A captured and liberated negro, tried for the murder and cannibalism of Zongobia, another captured negro slave, at Charlotte-town, Sierra Leone, July 1819
THE existence of anthropophagi, or man-eaters, has in many instances been disputed, and in some flatly denied; but, revolting as is the custom, and pitiable as are the people among whom the practice prevails, there are instances upon record to which it would be scepticism itself to refuse credence (supported as they are by the most respectable authorities), and we have here to present the particulars of a most decided instance of cannibalism, which were developed in the trial of a captured negro slave, in the British settlement at Sierra Leone, before the chief justice of the colony and a jury of residents, the foreman of which was a white man, the others coloured men of the settlement.
The trial took place in July, 1819, when Pei, a captured and liberated negro, was indicted for the murder of Zongobia, another captured negro, at Charlotte-town, in the colony of Sierra Leone, on the 5th of January, by severing his head from his body with a sharp instrument made of a piece of iron hoop.
Previously to the commencement of this trial, much difficulty was experienced in procuring adequate means of interpretation between the court and prisoner; and, at length, when a person was found capable of conversing with the prisoner in his language, a second interpreter was required to render the bad English of this first interpreter intelligible.
The first object of the interpretation was, to inform the prisoner of his arraignment, and to instruct him how to plead; which being accomplished, an endeavour was made to apprise him of his right to challenge the jurors, and of the proper mode of exercising that right; but upon the first option of challenge being put to him, in swearing the foreman of the jury, an answer was returned, which threw the whole court into an involuntary burst of laughter, at the same time that it produced a strong and universal sensation of horror. When the prisoner was told to look upon that man, and say if he liked to be tried by him, the answer was interpreted, given in a tone of astonishment by the English interpreter, was -- "He say, he like him too much; if he catch him, he eat him." After this answer, it was thought best, in tenderness to the prisoner, to go through the remaining forms, without any further reference to him.
The particulars of this horrid transaction, as detailed in evidence, were as follows; Hyena, an inferior overseer of captured negroes, at Charlotte-town, employed to superintend the deceased and his countrymen, because he could speak their language, having missed the deceased, Zongobia, at ration time, reported his absence to his superior, who ordered search to be made in the bush. Shortly after, he saw a man coming out of the bush with a canvas bag, which he attempted to shift away, as if to put it out of sight. He immediately questioned the man, whom he found to be one Quia Pei, of Zongobia's nation, and insisted on seeing the bag and its contents. The man reluctantly opened the bag, which he said contained some meat: on inspection, he discovered pieces of human flesh. The man, Quia Pei, was immediately secured, but he died in prison while awaiting his trial.
William Ashford, principal native superintendent at Charlottetown, stated, that on being informed by the last witness that Zongobia was missed, he had given orders to search for him; shortly after he was informed of the detention of Quia Pei, and came to the place where he saw the bag and its contents; there was part of a human hand, with the thumb, a piece of the shoulder, and lower part of the neck, and some of the intestines. Quia Pei, he understood, avowed the killing of the man Zongobia, and implicated the prisoner Pei as his accomplice in the act.
John Ouseley Kearney, Esq., a magistrate, was resident at Bathurst-town. In the month of January last, he was sent for to inquire into the particulars of the horrid transaction now before the court. The bag, containing the mutilated remains already described, was shown to him. Quia Pei, upon whom it was found, confessed the act, and alleged that the prisoner Pei first suggested it to him, saying, the deceased was fat, and good to eat; both together seized the opportunity of surprising the deceased as he was stooping down in the brook searching for crabs; the prisoner caught the arms of the deceased behind his back, and held him while Quia Pei threw him over: he struggled hard. They were obliged first to cut off his hand, and afterwards they cut off his head: they then proceeded to the horrid process of cooking and eating the flesh, and in this abominable repast it was understood that others also assisted. This statement was given freely and voluntarily by Quia Pei, the man who had since died in prison: the prisoner, Pei, also confessed, but slowly and reluctantly, and not till the other repeatedly accused him and remonstrated with him on the inutility of his denial.
