Travels in West Africa, by Mary H. Kingsley

Chapter III. Voyage Down Coast.

Wherein the voyager before leaving the Rivers discourses on dangers, to which is added some account of Mangrove swamps and the creatures that abide therein.

I left Calabar in May and joined the Benguela off Lagos Bar. My voyage down coast in her was a very pleasant one and full of instruction, for Mr. Fothergill, who was her purser, had in former years resided in Congo Francais as a merchant, and to Congo Francais I was bound with an empty hold as regards local knowledge of the district. He was one of that class of men, of which you most frequently find representatives among the merchants, who do not possess the power so many men along here do possess (a power that always amazes me), of living for a considerable time in a district without taking any interest in it, keeping their whole attention concentrated on the point of how long it will be before their time comes to get out of it. Mr. Fothergill evidently had much knowledge and experience of the Fernan Vaz district and its natives. He had, I should say, overdone his experiences with the natives, as far as personal comfort and pleasure at the time went, having been nearly killed and considerably chivied by them. Now I do not wish a man, however much I may deplore his total lack of local knowledge, to go so far as this. Mr. Fothergill gave his accounts of these incidents calmly, and in an undecorated way that gave them a power and convincingness verging on being unpleasant, although useful, to a person who was going into the district where they had occurred, for one felt there was no mortal reason why one should not personally get involved in similar affairs. And I must here acknowledge the great subsequent service Mr. Fothergill’s wonderfully accurate descriptions of the peculiar characteristics of the Ogowe forests were to me when I subsequently came to deal with these forests on my own account, as every district of forest has peculiar characteristics of its own which you require to know. I should like here to speak of West Coast dangers because I fear you may think that I am careless of, or do not believe in them, neither of which is the case. The more you know of the West Coast of Africa, the more you realise its dangers. For example, on your first voyage out you hardly believe the stories of fever told by the old Coasters. That is because you do not then understand the type of man who is telling them, a man who goes to his death with a joke in his teeth. But a short experience of your own, particularly if you happen on a place having one of its periodic epidemics, soon demonstrates that the underlying horror of the thing is there, a rotting corpse which the old Coaster has dusted over with jokes to cover it so that it hardly shows at a distance, but which, when you come yourself to live alongside, you soon become cognisant of. Many men, when they have got ashore and settled, realise this, and let the horror get a grip on them; a state briefly and locally described as funk, and a state that usually ends fatally; and you can hardly blame them. Why, I know of a case myself. A young man who had never been outside an English country town before in his life, from family reverses had to take a situation as book-keeper down in the Bights. The factory he was going to was in an isolated out-of-the-way place and not in a settlement, and when the ship called off it, he was put ashore in one of the ship’s boats with his belongings, and a case or so of goods. There were only the firm’s beach-boys down at the surf, and as the steamer was in a hurry the officer from the ship did not go up to the factory with him, but said good-bye and left him alone with a set of naked savages as he thought, but really of good kindly Kru boys on the beach. He could not understand what they said, nor they what he said, and so he walked up to the house and on to the verandah and tried to find the Agent he had come out to serve under. He looked into the open-ended dining-room and shyly round the verandah, and then sat down and waited for some one to turn up. Sundry natives turned up, and said a good deal, but no one white or comprehensible, so in desperation he made another and a bolder tour completely round the verandah and noticed a most peculiar noise in one of the rooms and an infinity of flies going into the venetian shuttered window. Plucking up courage he went in and found what was left of the white Agent, a considerable quantity of rats, and most of the flies in West Africa. He then presumably had fever, and he was taken off, a fortnight afterwards, by a French boat, to whom the natives signalled, and he is not coming down the Coast again. Some men would have died right out from a shock like this.

But most of the new-comers do not get a shock of this order. They either die themselves or get more gradually accustomed to this sort of thing, when they come to regard death and fever as soldiers, who on a battle-field sit down, and laugh and talk round a camp fire after a day’s hard battle, in which they have seen their friends and companions falling round them; all the time knowing that tomorrow the battle comes again and that tomorrow night they themselves may never see.

