Africa in 1913–Lagos, Nigeria

18-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Wednesday, October 22, 1913:

10/20 – 10/24: It’s been so rainy and dreary this week that I begin to feel awful grouchy. I certainly am under the weather these days. Any way October never was a favorite month of mine. I don’t have much to write about for her.

Lagos, Nigeria (Source: A Woman's Winter in Africa, 1913)

Lagos, Nigeria (Source: A Woman’s Winter in Africa, 1913)

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

This is the third of five days that Grandma combined into one diary entry.  Sometimes her world seems so small. In the nearly three  years that I’ve been posting the diary, she seldom traveled more than five miles from her home—and the longest trip she took was a train trip which took her about 15 miles so that she could visit relatives who lived  in the next county.

The world was a much bigger place a hundred years ago for a few fortunate women. For example,  Charlotte Cameron was a wealthy, English woman who traveled to interesting places and wrote books about her adventures   In 1913 she published A Woman’s Winter in Africa: A 26,000 Mile Journey.

Mrs. Cameron went around the entire circumference of Africa. She visited many port cities—and from time to time took train trips inland.

charlotte.cameron

In 1913, the colonial era was at its peak in Africa; and Mrs. Cameron visited Europeans who worked at many of the colonial outposts. She also sought to understand African culture—and sometimes framed things differently than we would today.

I was surprised how modern some of the areas were. Here’s a few excerpts from the chapter on her visit to Lagos, Nigeria:

Lagos is extremely modern,  and am enjoying all the advantages of an up-to-date town. In 1898 electric light was introduced.

The European population consists of some 572 males and 36 females, while the natives number from 70,000 to 80,000. As the town is situated only five degrees north of the Equator, the heat may be imagined. Climatically it is very moist, with much fever, and English ladies as a rule do not remain more than six months or a year.

The town of Lagos covers over two square miles, and there are innumerable streets, especially in the crowed native town. Never shall I forget visiting the bazaars. Medleys of colour greet the eye on every side. Old and young, rich and poor, are struggling for existence—a colony of tribes, speaking a multitude of languages and dialects.

Through the labyrinthine windings I strolled. Most of the buildings are in corrugated iron, but some of bamboo, with palm-thatched roofs, while reed curtains and matting exclude the inquisitive sun and prevent it damaging the wards. Yams find constant purchases, and calabashes are popular. Bananas, oranges, mangos, avocado pears, coconuts, sweet potatoes, cassavas, and plantains disappear like magic.

We feel like we have viewed this kaleidoscope sufficiently for one morning, and take our places in the motor-car which has had a long wait. On arrival at Government House, luncheon is served. In the cool and shady dining-room with the punkah’s soft and silent breeze and our English comforts, we feel the contrast with the mobs we have just left behind.

Lagos.1

27 Responses

  1. It is always fascinating to compare time periods, and how much more we have now (material things for sure, but also so many more opportunities). To see the way the world is now is almost taken for granted at times…instead of the real opportunity presented to us all. Great post :-)

  2. What a great contrast to Helena’s world.

  3. Poor Grandma; hopefully she’ll feel better once October is gone! Maybe she’ll get excited about holiday preparations.

    • That’s one thing about working with a diary–there definitely are variations from week to week and month to month in how Grandma was feeling and in how excited (or not excited she was) about what she was doing.

  4. Pretentious little B that Mrs. Cameron! But I guess that is how it was back then and for some still today…

  5. Two of my favourite movies was ‘Room With A View’ and ‘Out Of Africa’ both stories about women abroad. Where we can travel to in a book is the best part of reading, I think.

  6. That must have been quite an experience for Ms. Cameron. She speaks of the cool and shady dining room, yet there would not have been air conditioning, as we would think of cool. I imagine it was still fairly warm so close to the equator.

    • She wrote about “the punkah’s soft and silent breeze.”

      Punkah was a new word for me. According to the dictionary it means “a large cloth fan on a frame suspended from the ceiling, moved backward and forward by pulling on a cord.” So even though it was hot, at least there was a breeze.

  7. I wonder if Helena liked to read travel books.

    • I’ve wondered about that, too. Based on articles and books I’ve seen from back then, there seemed to be a lot of interest in learning about far away places.

  8. This is so interesting, traveling in those days were a real journey isn’t it?
    I love visiting other countries and cultures too!!! :-)

  9. I had done some research on another wealthy English lady who traveled the world in the 20s & 30s. I bet it was fascinating!

