law that no priest shall ever go out of the country under very high fines and even pain of death, unless he has first obtained leave of the king: and they are more particularly obliged by that law not to go to Oedo, the capital city of the kingdom: which seems very strange, considering the great respect both king and subjects pay to their priests.
The priest of Loebo, a town near the mouth of the river Fermosa, or Benin river, is esteemed and very famous among them for his intimate familiarity with the devil and for being an eminent magician whose prerogatives are such that he can at his will cause the sea either to advance or draw back, and foretell the most remote events; in regard whereof, the king has bestowed on him and his heirs forever all the lands of the territory of Loebo, with all the slaves that were therein: and from his name the town was called Loebo. This priest is counted in the rank of their chief sacrificers, and so dreaded by all the people, that none dares come near him, much less to touch his hand, the king's envoys not excepted.
I have observed before that those people use the ceremony of circumcision in men and women as rendering them much better qualified to serve their idols, and far more acceptable to the deity; and thus conclude the description of the kingdom of Benin.
It remains now to give a short account of the adjacent kingdoms of Issabo, Jaboe and Oedoba and of the neighbouring territories, which all are subject and tributary to the government of Benin.
Borders at the west on Benin, but the natives can tell us no more of it than this, that it abounds in horses, which the natives use much in war. And not many years ago they made an incursion into Benin with an army of horse, thinking to have gained some considerable advantage by so sudden a surprize, but the king of Benin having had timely notice of their design, ordered abundance of pits to be made in that part of the plain through which they were of necessity to march, and to cover them over slightly with earth; and when the Issabo cavalry approached the plain, the Benin men feigning to give ground, drew them easily into the snare, which caused a terrible slaughter among them, the Benin army giving no quarter but only to some of the prime men, who engaged that their country should for the future be obliged to pay an annual tribute.
JABOE AND OEDOBA
These kingdoms join to Benin on the north-east, but there is so little intercourse between the people that we can learn nothing of them but that they are both tributaries to the king of Benin, and that there are other kingdoms called Gabou and Isago, lying about eight days journey above Oedo, upon the river Fermosa, which to the northward border on the kingdom of Bito, a very rich country extending to the great lake Sigismes, where the Niger loses its name and takes that of Ica, or white river, alias the Senega, as has been mention'd before. North by east from Gabou is the kingdom of Temian, whose inhabitants are said to be man-eaters, extending to the Niger, beyond which river is the kingdom of Zegzeg, being a part of the Blacks country lying between Bito and Temian on the south, and Cassena on the west, and so called from its metropolis of the same name, on the east of which is Zanfara or Pharan. The above-mentioned kingdom of Gabou is said to be rich in jasper and slaves; and beyond Temian is the kingdom of Ouangara, extending to the Niger, from whence they bring gold, sena and slaves.
We are also told of another kingdom called Biafra, lying to the eastward of Benin, which, according to some geographers, runs round the Bight of Guinea, or gulph of Ethiopia, and to four degrees of south latitude, whence has been taken the name of the coast of Biafra. This kingdom northward borders on those of Isago and Gabou; eastward it extends to the kingdom of Medra, westward to that of Benin, and southward to that of Gabou, lying at a good distance form the sea, and receives the name from its metropolis, which Hues places in six degrees ten minutes of north latitude.
The inhabitants of Biafra are generally addicted to necromancy and witchcraft above any other people of Guinea, and fondly believe their magicians can cause thunder, rain and high winds at their pleasure. They are very gross pagans, of a wild temper and have an extraordinary veneration for the devil, whom they worship and serve religiously all the ways they can think most acceptable, and sacrifice to him not only an incredible multitude of all sorts of beasts, fruits etc., but also abundance of slaves and even their own children.
This inhuman practice of sacrificing not only men, but even their own sons and daughters to the devil is not peculiar to those Guineans, for some of the East and West-Indians do the same, as also the inhabitants of Lybia, in Africk, as historians relate, and the same we find in holy writ.
- Of the kingdom of Ouwere
- The metropolis, climate, trade, product and natives
- The king
- The religion
- The coast described
- New Calbary
- Trade of slaves
- Rings the only money
- St. Domingo river
- Old Calabar river
- Goods imported
In this chapter I shall speak of the kingdom of Ouwere or Forcado, and of the coast from cape Fermosa, where the Ethiopian gulph or bight of Guinea commences, to the river of new Calabar or Calbary.