It is not hard-hearted callousness, it is only their way. Michael Scott put this well in Tom Cringle’s Log, in his account of the yellow fever during the war in the West Indies. Fever, though the chief danger, particularly to people who go out to settlements, is not the only one; but as the other dangers, except perhaps domestic poisoning, are incidental to pottering about in the forests, or on the rivers, among the unsophisticated tribes, I will not dwell on them. They can all be avoided by any one with common sense, by keeping well out of the districts in which they occur; and so I warn the general reader that if he goes out to West Africa, it is not because I said the place was safe, or its dangers overrated. The cemeteries of the West Coast are full of the victims of those people who have said that Coast fever is “Cork fever,” and a man’s own fault, which it is not; and that natives will never attack you unless you attack them: which they will — on occasions.

My main aim in going to Congo Francais was to get up above the tide line of the Ogowe River and there collect fishes; for my object on this voyage was to collect fish from a river north of the Congo. I had hoped this river would have been the Niger, for Sir George Goldie had placed at my disposal great facilities for carrying on work there in comfort; but for certain private reasons I was disinclined to go from the Royal Niger Protectorate into the Royal Niger Company’s territory; and the Calabar, where Sir Claude MacDonald did everything he possibly could to assist me, I did not find a good river for me to collect fishes in. These two rivers failing me, from no fault of either of their own presiding genii, my only hope of doing anything now lay on the South West Coast river, the Ogowe, and everything there depended on Mr. Hudson’s attitude towards scientific research in the domain of ichthyology. Fortunately for me that gentleman elected to take a favourable view of this affair, and in every way in his power assisted me during my entire stay in Congo Francais. But before I enter into a detailed description of this wonderful bit of West Africa, I must give you a brief notice of the manners, habits and customs of West Coast rivers in general, to make the thing more intelligible.

There is an uniformity in the habits of West Coast rivers, from the Volta to the Coanza, which is, when you get used to it, very taking. Excepting the Congo, the really great river comes out to sea with as much mystery as possible; lounging lazily along among its mangrove swamps in a what’s-it-matter-when-one-comes-out and where’s-the-hurry style, through quantities of channels inter-communicating with each other. Each channel, at first sight as like the other as peas in a pod, is bordered on either side by green-black walls of mangroves, which Captain Lugard graphically described as seeming “as if they had lost all count of the vegetable proprieties, and were standing on stilts with their branches tucked up out of the wet, leaving their gaunt roots exposed in midair.” High-tide or low-tide, there is little difference in the water; the river, be it broad or narrow, deep or shallow, looks like a pathway of polished metal; for it is as heavy weighted with stinking mud as water e’er can be, ebb or flow, year out and year in. But the difference in the banks, though an unending alternation between two appearances, is weird.

At high-water you do not see the mangroves displaying their ankles in the way that shocked Captain Lugard. They look most respectable, their foliage rising densely in a wall irregularly striped here and there by the white line of an aerial root, coming straight down into the water from some upper branch as straight as a plummet, in the strange, knowing way an aerial root of a mangrove does, keeping the hard straight line until it gets some two feet above water-level, and then spreading out into blunt fingers with which to dip into the water and grasp the mud. Banks indeed at high water can hardly be said to exist, the water stretching away into the mangrove swamps for miles and miles, and you can then go, in a suitable small canoe, away among these swamps as far as you please.

