de marees : swimming, canoes, and fishing, guinea, 1602
In chapter 42, Pieter de Marees describes those living in the coastal towns of the Guinea as excellent swimmers, "easily outdoing people of our nation in swimming and diving" and where the young, "girls as well as boys," swim daily.
The women also swim very well, in the "same manner as the Men," however, "they are not able to dive or stay under water for a long time."
He recounts one instance of a native woman swimming after her companions, who had dived overboard from his ship moored in the roads, following a dispute over ownership, and they all reached the shore together.
Although that it unlikely that de Marees explored any of the hinterland, he reports that these aquatic skills are not shared by those living inland.
Unsuprisingly, the West Africans are accutely aware.that sharks are a serious danger to limb and life.
They are able to dive to considerable depths for long periods, and, according to de Marees, they are employed in West Indies to dive for pearls and to retrieve fresh water from below the saltwater layer off the coast of India.
In a somewhat confused passage, he notes:
"They swim in the
manner of the Portuguese, that is with their arms above the water,
one forward and one backward, and similarly with legs, like Frogs."
This confusion is
evident in the editors' comment that the "description suggests that the
'Portuguese style of swimming' was the crawl; yet this is in fact less
'frog-like' than the breast stroke, with which people are traditionally
taught to swim in Holland."
Critically, a combination of the over-arm (crawl) stroke and the breast stroke frog-kick would be.grossly inefficient, nothwithstanding that it is probably impossible to coordinate.
While the breast stroke was, of course, not unknown, several contemporary accounts confirm that the natives of West Africa swam with the crawl style, that is, alternate strokes by the arms combined with alternate strokes of the legs.
As such, de Marees appears to be suggesting that, at least some, Portuguese swam in the crawl style; commonly said to be unknown in Europe at this time.
As trading on the coast of West Coast of Africa by the Portuguese dated from the 1460s, it is possible that, by 1600, some visiting Portuguese sailors had seen and adopted the native crawl style.
First published in Amsterdam in Dutch in 1602, it was followed by a French translation (Amsterdam,1605), and an English edition, published by Purchas in 1624.
In addition, German and Latin translations, poorly transcribed and heavily edited, were published by de Bry brothers of Frankfurt am Main in 1603-1604.
The editors of the
1987 edition have made a masterful attempt to correlate the material, identify
derived material, and present it in a useable
format, with extensive introductory notes and copious detailed endnotes.
For those seeking further information, the following extracts include the editors' the endnote numbers in (brackets), and the page or folio
references to the original edition in [square brackets].
In some seasons
many Fish are caught there, such as Stonebream, Lobsters, Cod (or what
looks rather like it) and very many other kinds of Fish which we did not
know and could not name.
They use there very fine fishing gear, such as Harpoons made of iron, with which they shoot the Fish, as well as equally fine nets which they out of Tree-Bark, knotted like a Purse [5a] all with wide Mesh.
Thee nets are round, closed at the bottom and open at the top.
They let them sink to the sea-bed with a stone which drags them down to the bottom.
They tie the bait in the middle, and when the Fish comes to suck it, they perceive this at once.
Feeling that it has come to take a bite of the bait, they pull the net so that the top is closed, like a pouch.
They also use Canoes which they cut out of a tree; in these they paddling them as on the Gold Coast; but the Spoons or Paddles with which they paddle are different, being round at the bottom end, like a Table-top; they are made in a very slovenly manner.
They [the people
of the Grain Coast] are very good Farmers, sowing a lot of Grain, in which
they do considerable trade.
They are also very skilled in many crafts, especially in making fine Canoes or little Boats with which they go out to Sea; they make them out of a hollow tree, like a Venetian gondola, and for travelling they are verycrank.(8)
seer ranck om mede te varen.
The adjective ranck is used to describe a vessel that is liable to capsize.
European travellers were fascinated by the canoes of the Grain Coast, which were much smaller and more fragile than those of the Gold Coast: cf. Liibelfing in Jones, German Sources, 11 and n. 5.
Once the children
begin to walk by themselves, they soon go to the water in order to learn
how to swim and to walk in the water.
When the children have thus spent their youth in roughness ana reach the age of 8, 10 or 12, the Parents begin to admonish them [13b] to do something and set their hands to some kind of work.
