Travels in West Africa, by Mary H. Kingsley

Chapter IX. From Esoon to Agonjo.

In which the Voyager sets forth the beauties of the way from Esoon to N’dorko, and gives some account of the local Swamps.

Our next halting place was Esoon, which received us with the usual row, but kindly enough; and endeared itself to me by knowing the Rembwe, and not just waving the arm in the air, in any direction, and saying “Far, far plenty bad people live for that side,” as the other towns had done. Of course they stuck to the bad people part of the legend; but I was getting quite callous as to the moral character of new acquaintances, feeling sure that for good solid murderous rascality several of my old Fan acquaintances, and even my own party, would take a lot of beating; and yet, one and all, they had behaved well to me. Esoon gave me to understand that of all the Sodoms and Gomorrahs that town of Egaja was an easy first, and it would hardly believe we had come that way. Still Egaja had dealt with us well. However I took less interest — except, of course, as a friend, in some details regarding the criminal career of Chief Blue-hat of Egaja — in the opinion of Esoon regarding the country we had survived, than in the information it had to impart regarding the country we had got to survive on our way to the Big River, which now no longer meant the Ogowe, but the Rembwe. I meant to reach one of Hatton and Cookson’s sub-factories there, but — strictly between ourselves — I knew no more at what town that factory was than a Kindergarten Board School child does. I did not mention this fact; and a casual observer might have thought that I had spent my youth in that factory, when I directed my inquiries to the finding out the very shortest route to it. Esoon shook its head. “Yes, it was close, but it was impossible to reach Uguma’s factory.” “Why?” “There was blood war on the path.” I said it was no war of mine. But Esoon said, such was the appalling depravity of the next town on the road, that its inhabitants lay in wait at day with loaded guns and shot on sight any one coming up the Esoon road, and that at night they tied strings with bells on across the road and shot on hearing them. No one had been killed since the first party of Esoonians were fired on at long range, because no one had gone that way; but the next door town had been heard by people who had been out in the bush at night, blazing down the road when the bells were tinkled by wild animals. Clearly that road was not yet really healthy.

The Duke, who as I have said before, was a fine courageous fellow, ready to engage in any undertaking, suggested I should go up the road — alone by myself — first — a mile ahead of the party — and the next town, perhaps, might not shoot at sight, if they happened to notice I was something queer; and I might explain things, and then the rest of the party would follow. “There’s nothing like dash and courage, my dear Duke,” I said, “even if one display it by deputy, so this plan does you great credit; but as my knowledge of this charming language of yours is but small, I fear I might create a wrong impression in that town, and it might think I had kindly brought them a present of eight edible heathens — you and the remainder of my followers, you understand.” My men saw this was a real danger, and this was the only way I saw of excusing myself. It is at such a moment as this that the Giant’s robe gets, so to speak, between your legs and threatens to trip you up. Going up a forbidden road, and exposing yourself as a pot shot to ambushed natives would be jam and fritters to Mr. MacTaggart, for example; but I am not up to that form yet. So I determined to leave that road severely alone, and circumnavigate the next town by a road that leaves Esoon going W.N.W., which struck the Rembwe by N’dorko, I was told, and then follow up the bank of the river until I picked up the sub-factory. Subsequent experience did not make one feel inclined to take out a patent for this plan, but at the time in Esoon it looked nice enough.

Some few of the more highly cultured inhabitants here could speak trade English a little, and had been to the Rembwe, and were quite intelligent about the whole affair. They had seen white men. A village they formerly occupied nearer the Rembwe had been burnt by them, on account of a something that had occurred to a Catholic priest who visited it. They were, of course, none of them personally mixed up in this sad affair, so could give no details of what had befallen the priest. They knew also “the Move,” which was a great bond of union between us. “Was I a wife of them Move white man,” they inquired — “or them other white man?” I civilly said them Move men were my tribe, and they ought to have known it by the look of me. They discussed my points of resemblance to “the Move white man,” and I am ashamed to say I could not forbear from smiling, as I distinctly recognised my friends from the very racy description of their personal appearance and tricks of manner given by a lively Esoonian belle who had certainly met them. So content and happy did I become under these soothing influences, that I actually took off my boots, a thing I had quite got out of the habit of doing, and had them dried. I wanted to have them rubbed with palm oil, but I found, to my surprise, that there was no palm oil to be had, the tree being absent, or scarce in this region, so I had to content myself with having them rubbed with a piece of animal fat instead. I chaperoned my men, while among the ladies of Esoon — a forward set of minxes — with the vigilance of a dragon; and decreed, like the Mikado of Japan, “that whosoever leered or winked, unless connubially linked, should forthwith be beheaded,” have their pay chopped, I mean; and as they were beginning to smell their pay, they were careful; and we got through Esoon without one of them going into jail; no mean performance when you remember that every man had a past — to put it mildly.

