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

Chapter 6.

Up the Congo River. — the Slave Depot, Porto Da Lenha. — arrival at Boma.

M. Parrot was as good as his word. By August 31st, “L’Espérance,” a fine schooner-rigged palhabote (launch) of thirty-five tons, heavily sparred and carrying lots of “muslin,” was ready to receive my outfit. The party consisted of the commander, Mr. Bigley, and five chosen “Griffons,” including William Deane, boatswain’s mate, as good a man as his namesake in Blake’s day, and the estimable Friend, captain’s cook and Figaro in general. M. Pissot, an Arlésien, clerk to the factory, went up on business with a crew of eight useless Cabindas under Frank, their pagan “patron,” who could only run us aground. Finally, there was a guard of half-a-dozen “Laptots,” equally good sailors and soldiers. The French squadron in West Africa has the advantage over ours of employing these men, who are clean, intelligent, and brave; whilst we are reduced to the unprogressive Kru-man, who is, moreover, a model coward, a poltroon on principle.

At 5 P.M. our huge canvas drove us rapidly over the shoals and shallows of this imperfectly known sea: the Ethiopic Directory justly grumbles, “It is a subject of regret that navigators who have had occasion to enter the Congo, and to remain there some time, have not furnished us with more information about the tides.” This will be a work of labour and endurance; detached observations are of very little use. We at once remarked the complication caused by the upper, surface, or freshwater current of 3 to 4 knots an hour, meeting the under, or oceanic inflow. There is a short cut up Pirate’s Creek, but we avoided it for the usual reason, fear of finding it very long. Passing a low point to port, subtended north and south by the Bananal River and Pirate’s Creek, after some six knots we were abreast of Bulambemba (the Boulem beembo of Tuckey’s Vocabulary). It is interpreted “Answer,” hence our “Echo Point”(?); but others render it, “Hold your tongue.” The former is correct, and the thick high screen of trees explains the native and English names. Old writers call it Fathomless Point, which it is not now; a bank, the south-eastern projection of the great Mwáná Mázia shoal, has formed a few feet below the surface; but the term will apply at the distance of a mile further south. This acute angle shows a glorious clump, the “Tall Trees,” white mangroves rising a hundred feet, and red mangroves based upon pyramidal cages of roots; and beyond it the immediate shore is covered with a dense tropical vegetation, a tangle of bush, palms, and pandanus, matted with creepers and undergrowth, and rhyzophoras of many varieties delighting in brackish water. We passed on the right the Ponta de Jacaré (Point of the Crocodile), fronting Point Senegal on the other side. The natives call the former Ngándu (li. Jigándu), and farcical tales are told about it: in the lower settlements Europeans will not go abroad by night without a lantern. During my trip I sighted only one startled crocodile that floated log-like a mile off, and Captain Baak, of the Dutch house, had not seen one during a whole year at Banana Point.

We anchored for the night off the south side of the Zungá chyá Ngombe, in Portuguese Ilha do Boi (Bullock), the Rhinoceros Island of our early charts. It emerges from the waters of the right bank, a mere “ponton” plumed with dark mangroves and streaked with spar-like white trunks. This is probably the “Island of Horses,” where the Portuguese, flying from the victorious Hollanders, were lodged and fed by the courteous Count of Sonho; perhaps it is Battel’s “Isle Calabes.” The place is backed by the Monpanga or Mombang, the “Look-out Islands” of the chart, which has greatly changed since the beginning of the century; the dark mass of mangroves is now apparently part of the northern shore. Almost due south of the Ilha do Boi is the Zungá chyá Kampenzi, whence our word chimpanzee: in the hydrographic chart it is miswritten Zoonga Campendi, and in Tuckey’s map, which contradicts his text, “Zoonga Casaquoisa.” His “Zoonga Kampenzey,” also named “Halcyon Island,” appears to be the Draper’s Island or the “Monkey Island” of Mr. Maxwell: the latter in modern charts is more to the north-east, that is, above Porto da Lenha, than the former. The Simiads have been killed out; Captain Tuckey going up the river saw upwards of twenty which, but for their tails, might have been mistaken for negroes. Merolla says that wild men and women (gorillas?) have been captured in Sonho, and he carefully distinguishes them from baboons: one of them was presented to a friar of his order, who “bestowed it on the Portuguese governor of Loanda.” Chimpanzee Island may be the Zariacacongo of Father Merolla, who makes Cacongo (Great Congo) a large and independent kingdom” lying in the middle between Congo and Loango.” He describes Zariacacongo, “none of the smallest, and situate in the midst of the River Zaire.” It abounded in all sorts of provisions, was well peopled, consisted of a plain raised eight fathoms above water, and was divided from the kingdom of Congo by a river, over which there was a bridge.