Fathers teach their sons to spin yarn from the bark of trees and to make nets; and once they know how to make Nets, they go with their Fathers to the sea to Fish. Knowing now a little how to row or paddle, they set out to fish with only two or three Boys in a Canoe or Almadia,(4) and what they catch they bring to their Parents to be eaten.
But when they
Portuguese almadia, 'vessel', from Arabic al-ma'diya, 'raft'.
The term was widely used by Europeans in West Africa in the seventeenth century to describe African canoes.
are about 18 or
20 Years old, the Sons begin to do their own trade and, taking leave of
their Father, go to live with two or three other Boys together in a house.
They buy or hire a Canoe (one of their little Boats) and set out to Sea to fish together.
Having caught something, they sell it for Gold, first setting aside [enough] for their own needs and then buying from what is left a fathom of Linen, which they wrap around their bodies [and] between their legs, thus covering their male parts, as they begin to acquire a sense of decency.
In addition, they begin to trade with the Merchants and to take them with their Canoes to the ships, serving the Merchants as Rowers.
Thus they begin to get into the Gold trade and to earn something.
Plate No. 1
This picture shows what the Men are like [and] of what stature and form they are.
Letter A shows a slave, whom they call Akoba,(a) in the manner they go to the field with their axe [cutlass], which they call Coddon,(b) in order to cut wood.
B. shows the young farmers called Abaffra,(c) come with their sugar-cane and other fruits to the market.
C. shows a Fisherman or Pilot, called Aponso,(d) how they go with their gear, such as the little wooden Stool on which they sit and an oar with which they paddle, going to the beach to set out.
D. shows how two Blacks carry a canoe on the beach to bring it into the water.
E. shows how the Housemen come to the Markd with Palm Wine.(e)
a. Probably akoa paa, 'domestic slave'.
b. Coddon = k?d?(w), 'machette, cutlass' (lit. 'go weed'), not the primitive kind of axe shown in the engraving.
e Ab?fra simply
means 'child, young person'.
The term for a farmer is akuafo.
d. A misprint
for aponfo, 'fisherman' (lit. 'one of the sea people').
De Marees' use of the tenn 'pilots' is interesting.
Canoe men (remadores) played an essential role in communication between ships and the shore: without their services trade would have been virtually impossible, as there are no real natural harbours on the Lower Guinea Coast.
It seems, however, that these fishermen never became full-time remadores.
Cf Ch. 9.
e. Huysluyden is the plural of Huysman, which strictly means 'freeman, common farmer'.
They are also expert Swimmers and divers, and are better in this than our nation.
The picture shows how and in what manner they navigate on the sea with their little Barges (which they call in Portuguese Almadia and in their language Cano or Ehem) and [58b] do their trade; they are made out of a single Tree.
A. shows in what manner they bring the Merchants on board the Ships in their Canoe.
B. shows their cargo Barges with which they bring all provisions to the Castle de Mina and sail up and down.
They are the Slaves of the Portuguese.(a)
C. shows a Canoe with a sail made of Tree-bark, sailing along the coast to sell Palm-wine: it is called Lovis dobre.(b)
a. De Marees' statement that rimadores (canoe-rowers) were slaves of the Portuguese is probably incorrect.
These rimadores played an important role in the coastal trade and formeda powerful pressure-group: a strike on their part could paralyse trade completely.
The Portuguese even used the Elmina rimadores, generally fishermen, for a form of indirect colonisation, encouraging them to settle in little colonies all along the Guinea coast.
Thus a Dutch map of 1629 shows 'Mynsche visschers' (Elmina fishermen) at various places.
Later the Dutch adopted the same policy: in the early years of their settlement on the Slave Coast, for instance, the English complained bitterly about the Elmina rimadores in that area who, clamining that they were Dutch subjects, refused to co-operate and even threatened the lives of Cape Coast rimadora whom the English tried to employ.
b. Lovis dobre:
it is unclear what term De Marees can have meant.
The Barges with
which they sail on the sea and of which they make use in their Towns (1)
are cut out of one Tree.
They call such a barge Ehem; by the Portuguese it is called Almadie and by us Dutch Cano.
These Canoes are made and cut out of a Tree, without any pieces being jointed into them.
