A Mission to Gelele

A Mission to Gelele – Richard Francis Burton

“A Mission to Gelele”, the former King of Dahomey, which has taken place in the 1860s, describes with minuteness the rituals of Dahomeyan “customs,” of which, before Captain Burton’s visit, tales had been spread mixed with wild exaggerations. Written in Burton’s lively style, it shows his powers of observation and description, as well as his cynical disposition and sometimes indelicacy of expression. The ethnology and philology of the country are carefully treated, and there is an important chapter on the Amazons, an all-female military regiment of the Kingdom, which describes the ferocity of these women and makes an excellent companion to the upcoming movie “The Woman King.” Captain Burton clearly foretold the gradual but sure deterioration of Dahomey, consequent on the “custom” of periodical slaughter and of an Amazonian soldiery, which by limiting reproduction caused both weakness in the country and degeneracy in its inhabitants. The continuance of these causes has led to the easy breaking up of the Kingdom by the French. This edition comes with more than 600 footnotes for an even better understanding of the text.

A Mission to Gelele

A Mission to Gelele.

Format: eBook.

A Mission to Gelele.

ISBN: 9783849662431.



Excerpt from the text:




This fertile soil, which enjoys a perpetual spring, is considered a strong prison, as the land of spectres, the seat of disease, and the mansion of death.

Said of Bengal by its Moslem conquerors.


A Ilha Formosa, the lovely island of Fernando Po, has, like most beauties, two different, indeed two opposite, aspects.

About Christmas time she is in a state deeper than rest,


A kind of sleepy Venus seemed Dudu.


Everything, in fact, appears enwrapped in the rapture of repose. As the ship glides from the rolling, blustering Bights into that wonderfully still water, men come on deck feeling they know not what; Çela porte à l’amour, as the typical Frenchman remarks. The oil-like swell is too lazy to break upon the silent shore, the wind has hardly enough energy to sigh, the tallest trees nod and bend drowsily downwards, even the grass is, from idleness, averse to wave: the sluggish clouds bask in the soft light of the sky, while the veiled sun seems in no hurry to run his course. Here no one would dream, as does our modern poet, of calling nature „ sternly fair.“ If such be the day, conceive the cloister-like stillness of a night spent in the bosom of Clarence Cove. Briefly, Fernando Po, in the dry weather, is a Castle of Indolence, a Land of the Lotophagi, a City of the Living-Dead.

But as I saw her in November, 1863, and as she had been for the six months preceding, the charmer was not to be recognised by that portrait. A change had come over her Madonna-like face –– as is sometimes witnessed in the „ human organism.“ The rainy season had set in earlier than usual; it had opened in May, and in November it was not ended. A heavy arch of nimbus, either from the north-east or the north-west, gathered like a frown on the forehead of the dull grey firmament. Presently the storm came down, raving like a jealous wife. In a few moments it burst with a flood of tears, a sheet of „ solid water,“ rent and blown about by raging, roaring gusts, that seemed to hurry from every quarter in the very ecstasy of passion. Baleful gleams of red thready lightning flashed like the glances of fury in weeping eyes, and deafening peals of thunder crashed overhead, not with the steady rumble of a European tempest, but sharp, sudden, and incisive as claps of feminine objurgation between fits of sobbing. These lively scenes were enacted during half the day, and often throughout the night: they passed off in lady-like sulks, a windless fog or a brown -blue veil of cloud settling hopelessly over the face of heaven and earth, till the unappeased elements gathered strength for a fresh outburst.

Amidst this caprice, these coquetries of the „ Beautiful Island,“ man found it hard to live, but uncommonly easy to die. Presently all that was altered, and the history of the metamorphosis deserves, I think, to be recorded.

The shrew was tamed by an inch and a half of barometric altitude. The dictum of the learned Dr. Waitz, the Anthropologist, no longer holds good. [viii]

When I first landed on this island (September, 1861), Sta. Isabel, nee Clarence, the lowland town and harbour, was the only locality inhabited by the new Spanish colony. Pallid men were to be seen sitting or lolling languid in their verandahs, and occasionally crawling about the grass-grown streets, each with a cigarette hanging to his lower lip. They persistently disappeared in the dry season, whilst their example was followed by the coloured „ liberateds „ and the colonists during the „ balance“ of the year. H.B.M.’s Consulate is situated unpleasantly near a military hospital: breakfast and dinner were frequently enlivened by the spectacle of a something covered with a blanket being carried in, and after due time a something within a deal box being borne out on four ghastly men’s shoulders. And strangers fled the place like a pestilence: sailors even from the monotonous „ south coast,“ felt the ennui of Fernando Po to be deadly grave-like.

At length Yellow Fever, the gift of the „Grand Bonny,“ which was well-nigh depopulated, stalked over the main in March, 1862, and in two months he swept off 78 out of a grand total of 250 white men. [ix]

The „ Beautiful Island „ was now going too far. Seeing that the fever did not abate, H.E. the Governor de la Gandara determined to try the effects of altitude. A kind of „ quartelillo „ –– infirmerie or baraque –– was hastily run up in twelve days, beginning from June 22nd, 1862, by M. Tejero, Commandent of Military Engineers. The site, a kind of shelf over the village of Basile, about 400 metres above sea-level, received the name of Sta. Cecilia. On the day after its completion, July 6th, nineteen pénitentiaires, or political prisoners, the survivors of some thirty men that had died of yellow fever in the hulks, were transferred to the new quarters; two were lost by attacks of the same disease contracted on the seaboard, the rest of those condemned to travaux forces kept their health, and were returned to their homes in November, 1862.

