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

Chapter 13.

The March to Banza Nkulu.

But revelry at night brings morning headache, and we did not set out, as agreed, at dawn. By slow degrees the grumbling, loitering party was mustered. The chiefs were Gidi Mavunga, head guide, and his son Papagayo, a dull quiet body; Chico Mpamba, “French landlord” of Banza Nokki, and my interpreter Nchama Chamvu. Fourteen armed moleques carried our hammocks and our little viaticum in the shape of four bottles of present-gin, two costa-finas, (= twenty-four yards of fancy cotton), and fourteen fathoms of satin-stripe, the latter a reserved fund. The boy “Lendo,” whose appropriate name means “The Go,” bore a burden of his own size all day, and acted as little foot-page at the halt. The “gentlemen” were in full travelling costume. Slung by a thong to the chief guide’s left shoulder were a tiger-cat skin, cardamom-sheaths and birds’ beaks and claws clustering round a something in shape like the largest German sausage, the whole ruddled with ochre: this charm must not be touched by the herd; a slave-lad, having unwittingly offended, knelt down whilst the wearer applied a dusty big toe between his eyebrows. Papagayo had a bag of grass-cloth and bits of cane, from which protruded strips of leather and scarlet broadcloth.

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At 6.45 A.M. on Saturday, September 12, we exchanged the fields surrounding Banza Chinguvu for a ridge or narrow plateau trending to the north-east and bending to the magnetic north. A few minutes led to a rock-slope, fit only for goat-hoofs or nude-footed natives. Winding along the hill-sides, we passed out of the Nokki territory into that of Ntombo, the property of Mfumo Nelongo: here we descended into a little vale or gorge bright as verdure could make it —

“arborets and flowers

Imborder’d on each bank”

of a bubbling brook, a true naiad of the hills, which ran to the embrace of the mighty stream; it characteristically stained its bed with iron. On our right was a conspicuous landmark, Zululu ke Sombe, a tall rock bearing the semblance of an elephant from the north-east, visible from the Congo’s right bank and commanding a view of all the hills. Banza Vivi, our first destination, perching high on the farther side of the blue depression, bore due north. We then struck the roughest of descents, down broken outcrops and chines of granite — no wonder that the women have such grand legs. This led us into a dark green depression where lay Banza Chinsavu, the abode of King Nelongo. Our course had been three miles to the north-north-east.

Nothing can be more charming than the site, a small horseshoe valley, formed by a Wady or Fiumara, upon whose raised left bank stands the settlement, sheltered by palms, plantations, and wild figs. Eastward is a slope of bare rock polished by the rain-torrents; westward rise the grassy hills variegated with bush and boulder. We next crossed a rocky divide to the north and found a second basin also fertilized by its own stream; here the cactus and aloes, the vegetation of the desert, contrasted with half-a-dozen shades of green, the banana, the sycamore, the egg-plant, the sweet potato, the wild pepper, and the grass, whose colours were paling, but not so rapidly as in the lower lands.

We dismounted in state from our tipoias at the verandah of an empty house, where a chair had been placed; and we prepared for the usual delay and display. The guides will not leave these villages unvisited lest a “war” result; all the chiefs are cousins and one must not monopolize the plunder. A great man takes an hour to dress, and Nelongo was evidently soothing the toils of the toilette with a musical bellows called an accordeon. He sent us some poor, well-watered Msámbá (palm toddy), and presently he appeared, a fat, good-natured man, as usual, ridiculously habited. He took the first opportunity of curtly saying in better Portuguese than usual, “There is no more march today!” This was rather too much for a somewhat testy traveller, when he changed his tone, begged me not to embroil him with a powerful neighbour, and promised that we should set out that evening. He at once sent for provisions, fowls, and a small river-fish, sugar-cane, and a fine bunch of S. Thomé bananas.

