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

Chapter 9.

Up the Congo to Banza Nokki.

For a wonder the canoes came in time, and, despite their mat-sails, we could not complain of them. There were twelve paddlers two for the stem, and two for the stern of each craft, under a couple of interpreters, Jotakwassi and Nchama–Chamvu, who were habited in European frock-coats of broadcloth, and in native terminations mostly “buff.” Our excellent host bade us a kindly adieu, with many auguries of success — during the last night the frogs had made a noise in the house. Briefly, we set out on September 6th.

In the forty-five miles between Boma, where we enter the true trough of the Congo, and the landing-place of Banza Nokki below the cataracts, there are half-a-dozen reaches, the shortest of three, the longest of fifteen miles. They are not straight, as upon the chart; the windings of the bed exclude direct vision, and the succession of points and bays suggest, like parts of the Rhine, a series of mountain-tarns. The banks show the high-water level in a low shelf, a ribbon of green, backed by high rolling hills, rounded and stony, with grass dry at this season; the formation is primitive, and the material of the lower bed has been held to “prove the probability that the mountains of Pernambuco, Rio de Janeiro, and other adjacent parts of South America, were primevally connected with the opposite chains, that traverse the plains of Congo and Loango.” In parts the rocks fall bluff into the river, and here the current rushes past like a mill-race without a shadow of backwater. The heights are intersected by gullies and ravines, of which I counted sixty-nine on the right and fifty-four on the left bank; many of them are well wooded, and others are fronted by plains of the reeds and flags, which manufacture floating islands, cast loose, like those of the Niger, about the end of July by the “Malka” rains. About a dozen contained running water: Captain Tuckey did not see one that would turn a mill in August and September; but in November and December all these fiumaras will discharge torrents.

The breadth of the entroughed bed varies from 700 yards to two miles where it most dispreads itself. The current increases from the normal three to five knots in rare places; the surface loses the glassiness of the lower section, and at once shows the boiling and swirling which will be noticed near the cataracts. The shores are often foul, but the midway is mostly clear, and, where sunken rocks are, they are shown by whirlpools. The flow of the tide, or rather the damming up of the lower waters between Porto da Lenha and the mouth, causes a daily rise, which we found to measure about a foot; thus it assists in forming a treble current, the rapid down-flow in the Thalweg being subtended by a strong backwater on either side carrying a considerable portion in a retrograde direction, and showing a sensible reflux; this will continue as far as the rapids. In the Amazonas the tides are felt a hundred leagues from the mouth; and, whilst the stream moves seawards, the level of the water rises, proving an evident under-current. Mr. Bates has detected the influence of oceanic tides at a point on the Tapajos, 530 miles distant from its mouth, such is the amazing flatness of the country’s profile: here we find the reverse.

The riverine trough acts as wind-conductor to a strong and even violent sea-breeze; on the lower section it begins as a ground-current — if the “bull” be allowed — a thin horizontal stratum near the water, it gradually curves and slides upwards as it meets the mountain flanks, forming an inverted arch, and extending some 2,000 to 3,000 feet above the summits. At this season it is a late riser, often appearing about 3 P.M., and sometimes its strength is not exhausted before midnight. The brown water, grass-sheeted at the sides, conceals the bright yellow sand of the bed; when placed in a tumbler it looks clear and colourless, and the taste is perfectly sweet — brackishness does not extend far above Porto da Lenha. Yet at Boma the residents prefer a spring near the factories, and attribute dysentery to the use of river-water. According to Mr. George Maxwell, the supply of the lower bed has the quality of rotting cables, and the same peculiarity was attributed to the Tanganyika.

Of late years no ship has ventured above Boma, and boats have ascended with some difficulty, owing to the “buffing stream.” Yet there is no reason why the waters should not be navigated, as proposed in 1816, by small steamers of good power, and the strong sea-breeze would greatly facilitate the passage. In older and more enterprising days merchant-schooners were run high up the Zaire. The master of a vessel stated to Tuckey that he “had been several voyages up to the distance of 140 miles from the mouth” without finding any difficulty.

