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

Chapter 5.

Into the Congo River. — the Factories. — trip to Shark’s Point. — the Padrão and Pinda.

The best preparation for a first glance at the Congo River is to do as all do, to study the quaint description which old Purchas borrowed from the “Chronica da Companhia de Jesus em Portugal.”

“The Zaire is of such force that no ship can get in against the current but near to the shore; yea, it prevails against the ocean’s saltness three-score, and as some say, four-score miles within the sea, before his proud waves yield their full homage, and receive that salt temper in token of subjection. Such is the haughty spirit of that stream, overrunning the low countries as it passeth, and swollen with conceit of daily conquests and daily supplies, which, in armies of showers, are, by the clouds, sent to his succour, runnes now in a furious rage, thinking even to swallow the ocean, which before he never saw, with his mouth wide gaping eight-and-twenty miles, as Lopez1 affirmeth, in the opening; but meeting with a more giant-like enemie which lies lurking under the cliffes to receive his assault, is presently swallowed in that wider womb, yet so as, always being conquered, he never gives over, but in an eternall quarrel, with deeper and indented frownes in his angry face, foaming with disclaine, and filling the aire with noise (with fresh helpe), supplies those forces which the salt sea hath consumed.”

I was disappointed after the Gambia and Gaboon rivers in the approach to the Congo. About eight miles south of the mouth the green sea changed to a clear brown which will be red during the flood. Some three degrees (F. 79° to 82°) cooler than the salt tide, the lighter water, which was fresh as rain, feathered out like a fan; a rippling noise was faintly audible, and the clear lines of white foam had not time to melt into the coloured efflux. The flow was diverted into a regular curve northwards by the South Atlantic current; voyagers from Ascension Island to the north-west therefore feel the full throb of the great riverine pulse, and it has been recognized, they say, at a distance of 300 miles. Lopez, Merolla, and Dapper2 agree that the Congo freshens the water at thirty miles from the mouth, and that it can be distinguished thirty leagues off. The Amazonas tinges the sea along the Guiana coast 200 miles, and the effect of the Ganges extends to about twenty leagues. At this season, of course, we saw none of the floating islands which during the rains sail out sixty to seventy leagues from land. “Tuckey’s Expedition” informs us, that the Hon. Captain Irby, H.M.S. “Amelia,” when anchored twelve miles from the South Point, in fifteen fathoms, “observed on the ocean large floating islands covered with trees and bushes, which had been torn from the banks by the violent current.” The Journal of Captain Scobell, H.M.S. “Thais,” remarks: “In crossing this stream I met several floating islands or broken masses from the banks of that noble river.” We shall find them higher up the bed, only forming as the inundation begins; I doubt, however, that at any time they equal the meadows which stud the mouth of the Rio Formoso (Benin River).

Historic Point Padrao, the “Mouta Seca,” or Dry Bush, of the modern Portuguese, showed no signs of hospitality. The fierce rollers of the spumous sea broke and recoiled, foaming upon the sandy beach, which they veiled with a haze of water-dust, almost concealing the smoke that curled from the mangrove-hedged “King Antonio’s Town.” Then, steaming to the north-east, we ran five miles to Turtle Cove, formerly Turtle Corner, a shallow bay, whose nearest point is “Twitty Twa Bush,” the baptismal effort of some English trader. And now appeared the full gape of the Congo mouth, yawning seven sea-miles wide; the further shore trending to the north-west in a low blue line, where Moanda and Vista, small “shipping-ports” for slaves, were hardly visible in the hazy air. As we passed the projecting tooth of Shark Point, a sandspit garnished with mangroves and dotted with palmyras, the land-squali flocked from their dirty-brown thatches to the beach, where flew the symbolic red flag. Unlike most other settlements, which are so buried in almost impenetrable bush that the traveller may pass by within a few yards without other sign but the human voice, this den of thieves and wreckers, justly named in more ways than one, flaunts itself in the face of day.