About noon appeared Chico Furano, son of the late Chico de Ouro, in his quality of “English linguister;” a low position to which want of “savvy” has reduced him. His studies of our tongue are represented by an eternal “Yes!” his wits by the negative; he boasts of knowing how to “tratar com o branco” and, declining to bargain, he robs double. He is a short, small, dark man with mountaineer legs, a frightful psora, and an inveterate habit of drink. He saluted his superior, Nelongo, with immense ceremony, dating probably from the palmy times of the Mwani–Congo. Equals squat before one another, and shaking hands crosswise clap palms. Chico Furano kneels, places both “ferients” upon the earth and touches his nose-tip; he then traces three ground-crosses with the Jovian finger; again touches his nose; beats his “volæ” on the dust, and draws them along the cheeks; then he bends down, applying firstly the right, secondly the left face side, and lastly the palms and dorsa of the hands to mother earth. Both superior and inferior end with the Sakila or batta-palmas,1 three bouts of three claps in the best of time separated by the shortest of pauses, and lastly a “tiger” of four claps. The ceremony is more elaborate than the “wallowings” and dust-shovellings described by Ibn Batuta at the Asiatic courts, by Jobson at Tenda,by Chapperton at Oyo,by Denham amongst the Mesgows, and by travellers to Dahome and to the Cazembe. Yet the system is virtually the same in these distant kingdoms, which do not know one another’s names.

Chico Furano brought a Mundongo slave, a fine specimen of humanity, some six feet high, weighing perhaps thirteen stone, all bone and muscle, willing and hard-working, looking upon the Congo men as if they were women or children. He spoke a few words of Portuguese, and with the master’s assistance I was able to catechize him. He did not deny that his people were “papagentes,” but he declared that they confined the practice to slain enemies. He told a number of classical tales about double men, attached, not like the Siamese twins, but dos-à-dos; of tribes whose feet acted as parasols, the Plinian Sciapodæ and the Persian Tasmeh-pa, and of mermen who live and sleep in the inner waters — I also heard this from M. Parrot, a palpable believer. He described his journey down the great river, and declared that beyond his country’s frontier the Nzadi issues from a lake which he described as having a sea-horizon, where canoes lose sight of land, and where they are in danger from violent storms; he described the latter with great animation, and his descriptions much reminded me of Dibbie, the “Dark Lake.” Probably this was genuine geography, although he could not tell the name of the inner sea, the Achelunda of old cosmographers. Tuckey’s map also lays down in N. lat. 2° to 3° and in E. long. (G.) 17° to 18° a great swamp draining to the south; and his “Narrative” (p. 178) tells us that some thirty days above Banza Mavunda, which is 20 to 24 miles above the Yellala, “the river issues by many small streams from a great marsh or lake of mud.” This would suggest a reservoir alternately flooded and shrinking; possibly lacustrine bays and the bulges formed by the middle course of the Lualaba.

Despite the promise, we were delayed by King Nekorado, whose town, Palabala, lies at some distance, and who, negro-like, will consult only his own convenience. In the afternoon we were visited by a royal son, who announced that his royal father feared the heat, but would appear with the moon, which was equivalent to saying that we might expect him on the morrow. He is known to be a gueux, and Gidi Mavunga boasts of having harried and burned sundry of his villages, so he must make up by appearance for deficient reality. His appearance was announced by the Mpungi, the Egyptian Zagharit, the Persian Kil; this “lullilooing” in the bush country becomes an odd moaning howl like the hyaena’s laugh. Runners and criers preceded the hammock, which he had probably mounted at the first field; a pet slave carried his chair, covered with crimson cloth, and Frédérique his “linguister” paced proudly by its side.

After robing himself in Nelongo’s house, King Nekorado held a levee under the shadiest fig, which acted bentang-tree; all the moleques squatting in a demi-lune before the presence. A short black man, with the round eyes, the button-like nose, the fat circular face, and the weakly vanishing chin which denote the lower type of Congoese, he coldly extended a chimpanzee’s paw without rising or raising his eyes, in token that nothing around him deserved a glance. I made him au-fait as to my intentions, produced, as “mata-bicho,” a bottle of gin, and sent a dash of costa-fina, to which a few yards of satin-stripe were thrown in.

The gin was drunk with the usual greed, and the presents were received with the normal objections.

“Why should not I, a king like Nessudikira, receive a ‘dash’ equal to his?”

“He is my host, I pay him for bed and board!”

“We are all cousins; why shall one be treated better than the other?”

“As you please! you have received your due, and today we march.”

After this I rose and returned to my hut ready for the inevitable “row.”

