III.—Some Remarks on the Origin, Manners,
Customs, and Superstitions of the Gallinas People of Sierra Leone
By J. M. HARRIS, F.R.G.S., F.A.S.L.
[Extracted from Memoirs Read at the Anthropological Society, vol. 2 (1866), pp. 25-36.]
The tribe or people now known under the name of "Gallinas," in consequence of their being located upon the banks of the river so called by the Spanish and Portuguese slave-traders, appears to be an offshoot of the great Mandingo nation; and from what I have gathered in conversation with the elders of the tribe, I should imagine that they migrated from the interior beyond the Koronkho country to the seaboard, about two hundred years ago.
It is not easy to ascertain the precise cause of their starting on this journey, but it was most probably undertaken for the purpose of enriching themselves by the plunder of the people whom they encountered on their route, as they carried terror into all the countries traversed by them, capturing small towns and unprotected villages, and spreading desolation wherever they passed. They might also have been originally actuated by religious motives, and a desire to proselytise the the heathen tribes which lay between their own country and the sea. But whatever was the original motive of their undertaking such a journey, it is certain that the ancestors of the actual inhabitants of the Gallinas country forced their way through some two hundred and fifty miles of country, marching from town to town, allowing such of the inhabitants as chose to do so to join them, and become amalgamated with them, and making slaves of those who refused to join them, either for their own use, or to be sent back as slaves to the country from which the emigrants started. By these means gathering strength and numbers as they proceeded, they became very numerous, and eventually reached the coast at Cape Mount.
At the period of their advent to this place, the natives of
Cape Mount had, according to tradition, suffered much from the ravages of an
enormous boa constrictor, and applied to the head war-man, or leader of the new
comers, to assist them in getting rid of the monster, promising him a handsome
reward if successful. The chief undertook the enterprise, and slew the reptile;
for which exploit he was made to assume its name, and received a more
substantial remuneration in the shape of a wife, and the land on the Gallinas
river, with the islands in the lagune at the bar.
The account which they give of this adventure, and of their migration from the interior, do not seem by any means improbable, and are in accordance with the present habits of the Gallinas people; as even now parties of young men frequently start off to any place in the vicinity, when war breaks out amongst their neighbours, and offer their services to either side, with a view to enrich themselves by capturing prisoners, of whom they make slaves, and carry back with them to their own homes. It is also the practice of the coast people when any dispute arises, to send messengers and presents to some one of the chiefs in the interior, asking his assistance to fight against any particular people. This chief then makes known to his family that a messenger has come "to buy war," and that he has agreed to espouse the cause of those seeking his aid. This is enough; for the people are only too glad of an opportunity of plundering, and are by no means particular as to the cause of quarrel, nor which side they take in settling it; and when once they are induced to set out and proceed to the coast, they are frequently more trouble to their friends pro tem., than to their enemies. As a rule, they are arrant cowards; and after making a great parade and blustering about what they will do when they start, they require their chief to make a sacrifice to ensure their success, when, having eaten up nearly everything he and his people have, they proceed to "pull country fashion," as they term it; that is, to go through a ceremony, similar to fortune-telling or divination, to ascertain the period ordained by the fates as most propitious for making their attack upon the barricade of their enemy. [p.27] This ceremony is frequently performed by a Mohammedan, who pretends to have gained his knowledge from what is written in the Koran, which he professes to read and study very devoutly for some time beforehand, and then asserting that he has had a dream, states that it will be necessary to make a sacrifice, consisting of such things as a white sheep with two black spots, a blye of rice, and a piece of white cloth. The sheep is killed in some sacred place; the warriors smear themselves with the blood, then cook the meat with the rice, which they devour, and proceed to make a night of it, yelling and dancing to their hearts' content. This is occasionally varied by some of the warriors, who "pull kootoo;" that is make a display of their valour by fighting with an imaginary enemy.
