It was on the night of the 11th August 1914, when news of a great war in Europe reached us at Mbua (a town in the South Cameroons, about nine weeks or more from Duala, (or Kribbi) and that preparations were being made between the allied forces of the British and French for a war with the Germans in the Cameroons. Being a native of Cape Coast and a British subject employed in an English factory, it occurred to me that I would fare badly at the hands of either the German soldiers or the natives should this news be authentic. The inevitable trend of events was evident if war really broke out, the natives being mostly cannibals, would attack all aliens, irrespective of race or colour and eat their flesh before any assistance from the German Government could be obtained. My agent was stationed at Njassi, four days from Mbua, and until I heard from him, my sole duty was to remain at my place. There was hardly any signs of agitation noticeable in Mbua between the 12th and 14th August, but on the 15th August, but on the 15th the natives could be seen running hither and thither, with spears in their hands, removing their belongings to the bush, mysteriously disappearing and returning in a similar manner, with a seeming stern resolve to finally eradicate all foreigners. These wild ignorant people had long waited for this with wariness, and nothing could afford them a better chance than such an event. In a short time the whole country was thrown into a state of commotion so that by the 18th instant no woman or child could be seen in the town of Mbua except the men who appear and disappear concocting dangerous schemes, with surprising secrecy. Besides myself in Mbua there were the following clerks: two Kwitta clerks with 26 yard boys, five Cameroon native clerks with 30 yard boys and two Gabon clerks with 6 yard boys. I had ten yard boys. All these people were concerned with the safety of their stores and preparing some means of defence, should the natives attack us. On the 20th August I received a note from my boss intimating that he had been arrested by the German authorities, and his stores commandeered and, that sooner or later, a similar treatment would be meted out to me, so I closed up my accounts, and gave up myself to contemplation of the future. The natives in the meantime, were blackmailing and marauding traders in the outlying villages, but hesitated to take any other important steps. The reason assigned to this, apparently was they were waiting till the German forces had passed to meet the French troops, who were proceeding from Molando Nola etc. News reached us of the doings of the natives at Ndelele, Bisom, Deligoni etc, and it made the heart quail to see thousands of loads of goods, stores, etc and several traders passing down to Dume station to seek refuge. One by one my boys deserted me, until by the 23rd August only three remained with me, ultimately even these three boys would not remain in the yard, and I was left alone with the arduous task of looking after the factory which contained goods to the amount of over £2000. Grim despair stared me in the face, and I lost my equilibrium for want of sleep. During the day, I took snatches of sleep, and at nights I kept watch and took precaution to safe guard myself against an attack from the natives. Several petty stores in Mbua were plundered by the natives; on the 26th August the German troops passed. An appeal for protection was made by all the traders to the German officers, but they were told to take care of themselves. The natives fled to the bush on the arrival of the German troops, and the German officers incensed at this action, ordered their houses to be burnt down, and their cattle seized. Next day the troops proceeded on their way. Nothing of importance happened to break the tension that ensued between the 26th and 28th but on the 30th but on the 30th on a dark and chilly night, I was awakened from a reverie by a slight noise at the back of the store. Being prepared for any emergency of the kind I took a large cudgel and cautiously walked to the back of the house whence the sound proceeded. As I anticipated, a man was strenuously working to force an entrance into the store. Near him lay a battle axe and other dangerous implements, and at the sight of me, he rose and taking a heavy stone flung it at me. It hit me forcibly on the knee, and inflicted a most excruciating pain, suppressing a groan I sprang at him, and dealt him a heavy blow with my cudgel. He staggered back but closed up with me again. I threw away the cudgel and in a moment we were engaged in a deadly contest. Nothing could be more horrible than the deadly means with which he sought to overcome me. He was a heavy man but by no means a good fighter. He hit out viciously, desperately but aimlessly, while I concentrated every effort to bring him to the ground. We swayed together, to and fro, locked in a tight embrace, but with an ability, which I