36. Sapoba to Forcados Mouth

When I first read Hayes’ diaries in the 1970s this section stuck vividly in my imagination too.  Such bravery – or foolishness – in the name of adventure.

Google maps is back again.  If you are not seeing a map below click the title it will take you to the blog page.  On the map, the previous chapter, 35, shows in pink; the current, 36, shows in yellow; and, 37, the last chapter from volume one of Hayes’ five volume diary shows him leaving Africa broken hearted with a red path.

Click here to download chapters 1-36 on Google Earth.  

Here and There Synopsis:
36.1 Sapoba

March 10,1907

Pajah and the “renegade mission convert” named Comay run the palace at the village of Sapoba where Hayes temporarily quarters. “They are two devils, though perhaps no worse than my own countrymen would be under the same circumstances. Both are brutal, avaricious, lustful to the nth degree.” Comay retains the semblance of Christian worship but also serves as “one of the heads of the Ju-Ju worship, which is in full blast all the time.”

A lengthy passage from Hayes’ diary explains how Comay might reconcile both his religious practices: “Like all Africans I have seen, they apparently have one great-father-god who is the creator of the earth, the universe and all therein. He is well intentioned toward mankind, so there is no need to seek his favor that is unchangeable. It is the thousand and one malign spirits that dwell in trees, in stones, in water, in wild animals, and insects even that must be propitiated.”

A spirit named Gulu worries Pajah and Comay just now. Gulu resides in the river and Hayes can hear him. “It is a trifle uncanny to hear a deep gurgle coming from the depths at any time saying ‘Gulu-gulu-gulu’ for perhaps five minutes on end. A scientist would say it was the gases imprisoned at the bottom of the deep river, but we who live at the village of Sapoba know better.”

If he’s going to cut mahogany, Hayes has to have tools. So he and Comay travel in a canoe paddled by Pajah’s slaves to an old bush camp where a previous timber agent had abandoned some gear that might be salvaged. When Comay lashed the back of a small boy sitting beside Hayes, “I seized the whip and flung it over the side. This brought on a row between Comay and me, while the luckless slave writhed in pain and terror.” Of course Hayes’ impulsive gesture had consequences he could not control:
“I am sorry I intervened now. This morning I saw the slave, his face beaten into a pulp, in a semi-unconscious state.”

Deep in the bush away from Comay, and whips, and slaves, Hayes marks trees “and Pajah weeps because I do not choose more for cutting.” While the old king tries to “inveigle me into an affair with some of his wives,” Hayes escapes into the fascinations of the surrounding forest.

Driver Ants

Driver Ant

Hayes says the driver ants are always on the move busy going nowhere. “When they cross a glade where the sun shines at noon, the carriers seem unable to bear the full rays of the sun. Then the soldiers join their mandibles until they form a living tunnel under which the rank and file of the army passes into shade on the farther side.” No living thing gets in their way: “From the cricket to the elephant every beast respects the driver ant.”

March 22, 1907

In order to appease Gulu, Pajah calls his subjects, his wives and his children nightly to a small shed to worship “two small mud images who are special objects of his devotion.” As the wives kneel in prayer, the children and courtiers dance to the beat of “many drummers who fairly raise the treetops with their clamor; and there are sacrifices, not human, but dogs and goats and many fowls.” The women reach great heights of enthusiasm while “children with bullroarers help to make the night hideous.”

In addition to the mud images, Pajah holds sacred two great rats “almost as large as cats.” The entire court retinue reveres the rats – except Hayes. He killed them both with a deadfall to save his scant store of rice, ham and bacon. “So great was the strength of the last he almost escaped from beneath a box containing more than 100 pounds of goods.” Hayes jumped on the box to finish the job, then threw the evidence of his irreverence to the razorbacks milling beneath the house.

None the wiser abut the fate of his rats, Pajah says he’s building Hayes a house across the river but dawdles on the construction while making sure a wife who speaks a little pidgin remains near the “ibo” (the local name for white men as quoted by Hayes) should the ibo become lonely at night – “but she is out.” The list of fetishes under the head of Hayes’ bed intended to deliver him into Pajah’s power includes: “Gourds containing vile smelling grease, bundles of hair, crocodile teeth, leopard’s claws, and many other charms.”

He writes “It’s a great life if I can stick it. Wish I was across the river.”

April 20, 1907

Back on March 10th Hayes mentioned an agent named Richardson who runs a camp a few miles upstream for a rival company. Herald, Hayes’ boss for Millers, had warned Hayes off Richardson but Hayes, ever his own man, struck up something of a acquaintance with the competing agent whose thievery eventually granted Hayes’ wish to get across the river.

Writing in his diary in April, Hayes describes a precious stone set in fancy beadwork owned by Pajah as, “a gem of purest water, a beautiful object of real value resembling a sapphire.” Hayes’ offer to buy the stone from Pajah elicited, “Wot! Man sell him head!” (Hayes’ quote.) So Richardson showed up while Pajah was away, learned of the existence of the gemstone (presumably from Hayes), stole it, smashed the two mud idols, “and bombarded Pajah’s many screaming wives” with sacred shards. Richardson left with the stone but “dashed me a fine pair of shoes in recompense for the shirts” that had gone missing when Pajah’s wives ransacked Hayes’ belongings looking for the stone.