This old baraque is now nearly always empty, being converted into a kind of lodging-house. Its dimensions are 11-50 metres long, by 6 broad, and raised on piles 1-50 high; the rooms are three in number, one large, of 6 metres by 4-25, and the other two of 4-25 metres by 3.

Seeing the excellent result of that experiment, H.E. Sr. D. Lopez de Ayllon, the present Governor, to whom these pages are respectfully inscribed, determined to increase operations. Major Osorio, of the Engineers, was directed to build a maison caserne, intended to accommodate white soldiers not wanted for duty at Sta. Isabel. It was begun March 22nd, finished September 5th, and opened November 30th, 1863. The rez de chaussée lodges forty men, the second story as many more, whilst the first stage has rooms for the Governor, his aide-de-camp, and four officers. Besides these two lumber houses, there are tolerable stables for horses and mules, good roads well bridged, and a channel of mountain water, which the white soldiers, who can work in the sun with the thinnest of caps, have derived from the upper levels. About thirty men were sent here. Their number has varied but little. During the five months from December, 1863, to April, 1864, though there have been sporadic local cases of simple intermittent fever –– March, 1864, shows only one –– and though dangerous diseases have been brought up from the lowlands, not a death has occurred.

Thus, then, the first sanitarium in Western Africa owes its existence to the Spanish Colony, that dates only from the middle of 1859. As far back as 1848, the late Captain Wm. Allen and Dr. Thompson, of the Niger Expedition, proposed a sanitary settlement at Victoria, on the seaboard below the Camaroons Mountain, a site far superior to Fernando Po. Since their time, the measure has been constantly advocated by the late Mr. M. Laird. Eppur non si muove Britannia. She allows her „ sentimental squadron „ to droop and to die without opposing the least obstacle between it and climate. A few thousands spent at Camaroons or at Fernando Po would, calculating merely the market value of seamen’s lives, repay themselves in as many years. Yet not a word from the Great Mother!

When I compare St. Louis of Senegal with Sierra Leone, or Lagos with Fernando Po, it is my conviction that a temporary something is going wrong with the popular constitution at home. If not, whence this want of energy, this new-born apathy? Dr. Watson assures us that disease in England has now assumed an asthenic and adynamic type. The French said of us in the Crimea that Jean Boide had shattered his nerves with too much tea. The Registrar-General suggests the filthy malaria of the overcrowded hodiernal English town as the fomes malorum. The vulgar opinion is, that since the days of the cholera the Englishman (physical) has become a different being from his prototype of those fighting times when dinner-pills were necessary. And we all know that


C’est la constipation que rend l’homme rigoureux.


Whatever the cause may be, an Englishman’s lot is at present not enviable, and his children have a Herculean task „cut and dry“ before them.

Nothing can be more genial and healthful than the place where I am writing these lines, the frame or plankhouse built by D. Pellon, of the Woods and Forests, now absent on private affairs in Spain. The aneroid shows 29 instead of 30-1 30-4 inches, and the altitude does not exceed 800 feet. Yet after sunrise the thermometer (F.) often stands at 68, reddening the hands and cheeks of the white man. We can take exercise mentally and bodily without that burst of perspiration which follows every movement in the lowlands, and we can repose without the sensation which the „ Beebee „ in India defined as „feeling like a boiled cabbage.“ The view from the balcony facing north is charming. On the right are the remnants of a palm orchard; to the left, an avenue of bananas leads to a clump of tropical forest; and on both sides tumbles adown the basaltic rocks and stones a rivulet of pure cold mountain water most delightful of baths over which the birds sing loudly through the livelong day. In front is a narrow ledge of cleared ground bearing rose-trees two years old and fifteen feet high, a pair of coffee shrubs, bowed with scarlet berries, sundry cotton plants, by no means despicable, and a cacao, showing what the island would have been but for the curse of free labour. [x]Beyond the immediate foreground there is a slope, hollowed in the centre, and densely covered with leek-green and yellow-green grasses of the Holcus kind now finding favour in England, and even here fragrant, when cut, as northern hay. The drop is sufficiently abrupt below to fall without imperceptible gradation into the rolling plain, thick and dark with domed and white-boled trees, which separate the mountain from the Ethiopic main. The white houses of Sta. Isabel glisten brightly on the marge; beyond it the milky-blue expanse of streaked waters stretches to the bent bow of the horizon; and on the right towers, in solitary majesty, a pyramid of Nature’s handiwork, „ Mongo ma Lobah,“ the Mount of Heaven, [xi] now capped with indistinct cloud, then gemmed with snow,’ [xii] and reflecting from its golden head the gorgeous tropical sunshine; whilst over all of earth and sea and sky there is that halo of atmosphere which is to landscape what the light of youth is to human loveliness.


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