Our course passed by Banza Chisalla where, as we had paid double, there was a vain attempt to make us pay treble. Travelling up the south-eastern reach, we passed a triangular insulated rock off the southern bank, and then the “diabolitos” outlying Point Kilu, opposite Banza Vinda on the other side. A second reach winding to the north-east showed on the right Makula (Annan) River, and a little further Munga–Mungwa (Woodhouslee); between them is the terminus of the São Salvador road. On the northern bank where the hills now become rounded mountains, 1,500 feet above the stream, perches Chinimi the village of Manbuku Prata, who expects canoes here to await his orders; and who was sorely offended because I passed down without landing. The next feature of the chart, Matádi “Memcandi,” is a rocky point, not an island. Turning a projection, Point Makula (Clough Corner), we entered No. 3, elbow bending southeast; on its concave northern side appeared the settlement Vinda la Nzádi. This is the Vinda le Zally of Tuckey; on the chart Veinde len Zally, and according to others Vinda de Nzadi, or village of the Zaire River. It is probably the “Benda” of the Introduction (p. xxxiv.); and as b and v sound alike in Fiote, Cabinda, Cabenda or Kabendah is evidently Ca-vinda — great village.

Our terminus that day was the usual resting-place of travellers, “Mfumba” behind Nkumungu (Point) Kaziwa, a mass of granitoid slabs, with a single tree for landmark. Opposite us was Sandi ya Nzondo, which others call Sanga ya Ngondo; in the chart this one-tree island is written “Catlo Zonda,” it is the first of two similar formations. Oscar Rock, its western (down stream) neighbour, had shared the fate of “Soonga lem Paccula,” (Zunga chya Makula?) a stone placed in the map north-east of the Makula or Annan debouchure; both were invisible, denoted only by swirls in the water. We had taken seven hours to cover what we easily ran down in two, and we slept comfortably with groan of rock and roar of stream for lullaby.

September 7. — Our course now lay uninterruptedly along the left bank, where the scenery became yet more Rhine-like, in natural basins, reaches on the chart: here and there rugged uprocks passably simulated ruined castles. The dwarf bays of yellow sand were girt by a goodly vegetation, the palm and the calabash only telling us that we were in Africa.

Our men pointed to the work of a Nguvu or hippopotamus, which they say sometimes attacks canoes; they believe with Tuckey that the river-horses cause irregularity of soundings by assembling and trampling deep holes in the bed; but the Ngadi is a proof that they do not, as M. du Chaillu supposes, exclusively affect streams with shoals and shallows. The jacaré (crocodile) is known especially to avoid the points where the current sweeps swiftly past, yet no one will hang his hand over the canoe into the water: we did not see any of these wretches, but at Boma Coxswain Deane observed one about sixteen feet long.

Curls of smoke arose from the mountain-walls of the trough, showing that the bush was being burned; and spired up from a grassy palm-dotted plain, between two rocky promontories on the left bank, the site of the Chacha or Wembo village: in a gap of the herbage stood half-finished canoes, and a man was bobbing with rod, line, and float. After an hour’s paddling we halted for breakfast under “Alecto Rock,” a sheer bluff of reddish schist, 150 feet high; here a white trident, inverted and placed ten feet above the water, showed signs of H.M. Ship “Alecto,” (late) Captain Hunt, whose boat passed up in 1855. The people call it Chimbongolo. The river is now three quarters of a mile wide, and the charming cove shows the brightest of sands and the densest of vegetation waving in the cool land-wind.

Resuming our way at 9 P.M., we passed on the left “Scylla Rocks,” then a wash, and beyond them four high and tree-clad heads off the right bank. Three are islets, the Zunga chya Gnombe — of the bull — formed by a narrow arm passing round them to the north: other natives called them Zunga chya Umbinda, but all seem to differ. These are the Gombac Islands of the chart, Hall Island being the easternmost, and the northern passage between the three horns and the main is called by us “Gombac Creek.” Half an hour beyond was a mass of villages, in a large, grassy low-land of the left bank, girt by mountains higher than those down stream. Some outlying huts were called by the interpreters Suko Nkongo, and formed the “beach town” of large interior settlements, Suko do Wembo and Mbinda. Others said Lasugu or Sugo Nkongo, the Sooka Congo of the charts: others again for “Mbinda” proposed “Mpeso Birimba.” This is probably the place where according to the mail of November, ‘73, diamonds were found, and having been submitted to “Dr. Basham (Dr. Bastian before mentioned), Director of the Museum of Berlin,” were pronounced to be of very fine water. It is possible that the sandstone may afford precious stones like the itacolumite of the Brazil (“Highlands of the Brazil,” i. 380), but the whole affair proved a hoax. In mid-stream rose No. 2, “One–Tree Island,” Zunga chya Nlemba or Shika chya Nzondo; in Tuckey it is called Boola Beca or Blemba (the husband) Rock; the old ficus dying at the head, was based upon a pedestal which appeared groin-shaped from the east. Here the mirage was very distinct, and the canoes seemed to fly, not to swim —

