Project Canterbury

Abbeokuta; or Sunrise within the Tropics
An Outline of the Origin and Progress of the Yoruba Mission

By Sarah Tucker

New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1854.

Chapter III. Yoruba and its People

Who maketh thee to differ; and what hast thou, that thou didst not receive?--I Cor. iv.7.

There was mercy in store for Yoruba, though she knew it not; and while she appeared to be sinking lower and lower in darkness and in misery, the God of all grace was, by his Providence, preparing the way by which the day-spring from on high should visit her, and guide the feet of many of her children into the paths of peace. But it will make the succeeding history more intelligible, if we devote a few pages to a description of the land, and of its people.

For many miles from the coast, the country, though fertile, is low and swampy; but as you journey on towards the interior, it becomes diversified with hill and plain; and, from the descriptions given of it by the Landers, as well as by our own missionaries, it must be very picturesque and beautiful. Deep and fertile valleys lie among the hills; granite rocks, some lofty, bold, and bare, others clothed with trees or verdure to their summits; and [21/22] clear streams, tumbling over their rocky bed, add to the beauty of the scenery.

The appearance of the towns, from a distance, is often imposing; the walls enclose a large extent of land, and fields and trees are interspersed among the thatched roofs of the lowly dwellings. It is strange, that in a tropical climate the natives should take such pains to exclude the air; but the African hut, like that of the Hindoo, is without windows or any opening but the low door, while the roof projects so far beyond the walls, that but little air can find its way even here. The houses of the better classes are built round a quadrangle, into which the separate dwellings open, while a rude piazza runs along the whole interior. The head of the family occupies the largest of these dwellings, and round him are gathered children and grandchildren, and any other members of his family for whom a separate habitation can be found. The court in the centre is often planted, and is the common place of resort for all the inmates, where, shut in among themselves, they can, without fear of interruption, talk over any subject of family interest; and where, on the bright moonlight nights of that southern clime, the whole party are frequently collected. Here they will remain for hours, seated on the ground, and listening with fixed attention, while one and another relates some passing incident, or amuses his hearers with some legend or [22/23] fairy tale, of which these people are passionately fond. It is the hour of cairn enjoyment, and the eye of even a Christian Yoruban will glisten at the thought of these moonlight scenes, though now his conversation would be of a higher and holier tone. [We cannot refrain from inserting one of these for the amusement of our younger readers--it will remind them of the Arabian Nights; but we must preface it by mentioning that the character of cunning which we attribute to the fox is by the Yorubans ascribed to the land tortoise. The tale runs thus, and is rehearsed in parts, some of it being sung, and the rest in recitative. There was once a town that was harassed by the frequent visits of a monstrous and mischievous bird, with a very large and strong bill, with which he seized on any living being that struck his fancy. When they had reason to expect his approach, the people would shut themselves up in their houses, and not stir out till the danger was over. But they seldom had any warning, and the visits of their winged enemy became so frequent and so fatal, that many consultations were held as to the best mode of averting the evil. No effectual means could be devised till the tortoise came forward and proposed a scheme, which he assured them would be infallible. "Get," said he, "three large brass mortars, and set them upside down, one upon the other, in the market place; shut yourselves up in your houses, and leave the rest to me, only do not stir out till I call you." The people adopted the advice of the tortoise, procured the largest mortars the town afforded, placed them according to the directions, and retired to their own dwellings, while the tortoise quietly crept under the lowest mortar of the three. Presently the well-known sound of wings was heard, the bird came, and was surprised at the unusual appearance of the market, in which nothing was to be seen but the three brass mortars. There is some trick in this, thought he, and I doubt not the tortoise is at the bottom of it. So he began to sing, "I am the great bird, I am the bird of birds, what have I to do with that ugly tortoise?" As soon as he had ceased, the tortoise began to imitate him, singing the same tune, only in a squeaking voice, and travestying the words, "I am the great tortoise, I am the tortoise of tortoises, what have I to do with that ugly bird?" The bird, enraged at the audacity of the tortoise, dashed down upon the mortars, and striking the upper one with his beak, shattered it into atoms; then soaring aloft repeated his song, but in a tone of increasing anger. The tortoise answered as before, but in a trembling voice, as if very much alarmed. Again the bird darted down, shattered the second mortar, and again rose high in the air to repeat the strain for the third time. The tortoise again responded, but in a still more trembling voice. The fury of the bird now knew no bounds; darting down with greater vehemence than before, he struck his bill into the remaining mortar with such force that it stuck fast in it, and while endeavouring to extricate himself the tortoise crept out, and calling the people round, they soon demolished their long-dreaded enemy.]

