Mission to Gelele, King of Dahome/Chapter XI
THE KING ENTERS HIS CAPITAL.
Our arrival at the unpleasant domicile which was to be our home for nearly two months was a signal for the Buko-no Uro to begin operations. 1 This belle tete de mort craved an audience, and, after the customary "ambages," requested me to open before him the four boxes of presents forwarded by Her Majesty's Government. His object was to secure the first news for the royal ears, hoping thereby excuse the phrase to curry a little favour. The boxes had been stored in his own magazine ; how- ever, I of course refused to touch them, except inside the palace, and I told him to meddle with them at his peril. He pleaded usage, and the custom of the country. I re- joined that it was a false plea, the present being the first mission from Her Majesty's Government to the King, consequently that there could be no precedent. Hoping, however, thereby to exert some influence in the matter of human sacrifice, I read out my " Message," as instruc- tions are locally called, and regretted to receive only the stereotyped replies. The Buko-no, however, was duly warned, that if any attempt was made to put to death victims in our presence, it would be the signal for our return to Whydah. Which was, of course, duly reported.
The next day, December 21, was to witness the King's ceremonious return to his capital. At noon, a
i The second is a Bo name, belonging to his father.
XI. The King enters his Capital. 203
dusty-browed messenger rushed in, saying that royalty was approaching ; and we heard cannon-shots, denoting that the King was halted at the Adan-blon-noten, receiv- ing the homage of his war chiefs. The Buko-no ordered out his horse and " tail," and presently came in a green sheet to fetch his strangers. I was taken in for the first, and not the last, time before the day of our dismissal. The fact is, this veteran so believed in the usage of Dahome, that he considered us to be, like other white men, during our residence at the capital, mere slaves of the King. I flatter myself that when we left he had greatly modified that opinion. On this occasion, our uniforms having been left at Kana, we were compelled to wear the ordinary mourning attire of Englishmen when they want to be merry. As the King approved of this proceeding, I resolved for the future to confine uniform to the more ceremonious occasions within the palace.
We rode in our hammocks by a short cut, instead of down the broad south-western road, flanking the Agbome Palace. The sun was deadly, not being tempered by the sea-breeze, which, at this season, rarely blows before three P.M. We then turned southwards, along a large thoroughfare, towards the Akochyo-'gbo-nun gate. 1 These streets are formed, like those of Whydah, by the walls of the habitations, thus giving them a populous look: they are, however, mere shams, and forest-bush rises close behind them. On the right there is an open space, with a 10 iron-gun battery scattered upon the ground. We furled our umbrellas, and, dismounting, marched through the gate, a gap in an incontinuous wall, like that before described. It opened upon the Uhun-jro' 2 market, a broad space, whence the huts had been cleared, and
1 Ako (tribe, family), chyo (all), agbo'nun (gate) ; meaning, that all the world must come to visit Dahome.
2 Uhun-jro, or Uhun-jlo, is derived from the fact that a bombax from a conquered place was there transplanted by Gezo.
204 A Mission to Gelele, King of Dahome.
where men were raising a scaffold of tree trunks, barked, and rudely squared. On the other side was the tattered wall of the royal precincts : the lowest of the five courses of mud masonry was much injured by contact with the ground. Passing under a scatter of trees, where women were seated, vending edibles, we remarked a man standing gagged, 1 in front of a drummer, and we were told that he was a criminal, left for* execution at the next Customs. Here the pace was quickened (it is not respectful to pass the Palace except in a hurry), and a summons from the King must be obeyed with ostentatious alacrity. On the left of the road, and distinguished by the careful sweeping of the space in front, is a large fetish-house, a long shed, called Nesu-hwe, and dedicated to Nesu, the peculiar Dahoman fetish, the tutelary numen of the empire.
Turning to the south, we dismounted, as the rule is, at the south-eastern corner of the Komasi Palace, built, as I have said, by King Gezo. We passed the Komasi gate, the usual barn, with twenty-seven wooden posts, and with the two stunted and pollarded trees forming, with a bamboo, the forca, common to every palace gate. To the cross-pieces hung the normal Jo-susu, a little square mat, with narrow perpendicular stripes, alternately red and black, and a calabash, painted in ruddy and whitey-red speckled sections, like those of a melon, and by bundles of Bo-so, freshly painted Bo-sticks or truncheons, at each side, completed the defences of the entrance. From this the ruler will issue to perform the Customs, and his seat will be a little to the proper right of the door. 2 At the time only a few men and women soldiery, with tall white bonnets, like Sepoys' shakoes in
1 The instrument is a Y-shaped stick ; the sharp end touches the palate, whilst the fork embraces the tongue, so that the criminal, however much he may suffer, cannot cry out. The gag is used, because, if a man speak to the King, he must be pardoned.
