Erasmus Gower - Embassy to China (1792)
Passage to Teneriffe; to St. Jago. Notices of the Islands.
On the 27th of October , the Lion and Hindustan left Santa Cruz, and steered their course towards Fort Praya, in the island of St. Jago.
They came in sight of Bonavista, one of the Cape de Verde islands, on the first of November; on the 2d,—of the isle of May. The next day the island of St. Jago appeared; and at noon the Lion anchored in Praya Bay, in seven fathoms water. The latitude of the Bay is fourteen degrees fifty-six minutes north, and the longitude twenty-three degrees twenty-nine minutes west. The variation of the compass is twelve degrees forty-eight minutes west. Ships, bound to the southward, generally stop here for fresh provisions. The coast teems with various kinds of fish. At this time, however, the island was in a state of desolation and famine; nor had any one of the Cape de Verde's escaped the calamity. Little or no rain had fallen for three years past; the rivers were dried up; vegetation had ceased; and the cattle perished as well from want as drought. Some inhabitants had prudently migrated; many of those who remained were starved to death.
Upon sandy beach a little to the right of St. Jago, close to the rock, and at the foot of an elevated plain, are tho ruins of a once elegant Romish chapel, built probably, by the grateful piety of a person saved from shipwreck.
The town of Praya, if such it may be called, is situated upon the plain above mentioned. It consists of about an hundred small huts, one story high, built of wood, thinly scattered. It has a fort or battery almost in ruins. The jail was the best building, and next to that the church, at which officiated a mulatto priest.
The governor resides in a small wooden barrack, at the extremity of the plain, commanding a view of the bay and shipping. The ambassador was received by him with due honour and respect; advancing a considerable distance from his house to meet and conduct him thither. But as he had shared in the general wretchedness, occasioned by the long drought and arid winds, he had neither wine nor any other refreshments to offer.
Notwithstanding the general devastation in the vegetable kingdom, a few verdant palm-trees were seen to flourish amidst burning sands. The asclepias gigantina, noticed for its milky, but corrosive juice, was rich in flower. The jatropha curcas, or physic nut-tree, called by the French West-Indians bois immortel, was also flourishing; and in shady vales, some indigo plants, and a few cotton shrubs, were successfully cultivated. The mimosa, or sensitive plant, common about the country, growing to the size of trees, did not appear to languish; and in some parts the annona, or sugar apple, was in perfect verdure.
A tree, which, for size, may be called a phenomenon in vegetation, was discovered in a healthy state, in a vale about & mile and a half from the town of Praya, called by botanists adansonia in English, monkey bread-tree. The natives of St. Jago, call it kabisera; others, baobab. The circumference or girth of the base was fifty-six feet, which soon divided into two vast branches; the one in a perpendicular direction, whose periphery was forty-two feet, the other about twenty-six. Another of the same species stood near it, whose single trunk, girthing only thirty-eight feet, was scarcely noticed.
A small rivulet, distant, inland, about two miles, but which soon falls into a bottom, irrigated some grounds, and rendered them fertile; and also supplied a few of the inhabitants with water, at this calamitous period. Near this spot was planted the maniota, or cassada-tree, whose expressed juice from the root is deadly poison. The root itself is salutary; and so is the sediment deposited from the poisonous juice, being the substance sold in England under the name of tapioca.
The town of St. Jago, formerly the capital, is situated in the bottom of a vale. Not more than six families reside there. The country, then arid, bore the appearance of natural fertility. By the information of a Portuguese, the Isle of Brava, one, of the Cape de Verde's, was a better place for ships to touch at, at any time, for provisions and water, than St. Jago. It had three harbours, but that at Puerto Ferreo, to the southward, was the most commodious for large ships. Captain Sir Erasmus Gower, to whom the like information had priorly been given, recommends to make a trial of them.
The population of all the Cape de Verde Islands, about twenty in number, is estimated at forty-two thousand inhabitants. Of these St. Jago is said to concontain twelve thousand; Bonavista eight thousand; the Isle of May seven thousand; San Nicholas, the most pleasant of the whole, the residence of the bishop of the Cape de Verde's, six thousand; San Autonio four thousand; San Phelippe de Fuogo, remarkable for a volcanic fire issuing constantly from the cone of a mountain in its middle,- four thousand; Brava five-hundred, and in those not specified still fewer.
They had now been at Praya Bay five days, without seeing the Jackal. It was therefore determined to prosecute the voyage without her, and the two ships accordingly set sail from St. Jago on the 8th of November.