An African Expedition
May 1893 — Women’s Building, The Congress of Women, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago IL
During the month of January, 1891, in order to put to the test a long-cherished and carefully considered plan, I made preparations to leave England, and essay to organize, equip and personally lead and command an independent caravan of blacks — solely at my own expense, without the assistance or companionship of white or black men or women above the rank of servitors–through a much-reviled section of East Africa among alleged hostile as well as some peaceful tribes.
“For what good?” “Why?” “What prompted you?” are inquiries confronting me on all sides. In brief: Having listened unwillingly to the officious opinions volunteered by all classes and conditions of men and women, as to the utter absurdity of my project; denounced universally as a fanatic, entertaining a mad scheme, if not mad myself–principally mad because the idea was unique, a thorough innovation; there was no precedent on which to predicate action or draw deductions upon which to formulate a feasible line of procedure; it never had been done, never even been suggested, hence it must be beyond the conventional pale of practicability; and above all, having ever flouted in my face the supercilious edict that it was outside the limitation of woman’s legitimate province, I determined to accomplish the undertaking. Success resulted. I seriously contemplate a second expedition, animated by innumberable desires to investigate personally and independently the mooted difficulties of an African expedition, and craving the opportunity to study raw natives before tampered with or tainted by so-called civilization, and thereby be enabled to interpret Natives as Naturals, with a mind that repudiates the idea that all aboriginals are savages to be subdued, coerced, forced into an alien’s mental, moral and civic condition under the vaunted pretense of wresting the benighted ones of creation from degradation, and having always resented the verdict, given from the white man’s standpoint, that all natives, irrespective of environment, and without weighing circumscribed opportunities, are inherently deficient in mental scope, devoid of the best and ennobling traits of human nature as exemplified in white races.
After eight years of study to acquaint myself with the methods of procedure patent to almost all would-be colonizers, civilizers and treaty-makers, I resolved to make a peaceful, unprejudiced attempt. Then, too, the inadequate accounts of the women and children, the home life, have ever been portrayed from a superficial, biased point of view; for the white man has, by his own confession, been denied a full and complete acquaintance with the more intimate lives of the East African women.
It is a conceded fact that a caravan going into the interior or up country in Africa is like a migratory community; and, with forethought and great discrimination, must be provisioned and armed for the entire term of the expedition, whether for three months or three years. Sufficient goods, consisting of iron, brass and copper wire of different sizes, beads of all colors, styles and sizes, cotton cloths, ten or twelve varieties, to barter with the natives and itinerant Arab traders for food and to purchase the right of way, called toll or hongo, as well as blackmail, through a sultanate; also a nameless variety of all sorts of articles varying from penknives to music boxes, velvets and brooches, shawls and fancy blankets to trumpery trinkets for tribute and gifts to natives of importance or merely as souvenirs. Then, too, there must be a good supply of medicines and certain tinned goods and little luxuries and camping outfit, for one must live under canvas.
As a community, a caravan on Safari must have order and laws of its own for the safety of the every individual and the whole; it must in itself form a body politic to enforce these laws and each and every one conform to or assist in the preservation of order and discipline. The first manifestation of insubordination or mutiny has to be promptly quelled and as promptly chastised. Responsibilities, anxieties and hardships grew apace yet I was not willing to shirk or relegate to hirelings any part of the same which legitimately belonged to a leader. My caravan consisted of one hundred and thirty-eight slaves, porters and subsequently recruits, raising the number to two hundred, coming from every tribe throughout Africa, and, with few exceptions, only a brief time removed from their primitive condition, but called collectively Zanzibaris. A Zanzibari porter proper never carries a load on his shoulders or back, and his head seems provided with a thickness of scalp for his accustomed duty peculiar to his race. The loads are carefully apportioned and weighed so as not to exceed fifty-six to sixty pounds.
The native porters have been denounced as untrustworthy, lazy, vagabondish, unfaithful and doing nothing without full compensation. This much am I constrained to say–that when I looked with considerable amazement over all the strange black and every conceivable shade of brown faces of my caravan, discerning much brutality imprinted thereupon, with few exceptions, I marveled if I should always be able to control them and make them subservient to my commands, and for a moment was somewhat dubious as to my ability, however, after experience with them, when I had to trust my life to them, they proved faithful, uncomplaining, chivalrous, and marvels of patience, endurance, and consistent marching day after day.