[24] The people are industrious, and the soil freely yields them yams, cassada, and the various other grains that are in use among them. Cotton, too, is grown in considerable quantities, and the women spin, and men and women weave it into the cloth which is worn by all. They are generally well clothed in this their native manufacture; the colour is often blue, dyed with indigo, and checked with red cotton procured from Haussa, and which, it is said, is naturally of that colour. There is a great taste for dress among them, and independently of any religious motive, some of the gay young men affect the [24/25] Mohammedan costume, and wear wide sack-like trowsers, much embroidered, and confined close round the ankle, with a loose upper garment, and turban; or if unable to procure this last appendage, they roll a long piece of cotton round the head. Some of them are beginning to adopt the English dress; but all this is to be regretted, as any change of national costume necessarily involves some degree of change in the national character, and their present dress is very becoming.

Knives, axes, and implements of husbandry are made from the iron ore which is very abundant, and which they have learnt to smelt. Osier baskets and grass mats are also among their native manufactures. The red earthenware in common use is made by women, and burnt by being stacked together, with layers of wood between the rows, as bricks are baked in England. One of their most useful domestic utensils has been provided for them by nature; this is the calabash, a kind of pumpkin. When the fruit begins to ripen, a hole is cut in the small end to admit the air, and thus the pulp decays without injuring the rind. Sometimes the incision is made round the fruit, at about one-third from the smaller end, and a vea3el with a neatly fitting lid is produced without further trouble. These calabashes are of various sizes, some are smaller than a tea-cup, while others will hold three or four gallons.

[26] A good deal of internal traffic is carried on among them; markets are held morning and evening in every town and village, and in the towns there is a larger one every fifth day, which is attended by all the neighbourhood. Their only current money is the white cowry forty of which are of the value of an English penny. [The Cypraea moneta of Linnaeus. These shells are not found on the neighbouring coasts, but are brought from India or the Eastern coast of Africa,] They are strung, and tied up in "heads," as they are called, each head containing 2,000 shells, equal to 4s. 2d.; and at this rate of reckoning, we shall not be surprised at £2 or £3 worth being as much as a man can carry, nor wonder at the expense and difficulty of conveying money from Badagry to Abbeokuta.

One of their domestic habits is, we believe, peculiar to themselves. None of the people take their first morning meal in their own houses, but all, both men and women, about seven o'clock in the morning1, pay a visit to a cook's shop, and make their first breakfast on a bowl of gruel of Indian corn. The women then proceed to the market to purchase materials for a more substantial repast, which is taken about ten o'clock. This consists of balls of Indian corn, called "dengè," served up in a kind of strong sauce made of beef, mutton, fish, or fowl, with various vegetables, and seasoned with salt procured from [26/27] the Popos, and with Cayenne pepper, which grows in the country; the whole forming a very nutritious and palatable food. The family do not generally collect together for this meal, but each one takes it when so inclined. In cases, however, where there is only one wife, she and her children usually join the husband and any friends he may have invited. When about to partake of the food, a large earthen bowl is placed on the ground, containing the dengè and the sauce; and the party sit down round it. The balls of Indian corn are taken out of the howl, broken and distributed to the different persons, each of whom dips his portion into the sauce as he eats it. There is a good deal of animal food consumed in this way, but it is never eaten solid. One of their chief articles of food is also the yam.

With regard to the mental and moral character of the people, the concurring testimony of those who have had the best means of judging is, that, as a nation, the Yorubans are far above the generality of their neighbours. [Lander speaks of the people of Boossa and Kiami, to the north of Yoruba, as in some respects superior to them, but these districts are small and comparatively unimportant.]

