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

Chapter 12.

Corisco —“Home” to Fernando Po.

On April 22nd, after some five weeks in the Gaboon River, I found myself once more in her Majesty’s steam-ship “Griffon,” which had returned from the south coast, bound for Corisco (Gorilla Island?) and Fernando Po. It was “going-away day,” when proverbially the world looks prettier than usual, and we enjoyed the suggestive view of the beaded line which, seen from the sea, represents the Sierra del Crystal. The distance from Le Plateau to the Isle of Lightning was only thirty-five miles, from the nearest continent ten, and before the evening tornado broke from the south-east, here the normal direction, we were lying in the roads about two miles from the landing-place. The anchorage is known by bringing Mbánya (Little Corisco), the smaller and southern outlier in a line between Laval Islet and the main island.

The frequent coruscations gave a name to Corisco, which the natives know as Mange: it was called, says Barbot, “‘Ilha do Corisco,’ from the Portuguese, because of the violent horrid lightnings, and claps of thunder, the first discoverers there saw and heard there at the time of their discovery.” There is still something to be done in investigating the cause of these electrical discharges. Why should lofty Fernando Po and low-lying Corisco suffer so much, when Zanzibar Island, similarly situated, suffers so rarely? Again, why is Damascus generally free from thunder-storms when Brazilian Sâo Paul, whose site is of the same altitude and otherwise so like, can hardly keep the lightning out of doors? The immunity of Zanzibar Island can hardly be explained by the popular theory; neither it nor Fernando Po, which suffers greatly from thunder-storms, lies near the embouchure of a great river, where salt and fresh water may disturb electrical equilibrium. I shall say more upon this point when in the Congo Regions (chap. xii.).

The position of Great Corisco (north latitude 0° 55’ 0”) is at the mouth of a well-wooded bay, which Barbot (iv. 9) calls Bay of Angra, i.e. Bight of Bight. He terms the southern or Munda stream Rio de Angrta, or Angex, whilst the equally important Muni (Danger) becomes only “a little river” without name. The modern charts prefer Corisco Bay. It measures some forty miles from north to south by half that depth, and its position causes the rains, which are synchronous with those of the Gaboon, to be much more copious and continuous. They last nine months out of twelve, and in March, 1862, the fall was 25 inches, the heaviest remembered it had filled the little island valleys, and made the paths lines of canal.

Next morning we were visited by the Rev. Mr. Mackey, the senior of the eight white men who inhabit this piece of land — a proper site for Robinson Crusoe — where, as the Yankee said of Great Britain, you can hardly stretch yourself without fear of falling overboard. He kindly undertook to be our guide over the interior, and we landed on the hard sand of the open western beach: here at times a tremendous surf must roll in. We struck into the bush, and bent towards the south-west of the islet, where stands the monarch of cliffs, 80 feet high. The maximum length is three miles by about the same breadth, and the circumference, including the indentations, may be fifteen. The surface is rolling composed of humus and clay, corallines and shelly conglomerates based on tertiary limestone and perhaps sandstone; dwarf clearings alternate with tracts of bush grass, and with a bushy second growth, lacking large trees. The only important wild productions pointed out to us were cardamoms, the oil palm (Elais Guincensis), and an unknown species of butter-nut. The centre of the island was a mass of perennial pools, fed, they say, by springs as well as rains, one puddle, adorned with water lilies and full of dwarf leeches which relish man’s life, extended about a hundred yards long. In fact, the general semblance of Corisco was that of a filled up “atoll,” a circular reef still growing to a habitable land. Here only could I find on the west coast of Africa a trace of the features which distinguished the Gorilla island of 2,300 years ago.

At South Bay we came upon a grassy clearing larger than usual, near a bright stream; its pottery and charred wood showed the site of the Spanish barracoon destroyed by the British in 1840. During the last seven years the “patriarchal institution” has become extinct, and the old slavers who have at times touched at the island, have left it empty-handed. Corisco had long been celebrated for cam-wood, a hard and ponderous growth, yielding a better red than Brazil or Braziletto, alias Brazilete (Brasilettia, De Cand.) one of the Eucæsalpinieæ, a congener of C. Echinata, which produces the Brazil-wood or Pernambuco-wood of commerce. In 1679, the Hollander Governor–General of Minas sent some forty whites to cultivate “Indian wheat and other sort of corn and plants of Guinea.” The design was to supply the Dutch West Indian Company’s ships with grain and vegetables, especially bananas, which grow admirably; I heard that there are fifteen varieties upon this dot of dry land. Thus the crews would not waste time and money at Cape Lopez and the Portuguese islands. The Dutch colonists began by setting up a factory in a turf redoubt, armed with iron guns, “the better to secure themselves from any surprise or assault of the few natives, who are a sort of wild and mischievous blacks.” The plantation was successful, but the bad climate and noxious gases from the newly turned ground, combined with over-exertion, soon killed some seventeen out of the forty; and the remainder, who also suffered from malignant distempers, razed their buildings and returned to the Gold Coast. When the Crown of Spain once more took possession of Fernando Po, it appointed a Governor for Corisco, but no establishment was maintained there. To its credit be it said, there was not much interference with the Protestant mission; public preaching was forbidden pro formâ in 1860, but no notice was taken of “passive resistance.”