After a pleasant breezy night upon the brown waters, on September 1st we hove anchor betimes and made for Scotchman’s Head, a conspicuous mangrove bluff forming a fine landmark on the left bank. The charts have lately shifted it some two miles west of its old position. Six or seven miles beyond it rise the blue uplands of the “Earldom of Sonho.” On our right, in mid-stream, lay a “crocodile bank,” a newly fixed grass islet, a few square feet of green and gold, which the floods will presently cover or carry away. To the left, above the easternmost “Mombang” and the network of islands behind it, opens the gape of the Malela River, a short cut to French Point, found useful when a dangerous tide-rip is caused by the strong sea-breeze meeting the violent current of the Thalweg. Above it lies a curious formation like concentric rings of trees inclosing grass: it is visible only from the north-east. Several slave factories now appear on either shore, single-storied huts of wood and thatch, in holes cut out of the densest bush, an impenetrable forest whose sloppy soil and miry puddles seem never to dry. The tenements serve as videttes and outposts, enabling cargoes to ship without the difficulties of passing Palm Point, and thus to make a straight run down stream. There are three on the north bank, viz. M. Rágis (aîné), now deserted, Sr. Lima Viana, and Sr. Antonio Fernandez; and three on the left side, Sr. Alessandro Ferreira, Sr. Guilherme, and Sr. Fonseca. Those on the southern or left bank facilitate overland transit to Mangue, Ambrizette, and other dépôts. At present it is “tiempo seco” (dull time), and the gérants keep their hands in by buying ground-nuts and palm oil. The slave trade, however, makes 500, not 50, per cent., and the agents are naturally fond of it, their mere salaries being only some 150 francs a month.

Landing at the factory of Sr. Fernandez, we were received by his agent, Sr. Silva, in a little bungalow of bamboo and matting, paved with tamped earth and old white ostreoid shells, a kind of Mya, relished by the natives but not eaten by Europeans. To these, doubtless, Mr. W. Winwood Reacle refers (“Savage Africa,” chap, xxxvii.), “The traders say that in Congo there are great heaps of oyster-shells, but no oysters. These shells the negroes also burn for lime.” I did not hear of any of these “ostreiras,” which, if they exist, must reflect the Sambaquis of the opposite Brazilian shore. The house was guarded by three wooden figures, “clouterly carved,” and powdered with ochre or red wood; two of them, representing warriors in studded coatings of spike nails, with a looking-glass fixed in the stomach, raised their hands as if to stab each other. These figures are sometimes found large as life: according to the agents, the spikes are driven in before the wars begin, and every one promises the hoped-for death of an enemy. Behind them the house was guarded by a sentinel with drawn sword. The unfortunate tenant, who looked a martyr to ague, sat “in palaver” with a petty island “king,” and at times the tap of a war-drum roused my experienced ear. The monarch, habited in a shabby cloth coat, occupied a settee, with a “minister” on either side; he was a fat senior of light complexion, with a vicious expression upon features, which were not those of the “tobacconist nigger,” nor had he the effeminate aspect of the Congoese.