Useless to deny that constantly obstacles arose on all sides, and many a time I quaked silently under the forecast of possible defeat; but I soon learned that several honest failures need not necessarily mean defeat, but to the contrary developed caution and latent resources which eventually made success more secure.
My aim was ever to protect the natives, to meet the men of tribal importance in their own sultanates, as a woman of breeding should meet the highest officials in any land, under any circumstances, and be civil and polite for favors granted; to extend amity to those who are amicable, and avoid disturbances with those who might decline the friendship of a white woman. Having at heart the desire to study the natives’ habits and customs in their homes; to know the women as wives, mothers and sisters; to know the men as husbands, fathers, brothers and lovers, and see the children as they were, in fact, to obtain an unprejudiced insight into the general social condition and consider the future possibilities of these people, it would have been more than rash to have entered Africa as a freebooter.
It seems to be the popular thing for travelers to demonstrate how exceedingly difficult and hazardous have ever been their expeditions; they delight in depicting in graphic language thrilling adventures and hair-breadth escapes from the dangers which have beset them, and especially do they portray in gruesome colors the hopeless depravity of the African. I found the people and conditions very much what I aspired to make them, and certainly the natives are not so black as painted, and are peculiarly amenable to gentleness and kindness, and tractable through their vanity and love of power. They are all of one piece of a common humanity.
In their homes and villages the universal evidences of personal familiarity or fellowship had something very quaint and unlooked for in its various manifestations. A group of dusky natives equipped for war, while holding their palavers and reviewing their plan of action, would loll one upon another, with hands clasped over the shoulders or on the hips of the forward man. The women, too, when convened socially with their swarthy companions, although men and women alike perfectly nude, unencumbered with any clothing, if quantities of metal and bead belts, fringes, chains, necklaces, bracelets and anklets are excluded from the semblance of such, exhibited a certain fearless freedom, and yet I never witnessed a single indelicate or indecent action.
They have but few manners of evincing affection–spit upon each other in lieu of kissing–and the only embrace I ever witnessed exchanged between brother and sister, man and wife, friend and friend, lover and sweetheart, was a clasping of the hands over the shoulder of the one addressed, a little apparent pressure applied, and a slow drawing of the unclasping fingers apart, and in a cat-like way stretching them wider and wider until the muscles grew quite tense; then a gradual drawing together and reclasping all the while clinging to the shoulder.
They loan their ornaments and charms or medicine necklaces or armlets. They share food, and without let or hindrance participate in their brewed drinks called pombe and tembo. Men, women and children among many tribes carry, slung over their shoulders, a gourd ladle, ever ready to help themselves to the beverage as they circulate about from boma to boma. The land is fertile, crops prolific, food in abundance; except when the tsetse fly is a plague, their cattle, sheep, goats, and in some parts donkeys, thrive. They also have vast bee ranges, and make honey and butter, and pound in wooden mortars, with wooden or stone pestles, banana and maize to an impalpable flour. Chickens thrive, but only the eggs, not the fowl, are eaten by the natives, and these, also, when very high, and a spoiled egg with African gourmets is decidedly a pot au feu.
Blacksmiths–fundis–or craftsmen in metal work, have attained great skill, and their products perfection, and throughout Chaga Land the renowned blacksmiths all have been or are celebrated chiefs or sultans, whose deftness in forging spears, knives, pipes , agricultural implements, tools, bells, and most delicate little charms, necklaces, armlets and leglets, as well as various metal ornaments, has given the sultans a distinctive prestige in other spheres of tribal significance. The men are great hunters and skilled in tanning hides. The women do all the agricultural labor, and herd the cattle and flocks, which are as a rule stall-fed. The fertility of the soil makes their duties far from arduous, and they are happy and content. By a strange reversion of the conventions of civilization, the men do all the needlework, and embroider their own and the women’s bead and metal belts and ornaments, and also do the fighting; and the women are the unmolested purveyors between hostile tribes when they are at war. The young men are great dandies, dawdling about the villages with their hair coiffured in marvelous fashion, their skins stained with yellow clay, and sometimes painted in splotches. Many and various are the dances to signalize certain fetes, or merely to give vent to youthful exuberance. Some exclusively indulged in by one sex or the other, whereas others are participated in together.
