Black Christmas at Dix Cove

“When the English occupied Dix Cove, the yearly recurrence of the holy day was recognized by very boisterous mirth, — dinner-parties and hard drinking.”

L. N. Rosenthal / Library of Congress

Had the gifted Scheherezade of Arabian Nights’ memory required the materials for a one thousand and second tale, she could have supplied herself with them by a visit to Dix Cove. There is groundwork there for entertaining stories enough to have enchanted her tyrannical lord for many a night. I must, however, annihilate centuries to make this supposition a possibility, and therefore agree with my readers that it is a little “far-fetched.”

Dix Cove is a place to put the most serene imagination out of its usual steady pace, adn send the thoughts of the most sensible and practical traveller tripping about in regions that seem more suitable to the pages of a romance than the experience of real life. No wonder I leaped from on board our unattractive old vessel into the realms of the caliphs, so familiar to childhood, and thought of Scheherezade.

We had long been cruising about on the coast of that land, concerning which most people are quite content with knowing that it is a hot country where negroes originated, and that somewhere out there are the “sunny fountains” rolling “down their golden sands,” that the great Heber wrote about in his widely known Missionary Hymn.

We dropped anchor one day in sight of Dix Cove. This is, as one might imagine from the very civilized name, one of the old trading-posts established by England on the Gold Coast of Africa, that in former times attracted so much attention. So important was this point considered, that here was built a massive for for the protection of the long-known and long-forgotten African Trading Company. The fort stands on a promontory, and behind it lies the native town of clay houses with thatched roofs, presenting a very dingy and muddy appearance. From our anchorage they were scarcely distinguishable from the soil, out of which they seemed to spring like very ugly weeds.

Around the little bay or cove still stand houses that were built for the use of traders, together with a few substantial stone edifices erected by natives who have gained sufficient European civilization to make them glory in structures very different from the rude habitations of their forefathers. The style of these houses is decidedly Spanish. On the projecting point, under the battlements, there are other buildings of mud embowered in cocoanut-trees, making a grotesque contrast to the fort, but with it as a central object forming a pleasant picture as seen from the other side of the Cove.

The bay is so filled with rocks that it requires considerable skill to pilot a boat safely to the beach, but that skill is possessed in abundant measure by the Kroomen, who are always to be found lounging about places where foreign vessels stop, ready to work for, steal from, and impose upon every captain who desires to land or ship goods. It is in this way that so many of the coast natives gain a smattering of English, and are of so much service to both English and American traders, who enjoy dubbing them with all sorts of odd names.

Every one who has been on a long voyage knows the impatience to set foot on shore which seizes the traveller as soon as “Land ho!” is heard from the mast-head. We accordingly had our boots blacked, and with clean collars on, and all the necessities of an “on-shore” toilet attended to, and stood on deck in childish eagerness of expectation long before the boat was ready to carry us over the few waves that rolled between us and the beautiful surf-draped beach.

“I say, Sea Breeze” (that airy appellation belonged to our tall head Krooman), “I want to go on shore; have you room in that boat?”

“Ay, ay, sir!” answered Sea Breeze, cheerily, “mammy like for go too?”

“Yes—Here, Jack Smoke,” — and a very smoke-dried child of Ham looked up at my call, — “spread that tarpaulin on the seat for my wife.”

“Ya’as, saar,” was the reply.

“Look out there, push off there.” And the boys began their monotonous song, keeping time with their oars; and thus we glided toward the shore that sparkled like gold in the morning sunlight.

