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“Power, Grandeur, and Oppression”: Highlights from African History and Culture, 1540-1921

Posted on 03/23/2016

The February release of African History and Culture, 1540-1921: Imprints from the Library Company of Philadelphia includes a compilation of travel literature written by several African explorers and two multi-volume works by Edward Delaval Hungerford Elers Napier. 

The Modern Traveller (1800)  

By William Fordyce Mavor 

William Fordyce Mavor (1758-1837) was a teacher, politician, and priest. Introducing his four volumes of travel literature, Mavor writes: 

Valuable as these productions are, yet the size and expense of the volumes preclude many readers of curiosity, intelligence, and knowledge, from being able conveniently to purchase such sources of gratification….To accommodate those who may be desirous of being acquainted with modern discoveries, without choosing to be at such an expense, the object of the present publication is to present, in an abridged form, the most remarkable travels and voyages, which have recently afforded important accessions to our acquaintance with countries and mankind. 

Mavor’s first volume is comprised of the adventures of fellow Scotsman and West African explorer Mungo Park. It includes this anecdote about gold, slavery, and cannibalism: 

Karfa’s slaves were all prisoners of war, who had been taken by the Bambarran army. Some of them had been kept three years at Sego in irons, whence they were sent (with other captives) up the Niger to Yamina, Bammakoo, and Kancada, where they were sold for gold dust. Eleven confessed they had been slaves from their birth, but the other two refused to give any account of themselves to Mr. Park, whom they at first regarded with looks of horror, and repeatedly asked if his countrymen were cannibals. They were very desirous to know (says our traveler) what became of the slaves after they had crossed the salt water. I told them, that they were employed in cultivating the land; but they would not believe me; and one of them, putting his hand upon the ground, said with great simplicity, “Have you really got such ground as this to set your feet upon?” A deeply rooted idea, that the Whites purchase Negroes for the purpose of devouring them, or of selling them to others that they may be devoured hereafter, naturally makes the slaves contemplate a journey towards the Coast with great terror. 

Wild Sports in Europe, Asia, and Africa (1844) 

By Lt.-Colonel Edward Delaval Hungerford Elers Napier 

Edward Delaval Hungerford Elers Napier was born in 1808, educated at the Royal Military College, and promoted to lieutenant in 1826 and captain in 1831. In 1843, he retired on half-pay after being reported medically unfit to accompany his regiment to the West Indies, but only three years later Napier was sent to the Eastern Cape of South Africa where he commanded irregulars during the Seventh Xhosa War of 1846-1847.





In addition to writing about hunting in this two-volume work, Napier includes descriptions of notable sights. Or in this case, a non-description: 

On the evening of the fourth day, our eyes were feasted with perhaps one of the noblest sights in nature, as we beheld the deep red sun in a flood of molten fire, slowly setting behind those most stupendous monuments of former power, grandeur, and oppression: the eternal, the time-honored Pyramids, whose summits the declining luminary still gilded, long after it had disappeared from our ken, and dipped into the boundless Lybian [sic] Desert beyond. Such a sight, to be duly appreciated must be witnessed, and any attempt at description would be a mere waste of words… 

Napier also writes about the manners and customs he encountered. After a grisly description of snake charming, he recounts this experience with a magician:  

We shortly afterwards had a sight of the great Maugrabin or Western Magician, so often mentioned by travelers, and at the expense of some four of five dollars, became perfectly convinced that his spells and incantations, notwithstanding what has been averred to the contrary, are as complete humbug as those of any other professional charlatan. 

Excursions in Southern Africa (1849) 

By Edward Delaval Hungerford Elers Napier 

Several years after writing Wild Sports in Europe, Asia, and Africa and surviving the Seventh Xhosa War, Napier turned his pen to southern Africa and its peoples. He writes unapologetically: 

The Bushman still continues unrelentingly to plunder, and cruelly to destroy, whenever the opportunity presents itself. His residence is still amongst inaccessible hills, in the rude cave, or the cleft of the rock—on the level karroo, in the shallow burrow, scooped out with a stick, and sheltered with a frail mat. He still, with deadly effect, draws his diminutive bow, and shoots his poisoned arrows against man and beast. Disdaining labor of any kind, he seizes, when he can, on the farmers’ herds and flocks; recklessly destroys what he cannot devour; wallows for consecutive days with vultures and jackals, amidst the carcasses of the slain; and, when fully gorged to the throat, slumbers in lethargic stupor, like a wild beast; till, aroused by hunger, he is compelled to wander forth again in quest of prey. When he cannot plunder cattle, he eagerly pursues the denizens of the waste; feasts indifferently on the lion, on the hedgehog; and, failing such dainty morsels, philosophically contents himself with roots, bulbs, locusts, ants, pieces of hide steeped in water….

Whether this precarious mode of existence may, or may not, have influenced the personal appearance and stature of the Bushman, it is difficult to say; but a more wretched-looking set of beings cannot easily be imagined. The average height of the men is considerably under five feet, that of the women little exceeding four. Their shameless state of near complete nudity—their brutalized habits of voracity, filth, and cruelty of disposition—appear to place them completely on a level with the brute creation; whilst the ‘clicking’ tones of a language, composed of the most unpronounceable and discordant noises, more resemble the jabbering of apes, than sounds uttered by human beings. 



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