Popular Science Monthly/Volume 39/July 1891/Deportment of Savage Negroes



EVEN the most thoroughgoing accounts of the customs of savages rarely give full descriptions of their attitudes and bearing. Yet these are the points that strike the stranger most forcibly, and are most distinctly remembered by him. A comparison of them with the behavior of more civilized races and of the lower animals might also afford an interesting anthropological study. In my observations among the Bantu negroes, extending from Bagamoyo into the Congo territory, I have found, except for the diversities in the forms of salutation, a great uniformity in the attitudes of the people. My present account will be confined to tribes which have remained free from foreign influence.

The most salient features of the negroes' movements are a general liveliness and a hasty, jerky execution. Their speech is loud and is continually emphasized by gestures, which are a real constituent of the speech, and are made all the same when the conversation is carried on in the dark; and they are so expressive that it is possible to understand much of what is said without hearing a word of it.

If we suppose ourselves to visit the chief of a negro village, we shall find him sitting in the veranda of his hut with his nobles, and the braves who have come to pay their respects, around him. If it be still early in the morning, there may be here and there a man reclining on his side by the embers of last night's fire, with his head resting in his hands and his knees drawn high up. Most of the negroes sleep in this position, and their bed-places are accordingly so short that stretching at full length in them is attended by inconveniences. When awakened at last by the ascending sun, the sleeper gets himself into a squatting position/" stretches his arms forward over his high-drawn-up knees, so as to balance himself, and slowly rises without his hands touching the ground. The accustomed attitude of the chief is to be sitting on a low stool with his arms resting upon his knees, smoking a pipe, while his officers are squatting around him. New-comers to the audience, making the usual salutations, advance carefully as if treading upon glass, and if nobles, and privileged to sit in the presence of the chief, bearing their stools, which they deliberately seat themselves upon. The caller then draws his knees closely up to his breast, lays one arm upon his leg, grasps one hand with the other, and stoops over till his chin nearly touches his knees; or he stretches his legs out, crosses his feet, and rests his hands upon his knees; but the negro men never cross their legs as we do, or spread them apart when they sit down. Nor do they sit in the Oriental fashion. They are fond of getting the forearm into a position where it will have some liberty, and playing with little sticks or straws. A curious position in sitting is with the heels supported against a stick and the toes resting upon the ground, while the legs are doubled upon themselves and the arms are left free from the elbow down. Some dispense with the stick and squat upon their heels, while only their toes touch the ground. They then have to use a stick, bow, or lance as a support.

The standing negro keeps his legs close together, with the knees inclining slightly inward, so that the feet touch and the great toes can play with one another. With his back somewhat bent, notwithstanding his broad shoulders and muscular figure, he gives the impression of a weakling. In one hand he holds his bow and arrows, while with the other he carries his spear over his shoulder. In time he will change his position, and, supporting himself by his right shoulder, will plant his left leg straight upon the ground, and set the sole of his right foot against his left knee, leaving the right knee to project forward at an acute angle. This is one of the most peculiar and characteristic attitudes of the negroes. If they rest their hands against their sides, it is always with the palms forward, never with doubled fists or the fingers turned backward. A common position is to lean toward a post, with the hand holding to it away up, but only the forearm coming in contact with the post. The negro sedulously avoids touching a tree or the walls of his house with his naked body, for fear of soiling his anointed skin.

At the special audience we witnessed, a messenger was received, with a report of a military expedition. He was called Fingamaguha, or bone-gatherer, from his habit of fixing in his curly locks a bone from every fowl he killed. In saluting the chief he put on a sober expression, halted, drew his limbs up, bent his knee so as not quite to touch the ground, and clapped his hands three times. Before approaching the powerful Wama chiefs, the messenger must besmear his body and face with mud and roll in the dust. Among the East Coast negroes the usual salutation consists, besides the customary phrases, in extending the hand. The Wanjamuesi lightly press the palms together and then draw them quickly over one another till only the middle fingers touch, when those fingers are snapped upon the thumbs. The Wama, west of the Tanganyika, in saluting lay their weapons on the ground, bow to the earth, and rub their arms, breasts, and foreheads with dust.

Women show their respect for the stronger sex by stepping sidewise out of the road and turning their backs to the man; or else they pass, assuming a position of trying to creep under something. In saluting one another the Wanjamuesi women make a half turn and a straight courtesy.

The chief beckoned to the messenger by stretching his arm out, with the back of the hand up, and making a motion of drawing with his finger two or three times under the inner part of his hand, as if he would draw the man in. Fingamaguha enforced his affirmative answer to the first question asked him by moving his chin backward and forward and lifting his eyebrows. Answering no to another question, he raised his shoulders and dropped them instantly. In expressing doubt, the negro draws his shoulders slowly down and inclines his head to one side; but he is not acquainted with any such sign as that of shaking the head in negation.