A word about African songs. Every one visiting the Western Coast must be impressed with this apparent necessity of singing, exhibited by the darky at his work. Indeed, it is hardly needful to seek him in his native clime to notice that. All who were familiar with life on a Southern plantation, before the blessed dawn of freedom, will remember the melodies of corn-shucking; the wild, quaint, but often very musical hymn-tunes at prayer-meetings; the impromptu choruses on every occasion among the field hands. I have heard a leading voice improvise and chant innumerable verses on Bible history, with fifty or more voices joining in the chorus. That was the African music, modified by our civilization and religion. Take the same in its primitive state, and there is a great want of melody. All sounds of nature are monotonous, — the roaring of the sea, the wailing of the wind, the song of most birds, the sounds made by different animals, and though above all these, those produced by man before the voice is educated by art. I doubt even if the scale called by musicians natural be really so in the fullest sense; certainly the songs of the Kroomen seldom if ever embrace more than five of its notes, — three tones and two half-tones. But to return to our boat; the boys chanted and paddled over the sunny water, and in a few moments we stood on shore.

The first glimpse about us suggested that here had been a place of consequence, and the present desolate scene was but a memory of what had been.

Like moths, attracted by the largest luminary in sight, our party started at once for the castle. To gain this point we threaded our way between some of the tumble-down mud-houses, by a path that seemed doubly intricate to us who fro many weeks had pushed our way ahead on the vasty deep, with nothing to obstruct us, and with more elbow-room than even Daniel Boone could have sighed for. I took notice during that walk that hoop skirts were not adapted to the style of building in Dix Cove. We ascended the hill by a flight of wide, low steps, evidently formed for the accommodation of a regiment which, as we might suppose, always went up ten or more abreast. No guard or sentry had been stationed there for many long years, so we passed unmolested through the massive portals and up the winding stair. Looking into a small apartment (for with true Yankee curiosity we looked into everything on our way), we discovered a native with his long-cloth thrown over him sitting at a table writing. “Why, who on earth is that?”

“That,” said a friend, “is the custom-house officer, and the young man beside him is his son, whom we saw on board as soon as we cast anchor, and who, by the way, asked you if you had any neckties, etc., to dispose of. He put on his clothes for the express purpose of making you a call.” This last remark explained the very neat suit, obtained from an english clothing establishment, in which the young man appeared.

A few minutes after we met and were saluted by another individual really civilized in appearance, clad in broadcloth, with a very white shirt and a very black face, who in few words introduced himself to us as a Wesleyan missionary from Sierra Leone, and offered to conduct us through the castle, if we wished to see it.

Of course we did, and so followed our new guide up stairs and down stairs and through long gloomy passages. Here this good man lived, with his family, carrying on, single-handed, a very different warfare from that for which the old castle was intended. A mighty warfare it was, indeed, in such a land of heathenish darkness, where Satan’s hosts abound, and of Christ’s soldiers this was the only one.

We took leave of our kind guide with thanks, and turned from the fort to wander about by ourselves, and see what there was to be seen down among the mud-huts. We were in doubt which way to turn on this exploring expedition, till a pretty loud noise—a combination of sounds supposed to be musical, from a great many indescribable instruments and the throats of many people—decided us to go and see the cause of such a commotion. Before one of the old storehouses previously mentioned was a large open space, around, but not within, which were assembled most of the male, female, and infant population of the Cove. The varied and peculiar costumes reminded me, at the first glimpse, of a certain line in Mother Goose’s Melodies, describing the beggars coming to town,

Some in rags, and some in tags,
And some in velvet gowns,

though I think the velvet gowns on this occasion were in the minority. It was a crowd not only of the “great unwashed,” but the great undressed. There were a few exceptions, — persons who, under former British rule and influence, had learned to appreciate the beauty and use of shirts and pantaloons: to such I have already alluded.

It was the crowd that had first attracted us, but only for the moment did we pause to look at the people. The object which brought them all together claimed our attention as well. The terrible music kept on without an instant’s cessation, and one figure after another (I can hardly say man, they all looked so wizard-like) shot like an arrow into the circle, and flung itself about in the most fantastic attitudes. The performer would begin the movements of the dance quite moderately, then as the music grew quicker and quicker, would throw off first a piece of cloth, then whatever ornaments he wore, as if to be entirely unfettered, and then kept spinning round at an incredible speed, till, exhausted, he tottered back and gave place to a new actor. All this was carried on amid a perfect din of shouting. It was, as we learned, Fetish dancing, and I had really, with my own eyes, beheld the rite exhibited by a picture in the geography I studied so many years ago; a picture which so greatly pleased me that i remember painting it up in the most gorgeous tints my little color-box afforded.