“As when far out of sea a fleet descried,

Hangs in the clouds.”

The northern bank shows a stony projection called by Maxwell “Fiddler’s Elbow;” it leads to the fourth reach, the second of the north-eastern series; and the breadth of the stream, once more a mountain lake, cannot be less than two miles.

I foresaw trouble in passing these settlements. Presently a snake-like war canoe with hawser-holes like eyes, crept out from the southern shore; a second fully manned lay in reserve, lurking along the land, and armed men crowned the rocks jutting into the stream. We were accosted by the first craft, in which upon the central place of honour sat Mpeso Birimbá, a petty chief of Suko Nkongo; a pert rascal of the French factory, habited in a red cap, a green velvet waistcoat, and a hammock-shaped tippet of pine-apple fibre; his sword was a short Sollingen blade. The visit had the sole object of mulcting me in rum and cloth, and my only wish was naturally to expend as little as possible in mere preliminaries. The name of Manbuku Prata was duly thrown at him with but little effect: these demands are never resisted by the slave-dealers. After much noise and cries of “Mwendi” (miser, skin-flint) on the part of the myrmidons, I was allowed to proceed, having given up a cloth twenty-four yards long, and I felt really grateful to the “trade” which had improved off all the other riverine settlements. Beyond this point we saw nothing but their distant smokes.

Before the second north-eastern reach, the interpreters exclaimed “Yellala falla”—“the cataract is speaking,” and we could distinctly hear the cheering roar. The stream now assumed the aspect of Niagara below the Falls, and the circular eddies boiling up from below, and showing distinct convexity, suggested the dangerous “wells” of the northern seas. Passing the “Three Weird Sisters,” unimportant rocks off, the right bank, we entered upon the remarkably long stretch, extending upwards of five miles, and, from its predominating growth, we proposed to call it “Palmyra Reach.” The immediate river banks were clad with sedge, and the broad leaves of the nymphæa, a plant like the calamus of Asia, but here used only as a toothpick, began to oust the rushy and flaggy growth of the lower bed. The pink balls of the spinous mimosa, and bright flowers, especially the convolvulus and ipomaea, illuminated the dull green. The grassy land at the foot of the mountains was a mere edging, faced by outlying rocks, and we were shown the site of a village long ago destroyed.

The Nteba, or palmyra nobilis, mixed here and there with a glorious tamarind, bombax or calabash, forms a thin forest along the reach, and rarely appears upon the upper hills, where we should expect it. The people use both fruit and wine, preferring, however, the liquor of the Ebah (oil palm-tree), and the autumnal fires can hardly affect so sturdy a growth. The other trees are the mfuma, cotton-tree or bombax (Pentandria truncospinoso, Smith), much valued as a canoe: Merolla uses Mafuma, a plural form, and speaks of its “wonderful fine wool.” The wild figs show glorious stature, a truly noble growth, whose parents were sun and water.

The birds were lank black clivers (Plotus), exceedingly wild; the African roller (Coracias); halcyons of several species, especially a white and black kingfisher, nimble and comely; many swallows, horn-bills, and wild pigeons which made the bush resound; ardeine birds, especially a heron, like the large Indian “kullum;” kites, crows, “whip-poor-wills,” and a fine haliaetus, which flies high and settles upon the loftiest branches. One of these eagles was shot, after a gorge of the electric fish here common; its coat was black and white, and the eyes yellow, with dark pupils. Various lizards ran over the rocks; and we failed to secure a water-snake, the only specimen seen on the whole trip.