Hayes’ description of the ensuing scene begins with a laconic, “So things are not so hot.” All logging operations ceased for eight days of Ju-Ju worship. “I am compelled whether I like it or not to be present at the ceremonies, as wild as may be seen on earth.” The “resurrected gods” must be cleansed with the blood of goats, dogs, fowls, and razorbacks in numbers “beyond computation.” Day and night, “All are wrought into a fervor that makes them dangerous. The naked Jekris, topped by fearsome headdresses with bundles of rattles tied round each knee, drive at me with spears, barely grazing my shoulder. I never move, it would be useless.” Sleep? “With fifty drums constantly throbbing, with countless bull roarers screaming, and with yelling natives rushing from one end of the island to another, tearing through walls in search of the offending spirits now loose on the island sleep has been unknown.” Food? “I am starved for Pajah has me helpless.” When Hayes walks away into the bush, Pajah has him returned to the village, “escorted by his big sons,” (ever fair) “one of whom is a decent chap.”

The denouement of this fearsome eight-day ordeal is so unexpectedly foolhardy – or brave – or irreverent – one barely knows how to comprehend its author: “When I appealed to Pajah to cease the row and let my aching head rest just a bit, he gathered the entire village under my window.” Finally at his breaking point, as the whole racket and chaotic threat focused beneath his window, “I tossed a kerosene tin full of water over him.”

One wonders how this man ever lived to 86 years. Withholding the spears, Pajah had Hayes escorted off the island to the nearly completed house across the river. “At last I’m clear of this racket, though the workmen are noisy enough.”

Before the row broke out concerning the gemstone and the broken idols, a few logs had been cut. Despite the inefficient logging methods – “on one log recently I had 120 men hitched for more than two days, dragging it to water” – Hayes had assembled a raft of 100 logs. Now seems like a good time to float them down to Sapele, let Pajah cool down, deliver a few letters, and “try to get rid of my first case of malaria.”

36.2 Logs to Sapele

May 2, 1907

At Miller’s station in Sapele, every agent including Herald, the boss, “Seems to think I am doing well enough despite the difficulties with Pajah and his prime minister. For none of these men know anything about the bush….”

Perhaps three months isolated upriver actually cutting logs with a crew qualifies Hayes to assess other’s knowledge of the bush. At any rate, the agents “are delighted to find all the timber measured, checked and ready to ship without further worry on their part.” Herald continues to warn Hayes to stay clear of Richardson, not because he might be a thief but because other companies’ agents “are rivals in business and will defraud each other in any way they may just so long as they keep clear of jail.”

On the subject of jail, Hayes repeats his observation that local prisoners complain when released from jails established by the Europeans. He quotes two African men protesting to the commissioner: “Why are we being let go, Ibo? Have we not worked well, have given you no trouble; yet others whose conduct has been bad are kept on and we are turned out to starve in the bush?” Hayes summarizes the cultural misunderstanding this way: the Europeans are thinking of shame and punishment; the Africans are thinking of shelter and regular meals.

36.3 Back to Sapoba

May 23, 1907

Returning to Sapoba, Hayes finds a quieter village; Pajah “is in bad condition with syphilis.” Richardson has some Tabasco sauce to treat Pajah – one wonders how.

In the relative quiet, Hayes reflects on local colonial history. Three years before destroying Benin City and exiling Overami, the British had razed Brohomi, the central trading town of Nana Olomu an Itsekiri leader.

Nana Olomu monument

Inside a walled fort armed with “many guns, some of them swivel guns that could have come no way but through the medium of the Germans,” Nana fought until his forces “went down under the guns of the British.”

With Overami and Nana driven from power, “human sacrifice has been driven under cover.” Nevertheless, “it goes on just the same.” Hayes reports that British authorities recently uncovered a Ju-Ju house between Sapoba and Asaba “where the gods were being fed on human flesh.” More disturbingly, according to Hayes, some “Ju-Ju worshipers believe if they eat a bit of any white man, any superior person, the powers of that individual will enter them from that time on.” Hayes describes in graphic detail hearing about the slow death of a European doctor working in Africa killed in this ritual manner.

Whenever Hayes swims in the River at Sapoba, the whole village turns out to gawk at his skin color – especially the women. “A man has to watch his step in Africa, for these young girls are often beautiful and attractive as any European maid.” Hayes abstains of course but “most of the white men take natives as temporary wives.” Attitudes about this practice vary according to nationality: Brits ostracize their countrymen for living openly with an African woman; not ostracization for the Germans, but disgrace; for the French – c’est la vie.

