Two Trips to Gorilla Land and the Cataracts of the Congo, by Richard F. Burton

Chapter 11.

Mr., Mrs., and Master Gorilla.

The reader will kindly bear in mind, when perusing my notes upon the gorilla, that, as in the case of the Fán cannibalism described by the young French traveller, my knowledge of the anthropoid is confined to the maritime region; moreover, that it is hearsay, fate having prevented my nearer acquaintance with the “ape of contention.”

The discovery must be assigned to Admiral Hanno of Carthage, who, about B. C. 500, first in the historical period slew the Troglodytes, and carried home their spoils.

The next traveller who described the great Troglodytes of equatorial Africa was the well-known Andrew Battel, of Leigh, Essex (1589 to 1600); and his description deserves quoting. “Here (Mayombo) are two kinds of monsters common to these woods. The largest of them is called Pongo in their language, and the other Engeco “(in the older editions “Encêgo” evidently Nchigo, whilst Engeco may have given rise to our “Jocko”). “The Pongo is in all his proportions like a man, except the legs, which have no calves, but are of a gigantic size. Their faces, hands, and ears are without hair; their bodies are covered, but not very thick, with hair of a dunnish colour. When they walk on the ground it is upright, with their hands on the nape of the neck. They sleep in trees, and make a covering over their heads to shelter them from the rain. They eat no flesh, but feed on nuts and other fruits; they cannot speak, nor have they any understanding beyond instinct.

“When the people of the country travel through the woods, they make fires in the night, and in the morning, when they are gone, the Pongos will come and sit round it till it goes out, for they do not possess sagacity enough to lay more wood on. They go in bodies, and kill many negroes who travel in the woods. When elephants happen to come and feed where they are, they will fall on them, and so beat them with their clubbed fists (sticks?) that they are forced to run away roaring. The grown Pongos are never taken alive, owing to their strength, which is so great that ten men cannot hold one of them. The young Pongos hang upon their mother’s belly, with their hands clasped about her. Many of the young ones are taken by means of shooting the mothers with poisoned arrows, and the young ones, hanging to their mothers, are easily taken.”

I have italicized the passages which show that the traditions still preserved on the coast, about the Pongo and the Chimpanzee, date from old. Surely M. du Chaillu does grave injustice to this good old Briton, who was not a literary man, by declaring his stories to be mere travellers’ tales, “untrue of any of the great apes of Africa.” Battel had evidently not seen the animal, and with his negro informants he confounds the gorilla and the “bushman;” yet he possibly alludes to a species which has escaped M. du Chaillu and other modern observers.

Mr. W. Winwood Reade (“Savage Africa,” chap, xix.) has done good service by reprinting the letter of a Bristol trader on the west coast of Africa, first published by Lord Monboddo (“Origin and Progress of Language,” vol. i. p. 281, 1774 to 1792). Here we find distinct mention of three anthropoid apes. The first is the “Impungu” (or pongo?), which walks upright, and is from seven to nine feet high. The second is the “Itsena,” evidently the Njína, Njí, Nguyla, or gorilla; and thirdly is the “Chimpenza,” our Chimpanzee, a word corrupted from the Congoese Kampenzy, including the Nchígo, the Kulu–Kamba, and other Troglodytes. I have heard of this upright-walking Mpongo at Loango and other places on the west coast of Africa, where the Njína is familiarly spoken of, and it is not, methinks, impossible, that an ape even larger than the gorilla may yet be found.

James Barbot (“A Voyage to Congo River,” Churchill, vol. v. p. 512,) tells us in 1700 that the “kingdom of Angola, or Dongo, produces many such extraordinary apes in the woods; they are called by the blacks Quojas morrow, and by the Indians Orang-outang, that is satyrs, or woodmen. . . . This creature seems to be the very satyr of the ancients, written of by Pliny and others, and is said to set upon women in the woods, and sometimes upon armed men.” Amongst these animals he evidently includes the chimpanzee, as may be seen by his reference to the Royal Exchange, London.

In 1776 the philosophical Abbé Proyart, in his excellent “History of Loango,” tells us (vide the chapter upon animals) that “there are in the forests baboons four feet high; the negroes affirm that, when they are hard pushed, they come down from the trees with sticks in their hands to defend themselves against those who are hunting them, and that very often they chase their pursuers. The missionaries never witnessed this singularity.” According to the people, gorillas five or six feet tall have been seen as lately as 1840 at “Looboo Wood,” a well-known spot which we shall presently sight, about three miles inland from the centre of Loango Bay.