The Congo disclaims a bore, but it has a very distinct bar, the angle pointing up stream, and the legs beginning about Bananal Bank (N.) and Alligator River (S.). Here the great depth above and below (145 and 112 fathoms) shallows to 6–9. Despite the five-knot current we were “courteously received into the embraces of the river;” H.M. Steamship “Griffon” wanted no “commanding sea-breeze,” she found none of the difficulties which kept poor Tuckey’s “brute of a transport” drifting and driving for nearly a week before he could anchor off Fuma or Sherwood’s Creek, the “Medusa” of modern charts (?) and which made Shark Point, with its three-mile current, a “more redoubtable promontory than that of Good Hope was to early navigators.” We stood boldly E.N.E. towards the high blue clump known as Bulambemba, and, with the dirty yellow breakers of Mwáná Mazia Bank far to port, we turned north to French Point, and anchored in a safe bottom of seven fathoms.

Here we at once saw the origin of the popular opinion that the Congo has no delta. On both sides, the old river valley, 32 miles broad, is marked out by grassy hills rolling about 200 feet high, trending from E.N.E. to W.S.W., and forming on the right bank an acute angle with the Ghats. But, whilst the northern line approaches within five or six miles, the southern bank, which diverges about the place where “King Plonly’s town” appears in charts, sweeps away some seventeen miles down coast, and leaves a wide tract of mangrove swamps. These, according to the Portuguese traders, who have their own plans of the river, extend some seventy miles south to Ambrizette: slavers keep all such details very close, and doubtless for good reasons —“short-cuts” greatly facilitate shipping negroes. The lesser Congo delta is bounded north by the Banana or Malela stream, whose lower fork is “Pirates’ Creek;” and south by the mangrove-clad drains, which subtend the main line: the base measures 12–15 miles. At the highest station, Boma, I shall have something to say about the greater delta. The left bank of the embouchure projects further seaward, making it look “under hung,” representing in charts a lower jaw, and the projection of Shark Point the teeth, en profile.

My first care was to collect news at the factories. French Point is a long low spit, which supports two establishments where the chart (September 1859) gives “Emigration Depot.” It is the old Banana Point, and probably the older Palmeirinha Point of James Barbot, who places it in the territory of Goy (Ngoy), now Cabinda. This part has greatly changed since 1859; either the Banana River requires removing two miles to the north, or French Point must be placed an equal distance south. The principal establishment, M. Régis’ of Marseilles, is built in his best style; a two-storied and brilliantly “chunam’d” house, containing a shop and store on the ground-floor, defended by a three-pounder. Behind it a square “compound,” with high walls, guards the offices and the other requisites of a bar racoon. It is fronted by a little village where “Laptots,” Senegal Moslems, and men-at-arms live with their families and slaves. In the rear stands the far more modest and conscientious establishment of Messrs. Pencoff and Kerdyk: their plank bungalow is full of work, whilst the other lies idle; so virtue here is not, as in books, its own reward.

M. Victor Parrot, the young Swiss agent of M. Régis, hospitably asked us to take up our quarters with him, and promised to start us up stream without delay; his employer fixes the tariff of every article, and no discretion is left to the subordinates. We called upon M. Elkman of the Dutch factory. His is a well-known name on the river, and, though familiar with the people, he has more than once run some personal risk by assisting our cruizers to make captures. He advised us to lose no time in setting out before the impending rains: I wanted, however, a slight preparation for travel, and determined to see something of the adjoining villages, especially the site of the historic Padrão.

Whilst crossing the stream, we easily understood how the river was supposed to be in a perpetual state of inundation. The great breadth and the shallows near either jaw prevent the rain-floods being perceptible unless instruments are used, and “hydrometry,” still in an imperfect state, was little to be depended upon in the days when European ideas concerning the Congo River were formed. Twenty miles up stream the high-water mark becomes strongly marked, and further on, as will be seen, it shows even better.

If Barbot’s map have any claim to correctness, the southern shore has changed greatly since A.D. 1700. A straight line from Cape Padrão to Chapel Point, now Shark Point, was more than double the breadth of the embouchure. It is vain to seek for the “Island of Calabes” mentioned by Andrew Battel, who was “sent to a place called Zaire on the River Congo, to trade for elephants’ teeth, wheat, and palm oil.” It may be a mistake for Cavallos, noticed in the next chapter; but the “town on it” must have been small, and has left, they say, no traces. After a scramble through the surf, we were received at Shark Point, where, at this season, the current is nearer five than three knots, by Mr. Tom Peter, Mafuka, or chief trader, amongst these “Musurungus.” He bore his highly respectable name upon the frontal band of his “berretta” alias “corôa,” an open-worked affair, very like the old-fashioned jelly-bag night cap. This head-gear of office made of pine-apple fibre — Tuckey says grass — costs ten shillings; it is worn by the kinglets, who now distribute it to all the lieges whose fortunes exceed some fifty dollars.

