University of Rochester Library Bulletin: A Visit to Bonny Island

Volume I · June 1946 · Number 3
A Visit to Bonny Island

We approach Bonny at 4 P.M. There is a foreground of white breakers with a background of blue wooded hills for as far as the eye can reach. Some buoys mark our way across the reef. A vessel (steamer from Fernando Po) has sunk here and her masts only are visible. The river is about five miles wide; its banks are low, but most beautifully wooded, some of the trees being giants. We ascend the river about twelve miles and come to a fleet of fourteen large ships with their moveable masts and spars taken in and a roof of mats over their decks. They are very large hulks, black, with white false portholes, and will contain four hundred puncheons of oil each. They come out here laden with merchandise which they exchange with the natives. These are chiefly gunpowder, guns, swords, and cloth, with some fancy articles to make a dash with after the barter is complete. Formerly a puncheon of oil could be obtained for twenty guns ($1.50 each), ten pistols, ten swords, and a bottle of rum, but now it is much dearer and indeed the competition is so great that the ships obtain their cargo with some difficulty. The oil is ripe in February, the Qua oil a little sooner, the Brass oil latest and best. Payment is reckoned in bars at one shilling each, or in manillas at twenty for about five shillings. The manilla is a copper link like a gasket. After our anchor was dropped the men from the boats flocked on board for letters, the crew of one or two being dressed in red worsted turbans.

The next morning I went on board a ship with Mr. Lowenthal. Captain Carr received us, very kindly giving us breakfast, ale, and much information. He had traded here for thirty years. During the dry (?) season, there are very heavy smokes or fogs here, but some years, as this year, they were much slighter. The natives were formerly eager to sell oil and the Captain thrashed them if they demanded a second dash. Now he must coax and manoeuver to get their trade at all. The deck was covered with a roof of mats supported on branches. A division separated the stern of the vessel from the front; the former, furnished with table, trunks, hammocks, etc., served as a dining room for the captain and his assistants. The forward deck, much lower and hemmed in by bulwarks, held the crew. The scene was peculiar. Casks of oil, a furnace and cauldrons, buckets, men's chests, etc., lay strewn over the deck with some pigs running around among them. From the rafters above hung suspended parrot cages, ropes, pulleys, oars, men's clothes, bunches of fruit, codfish, and many other articles all in the wildest confusion. The captain has powder in the hold and fears fire. Two vessels had caught fire in their covering and burned and exploded.

We rowed down to Ju-Ju town in a boat along a river shore of dense mangrove bushes and higher trees inland a little. A shallow creek, where we often grounded, wound around to the village where there were a few houses and a few boats. We met many Ju-Ju idols before the houses. Most of the houses had a rude porch with a roof of mats and hemmed in by a low stake fence over which we stepped on entering. We visited at once Papa who was overseeing the beating of one of his wives or servants who was tied by hands and feet to two stakes. She yelled and cried, thinking we would interfere, and at length the Ju-Ju man came and ordered her to be released. Papa gave us palm-oil soup and chop and tombo (to drink). I walked about among the houses, the women and children running and locking their doors. I met several who were beautifully painted like tatoo; another was covered with a sort of red powder to get the latter off (with washing). Before one house rude pottery was being made, before another a man wove mats. We walked in the bush and saw many parrots, flying like wounded crows. We walked and saw a heap of elephants' bones, some of them on a raised platform. Also, a little covered shed contained a few skulls of men and many of deer and antelope all rudely painted. Many Cerithium abounded on shore; also, the natives eat large Arca. The village was embowered in banana, pine, and cocoa trees and oil palms. The first of one of the latter was cut down for us; it was red and seemed to weigh twenty-five pounds. They pound this, then boil and skim off the yellow rancid-looking oil. We rowed back in an hour to the steamer; one of our rowers called Sampson was a very large and muscular fellow.