  10. I like what you did with this. It makes clear how different the world is for those who travel (and how travel gives a person something new to say about her view of the world…)

  11. Amazing look at a period when the Colonial Era was about to end – who knew? Makes me wonder what in our lives is about to change forever.

  12. Ironically, Mrs. Cameron was not a wealthy Englishwoman, but was raised a fisherman’s daughter in Rhode Island. If you know that her persona was pure fiction, it definitely puts a different spin on the story!

    • Really?. . . Did her publisher create the myth that she was an Englishwoman? I’d love to know more about the story behind the story.

      • Charlotte Cameron was a cousin of mine who I discovered during the course of researching the family tree and is without a doubt my best genealogical story ever!
        Charlotte, known as Lottie to her friends and family, was born in Portsmouth, RI in 1869 to Jacob Almy and Frances Sisson. Jacob was a fisherman who had sailed all over the world before settling back in Rhode Island, according to his obituary. Charlotte’s parents divorced when she was around six or seven. Charlotte and her mother then lived with her grandparents.
        In Dec 1893, Charlotte was in Scotland, from a letter to her grandfather. In Jan 1894, she married a man named John W. Sandison in Manhattan. This is where the story gets interesting. To the best that I can discover, this was the same John W. Sandison who was known as the “Wheat King of Manitoba”, a man beset by scandal. He had apparently leveraged all that he owned, had a disastrous crop and then went back to his home of Scotland to raise funds. Some shady business ensued, and after being warned by a friend that Scotland Yard was on his trail, JWS disappeared from Manitoba in the Spring of 1893, leaving his wife and family behind. He arrived in NYC from Le Havre on 1 Jan 1894 (not sure where he was before France, but Scotland certainly would not have been out of the question) and there married Charlotte. I have never found any reference in the family to her marriage, or any acknowledgment of her new married name. In the meantime, no one knew where JWS was, although there were rumors that he had left his wife and family for either a hired girl or a second wife!
        Fast forward a year to Feb 1895 and there are newspaper articles referring to Charlotte as Mrs. Lottie Cameron, a name that she continued to use throughout her life. I have seen several biographical references to her purported husband: Lord Donald Cameron, Maj. Frederick Cameron, etc. but have never found a single piece of supporting evidence that he ever was born/married/died/was a passenger on a ship, etc. I don’t have any other info about Charlotte’s whereabouts until 1899 when she visited her family again in RI.
        In Apr 1901 she married a man by the name of Auguste Ernest George Jacquemard de Landresse (alias, the–self-styled– Compte de Landresse). This fact has been used to deduce that Donald Cameron must have died before 1901. However….this was also the same time that John W. Sandison reappeared and reunited with his family. Coincidence? I will probably never know but it is certainly very interesting. Possibly an alias that he/they were using? I have never found any record of a divorce for John and Charlotte, and in fact this union has never been publicly acknowledged anywhere, as far as I know.
        Auguste was apparently not all that he led Charlotte to believe. He deserted her in 1903 and she filed for divorce in 1905, around the same time that Auguste was named as a respondent in another divorce trial. During the trial, it was revealed that Auguste was a deserter from the French Army, may or may not have stolen an officer’s watch, may or may not have spent time in an Algerian prison, tried to extort money from the wronged husband, wrote bad checks to the woman, etc. Things must have gotten really ugly, because at one point Auguste had Charlotte arrested for breaking into his flat and stealing letters which I’m sure she considered evidence. He in turn threatened to shoot her and throw acid in her face.
        So Charlotte was also not as she may have appeared. I don’t know who exactly cultivated her public persona, whether it her editor or herself. When she married Auguste, she listed her birthplace as “Portsmouth”, which of course was true, but also misleading, since she left out the part about Rhode Island. She also named her father as Jacob Wales-Almy (not sure about the “Wales”. It was his mother’s maiden name, but have never seen it used for him) and said that he was a “Captain in the Royal Navy”. I have no doubt that she was taking advantage of the similarity of her name to Princess Charlotte of Wales.
        And as great of a story as it is, I probably have more questions now than when I started!

        • Wow, this story is absolutely amazing and reads almost like a novel. Charlotte sure had an interesting (though sometimes difficult) life. I took her book back to the library, but this makes me want to get it out again and reread it using a different lens now that I know her true story.

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