Mr. Kearney made Quia Pei and the prisoner take him to the place where the dreadful deed was perpetrated, and show him the further remains of the deceased. He saw the place where the fire was made, and the bones that had been left, some of them bearing the marks of such persevering voracity, that a thigh bone had been broken for the purpose of extracting the marrow: the head, with the tongue and upper part of the neck, had been left entire and buried. He caused them to be taken up: the face was recognised as Zongobia's. The reason given for the distinction with respect to the head and its contents was, that eating any part of the head was supposed, in the country of these cannibals, to cause madness. They were called the Manni, or Maniani, and were notorious for this practice, for which they were despised by all their neighbours. On Mr. Kearney's asking whether there was any quarrel or any enmity towards the deceased, he was told there was not; and upon some expression of surprise that so great an atrocity should be perpetrated without any provocation, or motive, it was thought, sufficient to explain it by the same motives which induced Mr. Kearney to kill a fat sheep. Quia Pei said, the cause of his having been sold as a slave was, that he had killed and eaten so many men as to render him formidable to the king of his country and to the head men, who made a palaver for him, and had him condemned and sold.
The substance of Mr. Kearney's testimony was interpreted to the prisoner, and he was asked whether he wished to put any questions. He did not ask any question, but denied having participated in the murder, that he had ever confessed it: he was near the place, with his knife and pot, and was called to the feast after the man had been killed. In reference to the charge of holding the hands of Zongobia behind his back, he asked whether a person of his own slight frame was capable of such an exertion? With reference to the charge of having pointed out Zongobia as a fat man and fit to be killed, he denied having given any such suggestion, or having had any part in such conversation or design; he knew, however, that Quia Pei, and the others of his country, had held such talk on board the ship in which they came, and that they had formed a design accordingly, for the opportunity of future execution.
After this special denial of the charge by the prisoner in all its most material parts, it was thought desirable by the Court that the interpreters of the original examination should be called. They confirmed the defence set up by the prisoner, namely, that he had never made any confession of being concerned in the murder of the deceased, although he admitted being present at the eating of his body, having been accidentally passing by at the time the deceased Quia Pei and others were enjoying the banquet, of which they invited him to partake.
The Chief Justice in summing up the evidence observed, that a most barbarous murder had been committed, accompanied with circumstances the most humiliating to human nature, in the undeniable proofs of a practice which was scarcely reconcilable to human possibility. He owned his first impression, on hearing this horrid transaction, in a way that compelled him to believe the fact, was, despair of effecting any moral improvement, or of making any progress in civilization, upon minds so lost and sunk in the lowest extreme of a savage debasement; but, upon more mature reflection, he saw in it only a more striking instance of the depravity of human nature, when abandoned to itself, and destitute of social culture, and of religious instruction. This reflection was the more impressive, because it was matter of undeniable record in history, that the ancestors of the most civilized nations of Europe, even of Britons themselves, now the foremost in every social affection as well as in all moral virtue and in pure religion, were in the general habit of offering human victims to their monstrous conceptions of the Supreme Being; instead, therefore, of deserting as hopeless and disgusting the design of rescuing these rude savages from the depths of barbarism in which they were sunk, this remembrance ought to fill us at once with humility and with confidence; and to incite to a perseverance in the present exertions, till those who are now so abject should be made in all things equal to ourselves.