It was not long coming; the new arrivals set up the war-song, and Gidi Mavunga thought it time to make a demonstration. Drawing an old cutlass and bending almost double, he began to rush about, slashing and cutting down imaginary foes, whilst his men looked to their guns. The greenhorn would have expected a regular stand-up fight, ending in half-a-dozen deaths, but the Papagayo snatched away his father’s rusty blade, and Chico Furano, seizing the warrior’s head, despite the mildest of resistance, bent it almost to the ground. Thus valour succumbed to numbers. “He is a great man,” whispered my interpreter, “and if they chaunt their battle-song, he must show them his bravery.” The truly characteristic scene ended in our being supplied with some fourteen black pots full of flesh, fowl, beans, and manioc, together with an abundance of plantains and sugar-cane; a select dish was “put in fetish” (set aside) for Gidi Mavunga, and the friendly foes all sat down to feast. The querelle d’Allemand ended with a general but vain petition for “t’other bottle.”

Fahrenheit showed 90° in the shade, as we bade adieu to the little land-bay, and made for the high rugged wall to the north-north-east separating the river valley from the inner country. On the summit we halted to enjoy the delicious sea-breeze with its ascending curve, and the delightful prospect far below. Some 1,300 feet beneath us appeared the Nzadi, narrowed to a torrent, and rushing violently down its highly inclined bed, a straight reach running east and west, in length from four and a half to five miles. As we fronted north, the Morro (cliff) Kala fell bluff towards its blue bight, the Mayumba Bay of the chart, on our left; to the right a black gate formed by twin cliffs shut out the upper stream from view. The panorama of hill-fold and projection, each bounded by deep green lines, which argued torrents during the rains; the graceful slopes sinking towards the river and indenting the bed and the little tree-clad isle, Zun gáchyá Idí (Tuckey’s “Zunga Tooly Calavangoo”) hugging the northern side, where the Lufu torrent adds its tribute to the waters, convinced me that the charms of Congo scenery had not been exaggerated. Yet the prospect had its element of sadness; the old ruffian, Gidi Mavunga, recounted how he had burned this place and broken that, where palm-clumps, grass-clearings, and plantations lying waste denoted the curse of Ham upon the land.

Our course now wound north-eastwards along hill-shoulders, rich in flowery plants and scented mimosa. After two hours’ walking, we came suddenly upon the Morro or cliff of the river-trough, now about 1,000 feet deep. Here the prospect again shifted; the black gate opened, showing the lowest of the long line of rapids called Borongwa ya Vivi, with the natives and their canoes, like flies upon bits of straw.

On the southern bank was a small perennial influent, lined with bright green above, and with chocolate brown below, within some twenty yards of its mouth. It arises, they say, near S. Salvador, and is not navigable, although in places it bears canoes. The people call it Npozo, possibly it represents the S. Salvador River of old travellers. The distance was three direct or five indirect miles north of the stony cone, Zululu ke Sombe.

The descent was a malevoie, over slabs and boulders, loose stones and clayey ground, slippery as ice after rain. The moleques descended like chamois within twenty minutes: Selim and I, with booted feet, took double the time, but on return we ascended it in forty-five minutes. Viewed from below, the base rests upon cliffs of gneiss, with debris and quartz in masses, bands and pebbles, pure and impure, white and rusty. Upon it rises a stratum of ferruginous clay, with large hard-heads of granite, gneiss, and schist, blocks of conglomerate, and nodules of ironstone. Higher still is the bank of yellow clay, capped with shallow humus. The waving profile is backed by steep hills, with rocky sides and long ridges of ground, the site of the palm-hidden Banzas.

Reaching the base, a heap of tumbled boulders, we crossed in a canoe the mouth of the Npozo to a sandy cove in the southern bank, the terminus of river navigation. The people called it Unyenge Assiku: I cannot but suspect that this is the place where Tuckey left his boats, and which he terms “Nomaza Cove.” The name is quite unknown, and suggests that the interpreters tried to explain by “No majia” (water) that here the voyage must end.

