Journal of James Watt
Expedition to Timbo, Capital of the Fula Empire in 1794
Edition and Introduction by Bruce L. Mouser

African Studies Program. University of Wisconsin-Madison. 1994. 97 pages


The 1794 expedition to Timbo, capital of the Fula empire, by James Watt and Matthew Winterbottom as agents of the Sierra Leone Company, came as a result of events and circumstances on the Windward Coast which had been building over four years and involved a number of participants. The Sierra Leone Company, a relatively recent commercial entrant on the coast' had political and commercial objectives which had become stalled by events beyond its control. Long-term resident traders and those who acted as independents on this coast had problems of their own, for they were adjusting to a new European war which interfered with normal commerce, as well as to competition from the Sierra Leone Company and its agents; and they were struggling to maintain marginal positions relative to local political elites and growing African competition in trade. African groups, whether local or long distant from the coast, were also players in this drama, for events on the coast had disrupted traditional markets and interfered with access to manufactures, kola, and salt. All parties were profoundly affected by the drama that occurred between January and May of 1794.
The most crucial of these participants was the Sierra Leone Company, which put the expedition into motion in 1794. Between 1791, the year in which Parliament chartered the Sierra Leone venture, and late 1793 the company's objectives and fortune at Freetown fluctuated dramatically. Its objectives in 1791 were clear:

But the charter granted the company neither exclusive rights to territory nor a monopoly of trade at Sierra Leone, leaving slavers free access to the river and to the company's settlement at Freetown 2. The company's directors expected the company to expand its commerce into the river's hinterland, to wholesale trade goods to neighboring merchants, and to grow cash crops, such as sugar, cotton, tobacco, coffee, pineapples, pepper, coconuts, and rice. These products in turn could be exported to England or would sustain and make the settlement selfsufficient This latter objective, it was believed, would encourage neighboring peoples also to grow cash crops, in effect to sell labor and the result of labor rather than slaves to the world market 3.
Circumstances changed dramatically, however, with the appointment of John Clarkson as director of the enterprise at Sierra Leone and with the arrival of approximately 1190 liberated AfroAmericans from Nova Scotia in Canada in March 1792. A confused form of administration for the settlement confounded Clarkson almost immediately and resulted in disagreements with settlers over land rights and promises made in Nova Scotia. Clarkson found the company's objectives of expanding trade into the interior to be unrealistic and turned the settlement's attention instead to the cultivation of crops to make it self-sufficient, an “agricultural Mecca” of sorts 4.
Only when problems of rents and distribution of lands to the settlers had been solved would Clarkson be willing to return to the larger task of developing coastal and river trade or of teaching Africans commercial habits which the company considered both morally and ethically sound 5.
While Clarkson exhausted both time and energies trying to supervise the Nova Scotians and fulfill promises made to them before they left Canada, the company's directors in England were focusing on other issues, such as securing a profitable return on their £235,280 investment made in 1791 6. Instead of gaining profits, investors saw their share capital declining steadily. Now they wanted a return on their investinent in the form of either cash crops or extended linkages to trading systems into the interior. To achieve any of these objectives, Clarkson needed assistants who would help him control the Nova Scotians. The company, however, sent estate managers, most of whom had obtained experience operating plantations or business ventures in the Caribbean 7. In August 1792 Clarkson became governor and would soon be assisted by William Dawes, who had been a low-ranking officer of marines at Botany Bay, and Zachary Macaulay, who combined a commercial acumen learned in Jamaica with devotion to the anti-slave trade zeal of the company's directors 8. With such disparate leadership, the company's venture appeared to be increasingly at risk.
Adding to the difficulties which resulted from conflicting objectives between Clarkson and the company directors were other problems which continued beyond the company's ability to control. The presence of slave traders within a few miles of the company's settlement at Freetown in 1792 continued to thwart the company's vision of legitimate commerce and its future dominance in that trade 9. In the main branch of the Sierra Leone River was John Tilley's factory on Bance Island. Bance had only one small settlement, Adam's town, a few houses, and a cemetery. This was the principal center of slaving activity above Freetown on the river. Any slaver visiting its factory or leaving it would necessarily pass Freetown on its way to the sea, tempting Nova Scotians to join trades known to be successful on the coast 10.