In order fairly to discharge their duty in determining according to the evidence, whether the prisoner at the bar was guilty or not guilty of the murder, it would be incumbent on the Jury to dismiss all extraneous impressions, arising naturally, and almost necessarily, from the common relations of the horrid transaction, and from the conversation respecting it. They should exclude from their minds all foreign matters, even to the expression uttered by the prisoner, with respect to the foreman of the Jury, when apprised of his right of challenge -- an expression which filled the Court at once with an involuntary burst of laughter, succeeded immediately by a more appropriate sensation of horror. The prisoner, it appeared, was implicated in the charge of having participated in the murder by one Quia Pei, since dead, who had been caught with the mangled fragments of a human body upon him, concealed in a bag, shortly after the disappearance of the unfortunate man upon whom the murder had been perpetrated, named Zongobia. Quia Pei, when observed and interrogated by the native overseer, Hyena, at first attempted to conceal the bag, and then said simply, the contents were pieces of meat; it was, however, ascertained immediately by the thumb, and by other distinctive marks, that the whole was human flesh. This discovery furnished proof so nearly amounting to full conviction against Quia Pei, that denial could scarcely have been of any avail; he therefore, it appeared, confessed the act freely to the superintendent who first examined him. There might have been some inducement in the words of the interpreter, desiring him to confess in order to avoid a palaver, which he might have understood either as, "to save time and trouble," or as "to secure himself from mischief." Quia Pei avowed himself the principal perpetrator of the murder; but charged the prisoner with having suggested it to him, and with having pointed out the deceased, Zongobia, as a fit object for such a design; he also charged the prisoner with having participated with him in the perpetration of the murder, by holding the hands of Zongobia behind his back, while he, Quia Pei, threw him over, and proceeded to disable him by cutting off his hand; after which he cut his throat also, and severed his head from his body. Quia Pei showed the place where the murder was perpetrated, and where the head was buried, which was recognised as bearing the features of Zongobia. The reason given for sparing the head in the horrid voracity exercised on the body, was a belief in Quia Pei's nation that to eat the human head, or any part of it, caused madness. The bones of the body were found in a shocking condition, bare, and some of them broken. Quia Pei was the leading person in all those discoveries, and he alone appeared to have carried off the mangled fragments; for it did not appear that any had been found upon any other. Quia Pei was, therefore, in every respect the leading actor in this atrocious deed, and was proved to be so by undeniable circumstances, as well as by his own confession. That confession implicated the prisoner at the bar, as having suggested the design originally, and as having also assisted in the execution of it; but that confession was not evidence to convict the prisoner, unless confirmed by the assent of the prisoner himself, or by the testimony of other witnesses, or by concurring facts or circumstances of corroboration. It was understood, or rather supposed, that the prisoner had assented in the examinations; but this assent the prisoner denied, and denied also having any concern in the murder. After this derangement of the train of evidence which, it was understood, was to lead to the conviction of the prisoner, the court felt considerable embarrassment. There was not any collateral or corroborative evidence, nor any matter of fact, nor circumstance affecting the prisoner. If the court and the jury could be satisfied of the fact of previous communication and concert in the design on the part of the prisoner, and of his subsequent presence near the place where the murder was perpetrated, so as to be within call, and to have joined on being called, the concurrence would be sufficient to establish the prisoner's guilt. But the answers of the prisoner conveyed a distinct denial of his having held any communication respecting the murderous design, previous to its perpetration, or having known of it, till after it was perpetrated, when he was invited to join in the horrid feast made of the body. It would be for the jury to consider whether the circumstances of previous communication and subsequent presence near the spot at the time when the murder was perpetrated, and junction with the perpetrator or perpetrators, upon being called, had been at first freely admitted, and afterwards artfully retracted by the prisoner. But considering the way in which any knowledge that might have been had of these matters was obtained, it would probably appear too slight a foundation for pronouncing the prisoner guilty.
The jury retired, and after an absence of about half an hour, returned their verdict -- Guilty of assisting.
The Chief Justice informed them that this verdict could not be received; the indictment charged the prisoner, not as assisting, but as the actual perpetrator of the murder. The only verdict, therefore, that the jury could regularly give, or that the court could receive, was, simply, one of guilty or of not guilty.
The jury retired again, and returned in less than half an hour, giving their verdict -- Guilty.
The Chief Justice observed, that on receiving this verdict, it would be incumbent on him, in the ordinary course of his duty, forthwith to pass sentence of death upon the prisoner, in one of the awful forms prescribed by law; but the same statute which enjoined that course of proceeding, gave a power to the judge to postpone the judgment, if he should see sufficient cause. After the opinion that he (the Chief Justice) had expressed of the insufficiency of the evidence, he would act very inconsistently with himself if he did not avail himself of this power: he therefore postponed the judgment.
A statement of the case, with the evidence, and a copy of the indictment, was accordingly soon after placed in the hands of the Governor for the purpose of being sent to England. it was accordingly transmitted by his Excellency to Earl Bathurst, his Majesty's principal Secretary of State for the Colonial Department. Earl Bathurst, in consideration of the circumstances, thought it incumbent on him to recommend Pei to his Royal Highness the Prince Regent, for his Majesty's most gracious pardon. The pardon was received, and the prisoner was, in consequence, liberated without delay.