Most of the Squaline villagers appeared to be women, the men being engaged in making money elsewhere. Besides illicit trade, which has now become very dangerous, a little is done in the licit line: grotesquely carved sticks, calabashes rudely ornamented with ships and human figures, the neat bead-work grass-strings used by the women to depress the bosom, and cashimbos or pipes mostly made about Boma. All were re-baptized in 1853, but they show no sign of Christianity save crosses, and they are the only prostitutes on the river.

Following Tom Peter, and followed by a noisy tail, we walked to the west end of Shark Point, to see if aught remained of the Padrão, the first memorial column, planted in 1485 by the explorer Diogo Cam, knight of the king’s household, Dom João II. “O principe perfeito,” who, says De Barros (“Asia,” Decad. I. lib. iii. chap. 3), “to immortalize the memory of his captains,” directed them to plant these pillars in all remarkable places. The Padrões, which before the reign of D. João were only wooden crosses, assumed the shape of “columns, twice the height of a man (estado), with the scutcheon bearing the royal arms. At the sides they were to be inscribed in Latin and Portuguese (to which James Barbot adds Arabic), with the name of the monarch who sent the expedition, the date of discovery, and the captain who made it; on the summit was to be raised a stone cross cramped in with lead.” According to others, the inscription mentioned only the date, the king, and the captain. The Padrão of the Congo was especially called from the “Lord of Guinea’s favourite saint, de São Jorge”— sit faustum! As Carli shows, the patron of Congo and Angola was Santiago, who was seen bodily assisting at a battle in which Dom Affonso, son of Giovi (Emmanuel), first Christian king of Congo, prevailed against a mighty host of idolaters headed by his pagan brother “Panso Aquitimo.” In 1786 Sir Home Popham found a marble cross on a rock near Angra dos Ilheos or Pequena (south latitude 26° 37’), with the arms of Portugal almost effaced. Till lately the jasper pillar at Cabo Negro bore the national arms. Doubtless much latitude was allowed in the make and material of these padrões; that which I saw near Cananea in the Brazil is of saccharine marble, four palms high by two broad; it bears a scutcheon charged with a cross and surmounted by another.

There is some doubt concerning the date of this mission. De Barros (I. iii. 3) says A.D. 1484. Lopes de Limn (IV. i. 5) gives the reason why A.D. 1485 is generally adopted, and he believes that the cruise of the previous year did not lead to the Congo River. The explorer, proceeding to inspect the coast south of Cape St. Catherine (south latitude 2° 30’), which he had discovered in 1473, set out from São Jorge da Mina, now Elmina. He was accompanied by Martin von Behaim of Nürnberg (nat. circ. A.D. 1436, ob. A.D. 1506), a pupil of the mathematician John Müller (Regiomontanus); and for whom the discovery of the New World has been claimed.

After doubling his last year’s terminus, Diogo Cam chanced upon a vast embouchure, and, surprised by the beauty of the scenery and the volume of the stream, he erected his stone Padrão, the first of its kind. Finding the people unintelligible to the interpreters, he sent four of his men with a present of hawk’s bells (cascaveis) and blue glass beads to the nearest king, and, as they did not soon return, he sailed back to Portugal with an equal number of natives as hostages, promising to return after fifteen moons. One of them, Caçuta (Zacuten of Barbot), proved to be a “fidalgo” of Sonho, and, though the procedure was contrary to orders, it found favour with the “Perfect Prince.” From these men the Portuguese learned that the land belonged to a great monarch named the Mwani–Congo or Lord of Congo, and thus they gave the river a name unknown to the riverine peoples.