In this way, one of them will work himself into a high state of excitement, and rush into the centre of a ring, where about a dozen others, armed with muskets (of course not loaded), swords, knives, etc., appear to be attempting to conquer this one man, who however, as a matter of course, is allowed to come off the victor; when he commences to improvise a song, in which he proclaims and glorifies the valour of his chief, boasts of what he will do, and what trophies he will bring back, etc., etc., ad libitum. The scene is repeated in succession by each man who has any claim to the name of warrior. This, with dancing, is kept up until their supply of rum is finished, and they, becoming tired out, drop off to sleep.
When the medicine-man finds that he can obtain nothing more from them without a show of work, he starts them off to the attack. They scatter in the bush, and work their way in small parties to some place in the neighbourhood of the town to be assaulted, when they arrange the order of battle, and generally send some lads up to the stockade, who attempt to scale it, so as to discover if the offenders are asleep, or not upon the watch; in which case, the warriors proper then come up and get into the stockade, when, by rushing about in a frantic manner from one side to the other, and cutting anyone whom they may encounter, they cause a panic amongst the enemy, who evacuate the stockade, and there being no resistance, the assailants are very brave, and chop away right and [p.28] left. After all the fighting men have bolted,, they commence making prisoners. Any man, woman, or child seized becomes the slave of the captor, and it frequently happens that those who do the least fighting obtain the most plunder.
The battle being at an end, the younger individuals of the party are set on the watch, whilst the warriors collect the prisoners and booty. On the other hand, it most often is the case, that the inhabitants of the town which is the object of the attack, are on the alert, and the watch gives the alarm if any unusual noise is heard in the bush, in which case the intended assailants run off and declare the war spoilt, saying, that their sacrifice was unsuccessful, and they return home to go through the same ceremony again; and this sort of thing continues until both sides are tired of the war and have nothing left worth plundering, when the hired mercenaries go back to their own country, generally carrying with them into slavery as many of their friends as of their foes; for when the war is over and they start homeward, u all is fish that comes to their net.
The Gallinas people, as well as their neighbours, show considerable ingenuity in the construction of the stockades above mentioned, which are generally square, with a small tower at each corner, with loopholes for musketry, or, if they have them, they mount a few small cannon, to command each angle. The fences are made of live-sticks, planted about three inches apart, and which take root quickly; these have other sticks bound across them horizontally with a very strong and pliable vine; these horizontal sticks are two or three feet above each other on the fence, which is about eight feet in height; at the top of the fence they place wicker-work, to prevent the enemy from jumping over. A second fence, of similar construction, but with the sticks nearer together, is placed about six feet within the first; and there is sometimes a third fence, but farther in the interior; where suitable wood is not easily obtainable, walls of solid mud or clay are substituted for fences; in this case the mud is first well kneaded and made into balls, which are then placed in position and left to dry, after which they are plastered over and made smooth (I have [p.29] seen houses built in this way which would support an upper story, and after standing some time, would become like a piece of solid masonry); but usually, when their fortifications (if they deserve the name) are constructed in this manner, they have a trench or ditch between the two walls. Such stockades, as I have attempted to describe, if defended by determined men, well armed, and with a good supply of ammunition, are exceedingly difficult of capture by such ill-organised soldiers as are brought against them. I knew an instance in which a stockade, at a town called Sourah, defended by Mohammedans, successfully resisted an attack for several days, when the besiegers had recourse to fire, and so burned the garrison alive, for not one of them would surrender.
The Gallinas people still sometimes use bows and arrows, and appear to have retained many of the customs and habits of their ancestors, who I have little doubt were pure Mandingoes.