Esoon is not situated like the other towns, with a swamp and the forest close round it; but it is built on the side of a fairly cleared ravine among its plantain groves. When you are on the southern side of the ravine, you can see Esoon looking as if it were hung on the hillside before you. You then go through a plantation down into the little river, and up into the town — one long, broad, clean-kept street. Leaving Esoon you go on up the hill through another plantation to the summit. Immediately after leaving the town we struck westwards; and when we got to the top of the next hill we had a view that showed us we were dealing with another type of country. The hills to the westward are lower, and the valleys between them broader and less heavily forested, or rather I should say forested with smaller sorts of timber. All our paths took us during the early part of the day up and down hills, through swamps and little rivers, all flowing Rembwe-wards. About the middle of the afternoon, when we had got up to the top of a high hill, after having had a terrible time on a timber fall of the first magnitude, into which four of us had fallen, I of course for one, I saw a sight that made my heart stand still. Stretching away to the west and north, winding in and out among the feet of the now isolated mound-like mountains, was that never to be mistaken black-green forest swamp of mangrove; doubtless the fringe of the River Rembwe, which evidently comes much further inland than the mangrove belt on the Ogowe. This is reasonable and as it should be, though it surprised me at the time; for the great arm of the sea which is called the Gaboon is really a fjord, just like Bonny and Opobo rivers, with several rivers falling into it at its head, and this fjord brings the sea water further inland. In addition to this the two rivers, the ‘Como (Nkama) and Rembwe that fall into this Gaboon, with several smaller rivers, both bring down an inferior quantity of fresh water, and that at nothing like the tearing, tide-beating back pace of the Ogowe. As my brother would say, “It’s perfectly simple if you think about it;” but thinking is not my strong point. Anyhow I was glad to see the mangrove-belt; all the gladder because I did not then know how far it was inland from the sea, and also because I was fool enough to think that a long line I could see, running E. and W. to the north of where I stood, was the line of the Rembwe river; which it was not, as we soon found out. Cheered by this pleasing prospect, we marched on forgetful of our scratches, down the side of the hill, and down the foot slope of it, until we struck the edge of the swamp. We skirted this for some mile or so, going N.E. Then we struck into the swamp, to reach what we had regarded as the Rembwe river. We found ourselves at the edge of that open line we had seen from the mountain. Not standing, because you don’t so much as try to stand on mangrove roots unless you are a born fool, and then you don’t stand long, but clinging, like so many monkeys, to the net of aerial roots which surrounded us, looking blankly at a lake of ink-black slime. It was half a mile across, and some miles long. We could not see either the west or east termination of it, for it lay like a rotten serpent twisted between the mangroves. It never entered into our heads to try to cross it, for when a swamp is too deep for mangroves to grow in it, “No bottom lib for them dam ting,” as a Kruboy once said to me, anent a small specimen of this sort of ornament to a landscape. But we just looked round to see which direction we had better take. Then I observed that the roots, aerial and otherwise, were coated in mud, and had no leaves on them, for a foot above our heads. Next I noticed that the surface of the mud before us had a sort of quiver running through it, and here and there it exhibited swellings on its surface, which rose in one place and fell in another. No need for an old coaster like me to look at that sort of thing twice to know what it meant, and feeling it was a situation more suited to Mr. Stanley than myself, I attempted to emulate his methods and addressed my men. “Boys,” said I, “this beastly hole is tidal, and the tide is coming in. As it took us two hours to get to this sainted swamp, it’s time we started out, one time, and the nearest way. It’s to be hoped the practice we have acquired in mangrove roots in coming, will enable us to get up sufficient pace to get out on to dry land before we are all drowned.” The boys took the hint. Fortunately one of the Ajumbas had been down in Ogowe, it was Gray Shirt, who “sabed them tide palaver.” The rest of them, and the Fans, did not know what tide meant, but Gray Shirt hustled them along and I followed, deeply regretting that my ancestors had parted prematurely with prehensile tails, for four limbs, particularly when two of them are done up in boots and are not sufficient to enable one to get through a mangrove swamp network of slimy roots rising out of the water, and swinging lines of aerial ones coming down to the water a la mangrove, with anything approaching safety. Added to these joys were any quantity of mangrove flies, a broiling hot sun, and an atmosphere three-quarters solid stench from the putrefying ooze all round us. For an hour and a half thought I, Why did I come to Africa, or why, having come, did I not know when I was well off and stay in Glass? Before these problems were settled in my mind we were close to the true land again, with the water under us licking lazily among the roots and over our feet.