2 I thereby mean the left side, as one stands opposite it.
XI. The King enters his Capital. 205
former times, lounged at the gate. Thence, guided by the Buko-no, whose band was never silent, we went to a tall tree, near the Agwaji, or southern gate; a large thatch, with sixteen mud pillars; and we placed our stools under its thin shade, witnessing the usual dancing.
The space about the Palace is clear, as in Great Benin ; but here there are no strews of skulls and skele- tons. The only fragment of a man was a cranium, nailed together with a white flag to the trunk, under the lowest boughs of a large tree opposite the Komasi gate. As usual in Yoruba towns, where they build loosely to avoid the fires which annually devastate elbowing Lagos, the open space in which the multitude will gather for the Customs was scattered over with palms, calabashes, and figs, with a natural ablaqueation, their roots having been bared by rain. There were, besides two mean fetish- houses, only three remarkable objects in it. The first was a scaffolding, gradually rising, opposite the palace. The next was the Adanzan, a round house, with rough posts, supporting a conical thatch roof, capped with a white pennon. The two opposite entrances were each flanked by two small sentinel huts, with clay walls, and shaped somewhat like old bee-hives. The interior showed two flights, each of eight mud steps, barred against intruders, and the interior was concealed by screens of matting. Before campaigning, the King here swears, in the presence of his soldiery, what he will do, and listens to their terrible boasting of valour. On such occasions, the roof and screens are removed. 1 The third was a fine Bom- bax, enclosed in a dwarf mud wall, and called Bwekon-uhun, the Bwe-kon cotton-wood, under which Gezo used to sit before he built the Komasi Palace. The name Bwe-kon, 2
1 This was a ceremony introduced by King Gezo. I was told that the present King keeps it up, but during my stay at Agbome it was not performed
2 Bwe (happy), kon (living).
206 A Mission to Gelele, King of Dahome.
meaning a happy or auspicious spot, is also applied to the large southern and detached suburb, divided from the royal house by the open space, and by three wall-less sheds, where the troops sit. It contains the Bwe-kon Hwe-'gbo, or big house, built by Agongoro (Wheenoohew). The other tenements are those of men about Court, and many Aja and Takpa 1 captives are settled here. Beyond Bwe-kon, again, is the Jegbe Palace, of which more here- after.
We observed the place narrowly, on account of its connection with the coming executions. Long strings of people, especially women, who apparently do little else, were passing to and fro, carrying on their heads monstrous baskets and calabashes, " wide as the old Winchester bushel," with food for their mistresses the soldieresses. Shortly after i P.M. two umbrellas, white and pink, pre- ceded by musketeers, announced the arrival of Agbota, senior Governor of Whe-gbo, and of Azogbe, his lieu- tenant. They rode followed by four red caps, the Porto Novian " alufas " : the latter seated themselves a little to our right, under the same tree, but not on chairs.
The next move was the approach of five musketeers bringing provision from the King; one basket containing " Akansan " in leaves, and a bowl of palm stew, the other full of papaws and oranges. Guests are rationed from the palace during their stay in Agbome, where it is almost impossible to buy a sufficiency of food even for a small party ; but the allowance, which is at first liberal, soon waxes small by degrees, especially after the presents are given, and ends in semi-starvation. The King is, doubt- less unaware of this proceeding, which all agree comes from the women officials to whom the royal order has been issued : perhaps, when the time ofdisetteis setting in, a bribe to the " English mother" would put off the evil day. Other slaves then came up, bringing the card-table
i Chapter xxi.
XI. The King enters his Capital. 207
and the old liqueur-case, wherein we found something withal to pass the time. But it is with potables here as with edibles; the stranger begins with the best in the cellar, and ends with trade gin and rum. We soon found the necessity of being accompanied by a little canteen, the gift of my amiable and enterprising friend, Paul du Chaillu ; and it rendered us true service.
Presently, riding a little nag, as if on a side saddle, and shaded by an umbrella hat of woven palm leaves, came the Prince Chyudaton, sucking the usual lettuce leaf, and accompanied by the normal retinue. He lay down on a mat beside his old friend the Buko-no, for whom he entertains a supreme contempt, regarding him, from the proud stand-point of his own civilization, as an ancient bushman who knows nothing of the whites. They ate some " Akansan," and drank water, of which these people always carry a store in bottles, covered, for cool- ness, with quilted jackets. After joining us in a glass of the royal liquor, they propped their heads on their foot- stools and slept the Dahoman practice to while away time. A lately captured Abeokutan was brought before us ; he danced, and seemed to anticipate " capital fun." This is a proof, if one be required, that in Dahome all male adult captives are not killed or sold, and we after- wards saw many of his brotherhood.