Some persons think the Gallinas are identical with
the Veys; but this, I think, is a mistake, as in my opinion the Vey nation is
confined to the district between Capes Mount and Mesurado; however, the Gallinas
people speak the Vey language, from mixing with their neighbours. I think that
the Vey language is really a dialect of the Mandingo, as is also the Soosoo, as
the Mandingo is a bastard Arabic. I consider the history of the Gallinas tribe
to be very interesting; and there can be no doubt that they are strangers to the
country which they now possess and inhabit, as I have heard all their traditions
related by King Sandfish, who was probably fully one hundred and twenty years
old when he died in 1862. I have also seen the graves of the men of the tribe
who first established themselves on the coast, concerning whom I could, if the
limits of this paper would permit, furnish further information. These people
have apparently, for many years, acted as brokers to the slave-dealers, and for
a long period depended entirely upon the slave-trade for means of obtaining
food, clothing, etc., etc.; and it is only within the last few years that
they have turned their attention to work, in the same manner Boom people do;
when first I went to reside in the Sherbro, in [p.30]
1855, the rice purchased in the Bagroo, Jong, and Boom, was taken to the
Gallinas people for sale, as the latter never grew enough provisions for
themselves. The soil of the Gallinas country is sandy, barren, and unfit for
cultivation; and it is a mistake to suppose, as some do, that this country
produces any article of export, for it is the Crim country on the one side, and
Goorah on the other, where the produce is collected. The cloths are made
principally in Kissy, and find their way down to the coast as a medium of
exchange for salt and other commodities. There are very many of the Gallinas
people who carve wood, palm-nuts, etc., and who make wooden spoons and
plates as well as iron-work of different kinds.
As a rule, the Gallinas people are inveterate gamblers; they play various games, the principal one being called by them warri, but it is common to nearly all parts of Africa under different names. It is played with a board having twelve holes, and forty-eight seeds. One of these boards I have the pleasure of presenting to the museum of the Anthropological Society of London, which will show the style of carving executed by the Gallinas people. They have many other games besides warri; and they frequently play until they have lost everything they possess, even placing their wives and children in pledge, and, as a last resource, stake their own liberty on the chances of the game.
Although really possessing no definite form of religion of their own, the Gallinas all, more or less, profess Mohammedanism; and the chiefs usually send their sons into the interior for several years to learn the Mandingo tongue. They are excessively superstitious, and have almost unlimited belief and confidence in anything made by any bookmen; that is, people who have a written language, as Mohammedans, or Europeans, Americans, etc. Of this weakness and credulity the Mohammedans take advantage, and make charms by writing a few words from the Koran on paper or parchment, which they sew up in cloth, or put in goat or sheep horns, and cover them with leather. These charms can of course be made to counteract any evil influence according to the wish of the purchasers; and some are supposed to have the virtue of resisting [p.31] lead or steel, but generally the wearers or possessors object to have the test applied by a white man, as they say he is a bookman. Another indispensable requisite is that the wearer should be in fighting trim, and place implicit confidence in the charm, as a want of faith entirely destroys its efficacy. Singularly enough, they hold a crucifix to be the most efficient charm, which is locally called a balsam, and they imagine that with, this on their person nothing can harm them; this is doubtless derived from their seeing the Portuguese slavers constantly wearing a crucifix, as they suppose for protection. One of the most noteworthy of their institutions is the porra, which, under different names is, I believe, common to most parts of Africa. Amongst the Gallinas, the porra is of two kinds, religious and political: the women have also a similar institution of their own, called boondoo, to which men are not admitted. The porra is to my knowledge practised as far as Sugary. I have been in "porra bushes" at Sugary, on the seaboard, and at Firo, in the interior, to the east, where I have met messengers from the chiefs of the Vey country, which lies, as I have before said, between Cape Mount and Cape Mesurado; and from this I infer, that they have also the porra in that country. No person is admitted into the religious porra without being circumcised; he must also live in the porra bush, apart from the rest of the population, for a certain time, during which time no female must set eyes on him, and he is supposed, in country parlance, to have been eaten by the porra devil. After his initiation, when he is about to be released from the porra bush, a porra name is given to him, such as Banna Cong, etc., etc., and he is then supposed to have been delivered from the belly of the porra devil. The ceremony of the initiation of neophytes is only performed twice a year, and the number of men and boys brought out in this manner at one town, upon each occasion, frequently amounts to fifty. It is a time of great rejoicing; a holiday is kept at the town in which it takes place, and dancing, drinking, feasting, firing of guns, etc., is kept up, night and day, until their supplies are exhausted.