The missionaries at Sierra Leone speak of the greater degree of intelligence and energy apparent in the people there since the year 1822, before which time, as we have already stated there were scarcely [27/28] any Yorubans in the colony, though afterwards they were brought in in such numbers, that at present more than half the population is Yoruban. And on the other side of the Atlantic, Lord Harris, the present governor of Trinidad, has spoken of the superiority of the Yorubans in that island over the other emancipated negroes. Their minds are ingenious and. acute, and many of their common proverbs, with which Mr. Crowther has enriched his Vocabulary, show a quickness of observation, and a knowledge of human nature, which even their friends in this country were not prepared to expect. [Some of these will be found in the Appendix.] Their natural disposition is very lively; the children are full of mirth and play, and are particularly fond of riddles. You may often hear their merry laugh as, sitting on a shady bank, they endeavour to puzzle each other with questions such as these: "What is that little steep hill that nobody can climb?" or, "What is it that any one can divide, but no one can see where it has been divided?" [Perhaps our young readers will find out, without our help, that the answer to the first of these is an egg, and to the second, water.] Sometimes these riddles are the current ones of the neighbourhood, but they often seem to be impromptu.

Considering the mental gifts with which the Yorubans are evidently endowed, we cannot account [28/29] for the small progress they have made in the arts of civilized life. Many are the accurate and bright opinions and ideas you may often hear from them in conversation, yet they have never invented any written mode of conveying or recording them; and some of the simplest mechanical powers have been till lately entirely unknown in the country. [A few years ago, Mr. Crowther procured a cart from Sierra Leone; the body of it was unfortunately too heavy to be carried through the swamps and forests, and was left at Badagry; but the wheels and shafts were convoyed to Abbeokuta, and excited the utmost astonishment among all classes. Not only children, but grown-up people, crowded into his compound, and were delighted with drawing one another round and round, seated upon planks laid across the shafts.]

There is a spirit of independence and generosity among the Yorubans that, if sanctified by Christian principle, will make them a fine and noble nation. It is a remarkable circumstance, that whereas at Badagry, and generally on the coast, the people continually ask the missionaries to give them money for coming to listen to them, or for sending their children to school, at Abbeokuta the missionaries often find it difficult to resist being paid for their preaching. There are very frequent instances of this in their journals. A missionary will have been preaching to an attentive and eager crowd in a market, or under a spreading tree, and at the conclusion one of the party, generally a woman, will [29/30] beg him to wait a few minutes, when she will return with a handful of cowries and some Kola nuts, and insist on his accepting them. The cowries of course are positively refused, but the missionary generally accepts some of the Kola nuts, and shares them with those who may happen to be standing next him. [The Kola nuts are in size and appearance very like our English horse-chesnut; the flavour is a pleasant bitter, and they are slightly tonic. Few, if any, grow in that part of the country, which makes them expensive, and the offering them is considered a special token of respect.]

Mr. Smith has told us of a striking instance of this that occurred to himself. While spending a few days at Osielle, he visited Malaka, a considerable town eight or ten miles to the north. Mr. Smith here preached the way of salvation through Jesus Christ alone to a large party assembled under the fine Aka tree in the middle of the town, and was listened to with the greatest attention. No European had been there before, and Mr. Smith, to prevent any misconception, took an opportunity of telling them, in the course of his address, that he could not receive any presents. But notwithstanding this warning, no sooner had he ceased, than the people brought him a goat and some Kola nuts, pressing him most earnestly to accept them. When he refused, they said they could not consider him as their friend, if he would not accept their presents, and he [30/31] was obliged to compromise the matter by taking the nuts. And it is pleasant to know that these presents are made without any expectation of a return. "It is," said the generous Ogubonna upon one occasion, "the custom of our country."