This is a fascinating pursuit. But it is a pleasure to be indulged in with caution; for one thing, you are certain to come across crocodiles. Now a crocodile drifting down in deep water, or lying asleep with its jaws open on a sand-bank in the sun, is a picturesque adornment to the landscape when you are on the deck of a steamer, and you can write home about it and frighten your relations on your behalf; but when you are away among the swamps in a small dug-out canoe, and that crocodile and his relations are awake — a thing he makes a point of being at flood tide because of fish coming along — and when he has got his foot upon his native heath — that is to say, his tail within holding reach of his native mud — he is highly interesting, and you may not be able to write home about him--and you get frightened on your own behalf; for crocodiles can, and often do, in such places, grab at people in small canoes. I have known of several natives losing their lives in this way; some native villages are approachable from the main river by a short cut, as it were, through the mangrove swamps, and the inhabitants of such villages will now and then go across this way with small canoes instead of by the constant channel to the village, which is almost always winding. In addition to this unpleasantness you are liable — until you realise the danger from experience, or have native advice on the point — to get tide-trapped away in the swamps, the water falling round you when you are away in some deep pool or lagoon, and you find you cannot get back to the main river. Of course if you really want a truly safe investment in Fame, and really care about Posterity, and Posterity’s Science, you will jump over into the black batter-like, stinking slime, cheered by the thought of the terrific sensation you will produce 20,000 years hence, and the care you will be taken of then by your fellow-creatures, in a museum. But if you are a mere ordinary person of a retiring nature, like me, you stop in your lagoon until the tide rises again; most of your attention is directed to dealing with an “at home” to crocodiles and mangrove flies, and with the fearful stench of the slime round you. What little time you have over you will employ in wondering why you came to West Africa, and why, after having reached this point of folly, you need have gone and painted the lily and adorned the rose, by being such a colossal ass as to come fooling about in mangrove swamps.

Still, even if your own peculiar tastes and avocations do not take you in small dug-out canoes into the heart of the swamps, you can observe the difference in the local scenery made by the flowing of the tide when you are on a vessel stuck on a sand-bank, in the Rio del Rey for example. Moreover, as you will have little else to attend to, save mosquitoes and mangrove flies, when in such a situation, you may as well pursue the study. At the ebb gradually the foliage of the lower branches of the mangroves grows wet and muddy, until there is a great black band about three feet deep above the surface of the water in all directions; gradually a network of gray-white roots rises up, and below this again, gradually, a slope of smooth and lead-grey slime. The effect is not in the least as if the water had fallen, but as if the mangroves had, with one accord, risen up out of it, and into it again they seem silently to sink when the flood comes. But by this more safe, if still unpleasant, method of observing mangrove-swamps, you miss seeing in full the make of them, for away in their fastnesses the mangroves raise their branches far above the reach of tide line, and the great gray roots of the older trees are always sticking up in mid-air. But, fringing the rivers, there is always a hedge of younger mangroves whose lower branches get immersed.

At corners here and there from the river face you can see the land being made from the waters. A mud-bank forms off it, a mangrove seed lights on it, and the thing’s done. Well! not done, perhaps, but begun; for if the bank is high enough to get exposed at low water, this pioneer mangrove grows. He has a wretched existence though. You have only got to look at his dwarfed attenuated form to see this. He gets joined by a few more bold spirits and they struggle on together, their network of roots stopping abundance of mud, and by good chance now and then a consignment of miscellaneous debris of palm leaves, or a floating tree-trunk, but they always die before they attain any considerable height. Still even in death they collect. Their bare white stems remaining like a net gripped in the mud, so that these pioneer mangrove heroes may be said to have laid down their lives to make that mud-bank fit for colonisation, for the time gradually comes when other mangroves can and do colonise on it, and flourish, extending their territory steadily; and the mud-bank joins up with, and becomes a part of, Africa.

