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2 posts categorized "West Africa"

14 March 2019

Crossing the Line

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I forgot to mention the fact that we crossed the line yesterday and the fun which had been in store for some days came off in grand style.

We have recently catalogued the journal of Engineer Frederick Thomas Pendleton, documenting his time on board HMS Hecate on patrol with the West Africa Squadron. In addition to descriptions of daily shipboard life and provision stops along the west coast of Africa, Pendleton provides an entertaining and detailed account of a ceremony to mark crossing the equator.

Add_ms_89374_spreadAdd MS 89374, ff 37-38 Description of the Crossing the Line ceremony

Crossing the Line ceremonies have been documented in European navies since the 17th century, and Pendleton’s account appears to be fairly typical of the ceremony as performed on British vessels in the mid-19th century. Events begin the day before the line is crossed, with the ship receiving a message from Neptune, King of the Sea, announcing his intention to visit the crew and welcome those of his ‘children’ who have not visited his realms before.

Neptune_IWM_A_33252© IWM (A 33252) Crossing the Line 2 June 1955 on board HMS Newcastle, Imperial War Museum https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205163820 

My attention was called by a messmate to a deep gruff and somewhat, as my friend said, sepulchre sort of voice, but in whose tones I recognized that of old Joe the Quartermaster, who was evidently doing his best in the supernatural line…

Following the exchange a lighted barrel of tar was allowed to float off astern, representing the departure of Neptune and his crew. The next morning the deck was transformed into an arena to welcome the aquatic host -

…all being ready the curtain was drawn aside, and the drummer leading the van the procession started: Neptune; his better half the huge Amphirite; & their son Triton were seated on the Gun carriage of the field piece, and drawn round the deck by the bears, and followed by the policemen, Doctor, Barber, and a host of assistant comprising those who have been lucky enough to have crossed the equator previous.

NeptuneWife_IWM_A_5340© IWM (A 5340) On board troop transport at sea, August 1941. Father Neptune with his Queen and Lady in Waiting. Imperial War Museum https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205139568 

The initiates were marched to meet the royal party, and forced to sit with their backs to a large bath of water. Here they were interrogated by Neptune and a policeman as to their character. Crewmen judged of good character went straight to the barber, where they were lathered and shaved, before being ducked by the bears and released to the fellow crewmates.

3 razors made out of an old iron hoop Nos 1, 2, 3 by name lay alongside the barber, should the policeman’s account of character be good, he scrapes with a no 3 and a good ducking…

Shaving_IWM_A_5176© IWM (A 5176) Initiate being ducked by the bears on board the troop transport Empress of Australia, August 1941. Imperial War Museum https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205185436 

A bad assessment of character – typically given to unpopular crew – attracted a much more unpleasant and violent ceremony, beginning with the attentions of the doctor:

… if on the contrary a bad one be given, then I pity the unfortunate delinquent should he attempt to speak in justification & his mouth is instantly filled with all sorts of offal and dirt – someone cried out he’s fainting, the doctor approaches armed with his smelling bottle, through the cork of which protrude several long sharp needles… the doctor then states that the patient is in a fit state to undergo the operation – cold Tar is smeared on his chin, and scraped off with the horrible No 1 razor… very much resembling a common hand saw.

MssEurC615_overviewPhotograph copy of a sketch depicting a Crossing the Line ceremony performed onboard the troopship HMS Alfred, reference Mss Eur C615

The shave was then followed by repeated ducking from the bears, and additional watering –

when at last permitted to go, he is saluted with buckets of water from the rigging, and at the end of the gangway is met full in the face by a powerful jet of water, coming from the hose of the fire engine – no doubt shortly after you will see him playing a very prominent part in the punishment of others.

