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Kroomen

(Also Krumen, Kroumen, Kru) live along the coast of Liberia and the Ivory Coast from below Monrovia to Cape Palmas, but there are settlements along the western part of the Guinea coast. Because they were the first West African people to serve aboard British and other European vessels, it’s tempting to think their name derives from the word ‘crew’ but Kraoh, one of their sub-tribal groupings, is the more likely root.

 

Kru traditions suggest that they originated from the interior and probably reached their coastal territory by the 16th century. They were famous as mariners – which hardly any of the other West African tribal groups were – and by the 18th century they were serving aboard European and American trading ships as sailors, cooks and interpreters. Kru wear tribal markings on their faces black or blue lines on the forehead and from ear to ear, said to represent the mast of a ship, adopted in the slave-trading period to identify them. In return for allowing slaves to be taken through their territory, they extracted a promise from the European traders never to enslave any Kru.

 

Frederick Goodenough refers to their seafaring skills but says they are no good as soldiers. If the Kru ever were warriors, by the time they had migrated to the coast any warlike tendencies had vanished – in spite of being a muscular, broad chested race. They are divided into small groups, each with a chief who represents his people in dealings with strangers, while a corps of elders regulates their social group.

 

Efik

At Bonney Frederick and Frank encountered the Efik people, who had migrated down the Cross River from the interior of the Cameroon in the 16th century to occupy the coastal regions of southeastern Nigeria. With the Efik acting as middle men between the inland tribes and European traders, the area quickly developed into a major trading centre for slaves and palm oil.

 

Due to its low-lying, swampy terrain, the region around Bonney was mosquito-infested, infecting the unprotected European traders with malaria and yellow fever at decimating rates. At the time of By Sheer Pluck, the real cause of malaria was still unknown, but suspected to be caused by the miasma of bad air, ‘mal aria’ in Italian, rising from the marshy ground. It would be a further 20 years before medical science discovered the truth – that a bite from an Anopheles mosquito bearing the malarial parasite caused the disease in humans.

 

Hausa

The Hausa are a Muslim people whose heartland is located in regions of northern Nigeria and southeastern Niger. The towns of Kano, Kaduna and Sokoto are the major social, economic and religious centres of the Hausa, however communities are found throughout West Africa as a result of their extensive trading interests. In the 19th century, the Hausa were highly regarded by the Europeans as disciplined and fearsome warriors and their political clout has continued into the 21st century, having dominated Nigerian domestic affairs for most of the country’s period of independence from Britain.

 

The origins of the Hausa can be traced back to Nubia (Sudan) and they migrated slowly from there to northern Nigeria between AD 500 and 700, dominating the aboriginal Nok and Sokoto states. The Hausa aristocracy adopted Islam in the 11th century. In the early 19th century the Fulani, another islamic ethnic group spanning much of West Africa invaded and then merged with the Hausa. By the late 19th century there were more Hausa speakers than any other sub-Saharan language, its spread having reached from Ghana to the Cameroon.

 

Mpongwe

The Mpongwe are a coastal group located in Gabon, in and around the large estuary. As a sub-group of the central African Bantu, they probably migrated to the coast in the 16th century. The place where Frederick and Frank land is now the site of Libreville. Like the Efik people, the Mpongwe became the middle men between European traders and the interior tribes. They became involved in the slave trade early, supplying slaves to the Portuguese and then the French and English, as well as trading ebony, ivory and gum in return for cloth, firearms and alcohol.

 

Of more than 20 clans, for were most powerful: the Agekaza-Glass and Agekaza-Quaben on the estuary’s north shore; the Asiga and Agulamba on the south shore. Inter-clan warfare enabled the French to gain a foothold during the 1840s. The suppression of the slave trade, migration by the Fang and deaths caused by smallpox epidemics caused a decline in Mpongwe numbers, but the survivors came to be leaders in both the French colony and independent Gabon.

 

Fang

The Fang had a reputation among neighbouring tribes for their aggression and for practising cannibalism. They migrated from the northeast in central Africa to dominate the Gabon region well before the 17th century, rapidly conquering the local tribes. Originally hunter-gatherers, on settling in the Gabon region they adopted a slash and burn method of agriculture. Of medium height but with a powerful build, the Fang prided themselves on their physical beauty with the men spending a deal of time on adorning themselves.

 

They are especially known for their guardian figures and the elaborate masks used during initiation into their secret societies and ceremonies in which wrongdoers are punished. Encountering Europeans for the first time must have been alarming, because white-painted masks represented death. However, they recovered quickly enough to start acting as hunters to collect ivory for trade (via the Mpongwe) with Europeans.

