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“That Execrable Sum of All Villainies”: Highlights from African History and Culture, 1540-1921

Posted on 06/16/2016

The June release of African History and Culture, 1540-1921: Imprints from the Library Company of Philadelphia includes narratives by both a British Army cavalryman and the British Army’s Commander-in-Chief. Also found in this release is an account by an Austrian explorer who was one of the first Europeans to visit Lake Turkana in the Kenyan Rift Valley.  


Travels in Western Africa, in 1845 & 1846 (1847) 

By John Duncan 

Scotsman John Duncan served in the British Army’s cavalry and journeyed twice to Africa. During the Niger expedition of 1841 he was struck with a poisoned arrow and suffered from fever but was undaunted. He returned to Africa in 1845 and traveled “from Whydah, through the kingdom of Dahomey, to Adofoodia, in the interior.” 

Duncan uses a regrettable tone to describe some of the peoples he encounters, declaring the Fantee “of all the Africans I have yet seen the laziest and dirtiest….They are remarkably dull of comprehension, and, unless constantly watched, will lie down and do nothing.” Nor is he impressed by their superstition-based approach to medicine. However, Duncan is most disturbed by their exuberant celebrations, writing:  

The natives have a great many customs or holy days in the course of the year, during which it is unbearable to live in the town, such is the noise and uproar of the rabble. Their yells, roaring, and discord are indescribable. They have a sort of rude drum, about four feet in length, and one in diameter, called tenti or kin Kasi. This is carried on a man’s head in a horizontal position, and is beaten by another man walking behind him, who hammers away like a smith on his anvil, without any regard to time. This huge drum is accompanied by horns and long wooden pipes, the sound of which resembles the bellowing of oxen. The procession parades up and down the town nearly the whole day, and keeps up an irregular fire of musketry. On all these occasions an immense quantity of rum (which is only three pence per pint) is drunk. If any person of note die, the relatives and neighbors assemble in front of his house, and continue drinking and smoking, yelling and firing off guns nearly the whole of the day; and one of the family invariably sacrifices a dog, to procure a safe passage to Heaven for the deceased. If none of the deceased’s relatives happen to have a dog in their possession, they sally out in a party and kill the first dog they meet. 







Discovery of Lakes Rudolf and Stefanie (1894) 

By Lieut. Ludwig von Höhnel 

Austrian naval officer and explorer Ludwig von Höhnel was the second-in-command of Count Sámuel Teleki von Szek’s hunting and exploring expedition in Eastern Equatorial Africa in 1887-1888. Höhnel and Teleki were the first Europeans to see Lake Turkana, which they named after the Crown Prince of Austria. Höhnel describes their arrival, writing: 

For a long time we gazed in speechless delight, spell-bound by the beauty of the scene before us, whilst our men, equally silent, stared into the distance for a few minutes, to break presently into shouts of astonishment at the sight of the glittering expanse of the great lake which melted on the horizon into the blue of the sky. At that moment all our dangers, all our fatigues were forgotten in the joy of finding our exploring expedition crowned with success at last. Full of enthusiasm and gratefully remembering the gracious interest takin in our plans from the first by his Royal and Imperial Highness, Prince Rudolf of Austria, Count Teleki named the sheet of water, set like a pearl of great price in the wonderful landscape beneath us, Lake Rudolf. 

Höhnel’s narrative also includes descriptions of hunting big game and encounters with various peoples, both of which are often accompanied by wonderful illustrations in addition to beautiful colored maps of East Africa.







The Story of a Soldier's Life (1903) 

By Field Marshal Garnet Joseph Wolseley, 1st Viscount Wolseley 

Garnet Joseph Wolseley was one of the most influential generals of the British Army. He enjoyed successes in Canada, West Africa, and Egypt before taking a pivotal role in modernizing and improving the efficiency of the army. He served in Burma, the Crimean War, the Indian Mutiny, China, Canada, and throughout much of Africa. He went on to become Commander-in-Chief of the Forces from 1895-1900.  

Writing about the Ashantee War of 1873-1874, Wolseley attributes its cause, and the cause of other African conflicts, to the abolition of the slave trade. 

It is not easy to define the immediate cause of every war we have waged on the West Coast of Africa. We may, however, truthfully assert that most of them grew out of our abolition of the Slave Trade. As the King of Ashantee’s revenue, which had been considerable, was chiefly derived from the sale of slaves captured in his frequent wars, he was naturally furious with us for having thus deprived him of his market for them. 

After arriving at Cape Coast Castle on the Gold Coast of West Africa, Wolseley grapples with his thoughts on slavery:  

The morning after my arrival I walked about “my capital,” desirous of liking it and its people; but although it has been some centuries in the hands of Europeans I found the town negro an objectionable animal. His vanity, pretensions, his vulgar swagger, made one feel how much more useful he would be if we had never emancipated him. The term “slave” jars upon our ears, and yet the more one sees of the negro at Cape Coast, the more one realized that he was intended to be the white man’s servant. Amongst other places I visited the old castle, built originally by the Portuguese, which still has the armorial bearings of that nation over its gate. There I saw the horrible dens in which the slaves, purchased from the interior, and chiefly from the Ashantees, used formerly to be immured until some slaver arrived to take them to be sold like cattle in the colonies. Those dungeons made me realize with what truth John Wesley had denounced the slave trade as “that execrable sum of all villainies.” Let the man who would question that truth visit the old slave pens of Cape Coast Castle. 

However, Wolseley continues to vacillate on the treatment of Africans in describing his Commissariat Officer:  

I had selected him for this work because he thoroughly understood the negro character, and had long experience in dealing with black races both in the West Indies and upon this very coast. Thousands of these Cape Coast negroes knew him personally, and all knew him by reputation to be a just man, but one who would not submit to their nonsense: whilst they feared him they were fond of him. He was a man amongst many, and to me he was worth any thousand other men I could have found. He made light of the climate and was an indefatigable worker. A first-rate Commissariat Officer, he could get more out of the negro than any man I ever met: he was indeed a man after my own heart. 

For more information about African History and Culture, 1540-1921, or to request a trial for your institution, please contact


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