Thursday, May 22, 2014

Dear Diary: People Watching, Part I

George William Lillies was an enthusiastic amateur naturalist who collected specimens he found along the west African coast when his Royal Navy ship was there in the mid-1840s. He even did his own taxidermy on the spot. It’s unlikely, however, that he was making original scientific discoveries; it appears to have been more a hobby than a serious vocation.

GWL’s 1846-47 journal also includes occasional observations about the geology and climatology of the region. But most intriguing are his commentaries on the indigenous cultures he encountered.

His attitudes towards Africans could, as we’ve seen, be regrettable. But GWL also shows flashes of a more disinterested, scientific perspective. It’s not clear in these entries whether he’s repeating what other Europeans have told him, or reporting direct observations and results of his own enquiries. In some cases, it’s definitely the latter. But again, there is no sense that he was doing serious or original research. He was just curious about and interested in everything he saw, and had a trained scientific mind.  

His first and most extensive excursion into ethnography comes five months into his tour, in November 1846. His ship, the HMS Styx, had anchored at Fernando Pò Island in the Gulf of Guinea, off present-day Cameroon. The island is part of Equatorial Guinea today, and officially named Bioko.

Gulf of Guinea showing Bioko (Fernando Pò Island) and mainland Equatorial Guinea
“The natives of the island,” GWL tells us, “are called Bushmen or Boobies - they live in the Bush in small villages consisting of huts – each Village has its chief - they subsist on what they procure by hunting which is their principal occupation - Their faces are disfigured by numberless scars the result of incisions made on them when young by their parents - The men wear Bracelets on their arms high up in which they carry a knife and pipe.”

19th century image of Bubi man with knife held in bracelet
GWL can’t resist concluding this little introduction with some Victorian moralizing. “Their dress,” he sniffs, “is anything but becoming or civilized[. M]ost of them wear hats with the feathers of some wild fowl in them.” Tsk, tsk.

The Bubi People (as they spell their name today) are a Bantu-speaking group indigenous to the island. The name was given them by pre-colonial (probably European) visitors, a corruption of the group’s own word for man. The Bubi have since adopted the name themselves.

Bioko scene (courtesy of A Pocketful of Wanderlust) 
The ancient Bubi kingdom by some accounts lasted 3,000 years. The monarchs, from colonial times, are well documented. GWL may not have realized they had a king at the time he wrote his first entry, but he did by the time he continued his account a few days later. In the next entry, he adds more detail about the Bubi way of life and culture.

“[T]hey have a kind of shed where they live during the day and where they cook etc. Close to this are built their huts which are more like dog kennels than anything else - they are very low so that one must creep into them and are just large enough to hold two or three persons – “

Bubi children today
“Polygamy is common among them - The man we saw had three wives - they curl their hair behind and smear it over with palm oil and red clay - their spears are made of wood, have no iron about them and irregularly notched towards the point - they are very civil and inoffensive creatures they pressed us to take some yams which we declined – “

And then he mentions the monarch. “Their King is called by some Glory, by others Cut-throat - he was formerly a troublesome character but now they say he is much improved.” According to the historical record, King Möadyabitá was on the throne in 1846.

Fernando Pò Island circa mid-1800s
The Styx appears to have been on an extended break during this period. Fernando Pò was a Spanish colony, but the British leased bases for its anti-slavery patrols at Port Clarence (Malabo today) and San Carlos. GWL’s journal entries, about the Bubis and other topics, tend to be longer during this time, and he is relaxed enough to wax comical on a couple of occasions. A few days after the King Cut-Throat entry, he adds more interesting, and gruesome, anthropological detail about the Bubi.

“Adultery is punished amongst the Boobies by cutting off the offenders hand for the first offence and scarifying him with a  long knife from the spot where he committed the act to his own hut - a second offence is punished by amputating the other hand – 

“In most of their villages they divide themselves into two parties or sects one of which spend their time in fishing, the other in cultivating yams [Hmm. What happened to hunting as their main occupation?] - Each is obliged to stick to his own employment and is not allowed to occupy his spare time in doing any work but what he has chosen as his trade.”

This is the last GWL mentions the Bubi. In January 1847, with the Styx now in Sierra Leone, he turns his attention to the “kroomen.” Kroomen were recruited locally to serve on West Africa Squadron ships, and the ships of other navies in the region. According to GWL, “a certain number of their men are allowed to the British Cruisers on the Coast -  they are very useful as they do all the hard work and when in harbour all the shore work which would otherwise prove highly prejudicial to the health of our men[.]”

Kroomen, some in uniform, on USS Sacramento, an American ship, 1867 (Surgeon H.P. Babcock, USN)
I had assumed, not unreasonably, that the kroomen were so-called because they were “crew men.” Not so. As GWL’s entry makes clear, and Wikipedia among other sources confirms, they are a separate ethnic group. “The Kroomen were experienced fishermen from the Kroo or Kru tribe in Sotta Krou, in what is now Liberia in West Africa,” Wikipedia tells us. “Because of their knowledge of the west African coast they were sometimes employed as pilots.”

GWL referred to them early in his journal as “extraordinary looking Animals,” adding that “some of them are exceedingly fine men.” In the January entry, he expands on this.
Mid-19th century print
“Kroomen,” he writes, “are tattooed - a broad bluish line passes from the roots of his hair over the forehead terminating at the tip of the nose - At the outer angle of each eye there are occasionally a few crescentic lines concave and having a dart pointing towards the eye  - The body is covered with all sorts of figures, comprehending human heads, fish, ships, arrows and Palm Trees - an Ivory wristlet and Leopards tooth or a piece of fish skin are especial articles of Gree Gree, their God of medicine – ”

It’s worth noting that none of the 19th century pictures of kroomen that turn up in Google searches come close to living up to GWL’s outlandish-sounding description. But perhaps by later in the century when these images were made, the kroomen had already begun to be Europeanized – or “civilized,” as GWL would likely put it.

He goes on to talk about language, culture and working methods, but as in other passages, can’t resist moral judgements.

“They are very superstitious and are generally found faithful in a strange country although they cannot be trusted in their own… Their language is principally a combination of vowels and from the peculiar nasal pronunciation can rarely be acquired by Europeans - A different language is spoken amongst them at every 10 or 12 miles, but these different languages are generally understood by the natives all along the coast…”

The kroomen apparently practised a form of employment contracting that bears similarities to modern temp agency practices and, as GWL notes, traditional European apprenticeships.

“The Kroomen have a singular custom peculiar to themselves which is a system of apprenticeship,” he writes. “A number of young men will attach themselves for a certain period to a Headman - This Headman has made one or more voyages to leeward to the Oil Rivers [delta of the Niger River in modern Nigeria], before he can obtain a name or be allowed to build a house or trade, and it is the duty of this Headman to ship the boys off for the Oil Rivers on board of any vessel he can, and for this service the Headman is entitled to the one month's advance always paid by the ship - He is also entitled to a certain portion of the Boy's Wages, when he returns - When the boy has made two or three voyages and can speak English fluently he becomes a Headman himself – ”

Next post: the Fishmen, a visit to a dance and comical interludes with Sir Humph.

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