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Notes on the Kaffirs

sent by the polish Father Michael Boym from Mozambique, January 11, 1644.

Cafraria is a large territory that includes the kingdom of Monomotapa and that stretches from the Cape of Good Hope to Mozambique and the rivers that lay opposite Goa. The Portuguese conduct all their business with the Kaffirs through the same administrative center. All Kaffir, men, women, and children, go about bareheaded, wearing no covering for the head, but the men do clothe their bodies from waist to knee, while the women clothe themselves from chest to ankle with ornamented robes of the kind that the Turks sell to Europeans. Their hair is wiry; the women's hair is short like the men's, but when they do let it grow they draw it up with a comb in the manner of a priestly cap (biretta).

They are a servile people, constantly displaying wilines; they are bought as slaves by the Portuguese. They are purchased either in exchange for the robes described above or for silver, which here is more highly valued and which they call patacas. Kaffir children have nicknames and fetch a price of three to seven scudi, and if they are well formed and older, as much as ten or twelve scudos. Very many of these secretly abducted children are sold by their own people, some by their parents, a few after being captured in war, others after being condemned to a life of captivity because of the millet fields having been laid to waste, others after being kidnapped along the road, and are handed over to the Portuguese. Indeed if any captive should claim in the presence of his buyer that he is a free man or that he has been unjustly put up for sale, he is immediately killed by his black African seller. For this reason, the Portuguese have as their slaves many free men who have been bought in good faith, although with respect to many of these only God knows how they may have been bought.

All Kaffirs are black in color, but some with yellowish skins can also be found among them. The older men are gray-haired and bearded, with reddish hair, and they are very ugly indeed. They oil their bodies liberally, which makes their skin glisten. The sun, which is most intense in this region, does not affect their heads. They have kings or lesser chieftains (whom they call fumos). These wage war with one another. You will find very rarely towns, or rather bunches of huts, among them. They wander around in groups and eat whatever millet they find lying about (which has a larger seed than the one found in Europe) or other men they have captured, after roasting them. I once asked a Kaffir who had sold him. He replied, "Other Kaffirs, who wanted to eat me." "And what about you, how many times have you dined on human flesh?" "Twice," he replied, "once I ate a man's head, another time I ate a man's feet." A second Kaffir told the story of his having eaten a sun-dried human on three occasions.

At night the Kaffirs burn huge bonfires, which appear all around near Mozambique. Their Supreme Chieftain resides at the Cape of Good Hope at a place called Maravius. When he dies, his body is solemnly taken to a burial ditch where he is placed and wherein also enter his concubines, blood relatives, friends, and soldiers. Even quite recently up to five thousand of them did so as a token of their love for their king, and after being covered with earth by the people they all died in the same ditch. These same Kaffirs pledge themselves to their king with a fistful of millet and a fistful of flour (just as they customarily do with all Kaffirs who have died.)

A helmsman related a tale: when some years ago a group of shipwrecked sailors were engaged in repairing their vessel stranded on the promontory of Good Hope and rang the bell to call their people "an infinite number of the Kaffirs ran towards the sailors," he said, "due to the novelty of the sound, and one of them one, who had been formerly the slave of some Portuguese, came closer and speaking in Portuguese he said that he knew who the men were. He said that he was a son-in-law to the king, but while aboard an Indian ship had been tossed ashore there by a violent storm. Abandoned on the beach with all things sunken into the sea, he said that he remained there until at last the Kaffirs found him and helped him to recover his strength. And, because he was skilled in the art of predicting winds, rains, and storms, he won the king's favor and was made his son-in-law.

"What are you really doing and what do you want?" he asked. The sailors demanded cows and bulls. They not only did not refuse the usual money but he vouched for those things in his name as well. The sailors gave them 40 pieces of bronze, for gold is not considered as valuable due to ignorance. And then suddenly 40 cows were brought by him to the place. The king himself also came after his son-in-law convinced him. The son-in-law said that he was related to the Portuguese, which was shown by the fact that he was entrusted with the bronze pieces by the natives, for in these parts the wife does not entrust money to her own husband. The king himself inspected the bell repeatedly, and admiring its sound, hung it from his neck and, making it ring by hitting the cannon balls of the Portuguese with it, he went around to the great delight of his own people and himself.