Right away on the inland fringe of the swamp — you may go some hundreds of miles before you get there — you can see the rest of the process. The mangroves there have risen up, and dried the mud to an extent that is more than good for themselves, have over civilised that mud in fact, and so the brackish waters of the tide — which, although their enemy when too deep or too strong in salt, is essential to their existence — cannot get to their roots. They have done this gradually, as a mangrove does all things, but they have done it, and down on to that mud come a whole set of palms from the old mainland, who in their early colonisation days go through similarly trying experiences. First the screw-pines come and live among them; then the wine-palm and various creepers, and then the oil-palm; and the debris of these plants being greater and making better soil than dead mangroves, they work quicker and the mangrove is doomed. Soon the salt waters are shut right out, the mangrove dies, and that bit of Africa is made. It is very interesting to get into these regions; you see along the river-bank a rich, thick, lovely wall of soft-wooded plants, and behind this you find great stretches of death; — miles and miles sometimes of gaunt white mangrove skeletons standing on gray stuff that is not yet earth and is no longer slime, and through the crust of which you can sink into rotting putrefaction. Yet, long after you are dead, buried, and forgotten, this will become a forest of soft-wooded plants and palms; and finally of hard-wooded trees. Districts of this description you will find in great sweeps of Kama country for example, and in the rich low regions up to the base of the Sierra del Cristal and the Rumby range.

You often hear the utter lifelessness of mangrove-swamps commented on; why I do not know, for they are fairly heavily stocked with fauna, though the species are comparatively few. There are the crocodiles, more of them than any one wants; there are quantities of flies, particularly the big silent mangrove-fly which lays an egg in you under the skin; the egg becomes a maggot and stays there until it feels fit to enter into external life. Then there are “slimy things that crawl with legs upon a slimy sea,” and any quantity of hopping mud-fish, and crabs, and a certain mollusc, and in the water various kinds of cat-fish. Birdless they are save for the flocks of gray parrots that pass over them at evening, hoarsely squarking; and save for this squarking of the parrots the swamps are silent all the day, at least during the dry season; in the wet season there is no silence night or day in West Africa, but that roar of the descending deluge of rain that is more monotonous and more gloomy than any silence can be. In the morning you do not hear the long, low, mellow whistle of the plantain-eaters calling up the dawn, nor in the evening the clock-bird nor the Handel–Festival-sized choruses of frogs, or the crickets, that carry on their vesper controversy of “she did” — “she didn’t” so fiercely on hard land.

But the mangrove-swamp follows the general rule for West Africa, and night in it is noisier than the day. After dark it is full of noises; grunts from I know not what, splashes from jumping fish, the peculiar whirr of rushing crabs, and quaint creaking and groaning sounds from the trees; and — above all in eeriness — the strange whine and sighing cough of crocodiles.

Great regions of mangrove-swamps are a characteristic feature of the West African Coast. The first of these lies north of Sierra Leone; then they occur, but of smaller dimensions — just fringes of river-outfalls — until you get to Lagos, when you strike the greatest of them all:— the swamps of the Niger outfalls (about twenty-three rivers in all) and of the Sombreiro, New Calabar, Bonny, San Antonio, Opobo (false and true), Kwoibo, Old Calabar (with the Cross Akwayafe Qwa Rivers) and Rio del Rey Rivers. The whole of this great stretch of coast is a mangrove-swamp, each river silently rolling down its great mass of mud-laden waters and constituting each in itself a very pretty problem to the navigator by its network of intercommunicating creeks, and the sand and mud bar which it forms off its entrance by dropping its heaviest mud; its lighter mud is carried out beyond its bar and makes the nasty-smelling brown soup of the South Atlantic Ocean, with froth floating in lines and patches on it, for miles to seaward.

In this great region of swamps every mile appears like every other mile until you get well used to it, and are able to distinguish the little local peculiarities at the entrance of the rivers and in the winding of the creeks, a thing difficult even for the most experienced navigator to do during those thick wool-like mists called smokes, which hang about the whole Bight from November till May (the dry season), sometimes lasting all day, sometimes clearing off three hours after sunrise.

The upper or north-westerly part of the swamp is round the mouths of the Niger, and it successfully concealed this fact from geographers down to 1830, when the series of heroic journeys made by Mungo Park, Clapperton, and the two Landers finally solved the problem — a problem that was as great and which cost more men’s lives than even the discovery of the sources of the Nile.

