Fetichism in West Africa
On the 2d of July, 1861, I sailed from New York City on a little brig, the "Ocean Eagle," with destination to the island of Corisco, near the equator, on the West Coast of Africa. My first introduction to the natives of Africa was a month later, when the vessel stopped at Monrovia, the capital of the Liberian Republic, to land a portion of its trade goods, and at other ports of Liberia, Sinoe, and Cape Palmas; thence to Corisco on September 12.
Corisco is a microcosm, only five miles long by three miles wide; its surface diversified with every variety of landscape, proportioned to its size, of hill, prairie, stream, and lake. It is located in the eye of the elephant-head shaped Bay of Corisco, and from twelve to twenty miles distant from the mainland. Into the bay flow two large rivers,--the Muni (the Rio D'Angra of commerce) and the Munda (this latter representing the elephant's proboscis).
The island, with adjacent mainland, was inhabited by the Benga tribe. It was the headquarters of the American Presbyterian Mission. On the voyage I had studied the Benga dialect with my fellow-passenger, the senior member
of the Mission, Rev. James L. Mackey; and was able, on my landing, to converse so well with the natives that they at once enthusiastically accepted me as an interested friend. This has ever since been my status among all other tribes.
I lived four years on the island, as preacher, teacher, and itinerant to the adjacent mainland, south to the Gabun River and its Mpongwe tribe, east up the Muni and Munda rivers, and north to the Benito River.
In my study of the natives' language my attention was drawn closely to their customs; and in my inquiry into their religion I at once saw how it was bound up in these customs. I met with other white men--traders, government officials, and even some missionaries--whose interest in Africa, however deep, was circumscribed by their special work for,
respectively, wealth, power, and Gospel proclamation. They could see in those customs only "folly," and in the religion only "superstition."
I read many books on other parts of Africa, in which the same customs and religion prevailed. I did not think it reasonable to dismiss curtly as absurd the cherished sentiments of so large a portion of the human race. I asked myself: Is there no logical ground for the existence of these sentiments, no philosophy behind all these beliefs? I began to search; and thenceforward for thirty years, wherever I travelled, wherever I was guest to native chief, wherever I lived, I was always leading the conversation, in hut or camp, back to a study of the native thought.
I soon found that I gained nothing if I put my questions suddenly or without mask. The natives generally were aware that white men despised them and their beliefs, and they were slow to admit me to their thought if I made a direct advance. But, by chatting as a friend, telling them the strange and great things of my own country, and first eliciting their trust in me and interest in my stories, they forgot their reticence, and responded by telling me of their country. I listened, not critically, but apparently as a believer; and then they vied with each other in telling me all they knew and thought.
That has been the history of a thousand social chats,--in canoes by day, in camp and hut by night, and at all hours in my own house, whose public room was open at any hour of day or evening for any visitor, petitioner, or lounger, my attention to whose wants or wishes was rewarded by some confidence about their habits or doings.
In 1865 I was transferred to Benito, where I remained until the close of 1871. Those years were full of travels afoot or by boat, south the hundred miles to Gabun, north toward the Batanga region, and east up the Benito for a hundred miles as a pioneer, to the Balengi and Boheba tribes,--a distance at that time unprecedented, considering the almost fierce opposition of the coast people to any white man's going to the local sources of their trade. After more than ten uninterrupted years in Africa, I took a furlough of more than two years in the United States, and returned to my work in 1874.
I responded to a strong demand on the part of the supporters of Foreign Missions in Africa, that mission operations should no longer be confined to the coast. Unsuccessful efforts had been made to enter by the Gabun, by the Muni, and by the Benito.
On the 10th of September, 1874, I entered the Ogowe River, at Nazareth Bay, one of its several embouchures into the Atlantic, near Cape Lopez, a degree south of the equator. But little was known of the Ogowe. Du Chaillu, in his "Equatorial Africa" (1861), barely mentions it, though he was hunting gorillas and journeying in "Ashango Land," on the sources of the Ngunye, a large southern affluent of the Ogowe.
A French gunboat a few years before had ascended it for one hundred and thirty miles to Lembarene, the head of the Ogowe Delta, and had attached it to France. Two English traders and one German had built trading-houses at that one-hundred-and-thirty-mile limit, and traversed the river with small steam launches in their rubber trade. Besides these three, I was the only other white resident. They were living in the Galwa tribe, cognate in language with the Mpongwe. I settled at a one-hundred-and-fifty-mile limit, in the Akele tribe (cognate with the Benga), building my house at a place called Belambila.
Two years later I abandoned that spot, came down to Lembarene, and built on Kângwe Hill. There I learned the Mpongwe dialect. I remained there until 1880, successful with school and church, and travelling by boat and canoe thousands of miles in the many branches of the Ogowe, through its Delta, and in the lake country of Lakes Onange and Azyingo. In 1880 I took a second furlough to the United States, remaining eighteen months, and returning at the close of 1881.
My prosperous and comfortable station at Kângwe was occupied by a new man, and I resumed my old _rôle_ of pioneer. I travelled up the Ogowe, one hundred and fifty miles beyond Lembarene, ascending and descending the wild waters of its cataracts, and settled at Talaguga, a noted rock near which was subsequently established the French military post, Njoli, at the two-hundred-mile limit of the course of the river. There I was alone with Mrs. Nassau, my nearest white neighbors the two French officers five miles up river at the post, and my successors at Kângwe, seventy miles down river. The inhabitants were wild cannibal Fang, just recently emerged from the interior forest. It was a splendid field for original investigation, and I applied myself to the Fang dialect.
