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

Chapter 7.

Boma. — our Outfit for the Interior

We now reach Boma, the furthest Portuguese factory, about thirty, usually reckoned thirty-eight, nautical miles from Porta da Lenha, and a total of 52.50 from French Point.

The upper dépôt of the Congo lies upon the north bank, accidenté ground, poor, stony, and sandy soil, with rounded, grass-clad hills, The southern is less broken; there are long slopes and waves of land which trend in graceful lines, charmingly diversified, to the uplands, where the old capital, São Salvador, is situated; and upon the undulating blue ridges, distance behind distance, appear markings by Nature’s hand, which the stranger’s eye can hardly distinguish from villa or village. The view explains how the old expedition felt “every day more in love with this beautiful country,” The sea-like river wants nothing but cattle on its banks to justify the description —

“Appunto una scena pastorale, a cui fanno

Quinci il mar, quinci i colli, e d’ ogn’ intorno

I fior, le piante, e l’ ombre, e l’ onde, e ‘l cielo.

Unteatro pomposo.”

In the centre of the broad stream, whose southern arm is not visible, are three islets. The western most, backed by a long, grassy, palm-tasselled bank, is called Zungá chyá Bundiká. This Chombae Island of the charts is a rocky cone, dark with umbrella-shaped trees. Its north-eastern neighbour, Simúle Kete, the Molyneux Island of Mr. Maxwell, the Hekay of Tuckey, and the Kekay of the chart, contrasts sharply with the yellow stubbles and the flat lines of Zungá chyá Ngándi. Here, since Tuckey’s time, the trees have made way for grass and stones; the only remnants are clumps in the south-eastern, which is not only the highest point, but also the windy and watery direction. On the Congo course the foul weather is mostly from the “sirocco,” where the African interior is a mass of swamps. At the mouth tornadoes come down the line of stream from the north-east, and I heard traditions of the sea-tornado, which blows in shore instead of offshore as usual. About the close of the last century one or other of these islands was proposed as a dépôt and settlement, which a few simple works would convert into a small Gibraltar. The easternmost Buka, the Booka Embomma of the charts and maps, will presently be described. In this direction the Zaire assumes the semblance of a mountain lake, whilst down stream the broad bosom of the Nshibúl branch forms almost a sea-horizon, with dots showing where tall, scattered palms spring from the watery surface. We cannot but admire the nightly effects of the wintry bush-fires. During the day livid volumed smoke forms cumuli that conceal their enemy, the sun, and discharge a rain of blacks ten times the size of Londoners. In the darkened air we see storms of fire fiercely whirling over the undulating ranges, here sweeping on like torrents, there delaying, whilst the sheets meet at the apex, and a giant beard of flame (<Greek> ) flouts the moon. The land must be splendidly grassed after the rains.

The Boma factories are like those of Porto da Lenha, but humbler in size, and more resembling the wicker-work native houses. The river, which up stream will show a flood mark of twelve feet, here seldom rises above five, and further down three and four; consequently piles are not required, and the swiftness of the current keeps off the jacaré. Formerly there were fourteen establishments, which licit trade in palm oil and ground-nuts, instead of men, women, and children, have reduced to ten. The air is sensibly drier and healthier than at the lower settlement, and apparently there is nothing against the place but deadly ennui and monotony.

We landed at once, and presented our letters to Sr. Antonio Vicente Pereira, who at once made us at home: he had seen Goa as well as Macáo, so we found several subjects in common. The factory enjoyed every comfort: the poultry yard throve, far better than at Porto da Lenha; we saw fowls and pigeons, “Manilla” ducks and ducklings, and a fine peacock from Portugal, which seemed to enjoy the change. The fish is not so good as that caught further down, and the natives have a habit of narcotizing it: the Silurus electricus is exceptionally plentiful. The farmyard contained tame deer, and a house-dog fierce as a tethered mastiff; goats were brought whenever wanted, and the black-faced, thin-tailed sheep gave excellent mutton. Beef was impossible; the Portuguese, like the natives, care little for milk, and of the herd, which strangers had attempted to domesticate, remained only a bull and a cow in very poor condition — the deaths were attributed to poisonous grass, but I vehemently suspect Tsetse. A daily “quitanda,” or market, held under the huge calabashes on a hill behind the house, supplied what was wanted.

Upon Market Hill executions also take place, the criminal being shot through the heart. M. Pereira’s garden produces all that Porta da Lenha can grow, with less trouble and of a superior kind. Water-melons, tomatoes, onions, and pimento, or large pepper (pimentão, siliquastrum, ndungu ya yenéne), useful to produce “crocodiles’ tears;” mint, and parsley flourish remarkably; turnips are eatable after two months; cabbage and lettuce, beet, carrot, and endive after three or four. It is a waste of ground to plant peas; two rows, twelve feet by four, hardly produce a plateful. Manioc ripens between the sixth and ninth month, plantains and bananas once a year, cotton and rice in four months, and maize in forty days — with irrigation it is easy to grow three annual crops. The time for planting is before the rains, which here last six weeks to two months, September and October. The staple of commerce is now the nguba, or ground-nut (plural, jinguba), which Merolla calls incumba, with sometimes a little milho (maize), and Calavance beans. Of fruits we find trellised grapes, pines, and guavas, which, as at Fernando Po, are a weed. The agrumi, limes, oranges and citrons are remarkably fine, and hold, as of old, a high place in the simple medicines of the country. A cup of lime-leaf tea, drunk warm in the morning, is the favourite emetic and cathartic: even in Pliny’s day we find “Malus Assyria, quam alii vocant medicam (Mediam?, venenis medetur” (xii. 7). On the Gold Coast and in the Gaboon region, colic and dysentery are cured by a calabash full of lime-juice, “laced” with red pepper. The peculiarity of European vegetables throughout maritime Congo and Angola is the absence of all flavour combined with the finest appearance; it seems as though something in the earth or atmosphere were wanting to their full development. Similarly, though in the upper regions the climate is delicious, the missionaries could not keep themselves alive, but died of privation, hardship, and fatigue.

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