I looked curiously at these specimens of the Musulungu or Musurungu, a wilder race than that of Shark Point: the English, of course, call them Missolonghi, because Lord Byron died there. Here the people say “le” for “re,” and “rua” for “lua,” confounding both liquids, which may also be found in the Kibundo tongue. In Loango, according to the Abbé Proyart, the national organ does not admit the roughness of the r, which is changed to l. Monteiro and Gamitto assert (xxii.) that the “Cazembes or Lundas do not pronounce the letter r, in whose place they use l.” The “Ibos” of the lower Congo, dwelling on the southern shore between the mouth and the Porto da Lenha, above which they are harmless, these men have ever been dangerous to strangers, and the effect of the slave-trade has been to make them more formidable. Lieutenant Boteler (1835) was attacked by twenty-eight canoes, carrying some 140 men, who came on boldly, “ducking” at the flash, and who were driven off only by a volley of musketry and a charge of grape. In 1860 a whaler and crew were attacked by their war-canoes sallying out from behind Scotchman’s Head. These craft are of two kinds, one shaped like a horse-trough, the other with a lean and snaky head. The “Wrangler” lost two of her men near Zungá chyá Kampenzi, and the “Griffon” escaped by firing an Armstrong conical shell. They have frequently surprised and kept for ransom the white agents, whom “o negocio” deterred from reprisals. M. Pissot, our companion, was amarré by them for some weeks, and the most unpleasant part of his captivity was the stunning concert of songs and instruments kept up during the day to prevent his escaping by night. The more sensible traders at Boma pay them black mail by employing them as boats’ crews, upon our Anglo–Indian principle of the “Paggi” and the “Ramosi.”

Merolla calls these men Musilongo or Sonhese. The word appears to me opprobrious, as if each tribe termed itself Mushi–Congo (Congo people), and its neighbours Musulungus: Barbot writes as a Frenchman Moutsie, the Portuguese Muxi (Mushi). Mushi–Longo would perhaps mean Loango-people; but my ear could not detect any approach to “Loango” in “Musulungu.” The first syllable, Mu, in Fiote or Congoese, would be a contraction of Muntu (plural Wántú). They inhabit the islands, own a part of the north bank, and extend southwards to Ambriz: eastward they are bounded by the Fiote or Congo-speaking peoples, to whom their tongue is intelligible. They have no tattoo, but they pierce the nose septum and extract the two central and upper incisors; the Muxi–Congoes or Lower Congoese chip or file out a chevron in the near sides of the same teeth — an ornament possibly suggested by the weight of the native pipe. The chipping and extracting seem to be very arbitrary and liable to change: sometimes the upper, at other times the lower teeth are operated upon. The fashionable mutilation is frequently seen in Eastern Africa, and perhaps it is nothing but a fashion. They are the “kallistoi” and “megistoi” of the Congoese bodies, taller and darker, fiercer and braver than their neighbours, nor will they cease to be river pirates till the illicit trade dies.

After taking leave of Sr. Silva we resumed our way, the thermometer (F.) showing at 1.45 P.M. 95° in the air when the sun was obscured, and the mirage played the usual fantastic tricks. The mangrove, which Tuckey’s introduction prolongs to fifty miles from the mouth, now disappears; in fact, it does not extend much above Bullock Island, nineteen direct miles on the chart from Shark Point and, as usual, it enables us to measure the extreme limit where the salt-tide ascends. The palhabote went gallantly,

“The water round her bows

Dancing as round a drinking cup.”

Small trembling waves poppled and frothed in mid-stream, where the fresh water met wind and tide; and by the “boiling” of the surface we saw that there was still a strong under-current flowing against the upper layer. A little beyond the factory we were shown on the northern bank Mariquita Nook, where the slaver of that name, commanded by a Captain Bowen, had shipped some 520 men. She was captured by H.M. Steamship “Zebra,” Commander Hoskins, after being reported by a chief, whom her captain had kicked, to a trader at the river mouth, and by him to the cruizer. Slavers used to show their sense by starting on Sundays, when the squadron kept a careless look-out; but their inevitable danger was the general “drunk” of the officers and crew to celebrate the event, and this libation often caused delays which led to seizure. It was an admirable site, a bit of golden sand fronting the cleared bush, commanding an unbroken sweep of vision to the embouchure, and masked by forest from Porto da Lenha. It is easily known by its two tall trees, and that nearest the sea, when viewed from the east, appears surmounted by what resemble the “Kangaroo’s Head:” they are cones of regular shape, covered to the topmost twig with the lightest green Flagellaria. The “bush” now becomes beautiful, rolling in bulging masses of verdure to the very edge of the clear brown stream. As in the rivers of Guinea, the llianas form fibrous chains, varying in size from a packthread to a cable; now straight, then twisted; investing the trees with an endless variety of folds and embraces, and connecting neighbours by graceful arches like the sag of an acrobat’s rope. Here and there a grotesque calabash contrasted with the graceful palms towering in air for warmth and light, or bending over water like Prince of Wales’s feathers. The unvarying green was enlivened by yew-like trees with scarlet flowers, the “Burning Bush” of Sierra Leone, setting off the white boles of the cotton-trees; and the whole was edged by the yellow green of the quaint pandanus hung with heavy fruit.