I remained at Talaguga until 1891, when I took a third furlough to the United States, and stayed through 1892, during which time the Mission Board transferred my entire Ogowe work, with its two stations and four churches and successful schools, to the French Paris Evangelical Society. In March, 1893, at the request of the Rev. Frank F. Ellinwood, D.D.,
LL.D., I wrote and read, before the American Society of Comparative Religions, a forty-minute essay on Bantu Theology.
At the wish of that Society I loaned the manuscript to them, for their use in the Parliament of Religions at the Chicago Exposition; but I carried the original draft of the essay with me on my return to Africa in August, 1893, where I was located at Libreville, Gabun, the Mission's oldest and most civilized station. There I found special advantage for my
investigations. Though those educated Mpongwes could tell me little that was new as to purely unadulterated native thought, they, better than an ignorant tribe, could and did give me valuable intelligent replies to my inquiries as to the logical connection between native belief and act, and the essential meaning of things which I had seen and heard elsewhere. My ignorant friends at other places had given me a mass of isolated statements. My Mpongwe friends had studied a little grammar, and were somewhat trained to analyze. They helped me in the collocation of the statements and in the deduction of the philosophy behind them. It was there that I began to put my conclusions in writing.
In 1895 Miss Mary H. Kingsley journeyed in West Africa, sent on a special mission to investigate the subject of freshwater fishes. She also gratified her own personal interest in native African religious beliefs by close inquiries all along the coast.
During her stay at Libreville in the Kongo-Français, May-September, 1895, my interest, common with hers, in the study of native African thought led me into frequent and intimate conversations with her on that subject. She eagerly accepted what information, from my longer residence in Africa, I was able to impart. I loaned her the essay, with permission to make any use of it she desired in her proposed book, "Travels in West Africa." When that graphic story of her African wanderings appeared in 1897, she made courteous acknowledgment of the use she had made of it in her chapters on
On page 395 of her "Travels in West Africa," referring to my missionary works, and to some contributions I had made to science, she wrote: "Still I deeply regret he has not done more for science and geography. I beg to state I am not grumbling at him, but entirely from the justifiable irritation a student of fetich feels at knowing that there is but one copy of this collection of materials, and that this copy is in the form of a human being, and will disappear with him before it is half learned by us, who cannot do the things he has done."
This suggestion of Miss Kingsley's gave me no new thought; it only sharpened a desire I had hopelessly cherished for some years. In my many missionary occupations-translation of the Scriptures, and other duties, I had never found the strength, when the special missionary daily work was done, to sit down and put into writing the mass of material I had
collected as to the meaning and uses of fetiches. Nor did I think it right for me to take time that was paid for by the church in which to compile a book that would be my own personal pleasure and property.
Impressed with this idea, on my fourth furlough to America in 1899, I confided my wish to a few personal friends, telling them of my plan, not indeed ever to give up my life-work in and for Africa, but to resign from connection with the Board; and, returning to Africa under independent employ and freed from mission control, but still working under my Presbytery, have time to gratify my pen.
One of these friends was William Libbey, D. Sc., Professor of Physical Geography and Director of the E. M. Museum of Geology and Archæology in Princeton University. Without my knowledge he subsequently mentioned the subject to his university friend, Rev. A. Woodruff Halsey, D.D., one of the Secretaries of the Board of Foreign Missions. Dr. Halsey thought my wish could be gratified without my resigning from the Board's service.
In November, 1899, the following action of the Board was forwarded to me: "November 20th, 1899. In view of the wide and varied information possessed by the Rev. Robert H. Nassau, D.D., of the West Africa Mission, regarding the customs and traditions of the tribes on the West Coast, and the importance of putting that knowledge into some permanent form, the Board requested Dr. Nassau to prepare a volume or volumes on the subject; and it directed the West Africa Mission to assign him, on his return from his furlough, to such forms of missionary work as will give him the necessary leisure and opportunity."
On my return to Africa in 1900, I was located at Batanga, one hundred and seventy miles north of Gabun, and was assigned to the pastorate of the Batanga Church, the largest of the twelve churches of the Corisco Presbytery, with itineration to and charge of the sessions of the Kribi and Uběnji churches.
During intervals of time in the discharge of these pastoral duties my recreation was the writing and sifting of the multitude of notes I had collected on native superstition during the previous quarter of a century.
The people of Batanga, though largely emancipated from the fetich practices of superstition, still believed in its witchcraft aspect. I began there to arrange the manuscript of this work. There, more than elsewhere, the natives seemed willing to tell me tales of their folk-lore, involving fetich beliefs. From them, and also from Mpongwe informants, were gathered largely the contents of Chapters XVI and XVII.
And now, on this my fifth furlough, the essay on Bantu Theology has grown to the proportions of this present volume.
The conclusions contained in all these chapters are based on my own observations and investigations.
Obligation is acknowledged to a number of writers on Africa and others, quotations from whose books are credited in the body of this work. I quote them, not as informants of something I did not already know, but as witnesses to the fact of the universality of the same superstitious ideas all over Africa.
By the courtesy of the American Geographical Society, Chapters IV, V, X, and XI have appeared in its Bulletin during the years 1901-1903.
I am especially obligated to Professor Libbey for his sympathetic encouragement during the writing of my manuscript, and for his judicious suggestions as to the final form I have given it.
ROBERT HAMILL NASSAU
PHILADELPHIA, _March 24, 1904_