Marriage is first by purchase; then by mock capture, which is followed by an atrocious practice. Polygamy existent among them is to my mind a geographical incident–a matter of topographical environment or necessity in a land where there are no workers except slaves or wives, and not prompted by the licentiousness of Oriental countries. A man accumulates more land or more cattle than his first wife can attend to without becoming a toilsome task, he takes another wife, and so on. The established wife or wives are far from being jealous of one another; to the contrary are delighted to welcome a new wife, and make great preparations for her homecoming, realizing that the work of all will be commeasurably lessened. Each woman has her own personal boma, or hut, and is not housed as in harems of other peoples. Also every wife is allotted a certain amount of property, and each child also has property given on birth. No change of times or circumstances deprives either of their titles. Their individual families are small, and the mother has supreme right over her children. Women are permitted to enjoy exactly the same moral freedom and standard as the men, only declassed when she may be indiscreet and holds a liaison with porters in a caravan, or with an enemy of her tribe.
Women when ill are doctored by the old women of the tribe, who are very skillful; however, as a rule they enjoy immunity from the sufferings of their civilized sisters. The men are doctored by men, and magic doctors are supported. In true Spartan fashion, the deformed, the disabled, the infirm, are quietly sent to la la (sleep) — no matter the sex. This is common to many people exposed to the elements and the attacks of wild beasts, or surrounded by inimical tribes, and deemed a mercy often pathetically enjoined, and even earnestly besought by the victims. Emblems of war, likewise of peace, play an important role. Observance of the same, especially the peace emblems, have much to do, if not all, with my attaining immediate admission among tribes disposed to be forbidding, and at times hostile. Familiarity with several of their dialects permitted me a better understanding of the people by sparing me the delusion of misinterpretation or careless and garbled reports. Moreover, the Africans are eloquent in gestures and facial expression. An observer can comprehend without a word there. Their dialect, however, is musical, circumscribed, epigrammatic, full of metaphor, and, above all, ceremonious.
They are far from being inept. To the contrary, are quick to imitate; without, however, wise discretionary powers to guide them as to what to avoid or what to adopt. After deliberate contemplation it appears to me the true method of civilizing Africa is by the establishment of industrial manual training stations and medical and nurses’ posts, and the presence of practical, honest, sober, decent, industrious white men and women, whose daily life will carry the highest precepts of enlightenment. Africa is no place for impractical zealots of any kind, nor should the natives be made the wards of an enervating philanthropy, robbing them of self-support, and ennobling individual responsibility.
My geographical work consisted in circumnavigating Lake Chala, situated on the northeastern slope of the African Olympus, Mount Kilimanjaro – 30o 22′ south latitude, 37o 17′ east longitude, 3,000 feet above the sea. My pride in the triumph is pardonable considering that no less an explorer than Thompson writes respecting the inaccessibility of this sheet of water, cupped within the escarped walls of an extinct crater. “I went all around it, and although I am not deficient in enterprise or nerve, I saw no place I dare descend, not even if I could have swung from creeper to creeper like a monkey.”
In fine, without bloodshed, without loss of but one man, who was killed by a lion, by peaceful, tactful, humane measures, it has been my privilege to traverse the country of thirty-five African tribes, and return to the coast with all my porters, leaving behind a record women need never blush to consider.
Conclusion: It was worth while if my venture may be instrumental in bringing about peaceful, humane methods of would-be colonizers, and banish forever the military attitude of aliens, when intruding themselves upon the Arcadians of East Africa. In due course I propose to return and lend my efforts to a “common-sense” method of colonization, and substantiate the principles many explorers look askance at, and criticise as too Utopian for Africa.
Source: “An African Expedition.” by May French Sheldon, The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U.S.A., 1893, Ed. Mary Kavanaugh Oldham (Chicago: Monarch Book Company), 1894. pp. 131-134.