Off this baylet are three rocky islets, disposed in a triangle, slabs collected by a broken reef, and collectively known as Zunga Nuapozo; the clear-way is between them and the southern bank, which is partly provided with a backwater; the northern three quarters of the bed show something like a scour and a rapid. Zunga chya Ingololo, the northernmost and smallest, bears a single tree, and projects a bar far into the stream: the central and westernmost is a rock with a canoe passage between it and the southern and largest, Zunga chya Tuvi. The latter has three tree-clumps; and a patch of clean white sand on its western side measures the daily rise of the water, eight inches to a foot, and shows the highest level of the flood, here twelve to thirteen feet. The fishermen use it as a drying-ground for their game. They also crowd every day to two sandy covelets on the southern bank, separated by a tongue of rough boulders. Here naked urchins look on whilst their fathers work, or aid in drying the nets, or lie prone upon the sand, exposing their backs to the broiling sun. The other denizens of the place are fish-eagles, who sit en faction upon the topmost branches of withered trees. I saw only two kinds of fish, one small as a minnow, and the other approaching the size of a herring. Up stream they are said to be much larger. They are not salted, but smoked or sun-dried when the weather serves: stuffed with chillies and fried with oil, they are good eating as the Kinnam of the Gold Coast.

We prepared to bivouac under a fine shady Saffu, or wild fig, a low, thick trunk whose dark foliage, fleshy as the lime-leaf, so often hangs its tresses over the river, and whose red berries may feed man as well as monkey. The yellow flowers of hypericum, blooming around us, made me gratefully savour our escape from mangrove and pandamus. About sunset a gentle shower, the first of the season, caused the fisher-boys to dance with joy; it lasted two good hours, and then it was dispersed by a strong westerly breeze. Canoes and lights flashed before our eyes during half the night; and wild beasts, answering one another from rock to rock, hundreds of feet above us, added a savage, African feature to the goodly mise-en-scène.

Arising early next morning, I was assured that it is necessary to cross the stream in order to reach the Cataracts. Tuckey did so, but further inquiry convinced me that it is a mistake to march along the northern bank. Of course, in skirting the southern side, we should not have approached so near the stream, where bluffs and débris rendered travelling hopeless. The amiable ichthyophagi agreed for two fathoms of fancy cloth to ferry us across the river, which is here half a mile broad. The six-knot current compels canoes to run up the left shore by means of its backwater, and, when crossing, to make allowance for the drift downwards. The aneroid now showed 860 feet of absolute altitude, and about sixty-five feet above the landing-place of Banza Nokki; the distance along the stream is fourteen miles, and thus the fall will be about five feet per mile below the Borongwa ya Vivi. We could see from a level the “smaller rapids of Vivi” bursting through their black gate with angry foam, flashing white from side to side. No canoe could shoot this “Cachoeira,” but I do not think that a Nile Dahabiyah or a Brazilian Ajôjô would find great difficulty. Between us and the rapids, the concavity of the southern bank forms a bight or bay. The vortices, in which Tuckey’s sloop was whirled round despite oars and sails, and in whose hollow the punt entirely disappeared, “so that the depression must have been three or four feet deep,” were nowhere seen at this fuller season. The aspect of the surface is that of every large deep stream with broken bottom; the water boils up in ever widening domes, as though a system of fountains sprang from below. Each centre is apparently higher than its circle; it spreads as if a rock had been thrown into it, and the outer rim throws off little eddies and whirls no larger than a thimble. The mirrory surface of the lower river thus becomes mottled with light and shade, and the reflected image of the trough-cliff is broken into the most fantastic shapes.

Fifteen minutes of hard paddling landed us at Selele, a stony point between two sandy baylets: amongst the mass of angular boulders a tree again showed the highest flood-mark to be 13 feet. Here for the first time I remarked the black glaze concerning which so much has been written.2 The colour is a sunburnt black, tinted ferruginous red like meteoric stones, and it is generally friable, crumbling under the nails. It tastes strongly of iron, which flavours almost every spring in the country, yet the most likely places do not show this incrustation. Sometimes it looks like a matrix in which pudding-stone has been imbedded; it may be two or three lines in thickness and it does not colour the inside. At other times it hardly measures the thickness of paper, coating the gneiss slabs like plumbago. Humboldt tells us (“Personal Narrative,” ii. 243, Bohn), that the “Indians” of the Atures declare the rocks to be burnt (carbonized) by the sun’s rays, and I have often found the same black glaze upon the marly sandstones that alternate with calcareous formations where no stream ever reached them — for instance, on the highlands of Judea, between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea; in inner Istria, and in most countries upon the borders of the Mediterranean.