Diogo Cam, on his second visit, sent presents to the ruler with the hostages, who had learned as much Portuguese and Christianity as the time allowed; recovered his own men, and passed on to Angola, Benguela and Cabo Negro, adding to his discoveries 200 leagues of coast. When homeward bound, he met the Mwani–Sonho, and visited the Mwani–Congo, who lived at Ambasse Congo (São Salvador), distant 50 leagues (?). The ruler of the “great and wonderful River Zaire,” touched by his words, sent with him sundry youths, and the fidalgo Caçuta, who was baptized into Dom Joao, to receive instruction, and to offer a present of ivory and of palm cloth which was remarkably strong and bright. A request for a supply of mechanics and missionaries brought out the first mission of Dominicans. They sailed in December, 1490, under Gonçalo de Sousa; they were followed by others, and in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the country was fairly over-run by the Propaganda. A future page will enter into more details, and show the results of their labours.

The original Padrão was destroyed by the Dutch in 1645, an act of barbarism which is justly called “Vandalica façanha.” Father Merolla says (1682), “The Hollanders, out of envy, broke the fine marble cross to pieces; nevertheless, so much remained of it, when I was there, as to discover plainly the Portuguese arms on the ruins of the basis, with an inscription under them in Gothic characters, though not easy to be read.” In 1859 a new one was placed in Turtle Cove, a few yards south-west of Shark Point; but the record was swept away by an unusually high tide, and no further attempt has been made.

We were then led down a sandy narrow line in the bush, striking south-east, and, after a few yards, we stood before two pieces of marble in a sandy hollow. The tropical climate, more adverse than that of London, had bleached and marked them till they looked like pitted chalk: the larger stump, about two feet high, was bandaged, as if after amputation, with cloths of many colours, and the other fragment lay at its feet. Tom Peter, in a fearful lingua-Franca, Negro–Anglo-Portuguese, told us that his people still venerated the place as part of a religious building; it is probably the remnant thus alluded to by Lopes de Lima (iii. 1–6): “Behind this point (Padrão) is another monument of the piety of our monarchs, and of the holy objects which guided them to the conquest of Guinea, a Capuchin convent intended to convert the negroes of Sonho; it has long been deserted, and is still so. Even in A.D. 1814, D. Garcia V., the king of Congo, complained in a letter to our sovereign of the want of missionaries.” Possibly the ruined convent is the church which we shall presently visit. Striking eastward, we soon came to a pool in the bush sufficiently curious and out of place to make the natives hold it “Fetish;” they declare that it is full of fish, but it kills all men who enter it —“all men” would not include white men. Possibly it is an old piscina; according to the Abbé Proyart, the missionaries taught the art of pisciculture near the village of Kilonga, where they formed their first establishment. The place is marked “Salt-pond” in Barbot, who tells us that the condiment was made there and carried inland.

A short walk to a tall tree backing the village showed us, amongst twenty-five European graves, five tombs or cenotaphs of English naval officers, amongst whom two fell victims to mangrove-oysters, and the rest to the deadly “calenture” of the lower Congo. We entered the foul mass of huts,

“Domus non ullo robore fulta

Sed sterili junco cannâque intecta palustri.”

It was too early for the daily debauch of palm wine, and the interiors reeked with the odours of nocturnal palm oil. The older travellers were certainly not blasés; they seemed to find pleasure and beauty wherever they looked: Ca da Mosto (1455), visiting the Senegal, detected in this graveolent substance, fit only for wheel-axles, a threefold property, that of smelling like violets, of tasting like oil of olives, and tinging victuals like saffron, with a colour still finer. Even Mungo Park preferred the rancid tallow-like shea butter to the best product of the cow. We chatted with the Shark Point wreckers, and found that they thought like Arthegal,

“For equal right in equal things doth stand.”

Moreover, here, as in the Shetlands of the early nineteenth century, when the keel touches bottom the seaman loses his rights, and she belongs to the shore.