That this should have been so may seem very strange to us who now have been told the answer to the riddle; for the upper waters of this great river were known of before Christ and spoken of by Herodotus, Pliny and Ptolemy, and its mouths navigated continuously along by the seaboard by trading vessels since the fifteenth century, but they were not recognised as belonging to the Niger. Some geographers held that the Senegal or the Gambia was its outfall; others that it was the Zaire (Congo); others that it did not come out on the West Coast at all, but got mixed up with the Nile in the middle of the continent, and so on. Yet when you come to know the swamps this is not so strange. You find on going up what looks like a big river — say Forcados, two and a half miles wide at the entrance and a real bit of the Niger. Before you are up it far great, broad, business-like-looking river entrances open on either side, showing wide rivers mangrove-walled, but two-thirds of them are utter frauds which will ground you within half an hour of your entering them. Some few of them do communicate with other main channels to the great upper river, and others are main channels themselves; but most of them intercommunicate with each other and lead nowhere in particular, and you can’t even get there because of their shallowness. It is small wonder that the earlier navigators did not get far up them in sailing ships, and that the problem had to be solved by men descending the main stream of the Niger before it commences to what we in Devonshire should call “squander itself about” in all these channels. And in addition it must be remembered that the natives with whom these trading vessels dealt, first for slaves, afterwards for palm-oil, were not, and are not now, members of the Lo family of savages. Far from it: they do not go in for “gentle smiles,” but for murdering any unprotected boat’s crew they happen to come across, not only for a love of sport but to keep white traders from penetrating to the trade-producing interior, and spoiling prices. And the region is practically foodless.

The rivers of the great mangrove-swamp from the Sombreiro to the Rio del Rey are now known pretty surely not to be branches of the Niger, but the upper regions of this part of the Bight are much neglected by English explorers. I believe the great swamp region of the Bight of Biafra is the greatest in the world, and that in its immensity and gloom it has a grandeur equal to that of the Himalayas.

Take any man, educated or not, and place him on Bonny or Forcados River in the wet season on a Sunday — Bonny for choice. Forcados is good. You’ll keep Forcados scenery “indelibly limned on the tablets of your mind when a yesterday has faded from its page,” after you have spent even a week waiting for the Lagos branch-boat on its inky waters. But Bonny! Well, come inside the bar and anchor off the factories: seaward there is the foam of the bar gleaming and wicked white against a leaden sky and what there is left of Breaker Island. In every other direction you will see the apparently endless walls of mangrove, unvarying in colour, unvarying in form, unvarying in height, save from perspective. Beneath and between you and them lie the rotting mud waters of Bonny River, and away up and down river, miles of rotting mud waters fringed with walls of rotting mud mangrove-swamp. The only break in them — one can hardly call it a relief to the scenery — are the gaunt black ribs of the old hulks, once used as trading stations, which lie exposed at low water near the shore, protruding like the skeletons of great unclean beasts who have died because Bonny water was too strong even for them.

Raised on piles from the mud shore you will see the white-painted factories and their great store-houses for oil; each factory likely enough with its flag at half-mast, which does not enliven the scenery either, for you know it is because somebody is “dead again.” Throughout and over all is the torrential downpour of the wet-season rain, coming down night and day with its dull roar. I have known it rain six mortal weeks in Bonny River, just for all the world as if it were done by machinery, and the interval that came then was only a few wet days, where-after it settled itself down to work again in the good West Coast waterspout pour for more weeks.