Previous to calling upon the messenger to begin his report, the chief offered him a cup of pombe or beer. The brave received it, supporting his extended right hand with his left. This using of both hands in acceping a gift—even if it be as insignificant a thing as a needle—is a matter of politeness. It emphasizes the importance of the present.

After prostrating himself, Fingamaguha began his story, holding one hand in the other, and accompanying each statement with, its appropriate illustrative sign. To mark the time of making the attack, he turned to the east and pointed to the horizon with his hand; it was at sunrise. Having no division of the hours, the negroes thus mark the time of day by moving the hand, till it points toward the spot in the sky where the sun would be at that hour. That the troop were fully armed and had their powder-horns well supplied was shown by the gesture significant of any fullness occasioned by a living being by pounding the right hand into the hollowed palm of the left so as to produce a dull sound. This sign is applicable to the filling of a dish, to an abundant harvest, or to a considerable collection of men or animals, but never to the overflow of a lake or water-course in the rainy season. The soldiers' patient endurance of their toilsome march was described with a series of nasal sounds and a backward and forward movement across the breast of the hands, with the palnis turned toward one another; the empty condition of a deserted village which the company came upon, by waving his extended right hand in a curve from right to left up to his mouth and blowing into it; and, to emphasize the emptiness, drawing the hands rapidly over one another, and lightly clapping with them. The hunger suffered in consequence was depicted by slapping his hand several times on his shrunken belly. A motion of drawing the hands alternately one over the other, pulling at them as one would to pull off a glove, illustrated the enjoyment of a surfeit of provisions at another village. The same gesture may signify that all the inhabitants of a place have died or been killed. The storming of the enemy's village was described in a lively manner, with representations of the stealthy approach in the early dawn, and the sudden outbreak of the musketry, for which the symbol was "To! to!" as we would say "Boom! boom!" The manner of death of those who fell was illustrated by imitating the respective motions of using the weapons by which they were killed—the lance, bow and arrow, and gun.

Fingamaguha's narrative was received with mingled wonder and incredulity; and certain incidents, which had a humorous side, with boisterous laughter. A common attitude in listening was that of spreading the tips of the fingers over the upper lip, while the elbow was supported by the other hand; and the negroes may often be seen sauntering around in a similar attitude. When the story-teller's word was doubted, he fortified it by drawing his hand across his neck, as if to signify that they might cut off his head if it was not true.

The graces exhibited by the negroes in the dance that followed and was much admired by them, were not such as Europeans are pleased with. Their movements were shuffling, slovenly, and awkward, yet quick and vigorous, and were marked by holding the limbs and body as closely together as possible. All the dances have an obscene element, and, with the exception of the war-dance, suggest nothing higher than an exaltation of physical love. The war-dances, whether executed as entertainments or as a part of serious work, include a series of boastful, challenging movements. In those of the Wanjamuesi, a champion who has killed an enemy in battle executes an attack against a drum that stands in the middle of the circle of dancers. Approaching the instrument With great solemnity, or with leaps, he assumes a position like that of a theatrical hero who is fulfilling an oath of vengeance. With upraised lance he points to all the quarters of the sky, to indicate that he has performed his deeds everywhere. Then he looks wildly around, nodding his head energetically without bending his neck; nods a second time, holding his head straight up and only bending it forward; and again, with his whole upper body. In another war-dance one of the participants takes a lance or a stick and goes around the circle of dancers in a stooping position, stabbing at a feigned enemy who is supposed to be lying on the ground; then, leaping into the air, strikes at him horse-fashion, with one leg, but without touching any one. A common, peculiar movement of sand-shoving is regarded as a very imposing challenge. The performer, stooping a little, strides along with a gliding step, shambling at every few paces with his foot along the ground, so as to draw a line after him, then slowly raises his foot and pushes the sand forward. His impudent bearing gives the performance the offensive aspect it is intended to bear, which is emphasized by his kicking backward with most contemptuous gestures at his enemy, culminating with looking down between his legs at him. When a traveler in Africa, after a few rubs with the natives, finds them drawing lines with their feet in the sand, he may be sure that mischief is brewing against him. These, and a variety of other performances of similar import, are employed in earnest as well as in the dance and the sham battle; and even when death has reaped its harvest there still prevails a peculiar humor, with shout and song, and the adversaries continue to mock one another.

On occasions of grief the negro sits with his chin in his unsupported hand, slowly shaking his head. Weeping and shedding of tears are rarely witnessed. Mourning is exhibited by tearing the hair and a distressful howling.

