Then Again




John Barbot

A Voyage to Congo River



John Barbot, a Frenchman who lived in the latter part of the 17th century, made at least two trips to the West Coast of Africa. In these excerpts, which were originally published in France in 1682 and translated into English in 1746, Barbot describes the Kingdon of Benin which was at that time one of the principle centers of the slave trade. 

I. Government

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 intrusted 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 assist-ants 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 favor a person so far as to admit him to the king's presence, to represent his own affairs to that prince: and every body knowing their great authority, endeavors on all occasions to gain their favor 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 choose the governors of provinces and towns; but every one of them is subordinate to, and dependent on the aforementioned 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 knight-hood 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 they lose it by carelessness, or any other accident, or if stolen from them, they forfeit their heads, and are accordingly executed without re-mission. 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 from him, the thief who owned 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 any 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 honored by the prince with some post of trust in the nation.

The third rank of public 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 from 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 honor.

All the said officers from the highest to the lowest, being men that love money, are easily bribed: so that a person sentenced to death, may purchase his life if he is wealthy in lovelies, the money of this country; and only poor people are made examples of justice, as we see is no less practiced 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 from him, that they have been bribed, for preventing the execution of any person condemned.

II. 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 honor 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 Renin, 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 an affable behavior. His mother is still living, to whom he pays very great respect and reverence, and all the people after his example honor her. She lives apart from 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 counselors: 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 composed 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 crowd 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 Absalom 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 every body is obliged to make way for him, though' 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 honored, 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 looked 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.

III. Revenue

The king's income is very great, his do-minions 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 Boeyies, 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 household; 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 imponed 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, these would amount to an incredible sum.

IV. Wars

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 known 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. Where-with, 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 neighbors 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, Issaoo and Oedoba, from whom he receives considerable yearly tributes, except from him of Issabo, who, though much more potent than all the others, yet pays the least.

V. Army

To speak now something of the soldiery in the king's 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, cutlasses and bucklers or shields; but so slight, and made of small Bamboos, that they cannot ward off any thing that is forcible, and so are rather for show than for defense. 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 center, and generally wear a scimitar hanging at their side, by a leather girdle fastened under their armpits, 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 neighbors 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 upon 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 endeavoring to out-do another in that particular, than to surpass him in valor 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 tiger skin, or a civet cat's, and a long wide cap on their heads, like the dragoons caps in France, with a horsetail pretty long hanging at the tip of it. Thus equipped, they mount their horses, to whose 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 Bamboo 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, covered with a net, filled with peas and brass bells, and hung or tied at the end of a wooden handle, to hold it by.

When returned home from 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 al-ways 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 neighbors to the north and northwest, 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.


. From: John Barbot, An Abstract of a Voyage to Congo River, or the Zair, and to Cabinde, in the Year 1700 in Awnsham and John Churchill, A Collection of Voyages and Travels (London; Henry Linton and John Osborn, 1746), V, 367-370. Reprinted in Robert O. Collins, ed., Western African History (New York; Marcus Wiener, 1990) pp. 179-183.

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