You can imagine that the desire to subject officers to the same treatment would have been fairly strong among a number of the crew, but Pendleton identified a common mitigating factor –

Officers underwent the same process though with less severity, attributable in many instances to sundry bottles of Grog, distributed among Neptune and his attendant spirits – I must say that I enjoyed the scene, and shaving very much

MssEurC615_dunkingCloser detail of the ducking scene, Mss Eur C615

The full account of the ceremony can be read in Pendleton’s journal, now available to view in the Manuscripts Reading Room, Add MS 89374.

Additional reading

Add MS 89374, Naval Journal of Frederick Thomas Pendleton

Mss Eur C615, Logbook of the troopship Alfred

Simon Bronner, Crossing the Line: Violence, Play and Drama in Naval Equator Traditions (Amsterdam University Press, 2006)

Alex Hailey

Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

20 January 2016

East India Company trade in West Africa

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For a brief period from 1657 to 1666 the East India Company traded to the Guinea Coast of West Africa.  Cargoes of textiles and manufactured goods were sent from England to be exchanged for gold and ivory which were shipped to India to support Company commercial operations.

Guinea Coast

Detail from facsimile map 1729 by d’Anville  in  George Peacock, The Guinea or Gold Coast of Africa  (Exeter, 1880)

 

The main English base was Fort Cormantine, but the East India Company also took over factories (trading posts) at Cape Coast and Wyamba (Winneba), and established new ones at Anto, Tantamkweri, and Benin. The factories were exclusively male domains – the Company had no intention of maintaining a proper settlement. Men were sent out to be merchants, soldiers and workmen.  Some did return to England, but the mortality rate from disease was very high. Over 50 deaths are recorded in the India Office Records, approximately half of those named as Company employees in West Africa. Frequent requests were sent to London for more men to be sent to replace the dead and sick. Agent Lancelot Staveley was given permission to return home in 1658: ‘I find my strength & ability of body soe much decayed by my long stay here that itt is dangerous for me to remaine longer’.

Rivalry between European powers on the Guinea Coast was keen, with each nation striving to gain the friendship of influential Africans. The English negotiated with  John Cloice (or Claessen), for the right to occupy Cape Coast Castle after it was surrendered by the Dutch.  Cloice was a powerful African merchant who was de facto ruler of Fetu from 1656 until his death in 1662. Friendly relations with the Africans were vital for successful trading, but disputes did break out from time to time.  Company merchant Nicholas Herrick’s behaviour offended the King of Aguinea and the factory at Wyamba was looted as a result.

The East India Company directors gave clear instructions that their merchants were not to participate in the slave trade supplying African labour to West Indian plantations, saying that this had previously proved very much to the Company’s ‘prejudice’. However the directors ordered the shipment of black labourers from the Guinea Coast to serve the Company elsewhere.  A total of 35 men and women are recorded as sailing for St Helena, Pulo Run and Bantam, some taken from the complement of labourers kept at Fort Cormantine. In June 1661 the Company merchants wanted to send a pinnace to Arda to procure black labourers since Africans recruited locally tended to run away.  The directors responded by stating that Africans must be willing to serve the Company and were not to be coerced. Captain John Mallinson of the ship American was instructed to take to St Helena twenty of the Africans at Fort Cormantine who could speak English, but the Company merchants refused to send away any of their labourers: ‘they have all wives and children in the country and will never thrive after beinge transported, and the sending away of some will cause all the rest to run into the countrey’.

The East India Company was forced to withdraw from the Guinea trade when Charles II granted a charter to the Company of Royal Adventurers into Africa.  Jean Barbot’s journal of his voyage to Guinea 1678-1679 and a plan of Cape Coast Castle made for the Royal African Company in 1740 are currently on display in the British Library’s fascinating exhibition West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song which is open until 16 February 2016.

West Africa exhibition

 

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company RecordsCc-by

Further reading:
Margaret Makepeace, ‘English Traders on the Guinea Coast, 1657-1668: An analysis of the East India Company Archive’, History in Africa 16 (Atlanta, 1989).
Margaret Makepeace, Trade on the Guinea Coast 1657-1666: the correspondence of the English East India Company (Madison Wisconsin, 1991).