Anger is manifested with great show of violence. The raging negro distorts his face, bites at his finger but without harming it, while the froth runs out of his mouth. The gesture of slinging away this froth with the middle and fore-finger is also employed in times of grief, or when anything unpleasant has occurred. The angry man beats around with his club, striking vessels, trees, the ground, and the roof-thatch, wisely taking care not to encounter any man, and is heartily glad when they hold him, take his weapon away, and try to quiet him. There is seldom any real clubbing. Appearing extremely angry, disputants stand opposite one another, calling names in voices of excited tones. If a real fight sets in, the bystanders interfere and separate them.

The negro is capable of great endurance in work when he makes up his mind to it. Field labor, felling of trees, and the women's stamping of meal are performed standing; other kinds of work in a squatting or sitting posture. In making his implements the negro has a correct eye for articles he has once learned to construct. His lances, arrow-heads, stools, and mortars are shaped very exactly. But he has little sense for straight lines. A common position at work is to sit with one knee drawn up to the chin, while the other leg lies bent upon the ground, with the feet touching; or the workman sets the soles of his feet together and spreads his knees out till he can work with both hands between them. Holding under his left arm the object to be fashioned, he draws his little sharp knife toward his body, cutting a thin, single shaving. The knife is held in the right hand, and pressure is applied from the third joint, counting from the tip of the forefinger. The object is held by the thumb and fore-finger of the left hand, while the middle, fore, and little fingers of the same hand are utilized in pressing upon the back of the knife. The middle is the preferred finger in sewing, weaving, and other minor hand labors, and even in untying knots. The toes are very flexible, and are often engaged in holding goods on which sewing is done. Articles upon the ground, provided they are not too small or inconveniently large, are picked up with their aid. In climbing trees, the foot is planted against the trunk, and the great toe, spread out from the others, helps to secure the grip. An expert climbs with great skill and considerable speed, holding to the trunk with his hands extended as far as possible, and pressing against it with the soles of his feet, without touching it with his arms, legs, or body.

At eating, the negro, having always first washed his hands and' rinsed his mouth, sits upon the ground; holds the larger pieces between his teeth while he cuts off a bite with his knife, but does not use both hands to hold food, except in gnawing bones; with the usual dishes, he lays his right arm over his knees and, reaching into the pot, molds the thick mess into lumps about the size of a walnut, which he throws into his mouth with a jerk, without scattering any of the food. To take out vegetables or soup, he presses a hollow into the lump and dips with it. Politeness is shown to the host or the housewife, after eating, by smacking loudly enough to be heard.

While the negro is capable of eating meat in an unpleasant state of decomposition, he is very sensitive against some tastes, and will make evident manifestations of his dislike of them. He is careful about the outer matters in drinking. He will always rinse his mouth first, even when he is intensely thirsty. If the cup is not too small, he takes it in both hands; and he likes to sit down with it. If the vessel is large and open, he draws in the water from the surface with his lips, without bringing them in contact with the dish. Sometimes negroes pour water into their mouths. When drinking at ponds and rivers, the water is carried to the mouth with the hand. For some mystic reason it is considered bad to lie flat down when drinking from rivers. The fear of being snapped up by a crocodile may have something to do with the matter.

Great attention is given in most of the tribes to the care of the body. The teeth are cleansed with a stick which has been chewed into a kind of brush. The hands are washed frequently, not by turning and twisting and rubbing them together one within the other, as with us, but by a straight up-and-down rubbing, such as is given to the other limbs. This manner of washing is so characteristic that an African might be distinguished by it from a European without reference to the color. The sun is their only towel.

The pocket handkerchief is as abhorrent to the negro as his manner of dispensing with it would be to us. The African finds a use unknown to us for his nose by making it a receptacle for carrying his roll of tobacco. Another tobacco-storage place is found behind the ears.

While joyous emotions are expressed in the most lively manner by negroes, signs of love and tenderness can hardly be read in their faces. The kiss is foreign to them, and no negro child has experienced the delight of being petted by its mother. The whole treatment of the child is neutral, and a matter of business. Signs of affection toward women from men are not permitted in public or in the presence of third persons. A negro man can only stare at a woman who pleases him. The women understand coquetry well, and, aside from a greater sensuality and lustfulness in expression, yield nothing in that respect to their white sisters. Marks of mutual regard are observed only among women, in embracings and hand-shakings.

The eye furnishes a very prominent mark of distinction between the white man and the black. The negro's eye usually gives an impression of shyness, which arises from the absence of any sharp line of distinction between the iris and the pupil. The resulting unsteadiness of the look gives the negro an expression of the animal which is not softened by his facial type. His assumed indifference often passes into consequentiality as when he pretends to know all about what one is showing him. His interest can be aroused only by objects the use of which is plain to him without explanation, or which he fancies have a market value. At them his eyes will shine with greed. Lack of self-confidence makes him suspicious, and his distrust appears in his look. His eyes will shine with his own rage, but no flame of noble indignation can be kindled in them on account of an evil deed or of a wrong of which he is the author.—Translated for The Popular Science Monthly from Das Ausland.