We did not make any fuss about it, but we meant to stick to dry land for some time, and so now took to the side of a hill that seemed like a great bubble coming out of the swamp, and bore steadily E. until we found a path. This path, according to the nature of paths in this country, promptly took us into another swamp, but of a different kind to our last — a knee-deep affair, full of beautiful palms and strange water plants, the names whereof I know not. There was just one part where that abomination, pandanus, had to be got through, but, as swamps go, it was not at all bad. I ought to mention that there were leeches in it, lest I may be thought too enthusiastic over its charms. But the great point was that the mountains we got to on the other side of it, were a good solid ridge, running, it is true, E. and W., while we wanted to go N.; still on we went waiting for developments, and watching the great line of mangrove-swamp spreading along below us to the left hand, seeing many of the lines in its dark face, which betokened more of those awesome slime lagoons that we had seen enough of at close quarters.

About four o’clock we struck some more plantations, and passing through these, came to a path running north-east, down which we went. I must say the forest scenery here was superbly lovely. Along this mountain side cliff to the mangrove-swamp the sun could reach the soil, owing to the steepness and abruptness and the changes of curves of the ground; while the soft steamy air which came up off the swamp swathed everything, and although unpleasantly strong in smell to us, was yet evidently highly agreeable to the vegetation. Lovely wine palms and rafia palms, looking as if they had been grown under glass, so deliciously green and profuse was their feather-like foliage, intermingled with giant red woods, and lovely dark glossy green lianes, blooming in wreaths and festoons of white and mauve flowers, which gave a glorious wealth of beauty and colour to the scene. Even the monotony of the mangrove-belt alongside gave an additional charm to it, like the frame round a picture.

As we passed on, the ridge turned N. and the mangrove line narrowed between the hills. Our path now ran east and more in the middle of the forest, and the cool shade was charming after the heat we had had earlier in the day. We crossed a lovely little stream coming down the hillside in a cascade; and then our path plunged into a beautiful valley. We had glimpses through the trees of an amphitheatre of blue mist-veiled mountains coming down in a crescent before us, and on all sides, save due west where the mangrove-swamp came in. Never shall I forget the exceeding beauty of that valley, the foliage of the trees round us, the delicate wreaths and festoons of climbing plants, the graceful delicate plumes of the palm trees, interlacing among each other, and showing through all a background of soft, pale, purple-blue mountains and forest, not really far away, as the practised eye knew, but only made to look so by the mist, which has this trick of giving suggestion of immense space without destroying the beauty of detail. Those African misty forests have the same marvellous distinctive quality that Turner gives one in his greatest pictures. I am no artist, so I do not know exactly what it is, but I see it is there. I luxuriated in the exquisite beauty of that valley, little thinking or knowing what there was in it besides beauty, as Allah “in mercy hid the book of fate.” On we went among the ferns and flowers until we met a swamp, a different kind of swamp to those we had heretofore met, save the little one last mentioned. This one was much larger, and a gem of beauty; but we had to cross it. It was completely furnished with characteristic flora. Fortunately when we got to its edge we saw a woman crossing before us, but unfortunately she did not take a fancy to our appearance, and instead of staying and having a chat about the state of the roads, and the shortest way to N’dorko, she bolted away across the swamp. I noticed she carefully took a course, not the shortest, although that course immersed her to her armpits. In we went after her, and when things were getting unpleasantly deep, and feeling highly uncertain under foot, we found there was a great log of a tree under the water which, as we had seen the lady’s care at this point, we deemed it advisable to walk on. All of us save one, need I say that one was myself? effected this with safety. As for me, when I was at the beginning of the submerged bridge, and busily laying about in my mind for a definite opinion as to whether it was better to walk on a slippy tree trunk bridge you could see, or on one you could not, I was hurled off by that inexorable fate that demands of me a personal acquaintance with fluvial and paludial ground deposits; whereupon I took a header, and am thereby able to inform the world, that there is between fifteen and twenty feet of water each side of that log. I conscientiously went in on one side, and came up on the other. The log, I conjecture, is odum or ebony, and it is some fifty feet long; anyhow it is some sort of wood that won’t float. Gray Shirt says it is a bridge across an under-swamp river. Having survived this and reached the opposite bank, we shortly fell in with a party of men and women, who were taking, they said, a parcel of rubber to Holty’s. They told us N’dorko was quite close, and that the plantations we saw before us were its outermost ones, but spoke of a swamp, a bad swamp. We knew it, we said, in the foolishness of our hearts thinking they meant the one we had just forded, and leaving them resting, passed on our way; half-a-mile further on we were wiser and sadder, for then we stood on the rim of one of the biggest swamps I have ever seen south of the Rivers. It stretched away in all directions, a great sheet of filthy water, out of which sprang gorgeous marsh plants, in islands, great banks of screw pine, and coppices of wine palm, with their lovely fronds reflected back by the still, mirror-like water, so that the reflection was as vivid as the reality, and above all remarkable was a plant, 24 new and strange to me, whose pale-green stem came up out of the water and then spread out in a flattened surface, thin, and in a peculiarly graceful curve. This flattened surface had growing out from it leaves, the size, shape and colour of lily of the valley leaves; until I saw this thing I had held the wine palm to be the queen of grace in the vegetable kingdom, but this new beauty quite surpassed her.