Tom Peter offered to show us other relics of the past if we would give him two days. A little party was soon made up, Mr. J. C. Bigley, the master, and Mr. Richards, the excellent gunner of the “Griffon,” were my companions. We set out in a south-by-easterly direction to the bottom of Sonho, or Diogo’s Bay, which Barbot calls “Bay of Pampus Rock.” Thence we entered Alligator River, a broad lagoon, the Raphael Creek of Maxwell’s map, not named in the hydrographic chart of 1859. Leading south with many a bend, it is black water and thick, fetid mud, garnished with scrubby mangrove, where Kru-boys come to cut fuel and catch fever; here the dew seemed to fall in cold drops. After nine miles we reached a shallow fork, one tine of which, according to our informants, comes from the Congo Grande, or São Salvador, distant a week’s march. Leaving the whaler in charge of a Kru-man, we landed, and walked about half a mile over loose sand bound by pine-apple root, to the Banza Sonho, or, as we call it, King Antonio’s Town — not to be mistaken for that placed in the charts behind Point Padron. Our object being unknown, there was fearful excitement in the thatched huts scattered under the palm grove, till Tom Peter introduced us, and cleared for us a decent hut. The buildings, if they can be so called, are poor and ragged, copies of those which we shall see upon the uplands. Presently we were visited by the king named after that saint “of whom the Evil One was parlous afraid.” This descendant of the “Counts of Sonho,” in his dirty night-cap and long coat of stained red cloth, was a curious contrast to the former splendour of the “count’s habit,” with cap of stitched silk which could be worn only by him and his nobles, fine linen shirt, flowered silk cloak, and yellow stockings of the same material. When King Affonso III. gave audience to the missioners (A.D. 1646), the negro grandee “had on a vest of cloth set with precious stones, and in his hat a crown of diamonds, besides other stones of great value. He sat on a chair under a canopy of rich crimson velvet, with gilt nails, after the manner of Europe; and under his feet was a great carpet, with two stools of the same colour, and silk laced with gold.” After the usual palaver we gave the black earl a cloth and bottle of rum for leave to pass on, but no one would accompany us that evening, all pretending that they wanted time to fit up the hammocks. At night a body of armed bushmen marched down to inspect us.

The demands for porterage were so exorbitant next morning, that we set out on foot under the guidance of Tom Peter. We passed southwards over large tracts of bush and gramineous plants, with patches of small plantations, manioc and thur; and settlements girt by calabash-trees, cocoas, palmyra and oil palms. The people poured out, threatened impotent vengeance on those who brought the white men to “make their country,” that is, to seize and settle in it. The only animals were fowls and pigs; small strong cages acting as hogstyes showed that leopards were dangerous; in 1816 Lieutenant Hawkey found signs of these animals, together with elephant, wild boar, and antelope. Now there is no sport below the cataracts, and possibly very little, except in the water, above them. Thence we debouched upon rolling land, loose and sandy waves, sometimes divided by swamps; it is the lower end of the high yellow band seen from the south of the river, the true coast of alluvial soil, scattered here and there with quartz and pebbles. Then the bush opened out, and showed to the north-east stretches of grassy land, where the wild fig-tree drooped its branches, laden with thick fleshy leafage, to the ground; these are the black dots which are seen from afar studding the tawny desert-like surface. Flowers were abundant despite the lateness of the season, and the sterility of the soil was evidenced by cactus and euphorbia.

After a walk of six miles Tom Peter pompously announced that we had reached the church. We saw only an oblong furrow and a little worm-eaten wood near three or four of the most miserable “magalia;” but a bell, hung to a dwarf gallows, was dated 1700, and inscribed, “Si Deus cum nobis Qis (sic) contra nos?” The aspect of this article did not fail to excite Mr. Richards’ concupiscence: I looked into the empty huts, and in the largest found a lot of old church gear, the Virgin (our Lady of Pinda), saints, and crucifixes, a tank-like affair of iron that acted as font, and tattered bundles of old music-scores in black and red ink. In Captain Tuckey’s day some of the Sonho men could read the Latin Litany; there was a priest ordained by the Capuchins of Loanda, a bare-footed (and bare-faced) black apostle, with a wife and five handmaids; and a multitude of converts loaded with crucifixes and satchels of relics. Our home march was enlivened by glimpses of the magnificent river seen through the perennial tropical foliage, and it did not suggest trite reflections upon the meanness of man’s highest aspirations in presence of eternal Nature.