They are made after a fashion different from the langados which are used in Brazil and S. Thome and also from the Phragios in the East Indies.(2)
Although it is a slight vessel in the water, it is nonetheless very good to sail fast with; it is a rather low Instrument,(3) which does not rise high out of the water, and the steersman often sits in the stern with his body in the water.(4)
They are able to sail very well with them and develop a great speed, as if they were small Frigates.
They are long, low and narrow: people can only sit one abreast, and at least seven or eight, one behinq another, sitting on round little stool- made of wood,(5) half of their bodies emerging above board.
In their hands they hold an Oar like a Spade, made of a certain kind of hard wood.
They know how
to paddle with these Oars simultaneously, in the manner of a Galley, and
the Steersman keeps [the vessel] straight.
They can paddle so fast that it appears [59a] as if they fly through the water, and one could not keep up with them rowing in a Sloop.
If the waves are high, they do not make such progress, as the heaving of the rollers takes away their speed; yet in quiet water there are no Frigates, Sloops or Gondolas which could keep up with them.
Even if only one man sits in it, he can control it and sail on the Sea with it.
They know how to adjust their bodies to the pitch of the Canoe and prevent it from. capsizing.
Since we Netherlanders are not as experienced in this as they are, If we want to sail in them, not being able to adjust ourselves as well and steer them properly, the result is that the Canoes capsize immediately and we fall into the water.
1. end in hunne Steden mede behelpen: lit., 'and with which they help themselves [make do] in f their Towns'.
Perhaps De Marees meant 'which they use to sail from one town to another'.
Alternatively the phrase could mean 'The barges. .[or] what they use in their stead' (in de stede van = instead of).
2. Fante (e)h?n,
'canoe'; Portuguese almadia, 'canoe'; Portuguese lanchlio,
Phragios probably represents the Malay word perahu, describing a type of sailing boat with out-riggers, known in English as proa.
3. een leegachtig
Instrument could also be translated 'an emptyish [? = hollow] vessel'.
The word leeg normally means 'empty', but in the Flemish dialect it can also take the place of laag, 'iow'.
dat den Piloot achIer met zijn lichaem int water sidt.
It is not clear what this means.
If the rowers really sat inside the canoes, rather than on benches linking the two sides (as they do today), it is likely that not only the steersman but all the rowers were sitting in the spray-water which entered the boat, especially when crossing the surf.
It is more probable, however, that the steersman sat well above the water-level, as suggested in Plate 8.
op ronde stoeltkens van haul ghemaekt.
To fit the shape of the canoe, such stools would probably have to have been rounded at the bottom.
Perhaps, however, what De Marees took to be stools were in fact floats for fishing nets.
Elsewhere he stated that the rowers sat on a stone (see Ch. 12, n. 3).
are some who do know how to manage and steer them, but they very few in number.
They [the canoes]
are very frail and capsize easily; and even though it does occasionally
happen that a canoe capsizes with some Negroes on the high Seas, they manage
(whilst they are in the water) to turn it over, scoop the water out, jump
back into their Canoe and sail on with it, without taking it ashore.
They venture to sail with them not less than four or five miles out to Sea.
But as they find it difficult to control them in rough water, they use them mainly in the early morning to do their business, some to go out fishing, others to take Merchants to the Ships to trade.
By the time the breeze comes at noon, when they have done their business, they again make for the Shore.
They [the canoes]
are generally 16 foot long and one and a half or two foot wide.
They also have others which they use for warfare or for taking Oxen from other places, and these are bigger: I have seen one,
as mentioned above, which was as big as a Sloop; one could use it to do great violence if one were to put two pieces of Stone-ordnance (6) in the snout [bow] of this Barge using these [guns] at will, and also erect a Mast with a Yard and sail.
It was 35 foot long, 5 foot wide and three foot high; the rear was flat, with a Rudder and benches, the whole made and cut out of one trunk.
Many of these are made at Capo de Trespunctas, as enormously thick and tall Trees grow there, not less than 16, 17 or 18 fathoms in circumference. [59b]
These Canoes are much used by the Portuguese to sail from one Castle to another and fetch provisions.
Yet the Negroes have some too, which they use with sails made of rushes or Mats made of straw, having learnt to do so from the Portuguese; but the biggest ones they make are for the needs of the Portuguese.