afterwards failed to conceive, I wrenched myself from him and dealt him a blow right above the abdomen. With a loud yell he turned and fled. Pursuit was useless, so gathering up his tools, I took them to the house and repaired the damage which he had done to my store. Since then I was wont to be more vigilant than ever. Friends far and near, urged upon me to escape, giving as their reasons, that I was a British subject and working for an English firm. At first, I seriously considered their advice, but on maturer consideration, I deemed it imprudent to go away and leave the store unguarded. So I determined to stay through thick and thin. I may here cite one remarkable letter which I received in connection with this matter. It ran thus:- ‘Don’t be a silly ass and say your sense of duty forces you to stay and protect your store. You know how unreasonable the Germans are, and what would be your fate, should you fall into their hands. Your only chance lies in escaping, and I believe the greatest crime one can commit against nature is to be obstinate and refuse a chance in the face of a disaster. You are committing that offence now, and your guardian angel may be looking down upon you with pity and contempt for your act of folly. For goodness sake go, and may luck attend you.' To this and other subsequent letters I briefly replied thanking the writers for their advice and stating that I considered it injudicious to act upon them. One by one all the traders removed from Mbua, so that by the end of August only three important stores remained, including mine. About the 11th September, I received another note from my boss intimating that he was being sent down to Ajoa,11th September, I received another note from my boss intimating that he was being sent down to Ajoa, as a prisoner of war, by the Germans, and that I should follow at once. I dare not go, without the sanction of the German Government and I wrote to say so. On the 22nd September, however, a German official with three soldiers arrived to commandeer my store. This official first asked for the key of the safe which I handed to him. When I called his attention to the goods in the store, he said the best thing he could think of was to set fire to the goods, and put me inside to burn with them. ‘Dem be shit cargo, and I no get no time for count dem!’ he said, and then with a vehemence which alarmed me, this great German cursed me, the English, and everything connected with the English, and emphasised his words by kicking the breakable articles in the store. This caused me to giggle, but unfortunately he looked up and saw me in this act, and after that he administered heavy blows and kicks to me, he ordered the soldiers to bind me up, and keep me in custody. I soon found myself in the hands of these unscrupulous soldiers, whose cruelty was proverbial throughout South Cameroons. All day they goaded me to pain and anger. They were indeed painfully jocular; they tickled me, pelted at me with stones, ordered me to lick the dirty soles of their boots, and to do all sorts of un-nameable things. The officer stood by in calm indifference to my sufferings; my mute anger grew till I felt I must choke; an innocent person kept in captivity for the populace to stare at, might feel as I felt. These torments continued all day and the least reluctance on my part to comply with their requests was rewarded with whips and kicks. In addition to this, the cord with which I was bound gnawed into my flesh and inflicted a pain beyond description. I cried aloud in my agony for forbearance and the louder I cried out the more the soldiers jeered at me. Gradually I lost consciousness, and then all became still blackness. When I recovered consciousness, the German officer was bending over me, and I was unbound. My hands were very much swollen; this officer, after a short reproof full of venomous invectives handed me a passport to Ajoa, and ordered me to provision myself for the journey, I made up two loads and that very night I left Mbua with my boys. Great was my thankfulness to God for my wonderful deliverance from a torturing death, and from the hands of these wicked people, and as I repeated the ‘magnificat’ the only song of thankfulness that I could think of at the moment I said my last farewell to Mbua.
(Online publication May 19 2011)
with annotations by Stephanie Newell
1 A full text of the writings of J. G. Mullen in the Gold Coast Leader is available in the on-line version of this issue of Africa. The full text includes ‘My sojourn in the Cameroons during the peaceful days: half hour's talk with Billy’ (1919), the ‘prequel’ referred to in my introduction. The original grammar, spelling and layout have been preserved throughout the full text and this extract; sic has not been used. Many of the spelling errors would have been introduced after the submission of the manuscript: they are consistent with the efforts of a typesetter to decipher handwriting.