36.4 Parrots at the Ogbesse River

June, 12, 1907

Hayes does not say whether he traveled overland or by river to scout the timber at a station on the Ogbesse River about 50 miles from Sapoba. The site had been worked previously, but some good timber remains. The timber is nice but, “What interested me most was a great parrot roost.”

African Grey Parrot
listed as “near threatened” on the 2007 IUCN red list

“From every quarter just before sundown these birds began to appear. They came in pairs, in flocks, every one of them shrilling his heart out. The noise was deafening, especially about the wide spreading trees where they perch for the night.” People native to the area tell Hayes that such communal roosts are common and that no parrot will rest elsewhere. So vast is the flock that great nighttime commotions follow the collapse of tree limbs under their combined weight. “These are the common African grey parrot, supposed to be the best talkers of all the species of parrots.” (The 2007 up-listing from species of “Least Concern” to “Near Threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature results mostly from trapping for the international pet market.)

36.5 Rumblings of Discontent

June 12, 1907

By the last day of July, six weeks hence, Hayes will be sitting at Sapele waiting for a boat out of Africa. Today, on June 12th,he dismisses every reason one might expect to cause his departure. Pajah and Comay don’t force him out: “Ju-Ju ceremonies died a natural death at last, and old Pajah seems somnolent these days. Comay gives trouble, but I keep a jump ahead of him.” Nor does the constant physical threat: “I did get crowned with a club the other night while stopping a gang fight in camp. While dragging two apart another struck me over the head with a club, and for a moment I was staggered. On the whole I get on well enough with the natives, and if left alone could do well.” And the logging work is fine: “Have another raft of timber out and on the way to Sapele, so all is going fairly well.

No, after dreaming of Africa since childhood and finally arriving at age 28, Hayes leaves the continent after six short months because of the booze. “I refuse to have anything to do with gin and rum, so am out of things. Pajah, like all other chiefs, pays his men largely with this sort of trade whether the men like it or not. It is the custom of the country, and unless a man conforms to this he had as well get out.” Precisely what Hayes will do in about six weeks time.

36.6 A Boat at Sapele

July 2, 1907

The figure mentioned earlier – 67% of all imports to Africa are spirits – came to Hayes from Sir Walter Edgerton, governor of Southern Nigeria.

Sir Walter Egerton (far right)
Lagos 1910

Edgerton also said that the morals of the Africans would suffer unless traffic in liquor was in some measure curbed. “So vile is the squareface gin it is forbidden to sell it to an European. I have heard of only two white men drinking it, and these both died in a delirium shortly after. The same applies to the rum, which is a West Indian product.”

Hayes sees few American ships trading along the West African coast – case oil, and sometimes a little Jamaican rum – but much of the timber goes out to the US. “So crude are the processes of extracting this timber from the bush we cannot handle anything worth less than a shilling a board foot. Much of it is above this price, and Miller’s handled one fine figured tree that sold for 2,000 pounds.”

A lucrative business for Miller’s, paid for largely with intoxicants. Hayes won’t continue to participate.

July 24, 1907

Miller’s sent McPherson to replace Hayes at Sapoba. “With all the insouciance of youth he is telling me my mistakes. The only one I can see is I refused to cut timber smaller than the government regulations allows, and McPherson has promptly marked all these trees for cutting.” McPherson will, of course, have to bribe the forester to sign off on the small trees, but such practices make a good company man. “No one is honest, business means nothing else than robbery without going to jail.”

Richardson who came to Sapoba with McPherson diagnoses Hayes with “funkitis.”

July 30, 1907

At Sapele waiting for a boat out, Hayes talks with others in the timber business. “The fellows are kindly, and in a way understand. Many of them are not keen on this wholesale booze business, but none dare protest. If they do, they go home and don’t return.” One who will not be returning is Bowie, a beach clerk for Miller’s. “The doctor is sending him out, saying he will die unless he leaves at once.” Bowie and Hayes will depart on the freighter Zaria the next day.

36.7 Blackwater Fever in Warri

August 5, 1907

(I am hoping a reader more familiar with the waterways of the Niger Delta can suggest a more plausible route from Sapele to Warri. The two cities connect by river; I made one possible route.)

Four white men died at Warri during Hayes’ four-day layover there, three of them victims of blackwater fever. “It is the most deadly of all tropic diseases known. At least in Africa. The kidneys seem to dissolve, the urine turns to blood until its flow saps a man’s life. Thirty-six hours is about all a man will live when this disease attacks him.”

36.8 Off Burutu

August 5, 1907

A little farther downriver, anchored within sight of Burutu, Hayes knows he could go ashore to speak with Lenthall of Miller’s about the alcohol abuse. “What’s the use? He himself told me there was little else to do but to handle booze.”

36.9  Forcados Mouth of the Niger

August 5, 1907

So, instead Hayes must write: “Leaving the Niger. As I look back on the muddy flow of the great river (for this is the Forcados, the principal mouth) it seems the light will go out of my eyes. I have so longed for Africa, so hoped and desired to do something in this great continent that no other place appeals to me elsewhere.”

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