University of Wisconsin Digital Collections
Link to University of Wisconsin Digital Collections
Link to University of Wisconsin Digital Collections
Africa Focus

Page View

Hair, P. E. H. (Paul Edward Hedley); Barbot, Jean, 1655-1712 / Barbot's West African vocabularies of c. 1680

Barbot's West African vocabularies,   pp. 1-15

Page 5

Barbot did not simply copy vocabularies handed to him by others. Yet there
one argument in favour of an unknown collector. Not only did Barbot collect
a vocabulary of the Fula      language but    he acquired a certain amount
information about the Fula people. The Fula lived far inland, it is unlikely
that any resident groups were to be found on the coast, and Fula slaves were
uncommon. But the French company did have officers who had been up-country
had contacted the Fula. There can be no doubt that Barbot gained information
about the Fula from a French informant, and thus the possibility that the
Fula vocabulary was collected by Barbot, not directly from an African, but
from a Frenchman, cannot be easily dismissed. This argument does not apply
with the same force to the Wolof vocabulary, since the Jolof lived on the
coast and Barbot is known to have been in contact with individual Wolof
speakers. Nevertheless it cannot be ruled out that Barbot also gained this
vocabulary from a Frenchman, possibly even the same Frenchman. However, a
compromise viewpoint, indicating perhaps the most likely procedure, is that
Barbot contacted French officers who provided him with African informants.
These may have been their own interpreters, in which case it may well have
been a single African who spoke Wolof and Fula, command of both languages
being not unlikely in a local agent of the French.
In the case of the Ewe vocabulary, we have even wider scope for
speculation about its mode of collection. Although Barbot supplied an account
of Whydah, at no point in his two texts did he actually refer to his having
visited there (but we know he did, from the marking on a map of the course
his ship). He recorded the presence at Whydah of a handful of Frenchmen,
agents of a French company, together with one missionary. Thus he may have
collected the vocabulary either from or through one of these Frenchmen, or
else directly from an African, and if the latter, either ashore or aboard
We do not have the original form of any of the vocabularies. The Gold
Coast vocabulary is first found in a clean copy of Barbot's voyage journal,
prepared for presentation to his employers. But it must have been copied
this, from an original draft of the journal, if not directly from notes taken
on the voyage; and it may have been copied twice, first from the notes into
the rough journal and then again into the clean copy. The later vocabularies
may similarly have found their way into a clean copy of a journal, but this
is not extant, and they now first appear instead in Barbot's French account,
into which they must have been copied either from the clean copy or, if Barbot
was exercising care - which is doubtful - from his original notes. Thus the
vocabularies as we find them, even in the earlier of Barbot's extant writings,
" Barbot was certainly willing to collect material orally from Africans.
Apart from the Gold
Coast vocabulary, he stated that he had collected a vocabulary at River Sess
which he
subsequently lost, and at this point on the coast there were no resident
Europeans from whom he
could have collected a written vocabulary or used as an oral informant. However,
a further
logical possibility needs to be considered, that the three vocabularies were
not in fact
collected on Barbot's second voyage but were supplied to him, therefore perhaps
in writing, after
his return to France, by acquaintances within the French company for which
he worked, who had
themselves collected them while serving in Africa. Barbot knew, for instance,
a M. Mariage who
it seems had served both in Senegal and at Allada, an Ewe-speaking district
neighbouring Whydah.
While this alternative mode of collection cannot be ruled out there is no
evidence to support it
and it seems very unlikely.



Go up to Top of Page