And now the long intervals between travellers’ accounts wax shorter. The well-known writer, Bowdich, before quoted, published, in 1819, his hearsay description of the “Ingena,” garnished with the usual native tales. I had the honour of receiving an account of his discovery from his widow, the late Mrs. Lee, who was held the “mother of African travellers,” and whose energy and intelligence endured to the last — if memory serves me, she referred to some paper upon the subject, written by herself about 1825. Towards the end of 1846, the Rev. Mr. Wilson, founder of the Gaboon Mission, and proto-grammarian of its language, obtained two skulls, which were followed by skeletons, fragmentary and perfect. He sent No. 1, measuring, when alive, 5 ½ feet in height, and 4 feet across the shoulders, to the “Natural History Society” of Boston. He evidently has a right to boast that he was “the first to call the attention of naturalists to the ‘Njena.’” His colleague, Dr. Thomas Savage, and Professor Jeffries Wyman called the new animal by the old name of gorilla, suffixing it to the “Troglodytes” which Geoffrey de Saint–Hilaire, reviving Linnaeus, had proposed in 1812. In 1847, Dr. Savage published in the “Journal of Natural History” (Boston) the result of his careful inquiries about the “Engé-ena” and the “Enche-eko.” In 1852, this information was supplemented by Dr. Ford, also of the Gaboon Mission, with a “Paper on the Gorilla,” published in the “Transactions of the Philadelphian Academy of Sciences.”

M. du Chaillu first had the honour of slaying the gorilla in its native wilds. I saw his trophies in the United States in 1859; and the sensation which they subsequently created in London (1861–1862) is too recent to require notice. Unfortunately the specimens were mutilated and imperfect. Mr. R. B. N. Walker, agent of Messrs. Hatton and Cookson at the Gaboon River, was the first to send home a young specimen bodily, stowed away in spirits; two boiled skeletons of large grey animals, whose skins I saw at the factory, and rum-preserved brains, intestines, and other interesting parts, which had vainly been desired by naturalists. Mr. W. Winwood Reade spent five active months in the Gorilla country in 1862: Major Levison also visited the river, but their hunting was as unsuccessful as mine; whilst, in 1863, Major (now Colonel) De Ruvignes is reported to have been more fortunate. Since that time gorillas have been killed by the French chasseur.

The young Troglodyte has often been captured. The usual mode is to fell the tree, and during the confusion to throw a cloth over its head; the hands are then pinioned behind, and a forked stick is fastened under the chin to prevent the child biting. I should prefer, for trapping old as well as young, the way in which bears are caught by the North American backwoodsman — a hollowed log, with some fruit, plantains for instance, floating in a quant. suff. of sugar, well sugared and narcotized.

Concerning the temper of these little captives, there are heroic differences of opinion. Mr. Ford records the “implacable desperation” of a juvenile which was brought to the Mission. It was taken very young, and kept four months, and many means were used to tame it; but it was so incorrigible, that it bit me an hour before it died.” Yet, in face of this and other evidence, Mr. W. Winwood Reade, writing to the “Athenaeum” (September 7, 1862), asserts that “the young gorilla in captivity is not savage.” “Joe Gorilla,” M. du Chaillu’s brat, was notoriously fierce and unmanageable. The Rev. Mr. Walker, of Baraka, had a specimen, which he describes as a very tractable pupil; and my excellent friend Major Noeliy White, better known as “Governor White,” of Corisco Island, brought to Fernando Po a baby Njina, which in its ways and manners much resembled an old woman. Mr. R. B. N. Walker became the happy godfather of two youngsters, who were different in disposition as Valentine and Orson. One, which measured 18 inches high, and died in 1861, was so savage and morose, that it was always kept chained; the other, “Seraphino,” was of angelic nature, a general favourite at the Factory: it survives, in a photograph taken by the French Commandant of the Comptoir, as it sat after breakfast on godpapa’s lap. At first it was confined, but it soon became so tame and playful, that the cage was required only at night. It never bit, unless when teased, and its only fault was not being able to avoid the temptation of eating what disagreed with it — in fact, it was sub-human in some points, and very human in others. All died in direct consequence of dysentery, which even a milk diet could not prevent. Perhaps the best way to send home so delicate an animal would be to keep it for a time in its native forest; to accustom it to boiled plantains, rice, and messes of grain; and to ship it during the fine season, having previously fitted up a cabin near the engine-room, where the mercury should never fall below 70 °(Fahr.). In order to escape nostalgia and melancholy, which are sure to be fatal, the emigrant should be valeted by a faithful and attached native.