Towards evening we visited Bonny village. Here, as at Ju-Ju town, the houses were built up among the trees which sometimes formed one or more of the corner-posts of the houses. There was a large market place with a tall, lordly cotton tree in the centre where objects of all kinds, chiefly fruits and vegetables, were being sold. Several hundred people, chiefly women, were assembled here. A little farther on was a small irregular square with huts on three sides and two paths crossing it at right angles. In our corner, a little more prominent, was the Ju-Ju house of mats and reeds with a door and large window in front. These were bordered or fringed with a single row of human skulls. At the left on entering was a sort of altar reaching nearly to the roof and shaped into a sort of retreating cell. A large black-bordered mirror headed it, while at the back and on either side were ranges of human skulls interspaced in the centre with those of antelope. All the skulls lacked their lower jaws and were mostly so imbedded in plaster that only the face appeared. This was rudely painted with dingy red, the eye holes were stopped with square plugs on which was painted a black eye. On the altar stood a stuffed iguana and in a box in another part of the room are kept some live ones. The mud floor of the room was rudely inlaid before the altar with human skulls, the round smooth crown only visible.

Outside of the door were three rude drums on which a man was beating. A German with us - Mr. Lowenthal - took the sticks and played Rule Britannia, Soldier's Return,etc., which seemed to please and suit the congregated crowd just as well. Many things here on Bonny Island are Ju-Ju or taboo. The iguana is one. It is consequently very tame and comes into the edge of town in some numbers. Figured prints on crockery, or furniture having flowers or birds are also sacred and must go to Ju-Ju house to be stored. (Captain Carr had taken frequent goods from the house.) In several places in the village I saw bits of calico fastened to sticks in the ground or hung to a tree, or snails suspended to stakes -- all as offerings to Ju-Ju, who seems to be a deity whom they fear rather than love. Everyone too, before drinking, spills a little on the ground as an offering to Ju-Ju.

Bonny is very large and the houses stand quite thick. The paths are well trod but muddy. There was a large procession, which was a sort of Ju-Ju play. A naked woman led, holding stoutly above her head a large black looking-glass. Behind her were two girls, both very fantastically dressed, one in a blue coat, cockade hat, sword, and pants -- a little like Napoleon -- the other in red with a dusting brush of feathers over her head, petticoats, and boots. A large Chinese-looking parasol was carried over the former and a girl by her side carried a huge square bottle of rum and a wine glass. She sprinkled a little on some of the corner bushes as she passed and gave people to drink in a glass. These dignitaries were followed by a train of nearly one hundred half-naked women and girls, brought up in the rear by a few men. So they wound around the town for half an hour and then brought up in a square before a little hut into which the two queens were half-hoisted, half-flung, by two men who stood on the high threshold.

In another part of the town I met two men who quarrelled. One was naked and the other stripped off his white woolen garments, like an Irishman at Donnybrook Fair, and pitched into his opponent. Those ethnologists who make one distinctive character of man to be his "having no natural weapons of offense or defense" should have viewed these naked fighters. I wandered, separated from my party, all about the town, often frightening the women and the children. I was lost in the twilight, but two stout men came after me and made signs to go with them -- I knew not where. We entered a door from the street and they led me for fifty yards through dark rooms and over thresholds quite appalling in the darkness, but at length we emerged into a large court with rude houses around it where all our party sat in chairs before a porch. They were talking with Alala Pepple -- one of the regents of Bonny. He was a stout man with shaved head and pleasant, fat, shining countenance, dressed in a variety of gay English clothes with a string of large red coral beads about his neck (the centre one cost him four pounds). He received us all well and we had a long "palaver." He is the brother(?) of King Pepple who for his cruelty, etc., was attacked, his life sought, many of his family killed, and he himself escaped to England.

At daybreak three cannons were fired in the town. There are many cannons lying about -- the remains of Portuguese and Spanish slave trade. War sometimes occurs between Bonny and the Andoni country, and the murdered captives' skulls fill the Ju-Ju houses. Two months ago four Bonny men were killed at Ibo, to revenge which four Ibo men were caught indiscriminately, brought down to Bonny and beaten to death with clubs on the little scaffold before the Ju-Ju house. It is said that two of them were eaten.

In the afternoon we left Captain Carr (in chill of fever and ague from the shore visit) and went on board the little steamer "Retriever." She had two engineers, but one who was sick exchanged with our fourth engineer. This produced dissatisfaction; two stokers mutinied and were put in irons. Then when we had nearly reached the bar, we were stopped short by an event which might have proved fatal. None of the men would show our new engineer the cocks of the boiler; they let all the water off unbeknown to him, and he only discovered it in time to prevent an explosion. So the men were put under arrest, and we only left the bar the following morning. The hot weather (aided by liquor) produced this mutiny.


Links to additional essays or collections:

  • Library Bulletin Essay about the Ward Papers, by Gladys G. Nelson
  • The Register for the Henry A. Ward Papers