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

Chapter 15.

Return to the Congo Mouth.

In the evening there was a palaver.

I need hardly say that my guide, after being paid to show me Nsundi, never had the slightest intention to go beyond the Yellala. Irritated by sleeping in the open air, and by the total want of hospitality amongst the bushmen, he and his moleques had sat apart all day, the picture of stubborn discontent, and

“Not a man in the place

But had discontent written large in his face.”

I proposed to send back a party for rum, powder, and cloth to the extent of £150, or half the demand, and my factotum, Selim, behaved like a trump. Gidi Mavunga, quite beyond self-control, sprang up, and declared that, if the Mundele would not follow him, that obstinate person might remain behind. The normal official deprecation, as usual, made him the more headstrong; he rushed off and disappeared in the bush, followed by a part of his slaves, the others crying aloud to him, “Wenda!”— get out! Seeing that the three linguisters did not move, he presently returned, and after a furious address in Fiote began a Portuguese tirade for my benefit. This white man had come to their country, and, instead of buying captives, was bent upon enslaving their Mfumos; but that “Branco” should suffer for his attempt; no “Mukanda” or book (that is, letter) should go down stream; all his goods belonged of right to his guide, and thus he would learn to sit upon the heads of the noblesse, with much of the same kind.

There are times when the traveller either rises above or sinks to the level of, or rather below, his party. I had been sitting abstractedly, like the great quietist, Buddha, when the looks of the assembly suggested an “address.” This was at once delivered in Portuguese, with a loud and angry voice. Gidi Mavunga, who had been paid for Nsundi, not for the Yellala, had spoken like a “small boy” (i.e., a chattel). I had no wish to sit upon other men’s heads, but no man should sit on mine. Englishmen did not want slaves, nor would they allow others to want them, but they would not be made slaves themselves. My goods were my own, and King Nessala, not to speak of Mambuco Prata — the name told — had made themselves responsible for me. Lastly, if the Senhor Gidi Mafung wanted to quarrel, the contents of a Colt’s six-shooter were at his disposal.

Such a tone would have made a European furious; it had a contrary effect upon the African. Gidi Mavunga advanced from his mat, and taking my hand placed it upon his head, declaring me his “Mwenemputo.” The linguisters then entered the circle, chanted sundry speeches, made little dances, then bent their knuckles to earth, much in the position of boys preparing to jump over their own joined hands, dusted themselves, and clapped palms. Very opportunely arrived a present from the king of fowls, dried fish and plantains, which restored joy to the camp. “Mwenemputo,” I must explain, primarily meaning “the King of Portugal,” is applied in East Central Africa to a negro king and chiefs (“The Lands of the Cazembe,” p. 17). In Loango also it is the name of a high native official, and, when used as in the text, it is equivalent to Mfumo, chief or head of family.

At night Gidi Mavunga came to our quarters and began to talk sense. Knowing that my time was limited, he enlarged upon the badness of the road and the too evident end of the travelling season, when the great rains would altogether prevent fast travel. Banza Ninga, the next stage, was distant two or three marches, and neither shelter nor provisions were to be found on the way. Here a canoe would carry us for a day (12 miles) to the Sangala Rapids: then would come the third portage of two days (22 miles) to Nsundi. My outfit at Banza Nokki was wholly insufficient; the riverine races were no longer tractable as in the days of his father, when white men first visited the land. My best plan was to return to Boma at once, organize a party, and march upon Congo Grande (S. Salvador); there I should find whites, Portuguese, Englishmen and their “Kru-men” the term generally applied on the southern coast to all native employés of foreign traders. If determined upon bring “converted into black man” I might join some trading party into the interior. As regards the cloth and beads advanced by me for the journey to Nsundi, a fair proportion would be returned at Banza Nokki. And so saying the old fox managed to look as if he meant what he said.

All this, taken with many a grain, was reasonable. The edge of my curiosity had been taken off by the Yellala, and nothing new could be expected from the smaller formations up stream. Time forbade me to linger at Banza Nkulu. The exorbitant demand had evidently been made by express desire of Gidi Mavunga, and only a fortnight’s delay could have reduced it to normal dimensions. Yet with leisure success was evident. All the difficulties of the Nsundi road would have vanished when faced. The wild people showed no feeling against foreigners, and the Nkulu linguisters during their last visit begged me to return as soon as possible and “no tell lie.” I could only promise that their claims should be laid before the public. Accordingly a report of this trip was at once sent in to Her Majesty’s Foreign Office, and a paper was read before the British Association of September, 1864.

Early on Thursday morning (Sept. 17) we began the down march. It was a repetition of the up march, except that all were bent upon rushing home, like asses to their stables; none of those posés, or regular halts on the line of march, as practised by well-trained voyageurs, are known to Congo-land. There was some reason for the hurry, and travellers in these regions will do well to remember it, or they may starve with abundance around them. The kings and chiefs hold it their duty to entertain the outward bound; but when cloth, beads, and rum have been exhausted, the returning wanderer sits under a tree instead of entering the banza, and it is only an exceptional householder who will send him a few eggs or plantains. They “cut” you, as a rule, more coolly than ever town man cut a continental acquaintance. Finally, the self-imposed hardships of the down march break men’s spirits for further attempts, and their cupidity cannot neutralize their natural indolence thus reinforced.