We will not here omit an instance of noble and generous daring, tinctured perhaps with something of wild enthusiasm, that was mentioned by Mr. Hin-derer when lately in England. A young man of Ibadan heard that a chief named Pimi, of Ede, a town at some little distance, had imitated the cruelty of the Haussa Ali, in obliging his farm servants to work in chains. Filled with indignation at this departure from the usual conduct of the Yorubans towards their domestic slaves, he resolved to rescue them, and calling together some of his companions, so passionately urged their accompanying him, that they readily consented. They set off for Ede; none dared to oppose their bold and determined bearing; and the mind of the cruel and cowardly chief was filled with terror at their approach. Proceeding to the farm, they knocked off with their own hands the chains from the astonished and grateful slaves, and bade them return in peace to their own homes. This story has a melancholy sequel, for not long after this exploit, this young [31/32] man's undisguised hatred of tyranny drew down upon him the suspicion of some of the chiefs, and he was secretly put to death.

And now we must turn to a darker side of the picture of Yoruba and its people; one in which no ray of hope could be discovered to lessen the dismal gloom--we mean its state as to spiritual things; and as if to give another proof that the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, we find that notwithstanding their superiority in lower things to those around them, they were as far from the true knowledge of God as any of their neighbours.

They have, indeed, an idea of one Supreme Being, whom they call Olorun, and who, as they believe, is the Creator of all things; and will often express their good wishes by "God bless you," or "I praise God for your health," &c.; but they virtually deny him, by believing that he takes little or no cognizance of things on earth. They offer him, therefore no sacrifices, and pay him no homage; all their worship is reserved for those divinities of their own invention, to whom they imagine he has delegated his power, and to whom alone they look for help. [These gods are not emanations from or personifications of the attributes of the one God, as Apollo, Minerva, &c, among the ancients, but distinct beings acting as mediators. When the Yorubans are reproved for idolatry, they will maintain that they worship God (Olorun), but that they worship him through Orisha, who will pray to God for them, and obtain the blessings they desire. Well may Mr. Townsend compare their religion with that of the Roman Catholics, and add, 'These sin only against the light of nature--Rome against that revelation which tells of the one only Mediator. One evil spirit rules over the darkness of the whole world. Who can he surprised that the white slave-dealers at Lagos (Roman Catholics), consult Ifa before sending their ships to a! It is all the same god!"]

[33] One of the principal of these is Ifa, the god of palm-nuts, to whom they ascribe the power of healing, and to whose priests they apply in times of sickness. On these occasions the friends of the sufferer procure a sheep or a goat for sacrifice, and send for the babbalawo or priest, who begins the ceremony by tracing a number of uncouth devices with chalk upon the wall. Then taking a calabash, he puts into it some cowries or some palm-nuts, and placing it in front of the figures he has made, performs his incantations, which are supposed to prevail on the god to enter the palm-nuts or the cowries. The sacrifice is then brought in, its throat is cut, and the priest sprinkles some of the blood on the calabash and on the wall. He then smears it across the sick man's forehead--thus, as they imagine, conveying the life of the creature into the patient. The priest and family afterwards feast on the flesh of the sacrifice, only reserving a portion to be exposed on the outside of the house for the buzzards; [33/34] and if this is quickly devoured by them, the omen is considered favourable.

Should the sacrifice prove unavailing, and no signs of recovery appear, it is repeated again and again, according to the means of the family, or their affection for the sufferer; and not unfrequently, among the poorer classes, heavy debts are incurred in the purchase of animals for the purpose. If all prove to be in vain, the patient is left to himself; he is not actually neglected, for food is given him in the morning and evening, but during the day the family pursue their usual avocations, and he is left to pass through the last sorrowful days of his earthly existence, without one kind hand to minister to his necessities, with no tender parent or affectionate child to sympathise in his bodily sufferings, far less to speak words of comfort to his soul.

They worship, also, the god of thunder and lightning; and it is affecting to see how men, women, and children will, in their mistaken zeal, brave the fury of the elements, and in the most tremendous storm, by day or by night, will rush out of their dwellings, regardless of the pealing thunder, the vivid lightning, or the pelting rain. Shango is offended, sacrifices must be offered, and woe to the individual who should dare to be absent! They, also, like most other heathen nations, adore the manes of their ancestors, whom they call [34/35] "Egungun," and once in the year offer sacrifices, and hold a feast in their honour; but it is remarkable that no trace of serpent-worship has been found among them; and this is the more curious, as two or three species of large snakes receive the peculiar adoration of their neighbours, the Popos.