The second kind of porra—the political—appears to be more select than the former, and is chiefly used for the purpose [p.32] of arranging the affairs of the nation, settling disputes between different tribes or sections of tribes, and also for enforcing the laws of the country in cases of dissensions among the people. It immediately stops any quarrel which is supposed to be taken in hand by the chiefs for settlement, and the matter in dispute has then to be argued in the harry, by both parties, before the chiefs and head men, who sit as a jury. This porra frequently meets in cases of war between two tribes, with which, however, it has no connexion, and steps in between the belligerents to settle the dispute and stop the war. The people comprising the porra deputation are always held sacred; and should any of them be injured by either party, the whole of the tribes would take the matter up. The porra, I believe, originated with the Mendi and Timmanee Mo Banta people. Native Mohammedans from the interior do not join the religious porra; but many of the Creole Mohammedans (by which term I mean Mohammedans born in the country) join the porra, with a view of preventing the chiefs from planning anything injurious to them without their knowledge. Any plot which is being concocted by the chiefs against an individual, is always first talked over in the porra bush, all the members of the porra being under oath not to divulge it, so that the people, always jealous of the influence obtained by Mohammedans in their country, yet afraid of their power as a religious sect, concoct measures to injure them in the secret porra bush; and it is common for them to form a porra for any special purpose, such as sending a deputation to any neighbouring people to buy their aid in getting up a war against another tribe, and many other matters in which assistance is required. In political porras, all porra-men are not admitted, but only those of great influence, or trustworthy slaves. I have been present at porras where no person but an undoubted chief has been admitted.
In my long intercourse with these people, I have seen many phases of this institution, but can scarcely explain them all in this short paper.
The boondoo is an association very similar in character to the porra, but it is peculiar to the women; the ceremonies are [p.33] much the same as those of the porra. There is a boondoo bush as well as a porra bush, which is kept as jealously sacred from the men as the porra bush is from the women. The usual mode of procedure is to take girls of eight or nine years of age into the bush, situated in the densest part of the forest, where they are kept under the strictest surveillance by the old women who have charge of the bush. After the girls have been a certain time in the bush, they learn the songs and dances with which they accompany almost every occupation of their lives, such as working at their farm, carrying water, paddling canoes, preparing food, funerals, and weddings,—in fact, there is scarcely a meeting of half-a-dozen boondoo women without an accompaniment of this dismal chanting. The novices having completed their education in this respect, they are operated upon at certain phases of the moon in a manner similar to that of the porra men, the clitoris being excised: this operation is, I believe, always performed at midnight, and when the moon is at the full, the women remaining in the bush all night, singing, dancing, and "making night hideous." After this operation, the backs and loins of the girls are cut in such a manner as to raise and leave marks of certain forms in a kind of relief; how this is done I cannot say, but I have seen many girls and women having their loins covered with these scars, about the eighth of an inch above the surface of the skin. I should imagine that the effect desired is produced by keeping the wound, when fresh made, irritated by some substance, so that when healed the lumps remain. This scoring is entirely distinct from the tattooing of the New Zealanders, and the tribal marks of the Kroomen. After their initiation, and other ceremonies, the girls have new names given to them, which are called boondoo names; such as Taroo, Sattiah, etc. When they have the boondoo bush, the girls can recover a fine from all who do not call them by their boondoo names. The girls do not, however, remain long in the bush after the necessary rites are completed and they have recovered from the operation incidental to the occasion, but there is a ceremony to be gone through on their departure, called "pulling them from the boondoo." In connexion with [p.34] the boondoo, there are two or three "devils", but these, unlike those of the porra, may be seen by the general public. The "devils" are said to be the oldest women of the town; but this I do not believe, as from the violent exercise they go through in dancing, and from their generally erect posture, I should think none of the old women would be capable of supporting the fatigue which these "devils" undergo on certain occasions; in fact, it is my opinion that the role of the "devil" is played by a strong and active young man. The dress of the "devil" comprises a mask made of the bark of a