ABOUT THE KROOMEN.
A visit from Sam the First. The Big Brother. A bad bargain. Favourite investments. "Chop-Dollar." A remarkable toilet. Kroomen's physique. Kroomen's moral nature. Fetish. Kingsley on Fetish. "Gre-gre." "Fetish no can touch white man." A demand for over-exposed photographs. A theft. "Fetish will have you." Retribution. Sam's aspirations. My regrets. "Is it too late?"
THE day after Christmas was also a holiday in Garrison, and we had a visit during the morning from our old friend Sam the first, in Sunday suit, along with another Krooman whom he introduced as his "chum."
"We come wish you merry Christmas-time," said Sam ; and we thanked them, hoping in turn that they had had a happy Christmas.
"No, ma, me no happy Christmas, other man drink it all," said Sam.
I didn't quite understand him at first, but it gradually dawned upon me that, to poor Sam's thinking, Christmas happiness was in proportion to the amount of bubbly-water he could consume.
How I wish we could show our good will to these poor fellows in some other way than by giving them "something to drink!" But there are so few things that they appreciate. Some of them, indeed, accept money eagerly, but for the most part they "no care." And it is no wonder, for all the money they earn has to be given up to the Big Brother.
Although it is an undoubted fact that the. Krooman cannot live as a slave, and has been known in slavery to starve himself to death, yet this Big Brother system almost amounts to bondage. It has its origin in this way:
Very often a well-to-do, long-headed Krooman seeks out a few miserable starving countrymen in the interior, brings them down to Sierra Leone, feeds and clothes them there for a time, and then ships them on board a man-of-war, on condition that they bring him back all the money they earn.
Each of our ships of war on the West Coast of Africa is allowed to employ a fixed number of these men (proportional to her crew), and they are invaluable in that climate for all hard work involving exposure to the sun. They make splendid boatmen, and are able to maintain communication with the land when no blue-jacket could take a boat through the surf ; so the Little Brothers, paid by our navy beyond their wildest expectations (9d. a day), soon begin to discover that they have made a bad bargain. Yet their sense of honesty, combined with their fear of Fetish, is sufficiently strong to make them keep to it in the letter, though they do not scruple to break it in the spirit. Either they grow reckless about their savings, or else spend every sixpence they earn in goods to which the Big Brother can lay no claim.
Clothing is their favourite mode of investment, and some of their wardrobes must be a rare sight. There is nothing they won't buy, especially if it be European ; and no doubt they astonish their friends at home by donning their heterogeneous attire when they return to Fatherland. Doubtless also they deck out their mothers and wives and sisters in serge gowns and Dolly Varden hats. Filial affection is one of the many virtues of this African race, and they store up the most extraordinary treasures for their old people.
Some time before our arrival there was a sale by auction of the wardrobe of an officer lately deceased, at which the Kroomen bought largely ; and as they bore off their various purchases on their persons, some striking figures were presented to the sketcher.
"Chop-Dollar," who is a reputed Croesus, became very much excited, bid wildly for an Ulster, and having secured it, proceeded at once to put it on. Then a dress-coat fell to his share, and that was put atop of the Ulster, tied by the arms round the neck. Next a tall hat and hat-box. The hat was promptly clapped upon his head ; the box he placed between his feet, and continued bidding until it was filled with handkerchiefs, collars, ties, and other small goods. Then, thinking no doubt that he had done his duty, and defrauded the Big Brother of enough of money for a time, he proceeded triumphantly to Krootown, bearing the loaded hat-box, Krooman-like, on his head atop of the hat, and accompanied by a dusky crowd, grotesque in newly-purchased attire, and all laughing and chattering in their usual good-humoured way.
We became deeply interested in the history and character of these men-whose industry, honesty, and imperturbable good-nature make them such valuable servants. Physically, the Kroomen are well-formed ; of a medium height, and stoutly built, with woolly pates, and of an open, pleasant countenance, black-very black, though it be. A stripe of blue tattooing runs down from where the wool begins to grow, to the point of the broad flat nose. The mouth is better cut, and the lips less thick than those of the real African negro ; but, on the other hand, they cannot boast of their beautiful teeth, and the Kroomen further disfigure theirs by filing out a triangular space between the two front ones. Yet the smile is pleasing, and has a wonderful brightness in it, lighting up the whole of the dark face like a sudden sunbeam, and a kind word has the power of calling it forth at all times.
The moral nature of the Krooman is undoubtedly high, and one eminently fitted to receive Christianity. Many of them indeed do attend the English Church service, and a few I believe have been baptized ; but, generally speaking, the reverence that the greater part of them have for Christianity is due to a belief that "white man's Fetish better than black man's."
This Fetish worship is common to all negro races, and exists among them in many other parts of the world under slightly different forms. Kingsley found it very strong in the West Indies, and gives much interesting information on the subject ; but the system seems to have become so involved that it is impossible to trace it, the worshippers themselves being the most ignorant of what they worship.