We were told presently that all this excitement was in honor of the day, the festival known in that region as Black Christmas.

I doubt if any of my readers, however well they may be acquainted with the most sacred festival in Christian lands ever celebrated a black Christmas.

As near as I could learn, the name and the day originated on this wise. When the English occupied Dix Cove, the yearly recurrence of the holy day was recognized by very boisterous mirth, — dinner-parties and hard drinking. I will quote my informant’s own words: “When white people live here and they have one time when they all get drunk and they call him Christmas; I s’pose it be time when they get pay; so when black man get him rice cut, him corn husked, then him say it be good time and he get drunk, s’pose him get de rum and call him time Black Christmas.”

We turned from the exciting scene for a quiet walk up the hill, from whence we judged a good view might be obtained, and we were not disappointed. At the summit we found the ruins of the former Wesleyan Mission House, — which had witnessed so much energy and toil expended for this degraded people, and whose influence for good, however great it might have been at one time, had quite died out, for aught we could see during our brief visit. A few uncared-for orange-trees remained to mark the spot where had been the mission garden, now, but for them, a wilderness of weeds. The many who live in an atmosphere of religious light and truth, and know nothing of the work of missionaries in “that land of darkness as darkness itself,” except a short article occasionally glanced over in some missionary paper, cannot feel, on reading this brief description, as we felt standing there at the grave, as it were, of those devoted servants of God, who had in hope sowed the seed and then lain down to their rest, waiting for the great day of days to disclose what manner of harvest the Lord should reap from their portion of his vineyard. The colored representative of the same missionary society, who now resided in the castle, had but lately come out.

On the road we noticed a mud schoolhouse, and were minded to walk in and find what style of education the youths of Dix Cove were receiving; but as the worthy teacher was not there, it being recess, we thought it not worth while to linger. A few boys within caught a glimpse of us through the open door, and, anxious to exhibit their attainments, instantly began shouting, in a chorus of very queer English, the multiplication-table.

At length, hot and weary, we reached the hospitable abode of Quabina Mensah, the chief man of the place, who treated us most courteously during our stay. His house was one of the large stone buildings already alluded to, very massive and rather stately, especially as compared with the poor dwellings all around. Over the doorway, cut in a large stone, were the owner’s name and a date, probably that of the erection of the house. We were ushered up a flight of steps to a long hall, used as a reception-room or parlor; indeed, I know not what name to give the apartment, for it was unlike anything we see in American houses. The furniture was familiar enough; no doubt it had been bought, one piece at a time, from trading-vessels, and might, by dint of considerable polishing and scrubbing, have appeared quite genteel in a cosey sitting-room at home. There were pictures, too, hung along the wall on either side. Evidently, this gentleman had a more correct idea of the use of foreign articles than one whom I had known elsewhere on the coast, and who invested his money in a really handsome set of chairs, and a china dinner-set. The chairs he hung upon nails in the wall of his hut, and the china plates, etc. he piled up on his table by way of ornament, exhibiting them to his less wealthy friends as foreign curiosities. Well, perhaps he was quite as reasonable as we who decorate our parlors with little articles kept by the Celestials and others in as common use as chairs and dinner-plates are with us.

For some time we sat in Mensah’s parlor, commenting on his furniture and enjoying what there was of fresh air, after our long walk, conscious all the time of black heads bobbing in and out of the doors, and of the curious glances freely bestowed on us white people.