The habitat of the gorilla has been unduly limited to the left banks of the Gaboon and Fernao Vaz rivers, and to the lands lying between north latitude 2°, and south latitude 2° — in fact, to the immediate vicinity of the equator. The late Count Lavradio informed me that he had heard of it on the banks of the lower Congo River (south latitude 9°), and the “Soko,” which Dr. Livingstone identifies with the Gorilla, extends to the Lualaba or Upper Congo, in the regions immediately west of the Tanganyika Lake. His friends have suggested that the “Soko” might have been a chimpanzee, but the old traveller was, methinks, far above making the mistake. The Yorubans at once recognize the picture; they call the anthropoid “Nákí;” and they declare that, when it seizes a man, it tears the fingers asunder. So M. du Chaillu (chapter vi.) mentions, in the Mpongwe report, that the Njina tears off the toe-nails and the finger-nails of his human captives. We should not believe so scandalous an assertion without detailed proof; it is hardly fair to make the innocent biped as needlessly cruel as man. It is well known to the natives of the Old Calabar River by the name of “Onion.” In 1860, the brothers Jules and Ambroise Poncet travelled with Dr. Peney to Ab Kúka, the last of their stations near the head of the Luta Nzige (Albert Nyanza) Lake, and Dr. Peney “brought back the hand of the first gorilla which had been heard of” (“Ocean Highways,” p. 482 — February, 1874). The German Expedition (1873) reports Chicambo to be a gorilla country; that the anthropoid is found one day’s journey from the Coast, and that the agent of that station has killed five with his own hand. Mr. Thompson of Sherbro (“Palm Land,” chap, xiii.) says of the chimpanzee: “Some have been seen as tall as a man, from five to seven feet high, and very powerful.” This is evidently the Njína, the only known anthropoid that attains tall human stature; and from the rest of the passage,1 it is clear that he has confounded the chimpanzee with the Nchigo-mpolo.

The strip of gorilla-country visited by me was an elevated line of clayey and sandy soil, cut by sweet-water streams, and by mangrove-lined swamps, backed inland by thin forest. Here the comparative absence of matted undergrowth makes the landscape sub-European, at least, by the side of the foul tropical jungle; it is exceptionally rich in the wild fruits required by the huge anthropoid. The clearings also supply bananas, pine-apple leaves, and sugar-cane, and there is an abundance of honey, in which, like the Nchígo, the gorilla delights. The villages and the frequent plantations which it visits to plunder limit its reproduction near the sea, and make it exceedingly wary and keen of eye, if not of smell. Even when roosting by night, it is readily frightened by a footstep; and the crash caused by the mighty bound from branch to branch makes the traveller think that a tree has fallen.

The gorilla breeds about December, a cool and dry month: according to my bushmen, the period of gestation is between five and six months. The babe begins to walk some ten days after birth; “chops milk” for three months and, at the end of that time may reach eighteen inches in height. M. du Chaillu makes his child, “Joe Gorilla,” 2 feet 6 inches when under the third year: assuming the average height of the adult male at 5 feet to 5 feet 6 inches, this measurement suggests that, according to the law of Flourens, the life would exceed thirty years. I saw two fragmentary skins, thoroughly “pepper and salt;” and the natives assured me that the gorilla turns silver-white with age.

It is still a disputed point whether the weight is supported by the knuckles of the forehand, like the chimpanzee, or whether the palm is the proper fulcrum. M. du Chaillu says (“First Expedition,” chap, xx.), “the fingers are only lightly marked on the ground;” yet a few pages afterwards we are told, “The most usual mode of progression of the animal is on all-fours and resting on the knuckles.” In the “Second Expedition” (chap, ii.) we read, “The tracks of the feet never showed the marks of toes, only the heels, and the track of the hands showed simply the impressions of the knuckles.”