The native villages, exactly resembling those of the Gaboon, are all built near the strip of fine white sand which forms the shore, and upon the sweet water channels which cut deep into the limestones. They are infested with rats, against whose depredations the mango trees must be protected with tin ruffs; yet there are six kinds of reptilia upon the island, including the common black snake and cobras, from six to seven feet long: these animals, aided by the dogs, which also persecute the iguanas, have prevented rabbits breeding. In Barbot’s time (1700) there were only thirty or forty inhabitants, who held the north-eastern point about a league from the wooding and watering places. “That handful of blacks has much ado to live healthy, the air being very intemperate and unwholesome; they are governed by a chief, who is lord of the island, and they all live very poorly, but have plenty enough of cucumbers, which grow there in perfection, and many sorts of fowl.” In 1856 the Rev. Mr. Wilson reckons them at less than 2,000, and in 1862 I was told that there were about 1,100, of whom 600 were Bengas. In look, dress, and ornaments they resemble the Mpongwe, but some of them have adopted the Kru stripe, holding a blue nose to be a sign of freedom. They consider themselves superior to the “Pongos,” and they have exchanged their former fighting reputation for that of peaceful traders to the mainland and to the rivers Muni and Mundah. They live well, eating flesh or fish once a day, not on Sundays only, the ambition of Henri Quatre: at times they trap fine green turtle in seines, but they do not turn these “delicate monsters.”

Mr. Wilson numbered the whole Benga tribe at 8,000, but Mr. Mackey reduced the figure to half. Besides Corisco they inhabit the two capes at the north and south of the bay. The language is used by other tribes holding the coast northward for a hundred miles or more, and probably by the inner people extending in a northerly direction from Corisco Bay: the same, with certain modifications, is also spoken at São Bento, Batanga, and perhaps as far north as the Camarones River. On the other hand, the tribes occupying the eastern margin of Corisco Bay, such as the Mbiko, Dibwe, and Belengi, cannot understand one another, and the tongues of the southward regions differ even more from the Benga. Yet all evidently belong to the great South African family.

Mr. Mackey, who explored Corisco Island in 1849, assures us that scarcely any of the older inhabitants were born there; they came from the continent north or north-east of the bay, gradually forcing their way down. The characteristic difference of the Benga, the Bákele, and the Mpongwe dialects is as follows: “The Mpongwes have a great partiality for the use of the passive voice, and avoid the active when the passive can be used. The Bákele verb delights in the active voice, and will avoid the passive even by a considerable circumlocution. The Benga takes an intermediate position in this respect, and uses the active and passive very much as we do in English.”

The Corisco branch of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions was established by the Rev. James S. Mackey in 1850. It made as much progress as could be expected, and in 1862 it numbered 110 scholars and 65 communicants; the total of those baptized was 80, and 15 had been suspended. The members applied themselves, as the list of their publications shows, with peculiar ardour to the language, and they did not neglect natural history and short explorations of the adjoining interior. They had sent home specimens of the six reptilia, the six snails and land shells, the seventy-five sea shells, and the 110 fishes, all known by name, which they collected upon the island and in the bay. It is to be presumed that careful dredging will bring to light many more: the pools are said to produce a small black fish, local as the Proteus anguineus of the Styrian caves, to mention no other.

I was curious to hear from Mr. Mackey some details about the Muni River, where he travelled in company with M. du Chaillu. It still keeps the troublous reputation for petty wars which made the old traders dignify it with the name of “Danger.” The nearest Falls are about thirty miles from Olobe Island, and the most distant may be sixty-five. Of course we had a laugh over the famous Omamba or Anaconda, whose breath can be felt against the face before it is seen.

Late in April 24th I returned the books kindly lent to me from the mission library, shook hands with my kind and hospitable entertainers at the mission house, mentally wishing them speedy deliverance from Corisco, and embarked on board the “Griffon.” We quickly covered the “great water desert” of 160 miles between the Gorilla Island and Fernando Po, and at noon on the next day I found myself once more “at home.”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31