Then Again





The Guinea Coast



This document, written by an anonymous Portuguese sailor, describes the kingdom of Benin around 1525. 

From the island of Sal, we went to the island of San Jacobo, or Capoverde. This is 15 degrees north of the equator, and a journey southwards of 30 leagues. This island is about 17 leagues long and has a city on the coast with a great port called la Ribera grande because it is between two high mountains and is reached by a large river of fresh water whose source is about two leagues away. From the mouth of this river to the city there are vast groves on either bank of oranges, cedars, lemons, pomegranates, figs of every kind, and for the last few years they have been planting palms which produce coconuts, or Indian nuts. All kinds of herbs grow well here, but their seeds are not good for sowing the following year, so each year they bring new plants cultivated in Spagna [Spain]. This city faces south and is built of good houses of stone and chalk in which numerous Portoghesi and Castigliani [Castilians] live; and there are more than 500 families. A corregedor, appointed by our king, lives there, and every year they elect two judges, one of whom supervises the harbor and navigational matters, the other dispensing justice among the people of the said island and the surrounding ones. This island is very mountainous and has many rough places barren of any trees, but the valleys are well cultivated. During the period of the tropic of cancer, that is, in June, it rains almost continuously, and the Portoghesi call it the moon of the rains [la luna de las aquas]. At the beginning of August they begin to sow grain, which they call zaburro, or, in the West Indies, mehiz maize]. It is like chick pea and grows all over these islands and all along the African coast and is the chief food of the people. It is harvested in 40 days. They sow plenty of rice and cotton, which flourishes well, and when gathered, the people work this into different kinds of colored material, which is marketed along the whole coast, that is, the negro country, and bartered among the negro slaves.

To understand the negro traffic, one must know that over all the African coast facing west there are various countries and provinces, such as Guinea, the coast of Melegete, the kingdom of Benin, the kingdom of Manicongo, six degrees from the equator and towards the south pole.

There are many tribes and negro kings here and also communities which are partly Mohammedan and partly heathen. These are constantly making war among themselves. The kings are worshipped by their subjects, who believe that they come from heaven and speak of them always with great reverence, at a distance and on bended knees. Great ceremony surrounds them, and many of these kings never allow themselves to be seen eating, so as not to destroy the belief of their subjects that they can live without food. They worship the sun and believe that spirits are immortal and that after death they go to the sun. Among others, there is in the kingdom of Benin an ancient custom, observed to the present day, that when the king dies, the people all assemble in a large field, in the center of which is a very deep well, wider at the bottom than at the mouth. They cast the body of the dead king into this well, and all his friends and servants gather round, and those who are judged to have been most dear to and favored by the king (this includes not a few, as all are anxious for the honour) voluntarily go down to keep him company. When they have done so, the people place a great stone over the mouth of the well, and remain by it day and night. On the second day, a few deputies remove the stone, and ask those below what they know, and if any of them have already gone to serve the king; and the reply is, No. On the third day, the same question is asked and someone then replies that so-and-so, mentioning a name, has been the first to go and so-and-so the second. It is considered highly praiseworthy to be the first, and he is spoken of with the greatest admiration by all the people and considered happy and blessed. After four or five days all these unfortunate people die. When this is apparent to those above, since none reply to their questions, they inform their new king who causes a great fire to be lit near the well, where numerous animals are roasted. These are given to the people to eat, and he, with great ceremony, is declared to be the true king and takes the oath to govern well.

The negroes of Guinea and Benin are very haphazard in their habits of eating. They have no set times for meals, and eat and drink four or five times a day, drinking water, or a wine which they distil from palms. They have no hair except for a few bristly strands on top of the head, and none grows, and the rest of the bodies are completely hairless. They live for the best part of 100 years and are always vigorous, except at certain times of the year when they become very weak, as if they had fever. They are then bled, and recover, having a great deal of blood in their system. Some of the negroes in this country are so superstitious that they worship the first object they see on the day of recovery. A kind of plant called melegete, very like the sorghum of Italia, but in flavor like pepper, grows on this coast. A kind of pepper also grows here, which is very strong, double the strength of the pepper of Calicut, and which, because it has a small stem attached to it, is called by us Portoghesi pimienta dal raba that is, pepper with a tail; It is very like cubeb in shape, but has such a strong flavor that an ounce of it has the same effect as half a pound of common pepper; and as it is forbidden, there are heavy penalties for gathering it on this coast. There is, nevertheless, a secret trade in it, and as it is sold in Inghilterra [England] at double the price of common pepper, our king, feeling that it would ruin trade in the larger quantity [of common pepper] which is taken every year from Calicut, decided that none should be allowed to trade in it. They also grow certain bushes with stems as long as beans, with seeds inside, which have no flavour; but the stem, when chewed, has a delicate ginger flavour. The negroes call them unias, and use them, together with the said pepper, when they eat fish, of which they are very fond. The soap maue ot ashes and palm oil, also forbidden by the said king, is very effective in whitening the hands, and so also is cloth made of flax, which is commonly used as soap.

All the coast, as far as the kingdom of Manicongo, is divided into two parts, which are leased [to European traders–ed.] every four or five years to whoever makes the best offer, that is, to be able to go to contract in those lands and ports, and those in this business are called contractors, though among us they would be known as appaltadon; and their deputies, and no others may approach and land on this shore, or even buy or sell. Great caravans of negroes come here, bringing gold and slaves for sale. Some of the slaves have been captured in battle, others are sent by their parents, who think they are doing their children the best service in the world by sending them to be sold in this way to other lands where there is an abundance of provisions. They are brought as naked as they are born, both males and females, except for a sheepskin cloth; and they have glass rosaries of various colors and articles made of glass, copper, brass, and cotton cloths of different colors, and other similar things used throughout Ethiopia. These contractors s take the slaves to the island of San Jacobo where they are bought by merchant captains from various countries and provinces, chiefly from the Spanish Indies. These give their merchandise in exchange and always wish to have the same number of male and female slaves because otherwise they do not get good service from them. During the voyage, they separate the men from the women, putting the men below the deck and the women above, where they cannot see when the men are given food because otherwise the women would do nothing but look at them. Regarding these negroes, our king has had a castle built on the said coast, at Mina, 6 degrees north of the equator, where none but his servants are allowed to live, and large numbers of negroes come to this place with grains of gold, which they have found in the riverbeds and sand and bargain with these servants, taking various objects from them in exchange; principally glass necklaces or rosaries, and another kind made of a blue stone, not lapis lazali, but another stone which our king causes to be brought from Manicongo, where it is found. These rosaries are in the form of necklaces and are called coral; and a quantity of gold is given in exchange for them, as they are greatly valued by all the negroes. They wear them round their necks as a charm against spirits, but some wear necklaces of glass, which are very similar, but which will not bear the heat of fire.

From: G. B. Ramusio, Navigationi e viaggi (1550), I, 125-129, in Europeans in West Africa, 1450-1560 (London; Longmans, Green and Co, Ltd., 1937), I, 145-153 (Vol. xiv in the Royal Commonwealth Society's Imperial Studies Series), trans. from the Italian and edited by John William Blake. Reprinted in Robert O. Collins, ed., Western African History (New York; Marcus Wiener, 1990) pp. 175-179.

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