With regard to it Kingsley says: "Here, perhaps, I may be allowed to tell what I know about this curious question of Obeah or Fetish worship. It appears to me, on closer examination, that it is not a worship of natural objects not a primaeval worship ; scarcely a worship at all but simply a system of incantation carried on by a priesthood, or rather a sorcerer class ; and this being the case, it seems to me unfortunate that the term ' Fetish worship ' should have been adopted by so many learned men as the general name for the supposed primaeval Nature-worship. The negro does Dot, as the primaeval man is supposed to have done, regard as divine (and therefore as Fetish or Obeah) any object which excites his admiration ; anything peculiarly beautiful, noble, or powerful ; anything even which causes curiosity or fear. In fact, a Fetish is no natural object at all ; it is a spirit, an Obeah, Jumby, Duppy, like the 'Duvvels' or spirits of the air, which are the only deities of which our gipsies have a conception left. That spirit belong-, to the Obeah, or Fetish-man, and he puts it by magic ceremonies into any object which lie chooses. Thus anything may become Obeah as far as I have ascertained. In a case which happened very lately, an Obeah-man came into the country, put the Obeah into a fresh monkey's jaw-bone, and made the people offer to it fowls and plantains, which, of course, he himself ate. Such is Obeah now, and such it was when the Portuguese first met with it on the African coast four hundred years ago."
As far as I can gather, the Kroomen believe strongly too in the power of certain charms, called "gre-gre," to propitiate Fetish. These charms are generally worn on their persons, and may consist of a finger-nail ; of a lock of hair, human or belonging to some animal ; of a couple of small pebbles carried in a bag round the neck ; indeed, of anything, as Kingsley says of Fetish.
But at the same time one must not confound the two. The gre-gre is merely a charm used against the power of Fetish, which I never knew to be associated with anything beautiful in nature or art, anything calculated to inspire feelings of awe or admiration-but rather of horror and disgust. Indeed the principle of Fetish-worship is not love or even reverence, but fear. The Obeah is always an evil spirit to be propitiated and his trembling worshippers enjoy and envy the boldness of those that dare to defy him.
A naval officer told me that at Sierra Leone he once bought an unshapely block of wood (with a rude head carved on one end of it), which was worshipped as containing the spirit of Fetish. This thing he set suddenly upon the deck one evening when the Kroomen were assembled ; and then contemptuously kicked it over, wishing to try what effect such an act of sacrilege would have upon them. For a moment the black faces looked aghast-almost pale, and then each expanded into a broad grin.
"Will your Fetish hurt me for this?" asked their Captain.
"Oh, no ; Fetish no can touch white man."
Poor souls! it is no wonder that they long to be white and beyond the power of this evil spirit. Indeed, the great desire of their lives is for fair faces, and the photographer at Ascension, who is much patronized by the Kroomen, has frequently been offered double price for an over-exposed picture, because "it make them look white!" Perhaps they thought it would be a gre-gre, and defy the power of Fetish.
A considerable traffic goes on in these charms. An unlucky man begins to get angry with his gre-gre and looks with envy on that belonging to a more fortunate neighbour, who may, in his turn, be casting longing eyes on some other gre-gre which he wishes to purchase, while he is by no means unwilling to part with his own for a fair sum.
While we were at Ascension a favourite pipe disappeared from Krootown, and after some time the enraged owner recognized it in the mouth of a comrade.
"That my pipe." "No, my pipe," persisted the thief, who refused, with the most violent protests, to give it up.
"Very well ; Fetish will have you before four o'clock." But the guilty Krooman was not afraid ; he laughed and said, "Me no caremy gre-gre better than yours."
Now, strange to say, that same afternoon about three o'clock, when the Krooman who had stolen the pipe was throwing away the refuse of the turtle that had just been slain, by some accident he slipped from the pier-head into the sea. These Kroomen are essentially an amphibious race, and seem to feel as much at home in the water as elsewhere, so that no great harm was done ; but the cold bath stirred up a guilty conscience.
With haste and dripping clothes, the affrighted Krooman ran to restore the pipe, and at the same time to offer all his possessions for the powerful gre-gre (a, bit of hair in a dirty little bag), that had brought upon: him such speedy retribution. But no ; its present possessor would on no account part with it, and so lose the pre-eminence it gave him over his fellows ; for ever since this occurrence he has been much "esteemed and respected," and I have no doubt will die "rich and deeply regretted."
Well, it is not very long ago since our clear, blundering, old Scotland believed in gre-gre, called by another name ; and all over the civilized world at this (lay, methinks, men honour men less for their manhood than for their possession of the magic "gre-gre," called in our tongue "success."
After some questioning I found that my Sam was no believer in Fetish, and he laughed when I asked whether lie wore a gre-gre. "No, ma, that no sense."
"Then, are you a Christian, Sam?" I asked ; for he attended our English service regularly.
"No, ma," he replied, with a shake of the head, "but me want to believe what you believeyou tell me how."
Poor Sam! I felt that he was asking me for bread, and I could only give him a stone ; for this conversation took place when our days at Ascension were growing few, and I had the bitterness of knowing that, in my anxiety to help the mind, I had left the spirit unaided. "Time" for my opportunity was almost gone, and "Too late" was near at hand ; but I did the little I could, and I had a willing pupil.
By this time be could read at sight with tolerable case, and before I left, he read to me the 14th chapter of St. John with evident understanding and without a mistake. A little New Testament was my Christmas gift to him, and he promised to persevere in the study of it.
Has he done so? I hope for the best, but my heart was heavy when I parted from him, and is so now when I think of time wasted and a precious opportunity lost.