The kingdom of Ouwere or Oveiro, lies along Rio Forcado, which falls into the ocean about eighteen leagues south south-east of Rio Fermosa or Benin river; the inhabitants were by the ancients called Derbici Aethiopes. The river Forcado runs down from a great way up the inland to the north north-east, with many windings, and is in most places near two English miles over, especially towards the sea-coast, but so shallow that it is navigable only in small vessels drawing seven or eight foot water. The banks are adorned with lovely ranges of beautiful trees, which render the prospect very agreeable. Near the mouth of ti, on a little river which is lost in the Forcado, is the village Poloma, inhabited mostly by fishermen.
The capital town Ouwere, which gives its name to the whole country, lies on the river Forcado, about thirty six or seven leagues up from its mouth, and is near two miles about, being encompass'd on the land-side with groves and thickets, the ordinary residence of the king of Ouwere. The houses are generally pretty fine and neat, for a country of Blacks, particularly those of the persons of rank and wealth, the shells being all of clay or loam, and painted red or grey, and the roofs cover'd with palm-tree leaves. The king's palace is nothing near so large as that at Oedo in Benin, but in all other respects much like it in form, materials and disposition.
The air is extremely bad by reason of the continual malignant vapours the excessive heat of the scorching sun exhales form the river, which spread over the land and occasion a great mortality among the crews of such European vessels as go thither to trade, but more especially among such as frequent the cross rivers that fall into the Forcado, or are not very careful to shelter themselves from the evening mildew or moon-shine, and do not live very temperately in all respects.
The Portuguese, and next them the Hollanders, are the Europeans that trade most in the Forcado: their cargoes are compos'd much of the same species of European commodities as are proper for the Benin trade, and they export from thence in exchange lusty strong slaves, much better shaped than we have them at any other parts of Guinea, but this place will not afford ad most five hundred such slaves in a whole year. They also purchase some jasper-stones and some Accory, but of the latter very little is got there and it is very small and extraordinary dear: for which reason but a small quantity is exported yearly.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans that traded with the natives of Ouwere, who not being then accustomed to traffick and unprovided with goods, those Portuguese set up several of them as merchants and brokers, trusting them with their goods to carry up in the country and to the neighbouring nations to sell for them:L but the Dutch in progress of time, with much difficulty have broken the Blacks from that custom and brought them all to trade for ready money in the European factories, and even the women come thither daily to buy and sell with them, and are all very courteous and honest in their dealings, but somewhat irresolute and tedious, spending a long time in considering and resolving on the price of goods, which when once agreed on, becomes general and fixed for all the people.
The country is not very fertile in general, the night-dew being mostly very thin, which often causes a great scarcity of grass to feed the cattle, and is the occasion that they breed but few, and that horses are not plenty as in Benin and the countries west and north of it.
Poultry is prodigious plentiful and much larger than in any other part of Guinea, which the natives mostly feed on. They have a special way of dressing them, for when they roast a pullet or chicken, they commonly baste it with its own dripping beaten up with the yolk of an egg, which gives it a very good relish and makes it look agreeable when taken up from the fire.
They have store of palm-trees, lemons, oranges and Guinea pepper, or maleguetta, and an infinite number of banana trees, as also of magnoc bushes, which they call Mandi-boka in their language, of which they make the Cassaba, or Farinha de Pao, that is in Portuguese wood-meal, which is the bread they commonly feed on.
Both men and women are generally well limbed and shaped; especially the latter are very agreeable to look at, and both sexes have three large scars or cuts in the fact, one on the forehead, exactly above the nose, the two others, one at each side of the eyes near the temples, and wear their hairs either long or short as every one pleases.
They are generally more industrious than the Benin Blacks, and nothing inferior to them in neatness of dress, their cloths being much finer, about two ells long, which they wind about their breasts and stomach, hanging down. some of them are made of cotton, and others of bark, flax or weeds, spun as fine as silk, dyed of several colours, and wove in stripes and checkers, the woof hanging out at each end like a fringe. I have still half a dozen of them by me. Those cloths yield good profit at the Gold-Coast.
Every man there, as well as in other parts of Guinea, may have as many wives as he pleases, but when he dies all the widows belong to the king, who disposes of them as at Benin.
Who some say is tributary to him of Benin, is very absolute, and governs much after the same manner as the other. He that reigned in 1644 was a Mulatto, born of a Portuguese woman married to king Mingo, and the said prince who was called Don Antonio Mingo. He always wore the Portuguese habit and a sword by his side.
