35. Osse River to Jameson River

Hayes’ account of the battle of Benin in 1897, ten years prior to his visit, is absolutely hair-raising (and I’ve edited much of the diary’s explicit detail for a general audience).  His version of the story credits the British with conquering Benin to halt the long-standing practice of ritual human sacrifice.

You can see from the map that Hayes’ first stay in Africa, though incredibly eventful, was brief.  The blue path shows his voyage along the coast; the pink is the current chapter; the yellow shows his path out of Africa after only seven months. Google Maps is misbehaving again here is the link to the map I describe.

Click here to download chapters 1-35 on Google Earth.  

Here and There Synopsis:

35.1 Up the Osse River

January 27, 1907

J. F. Herald, head of Millers Forestry Department, sent Hayes upriver by canoe to a lonely outpost in the bush “opened by a young Scot named McPherson.” The boatmen wanted to dawdle but Hayes kept them going along a fair flow of water continuously interrupted by sandbars and shallows. “Two crocodiles slipped off into the water as we passed, small ones perhaps five or six feet in length.” In this dry season of the year in Nigeria, the harmattan blows off the Sahara bringing cool nights and rain, “but not in deluges as it does during the long wet season.”

McPherson’s outpost sits in a small spot of light penetrating to a tiny clearing by the Osse River surrounded on all sides by dense forest. McPherson “is very seedy from fever and poor living alone in the bush. He is nervous in the extreme, and unless he gets out of Africa soon he will stay here in the White Man’s Grave.” Hayes takes up residence “in a bush hut thrown together by the listless natives,” with McPherson and “countless ants of several species, jiggers that bore under our toes and crickets that make the night hideous with their shrill noises.”

Outside the hut, “in this forest are not only large animals, but smaller ones that create a tremendous uproar, and above all this noise is the hum of countless insects whose combined voices unite in a tremendous roar in which no individual sound may be distinguished.” Among the insects attracted to their “feeble lamp at night,” Hayes remarks particularly on the rhinoceros beetle as “the most formidable,” and the praying mantis that can reach six inches in length and “have the most uncanny appearance for they can turn their heads on their hinged necks and stare one in the eyes unblinkingly.”

Rhinoceros Beetle

African Praying Mantis

Fishing with McPherson and some of the local residents, Hayes sees animal life in abundance: signs where buffalo have come to the river edge at night, elephant spoor, monkeys in the trees, antelope of several species, small predatory cats, and numerous bats and birds. In the little hut in the clearing, “the alarmingly shrill cry a small tree hyrax gives one the creeps the live long night.”

Tree Hyrax

In addition, “There are leopards but these do not harm the natives.”

February 10, 1907

Hayes’ 29th birthday; he marks it with the two words, “My birthday.” Herald has arrived at McPherson’s small outpost together with another man named Cowan, general manager on the coast. “None of these men have any idea of handling timber.”

Hayes’ writes with disdain of the wasteful techniques employed here: First a tree is marked, noting its distance from the river. “Then men with clumsy axes are turned loose on its trunk, and in two or three days it will crash the way it leans. Like a beaver going round a tree do these men cut all this marvelous mahogany, ruining much good wood and often breaking the tree in the fall.” Unbroken trees are then measured (by the European in charge) and marked for length. Then the men with axes go at it again, ruining several more feet cutting the logs to specification. Each log is “laboriously squared” and made ready for shipment by cutting a sloping front so it will ride the skids to the water. “Then this slope has to be cut off, when another three feet is lost.”

More disdain for the tools: “Crude axes, much too heavy, jack screws (if any) also heavy beyond words. Seldom a saw, and then useless because of no one knowing how to file it.”

Jack Scew

And finally, disdain for the labor practices: “The logs are hauled to the water with men. This requires at least a hundred men to drag a log of ordinary size to water. Rolling skids are used instead of ones set in the earth, and when possible whips are used on the men.” So much wrong with the business here! Use of the whip appears as only one in this long list; Hayes will however renounce its use over many years all across Africa – perhaps due to his own experience at the end of a whip. “I try to explain these things to Cowan and Herald, but they seem to be insulted at the counsel of a mere Yank.”

February 18, 1907

As if to underscore that Miller’s is a Scotch company, McPhail has arrived to replace McPherson at this lonely outpost up the Osse River. “A very supercilious young man, he is. Having been in charge of a beach at one of the factories for two years, he despises me as one of no account.”

In his month at McPherson’s station, Hayes has been helping and instructing the working men about more efficient logging techniques: to make a mattress to cushion falling trees, to use a saw (he sharpened the rip saws to a fair crosscut), and other ways of saving timber. “Furthermore, I treat them like human beings.” Newly arrived and insecure, McPhail, “naturally a bully, beats them to make them realize his importance.” McPhail’s methods are note well received: “Consequently we have a strike, the men dancing a war dance in front of our house now. McPhail is badly scared.” When the men regrouped after McPhail beat them off with a club, Hayes went out to the raucous crowd: “We wantum you. No want this other fella. He bad man, we no like um!” (Hayes quote.) Hayes explains his junior status in the company and tells the men of his impending transfer to another station. They all immediately swear they’ll leave with him. “This does not make McPhail any more courteous toward me. I’ll be glad to be away from him and alone.”

35.2 Benin City

March 2, 1907

“The past few days have been among the most interesting of my life. I first journeyed on foot to the famed City of Benin, thirty miles and more from the Osse River.” The way was straight and level for many miles, turning only once. At the turn, “There again we saw the Ju-Ju. I have seen several of these since reaching the bush, gigantic statues hewn from trees.”