Leaving Selele, we ascended a steep hill with many glissadès, the effect of last night’s rain. These hammock-journeys are mostly equivalent to walking and paying for carriage; it would be cruelty to animals were one to ride except when entering the villages. After threading for half an hour lanes of grass, we were received in a little village of the Banza Vivi district by Nessala, linguistère to King Luvungungwete. The guest room was furnished with every luxury; hides of a fine antelope described as the Kudu; cruets, basins, bottles, and other vases; “lustre mugs,” John Andersons and Toby Philpots. A good calabash, full of

“Freshening wine

More bounteous far than all the frantic juice

Which Bacchus pours,”

was produced, although the drought and scarcity of June rain had dried the palms. Before I outstretched myself, the fairer half of the population sent a message to say that they had never seen a white man: what less could be done than to distribute a few beads and pat the children, who screamed like sucking pigs and “squirmed” like young monkeys?

The Chrononhotonthologus of a king came in the afternoon with a tail of a hundred vertebræ: he was a milder specimen than usual; he had neither Mambrino’s helmet nor beadle’s cloak, and perhaps his bashfulness in the presence of strangers arose from a consciousness that his head-gear and robes were not in keeping with his station. But he did not fail to grumble at his “dash;” indeed, he must be more than African who shall say, “Hold! enough.” He vouchsafed a small return in fowls and “beneficent manioc,” and sent with us three slaves, to serve, not as guides, but as a basis for a separate charge.

After sunset all was made ready for the Batuque. The ball-room was the village square; the decorations were the dense trees; the orchestra consisted of two drums, a grande caisse eight feet and a half long, placed horizontally, and a smaller specimen standing on a foot like that of an old-fashioned champagne-glass; the broader ends were covered with deer skins, upon which both hands perform; and the illuminations were flaming heaps of straw, which, when exhausted, were replaced by ground-nuts spitted upon a bamboo splint. This contrivance is far simpler than a dip-candle, the arachis is broken off as it chars, and, when the lamp dims, turning it upside down causes a fresh flow of oil. The ruder sex occupied one half of the ring, and the rest was appropriated to dame and damsel. The Batuque is said to be the original Cachucha; Barbot calls it a danse des filoux, and it has the merit of perfectly expressing, as Captain Cook’s companions remarked of the performances in the South Sea Islands, what it means.

The hero of the night was Chico Mpamba; he must have caused a jealous pang to shoot through many a masculine bosom. With bending waist, arms gracefully extended forwards, and fingers snapping louder than castanets; with the upper half of the body fixed as to a stake, and with the lower convulsive as a scotched snake, he advanced and retired by a complicated shuffle, keeping time with the tom-tom and jingling his brass anklets, which weighed at least three pounds, and which, by the by, lamed him for several days. But he was heroic as the singer who broke his collar-bone by the ut di petto. A peculiar accompaniment was a dulcet whistle with lips protruded; hence probably the fable of Pliny’s Astomoi, and the Africans of Eudoxus, whose joined lips compelled them to eat a single grain at a time, and to drink through a cane before sherry-cobblers were known. Others joined him, dancing either vis-à-vis or by his side; and more than one girl, who could no longer endure being a wall-flower, glided into the ring and was received with a roar of applause. In the feminine performance the eyes are timidly bent upon the ground; the steps are shorter and daintier, and the ritrosa appears at once to shun and to entice her cavalier, who, thus repulsed and attracted, redoubles the exciting measure till the delight of the spectators knows no bounds. Old Gidi Mavunga flings off his upper garment, and with the fire of a youth of twenty enters the circle, where his performance is looked upon with respect, if not with admiration. Wilder and wilder waxeth the “Devil’s delight,” till even the bystanders, especially the women, though they keep their places in the outer circle, cannot restrain that wonderful movement of haunch and flank. I laughed till midnight, and left the dancers dancing still.

At 5 A.M. the strayed revellers found to their disgust a thick fog, or rather a thin drizzle, damping grass and path, and suggesting anything but a pleasant trudge. They declared that starvation awaited us, as the “fancy cloths” were at an end, but I stopped that objection by a reference to the reserved fund. After an hour of sulky talk we set out towards the upper part of Banza Vivi, passing a small but pretty hill plain, with manioc-fields, gum-trees, and the bombax very symmetrical. We saw no animals: here and there appeared the trail of a hyaena, the only larger carnivor that now haunts the mountains. The song of Mkuka Mpela, the wild pigeon, and Fungú, the cuckoo, were loud in the brake: the Abbé Proyart makes the male cuculus chant his coo, coo, coo; mounting one note above another with as much precision as a musician would sound his ut, re, mi: when he reached the third note, his mate takes it up and ascends to the octave. After this both recommence the same song.