Our path went straight into this swamp over the black rocks forming its rim, in an imperative, no alternative, “Come-along-this-way” style. Singlet, who was leading, carrying a good load of bottled fish and a gorilla specimen, went at it like a man, and disappeared before the eyes of us close following him, then and there down through the water. He came up, thanks be, but his load is down there now, worse luck. Then I said we must get the rubber carriers who were coming this way to show us the ford; and so we sat down on the bank a tired, disconsolate, dilapidated-looking row, until they arrived. When they came up they did not plunge in forthwith; but leisurely set about making a most nerve-shaking set of preparations, taking off their clothes, and forming them into bundles, which, to my horror, they put on the tops of their heads. The women carried the rubber on their backs still, but rubber is none the worse for being under water. The men went in first, each holding his gun high above his head. They skirted the bank before they struck out into the swamp, and were followed by the women and by our party, and soon we were all up to our chins.

We were two hours and a quarter passing that swamp. I was one hour and three-quarters; but I made good weather of it, closely following the rubber-carriers, and only going in right over head and all twice. Other members of my band were less fortunate. One and all, we got horribly infested with leeches, having a frill of them round our necks like astrachan collars, and our hands covered with them, when we came out.

We had to pass across the first bit of open country I had seen for a long time — a real patch of grass on the top of a low ridge, which is fringed with swamp on all sides save the one we made our way to, the eastern. Shortly after passing through another plantation, we saw brown huts, and in a few minutes were standing in the middle of a ramshackle village, at the end of which, through a high stockade, with its gateway smeared with blood which hung in gouts, we saw our much longed for Rembwe River. I made for it, taking small notice of the hubbub our arrival occasioned, and passed through the gateway, setting its guarding bell ringing violently; I stood on the steep, black, mud slime bank, surrounded by a noisy crowd. It is a big river, but nothing to the Ogowe, either in breadth or beauty; what beauty it has is of the Niger delta type — black mud-laden water, with a mangrove swamp fringe to it in all directions. I soon turned back into the village and asked for Ugumu’s factory. “This is it,” said an exceedingly dirty, good-looking, civil-spoken man in perfect English, though as pure blooded an African as ever walked. “This is it, sir,” and he pointed to one of the huts on the right-hand side, indistinguishable in squalor from the rest. “Where’s the Agent?” said I. “I’m the Agent,” he answered. You could have knocked me down with a feather. “Where’s John Holt’s factory?” said I. “You have passed it; it is up on the hill.” This showed Messrs. Holt’s local factory to be no bigger than Ugumu’s. At this point a big, scraggy, very black man with an irregularly formed face the size of a tea-tray and looking generally as if he had come out of a pantomime on the Arabian Nights, dashed through the crowd, shouting, “I’m for Holty, I’m for Holty.” “This is my trade, you go ‘way,” says Agent number one. Fearing my two Agents would fight and damage each other, so that neither would be any good for me, I firmly said, “Have you got any rum?” Agent number one looked crestfallen, Holty’s triumphant. “Rum, fur sure,” says he; so I gave him a five-franc piece, which he regarded with great pleasure, and putting it in his mouth, he legged it like a lamplighter away to his store on the hill. “Have you any tobacco?” said I to Agent number one. He brightened, “Plenty tobacco, plenty cloth,” said he; so I told him to give me out twenty heads. I gave my men two heads apiece. I told them rum was coming, and ordered them to take the loads on to Hatton and Cookson’s Agent’s hut and then to go and buy chop and make themselves comfortable. They highly approved of this plan, and grunted assent ecstatically; and just as the loads were stowed Holty’s anatomy hove in sight with a bottle of rum under each arm, and one in each hand; while behind him came an acolyte, a fat, small boy, panting and puffing and doing his level best to keep up with his long-legged flying master. I gave my men some and put the rest in with my goods, and explained that I belonged to Hatton and Cookson’s (it’s the proper thing to belong to somebody), and that therefore I must take up my quarters at their Store; but Holty’s energetic agent hung about me like a vulture in hopes of getting more five