Closer to Freetown was a prosperous French-operated factory on Gambia Island which was administered by a Dr. Renaud 11. Both Renaud and Tilley were connected to larger trading concerns in Britain or France, and both enjoyed the protection of trade which these connections guaranteed. Had the Nova Scotians taken willingly to farming or local productions, the company's problems with the settlers and with Tilley and Renaud might have been minimal. That was not, however, to be the case; instead, settlers saw their success more securely tied to the river's commerce and to trade elsewhere along the coast 12. Consequently, the company found it increasingly difficult to keep watch over its Nova Scotian charges and to generate foodstuffs and cash crops sufficient to make the settlement self-sustaining 13.
William Dawes, and indirectly his deputy Zachary Macaulay, were directed to revitalize the settlement and return the company to its former purpose in coastal commerce, to sell wholesale goods to local traders, to produce cash crops which would replace slave trading as the principal avenue of capital accumulation for both settlers and local Africans, and to make the settlement self-sufficient. This new turn effectively revived the expansionist vision of the company and brought it into potential conflict with other forces on the coast. Dawes attempted to extend plantation agriculture on Bullom Shore and on islands in the Sierra Leone estuary, following the lead of slavetraders who were actively growing cotton, sugar cane, tobacco, and rice on several of the neighboring islands 14.
Wholesaling manufactures to neighboring traders was a good idea, if trade goods could be obtained. Rumors of possible warfare between Britain and revolutionary France circulated increasingly, and with fewer American vessels visiting the coast, supplies of trade goods became scarce. Increasingly the company found it necessary to spend much of its trade capital to purchase rice and cattle, necessities which kept the settlement alive and under control. The prospects of expanding trade connections into the African interior brightened, however, with the Houghton report to the African Association in 1792, and with the arrival in Freetown of an Islamic teacher from Port Loko, who invited the company to establish commercial contact with interior states along international paths which crossed his territory 15.
The declaration of war against Britain by France on February 1st, 1793 increased the strains then present at Sierra Leone 16. John Clarkson had anticipated such a war and had written to the Marquis de Lafayette in July 1792, asking him to use his influence to assure neutrality for the Sierra Leone Company should war commence 17. Indeed, the two Clarksons, John and his brother Thomas, were recognized as friendly to the French revolution and its ideas 18. British and French trade along the west coast shrank late in 1792, with shippers reluctant to risk the loss of a cargo to privateers who would look for an excuse to seize vessels as booty of war 19. For the moment Freetown was secure, but declining trade goods meant that the settlement would not be resupplied and might need to expend additional capital goods to maintain the settlement. Cattle sources from the Gambia River were now gone as well 20.
The outbreak of the war early in 1793 also produced stresses on neighboring slave traders, who rejected neutrality, seeking instead to use the war as an opportunity for expansion. Dr. Renaud on Gambia Island understood well his precarious position in the Sierra Leone River, surrounded as he was by British subjects, some of whom, like John Tilley, had reason to settle old scores with him 21. Renaud appealed to Governor Dawes for company protection, claiming a neutral stand in the Franco-British war. Indeed, the company looked closely at Gambia Island as an area for potential purchase 22. While Tilley was reluctant to raid Renaud's property in the river, others were not so disinclined. In June 1793 a British privateer seized one of Renaud's vessels and sold Renaud's cargo and several of his slaves and grumettas (free black laborers) at Bance Island. Renaud's war canoes seized the privateer once he left Bance, took him to Gambia Island, and sent word to Freetown to have the company mediate his dispute with Tilley and the privateer. Tilley meanwhile prepared to attack Gambia. Renaud now proposed to place his factory under Sierra Leone Company custody and to give up slavetrading altogether in return for company protection 23. Dawes replied that the company would not risk its neutrality in the larger Franco-British war by taking possession of French property, and instead asked that both the company and Renaud reaffirm their neutralities in the war by signing an agreement to that effect 24.
Tilley claimed no such neutrality, however, and his struggle with Renaud continued to fester. By late July both Tilley and Renaud, or their agents, reported regularly to Dawes and Deputy Governor Macaulay the despicable activities of the other, always requesting that the company take sides in their continuing competition for economic preeminence 25. Renaud escalated his contest with Tilley in August by seizing a British slave ship, then releasing it to the company as a gesture of goodwill, while at the same time threatening to destroy Bance Island. Tilley now demanded that the company join him for a joint strike against Gambia; the company refused 26. In September, Macaulay met with Renaud, who proposed to abandon the Sierra Leone River within six weeks and to give Gambia Island to the company. Macaulay listened to the particulars of the dispute, but resolved nothing 27.