We entered on the next afternoon Gidi Mavunga’s village, where the lieges received him with shouts and hand-clappings: at the Papagayo’s there was a dance which lasted through that night and the next. I stayed three days at Chinguvu finishing my sketches, but to have recovered anything from the guide would have required three weeks. The old villain relaxed his vigilance over the women, who for the first time were allowed to enter the doors without supervision: Merolla treats of this stale trick, and exclaims —

“Ah pereat! didicit fallere si qua virum.”

I was reminded of the classical sentiment upon the Rio de S. Francisco (“Highlands of the Brazil,” ii. chap, xiv.), where, amongst other sentiments, the boatmen severely denounce in song

“Mulher que engana tropeiro.”

As a rule throughout West Africa, where even the wildest tribes practise it, the “panel dodge” served, as Dupuis remarked, to supply the slave-trade, and in places like Abeokuta it became a nuisance: the least penalty to which it leads is the confiscation of the Lothario’s goods and chattels. Foiled in his benevolent attempt, the covetous senior presently entered the hut, and began unceremoniously to open a package of cloth which did not belong to him. Selim cocked his revolver, and placed it handy, so the goods were afterwards respected.

At length, on Sept. 19, a piece of cloth (=48 yards) procured a canoe. But calico and beads are not removed from an African settlement without disturbance: my factotum has given a detailed account of the scene.1 Gidi Mavunga so managed that the porters, instead of proceeding straight to the stream, marched upon Banza Nokki where his royal son was awaiting us. Worse still, Nessudikira’s royal mother was there, a large old virago, who smoked like a steam-engine and who “swore awful.” The moleques were armed, but none liked proceeding to extremes; so, after an unusually loud quarrel, we reached the river in three hours, and at 9.45 A.M. we set out for Boma.

The down voyage was charming. Instead of hugging the southern bank, we raced at a swinging pace down mid-stream. A few showers had wonderfully improved the aspect of the land, where

“Every tree well from his fellow grew

With branches broad, laden with leaves new,

That springen out against the sunny sheen,

Some very red and some a glad light green;”

and the first breath of spring gave life to the queer antediluvian vegetation — calabash and cactus, palmyra, bombax, and fern. An admirable mirage lifted the canoes which preceded us clean out of the river, and looking down stream the water seemed to flow up hill, as it does, according to Mrs. —-, in the aqueducts of Madeira. Although the tide began to flow up shortly after 10 A.M., and the sea-breeze wafe unusually strong, we covered the forty-five miles in 7 hrs. 15 m. Amidst shouts of “Izakula Mundeh,”— white men cum agen! — we landed at Boma, and found that the hospitable Sr. Pereira had waited dinner, to which I applied myself most “wishedly.”

Once more in civilization, we prepared for a march upon S. Salvador.

No white man at Boma knew anything of the road to the old Capital; but, as a letter had been received from it after three days’ march, there was evidently no difficulty. I wrote to Porto da Lenha for an extra supply of “black money,” which was punctually forwarded; both Chico Furano and Nihama Chamvu volunteered for the journey, and preparations were progressing as rapidly as could be expected in these slow-moving lands, when they were brought to the abruptest conclusion. On the 24th Sept. a letter from the Commodore of the station informed me that I had been appointed H. M.‘s Commissioner to Dahome, and that, unless I could at once sail in H.M.S. “Griffon,” no other opportunity would be found for some time. The only step left was to apply for a canoe, and, after a kindly farewell to my excellent host, I left Boma on the evening of Sept. 25.

With a view of “doing” the mosquitoes, we ran down the Nshibul or central arm of the Nzadi, and found none of the whirlpools mentioned by the “Expedition” near Fetish Rock. The bright clear night showed us silhouettes of dark holms, high and wooded to the north, and southwards banks of papyrus outlying long straggling lines of thin islands like a huge caterpillar. The canoe-men attempted to land at one place, declaring that some king wanted “dash,” but we were now too strong for them: these fellows, if allowed, will halt to speak every boat on the river. The wind fell to a dead calm, and five hours and a half sufficed to cover the thirty miles between Boma and Porto da Lenha. Here Mr. Scott supplied me with a fine canoe and a fresh crew of seven paddles.

The noon was grey and still as we left the Whydah of the south, but at 2 P.M. the sea-breeze came up stiff and sudden, the tide also began to flow; the river roared; the meeting of wind and water produced what the Indus boatmen call a “lahar” (tide rip), and the Thalweg became almost as rough as the Yellala. Our canoe was literally

“Laying her whole side on the sea,

As a leaping fish does.”

Unwilling to risk swamping my instruments, I put into the northern bank, where our friend, the palhabote Espérance, passed under a tricolour, and manned only by Laptots. As we waved a signal to them, they replied with a straggling fire of musketry to what they considered a treacherous move on the part of plundering Musurungus. At sunset a lump of scirrhus before the sun was so dense that its dark shadow formed a brush like the trabes of a comet. This soon melted away, and a beautifully diaphanous night tempted us to move towards the dreary funnel of darkness which opened ahead. The clouds began to pour; again the stream became rough, and the swift upper or surface current meeting the cross-tide below represented an agitated “Race of Portland.” Wet and weary we reached Banana Point on Sunday, Sept. 27, 1863, fortunately not too “late for the mail,” and, next day, I was on board “Griffon,” ready for Dahome and for my late host King Gelele.

1 In the “Geographical Magazine” for February, 1875.

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