The Kaffirs fight on foot. Their armory consists in the assagai (a simple stick with an iron piece on one end like a broad lance), the bow (made of wood bent into a curve by a waxed cord), arrows made from shaved reeds but without feathers in the back (they actually weave feathers from all kinds of birds, even of chickens, into their hair as ornamentation); the arrows, I say, have an iron point on one end and, because they are round and smooth, they attain very high speed in flight. Sometimes they are wetted with poison. I have myself seen a root that was tied to a bow and have been given a small portion from one by a Negro to wear as a medallion. It is an excellent curative for wounds and is an antidote against bites from snakes and other poisonous animals. When the root, by name mitambo, is scraped with a stone or sliced in small measure and applied to a wound, or when administered as a powder, it will cure a man within three or four days regardless from any kind of lethal wound. Thus when a Kaffir sees himself struck with an arrow or an assagai, if he does not die straight-away, either he himself or someone standing around applies the root and most certainly he escapes death.

Their administration of justice works in this way. When someone's mother or father dies, they immediately run to the witch doctor or to the female witches and tell him that their father is dead, and what hostilities he had carried out with these men and those men. The witch doctor then casts lots (sometimes, even before the agrieved man has revealed the reason for his coming, the witch doctor proclaims to the bystanders the reason why he has come), then interprets the results and gives the name of the killer. The Kaffir then goes to the fumo or his king, accuses his father's enemy, goes into the bush to find a poisonous herb called moaba, then the fumo orders the accused man to drink the poison. If the man drinks the potion and after a day recovers his health by vomiting up the poison, he is declared innocent. If the accused refuses the trial, sometimes he is deprived of his property, most often he is killed or within that period of 24 hours he is killed by poison. It is almost impossible, even among the Christian Kaffirs, to persuade them that this form of justice is indeed unjust.

On one occasion the king organized a hunting party and they all went off in search of buffalo or lion, armed with a great number of spears. When shortly thereafter the Kaffirs succeeded in surrounding a most ferocious lion with a palisade and after it had killed many of them and was seeking an exit, the king, to save his band from any further slaughter, ordered that a way be made open to allow escape by the same path he followed in entering his trap. But the lion, upon realizing the tactic, turned back on them and attacked them at their strongest point, wounding some of their number and killing others; at last he was brought down with an arrow from one of the Kaffirs and at length expired.

Elephants are hunted in this manner: six or eight hunters go into the jungle with their assagai or spears and surround the quarry, two in front, two in the rear and two on each side, but they keep their distance to avoid any possible contact with the elephant's trunk while they run towards the beast and they address him as follows: "We know, O mighty elephant, that it is no easy thing to conquer you. But we want to put your strength to the test. So defend yourself." While all this is going on, the two at the rear run towards the elephant and implant their arrows and spears into the hide of the animal. The elephant, meanwhile, turns towards whence his pain and wounds are but such turning about is most difficult for an elephant because he lacks the vertebra structure that would allow him to do so. Then those Kaffirs who were in the elephant's line of sight inflict wounds along the side, and if he turns his attention toward killing them those stationed at the sides bring him to the ground. Thus the hapless animal falls exhausted and is killed.

They tear out his two tusks, which sometimes even two men are not enough to carry, they eat his flesh, which is said to be near tasteless, pluck the thick hairs from his tail which they carry on their hand wrists instead of bracelets. Although it is the custom even among the poorest of the Kaffirs to wear glass beads about the neck or a small crown upon the head, the women carry about around their necks rings taken from the buffalo either black or encased in gold or silver. The Christians among them wear medallions or reliquaries about their necks and they hold them to be very valuable. Hence it is that when the elephant senses the presence of humans he flees for the protection of the dense jungle tearing as it flees trees from the root up.