At last the master of the house, the great man of Dix Cove, appeared and welcomed us. I wish I could paint the portrait of this queer little old man. He was black as if the sun had long looked upon him; shrivelled as the last remaining pea-pod on the vine when the season is over. His shaven head resembled a polished mahogany ball, and was encircled by a sort of scarf, the ends of which fell gracefully over one shoulder. On his feet were a pair of embroidered slippers, while his lank form was enveloped in a robe covered with beautiful needle-work in bright colors. One caught sight occasionally of some under-garments not quite hidden by the fine robe, of that delicate tint which is known as couleur d’Isabelle. As this visit of ours occurred before that peculiar shade came in vogue, I am afraid Mensah appeared in it solely from the scarcity of good washerwomen at the Cove. His thin, old ebony hands set off to advantage immense rings of native gold manufacture. One, on the thumb of the right hand, was broad and thick beyond any ring I had ever seen. Over his breast hung a massive chain of gold, and to one end of this his keys were suspended, while the other secured a fly-brush, — I know no better name for it, — which every few minutes he caught and shook vigorously about him, and then replaced.

Sundry bows and smiles and hand-wavings from the old gentleman took the place of the polite speeches he would have made had he been master of the English language.

Finally we were all seated, and then came a fresh shaking of the fly-brush, another ceremonious hand-shaking all round, and then we were regaled with a spicy drink, which I supposed at first to be of native manufacture, but found form the label on the bottle to be some European beverage. It was surprising to see a number of such little foreign luxuries as this, while in other respects real African barbarism prevailed.

Meantime some remarkable sounds were again beginning to annoy our unaccustomed ears, from various directions. It would trouble a more learned musician than I to define the peculiar sounds. There were drums certainly, and there were things that squeaked, others that wailed, some that clinked; and with all was a steady accompaniment of jabbering in the native tongue, while every now and then a small piece of artillery was fired off.

A crowd gradually collected around the house and on the stairs, and presently one by one the men gathered in the room. Each of these as he entered let fall the drapery on the left side, sufficiently to leave the shoulder and breast exposed, — evidently a mark of respect. They received each a solemn greeting, and then Mensah, standing before them, made a little speech, of which we could appreciate nothing but the emphatic gestures. This done, the little old man took a large bottle of lavender-water and honored our party with some liberal dashes on the hands, dress, or wherever the refreshing liquid chanced to find its way. The ceremony was continued with the native guests, each receiving a most refreshing shower on head, hands, garments, and even on the back. This, to us unaccustomed, act of courtesy we received with all gravity, resolved when in Dix Cove to do as the Dix-Covans did. The natives then left us, and we were attracted to the windows overlooking the street. We there discovered Mensah seated on a sort of throne at the entrance of the house. In front of him were ranged four youths, whisking what looked like horse-tails, whether as fly-brushes or simply as a mark of honor we were unaware. At his side stood a man with a leopard’s face for a cap, who at short intervals shouted out a few words and then stopped. He was, no doubt, proclaiming the heroic deeds of the chief, as is the custom on different parts of the coast. Behind the seat stood another attendant, holding a bottle of rum and a glass, and I noticed that the old gentleman pretty frequently demanded his services. The crowd surrounding Mensah was composed first of special attendants, then musicians, then wives and children (of the latter I learned he had about one hundred), and then a promiscuous multitude. Of the special attendants some held very large and curious-looking cutlasses, the handles plated with gold; others carried huge canes or staves, with strange devices on their tops.

In less time than I have taken to note these things a procession was formed, which marched about town and then returned. The strangest feature in this, perhaps, was a kind of umbrella or tent (the former in shape, but almost the latter in size), made of brilliant-colored cloth, one of them more like a patchwork bedquilt in color and design than anything else. These were carried on long poles, and made to revolve in the hands of the bearers, as they marched. On top of each was the gilded representation of some animal, and no doubt these, as many other things, had a meaning of which we were ignorant. As the company were in motion, we had a better opportunity of noticing the various styles of dress. The men were clad in robes of different colors and materials, but all worn in the same way. They were squares of cloth about the size of ordinary table-covers, wound round the body with one end brought over the left shoulder and suffered to fall over the back in quite a graceful manner. The women wore cloth, some silk and other handsome fabrics, hanging from the waist, and, as is the style all along the gold coast, a large and awkward imitation of a bustle, known to us among the fashions of a period anterior to hoop-skirts. These, however, differed from any I ever saw on civilized belles, being prominent oblong seats on the back. As such they were used by the little ones, who each mounted on this block behind his mother, with one end of her drapery sometimes flung around him, or clinging like a monkey with his hands in her arm-pits.