The attack of the gorilla is that of the apes and the monkeys generally. The big-bellied satyr advances to the assault as it travels, shuffling on all-fours; “rocking” not traversing; bristling the crest, chattering, mowing and displaying the fearful teeth and tusks. Like all the Simiads, this Troglodyte sways the body to and fro, and springs from side to side for the purpose of avoiding the weapon. At times Quasimodo raises himself slightly upon the dwarfed “asthenogenic,” and almost deformed hind limbs, which look those of a child terminating the body of a Dan Lambert: the same action may be seen in its congeners great and small. The wild huntsmen almost cried with laughter when they saw the sketches in the “Gorilla Book,”2 the mighty pugilist standing stiff and upright as the late Mr. Benjamin Caunt, “beating the breast with huge fists till it sounded like an immense bass drum;” and preparing to deal a buffet worthy of Friar Tuck. They asked me if I thought mortal man would ever attempt to face such a thing as that? With respect to drumming with both forehands upon the chest, some asserted that such is the brute’s practice when calling Mrs. Gorilla, or during the excitement of a scuffle; but the accounts of the bushmen differ greatly on this point. In a hand-to-hand struggle it puts forth one of the giant feet, sometimes the hinder, as “Joe Gorilla” was wont to do; and, having once got a hold with its prehensile toes, it bites and worries like any other ape, baboon, or monkey. From this grapple doubtless arose the old native legend about the gorilla drawing travellers up trees and “quietly choking them.” It can have little vitality, as it is easily killed with a bit of stone propelled out of a trade musket by the vilest gunpowder, and the timid bushmen, when failing to shoot it unawares, do not fear to attack it openly. As a rule, the larger the Simiad, the less sprightly it becomes; and those most approaching man are usually the tamest and the most melancholy — perhaps, their spirits are permanently affected by their narrow escape. The elderly male (for anthropoids, like anthropoi, wax fierce and surly with increasing years) will fight, but only from fear, when suddenly startled, or with rage when slightly wounded. Moreover, there must be rogue-gorillas, like rogue-elephants, lions, hippopotami, rhinoceros, and even stags, vieux grognards, who, expelled house and home, and debarred by the promising young scions from the softening influence of feminine society, become, in their enforced widowerhood, the crustiest of old bachelors. At certain seasons they may charge in defence of the wife and family, but the practice is exceptional. Mr. Wilson saw a man who had lost the calf of his leg in an encounter, and one Etia, a huntsman whose left hand had been severely crippled, informed Mr. W. Winwood Reade, that “the gorilla seized his wrist with his hind foot, and dragged his hand into his mouth, as he would have done a bunch of plantains.” No one, however, could give me an authentic instance of manslaughter by our big brother.

The modifications with which we must read the picturesque pages of the “Gorilla Book” are chiefly the following. The Gorilla is a poor devil ape, not a “hellish dream-creature, half man, half beast.” He is not king of the African forest; he fears the Njego or leopard and, as lions will not live in these wet, wooded, and gameless lands, he can hardly have expelled King Leo. He does not choose the “darkest, gloomiest forests,” but prefers the thin woods, where he finds wild fruits for himself and family. His tremendous roar does not shake the jungle: it is a hollow apish cry, a loudish huhh! huhh! huhh! explosive like the puff of a steam-engine, which, in rage becomes a sharp and snappish bark — any hunter can imitate it. Doubtless, in some exceptional cases, when an aged mixture of Lablache and Dan Lambert delivers his voce di petto, the voice may be heard for some distance in the still African shades, but it will hardly compare with the howling monkeys of the Brazil, which make the forest hideous. The eye is not a “light grey” but the brown common to all the tribe. The Gorilla cannot stand straight upon his rear quarter when attacking or otherwise engaged without holding on to a trunk: he does not “run on his hind legs;” he is essentially a tree ape, as every stuffed specimen will prove. He never gives a tremendous blow with his immense open paw; doubtless, a native legend found in Battel and Bowdich; nor does he attack with the arms. However old and male he may be, he runs away with peculiar alacrity: though powerfully weaponed with tigerish teeth, with “bunches of muscular fibre,” and with the limbs of Goliah, the gorilla, on the seaboard at least, is essentially a coward; nor can we be surprised at his want of pluck, considering the troubles and circumstances under which he spends his harassed days. Finally, whilst a hen will defend her chicks, Mrs. Gorilla will fly, leaving son or daughter in the hunter’s hands.

1 See chap. ii.

2 First Edition, Illustration VI. (p. 71), and XLIII. (p. 297).

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