While your eyes are drinking in the characteristics of Bonny scenery you notice a peculiar smell — an intensification of that smell you noticed when nearing Bonny, in the evening, out at sea. That’s the breath of the malarial mud, laden with fever, and the chances are you will be down tomorrow. If it is near evening time now, you can watch it becoming incarnate, creeping and crawling and gliding out from the side creeks and between the mangrove-roots, laying itself upon the river, stretching and rolling in a kind of grim play, and finally crawling up the side of the ship to come on board and leave its cloak of moisture that grows green mildew in a few hours over all. Noise you will not be much troubled with: there is only that rain, a sound I have known make men who are sick with fever well-nigh mad, and now and again the depressing cry of the curlews which abound here. This combination is such that after six or eight hours of it you will be thankful to hear your shipmates start to work the winch. I take it you are hard up when you relish a winch. And you will say — let your previous experience of the world be what it may — Good Heavens, what a place!

Five times have I been now in Bonny River and I like it. You always do get to like it if you live long enough to allow the strange fascination of the place to get a hold on you; but when I first entered it, on a ship commanded by Captain Murray in ‘93, in the wet season, i.e. in August, in spite of the confidence I had by this time acquired in his skill and knowledge of the West Coast, a sense of horror seized on me as I gazed upon the scene, and I said to the old Coaster who then had charge of my education, “Good Heavens! what an awful accident. We’ve gone and picked up the Styx.” He was evidently hurt and said, “Bonny was a nice place when you got used to it,” and went on to discourse on the last epidemic here, when nine men out of the resident eleven died in about ten days from yellow fever. Next to the scenery of “a River,” commend me for cheerfulness to the local conversation of its mangrove-swamp region; and every truly important West African river has its mangrove-swamp belt, which extends inland as far as the tide waters make it brackish, and which has a depth and extent from the banks depending on the configuration of the country. Above this belt comes uniformly a region of high forest, having towards the river frontage clay cliffs, sometimes high, as in the case of the Old Calabar at Adiabo, more frequently dwarf cliffs, as in the Forcados up at Warree, and in the Ogowe, — for a long stretch through Kama country. After the clay cliffs region you come to a region of rapids, caused by the river cutting its way through a mountain range; such ranges are the Pallaballa, causing the Livingstone rapids of the Congo; the Sierra del Cristal, those of the Ogowe, and many lesser rivers; the Rumby and Omon ranges, those of the Old Calabar and Cross Rivers.

Naturally in different parts these separate regions vary in size. The mangrove-swamp may be only a fringe at the mouth of the river, or it may cover hundreds of square miles. The clay cliffs may extend for only a mile or so along the bank, or they may, as on the Ogowe, extend for 130. And so it is also with the rapids: in some rivers, for instance the Cameroons, there are only a few miles of them, in others there are many miles; in the Ogowe there are as many as 500; and these rapids may be close to the river mouth, as in most of the Gold Coast rivers, save the Ancobra and the Volta; or they may be far in the interior, as in the Cross River, where they commence at about 200 miles; and on the Ogowe, where they commence at about 208 miles from the sea coast; this depends on the nearness or remoteness from the coast line of the mountain ranges which run down the west side of the continent; ranges (apparently of very different geological formations), which have no end of different names, but about which little is known in detail. 13

And now we will leave generalisations on West African rivers and go into particulars regarding one little known in England, and called by its owners, the French, the greatest strictly equatorial river in the world — the Ogowe.

13 The Sierra del Cristal and the Pallaballa range are, by some geographers, held to be identical; but I have reason to doubt this, for the specimens of rock brought home by me have been identified by the Geological Survey, those of the Pallaballa range as mica schist and quartz; those of the Sierra del Cristal as “probably schistose grit, but not definitely determinable by inspection,” and “quartz rock.” The quantity of mica in the sands of the Ogowe, I think, come into it from its affluents from the Congo region because you do not get these mica sands in rivers which are entirely from the Sierra del Cristal, such as the Muni. The Rumby and Omon ranges are probably identical with the Sierra del Cristal, for in them as in the Sierra you do not get the glistening dove-coloured rock with a sparse vegetation growing on it, as you do in the Pallaballa region.

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 11:47