franc-piece pickings. I sent Ngouta off to get me some tea, and had the hut cleared of an excited audience, and shut myself in with Hatton and Cookson’s agent, and asked him seriously and anxiously if there was not a big factory of the firm’s on the river, because it was self-evident he had not got anything like enough stuff to pay off my men with, and my agreement was to pay off on the Rembwe, hence my horror at the smallness of the firm’s N’dorko store. “Besides,” I said, “Mr. Glass (I knew the head Rembwe agent of Hatton and Cookson was a Mr. Glass), you have only got cloth and tobacco, and I have promised the Fans to pay off in whatever they choose, and I know for sure they want powder.” “I am not Mr. Glass,” said my friend; “he is up at Agonjo, I only do small trade for him here.” Joy!!!! but where’s Agonjo? To make a long story short I found Agonjo was an hour’s paddle up the Rembwe and the place we ought to have come out at. There was a botheration again about sending up a message, because of a war palaver; but I got a pencil note, with my letter of introduction from Mr. Cockshut to Sanga Glass, at last delivered to that gentleman; and down he came, in a state of considerable astonishment, not unmixed with alarm, for no white man of any kind had been across from the Ogowe for years, and none had ever come out at N’dorko. Mr. Glass I found an exceedingly neat, well-educated M’pongwe gentleman in irreproachable English garments, and with irreproachable, but slightly floreate, English language. We started talking trade, with my band in the middle of the street; making a patch of uproar in the moonlit surrounding silence. As soon as we thought we had got one gentleman’s mind settled as to what goods he would take his pay in, and were proceeding to investigate another gentleman’s little fancies, gentleman number one’s mind came all to pieces again, and he wanted “to room his bundle,” i.e. change articles in it for other articles of an equivalent value, if it must be, but of a higher, if possible. Oh ye shopkeepers in England who grumble at your lady customers, just you come out here and try to serve, and satisfy a set of Fans! Mr. Glass was evidently an expert at the affair, but it was past 11 p.m. before we got the orders written out, and getting my baggage into some canoes, that Mr. Glass had brought down from Agonjo, for N’dorko only had a few very wretched ones, I started off up river with him and all the Ajumba, and Kiva, the Fan, who had been promised a safe conduct. He came to see the bundles for his fellow Fans were made up satisfactorily. The canoes being small there was quite a procession of them. Mr. Glass and I shared one, which was paddled by two small boys; how we ever got up the Rembwe that night I do not know, for although neither of us were fat, the canoe was a one man canoe, and the water lapped over the edge in an alarming way. Had any of us sneezed, or had it been daylight when two or three mangrove flies would have joined the party, we must have foundered; but all went well; and on arriving at Agonjo Mr. Glass most kindly opened his store, and by the light of lamps and lanterns, we picked out the goods from his varied and ample supply, and handed them over to the Ajumba and Kiva, and all, save three of the Ajumba, were satisfied. The three, Gray Shirt, Silence, and Pagan quietly explained to me that they found the Rembwe price so little better than the Lembarene price that they would rather get their pay off Mr. Cockshut, than risk taking it back through the Fan country, so I gave them books on him. I gave all my remaining trade goods, and the rest of the rum to the Fans as a dash, and they were more than satisfied. I must say they never clamoured for dash for top. The Passenger we had brought through with us, who had really made himself very helpful, was quite surprised at getting a bundle of goods from me. My only anxiety was as to whether Fika would get his share all right; but I expect he did, for the Ajumbas are very honest men; and they were going back with my Fan friends. I found out, by the by, the reason of Fika’s shyness in coming through to the Rembwe; it was a big wife palaver.

I had a touching farewell with the Fans: and so in peace, good feeling, and prosperity I parted company for the second time with “the terrible M’pongwe,” whom I hope to meet with again, for with all their many faults and failings, they are real men. I am faint-hearted enough to hope, that our next journey together, may not be over a country that seems to me to have been laid down as an obstacle race track for Mr. G. F. Watts’s Titans, and to have fallen into shocking bad repair.

24 Specimen placed in Herbarium at Kew.

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