A little beyond “Mariquita Nook” the right bank becomes a net-work of creeks, “obscure channels,” tortuous, slimy with mud, banked with the snake-like branches of trees, and much resembling the lower course of the Benin, or any other north equatorial African river; the forest is also full of large villages, invisible like the streams till entered. A single tree, apparently growing out of the great stream-bed, showed shallow water as we passed the Ponte de tres Palmeiras; the three oil-palms are still there, but the easternmost is decaying. At 2 P.M. we were in sight of the chief slaving settlement on the Congo, the Whydah of the river, Porto da Lenha. Our charts have “Ponta de Linha,” three mistakes in as many words. Some authorities, however, prefer Ponta da Lenha, “Woody Point,” from the piles flanking the houses; others, Ponte da Lenha, from a bridge built by the agent of Messrs. Tobin’s house over the single influent that divides the settlement. Cruizers have often ascended thus far; the Baltimore barque of 800 tons went up and down safely in 1859, but now square-rigged ships, which seldom pass Zungá chyá Kampenzi, send up boats when something is to be done higher up.

Porto da Lenha dates like Abeokuta from the second decade of the present century. In Tuckey’s time the projection from the northern bank was known as “Tall Trees,” a term common to several places in the “Oil rivers;” no factories existed, schooners sailed to Boma for cargo, and dropped down stream as soon as loaded. From French Point it is distant 40,000 measured metres (= 21 statute miles and 1,615 yards); our charts show 20.50 nautical miles (= 32,500 metres in round numbers). The river opposite the projection narrows to a gate barely a mile and a half broad, whilst the valley stretches some five miles, and the blue hills inhabited by the Musulungus are clearly visible; the flood rises four or five feet, and drinking water must be brought from up stream. The site of the settlement is on the right or northern bank behind the projection, a slip of morass backed by swamps and thick growths, chiefly bombax, palm and acacia, lignum vitae, the mammee-apple and the cork-tree, palmyra, pandanus, and groves of papyrus. Low and deeply flooded during the rains, the place would be fatal without the sea-breeze; as it is, the air is exceedingly unwholesome. There is no quay, the canoe must act gondola; the wharf is a mere platform with steps, and in places the filthy drains are not dry even at this season. The length of the station is about one mile, and of no depth except what is taken up by the neat and expensive gardens. Eastward or up stream it thins out, and the foundations give considerable trouble; the inhabitants are condemned to do beavers’ work, to protect the bank with strong piles, and to heap up earth for a base, whilst, despite all their toil, the water often finds its way in. The sixteen houses look well; they are substantial bungalows, built country fashion, with timber and matting; they have large and shady verandahs, and a series of inner rooms. Each house has a well-kept pottage plot, inferior, however, to those up stream.

The tenure of ground here, as at Borna, is by yearly rent to the two “kings,” Nengongo and Nenzalo, each of whom claims a half. Like the chiefs of Porto Novo, the despot of Dahome, the rulers of many Nigerian tribes, and even the Fernandian “Bube,” these potentates may not look at the sea nor at the river. Their power is, therefore, deputed to “linguisters” or interpreters, linguistele ya Nchinu, “linguist to the king,” being the official titles of these worthies, who massacre the Portuguese language, and who are empowered to receive “comey” (customs) and rent. The revenue is composed of three principal items; an ounce ($16) per head of negro embarked at Porto da Lenha; four per cent, on all goods sold, and, lastly, a hundred hard dollars monthly ground-rent —£l92 (English pound symbol) a year. The linguist becomes more powerful than the chief, who is wholly in his power, and always receives the best presents. Neagongo’s fattore is old Shimbah, an ignoble aspect with a “kink in his leg;” Mashel or Machela, a corruption of the Portuguese Maciel, died about two months aeo: we shall see him disembarked for burial at Boma.