The failure by either Dawes or Macaulay to resolve the continuing dispute between Tilley and Renaud was only partially due to the company's desire to remain neutral in the Franco-British war of 1793. Another dimension to the Tilley-Renaud-Company discussion, however, was the possibility of a new source of cattle and rice which might bypass Tilley and his subfactor at Port Loko as principal providers of these supplies for the settlement. In November 1792 an Islamic teacher from Port Loko had visited Freetown and described the potential of a future international path between the Fula empire and Freetown via Port Loko and the Scarcies 28. In September 1793 a headman from Port Loko visited Renaud's factory at Gambia and while there indicated his interest in sending one or more of his own children to Freetown for an education and reported that the ruler of the Fula empire in the Futa Jalon was interested in abolishing the slave trade. The headman of Port Loko further invited the company to open its own factory in his town, a move which would open new markets for his own goods and free him from reliance on Tilley's agent, who operated a factory there 29. For the company, this new suggestion placed again on its agenda its ultimate objective of expanding trade into neighboring rivers and into linkages with interior systems. To Tilley, this proposal elevated the stakes considerably in his struggle with Renaud, raising the possibility that his share of trade between the settlement and the interior might be diminished significantly. Tilley was now on the defensive.
By September 1793 Zachary Macaulay's vision of an expanded commercial network connecting the company and its agents to trade in coastal rivers, hinterland towns, and perhaps at Timbo or farther beyond, was becoming formalized at Freetown. Since his arrival at the settlement, Macaulay had taken charge of providing the Afro-American settlers with food and supplies, often at inflated prices and to his considerable profit, and had been willing to trade with slavetraders to succeed in this task. His successes bothered Maria Falconbridge, who described Macaulay as being too friendly with slavetraders, a price she considered too costly for company success along the coast 30. Macaulay's plan was multifaceted. He planned to position company agents at factories at Port Loko and in the Rio Pongo farther to the north, to resolve long lasting differences between Iles de Los slavetraders and the settlement, and to send the company's best negotiator directly to the Fula Empire to arrange an agreement between the company and distant suppliers of rice and cattle 31.
The first of these objectives, to establish factories at Port Loko and in the Rio Pongo, was already in the planning stages before the end of 1793. Port Loko was along an insecure path between Freetown and Timbo which crossed the territory of several groups who might oppose an international path, thus making it necessary for armed Fula warriors to escort traders and their cargoes to the coast. A factory at Port Loko also would endanger Tilley's commerce in the settlement's hinterland and might interfere with Mandingo-Mandinka trade in salt and kola between Moria and interior trading systems 32. Slave rebellions along the Futa/Scarcies corridor had disturbed the area not long before, and Fula as well as Morian elites might wonder about the impact of an international path on the uneasy calm which had come to the area 33. The Mande state of Moria, with its capital at Forékariah, had consolidated its influence in the Melakori and Forékariah rivers a few years earlier, and political and commercial elites there were beginning to consider the company and its settlement at Freetown as an opportunity for trade in rice, hides, and cattle and perhaps also as an adversary in trade north of the British Settlement 34.
Not far from Moria and its Susu sister state of Sumbuya were the Iles de Los, which had long served as important stations for European shippers in need of supplies, cargo, repair, or convalescence. The arrival of the Sierra Leone Company in 1791, as a strong advocate of the anti-slave trade, produced a dilemma of sorts for H. Jackson and Richard Horrock who were the principal slave traders resident on the islands. Despite the obvious contradictions of company commerce with slavers, the company needed Jackson and Horrock and other slavers to provide them with goods from American shippers frequenting the coast and with rice and cattle that often came from open paths at the Rio Pongo and the Rio Nunez 35. John Ormond, the most powerful and notorious slave trader in the Rio Pongo, was one of many slave traders who visited the islands often, and it was while convalescing on these islands in 1791 that Ormond had died 36. His death and a revolt by a large number of his slaves thrust the Rio Pongo into political and economic confusion, and trade in the Rio Pongo did not recover for nearly two years.
John Clarkson's policy that any slave or grumetta who sought the sanctuary of Freetown from his owner would be given company protection was a major source of conflict between the Iles de Los traders and the settlement 37. This policy had caused problems for the company with many traders, chiefs, and even ship captains along the coast, but the most serious incident occurred in August 1793, when five grumettas attached to Horrock and Jackson, after delivering trade goods to Freetown, refused to return to the Iles de Los and requested sanctuary from the company 38. Later the grumettas explained that they had heard that Horrock was planning to retire because of the depressed market which resulted from the Franco-British way and that he was planning to sell them at an early opportunity to an America-bound slaver 39. Both Horrock and Jackson demanded the return of their grumettas, and Macaulay, to whom responsibility fell for resolution of this dispute, complained bitterly of the dilemma that Clarkson's policy had created for the company 40. Macaulay needed the support and friendship of slavers and slave shippers, not anxiety that their property might seek asylum in the settlement. Macaulay also needed the goodwill of chiefs to the north of Freetown, chiefs who only recently had suppressed slave rebellions 41. Hoffock's death in 1793 did nothing to resolve the problem, and the asylum issue, while anathema to the success of the company, continued to plague the company and the colony of Sierra Leone for years to come 42.
