English merchants at the Royal Court of Benin

The Portuguese were the first to begin trading with various West African empires, including the famous royal court of Benin, whose brilliant sculpture has been famous in Europe ever since. The English, however, were soon looking for profit in the same area. This account of one trading voyage depicts their insatiable desire for gold, or what was almost as good: pepper. Under the guidance of an impoverished Portuguese guide named Captain Pinteado, Captain Windham and several English merchants made their way to Benin. This voyage was to end disastrously, with both captains and many of the crew dying of the tropical diseases which for so long prevented Europeans from penetrating far into Africa.

What evidence is there that the King of Benin was used to dealing with Europeans?

They were brought with a great company to the presence of the king, who, being a black Moor (1) (although not so black as the rest), sat in a great huge hall, long and wide, the walls made of earth without windows, the roof of thin boards, open in sundry places, like unto louvers to let in the air.

And here to speak of the great reverence they give to their king, it is such that, if we would give as much to Our Savior Christ, we should remove from our heads many plagues which we daily deserve for our contempt and impiety.

So it is, therefore, that, when his noblemen are in his presence, they never look him in the face, but sit cowering, as we upon our knees, so they upon their buttocks with their elbows upon their knees and their hands before their faces, not looking up until the king command them. And when they are coming toward the king, as far as they do see him they do show such reverence, sitting on the ground with their faces covered as before. Likewise, when they depart from him, they turn not their backs toward him, but go creeping backward with like reverence.

And now to speak somewhat of the communication that was between the king and our men, you shall first understand that he himself could speak the Portugal tongue, which he had learned of (2) a child. Therefore, after he had commanded our men to stand up, and demanded of them the cause of their coming into the country, they answered by Pinteado that they were merchants, traveling into those parts for the commodities of his country for exchange of wares, which they had brought from their countries, being such as should be no less commodious for him and his people. The king, then, having of old lying in a certain storehouse 30 or 40 quintals of pepper (every quintal being a hundred weight), willed them to look upon the same, and again to bring him a sight of such merchandise as they had brought with them. And thereupon sent with the captain and the merchants certain of his men to conduct them to the waterside with others to bring the wares from the pinnace to the court. Who, when they were returned and the wares seen, the king grew to this end with the merchants to provide in 30 days the lading of all their ships with pepper. And in case their merchandise would not extend to the value of so much pepper, he promised to credit them to their next return, and thereupon sent the country round about to gather pepper, causing the same to be brought to the court. So that within the space of 30 days, they had gathered fourscore tons of pepper.

In the mean season, our men, partly having no rule of themselves, but eating without measure of the fruits of the country and drinking the wine of the palm trees, that drop in the night from the cut of the branches of the same, and in such extreme heat running continuously into the water, not used before to such sudden and vehement alterations (than the which nothing is more dangerous), were thereby brought into swellings and agues: (3) insomuch that the latter time of the year coming on caused them to die sometimes three and sometimes 4 or 5 in a day. Then Windham, perceiving the time of the 30 days to be expired and his men dying so fast, sent to the court in post to Captain Pinteado and the rest to come away and to tarry no longer. But Pinteado with the rest wrote back to him again, certifying him of the great quantity of pepper they had already gathered and looked daily for much more, desiring him furthermore to remember the great praise and name they should win if they came home prosperously, and what shame of the contrary. With which answer Windham, not satisfied, and many of their men dying daily, willed and commanded them again either to come away forthwith or else threatened to leave them behind. When Pinteado heard this answer, thinking to persuade him with reason, he took his way from the court toward the ships, being conducted thither with men by the king’s commandment.

In the meantime, Windham, all raging, broke up Pinteado’s cabin, broke open his chests, spoiled such provision of cold stilled waters and suckets (4) as he had provided for his health, and left him nothing, neither of his instruments to sail by, nor yet of his apparel; and in the meantime, falling sick, himself died also.

The Adornment of West Africans

The merchants wanted pepper because it could be turned into gold in Europe, of course; and they were fascinated by the quantity of gold and ivory they found circulating along the coast of West Africa.

Among other things . . . touching the manners and nature of the people, this may seem strange, that their princes and noblemen used to pounce (5) and raise their skins with pretty knots in diverse forms, as it were branched damask, thinking that to be a decent ornament. And albeit they go in manner all naked, yet are many of them, and especially their women, in manner laden with collars, bracelets, hoops and chains, either of gold, copper, or ivory. I myself have one of their bracelets of ivory, weighing two pound and six ounces of troy weight, which make eight and thirty ounces. This one of their women did wear upon her arm. It is made of one whole piece of the biggest part of the tooth, (6) turned and somewhat carved, with a hole in the midst, wherein they put their hands to wear it on their arm. Some have on every arm one, and as many on their legs, wherewith some of them are so galled that, although they are in manner made lame thereby, yet will they by no means leave them off. Some wear also on their legs great shackles of bright copper, which they think to be no less comely. They wear also collars, bracelets, garlands and girdles, of certain blue stones like beads. Likewise, some of their women wear on their bare arms certain foresleeves made of the plates of beaten gold. On their fingers also they wear rings, made of golden wires, with a knot or wreath, like unto that which children make in a ring of a rush. Among other things of gold, that our men bought of them for exchange of their wares, were certain dog-chains and collars.

They are very wary people in their bargaining, and will not lose one spark of gold of any value. They use weights and measures, and are very circumspect in occupying the same. (7) They that shall have to do with them, must use them gently; for they will not traffic (8) or bring in any wares, if they be evil used.

(1) That is, a black man, not actually Moorish.

(2) As.

(3) Aches and fevers.

(4) Candies.

(5) Prick.

(6) Tusk.

(7) Very precise in using their scales.

(8) Trade.

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This is an excerpt from Reading About the World, Volume 2, edited by Paul Brians, Mary Gallwey, Douglas Hughes, Azfar Hussain, Richard Law, Michael Myers, Michael Neville, Roger Schlesinger, Alice Spitzer, and Susan Swan and published by Harcourt Brace Custom Books.
The reader was created for use in the World Civilization course at Washington State University, but material on this page may be used for educational purposes by permission of the editor-in-chief:

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