Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Dear Diary: People Watching, Part II

Summer is over, the sky is leaden with rain. Enough of fair weather frivolities, it’s time to get back to the hard work of documenting our family’s history. 

First task: unfinished business. I left off in May talking about the journal that George William Lillies, maternal great great grandfather on the Blackwell side, kept in the mid-1840s while serving as a Royal Navy surgeon in the West African fleet tasked with blockading slavers.

In that last post, I looked at some of GWL’s ethnographic observations, about the Kru and Bubi people. He clearly had a scientist’s interest in the groups he encountered in Africa, even if his personal attitudes towards them were not always completely disinterested, or complimentary. On February 8, 1846, with his ship, the HMS Styx, anchored off the coast of Sierra Leone, the colony the British founded in the late 18th century as a homeland for freed slaves, GWL wrote briefly about another group he refers to as Fishmen.

“The Blacks who live on this part of the coast belong to a tribe called the Fishmen and are said to be vindictive cruel and very inimical to Englishmen - They are continually at war with the Kroo People and are distinguished from them by a swelling placed over the outer ankle, which is caused by the way they seat themselves in their canoes, the sheaths of the Peronic muscles bursting from their sitting always with their feet turned up under them…”

I can’t figure out which modern ethnic group he is referring to here, if indeed they survive as a distinct group. His remarks are clearly not based on direct observation or interacation, though, which begs the question, how accurate are they? The report of a Royal Navy expedition to the Niger area in 1841 – published in 1848, so not GWL’s source – discusses the Fishmen, which it also refers to as the Grébus, at some length. (The Grébus name has also apparently fallen out of use.)

The 1848 report (which is here in Google Books) confirms some of what GWL says about them, including the common deformation of the ankle and the animosity between Fishmen and Kru. But their supposed vindictive cruelty and antipathy to the English may have been a reflection of the prejudices of Kru people with whom, we know, GWL did interact. The report makes clear the two groups were racially and ethnically pretty much indistinct. 

“If you ask a Grébu the character of a Kru, he says, ‘Kru boy big rogue,’ while the latter replies of the Grébu, Fishman debblish big rogue, so it is merely a question of comparative honesty between them,” the report’s authors – an RN captain and RN surgeon – write. They go on to refer to “the kindly disposition” of both tribes, “a pleasing contrast to that of most other Africans.” This favourable assessment may have much to do with the fact that, as the report notes, “no people on the west coast of Africa labour so well, so cheerfully, or for such low remuneration as the Krus and Grébus, and even the hard unmerited treatment they sometimes meet with will not discourage them.”

Ethnography in the interests of economic development.

The observations about Fishmen are the last substantive passage in which GWL talks about an identifiable group in anything approaching scientific terms. He does mention a later, first-hand experience observing natives. The occasion was a “ball” in Freetown, Sierra Leone in June 1846, at which blacks and whites mixed. The passage makes clear the deeply-held aversion that even educated Europeans like GWL often felt towards Africans. Here is the passage in its entirety. (Don’t shoot the messenger.)

Freetown in 1820
“Hearing there was to be a ball Yule [a friend from another ship] and myself went ashore with him [Oldfield, another friend] and after going to Oldfield's we adjourned with him to the dance, dignified by the title of the Dignity Ball - To see such a sight again or rather to smell the effluvium would kill me: well after nearly breaking our necks getting there (for it was pitch dark and we were obliged to find our way by the aid of Lanterns) we were  ushered into a small room with two recesses or smaller chambers where about twenty black fellows and as many nigger women were kicking up their heels in glorious style – 

“In one of these anti-rooms was stationed the band which consisted of a drum flute and a squeaky grating fiddle, in the other you could get champagne or swipes from an old woman stationed there for the purpose - The only dance that would go down was a Country Dance and notwithstanding our most energetic endeavours to gain a place for the Polka we were quite unsuccessful and came to the conclusion that the Inhabitants of Sierra Leone were far behind the Mother Country in refinement of taste and accomplishment - Attributing their aversion to kicking their legs about or as it is more generally called Polking amongst their white sisters, to their ignorance (as the man very properly did when his Jack-ass kicked him)…

“[W]e put up with their savage ideas and joined in the dance until sickened by miasmata composed of animal effluvia ingeniously combined with the odours of muck Lavender and Eau de Cologne we made one rush for the open street to endeavour to shake off in the fresh air the stench, which seemed to have penetrated every pore of our bodies - Oh these black women, these black women how infernally they stink - If Ovid had lived amongst them for one day he never could have made the assertion that he has viz: ‘Hei Mihi quod nullis amor est medicabilis herbis’…”

By “a Country Dance,” GWL probably means the kind of formal dance for several couples that was popular in 18th century England, but had been superseded by the waltz, polka and other dances by the time he is writing. You’ve seen it in movies from Jane Austen novels: the couples line up opposite each other and prance about, holding hands, switching partners at intervals. 

On the other hand, he may have been describing a dance of native origin that merely reminded him of English country dancing or seemed analogous to it. Either way, it’s interesting to consider the possibility that the “band” was using African instruments. Could the “squeaky grating fiddle,” for example, have been a goje, a one-string fiddle from Nigeria. A goje features a gourd bowl with snakeskin stretched over it, creating a membrane head similar to a banjo. The horsehair strings are stretched along a stick attached to the gourd and suspended over a bridge. The player uses an arched horsehair bow. Check out this video of a modern-day Nigerian folk group with the lead singer playing a goje.