Many other small ones are made in Anta, because much timber grows there which is good for the making of Canoes, and the inhabitants occupy themselves with making them and selling them to strangers or their Neighbours; they cost here the value of four Angels of Gold or one Peso, which is nearly seven Guilders Dutch money.
There are small ones in multitude, especially at a place called Agitaki (alias Aldea de Torto), where in one day they sail out to Sea for fishing, seventy or eighty at a time.
When they come back from the Sea and have done their things with them, they do not let them lie in the water, but take them at once and drag them on to the beach; then they come [together] at each end, and lift it [the vessel] on to four Trestles (7) (specially made for that purpose)
6. Steenstucken: small naval ordnance used for shooting stone balls.
De Marees's suggestion somewhat impracticable: it would be very difficu!t to place even a single gun with its carnage In the prow of a canoe.
It would be equally difficult to cross the surf with a canoe containing an ox, although on the lagoons of the Volta delta (which De Marees apparently not visit) large canoes can indeed carry very heavy loads.
7. ende draghen die op vier Micken.
From De Marees' description, it is obvious that canoes were much smaller than those used nowadays, and a canoe 16 foot long and I i foot wide could [continued on page 119] indeed be carried by two strong men.
But why four trestles would be needed to support such a small vessel is hard to explain.
Today canoes are too heavy to put on trestles and are simply hauled up the beach to a point which the tide cannot reach.
Because of their rounded keel, only a small part of the vessel is in direct contact with the beach, so that it can easily dry and there is little dander of it rotting, especially as most canoes are used virtually every day.
to let it dry, in order that it may not rot and may be lighter to use and row, two men can take it on their shoulders and carry it in-Land.(8)
They are first
hewn in an oblong form with machetes which are brought to them by the Dutch.
The upper part of the sides are made a little narrower, and flat under the bottom; then the upper part [is made] open; both ends, front and back, taper narrowly like a hand-bow; so that the front and rear ends are made in virtually the same fashion and there is little difference in them, except that the front end is a little lower.
At both ends they make a bow like the Cutwater or bowsprit of a Ship,(9)one foot long and as thick as the Palm of a hand, which they use to carry the Canoes to and fro.
They hollow it [the canoe] out with an iron [chisel] of the kind used by makers of Bailers.(10)
They make the sides only one finger thick, and the bottom two; when they have finished hollowing [the canoe] out they fire it all
around with straw, to prevent it from being eaten by the Worms and by the Sun.
They support the boards or sides with props, so [60a] that they will not shrink but become even and smooth.
do not forget to drape them [their canoes] with some Fetisso or Sanctos:
they often paint and colour them with Fetisso and drape them with ears
of Millie and Corn, so that the Fetisso may protect them well and not let
them die of hunger.
Thus make their Canoes and little Barges quite pretty and artistic.
They also maintain them well and take them together to a fixed place where they let them dry; each man takes his own [canoe] when he wants to go out sailing and fishing.
from page 118]]
8. te Landewaerts inne here probably means 'up the beach': it is difficult to imagine why anyone should carry a canoe from the seashore to the interior.
9. een bough als ern Gallioen of penne van een Schip.
The cutwater (galjoen) was a triangularpiece of wood attached to the bow of a ship, designed to divide the water before it reached the bow.
It was generally ornamented and ended in the figurehead, which was surmounted by the pen (bowsprit).
The comparison of the simple extension of the bow of a canoe (cf. Plates 9a and 9b) with these elaborate structures is intended to be humorous.
10. Gietemakers: a gieter is normally a watering-can (from gieten, 'to pour'), but here 'bailer'
seems a more appropriate translation.
Description of the first Plate No.9 [= 9a]
a. Quorgofado represents the Portuguese word corcovado, 'haunched, curved, bent'.
Cf. Ch. 29 n.8.
b. so worpen sy het want naer den Visch ende hem so int liif.
As a nautical term, want means 'rigging'; hence it can also mean a vertical fishing net.
But the expression ende trecken hem so int liif and the fishing gear shown in the engraving suggest that want in this case signifies not a net but a line with hooks.