It is evident that the slavers were wrong not to keep hulks like those of the Bonny River; health would have gained, and the procedure might have modified negro “sass.” The chiefs begin early morning by going their rounds for drink, and end business between 7 and 10 A.M. Everywhere on this coast a few hours of work support a “gentleman;” even the comparatively industrious and hard-working Egbas rarely do anything after noon. These lords and masters are fully aware that the white men are their willing slaves as long as the large profits last. If a glass of watered rum, which they detect more easily than we do watered milk, be offered to them, it will be thrown in the donor’s face. Every factory must keep a barrel of spirits ready broached if the agents would buy eggs and yams, and the poorest negro comes regularly with his garrafa. The mixed stuff costs per bottle only a hundred reis (= fourpence), and thoroughly demoralizes the black world.

We landed at once, sent our letters to M. Monteiro, who hospitably offered his house, and passed the day quickly enough in a round of visits. Despite the general politeness and attention to us, we found a gloom overhanging the place: as at Whydah, its glories have departed, nor shall they ever return. The jollity, the recklessness, the gold ounces thrown in handfuls upon the monte-table, are things of the past: several houses are said to be insolvent, and the dearth of cloth is causing actual misery. Palm and ground-nut oil enable the agents only to buy provisions; the trade is capable of infinite expansion, but it requires time — as yet it supports only the two non-slaving houses, English and Dutch. The forty or fifty tons brought in every month pay them cent, per cent.; the bag of half a hundred weight being sold for four fathoms of cloth; or two hatchets, one bottle of rum, and a jug or a plate.

Early next day I went to the English factory for the purpose of completing my outfit. Unfortunately, Mr. P. Maculloch, the head agent, who is perfectly acquainted with the river and the people, was absent, leaving the business in the hands of two “mean whites,” walking buccras, English pariahs. The factory — a dirty disgrace to the name — was in the charge of a clerk, whom we saw being rowed about bareheaded through the sun, accompanied by a black girl, both as far from sober as might be. The cooper, who was sitting moony with drink, rose to receive us and to weigh out the beads which I required; under the excitement he had recourse to a gin-bottle, and a total collapse came on before half the work was done. Why should south latitude 6°, the parallel of Zanzibar, be so fatal to the Briton?

At 2.20 P.M. on September 2, we left Porto da Lenha, and passed Mashel’s Creek, on whose right bank is the village of Makatalla; the charts call it Foomou, and transfer it to the left. Here we enter upon the riverine archipelago. The great stream before one, now divides into three parallel branches, separated by long narrow islands and islets, banks and shallows. The northernmost channel in our maps, “Maxwell River,” is known to Europeans and natives as Noangwa; Mamballa or the central line is called by the moderns Nshibúl, and the southern is dubbed by the hydrographer, “Rio Konio,” a truly terrible mistake for Sonho. As a rule, the Noangwa, though infested during the rains by cruel mosquitoes, is preferred for the ascent, and the central for dropping down stream. The maximum breadth of the Congo bed, more than half island, is here five miles; and I was forcibly reminded of it when winding through the Dalmatian Archipelago.

The river still maintained its alluvial aspect as we passed along the right bank. The surface was a stubble strewn with the usual trees; the portly bombax; the calabash, now naked and of wintry aspect; and the dark evergreen palmyra, in dots and streaks upon the red-yellow field, fronted by an edging of grass, whose king, cyperus papyrus, is crowned with tall heads waving like little palms. This Egyptian bush extends from the Congo mouth to Banza Nokki, our landing-place; it grows thickest about Porto da Lenha, and it thins out above and below: I afterwards observed it in the sweet water marshes of Syria and the Brazils. We passed sundry settlements — Loango Pequeno, Loango Grande, and others — and many canoes were seen plying up and down. On the left or to the south was nothing but dense reedy vegetation upon the low islands, which here are of larger dimensions than the northern line. As evening drew near, the grasshoppers and the tree frogs chirped a louder song, and the parrots whistled as they winged their rapid flight high overhead. Presently we passed out of the lower archipelago, and sighted the first high land closing upon the stream, rolling hills, which vanished in blue perspective, and which bore streaks of fire during the dark hours. Our Cabinda Patron grounded us twice, and even the high night breeze hardly enabled us to overcome the six-knot current off the narrow, whose right side is called Ponta da Diabo. Devil’s Point is not so named in the chart: the place is marked “Strong Tide” (No. 1), opposite Chombae Island, which the natives term Zungá chyá Bundika, hence probably the name of the village Bemandika (Boma ndika). At this satanic headland, where the banks form a gate three miles broad, a man hailed us from the bank; none understood him, but all made up their minds that he threatened to visit us during the night.

