19th Century Humanities
Otto Friedrich Von Der Groeben's
Voyage to Guinea, 1682-3

Jones, ed., Brandenburg Sources for West African History


Description of Sierra Leone

      When we anchored at the watering-place of this locality [Sierra Leone], with all despatch we stocked our ship with wood and water. Then I went with a number of young noblemen into the negro settlement which lay very close to the watering-place. Here we met the Water-Captain Jan Thomas, with about forty men and thirty women, and we served them with the brandy we had with us. This Water-Captain spoke a little German, consisting mainly of the following short standard phrases: "Thunder [and] sacrament! To me, Captain Jan Thomas, must pay for wood and water!" The women sat down around us; they then danced with their Captain to the music of our shawms, which [?] were obliged to let themselves be heard.

      The dwellings of these people are quite small and are covered on top and at the bottom with reeds and palm fronds. They are round or oblong, 12-13 foot high and 8-9 foot wide; their doors are 4 foot high, so that one cannot enter without stooping. The place where they sleep is on one side of the house and is raised one foot above ground level; it is made of mud and is 3 foot wide; on top lies a mat made of reeds or rushes. The fireplace consists of two lumps of rock placed in the middle of their palace, on which they cook milie, fish or meat. The floor-covering or pavement is the bare soil or red clay. Each village has a place set aside which is intended for meetings and this stands somewhat higher than the other houses. Underneath is a foot of mud or clay, beaten down all over. Here they assemble with their officers to inhale tobacco--men, women, and children, all together. They love tobacco smoke so much that not only do they smoke throughout the day, but at night they also hang some tobacco in little bage\s around their necks, as if it were a precious jewel. They are accustomed to incise their body, face and hands in quite a variegated way and to rub the wound afterwards with gunpowder or a certain herb, so that the pattern never disappears. The blacker they are, the greater they esteem their beauty.


        The original primary source was collected by Adam Jones in his book, Brandenburg Sources for West African History, published in 1985. Written by Otto Friedrich Von Der Groeben himself during his voyage to Guinea from 1682 to 1683, he described the journey with distinctive events he had experienced and witnessed, all located in Sierra Leone. Otto Friedrich Von Der Groeben was a Prussian explorer, officer and general. In 1682, he was assigned by the elector of Brandenburg, Frederick William, to make a colonial expedition to the coast of Guinea. He and his army arrived in a nearby village on December 27, 1682 and began building fortifications around the town. A few years after the journey, he was promoted to lieutenant general.


With the descriptions provided about the happenings in Sierra Leone, it focuses on depicting the scene of village life. Through this document, outsiders will then be able to understand the culture and traditions in Sierra Leone. In the primary source, Groeben illustrated the scene with “they then danced with their Captain to the music of our shawms.” With this, the purpose of the document is revealed with Groeben trying to express the fact that these people dancing around are beautiful. Furthermore, he ends the passage with “the blacker they are, the greater they esteem their beauty.” This showed that his main purpose was to let the people from the outside world to realize the beauty in these people. So easily that people ignore is the existence of beauty in Africa, and thus that is what Groeben is trying to present to us all.


        During the late 1600s, expeditions from different parts of the world have already started to make its investigation in Africa. Just the time when Brandenburfisch-Afrikanische Campagnie, an overseas trading company, was founded in 1681, Groeben was sent with an assignment to explore Sierra Leone, giving him an opportunity to obtain promotion. This however, was not fully effective in establishing the sight of beauty into words, for the motivation lies in the act of promotion instead of curiosity itself. As we can see, Groeben’s English may not be perfect, but based on the education given at that time, as a general, he was a quite educated man. But through this “about-to-be-promoted” idea, we get some insight as to the fact that he probably viewed this expedition as an assignment instead of an exploration to his curiosity. The author however, expressed a bright side of the events he went through. The portrayed scene was valuable in a way that it represented a more beautiful side of Africa.


        One major flaw of the primary source is that it isn’t written by a native, but by a European explorer, which may be biased based on the different ethnicity; the perspective of an African, will thus be unable to be revealed in this document. Overall, the author didn’t mention his own interactions with the tribes (if any) as if he were just a passerby and one who observes animals in the zoo. But the main point is to make an expedition, therefore contact would be made, but Groeben made no mention of this information. 


          The primary source below is a description a master had wrote about his servant. It has a great deal of detailed information with different vocab words that are added into parts of the description, which can massively help with the learning of the culture in Africa from a very unique perspective of an African. 
The Narrative of Salih Bilali

ca. 1830s from Curtin, Africa Remembered


      Salih Bilali, a Muslim Fulani (Fulbe, or Pulo), hailed from Kianah on the Niger River near Mopti where he was born around 1770. Taken by Bambara slave raiders at about the age of 12, he was sold from Anomabu on the Gold Coast and taken to the Bahamas. There he was purchased again and taken to Hopeton plantation in Georgia, where he became a driver around 1816. Bilali was apparently a very well-trusted servant, who often supervised the plantation doings on his own. This account is from a letter written sometime in the late 1830s by Bilali's master, James Hamilton Couper.

      His native town is Kianah, in the district of Temourah, and in the kingdom of Massina. Kianah is a considerable town, within half a mile of a great river, nearly a mile wide, which is called Mayo [the Niger]; and which runs from the setting to the rising sun, and this, to the north of the town. To the east of Kianah, this river unites with another large river [the Bani] which flows into it from the south. On this southern river, the large towns of Kuna and Jenne are situated; and he believes the two unite beyond the latter town.