Merolla, in his voyage to Congo, informs us that about the year 1683 two capucin ministers, called F. Angelo Maria d'Aiaccio and F. Bonaventura di Firenza, arriving from the island of St. Thome, in this country of Ouwere, were courteously received by the then king. That prince, says he, was better bred than ordinary, having been educated among the Portuguese, whose language he was perfect in, and could read and write, a qualification very rare among Ethiopian princes. At their first interview, Aiaccio address'd himself to the king thus: If your majesty desires I should continue in your dominions, you must oblige your subjects to embrace the holy state of matrimony, according to our rites and ceremonies; and whereas the young men and women go naked till marriageable, I desire your majesty will command them all to be cover'd. The king answered he would take care that his subjects should comply with his request, but for himself, he would never be brought to it unless he was married to a White, as some of his predecessors had been. The difficulty was to get a White to marry a Black, tho' he were a king, especially among the Portuguese, who naturally despise them. Aiaccio seemed to approve of the condition, and in order to bring it to effect, returned to St. Thome, where he enquired after some White woman that would marry the Black king, and being told of one who, though poor, was virtuously educated and a comely person, under the care of an uncle, one day after mass he turned about at the altar to the people and in the name of God and for his sake, intreated the uncle to let his niece marry the king of Ouwere, which might contribute towards the conversion of all that nation. The uncle being prevailed on by those pious motives, gave his consent, and the young lady set out for the said kingdom with the missioner and some few Portuguese. When come upon the frontiers, she was met and joyfully saluted by the people as their queen, and all the honours they were capable of paid her. The king received her at his palace with all tokens of affection and much magnificence after their manner, and married her after the christian manner, setting a good example to his subjects, who soon left their licentious way of living and submitted to be restrained by the rules of the gospel, being all married after the christian way. Thus far Merolla.
The religion of the country differs little from that of Benin, except in the point of sacrificing men and children to their idols, which these people are averse to, alledging that to shed human blood properly belongs to the devil, who is a murderer from the beginning. Nor are they all fond of idol-worship or pagan priests, nor addicted to poisoning, as is practiced among the other people of Guinea.
The Portuguese missions above-mention'd seem to have made deeper impression on the people of Ouwere than in other parts of Guinea: for many of them still seem to retain some principles of christianity, and to this day they have a chapel in the town of Ouwere, in which is a crucifix or an altar, and on the sides of it the figures of the blessed virgin Mary and of all the apostles, with two candlesticks by them, to which the natives resort from all parts, and there mutter some words in their language before the crucifix, every one of them carrying beads in their hands, as is used by the Portuguese. They say, several of those Blacks have been taught to read and write, the Portuguese of St. Thome and Punie's island, who are their neighbours in the Ethiopick gulph, supplying them with paper, ink and books. From what has been here said, amy be inferred that the people of Ouwere are the most likely of any in Guinea to be converted to the christian faith.
THE COAST OF OUWERE DESCRIB'D
The coast of this kingdom from the mouth of Rio Forcado to cape Fermosa extends about forty six leagues north-west by north and south-east by south all along low, flat and woody land, and is scarce to be seen till in twenty five fathom water out at sea.
It is parted by several rivers which run across it into the ocean, the most considerable of which are those of Lamos and Dodo, all of them little frequented by Europeans, Rio Forcado having al the trade of the country: and I do not find that the Portuguese of Dutch, who have frequented those parts more than other Europeans, have made any great advantage by their voyages thither; all they get is some few slaves in Sangama river and cape Fermosa, and so along the same river which are to be seen from the sea, betwixt that cape and New Calabar or Rio Real: but it is not worth while for a ship of any considerable burden to stop for them, as I shall farther show hereafter.
Cape Fermosa lies in four degrees ten minutes of north latitude and, like the adjacent lands, is low, flat and woody. The Portuguese give it this name of Fermosa, or beautiful, form the fine prospect it affords at a distance, being all covered with beautiful trees. North north-west of it is a little river, before which is a shoal that is dry or low-water. The village Sangama is on the north side of that river, somewhat within the mouth. At this cape Fermosa most sea-faring men begin the bight of Guinea, though some take it from Rio das Lagoas near Ardra. Modern geographers call it the Ethiopick gulph, and it ends at cape Lope Gonzalves, the land betwixt both capes forming a large semicircle. Cape Fermosa may be seen form the westward, being upon twenty three or twenty four fathom water, but is not easily discerned farther off at sea, the coast running from south-east to north-west. The charts make it angular.
From cape Fermosa to New Calabary river, or Rio Real, the coast runs east about five and thirty leagues....
1. The section on Benin and Warri begins on p. 354. On p. 381 he says: "I will follow the plan proposed to my self in writing the description of North and south Guinea, and give a good an account of those vast countries, as I could gather form the year 1678 to 1682, during which time I made two voyages thither; after which, by way of supplement, I will add the most remarkable changes and alterations that have happened there till the year 1706, as collected from credible travelers who have been there from time to time." The latter are included in the supplement to his book. There is little evidence of first-hand experience in the the account given here, and it seems much of Barbot's book is an assemblage of unacknowledged inquiries.