The stiff ascent gave us lovely views of the lake-like river and both its banks: after three quarters of an hour we reached Vivi of Banza Simbo. The people vainly called to us, “Wiza!”— “Come thou!” and “Luiza! luiza kwenu!”— “Come, come here!” Our moleques, disliking the dangerous proximity, advanced at a walk which might be called a canter.

Presently we reached the dividing ridge, 1,394 feet high, between Banza Vivi and Nkulu, whose palm-trees, thrown out against the sky, bore 82° (M.) Looking to the north with easting, we had a view of no less than six distinct distances. The actual foreground, a hollow between two land-waves, could not conceal the “Crocodile’s Head:” the latter, five miles off and bearing 65° (M.), forms the southern staple of the Yellala Gate, whose rapids were not visible, and it fronts the Quoin, which hems in the stream on the other side. The key-stone of the inverted arch between them was a yellow-flanked, tree-topped hill, rising immediately above the great rapids: beyond if waved, in far succession, three several swells of ground, each flatter and bluer than its nearer neighbour, and capping the whole stood Kongo de Lemba, a tall solitary sugarloaf, bearing 75° (M.), with its outlying conelets concealing like a mass of smoke the world that lay beyond.

The ridges appeared to trend north and south, and to approach the river’s bending bed at different angles; their sides were steep, and in places scarped where they fell into the intervening hollows. The valleys conducted many a water to the main drain, and during the wet season they must be well-nigh impassable. At the end of the dries the only green is in the hill-folds and the basin-sinks, where the trees muster strong enough to defend themselves from the destructive annual fires. These bush-burnings have effectually disforested the land, and in some places building timber and even fuel have become scarce. In the Abrus, barely two feet high, I could hardly recognize the tall tree of Eastern Africa, except by its scarlet “carats,” which here the people disdain to use as beads. The scorching of the leaves stunts the shrubs, thickens the bark, and makes the growth scrubby, so that the labourer has nothing to do but to clear away the grass: I afterwards remarked the same effects on the Brazilian Campos.

We descended the dividing ridge, which is also painfully steep, especially near the foot, and crossed the rolling hollow with its three chalybeate brooks, beyond which lay our destination. Tuckey describes the hills between Boma and Nkulu as stony and barren, which is perhaps a little too strong. The dark red clay soil, dried almost to the consistency of laterite, cannot be loosened by rain or sun, and in places it is hardened like that of Brazilian Porto Seguro, where the people complain that they cannot bury their dead. All the uplands, however, grow grass which is sometimes ten to twelve feet tall, and in places there are shrubs and trees. About Nkulu the highlands are rightly described as “steep hills of quartz, ferruginous earth, and syenite with fertile tops:” rocks and stones are rare upon the plateaux: they are rich enough to produce everything from wheat to coffee, and hardly a hundredth part is cultivated. Thin and almost transparent lines of palms denote the several Banzas on the ridges, and in the valley are rock circles like magnified and prostrated Stonehenges.

The “termes arborum” is universal, and anthills form a prominent feature. It has been remarked that these buildings are the most conspicuous architectural efforts of the country, and the Abbé Proyart observes that here more effectually than in any other land man ought to be sent to the ant school. The material is of dark and sometimes black earth as in the Gaboon, and the shape is the umbrella, rarely double or pagoda-roofed. The column may be twelve to eighteen inches high, and the diameter of the capital attains two feet: I never saw, however, a “gigantic toadstool as high as a one-storied house.”3 Nor are the mushroom tops now used as chafing-dishes.

The grateful tamarind grows everywhere, but nowhere so gloriously as on the lower elevations. The only true sycomores which I saw were stunted specimens near the Yellala. They contrasted poorly with the growth of the Ugogi Dhun, a noble patriarch, whose circle of shade under a vertical sun was 500 feet, and which I thought worthy of a portrait in “Lake Regions of Central Africa” (p. 195, vol. i.). I need hardly warn the reader that, properly speaking, it is the “Sycamine which produces the fruit called Syconwrus or fig-mulberry;” but we apply the term “Sycomore” to the tree as well as to its fruit.