At 3.45 P.M., after causing us to sit three mortal hours these people have no bowels of compassion a long line of flags and umbrellas, debouching from the eastern road, 1 formed in masses at the other end of the open space, somewhat as in a theatre. Then, with the braying of trumpets and the beating of drums, they began to pass round in review order. The right shoulder is pre- sented to the King's gate, the Pradakshina of the Hindus, opposed to the Arab Tawaf, or circumambulation, which turns the left side to a venerated object ; and we shall
i The southern entrance is sometimes preferred.
208 A Mission to Gelele, King of Dahome.
observe this in all future processions. The Captains danced and skipped like the Salii, their attendants firing and skirmishing before them. As is customary, the juniors came first, five warriors and worthies of the King leading the rest. 1 They were followed by the Po-su, the " place " of the Matro, and the Gau, in a black felt, riding a "tattoo," and accompanied by his agminal umbrella, of red, blue, and buff colours. Followed three caboocers, 2 and two of the King's half-brothers, Bosu Sau and Nuage. The 1 5th was Assoyon, under a white umbrella, with twelve men dancing and sham-fighting before him ; fol- lowed by Assogban and Akhokhwe, a half-brother of the King, with a fancy umbrella and an escort of seventeen men. Two other caboceers 3 preceded the place of Chyu- daton, who was sitting with us, and the 2ist 4 umbrella ushered in the Bi- wan-ton, a man with a pleasant expres- sion, whose escort was a fancy umbrella and ten men. The Adanejan, habited in a red and blue tunic, and rid- ing, woman-like, a little pony, was preceded by sixty men. firing and dancing, accompanied by plain red and white fancy flags, and followed, like most of the others, by his big drum on a man's head, another beating it from be- hind, as if braining it.
After a short pause, the old Adukonun, a brother of the late king, advanced, followed by the Tokpau, a war chief, who fired his gun from the shoulder, under an um- brella speckled white and blue. The 26th party, that of the Awobi, preceded the Yevo-gan of Whydah with a French tricolour, a white umbrella, and an escort of fifty men : he rode, and waved hands to us as he passed. Four other worthies ushered in the highest official of the
1 Viz., the Aloghan, Akpi, Dokhenun, Akati, and Ahwibame.
2 Viz., the Kade, Jogbwenun, and Apwejekun.
3 Viz., the Akho, with a fancy umbrella and fourteen men, and the Ukwenun, with a white umbrella and nineteen men.
4 Viz., the Tokonun-vissau, who was on horseback.
A7. The King enters his Capital. 209
empire, the senior Min-gan. His dress was a war-tunic and a Lagos smoking-cap ; with pipe in mouth he rode a nag handsomely caparisoned, under a white fancy um- brella. He was numerously escorted, and was followed by a big drum, and by rattles, discoursing hideous music. Being a man of the old school, he studiously avoided looking towards us, lest he might be compelled to salute.
The lesser chiefs, after passing once round the square, if I may so call it, crossed, and formed a line of umbrellas opposite the Komasi gateway. The high dignitaries per- formed their circuits in the order before described, the Min- gan immediately preceding the 33rd party, which was that of the King.
The royal cortege consisted of about 500 musketeers and blunderbuss men : it was preceded by skirmishers, under the command of Adan-men-nun-kon, " Blue" Cap- tain. They were accompanied by one skull standard, and eight flags, white, red, anchor-marked, and fancy ; and they were followed by two gorgeous umbrellas. Im- mediately in front of the King were borne two leather shields, sections of cylinders, white, with black patterns, upraised horizontally at the full length of the bearer's arm. They are a remnant of the old days, when the Dahoman soldiery was armed with muskets, cutting swords, and shields ; the latter carried by boy squires, of whom one was told off for training to each man-at-arms. The weapon is now looked upon as a kind of aegis. Near the shields stalked two big " bold dragoons," in brass helmets and huge black horse-tails. 1 They had guns as long as spears. Behind them, in a white calico case, and capped with a snowy plume, the iron Bo-fetish stick, called " kafo," announced the presence of royalty. The King rode under four white umbrellas ; and three parasols,
i Mr. Norris mentions a troop of forty women, with silver helmets : such wealth has long disappeared. A French merchant presented to King Gezo 100 brilliant casques of pompiers. VOL. I. 14
210 A Mission to Gelele, King of Dahome.
yellow, purple, and blue-red, were waved and twisted over him, to act as fans. When he passed before us, exchang- ing salutes, there was the usual " Tohu wa Bohu," a frantic rush, filling the air with red dust, a swarming of men around him, " riotously and routously," and a feu d'enfer from their weapons. Following a huge fetish axe came the band, mostly boys, whose thirty rattles, thirty cymbals, and dozens of drums, added their din to the wildness of the spectacle. A crowd of slaves then ap- peared, laden with large Gold Coast chairs, boxes and baskets of cowries, bottles, decanters, and other arti- cles : in fact, it was the commissariat, with a suspicion of bakhshish or largesse. The rear was brought up by two shabby war-umbrellas, white and blue, whilst a tattered flag announced the arrie re-garde.