There was a special kind of net known as a hoekwant (? a fishing net provided with hooks), used by the type of fishing vessel called a hooker (hoeker).
the other Plate 9 [=9b]
[60b] B. This [man] has a burning Torch in his hand; in the other hand he has a Harpoon, and when he sees a Fish swimming, he spears it with the Harpoon; the
steersman merely steers and paddles towards the Fish which he sees swimming.
A. These [men] have holes in their Canoe and a little wood-fire in their small boat, whose rays shine into the sea through the holes; the Fish come to see this, taking pleasure in the rays, upon which they are speared with a Harpoon by the Negroes and caught.
C. This man is fishing with a cast-Net of nearly the same fashion as ours.
D. These people are catching Fish with Baskets, having in one hand a basket made like a Hen-Coop, and in the other a Torch; if they see some Fish swimming, they throw these Baskets over them and take them out of the top, stringing them with a skewer on a string, which they gird around their bodies.
This is an excellent Fish, (in taste) not very different from Salmon.
The greatest diligence
and valour they show in fishing, because youth they are trained and educated
They fish t the week, throughout the week except on Tuesdays, which is the Sabbath they celebrate, when they do not go out to fish. At different times of the year they use different types of Gear to catch different kinds of Fish.
They use many
kinds of Implements and catch many kinds of Fish too, as will be explained
Often they fish at night and make Devices like Torches, which they keep burning in one hand, having other a Harpoon: they stand erect in the Canoe, while the steersman sits in the stern and steers or paddles; the Fish is attracted by the fire and is then caught by spearing it with the Harpoon.
These Torches are made of light, dry wood which they cut into chips, coat Oil and then bind together like a torch; they are about six foot long and about as thick as an arm, and burn excellently.
Joseph de Acosta, Historia natural y moral de las lndias (Seville,
1590) Lib. III, Cap. 17.
DeMarees must have read the translation by Jan Huygen van Linschoten (1598).
As it is customary
for children, from their earliest youth onwards, to spend their time in
the water every day, girls as well as boys, without any distinction or
bashfulness, the Inhabitants here, especially those [94a] living
in the coastal towns, are very good Swimmers.
But the Peasants of the Interior are completely inexpert; indeed, they are frightened when they see water or the sea.
Earlier I mentioned how clever they are in turning over their Canoes (when they have capsized in the water) and drying them out again [bailing out the water] and it is therefore not necessary to tell that story again.
I shall merely describe briefly in what manner they manage to swim.
They are very fast swimmers and can keep themselves under water for a long time.
They can dIve amazIngly far, no less deep, and can see under water.
Because they are
so good at swimming and diving, they are specially kept for that purpose
in many CountrIes and employed in this capacity where there is a need for
them, such as on the Island of St. Margaret in the West Indies, where Pearls
are found and brought up from the bottom [sea-bed] by DIvers, as is more
elaborately told in the Histories written about that subject.910
In the East Indies too, in places such as Goa and Ormus, where they dive no less than 20 fathoms deep into the salt water in order to bring up from below it fresh water which the people drink because it is free of certain diseases and Worms, they often use Negroes or blacks for this purpose on account of their great expertise in swimming and diving.
Yet no matter
how experienced they are, the Negroes here are not very happy about going
into the water, and that is because of their fear of certain Fish called
in French, Tubaron in Portuguese and Haey in Dutch.(2)
This kind of Fish is their great Enemy; when they are in the water and swim, the Fishes swim towards them and bite their legs off, or, what is worse, swim on with the man, dragging him down and eating him up.
They swim in the manner of the Portuguese, that is with their arms above the water, one forward and one backward, and similarly with
1. Acosta, Histaria natural, IV, Ch. 15.
Here and in the following sentence, de Marees is sidetracked from his topic, the Gold Coast, where there is little opportunity for diving, although many people are expert swimmers.
2. Today sharks rarely come close to the coast of Ghana, although seventeenth century sources suggest that this has not always been the case.
The barracuda, which is more common near the coast, can attack human beings as well as large fish.
Cf. Ch. 33.
This description suggests that the 'Portuguese style of swimming' was the
crawl; yet this is in fact less 'frog-like' than the breast stroke, with
which people are traditionally taught to swim in Holland.
Description and Historical Account of the Gold Kingdom of Guinea
Originally published in Amsterdam, 1602
Translated from the Dutch and edited by Albert van Dantzig and Adam Jones.
Oxford University Press, 1987.