tree, and which goes completely over the head and rests on the shoulders, similar to a theatrical mask ; it has long grass by way of a wig, and a long robe of cloth hangs to it, the feet and legs being also hidden by other cloths pendant from the waist and knees, and over all is a fringe of long grass which completely covers the performer, and when agitated gives him a most peculiar appearance; the "devils" each carry a small broom, and looking at the frightful appearance presented by the whole make up, they are not altogether unworthy the name they usurp. The girls, when removed from the boondoo-bush, are not allowed to wear any ornaments, such as beads, etc., so they substitute pieces of wood stained of different colours, which they string together, and wear round the waist, as well as coloured straws strung together in the same manner. As a badge of maidenhood, they wear a long narrow strip of cloth, about an inch and a half wide, and nine or ten yards long, this is worn by other virgins as well as the boondoo girls; but the distinctive mark of a boondoo girl, when unmarried, is a small black shell, shaped like that of a whelk, in which the boondoo women put a gri~gri, or charm, and stop the orifice with wax, into which they stick three small red beads, this appendage they are not on any account allowed to remove. The boondoo girls remain in the position of novices until given in marriage by the family to some man who demands their hand; the suitor, if accepted, must then incur the expense of having his bride elect "washed from the boondoo", which ceremony is usually performed when the bridegroom is ready to take his bride home, that is to say, on her reaching the age of puberty.
When the wedding day arrives, the girl is attired in her
bridal dress, with beads, silver chains, and other ornaments, and the day is
spent in feasting, dancing, etc., as is usual with these people on all
important occasions. Two of the boondoo girls, companions of the bride,
perform the boondoo dance, and are dressed for the occasion in jackets
ornamented with beads, and skirts made of the boulow grass, which, being
very full, give them somewhat the appearance of our ballet girls; indeed, many
of the attitudes into which they throw their lithe bodies, and some of the
difficult and intricate pas
which they execute, would be received with applause in any of our theatres. The
accompaniment to which they dance is the sound of the drum (an instrument
without which no town
would be complete), and the voices and clapping of hands in time of the women
and girls, who stand in a ring, as also to the music of some small hollow pieces
of iron which are attached to the legs of the performers, and jingle with every
The boondoo laws are very strict in the Gallinas country; and any man proved to have had intercourse with a girl during the time of her novitiate, would, if a poor man and a slave, be stripped of all he possessed, and possibly killed; if a free man,—rich, and of good family,—a fine so heavy would be inflicted that the payment thereof would, very probably, entail ruin on him and all connected with him. I have never known the observances of the boondoo carried out so strictly as by the people residing within the limits of the country between the northern border of the Gallinas and Cape Mount, and extending back in the interior as far as the Goorah country. The people of Sherbro have the boondoo, but do not practise it so strictly as the Gallinas. The Soosoo people, to the northward of Sierra Leone, have an institution called the Seimo; but I am not aware if it is known in other parts of Africa, and rather think that it is not, as many of the liberated Africans in Sierra Leone among whom are to be found individuals of nearly every West African tribe have told me that no such institution exists in their country.
The origin of the custom must, I think, be attributed to [p.36] polygamy; as the idea entertained by the natives is, that after the women have undergone the operation I have mentioned, they are less lascivious than they would otherwise be; and as it is a common thing for a man to have twenty wives or more, if he can afford to get them, he not being able to keep them all in his house, without some such means of keeping their desires in check, believes that he thus relieves himself from their importunities, and also removes, in a great measure, their inclination to intrigue with others, of which he is very jealous. Another custom, common to the Gallinas and all parts of west Africa, is also the result of polygamy, and has been adopted for much the same reason; I allude to the practice of the wife having no intercourse with her husband, or any other man, from the time of the birth of a child until it is able to walk and talk, as they imagine that in the event of the mother having carnal connexion during the period that the child is being suckled, which frequently extends over two or three years, that the infant will die. Whether the men believe this themselves, I cannot affirm; but they always impress the women with a conviction of its truth, with a view to induce them to be less troublesome to their husbands, and less likely to indulge in illicit intercourse with others.