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Fifty Years in Western Africa
Being a Record of the Work of the West Indian Church on the Banks of the Rio Pongo

By A.H. Barrow, M.A.
Vicar of Billinghurst, Sussex

London: SPCK, 1900.

Chapter XIII.

Sad accident to mission boat--The Black Bagas--Tribal wars--Fire at Fotobah.

MOST travellers' tales, and faithfully told stories of mission life, in wild and uncivilized countries, are generally, to a great extent, records of disasters, misfortunes, and constant disappointments. The story of the Rio Pongo is no exception. The list of boat accidents, with loss of life and property, is a peculiarly sad one. One of these was reported by Mr. Doughlin on July 22nd, in this year (1875). He had despatched the mission boat on Friday, the s6th, to Freetown, after taking the precaution to satisfy himself that the wind outside the river was favourable for its passage. Half an hour after mid night, just as she opened the bar, one of those sudden squalls, which are so frequent in July, came down the river and capsized her. There was a very strong ebb tide running, so that one man and six children were carried away at once. There were nineteen persons on board, all told--eleven men, one woman, and seven children. The remaining twelve clung to the boat and pieces of wreckage; but the woman becoming numbed, was soon washed away as her children had been. Mr. Thompson, the schoolmaster, was the first to reach the shore of one of the Mangrove Islands--but not before five in the morning--seven men were picked up by a canoe coming up the river, and the captain, the mate, and one of the passengers managed to swim to an island, and reached one of the Baga towns. The report of this reached Domingia on Sunday, and caused the greatest possible sorrow amongst the heathen and Mohammadans, as well as Christians. Besides the sad loss of life, the loss of the mission boat just at the time when the rains were at their height, was very serious, as so many people depended upon the station for supplies of food.

In September, 1875, Mr. Doughlin paid a visit to Mr. Turpin at the Rio Nunez, and on his return, while passing Long Island, at the mouth of the river, came across a race known as the Black Bagas, one of the most degenerate on the coast. Six men came alongside his boat begging for tobacco. Some was given to them, and, as they were going away (Mr. Doughlin says) "my eyes lighted on an idol in the bow of the canoe. I asked to be allowed to have a closer view of it, but was told it was their quie (greegree); another said 'it is their berri' (spirit) while one of the Bagas themselves called out, 'alla na'na,' (it is God). It was some time before any of them would venture to touch it; at last one of them held it up, saying that it belonged to a friend, but that if I would go to their town he would sell me one. It was of wood, and made in the shape of a man. I could not bear to hear the Susu boatmen, themselves lately heathen, laughing at the ignorance of the Bagas; and told them that they ought to do something to help their brethern. Their reply was 'Master, the Black Bagas are not men, they are cows;' Nei mu findima abada (they will never turn). A little further on, several canoes passed us, filled with women going to their farms; the most miserable wretched-looking creatures my imagination had ever pictured. They were nearly naked, exceedingly poor and haggard, and apparently scarcely able to support the children which were on their backs, much less to paddle their canoes. Christianity has truly a great work still to do upon the coast of the dark continent."

Two small tribal wars caused much confusion and inconvenience upon the river about the months of August and September, 1876. The first between a combination of the Susu, Fullah, and Landuma tribes, and the Mixii Fori, or runaway slaves, who had from time to time escaped from neighbouring tribes, and formed themselves into an independent community." They live between the Rivers Nunez and Pongo, in which district is situated a large India rubber forest, often a bone of contention between them and the Susus. The second quarrel was between the Susus and the Bagas, about a few acres of land in the Fotunta district, said to belong to the Susus, but claimed by the Bagas. On this miserable question the country was kept in excitement and suspense for months.

One of the main incidents that marked the year 1877 was the fire at Fotobah, which destroyed a good part of the town, as well as the old church. This was the cause of considerable loss and discouragement to Mr. Clarke, the missionary at that station. He was on the point of erecting a new church, and did not, therefore, so much regret the old building, which had done its work and was about to pass away, but much of the timber for the new fabric was also destroyed, as well as the furniture and service books. Later in the same year it was determined that the station on the Rio Nunez, where a church had been built in 1869, by Mr. Duport, destroyed by fire in 1870, rebuilt and reopened by the Bishop of Sierra Leone, in 1871, and where a school had been doing good work under Mrs. Duport, should be finally abandoned--a sad though necessary act, in consequence of the great falling off in the funds of the Mission. The church was pulled down, and the doors, windows, bell, pulpit, lectern, reading-desk, font, communion rails, with some benches and boards were transferred to the Isles de Los, and used in the new church at Fotobah.

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