A light breeze early next morning fortunately freshened as we approached “Strong Tide” (No. 2). We ran north of the second archipelago above the gate; south of us lay the “Low Islands” of the chart, with plantations of beans and tobacco; the peasants stood to stare like Icelanders, leaning on oblong-bladed paddles six feet long, or upon alpen-stocks capped with bayonets; the “scare-crows” were grass figures, with pots for heads and wooden rattles suspended to bent poles. On the right bank a block of hills narrows the stream, and its selvage of light green grasses will contribute to the “floating islands.” Higher up, blocks and boulders of all sizes rise from the vegetation, and prolong themselves into the shallower waters. There are two distinct bluffs, the westernmost marked by a tree-clump at its feet, and between them lies a baylet, where a dozen palms denote the once dreaded village Bemandika. The second block, 400 to 500 feet high, bears on its rounded summit the Stone of Lightning, called by the people Tadi Nzázhí, vulgò, Taddy Enzazzi. The Fiote language has the Persian letter Zh (j), sounding like the initial of the French “jour:” so Lander (“On the Course and Termination of the Niger,” “Journal Royal Geographical Society,” vol. i. p. 131) says of the Island Zegozhe, that “zh is pronounced like z in azure.” This upright mass, apparently 40 feet high, and seeming, like the “Lumba” of Kinsembo to rest upon a basement, is very conspicuous from the east, where it catches the eye as a watch-tower would. At the bluff-base, a huge slab, an irregular parallelogram, slopes towards the water and, viewed far up stream, it passably represents a Kaffir’s pavoise. This Fingal’s Shield, a name due to the piety of Mr. George Maxwell, is called by the French La Pierre Fétiche: it must not be confounded with our Fetish Rock (Tádi ya Muingu) on the southern bank at the entrance of the Nshibúl and Sonho branches. I can add nothing to Tuckey’s description or Lieutenant Hawkey’s tracing of the rude figures which distinguish a not unusual feature. Tuckey (p. 97) calls Fingal’s Shield Taddy d’ya M’wangoo, and Professor Smith, Taddi Moenga (p. 303); the only defect in Lieutenant Hawkey’s sketch is that of exaggerating the bluff, a mere mamelon, one of many lumps upon a continued level. Both rocks are of the oldest granite, much weather-worn and mixed and banded with mica and quartz. M. Charles Konig found in the finer-grained varieties “minute noble garnets,” which also appeared in the mica-slate of “Gombac” higher up stream, and in the primitive greenstone of “Boka Embomma.”1

Beyond this point, where Boma is first sighted, lies the large marauding village of Twáná. Here also a man shouted to us from the bank “Muliele! muliele!” for the Portuguese “mulher,” one of the interminable corruptions of the tongue — a polite offer, as politely declined. The next feature is the Rio Jo Jacaré, a narrow sedgy stream on the right bank, which, winding northward through rolling lines of hills, bends westward, and joins, they say, the Rio Lukullu (Lukallo?) of Cabinda Bay. Men have descended, I am told, three leagues, but no one has seen the junction, consequently there may be a portage between the drains. If not, this is the apex of the greater Congo delta, a false formation, whose base between Cabinda Bay (S. lat. 5° 25’) and Ambrizette (S. lat. 7° 16’) measures 1° 51’, equal to 111 direct geographical miles, whilst its depth inland would be sixty.

1 Appendix to Tuckey’s “Expedition,” No. 6.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/burton/richard/b97g/part2.6.html

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