After three hours of actual marching (= seven miles) in an east-north-easterly direction, we ascended a path greasy with drizzle, parquetted by negro feet and infested with “drivers,” which now became troublesome. It led to Banza Nkulu, a shabby settlement of unclean plantations and ragged huts of far inferior construction: stacks of grass were piled upon the ground, and this new thatch was greatly wanted. Here the lands of the “bush-men” begin: instead of marching directly to the chief’s house, we sat in our wet clothes under a friendly wild fig. The women flocked out at the cry of the hammock-bearers and, nursing their babies, sat down to the enjoyment of a stare; they had lost, however, the merriment of their more civilized sisters, and they hardly ever vouchsafed a laugh or a smile. The curiosity of the “Zinkomba” knew no bounds; all were unusually agitated by the aspect of a man coloured like themselves; they jerked out their leafy crinolines by forward movements of the lower body, swayed violently from side to side, and cried “Ha-rr-rr-rr-rr!” and “Jojolo! jojolo!” till they were hoarse. As usual, the adults would not allow me to approach them, and I was obliged to rest contented with sketching their absurdities. To punish this daring, the Jinkomba brought a man masked like a white, with beard and whiskers, who is supposed to strike the stranger with awe: it was all in vain, I had learned to trill the R as roundly as themselves, and they presently left me as a “perdido,” an incorrigible.

In the days of the Expedition, Nkulu had but one ruler, of whom Tuckey says (p. 148), that he found less pomp and noise, but much more civility and hospitality than from the richer kings he had visited. Now there are three who require their “dashes,” and each has his linguister, who must not be passed by without notice. Moreover, as population and luxury have increased on the line of route, bark-cloth has disappeared and even the slaves are dressed in cottons. We waited, patiently hungry, till 4 P.M. because the interpreters had gone on some “fish palaver” to the river. At that hour a procession of some two hundred and fifty men headed by a drum and Chingufu (cymbal-bells) defiled before us, crowding round three umbrellas, trade-articles in the last stage of “seediness.” These comforts protected from the sun, which was deep hid behind a purple nimbus, an equal number of great men in absurd red nightcaps or old felt wideawakes, shirts of coloured cotton, and second-hand waistcoats of silk or satin. The only signs of luxury were here and there a well-carved ebony stick, and a gunstock resplendent with brass tacks. All sat down in a semi-circle before us, six or seven deep in front and four or five at the sides: the women and children took their places in the rear, and one of them fondled a prick-eared cur with an attempt at a ribbon round its neck.

The head linguister, who, like “Persian interpreters” to commanders in chief of India during my clay, could not speak a word of any language but his own, after clapping hands, congratulated us in the name of the great king Nekulu; he lives, it appears, in a Banza at some distance to the north or north-east, out of sight of the river, and he cannot be visited without great outlay of gunpowder and strong waters. We returned compliments, and after the usual complications we came to the main point, the “dash.” I had privily kept a piece of satin-stripe, and this was produced as the very last of our viaticum. The interpreter, having been assured that we had nothing else to give, retired with his posse to debate; whilst we derided the wild manners of these “bush-folk,” who feared to shake hands with us. After an hour or so the council returned, clapped palms, sat clown, grumbled at the gift and gave formal leave to see the Yellala — how the word now jarred in my ears after its abominable repetition! Had these men been told a month before that a white would have paid for permission to visit what they considered common property, they would have refused belief: with characteristic readiness, however, the moment they saw an opportunity of “making money,” they treated the novelty as a matter of course.

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This palaver settled, the chiefs danced within a ring formed by their retainers; the speeches were all sung, not spoken; and obeisances and dustings of elaborate complexity concluded the eventful meeting, which broke up as it began with drum and Chingufu. There was not a symptom of hospitality; we had preserved some provaunt from our last station, or we should have been famished. My escort forgot their disappointments in a “ball,” which lasted through the cool, clear and dewy night till nearly dawn. It is evidently a happy temperament which can dance off hunger and fatigue.

1 This palm-clapping is often alluded to in “O Muata Cazembe” (pp. 223 et passim).

2 “Highlands of the Brazil,” vol. ii. chap. xv. The red clay of the Congo region is an exact copy of what is found on the opposite side of the Atlantic.

3 “Journal of an African Cruiser,” by an Officer of the United States Navy, p. 173. London, 1848. Tuckey (“Narrative,” 132) gives a sketch of the building.

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