 

The position of village headman is inherited supposedly through the line of the man who founded the village. He serves as the spiritual leader, interceding between his people and the ancestors through the medium of his sacred mask.

 

Yoruba/Egba

The Yoruba represent one of Nigeria’s three largest tribal groupings, the others being the Hausa and the Ibo. The Yoruba, who live in southwest Nigeria and Benin, are unique in the region for preferring to live in large urban communities rather than in scattered villages; hence towns like Lagos, Abeokuta, Ibadan and Ife. These were, in effect, autonomous city-states, each ruled by its own oba (chief) and a council of elders. The Egba mentioned in By Sheer Pluck are a sub-grouping of the Yoruba, largely centred on Abeokuta.

 

While Christianity began to prevail with the arrival of missionaries from the coast during the 18th century, the Yoruba continued to worship an astonishing array of deities, as many as 400 gods. The region, along with slaves, exported these intermixed faiths widely to Cuba, Puerto Rica, Haiti and Brazil as well as the southern states of the US. The Yoruba chiefs became enthusiastic supporters of the slave trade, happily selling off vast quantities of their own people as well as those of other tribal groupings, captured during the many border wars.

 

Fon

The warlike Fon, who inhabited Dahomey (now the Republic of Benin), coalesced from a mixture of ethnic groups living on the Abomey plain in the area of Tado. It is believed that a mass migration to the area around modern Abomey was caused by the slave trade (a trade agreement was negotiated with Portuguese traders as early as 1472), which created the state of Dahomey, centred on the royal cities of Abomey and Wydah (Ouidah). The kings of Dahomey built a military culture aimed at securing and eventually expanding the borders of the small kingdom. To this end, young boys were sent to train with older warriors until they were old enough to join the ranks. And girls were not left out. Dahomey was famous for its elite female soldiers – the Ahosi or ‘our mothers’ – known to Europeans as the Amazons.

 

Slavery flourished in Dahomey to such an extent that it earned the name ‘the Slave Coast’. In its wars of conquest, thousands of captives were taken every year, many ending up as sacrificial victims, the rest taken to Wydah for export. In spite of the British suppression of the slave trade, the Fon continued selling slaves, principally to the Portuguese, until 1885.

 

Many Fon today are Christian but, like the Yoruba to whom they are related, many continue to worship the many animistic deities and practise voodoo (the Fon word for Spirit is vodu).

 

Ashanti

The Ashanti – a major ethnic group of the Akans, the large number of linguistically related peoples who live in southern Ghana and southeastern Ivory Coast – occupy central Ghana 180 miles (300km) from the coast. Similarly to the Fon of Dahomey, the Ashanti amalgamated small city-states into an empire through conquest. The Asante kingdom was founded by King Osei Tutu, the military leader and head of the Oyoko clan, in the late 17th century. He obtained the support of other clan chiefs and, using Kumasi as his headquarters, subdued the surrounding Akan states. Newly conquered areas were obliged to join the empire or become vassal states paying tribute. Opoku Ware I, Osei Tutu's successor, extended the borders to take in much of present day Ghana’s territory.

 

Ashanti dominion soon extended to the coastal tribes, such as the Fanti, and came up against the Dutch and English trading forts. As it grew, Ashanti developed a sophisticated administrative structure, its territory divide between the ‘metropolitan’ and ‘provincial’ regions. The first referred to those town within a 50-mile radius of Kumasi, usually governed by a member of the Asantehene’s Oyoko tribe. The more outlying Akan regions were subordinate vassals, paying annual tribute (such as the Fanti around Coast Cape and Elmina), and other non-Akan tribes were forced to send thousands of slaves every year to Kumasi, some for export, others for the great sacrifices.

 

Fanti (Fante)

Along with the Ashanti, the Fanti comprise the two largest ethnic groups that make up the Akan tribes. Their relationship to the Ashanti has always been close, though not usually convivial or peaceful. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive on the Guinea Coast and the Fanti, quick to realise the benefits to themselves, prevented them from venturing inland, leasing instead properties for Portuguese trading missions. Soon after came the Dutch and the English (British after the act of Union in 1707). In order to establish themselves a serious trading partners with the Europeans, the coastal tribes formed the Fanti Confederation early in the 18th century and served as middlemen between the interior and the British and Dutch traders on the coast. This inevitably came into conflict with the expanding Ashanti empire and resulted in a series of wars, during which time the Fanti became increasingly reliant on European intervention to protect them. By 1872, the British had effectively abolished the Confederation on the grounds that it was a threat to their own power.

The Tribes of West Africa

© 2010–2016 Reckless Books, England

In the approximate order they are encountered in By Sheer Pluck