The King went round twice, in an antiquated red- lined vehicle, a mongrel between a cab and a brougham. It was drawn by men, who, at the third circuit, raised it upon their shoulders : the African labourer will do the same with his wheelbarrow. The fourth and fifth tours were made in a Bath chair, a late present from a com- mittee of English philanthropes ; the sixth time it was carried aloft, like the carriage. The royal circuits are usually three ; the extraordinary number was possibly in- tended to afford me an opportunity of " booking " the pro- cession ; besides which, the ruler, being young, is, as will be remarked throughout the Customs, fond of change. The King pressed his mouth with a thick kerchief, to keep out the dust. As an old traveller says of the Whydah monarch, " he seems of a good free temper, and full of mirth and kindness, especially when he intends to beg a boon." This day he looked wearied and cross, an ex- pression not unfrequent upon the brow of royalty in all lands. We must consider, however, that he went a total of ten circuits of the square, representing some five miles of dust and din. We were afterwards informed that he
XL The King enters his Capital. 211
had been slightly indisposed at Kana : but had positively refused to break an appointment with his " white friend." Illness is rare with him: M. Wallon says he was sickly in youth ; despite reports he shows no traces of debility now. It is wonderful to see the amount of labour which he endures in the form of pleasure, and the cheerfulness which he maintains under his enjoyments : he seldom misses a day in public, and he ends by tiring out the whole Court.
When the male chiefs and soldiery had made their sixth round, they joined the line of umbrellas on the south-east of the square. The King then transferred himself and his most gorgeous canopies to the Amazonry, which was massed at the mouth of the eastern road. Presently, preceded by skirmishers, firing, and ringing their sharp bells, the women, forming three corps, that they might appear the more numerous, dashed into the square. The first brigade was that of the she-Ming-an, four white umbrellas and two flags : some were in parade uniform, others in their travelling garb brown tunics. This small party was followed by its band, and, at a short distance, by the twenty-one umbrellas and the five flags of the she-Meu's troop, concluding with their music. After three turns, dancing, singing, and firing muskets and blunderbusses, they retired to the east of the palace.
The royal body-guard, called the Fanti, 1 now appeared upon the stage. Their skirmishers, young women in high training, performed with great agility. Then came twelve fancy flags, escorted by half a dozen razor women, who were followed by a platter, containing a calabash adorned with skulls. Immediately before the King were two crimson leather shields, held up as the others were by the men. The Monarch was carried by twelve women, in a hammock of yellow silk, hanging from a pole, about
i Or Gold Coast Corps, in somewhat better discipline than the late unlamented G.C.A.
212 A Mission to Gelele, King of Dahome.
thirteen feet long, black, set with silver sharks, and shod at both ends with brass. Three royal umbrellas, blue, red, and yellow, defended him from the sun, and he was fanned by three parasols, which were not the same as before. Again we remarked amongst this people the inordinate hankering after change, novelty, and originality, even in the most trivial matters, and the failure which results from their poverty of, or rather their deficiency in, inven- tion. After the royal hammock came the bands rattles, cymbals, and drums with two white umbrellas ; and the rear was brought up by the baskets and baggage of the commissariat, and by the flags of the arriere garde.
After the King had made four circuits, the beginning of the end was shown by the old To-no-nun crouching near our table. " It" was dressed in a blue velvet cap, a blanket jacket, and cotton tights, and " it " looked more like a guenon than a human. Gelele halted opposite us, and sundry of the elder Dakros brought for us four large coloured decanters of rum, and small bottles of trade liqueur, which were received by the chief eunuch. Strangers are sometimes addressed personally at the end of these parades. On the present occasion, fatigue, souring temper, abridged ceremony. The King and Fanti cortege then stood aggrouped to the west of the square, where a heavy salute of blunderbusses was fired. They finally passed round to the east, and slowly defiled through the Komasi gate, folding their umbrellas, in token that the " play " was done. The men soldiers indulged in a frantic carrousel opposite the palace, furiously dragging the empty old brougham round and round, shouting, screaming, and firing their weapons like madmen. We waited till the square was clear of women, and at 5.45 P.M. we retired from the Laus-Perennis of row and riot, with the usual finale to a Dahoman parade a headache. Our guides, the Buko-no and the Prince Chyudaton, retired to break- fast.