      Kuna is situated on the north side of the southern river, immediately on its banks; and is two days' journey, in a south-west direction, from Kianah. It is a very large town, and an extensive market is held, on stated days, on the opposite bank of the river. Beyond Kianah, up the same river, but on the south side of it, is Jenne. It lays south-west from Kianah, and is also about two days' walk from it. It is a very large town, being a days' ride in circuit, for a man on horse-back. The head priest resides at Jenne, and is called Al-mami. He has been frequently at Kuna and Jenne; and has heard of a large town on the great river, higher up than Jenne, which is west south-west from Kianah, and which is called Segu, and is the principal town of the Kingdom of Bambara. Another great town, the largest in the country, also lies on the great river, on the north side of it. It lies north-east from Kianah, and is called Timbuktu. It is a great distance from Kianah, more than two hundred miles.

      Arab traders, who are nearly white, Mahometans in religion, and who speak the languages both of the Koran and the country, trade between Timbuktu, Kuna, Jenne, and Segu. They travel in large boats, covered with awnings, and propelled by poles. They are armed, wear turbans, and travel in large parties, having frequently thirty or forty boats together. They bring for sale, salt in large thick slabs, blankets, guns, pistols, cotton cloth, beads, shell money, and sometimes horses. These traders differ from the natives in color, hair and dress, and come from a distant country beyond Timbuktu.

      He has never been to Timbuktu. The natives he has seen, from that town and Jenne, speak a different language from his own, which is that of the Kingdom of Massina; but the traders understand both. Mahometanism is the religion of all. He knows of but one race of negroes, occupying the country of Timbuktu, Kuna, Jenne and Massina. They vary somewhat in color. That most prevalent is a yellowish brown, lighter than his own, which is brownish black. He recollects no difference in the hair, which is woolly in himself.

      I infer from his conversation, that the town of Kianah, or perhaps the Kingdom of Massina, is a Foulah [Fulbe] or Fellatah colony, established among the older nations of the Soudan, and differing from them in language. I can draw no inference as regards any difference of physical appearance. He is not aware of any difference of origin.

      The houses consist of two kinds. Those occupied by the richer classes are built of cylindrical bricks, made of clay mixed with rice chaff and dried in the sun. They contain two rooms only; one of which is used as a store-room, and the other as as eating and sleeping apartment, for the whole family. They are of one story high, with flat roofs, made of joists, overlaid with strips of wood, and plastered with a very white clay. The inhabitants sleep on raised platforms, covered with mats; and during the cold weather, which occurs about the season of the rice harvest, blankets of wool made from their own sheep, are used. The fires are made on the floors, and the smoke escapes by a hole left in the roof. The poorer classes live in small conical huts, made of poles, connected at the tops, and covered with straw.

The churches (mosques) are built of dried bricks, like the best class of houses. They contain a recess, towards the east or rising sun, towards which the Al-Mami turns his face, when he prays--towards Mecca. The houses of the head men do not differ in size from those of the better classes.

      The natives cultivate the soil, and keep large droves of horses, cows, sheep, goats, and some asses. The great grain crop is rice. As a preparation for it, the soil is turned with a sharp pointed hoe. The seed is then sowed broad cast, and is covered with the same hoe. The ground continues dry, until the rice is nearly two feet high; when the river rises, and inundates the country. The water continues up, until the rice is ripe; and it is harvested in canoes, and carried to the high ground, to which the inhabitants retire during the freshets. Besides rice, they cultivate a species of red maize, millet and Guinea corn. They also grow beans, pumpkins, okra, tomatoes, cucumbers and cotton. They have cocoa-nuts, pine-apples and small yellow figs, which grow on very large trees.

      The usual food is rice, milk, butter, fish, beef and mutton. The domesticated animals are horses, used for riding, asses and camels for carrying loads; cattle, the bulls of which have lumps on their shoulders, for milk and meat--sheep, with very long wool, for food and wool--goats and poultry, and dogs for guards. They have no hogs.

      The wild animals are lions, hyenas, elephants and hippopotami, called gabou.

      The usual dress of the men, is a large pair of cotton trowsers, and a shirt with a conical straw hat, without a rim. They manufacture their own cotton cloth; and dye it with a very fine blue better than any he has seen here. They also wear blankets, made from the long wool of their sheep.

      The hair of the natives is curled and woolly; and both men and women wear it in long plaits, extending down the sides of their heads. In war, they use shields and spears, but not bows and arrows. All the children are taught to read and write Arabic, by the priests (Maalims). They repeat from the Koran, and write on a board, which when filled, is washed off. There are no slaves. Crimes are punished by fines. The men work in the fields, fish, herd cattle, and weave. The women spin, and attend to household duties, but never work in the field.

      His father and mother, were persons of considerable property. When about twelve years old, as he was returning from Jenne to Kianah, alone, on horseback, he was seized by a predatory party and carried to Segu, and was transferred from master to master, until he reached the coast, at Anomabu. During his journey, he passed a high range of mountains, on the slopes of which, he met with a nation of cannibals. After leaving Bambara, to use his own expression, the people had no religion, until he came to this country.