They have a singular idea relating to the souls of their children, believing them to be inhabited and influenced by the spirit of some one of their ancestors. When a child is born, a priest is sent for, and inquiry is made of the favourite deity of the family, as to which of the deceased forefathers intends to dwell in the present infant, and a name is given to it accordingly. This does not seem to be at all the metempsychosis of Eastern nations, for the spirit of the departed may at the same time dwell in many of his descendants, and is evidently considered as accompanying, not superseding the individual soul.

The Yorubans are not wholly free from the additional guilt of human sacrifices. They are far less frequent in Yoruba than at Badagry; but even here they are occasionally offered in cases of emergency. In a time, for instance, of continual drought some poor slave will be seized, adorned as for a festival, and thrown into the river, to propitiate the goddess of the waters, and to serve as food to her attendants, the alligators and crocodiles. And our missionaries [35/36] record more than one instance in Abbeokuta itself, where the unhappy, unconscious victim, after being paraded through the streets, has been strangled in the fatal Orisha grove.

They have many other objects of worship in addition to those we have enumerated; indeed, anything that can either assist or injure them receives some kind of adoration. Large trees, red-sandstone, iron, cowries, the hills of the bug-bugs, or African ant, (in which they imagine some superior being to reside), all receive their share, and sometimes they will worship parts of their own body, their forehead, [36/37] or their foot, especially before they set out upon a journey. [Mr. Hinderer mentioned, that when he was at Ibadan, he was visited by a man who had just returned from Abbeokuta, whither he had been sent on business by his master. He had, it seems, been to our schools there, had seen boys and girls learning their "book, "and came to tell Mr. Hinderer that if he would "sit down" at Ibadan and establish a school, he would be the first to attend it. It was Saturday, and Mr. Hinderer invited him to come to him on the following day and join a few Sunday scholars he had collected round him. The man excused himself, as he should be busy. "What have you so much to do to-morrow?" inquired our missionary. "I must worship my forehead." "How do you mean?" "As I came out of Abbeokuta," replied the man, "the soldiers at the custom-house ill-treated me, broke a calabash of rum belonging to my master, and would have killed mo had it not been for my forehead, so now I must worship it." "How can this be?" inquired Mr. Hinderer, "I thought you before said that God always preserved you." "Do you white men," was the indignant reply, "think us so foolish as to suppose our forehead itself can save us? No, but God made my forehead, and he saved me through my forehead, and so I worship it." We find from Mr. Smith that this worship of the forehead consisted in slaying some animal, a goat, or a sheep, the blood of which is sprinkled on the idols in the house, and streaked across the forehead of the offerer. The sacrifice is cut into pieces, and distributed among the friends, a sufficient portion being reserved for a feast for the family themselves.]

Every fifth day is reserved by the priests and devotees for a special worship of their several deities, but the mass of the people do not seem to take any part in it. One of the ceremonies that is gone through upon these sacred days, is the fetching water for the gods from some neighbouring holy fountain; and on these occasions long lines of priests and priestesses, and their immediate followers, are seen walking in procession with their calabashes on their heads, and often preserving the most profound silence. [These days are called Osse days, from a word signifying silence, and in Sierra Leone the Yorubans have very naturally transferred the term to the Christian Sabbath, which they call Osse.] Some of the water is poured out as a libation to the idol, and the remainder reserved for use.

Their idols are of clay, or wood, or metal, and several are generally placed in one particular room in the house, where they receive some kind of adoration morning and evening. It can, of course, [37/38] be no spiritual worship that is offered to their imaginary deities; no confession of sin, no prayer for pardon, no supplication for the Holy Spirit, and no thanksgiving for redemption can come from their hearts or lips, for of these things they have never heard. "Make me rich," "Make me healthy," "Give me children," "Avenge me of my enemies," are the only petitions that a poor Yoruban ever offers to his god.

Lord, what is man when left to himself, that thou shouldst ever be mindful of him, or the son of man that thou shouldst ever visit him! And may we not add, "Who maketh thee, O believer, to differ?"

Project Canterbury