The procession over, there was a dance, in which again we noticed but one at a time occupying the ground. A part of this dance consisted of a number of whirls and flings and frantic gestures, executed with much vehemence, and ending in the prostration of the man before the chief.

At last the old man, who, be it remembered, had been steadily emptying the cups of gin while these ceremonies were going on, himself took a turn in the dance. Having flung aside all his trappings, except a single cloth about his loins, his old limbs went as if on springs, and he kept up the exciting motion longer than any of the rest.

So the dancing, drinking, and tom-tomming went on, until the day began to wane, and we were summoned back to the ship. The whole crowd, headed by our host, who by this time was only half conscious of external things, accompanied us to the beach to bid us farewell. A gun was fired as we left the shore, and the British flag was dipped on the pole at the custom-house, and we gladly moved out of sight and sound of these savage festivities.

I must not, however, forget to mention the last feature of the day, which was perhaps the best. Quabina had honored one of our party by the presentation of a “new (young) wife.” The recipient of so great a compliment, with all the politeness he could, declined the gift; but, notwithstanding this, the young “fair one” appeared with her little bundle, ready to accompany her intended but unintending husband to the vessel. He managed, however, to excuse himself, and I noticed was careful not to be seen on shore again.

Although we had been so eager to leave the old vessel that had begun to seem to us almost a prison, we were not sorry to regain the quiet deck, and there talk over the events of the day; but a night’s rest renewed the desire for land. Soon after breakfast, therefore, we were again in the boat, minus our friend, “the intended,” listening to the Kroomen’s song as they rowed us toward shore. The sea was not so tranquil as the day before, and we had to encounter some furious-looking waves, where the sea rolled heavily into the Cove. One of these dangerous-looking mounds of water startled a member of our party into an appeal to the head Krooman to be very careful.

“O daddy,” confidently spoke out Sea Breeze, “no be ’fraid. Sea have plenty sass, it be true, but I be old Krooman, sea know dat; he no fit sass old Sea Breeze.” The assured tone of this modern Canute established the heart of our fearful friend, and, whether or no old Ocean acknowledged the skill of this boastful darky, we rode safely over wave after wave, and, after being as usual carried to the beach on the shoulders of the men, walked among the scenes of the previous day. But how changed! The day of drinking and the day of recovering from drink are widely different from each other. No dancing, no procession, no shouting was there to attract us. Dix Cove was in doors to-day, as yesterday it was out. I had come, however, more with a desire to get acquainted with a place than the people; and with sketchbook in hand I sauntered up the hill to take a view, and then to seek out the stream of the sacred crocodiles, of which I had heard. This latter, when found, I discovered to be a muddy little creek, fenced on either side with mangroves, and here and there a large tree branching over. Here I saw several of the ugly creatures lazily enjoying a nap in the sun. I wondered if there were anything on earth too repulsive for man to select as an object of worship. This West African Coast has a long list of deities that include, at one place monkeys, at another snakes, at another the insignificant little insect called mantis, and here the horrible crocodile. The people come to feed them, so that they are not at all shy, being well acquainted with the human countenance; but what they thought of a white face I do not know. One of our fellow-travellers, fond of sport, proposed shooting one of them, but the outcry was so fierce at the mention of such a thing, that for the safety of his own life he spared that of the crocodile.

We returned again to the vessel, and the next day we saw only sea and sky.