It is nearly a four-thousand mile journey from Liverpool to Accra, the capital and chief cocoa port of the Gold Coast. Four days after crawling through a fog in the River Mersey our steamer is running full-speed ahead past Lisbon, and the sun is hot enough to make us talk about getting out summer clothes. Two days later we sight the peak of Teneriffe in the Canary Islands; now the sun is beginning to stoke up fast and furiously, preparing to do justice to his West African reputation. Eight nights after leaving home in a well-heated ship, where we vainly tried to keep warm in bed by crouching under four blankets and hugging a hot-water bottle, we are lying on our bunks gasping for breath, with the electric fan going, and without so much as a sheet over us. The next morning we get our first view of the African mainland, when Cape Verde looms up on the horizon as a little mound and quickly grows to imposing height as we draw nearer to it, and see it standing out in contrast with a sea-level shoreline. Henceforth on the voyage we are seldom out of sight of the generally low-lying West African coastland.
Everyone who is not going to land at Accra begins to bewail the fate of everyone for whom that experience is in store. . . . Under the best of weather conditions - run the hundred and one stories, grave and gay, of duckings and luggage going to the bottom of the sea - the trip in a surf-boat between steamer and beach is a perilous adventure. The men who spin these yarns have all, at some time or other, had to go through the nerve-test as newcomers of listening to similar tales, and they lose no opportunity of paying off that old score. They are used to scoffers among their audience, to a minority on whom they can make no impression, and to a majority who seek chances of taking them on one side to enquire confidentially whether the landing ahead is as fearsome as it is pictured. But it is something of a surprise to them to encounter fellow-passengers who can cap their tales with stories of surf-boat landings in other parts of the world; those of us who have gone ashore at certain west-coast ports of South America, and can thus hold our own in the good-natured sport of leg-pulling with surf-running yarns, soon get at the truth of what may be expected - landing at Accra is apt to be awe-inspiring in the rough weather that comes with the rainy season, always exciting, but seldom dangerous at this dry season of the year.
We have spent eleven days at sea when our ship puts in at her first port of call, Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. Here we unpack our sun helmets, for it is not safe even to lean our heads over the side of the steamer for a moment to look at what is going on in the little boats swarming alongside, unless we are wearing a helmet to protect our head and the back of our neck. Now is the time when we should make a solemn vow to ourselves that, onwards from this minute until the day we are clear of Sierra Leone on the homeward bound trip, we will respect the sun, the white man's deadliest enemy on the West Coast -from seven o'clock in the morning until five o'clock in the afternoon we must never go out without a helmet on; we must be specially careful not to think we need not trouble to put it on because we are only going a few yards - say, from the bungalow where we are staying to meet someone at the foot of the stairs; and we must keep that helmet on even if we are under cover of a roof, if that roof happens to be of corrugated iron, as may very likely be the case in some of the cocoa stores we shall be visiting; also under any kind of roof, such as the awning on the ship, or the dilapidated thatch to a native hut, or the ant-eaten timbers of an old shed, which may allow the sun's rays to strike down direct on our head, or, worse still, on the back of our neck, through so much of an opening as an almost invisibly narrow crack, or a speck of a nail-hole. There is no leg-pulling in the warning stories of men on the Coast who have had sunstroke, although they were wearing a helmet, because they thoughtlessly stooped down to tie a shoelace or pick something up, thus exposing that most vulnerable part - the back of the neck. I personally know of two cases in which this happened; both men fell down helpless in a second, and one of them, whose neck bore a red patch, such as might have been caused by a hot flatiron, remained unconscious for three days. Remember, too, that the sun is even more dangerous in this part of the world on a dull day than on a bright one.
Now, too, we should begin to take five grains of quinine a day as a protection against malaria-infected mosquitoes.
At Freetown we make our first acquaintance with the negro in his native land. But the blacks we meet are by no means strangers to us; we have spent many an interesting and amusing day amongst crowds of their relations, descendants of West African slaves, when we were staying on sugar plantations in the West Indies and British Guiana.
A gang of Kruboys come aboard the steamer at Freetown.
"Who are they?" you ask. "Whither are they bound? What are they going to do?"
In answering those questions I had better begin by telling you that the vast native population of West Africa includes a bewildering number of tribes, each with its own language, habits, and customs.
The tribes, by the way, are sometimes called races, and some of them speak of themselves as nations.
Among the few tribes whose menfolk can be drawn on for labourers are the Kruboys, natives of Liberia. They travel along the Coast, acting as boat-hands and steward boys. Most of those who have now come on board are crew-boys, according to the nautical spelling of the word; they will clean decks, load and unload cargo, do the ship's washing, and generally relieve the white seamen of manual labour whilst the steamer is in tropical waters - that is to say, until she reaches Freetown again on the homeward voyage. A few of these boys, however, are travelling as deck passengers - they are migrating to neighbouring countries as domestic servants. We shall find some of their "brothers" doing the work of the house at the European bungalows where we shall be staying in the Gold Coast. Notice the tribal mark by which you can always recognise a Kruboy - a broad band running vertically down the middle of the forehead. If you look closely at that band you will see it consists of a number of narrow ridges and furrows in horizontal, roughly parallel lines; the mark was made when the boy was a baby by a series of gashes with an old jack-knife, and an application of some native preparation to help the wounds heal into the ridge and furrow pattern.
You no savvy why I call dem men boys?
"Boy" is pigeon-English for a native male labourer, no matter whether he be a child, a youth, or an old man. Keep your ears open to learn as much as you can of your mother-tongue, as spoken by the natives in the Babel-land where we shall soon be going ashore. Those of you who have learnt to talkee-talkee in the East may be thinking you will find it quite easy to understand and make yourselves understood by the West African native, seeing that you already knew the meaning of that word "boy" before I explained the same for the benefit of those of our friends who have not had so many opportunities of travel. Wait small, my learned friends, and you will find out for yourselves that West Coast pigeon-English - or, as it is sometimes called "trade English" - differs widely from any other desecration of your language you have ever heard.
Meanwhile, I expect you would all be glad if I would translate some of the expressions I have already used.
"Savvy," of course, most of you recognised at once as the equivalent of "know" or "understand."
"Wait small" means "wait a minute." If you tell your steward-boy or your motor-boy to "wait small," there is just the ghost of a chance, if he knows any English at all, that he will stay where he is at the time you give him the order until you call him again. But if you bid him "wait a minute," he will probably go off and fetch you a bottle of soda-water, or take the car to some place where he has happened to drive you any time during the last year or so, pull up there, and go to sleep till somehow or other you manage to find him.
"Brothers" are not the near relations we understand by the word, but simply members of the same tribe.
"Palaver" may mean "talk" or "work." A conversation between two people is a palaver, so also is a deputation to the Governor or a wordy battle in the Courts; and in the opinion of most black men out here, agricultural work is "women's palaver." Now that we are nearing our destination, it is time we had a little palaver about cocoa on lines that will prepare us to understand what we are going to see.
Plucking Cocoa Pods: Gold Coast