The other part of Macaulay's plan was to establish a factory in the Rio Pongo and to send his best negotiator to Timbo in the Futa Jalon 43. The Rio Pongo and the Rio Nunez to the north of it were centers of coastal trade to more than a dozen American, European, Eurafrican and African traders located in the grasslands above the mangrove shorelines. These centers of trade, located at points where captains could anchor their vessels, served as terminals of long-distance trade between the Futa Jalon and the coast. Goods which came coastward from the interior included rice, hides, ivory, gum, some gold, and of course the bearers of these goods, the surplus slaves who would not be needed on the return trip into the interior. The paths connecting the Rio Pongo to the interior commenced at Labé to the north and Timbo to the south, and came together into a single path not too distant from the coast itself 44. The southern path was less secure than the northern one, partly because of the slave rebellions which had characterized the Futa/Scarcies corridor after mid-century. The northern path was outside Timbo control. The principal traders in the Rio Pongo were the descendants of mixed Portuguese and Baga parentage, a few Susu traders who took advantage of the presence of Europeans to provision slavers with rice and supplies needed in the middle passage, and European or American traders and their offspring who dominated commerce in the river. John Ormond had been one of this group before his death in 1791, acting as a chief in his own right and serving as the Fula-sanctioned merchant in the river. Ormond had maintained a representative at Timbo to look after his interest in the interior and to keep him attuned to political changes which would affect political and commercial conditions on the coast.
The Rio Nunez was clearly the more secure trading area for Europeans, partly because of the easy and wide estuary, and the absence of reefs or sandbars that could surprise the unwary ship captain 46. Most captains hired a pilot at the Iles de Los to guide them into the river and to the spot nearly thirty miles upstream where the grasslands began, where large numbers of Fula came with goods to trade, and where several long-established Europeans and Eurafricans maintained factories. One could expect to find goods waiting to be bought and a ready market for any goods brought for sale. One could also expect hospitality, a chance to walk from factory to factory, visiting and catching up on news of the coast. The food and drink were good, and if one avoided the rainy season, the healthiness of the air was wonderful 47. Indeed, one of the factories would be called "Bel-aire."
The African landlords who owned the land here, the Nalus and the Landumans, were poorly organized to regulate either trade or the Europeans or to oppose the Fula traders who came by the hundreds into their territories 48. The Fula considered the paths connecting factories to the interior as belonging to them and the landlords on the coast as lowly, as-yet-unconverted, subjects 49. As in the Pongo, the relationship of the Fula to coastal rulers was that of ruler to subject, or upper to lower, and that relationship would not change for the next half-century.
Sierra Leone Company interest in passing through Nunez factories on their way into the Futa Jalon early in the 1794 produced a dilemma for Nunez traders The quantity of trade goods available for sale to Fula caravans at coastal factories had fallen drastically in consequence of the Franco-British war, and for a time in 1793 Fula caravans dwindled during a period of political turmoil in the interior. By early 1794, however, Fula caravans arrived in large numbers with rice, ivory, and hides. The market for slaves had declined significantly as well, with the reduced visits by French and British traders and with the decision by France to declare slavery illegal in French territory 50. Prices for slaves plummeted, and the large quantities of rice coming coastward had few buyers, for rice comprised the principal food provided to slaves while aboard ship or during the middle passage 51. The company might be purchasing rice and cattle for its own consumption, but traders in the Nunez were uncertain. Macaulay was proposing an expedition through the Nunez, not a factory or company agent to be stationed there. The proposed expedition also presented an opportunity for Nunez traders to send agents to Labé and Timbo to watch the activities of the company and report back to their superiors in the Nunez what the company was planning to do there. David Lawrence, a Eurafrican factor at Kissassi on the Nunez, provided two guides to the expedition, and Mr. Fortune of Boké and James Walker of Walkaria (Kocundy) likewise offered the services of loyal employees to assist the expedition and keep them apprised of events in the interior 52.
Whether the Fula had actually invited the company to come to Timbo is unclear from the sources. Perhaps events just transpired and the company assumed that there had actually been an invitation tendered. In any case, Dawes and Macaulay carefully planned the expedition and executed it between January and June in 1794. The leader of the expedition would be James