Mozambique is a small island, about one Italian league in width, abundant in sand and sea salt. Palm trees, which yield coconuts, are called by another name, Indian nuts. Jansen's map for Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka) gives a full account of this matter. The coconut is about the size of my head, it does not contain a core as our nuts do, but when the fruit is not fully ripe it contains about a cup of sweet and sour fluid. To combat the heat of the evening it is used as a cooler and is called lagna. In its early stages of development it is called coco. It contains a pulpy meat, from which they extract oil and a little warm liquid, the husk is used for making fiber and rope; sails for ships are made from the leaves. Before the nuts are formed, a large fruit looking like a branch or a cornucopia emerges, whose center is white and sweet. Out of this center they distill a liquor called sura, and it looks very much like aguardiente. The liquor is flammable and when exposed to the sun turns into vinegar.

Churches use the palm branches as both decoration for the interior and as material for roofing. Every house in Mozambique is roofed with palm leaves as dry as straw, which is the most appropriate food for fire, but the huts of the Kaffirs are merely poles driven into the ground in a circular pattern and they sometimes fill the spaces in between the poles with clay to avoid that the gaps be visible. It is a poor country lacking fresh water, wheat, millet, and rice. Unless the state imports all of it, it perishes of starvation. It has three or four rainwater cisterns for collecting water. It rarely rains here, perhaps once in a whole month, or twice at the most. It has none of the fruits familiar to Europe. It produces a small crop of oranges and pomegranates at other end of the island which they call Cabacera.

That part of Cafraria that is a portion of the African continent abounds in jungle and animal life. The inhabitants of Mozambique holds at the most 60 Portuguese families. There are no artisans outside tailors and barbers. Shoes come from Goa. For that reason they eat little meat. There is no public market, they live solely on rice, which comes from Goa. The bread is of poor quality, being baked without wheat, and it is eaten only by the wealthy. Hard tack, which is sold solid in Poland, here sells at four scudos four gross. Goats are brought in from time to time from the Island of St. Lawrence, also known as Madagascar. There are cows and a few figs that look like rather long Indian toes, and have a splendid aroma, and, when ripe, also splendid taste. Fish, just as snails and crabs, would be most abundantly available here, if the human inhabitants were not so slothful. For the Portuguese do not deign to exercise any of the arts of living in these lands and as a result live wretchedly.

The Portuguese, as soon as they arrive, constitute themselves into hidalgos or nobles and, since they are among the Kaffirs who are children of the jungle, whom they do not improve, they themselves are decimated by hunger and starvation. As a result, no one here plows the soil, harrows the land, no one sows, no one plants. There are no sheep, no milk giving stock, only endless jungle and wild beasts. Sometimes the Portuguese by means of their own Kaffirs fell trees of black wood (a species of ebony from Ethiopia) and when the occasion presents itself, which is rare indeed, they sell the wood. This can be said of the whole island most sensibly, that it is the most wretched one by reason of the lazy negligence and idleness of the people who inhabit it. You will find among them small boats called canoes or ciolna in Polish, which are hollowed out from a single log. The trade at the harbor is the only thing that can enrich any diligent person here. They sell elephant tusks, which are sold by weight for a maximum of 100 scudos more or less. The Kaffirs transport the tusks to the Sena region in Mozambique.

The Sena is a very fertile region in Africa near Mozambique. It has many navigable rivers, and abounds in wheat, cattle, and gold. Some Portuguese remain in that very same place, but the local king, although it may be possible that he is their friend, forbids his own people, under penalty of their necks, to disclose the large gold mines. If someone should by chance find them, he commands them to be covered even more. He allows the small pieces of gold found along the surface to be exchanged for arrows and for clothes made out of linen. This mixed gold is a combination of copper and a little yellow copper. They do not melt the gold ore but merely wash the pieces in water. The gold grains and the powder which fall to the bottom are well baked into a paste by the sun. The embossed gold, or the gold coin of Mozambique has no fixed value in all of India but, if anyone should offer it as money it is weighed and valued in terms of scudos. It is accordingly a useless thing to make the gold coins for they are weighed just as if they were stones or rocks made out of gold. This gold ore which exists in Mozambique is corrupted with bronze and copper.

The ants in Africa from the part opposite to Mozambique are said to build hills, and of the others it is said that they can eat up in the shortest of times clothes, robes, shoes and whatever they find in their path, so that nothing is left over. However, salt put around things preserve them by hindering the ants' access. Long leaves are used in place of ropes, which are so strong, that large earthenware jars are capable of being carried with them. The feathers of the chicken are used as needles. Chickens are very scarce and small, and their eggs barely exceed in size those of doves. There is an infinite number of tigers in the jungle. In the evening, when the bell is rung to call for the Hail Mary prayers, they come into the cemeteries, dig out the very same buried corpses and eat them during the night. Sometimes, if they see men they run away, but if it is just someone alone they jump onto the back of his neck and choke him to death.

When the Kaffirs greet or show their respect to someone they lie on their backs and hit their thighs twice with the palm of their hands. Then, the person who's been greeted, hits the hollow of their feet with his own hands to demonstrate that he is pleased. When they talk, both parties say "U" after almost every word, which is their sign of assenting. If one doesn't do this, they think that their story is not pleasing. The Kaffirs are most faithful to their masters. If it ever happens to them that one of them escapes, their master will send another Kaffir with his cap after him and with the following message: "Our master's head remains uncovered and he wishes that you cover it with this cap," and on the spot the wayward Kaffir will return and will ask for forgiveness and it will be granted to him. If a Kaffir knows that someone is speaking against his master, even is the master does not order it, often the servant will ambush and stab that someone.

Kaffirs are the greatest of thieves, however, not in their own country, for there this crime is punished by death. They feed upon millet alone which is given to them by their master at his will in a certain measure. They despise all other types of food. Asked what they think is better, whether bread, rice or millet, they answer, "bread fills the stomach and passes, and similarly with rice, but only millet fills it and sticks to the ribs," hence they only sow millet-however, they eat meat with pleasure, of whichever kind it may be, even that of snakes. They roast the hide of the ox and devour it, and drink wine secretly as well. A certain man from Sena (it is said to have been a Venetian), when he realized that they didn't know wheat, it seemed impossible to him that since everything else grew here, this alone would not grow here, therefore he took twelve parcels of land and all by himself he planted wheat for twelve months and he found in March that what he had planted was of excellent quality and thereupon wheat is planted in Sena, and even the Kaffirs do that already. The Portuguese in these parts near Mozambique are truly the laziest.

The oranges, if there is rain, are produced twice a year in this region. A palmetum is a place where palm trees are planted. They bury the coconut in the ground, which grows for years into a tree and not until the seventh year produces fruit. I say, a palmetum produces almost in any month you want some lagna. The African lily is the most beautiful with red and white colors. Pineapple is a fruit from the continental portion of the best smell and outstanding taste. In my judgment it can reduce fever on account of its coolness. It springs forth low to the ground towards the leaves of its stem, and these leaves which are again buried with the stem produce fruit in December of the following year. I place in front of my eyes the image of another fruit, namely, the cazius, which is tasteless in the thicker part and equal in size to the little millstones and carries in front the seed of its own very nut, and which if tempered with salt gives a tolerably bitter taste, and looks at first slightly like the European apple. In this region there are no apples, and similarly, neither pears nor cherries. However, grapes for wine will grow if they are brought and grown in the palmetos. Oil and wine in the whole of India comes from Europe. Swine is most scarce and extremely expensive, and all this is by reason of these peoples' negligence. Thus any day you want two or three people die due to hunger, and thirst in a land of bad air, humidity and heat, and as a result there are the fewest of inhabitants here.

Christianity is not widespread in these parts of the kingdom. Large is the harvest but few the workers. Christians are either the Portuguese or the Kaffirs. The latter, however, do not worship any god, and follow no religion; they care only about their stomachs and are slaves of their gluttony, and to fill their gut with millet constitutes their greatest happiness. Nevertheless, their charity is to be admired among uncivilized peoples. If a Kaffir has a scrap of food, no matter how small, he will divide it among those present even if he ends with a single crumb for himself. Those Portuguese who feed many Kaffirs are deemed to be richer. These servants readily take the boat to Cabacera to bring water and wood and fill large earthenware jars with it. A large jug of water sells for one scudo in Mozambique. The remainder of the whole day they laze about except when their master goes out at night and then they follow him armed with bow, arrows and assagais. With some work they learn the sign of the Holy Cross, and they would learn all the other mysteries if they were taught, but the masters don't pay heed to this matter and do not instruct many of them in the faith and nor take care that the Kaffirs be instructed. Some die without having been baptized due to carelessness.

The Portuguese themselves rarely partake of the sacraments, but they hear the Holy Word almost everyday. During the holidays their wives are carried in their beds to attend mass once. This happens during the night before the break of day and they are all surrounded by their black servants. But as soon as the mass is over they leave and they never show up in the church after that, and for that reason they also attend neither public meetings nor come to catechism and perhaps not even to take confession during Passover.

The Portuguese don't care in the least whether the blacks receive the Christian doctrine, even when many of them are Kaffirs, their masters will not recognize them and if a Kaffir dies without sacraments the master doesn't think that that's his business. The Kaffirs carry themselves all kinds of very heavy objects because there are no beasts of burden in these parts. They put umbrellas over the heads of their masters due to the excessive heat of the sun and carry them in beds covered with tiger hides.

A Kaffir carries around, carefully prepared, and with a twisted golden collar, a key hanging from the neck, which is adorned towards the canopy and the crown also with two or three medals. Any Christian Kaffir you want can have how many medals soever, and he hangs them around the neck. The Kaffirs rejoice greatly when medals are given to them. They place them on their eyes and kiss both hands therefor, just as when they receive every other thing. The custom of the Portuguese-as it once was in the Greek Church-is that of putting a broad piece of black cloth over the tombs and placing on it wine and bread and some sweets, with several candles lit.

On the day of commemoration of the faithful dead, the priest, having negotiated the mass, goes from the church to each individual tomb and says a prayer for that deceased person spraying holy water. They do not toll the bells during elevation on All Saints day. The male and female Kaffirs pour into the tombs holy water taken in their hands, the Portuguese dip a small band and squeeze it over the tombs. The more someone truly loves a deceased person the more he pours holy water over the tomb of the dead person. The Portuguese bury their own by throwing in dirt or rough quarry stones in a pit dug out in the consecrated grounds with the corpse wrapped in cloth.

The Kaffirs fear the most Saint Anthony of Padua on account of the following story: A certain Portuguese lost a slave and therefore, because he had been tormented by such loss, he committed to the care of Saint Anthony the escape of the slave. After several days in a nearby church that had been closed the escaped Kaffir was found tied up to the altar. When he was asked how he had entered the place and who had tied him up he answered that he had absolutely no idea, and therefore the Kaffirs repeatedly say the following: "mancibo Portughese he hum grande embrolhador pera os Kaffirs", that is, "this young man (the Portuguese depict Saint Anthony with a shaved beard and mustache) is an enemy of the Kaffirs".*

The sacraments, if they frequent them during Passover, is a lot. The custom is, because it happened to me several times after finishing the holy service, for the female Kaffirs to come to the altar with their infants. The women are in the habit of carrying the little ones like weights on their shoulders, whence the children with the frequent hitting acquire flat noses and you'll rarely see a Kaffir whose nose is not flattened in some part. The custom, I say, is to come and to ask that the Gospel of the Blessed Mary be read upon their babies. Some Moors are found here who come into the Sena by reason of advertising their sect and they cross over in sailor's dress.

Many of the Kaffirs are most devout followers of the Virgin whose miraculous image is Bazaini. I have asked from one whether if he were to see the Virgin Bazaini he would immediately make a reverence with the head, and he said "Father, that Virgin is a great lady".

That image of the Virgin made the first miracle of this kind: A Portughese sent a female Kaffir to a certain man to buy wine. After having bought it when returning home she felt to the ground and broke the flask of wine. Melted in tears and female howlings on account of the fear of the coming whipping, she betook herself to the neighboring church. She saw the image of the Virgin and in her presence having bewailed copiously, at last she came out full of faith and found the flask in the very same place on the street but now absolutely whole and full of wine. The master tastes the wine, and asks where she had bought such generous wine, for indeed it is not believable that one can find wine of such kind in the land. She asserts that the shopkeeper had sold it to her, but the master denies it and against her truthfulness he gives money to her so that she buy again wine from the same shopkeeper. Thereupon after the woman confessed the miracle, that is, what really occurred in the matter, herself and many others for whom this became known were converted to the faith. Another miracle is told about a lame and a paralytic and at the same time a poor man. This man who was known in the same place of Bazaini on account of his poverty and disease, was being killed by hunger a certain day and he dragged himself in the evening all the way to the doors of the church.

And behold indeed that in the middle of the night the doors open themselves and he enters it bewailing and demands food from the Virgin from whom he had heard so many miracles; for if he did not eat something at all he would die of hunger if the Virgin did not hasten to aid him. Thereupon the Virgin after having been spoken to beseeches her Son on behalf of the beggar that he may wish to hasten to the aid of the hungering man. The baby Jesus after extending his blessed hand reaches out the food commanding the beggar with his own voice: "Come near and take it". "Lord," said the beggar, "I cannot come to accept the food, for I am lame of my feet". "Stand up, so that you may be able" speaks Christ, and the beggar by crawling stretches the left hand. "Don't stretch that hand" replies Christ, "but the right one." "I can't, Lord," -"Try" answers the Son of God. And then the beggar did try and at once he received the food and his whole health and with the greatest visible joy, shaken by the miracle, he accepted the faith.

Here also in Mozambique there are three idolaters, although, I don't know who would have arranged on the same day of the Immaculate Conception to convoke the folks to the church of the Franciscans to a game of fortune-in that game they put cards in an urn with some of them written among a large number of blank ones. Those who have bought lots to take them out do so by turns. Three idolaters, I say, bought three lots to take cards out of the urn promising the Blessed Virgin Bazaini a certain charitable contribution if perhaps by chance something good would befall them. And behold that truly one of them got a silver dish on one card and the other two got golden rings on their cards, and all these things were granted to them.

The Portuguese women don't go to the holy festivities except at night with a large accompanying crowd of blacks. They bring fire with them and while they enter or exit the churches they burn incense to express respect. They take to the sick Christians, once the mass has finished, water that has been used to wash the calyx in which the blood of Christ has been consecrated, and some, after having drunk it are freed from their fevers. The feast lasts from the first hours of the evening all the way to noontime, and neither the Vespers are sung nor the churches are visited by anyone. In no sung mass is the Preface sung. However, at the time when the priest says "Pax Domini" during the mass the deacons embrace the priest with both arms and then the subdeacons.

There are in Mozambique three Jesuit fathers who take care of the hospital. The walls of the old hospital in which the holy Francisco Xavier used to take care of the sick are still extant. Our group hears confessions and teaches the catechism to the people. It also has a school in which they teach the Portuguese children. The fourth Jesuit father runs two churches in Cabacera on the other side of the sea, baptizes Kaffirs, hears confessions and administers other sacraments. Continually during the holy days he celebrates mass twice a day, but the people there are few in number due to the fear of wild beasts.

I understand that the Kaffirs find out whether witch doctors are true fortune tellers in the following manner. They take several pieces of cloth of different colors, and they hide the one and the other in the woods in certain trees, and the remaining pieces they take with themselves. When the witch doctor is found they deliver a customary greeting and say nothing more about it, then the witch doctor, if such has been instructed by the devil, says that he has come to the Kaffir to take care of his danger, that the Kaffir has taken so and so many pieces of cloth and has hidden them in the woods under this and that tree, and that he wished to take these many with him. If the Kaffir admits this to be the truth he claps with his hands and sets out the cause of his arrival and requests that the witch doctor prophesy about the matter itself.

These very same Kaffirs are sent by their own masters with a certain weight of gold, which they call <pasta>, that sometimes contains 30,000 Crusados. Sometimes the Kaffir takes ten of such <pastas>and demands from the master painted cloths, which he indeed exchanges for victuals. If the master denies it the Kaffir refuses the trip. The Kaffirs are faithful to such an extent, that nothing of what has been entrusted to them is stolen; even if the master, to whom it was directed, by letters given back, does not question the truth about the gold, or even if he does not inquire about how much it was, whatever has been sent, they carry to that master most completely. The women fish with linen cloths instead of nets.

Translator's Notes:

*The quote actually says something more like: This young man is a big trouble maker for the Kaffirs.

Copyrights: text --Bertrand Barrois, John Donahue & Francisco Loaiza, WWW -- Cezary Zemis.

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