We had been treading upon no vulgar spot. We are now in the earldom of Sonho, bounded north by the Congo River and south by the Ambriz, westward by the Atlantic, and eastward by the “Duchy of Bamba.” It was one of the great divisions of the Congo kingdom, and “absolute, except only its being tributary to the Lord Paramount.” The titles of Portugal were adopted by the Congoese, according to Father Cavazzi, after A.D. 1571, when the king constituted himself a vassal of the Portuguese crown. Here was the Pinda whose port and fort played an important part in local history. “Built by the Sonhese army at the mouth of the River Zaire,” it commanded both the stream and sea: it was plundered in 1600 by four French pirates. According to Carli (1666–67) “the Count of Sonho, the fifth dignitary of the empire, resided in the town of Sonho, a league from the River Zaire.” Pinda was for a time the head-quarters of the Portuguese Mission, subject only to that of São Salvador; it consisted of an apartment two stories high, which caused trouble, being contrary to country custom.

At the French factory I found the employés well “up” in the travels of the unfortunate adventurer Douville (“Voyage au Congo et dans l’Intérieur de l’Afrique Equinoxiale fait dans les années 1828, 1829, et 1830. Par J. B. Douville, Secrétaire de la Société de Géographic de Paris pour l’année 1832, etmembre de plusieurs Sociétés savantes françoises et étrangères. Ouvrage auquel la Société de Géographic a décerné le prix dans sa séance du 30 mars, 1832. 3 tomes. 8vo. Paris, 1832”). Dr. Gardner, in his Brazilian travels, gives an account of Douville’s murder, the consequence of receiving too high fees for medical attendance on the banks of the São Francisco. So life like are his descriptions of the country and its scenery, that no one in the factory would believe him to have been an impostor, and the Frenchmen evidently held my objections to be “founded on nationality.” The besetting sins of the three volumes are inordinate vanity and inconséquence, but these should not obscure our vision as to their solid and remarkable merits. Compare the picturesque account of São Paulo with those of the latest English travellers, and the anthropology of the people, their religion, their ceremonies, their magic, their dress and costume, their trade, their manufactures, their maladies (including earth-eating), their cannibalism, the condition of their women, and the necessity of civilizing them by education before converting them, all subjects of the highest interest, with that of Mungo Park, for instance, arid we have a fair measure of the French traveller’s value. The native words inserted into the text are for the most part given with unusual correctness, and the carping criticism which would correct them sadly requires correction itself. “Thus the word which he writes mouloundu in his text, and mulundu in his vocabulary, is not singular, as he supposes, but the plural of loondu, a mountain” (p. 200 of the” Review”). Firstly, Douville has warned the reader that the former is the spelling best adapted to French, the latter to Portuguese. Secondly, “mulundu” in Angolan is singular, the plural being “milundu”— a handful, the Persians say, is a specimen of the heap. The excess of female births in low and unhealthy places (1, 309) and as the normal result of polygamy (3, 243), is a highly interesting subject still awaiting investigation. I do not mean that Douville was the first to observe this phenomenon, which forced itself upon the notice of physiologists in ancient times. Foster (“Cook’s Third Voyage”) remarks that, wherever men and animals have many females, the feminine births preponderate over the masculine; a fact there explained by the “organic molecule” of Buffon. Pigafetta, the circumnavigator, gives the King of Tidor eighteen daughters to eight sons.

The French traveller does not pretend to be a mineralogist, but he does his best to lay open the metallic riches of the country; he gives careful observations of temperature, in water as well as air, he divines the different proportions of oxygen in the atmosphere, and he even applies himself to investigating the comparative heat of the negro’s blood, an inquiry still far from being exhausted. The most remarkable part is certainly the medical, and here the author was simply in advance of his age. Instead of the lancet, the drastic cathartics, and the calomel with which our naval surgeons slew their patients, he employed emetics and tonics to an extent that would have charmed my late friend, Dr. Dickson, the chromothermalist, and he preceded Dr. Hutchinson in the use of quinine wine. Indeed, the peculiar aptitude for medicine shown in these pages led to the traveller’s adopting the destructive art of healing as a profession, and caused his unhappy end. The curious mixture of utter imposture and of genius for observation which a traveller can detect in Douville renders him worthy of a monograph.

1 Duarte Lopez, the Portuguese Captain, whose journals were used by Pigafetta. He went to the Congo regions in 1578, and stayed there ten years. “Philipp’s Voyages,” vol. iii. p. 236.

2 “Philipp’s Voyages,” vol. iii. p. 236.

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