Ju-Ju to protect crops

Around the statue, the road forked at right angles making a sharp V. “One may not cross the straight line, but must diverge and make obeisance to the Ju-Ju.” Hayes describes the statue he saw as: “A huge wooden god sat upright and obscenely naked between two female figures as bare as he. The central male figure must have been ten feet in height sitting, the females a little less.” Travelers along this way had left offerings of “cloth, bananas, fruit, fowls and thousands of cowrie shells.”

Money Cowries

Hayes explains that the shells are money left by travelers whose gift, “gave them the privilege of taking food for the journey, which they did, and it has proven a boon to us not only there, but since at other shrines.”

On entering Benin City, Hayes first remarks on the remaining architecture: “First we came to a great wall through which the British had cut a wide road. The level of the wall above the country level must have been thirty feet, but this was greatly increased by the deep moat outside, formed by the excavation of earth to build the wall.” Large trees growing on the wall attest its antiquity. “This wall is circular, and it is six miles from one side to the other.” Inside this first great wall, two others circle the central city.
“So much empty space has been enclosed only to afford the cultivation of the soil during siege.”

Benin City 1891
Six Years Prior to the British Invasion

Hayes then recounts the British invasion of Benin City as told to him by “the few whites at the post… and before this, from the natives themselves.” According to this account, “For of all the depravity, brutality and gross superstition that has bound a people’s collective mind this is one of the worst the world has any trustworthy account of.” Descriptions of the scale and manner of human sacrifice practiced at Benin City as recorded in the Hayes’ diary are extensive and detailed. The British “were attracted by the human sacrifices so prevalent at the time of the Long Ju-Ju and were endeavoring to persuade Overami, the king of Benin, to abandon these rites.

Overami/ Ovonramwen Nogbaisi

First a small force of “Nine British officers, followed by more than a hundred soldiers and carriers, landed at the salt water port of Benin, some miles from the city.” Disregarding the advice of “friendly chiefs” who tried to warn them off, this force proceeded into an ambush that only two of the Brits, badly wounded, survived. “The slain were all offered up on the altars of the Ju-Ju … to conciliate the malign spirits of the wood.”

As the troop of “more than 400 white marines and their officers,” on hand because, “fortunately the West African fleet was then carrying out naval maneuvers in the Bight of Benin,” marched forward, they encountered further horrifying evidence of human sacrifice. Upon finally reaching Benin City, “There was considerable resistance to the column, but the bell-muzzled flint-lock guns were no match for the modern weapons of the British.”

According to this account, the victorious British troops were so appalled by the sacrificial rituals underway in Benin City, “doubtless one of the most gruesome spectacles this world has ever seen,” – the details continue for a paragraph – that, “every native, male, female, old or young, was shot out of hand.” Overami was captured and sent into exile to “Old Calabar, some two hundred miles away on the eastern margin of the dleta of Niger.” After this “lesson” taught by the British, the region was quiet for a time; “Most of the inhabitants were glad to be freed from the terror that hung over them like a pall, for no one knew when his or her turn would come.”

(The reader might wish to consult a contemporary account of the events at Benin City in 1897. The Wikipedia article , with references, has a similar outline of events – with the British motivations differently emphasized.)

As Hayes enters Benin City in 1907, he can see that “it is not over yet.” Walking the streets into this fabled place, his small troop hears “snarls and catcalls from every hut” of a city occupied by “two regiments of Hausa soldiers, Moslems from Northern Nigeria, … here to keep order.”

35.3 Sapele

March 2, 1907

Leaving Benin, Hayes, Herald and their small band of porters, hike south to the Millers factory at Sapele: “a place that is pleasing to the eye. As one views it from across the Benin the white factory buildings stand out against the bright verdure of the endless forest. Graceful palms add to the natural beauty of the scene, and great canoes skimming over the quiet waters gives the impression of a moving picture.”


True, a number of prisoners chained at the neck accent the picture, but Hayes describes them as “happy, singing and laughing.” Hayes writes that a native man considers jail a holiday where he eats rice twice a day, clothed for the first time in his life, heedless of the stripes on his clothing intended to denote dishonor.

35.4 Up the Jameson River.

March 2, 1907

Continuing on from Sapele, Herald accompanies Hayes up the Jameson River by canoe. (Current maps name the river “Jamieson.”) After Herald departs, leaving Hayes to establish a new logging station forty miles into the bush from Sapele where the Jameson rises from a “tremendous springs,” Hayes writes in his diary, “Alone at last. At least as far as my own race is concerned, for there are many, many blacks, and I am in the midst of them.

Hayes shortens the name of the “native king,” from “Apajah” to “Paja.” The king lives on a low swampy island in the Jameson built, even at the time Hayes was there, by Paja’s wives who are, “constantly bringing earth by the canoe load from across the river, where they mine the red earth from the high hill, a cut bank of the river. During the years they have formed a considerable mound, and on this the village is built.” The island has no beaches, vegetation growing everywhere the water is less than two feet deep. “The river, a hundred feet in depth, surrounds the island, the water so transparent, so pellucid one may see a bit of broken dish at its bottom anywhere.”

On the island, Paja’s advisor, a “renegade mission convert” with “much learning” built a palace on stilts, perched twelve feet above the ground, of “whipsawn mahogany … worth a fortune if it was in Europe or America for the value of the timber in it.” The palace shelters, razorback hogs, starved dogs, goats, fowl, idlers, and “sometimes the royal court if it rains.” Hayes is shown to a room adjacent to the royal apartments.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: