THE WHITE MAN'S DEVIL-HOUSE.
BY F. HARRISON RANKIN.
"There is a magic in the craft."
Exoterics surmise it to consist in "winks and nods," proverbially
of equal inspiration to steeds labouring under the dispensation of
gutta serena. Mesmer's Animal Magnetism was nothing to the invisible
"tractors." Ticklings of the palm have been surmised; talismanic
numbers have been hinted at; sounds inaudible have been
suggested; together with certain "melodious twangs," awakening
pineal sympathy. Mrs. Veal's ghost, from De Foe's autopsy of the
apparition, evidently held no less a grade in the scale of shadowy society
than that of Master Mason.
John Locke, the philosopher, subsequently one of the fraternity,
opined that the art embraced sorcery, alchemy, the transmutation of
essences and of metals, together with similar common-place desiderata.
Whatever the nature of the spell, its sway is wide. Affinity of
feeling generated by it runs round the world. It may be found in the
land of the Chinese, of the Arab, the Red Indian, and the wild Tartar;
in the frozen circle, habitat of all seals excepting Solomon's, and in
the burning desert,
"Terra domibus negata."
Our story relates to the last pleasant locality.
Upon the windward coast of Africa, in a situation calculated to
warm the coolest temperament, stands a European settlement,—a
pimple of civilization upon the fiery face of a barbarous continent.
"Once upon a time" a lodge had existed there. Its members had
ceased to melt, having gradually melted away; for the constant flux
and reflux of white residents, the brief sojourn of many, and the
death of an appropriate portion, rapidly vary the population of the
little colony. After a lapse of years, however, it was not long since
determined that the lodge should be re-opened.
The house formerly used had become ineligible; and, in the true
spirit of a mason-soldier, a gallant captain offered to receive his brothers
in his own wing of the barracks.
This building was advantageously situated. It crowned the summit
of a high conical hill; so that, although the deluges of the rainy
season were fast approaching, it could with much facility be closely
and effectually tiled. But here, art was still in her swaddling bands;
and although, in our accomplished country, bricklayers and plasterers
are as "plenty as blackberries," in her colony no tiler could be found.
The name of Solyma,—that prince of architects, and prototype of
modern Wrens and Barrys,—his glory, and his power over things seen
and unseen, were familiar, especially to the black Mahometan population,
to the sojourning Foulah, and the travelled Mandingo; but
they possessed neither his skill nor his secret, being as mournfully
ignorant of his workmanlike perfections as they are of the name of
the mother of Moses. A tiler, however, was indispensable; and here
arose a difficulty. What black man, Mahometan or pagan, could be
induced to receive instruction; and, regardless of the prophet Mahmoud
on the one hand, and, on the other, of Satan,—the principal
object of fervid worship amongst the infidels of those hot parts,—to
hazard his well-being in this world, and his sombre soul in the next,
by tiling the edifice?
Various were the negro gentlemen invited; but few possessed
"hearts big enough." No wonder that in the gold-dust country they
should prove deficient in the "æs triplex!" One refused upon the
very admissible ground that the masons had been accustomed to attend
service in the colonial church once annually; and that, claiming
to himself the same liberty of conscience which he allowed to others,—being
by birth, and subsequently by conviction, of that extensive
religious "persuasion" called Pagans, and of the particular sect of
the said popular church which worships the devil and reverences
dead men's teeth,—he must decline compromising his religious principles,
and sanctioning by his presence the heterodox tenets of the
English colonial chaplain.
A second, however, had forsaken the Heathen modes of his ancestors,
and had waxed into a fervent proselyte, under missionary auspices,
in all respects save a tough hereditary prejudice in favour of a
genteel establishment of eight or ten wives
"To grind his corn,"
as Mungo Park poetically saith, but
"To pound his rice,"
as it doubtless ran in the original and vernacular glote, whether Fantee,
Mandingo, Cosso, Bullum, or Soosoo. This strange conjugal whim,
be it remarked, generally is as unalienable, tenaciously tenable, and
adhesive to the negro taste, as "roast pig" was to the palate of the
mortal Charles Lamb and the immortal "Elia."
This reclaimed pagan, however, professed that he would rather
dine on fried soles, that unclean piscatorial; masticate dog's flesh before
it had become putrid; disbelieve in witchcraft; or put away a
spouse, however freckled, than adjoin himself unto a society whose
nominal master indeed might be the Honourable Colonial Secretary,
but whose real spiritual president, he well knew, could be no other
than Beelzebub the Bugaboog, whose ways he had renounced.
The remaining mass of the negro "ton" declined their services on
reasons no less satisfactory. They appealed to the yet living reputation
of the deceased lodge, which they characterized as prononcée
to a degree; for the spirit of the building, once redolent of mysteries
and fraternity, prolongs a posthumous existence in their imaginings,
awful and evitabund. It is desolate, for none will enter it; it is
crumbling, for none will repair it; it is shunned as the favourite triclinium
of Sathana, Beelzeboub, and Ashtaroth; it is known as
"The White Man's Devil-House."
As incredulous a negress as ever succumbed to Obeah asserted that,
from its vague interior, bells were heard to toll, and chains to clank,
at the lone hour of midnight, twelve,—when the "sun lived in the
bush;" and that many a rash eye had been scared away by goblin apparitions
and rank sights. With her own orbs, whilst stealthily prying
through a window, had she beheld no less a potentate than Satan
himself, sucking the blood of a white cock, and feeding a dead man
with palaver sauce.
The idea of secret and mysterious associations is not new to
the negroes; they have not borrowed it from the white man. A
short reference to the nature of such as are familiar to them will
throw light upon the awe with which they regarded the old Devil-House
of the white man, and declined the privilege of entrée at the
Their own hidden fraternities existed in gigantic organisation, and
with withering power, long before the diseased and "craw-craw"
complexion of European discoverers was known to the natural inheritors
of Warren's jet blacking. Evil rites attend them; and bodily
mutilation, and the chance of slavery, are united to supernatural
horrors. Well aware of this, they naturally imagine similar diabolic
mysteries to constitute the "working" of white man's freemasonry:
nay, more; recognising the superiority, the mastery of the whites in
all things that come under their observation, they take for granted
that the same exists in matters which they do not witness, and, if
their own orgies are terrific, they suppose that those of the white man
must be intensely more so.
Of all men they are most horribly superstitious, and, in consequence,
are victims also to superstitious horrors of the first magnitude.
The forest, or bush, the air, the streams, the ground, swarm
with a surplus population of Satan's imps and witches. Each moment
and each step expose the wayfarer to the gripe of some malicious
fiend. To evade the unwholesome clutch, the limbs are ornamented
with charms and talismans, with dead men's hair and leopards'
teeth. To deprecate and conciliate these animavorous specimens
of African zoology no pains are spared, and temples named
"Devil-Houses" witness the placatory sacrifices to the spirit of
But this will not suffice. It is not enough simply to protect the
person. Associations are formed which recognise the necessity of
watching over Satan's interests, by visiting with direful vengeance
such members of the tribe at large as may have treated his majesty
with less respect than his station entitles him to expect. There are
liberalists and spiritual republicans even in Africa.
Some writers, in noticing these associations as similar to freemasonry,
have fallen into the same error with the black colonists
aforesaid, who refused their aid to tile the lodge because they confounded
it with their own tremendous and execrable fraternities.
The secret sisterhoods of Africa have their own peculiar charms
and peculiar annoyances. The initiated maidens enjoy much respect,
and a singular liability to be sold to the slave-factory; and many inducements
are held out to the grand-mistress of the order to dispose
of her gentle sisters in this manner, since a well-built maiden, warranted
of clever action, of unblemished points, and sound lungs, will
find bidders at a hundred hard dollars at any respectable bazaar between
Senegal and Guinea. "Inshallah!" (God be praised!) as the
Mahometan slave-merchant thankfully observed.
The honour, however, compensates for the danger, and they love
to entwine the privileged emblem of their order, the ivory circlets, in
the hair; an ornament that glads the heart of the simple ebony maid,
as feathers and brilliants rejoice that of the blonde or the nut-brown.
The initiations, alas! are attended with ungentle mutilation of the
person; and the trembling and weeping girl is blindfolded, that she
may never know the woman who lacerated her. Gashes, however, on
the face, arms, breast, and back, are favourite ornaments; they are the
unpretending substitutes for rouge and cosmetics. The society is in
a flourishing state, and the worshipful mistress derives a considerable
revenue by the sale of refractory maidens. The guilt generally arises
in the practice of witchcraft and sorcery;—accomplishments assiduously
cultivated by the young ladies of Nigritia.
But, to return to our story. Enough has been said to explain how
it happened that ideas of awe rested amongst the black colonists
upon "The White Man's Devil-House."
The night was of that deep-toned glory unimagined save by those
who have watched the firmament of a tropical sky. No moon was
up; but the moon-like planets threw upon the sultry ground shadows
of man and horse as they slowly wound round the long mountain path
that led from the sea-washed capital at its foot, to the summit of the
Barrack Hill. As a higher elevation was gained, the suffocating
breath of the low grounds became tempered by the land breeze,
that floated down by the channel of the wide river, and flung itself
rudely upon the hill side. Yet the still, close atmosphere, and the
distant flickering of purple and golden lightning far away to the east
over the lands of savage nations, warned against loitering for the
chance of a tornado. By ones and twos the little straggling brotherhood
alighted at the barrack gates; and there, thousands of miles
from Old England and the fire-side of home, men unconnected by
birth, by interests, or by office, met, and cordially felt that they were
related. Just before entering the chamber whose secrets are bound
as by adamant, the eye fell upon a figure sitting in the verandah in
the very dignity of overmastering terror. His aspect told that he
was following the poet's advice,
"Nimium ne crede colori!"
He was a black man awaiting the ceremony of initiation with much
the same intensity of interest that enlivens the criminal at execution.
He appeared the living representative of that fear-stricken island
tree whose trembling leaves distil a sympathetic dew. He was an
old serjeant of the Royal African Corps. Years of discipline had
taught him reverence for the tastes of his superiors; and when invited
by his officer to tile the lodge, overcome on the one hand by
the condescension of the captain, and overwhelmed on the other by
misgivings of latent Satanic cajolery, he had plunged into the Rubicon.
If his commander had deemed it expedient to form an alliance with
so powerful a prince as the prince of darkness, what business had he
to do with it? He had fought at Waterloo, and would fight at any
time against the devil himself if ordered to the charge; but he had
never expected to serve in the same company. However, he sturdily
denied flinching from the approaching trial of his courage.
The negro's burnished face smartened up when all was over. Rumour,
whose numerous tongues, if well pickled, would pair off with
all the boiled turkeys cooked in Christendom on a Christmas-day, and
leave plenty to spare, told the tale of wonder in "quarter less no
time," how Serjeant B. had become a member of white man's purrah;
how he had sat down to supper with Captain —— on one side, the
devil on the other, and the chief judge opposite; how the serjeant
thought he recognised the "old gentleman" as a comrade in the Peninsula;
and how the "old gentleman" politely acknowledged similar
remembrances, and took wine with him; and how they had parted, with
mutual hopes and promises of meeting again at some future day, in
the hot season, not in "the rains."
The more the woolly-headed men and maidens of his inquisitive
acquaintance interrogated the serjeant himself concerning his adventure
on that fearful night, the more he would not tell them a word
about the matter; and, to this moment, no mysteries are more mysterious,
no secrets more arcane, than those which trouble the black population
of the little colony respecting "The White Man's Devil-House."