About noon we struggled past Point Masalla, our “Diamond Rock,” a reef ending in a triangular block, towering abruptly, and showing by drift-wood a flood-line now twelve feet high. There are several of these “bench-marks;” and the people declare that after every few years an unusual freshet takes place. Here the current impinges directly upon the rocks, making a strong eddy. “They die each time,” said the interpreters, as the canoemen, with loud shouts of “Vai ou nao Vai? Vai sempre! Vai direito, ya mondele!” and “Arister,” a mariner’s word, after failing to force the way, tumbled overboard, with a hawser of lliana to act as tow-line. “Vai direito,” according to Father Ciprani, also applies to a “wonderful bird, whose song consists in these plain words;” and “Mondele” is synonymous with the Utangáni of the Gaboon and the East African Muzungu, a white man.

This bend was in former days the terminus of canoe travel up stream. Grisly tales of mishap are told; and even now a musketry salute is fired when boats pass without accident. Beyond Diamond Rock is a well-wooded, stony cove, “Salan Kunkati:” Captain Tuckey makes this the name of the Diamond Rock, and translates it “the strong feather.” Quartz, before in lines and bands, now appears in masses: the “Coal Rock,” which the chart places near Insála (Bechope Point) on the northern bank, was probably submerged. High cliffs towered above us, and fragments which must have weighed twenty tons had slipped into the water; one of them bore an adansonia, growing head downwards.

The next feature was Npunga Bay, low and leek-green, between the blue-brown water, here some 700 yards broad, and the yellow sun-burnt trough-sides. A little further on, at 2 P.M., the canoe-men halted beyond a sandy point with two large “Bondeiro” trees, and declared their part of the bargain to have been fulfilled. “Bonderro” is a corruption of the Lusitanianized imbundeiro, the calabash, or adansonia (digitata?): the other baobab is called nkondo, probably the Aliconda and Elicandy of Battel and old travellers, who describe the water-tanks hollowed in its huge trunk, and the cloth made from the bark fibre. Thus the “Condo Sonio” of the Chart should be “Nkondo Sonho,” the latter a proper name. It is seldom that we find trees turned to all the uses of which they are capable: the Congo people despise the nutritious and slightly laxative flour of the “monkey bread,” and the young leaves are not used as pickles; the bast is not valued for cloth and ropes, nor are the boles cut into cisterns.

As will be seen, we ought to have insisted upon being paddled to Kala cliff and bight, the Mayumba Bay of the Chart, where the bed trends west-east, and shows the lowest rapids: the First Congo Expedition went up even higher. At Nkongo ka Lunga, the point marked by two calabashes, we inquired for the Nokki Congo, of which we had heard at Chisalla, and which still exists upon the chart — districts and villages being often confounded. All laughed, and declared that the “port-town” had long been sold off, the same had been the case, even in Tuckey’s day, with the next settlement, “Condo Sonio” (the Baobab of Sonho), formerly the great up-stream mart, where the slave-traders transacted their business. All the population was now transferred inland and, like our predecessors, we were promised a two hours’ climb over the rough, steep highland which lay in front. Then we understood that “Nokki” was the name of a canton, not of a settlement. Its south-eastern limits may have contained the “City of Norchie, the best situated of any place hitherto seen in Ethiopia,” where Father Merolla (p. 280) baptized 126 souls — and this is rendered probable by the crucifixes and coleworts which were found by the First Congo Expedition.

Here, then, at 97.50 miles from the sea, ended our clan’s cruize. We could only disembark upon the clean sand, surrounded by cool shade and blocks of gneiss, the favourite halting-place, as the husks of ground-nuts show. Nchama Chamvu was at once sent off with a present of gin and a verbal report of arrival to Nessudikira Nchinu, (King), of Banza Nkaye, whilst we made ready for a night’s lodging à la belle étoile. The mesenger returned, bringing a goat, and the good news that porters would be sent early next morning. We slept well in the cool and dewless air, with little trouble from mosquitoes. The voice of the cataract in its “sublime same-soundingness” alone broke the silence, and the scenery suggested to us, as to the first Britishers, that we might be bivouacking among the “blue misty hills of Morven.”

September 8. — Shortly after sunrise appeared Gidi Mavunga, father to the “king,” accompanied by five “princes,” in the usual black coats, and some forty slaves, armed with pistols, blunderbusses, and guns of French and Yankee build. Our visitors wore the official berretta, European shirts, that contrasted with coral necklaces and rings of zinc, brass, and copper, and handsome waistcoats, fronted by the well-tanned spoil of some “bush” animal, generally a wild cat, hanging like a Scotch sporran — this is and has long been the distinctive sign of a “gentleman.” According to John Barbot (Supplement, Churchill, v. 471), all men in Loango were bound to wear a furskin over their clothes, viz., of an otter, a tame cat, or a cat-o’-mountain; a “great wood or wild cat, or an angali (civet-cat). Besides which, they had very fine speckled spelts, called ‘ enkeny,’ which might be worn only by the king and his peculiar favourites.”

On the great man’s mat was placed a large silver-handled dagger, shaped somewhat like a fish-slicer; and the handsome hammocks of bright-dyed cottons brought down for our use shamed our humble ship’s canvas. The visitors showed all that African câlinerie, which, as fatal experience told me, would vanish for ever, changing velvet paw to armed claws, at the first question of cloth or rum. Meanwhile, we had only to visit their village “upon the head of Gidi Mavunga.”

About 9 A.M. we attacked a true Via Dolorosa, the normal road of the Lower Congo. The steep ascent of dry, clayey soil was strewed with schist and resplendent silvery gneiss; quartz appeared in every variety, crystallized and amorphous, transparent white, opaque, dusky, and rusty. Tuckey’s mica slate appears to be mostly schist or gneiss: I saw only one piece of true slate which had been brought from the upper bed. Merolla’s talc is mostly mica.

Followed an equally rough descent to a water set in fetid mud, its iridescence declaring the presence of iron; oozing out of the ground, it discharges during rains into the river: and, throughout the dry season, it keeps its little valley green with trees and shrubs. I observed what appeared to be the Esere or Calabar bean (Physostigma venenosum), whose hairy pod is very distasteful to the travelling skin: it was a “Mucuna urens.”

Another scramble upon a highly inclined hogsback, where weather-worn brown-black granite, protruded bone-like from the clay flesh, placed us at the outlying village of Kinbembu, with its line of palms; here the aneroid showed 1,322 feet. After a short rest, the hammock men resumed work over a rough plateau: the rises were scattered with brush-wood, and the falls were choked with the richest vegetation. Every hill discharged its own rivulet bubbling over the rock, and the waters were mostly chalybeate.

Presently appeared a kind of barracoon, a large square of thick cane-work and thatch about eight feet high, the Fetish house of the “Jinkimba” or circumcised boys, who received us with unearthly yells. After a march of an hour and three quarters,‘covering five indirect and three direct miles in a south-eastern rhumb, we reached Banza Nkaye, the royal village, where the sympiesometer showed 1430 feet. Our bearers yelled “Abububu!” showing that we had reached our destination, and the villagers answered with a cry of “Abía-a-a!” The entrance was triumphal: we left the river with a tail of fifty-six which had swelled to 150 ragged followers.

After a short delay we proceeded to the “palace,” which was distinguished from afar by a long projecting gable, forming a cool verandah. Descending some three hundred feet, we passed a familiar sight in Africa, where “arboribus suus horror inest.” A tree-trunk bore three pegged skulls somewhat white with age; eight years ago they were taken off certain wizards who had bewitched their enemies. A labyrinthine entrance of transparent cane-work served to prevent indecent haste, and presently we found ourselves in presence of the Mfumo, who of course takes the title of “Le Rei.” Nessudikira was a “blanc-bec,” aged twenty or twenty-one, who till lately had been a trading lad at Boma — now he must not look upon the sea. He appeared habited in the usual guy style: a gaudy fancy helmet, a white shirt with limp Byronic collar, a broad-cloth frock coat, a purple velvet gold-fringed loin-wrap: a theatrical dagger whose handle and sheath bore cut-glass emeralds and rubies, stuck in the waist-belt; brass anklets depended over naked feet, and the usual beadle’s cloak covered the whole. Truly a change for the worse since Tuckey’s day, when a “savage magnificence” showed itself in the display of lions’ and leopards’ skins; when no women were allowed to be present, and when the boys could only clap hands: now the verandah is surrounded by a squatting crowd and resounds with endless chatter and scream.

Nessudikira, whose eyes by way of grandeur never wandered from the floor, shook hands with us without rising from his chair, somewhat after the fashion of certain women in civilized society, who would be dignified, and who are not. His father, Gidi Mavunga, knelt before him on the ground, a mat being forbidden in the presence: he made the “batta-palmas” before he addressed his “filho de pistola,” as he called him, in opposition to filho de fazenda. The “king” had lately been crowned in virtue of his mother being a uterine sister of his predecessor. Here the goods and dignity of the father revert after death to his eldest maternal brother; to his eldest nephew, that is, the eldest son of the eldest uterine sister, and, all others failing, to the first born of the nearest maternal relative. This subjection of sire to son is, however, mainly ceremonious: in private life the king wears a cotton pagne, and his “governor” asserts his birth-right even by wigging royalty.

We disposed ourselves upon seamen’s chests covered with red baize, fronting the semi-circle of frock-coated “gentlemen” and half-naked dependants and slaves. Proceedings began with the “mata-bicho” de rigueur, the inevitable preliminary and conclusion of all life-business between birth and burial. The Congo traveller will hear “Nganna! mata bicho” (Master! kill the worm, i.e., give me a dram), till the words seem, like “Bakhshish” further east, to poison his ears. This excuse for a drink arose, or is said to have arisen, from some epidemic which could be cured only by spirits, and the same is the tradition in the New World (“Highlands of the Brazil,” i. chap. 38). Similarly the Fulas of the Windward coast, who as strict Moslem will not drink fermented liquors, hold a cup of rum to be the sovereignest thing in the world for taenia. The entozoon of course gives rise to a variety of stale and melancholy jokes about the early bird, the worm that dieth not, and so forth.

A greybeard of our gin was incontinently opened and a tumbler in a basin was filled to overflowing; even when buying ground-nuts, the measure must be heaped up. The glass was passed round to the “great gentlemen,” who drank it African fashion, expanding the cheeks, rinsing the mouth so that no portion of the gums may lose their share, and swallowing the draught with an affectedly wry face. The basin then went to the “little gentlemen” below the salt, they have the “vinum garrulum,” and they scrambled as well as screamed for a sup of the precious liquor. I need hardly quote Caliban and his proposed genuflections.

I had been warned by all the traders of the lower river that Banza Nokki would be to me the far-famed point of which it was said,

“Quern passar o Cabo de Nam

Ou tornará, ou n o,”

and prepared accordingly. Old Shimbal, the linguist, had declared that a year would be required by the suspicious “bush-men” to palaver over the knotty question of a stranger coming only to “make mukanda,” that is to see and describe the country. M. Pissot was forbidden by etiquette to recognize his old employé (honours change manners here as in Europe), yet he set about the work doughtily. My wishes were expounded, and every possible promise of hammocks and porters, guides and interpreters, was made by the hosts. The royal helmet was then removed, and a handsome burnous was drawn over the king’s shoulders, the hood covering the berretta in most grotesque guise. After which the commander and M. Pissot set out for the return march, leaving me with my factotum Selim and the youth Nchama Chamvu. To the question “Quid muliere levius?” the scandalous Latin writer answers “Nihil,” for which I would suggest “Niger.” At the supreme moment the interpreter, who had been deaf to the charmer’s voice (offering fifty dollars) for the last three days, succumbed to the “truant fever.” He knew something of Portuguese; and, having been employed by the French factory, he had scoured the land far and wide in search of “emigrants.” He began well; cooked a fowl, boiled some eggs, and made tea; after which he cleared out a hut that was declared très logeable, and found a native couch resembling the Egyptian kafas.

We slept in a new climate: at night the sky was misty, and the mercury fell to 60° (F.). There was a dead silence; neither beast nor bird nor sound of water was heard amongst the hills; only at times high winds in gusts swept over the highlands with a bullying noise, and disappeared, leaving everything still as the grave. I felt once more “at home in the wilderness”— such, indeed, it appeared after Boma, where the cockney-taint yet lingered.

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