University of Rochester Library Bulletin: Henry A. Ward's West African Trip

Volume I  ·  June 1946  ·  Number 3
Henry A. Ward's West African Trip

In the fall of 1858, Henry A. Ward, after almost five years of study and travel in Europe, Egypt, and the Near East, was preparing to return to his home in Rochester by way of Portugal, the Madeira Islands, Cuba, and New Orleans. This somewhat devious route home was further complicated by an unexpected opportunity to sail down the West African coast as far as Fernando Po in a trading steamer. Ward did not return to Rochester until the summer of 1859 after undergoing such unusual and dangerous experiences that his aunt, Susan Ward Selden, wrote to him in despair on April 2, 1859: "I am beginning to think that nothing less striking than being eaten up by cannibals or falling into the crater of a volcano will suffice you for a finale of your adventures."

Henry Augustus Ward was born in Rochester in 1834, the son of Henry Meigs and Eliza Chapin Ward. He received his formal education at several institutions, including Middlebury Academy at Wyoming, Williams College, and the Temple Hill Academy at Geneseo. He also studied with Louis Agassiz at Cambridge. At Geneseo, Ward became acquainted with Charles Wadsworth, son of General James S. Wadsworth, and in the fall of 1854 the two young men were sent to Paris at General Wadsworth's expense, to study at the Ecole des Mines. For the next four years, Ward studied and travelled through Europe, Egypt, and Palestine, supporting himself after the Wadsworth subsidy ceased by collecting and selling minerals and fossils. He met many famous European scientists and visited most of the great museums, formulating at the same time his own plan for a more popular type of natural history museum to meet American needs. During these years, Ward assembled minerals and fossils for the first of his famous scientific cabinets. In order to complete the cabinets for the University of Rochester and later for Vassar College, he found it necessary to make casts of important representative fossils which could not be obtained otherwise. After the completion of these cabinets, Ward still possessed large numbers of casts, fossils, minerals, and zoological specimens which he offered for sale, thus laying the foundation of Ward's Natural Science Establishment, Ward and Howell, Howell's Microcosm, and the Charles Ward Laboratory, the four museum-supply organizations fostered by his activities. The first- and last-mentioned concerns continue to provide specimens in various fields of natural history to museums, scientists, and teachers. From 1861 to 1875, Henry A. Ward served as Professor of Natural Sciences at the University of Rochester, although his work as a teacher was frequently interrupted by travel. After 1875 he devoted his entire time to stimulating broader education in the natural sciences through his efforts as a museum-builder and collector. Towards the end of his life he became greatly interested in meteorites and assembled the Ward-Coonley Meteorite Collection, at that time the largest in the world, now in the Chicago Natural History Museum. Henry A. Ward's adventurous career was ended neither by a cannibal feast nor by the eruption of a volcano as his aunt had feared, but by an automobile accident in Buffalo on July 4, 1906.

The papers of Henry A. Ward were given to the University of Rochester Library by his grandson, Roswell Ward. In the mass of letters, business papers, account books, diaries, and journals, there are approximately thirty diaries and journals kept intermittently from 1850 to 1906. The earliest journal, kept while Ward was a schoolboy at Middlebury Academy in Wyoming, is prefaced with the brave motto: "Be right and then go ahead." During the next ten years of his life Ward kept records of trips to Canada, Nova Scotia, the Middle West, Europe, Egypt, Arabia and Palestine. It was during a trip to the Sinai Peninsula that he studied the source of the mysterious musical sands of Gebel-Nakous, the Mountain of the Bell. The publication of his findings by the Societe Geologique de France added considerably to Ward's reputation in Europe as a scientist. Although Henry Ward returned to the United States in 1859, he did not remain here for long. A trip to Europe in the fall of 1859 was followed before long by travels to the most far-flung corners of the earth. Diaries recount trips to the West Indies, to North Africa, to East Africa and Arabia, to South America as far south as Patagonia, to Persia and the Caspian Sea, to New Guinea, and to California, and repeated voyages to Europe. In 1906, at the age of seventy-two, he kept a diary of a trip to Cartagena, Colombia.

Of these diaries, the one describing his trip down the west coast of Africa in 1859 has a vividness of style and description that makes it one of the most interesting in the group. We have selected and edited only a small portion of the diary, but from these entries it is possible to draw a picture of an Africa still mysterious and rather frightening. Only the coast was familiar to white traders; the interior was still largely unexplored. The diary also reveals something of Ward's personality: his fearlessness, his complete disregard of personal comfort, his intense curiosity, and his extraordinarily accurate observation.

Ward's first glimpse of the West African coast, from the deck of the trading steamer, "Cleopatra," was of Cape Verde. The steamer, however, did not touch shore until the following day when Ward landed at the English town of Bathurst. At Sierra Leone, the oldest English colony on the west coast, he visited the market place where he was interested to find for sale not only oranges at two for a cent, but also dried bats for medicinal purposes! The voyage from Sierra Leone to Liberia passed peacefully enough except when the cry "man overboard" stopped the steamer. Buoys were cast over and lifeboats lowered; but it turned out to be a black sheep. From Liberia the ship sailed east along the west coast stopping at Cape Coast Castle, Accra, and Lagos. While the ship waited for cargo at Lagos, Ward walked a hundred miles into the interior to the city of Abeokuta, where the king had a great review of naked troops with spears and shields, including one division of the dreaded Amazons. After receiving its cargo, the steamer continued on down the coast to Benin and Brass, finally arriving at Bonny, known familiarly as "the white man's grave."

Bonny, which this fragment of the diary describes, is located on an island at the mouth of a river of the same name in Nigeria. It was once one of the principal slave-trading ports on the coast, but by 1859 palm oil had supplanted slaves as a commodity. The trading was done from ships anchored in the harbors or rivers, as the merchants did not dare to establish posts on shore. If there was enough trade, a ship might remain anchored in one place for months, but often African fevers and disease would destroy so many of the crew that there would be insufficient men to work the ship home. Aside from fever, the merchants had to contend with the uncertainties of native politics and custom. King Pepple had signed a treaty agreeing to restrain aggression and stop the slave trade in his kingdom, but he continued, nevertheless, to celebrate the anniversary of his father's death with a cannibal feast. Ju-Ju, a West African word derived from the French word jou-jou, plaything, was adopted by the natives as the white man's name for religion and its sacred objects. Such things as skulls, teeth, and bones were worshiped as objects in which dwelled the gods who would protect their households and give them success in hunting, fishing, and trade. It was to this Africa that Henry A. Ward sailed in 1859.


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