And the flute could have been an oja, a traditional Nigerian flute. Listen to what it sounds like below. There are of course many styles of drums in traditional west African music that might have been used. 

Google translates the Ovid quote (from Metamorphoses) as, “Woe to me that no love is curable with herbs.”  It’s more often translated, “Ah me! love can not be cured by herbs.” Either way, I’m not sure I understand what he means in the context. Does anybody have an idea? I suspect a sexual innuendo. I was also mystified by “champagne or swipes.” What is, or are, or were, swipes? My trusty 1973 Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles gave me the answer: beer – “slang or colloq. 1796 Poor weak beer; small beer; hence, beer in general.”

During periods of what modern naval types might call “shore leave,” GWL and his cronies were apt to get up to all kinds of nonsense, and when recounting these experiences, his writing gets a little breezier, even humorous – as witness the last passage about the dance. Here’s another in which he describes a free day spent rollicking about on shore with guns. Keep in mind that GWL was only about 21 or 22 at this time, and forgive his idiocy.

“On returning back Sir Humphrey gave me permission to have a shot at his person which I refused to do partly from compassion partly from a consideration for his friends and family although I allowed him to stoop down and remain in a curious position for some minutes - we got back to Clarence about six - fired over a black fellows house at which he was monstrous indignant went into Mrs. Thompson's the Washerwoman's house had a chat with and saw her Parrotts…”

Rose-ringed Parakeets - example of the type of local parrots Mrs. Thompson may have kept.

I was curious about who Sir Humphrey might be. Another Royal Navy officer? I can find no Sir Humphrey in the lists of naval officers of this period, and no Sir Humphrey who was a prominent civilian figure in west Africa either. He also doesn’t show up in lists of knights of the realm. He may have been a baronet, an hereditary knight. The lists I consulted only mention the first in a line of baronets, and the first wasn’t necessarily named Humphrey. 

Sir Humphrey de Trafford, 2nd Baronet (1808-1886) is a possibility. He would have been 38 at the time GWL is writing, so about the right age. But the scant biographical material on the Internet gives no indication he was ever anywhere near west Africa. 

On the other hand, it may be a knighthood conferred ironically by friends on a crew mate who was just-plain-Humphrey. Sir Humphrey, or Sir Humph, appears a few more times in GWL’s journal. Here’s another funny one.

“After this we walked with Mr. Beecroft's [presumably some colonial official’s] clerk down to the Brook and then returned to the beach expecting to be able to get on board - However we were disappointed as there was no boat there so after waiting for some time the Clerk got a canoe for us and wished us good-night …

“[W]e were all seated and the word was given to shove off when after we had got into about three feet of water the canoe canted and over we all went neck and crop affording a most ludicrous spectacle to any bystander - By dint of good management I got out of the way of Sir Humphrey who I knew would crush me if he had the ill luck to tumble on me and after groping ashore found him deploring the loss of a Penang lawyer he had with him - However by the aid of Cognac we recovered ourselves somewhat and even Sir Humph's grim features began to relax into a pleasant smile…”

Sir Humphrey de Trafford, in the only picture of him I found online (see above), showing him as a much older man, looks stout but not large enough to inflict serious damage in a boating accident. But then GWL may have just been taking the piss. 

A “Penang lawyer?” A type of walking stick of Maylasian origin, usually with a bulbous head. According to Wikipedia, it is “made from Licuala [miniature palm (Licuala acutifida)]. After the bark was removed with only a piece of glass, the stick was straightened by fire and polished. The fictional Dr. Mortimer owned one of these in The Hound of the Baskervilles.” The term probably comes from a mispronunciation of Maylasian words referring to the material from which the canes are made. This gave rise to the idea that a "penang lawyer," which could be lethal, especially if weighted, as in another Holmes story, was a useful tool for settling disputes in Penang.

Penang lawyers

“Neck and crop” is an interesting, now obsolete, expression. The etymology is uncertain, but most likely originally referred to a horse falling and meant more or less the same as “head over heels.” It came to mean completely or disasterously.

That’s it for my gloss on GWL’s journal. There is lots more there for those interested. You can download the entire journal in PDF format here.

Next time? Not sure. Maybe back to Oz and the Blackwells.


  1. Brother Steve, who lived in west Africa for a couple of years in the late 1960s, emailed this comment: "Interesting that Africans and Europeans would be socializing at all at that time in WA...especially considering that the the slave trade was still going on.

    And the comment about '...the conclusion that the Inhabitants of Sierra Leone were far behind the Mother Country in refinement of taste and accomplishment...' is surprising to me because it could equally truthfully be said in the 20'th century...except nobody would say it because it would be kind of a statement of the obvious, as well as politically incorrect.

    I think the point is that in those times before England had electricity, modern sanitation and motorized transport, probably the contrast between England and colonized parts of Africa was not as stark as it is today...Africa has really been left behind over the last century and a half."

  2. Steve, I'm wondering if the dance he describes was really an African affair that the bwanas horned in for a lark. And the comment about Sierrra Leone inhabitants being behind the Mother Country was possibly meant ironically - of COURSE they were behind, they were just savages after all.