My objects in visiting Mbátá, the reader will have understood, were to shoot a specimen or specimens of the gorilla, and, if possible, to buy or catch a youngster. Even before landing, the pilot had assured me that a “baby” was on sale at the Comptoir, but on inquiry it proved to have died. I was by no means sanguine of success — when the fight is against Time, the Old Man usually wins the day. The short limits of my trip would not allow me to wander beyond the coast and the nearer riverine regions, where frequent villages and the constant firing of muskets have taught all wild animals that flight is their only defence; thus, besides being rare, they must be shy and timid, wary and knowing, “like an old hedgehog hunted for his grease.” The first glance at the bush suggested, “Surely it is impossible to find big game in such a land of farms and plantations.”
Those who have shot under such circumstances will readily understand that everything depends upon “luck;” one man may beat the forest assiduously and vainly for five or six weeks; another will be successful on the first day. Thus whilst I, without any fault of my own, utterly failed in shooting a gorilla, although I saw him and heard him, and came upon his trail, and found his mortal spoils, another traveller had hardly landed in the Gaboon before he was so fortunate as to bring down a fine anthropoid.
However, as man cannot command success, I was obliged to content myself with doing all in my power to deserve it. I offered five dollars, equalling the same number of sovereigns in England, to every huntsman for every fair shot, and ten dollars for each live ape. I implicitly obeyed all words of command, and my factotum Selim Agha was indefatigable in his zeal. Indeed “luck” was dead against us during the whole of my stay in Gorilla-land. We ran a fair risk of drowning in the first day’s voyage; on the next march we were knocked down by lightning, and on the last trip I had a narrow escape from the fall of a giant branch that grazed my hammock.
My first “bush” evening was spent in palm-wine, rum, and wassail; one must begin by humouring Africans, under pain of being considered a churl; but the inevitable result is, that next day they will by some pretext or other shirk work to enjoy the headache. That old villain, “Young Prince,” becoming very fou, hospitably offered me his daughter-inlaw Azizeh, Forteune’s second wife; and he was vigorously supported by the Nimrod himself, who had drawn a horizontal line of white chalk above the eyebrows, a defence against the Ibambo, those bad ghosts that cause fevers and sickness. Forteune then hinted that perhaps I might prefer his daughter —“he be piccanniny; he be all same woman.” Marchandise offerte a le pied coupé, both offers were declined with, Merci, non! Sporting parties are often made up by the Messieurs du Plateau, I had been told at the Comptoir; but such are the fascinations of les petites, that few ever progress beyond the first village. There was, consequently, wonder in the land as to what manner of utangáni this one might be.
It is only fair to own that the ladies endured with great philosophy the spretæ injuria formæ, and made no difference in their behaviour on account of their charms being unappreciated. Azízeh was a stout and sturdy personage of twenty-five, with thick wrists and ankles, a very dark skin, and a face rendered pleasing by good humour. And Azízeh was childless, a sad reproach in these lands, where progeny forms a man’s wealth and a woman’s honour.
The next day was perforce a halt, as had been expected; moreover, rains and tornadoes were a reasonable pretext for nursing the headache. The 21st was also wet and stormy, so Nimrod hid himself and was not to be found. Then the balivernes began. One Asini, a Mpongwe from the Plateau, offered to show me a huge gorilla near his village; in the afternoon he was confronted with “Young Prince,” and he would have blushed scarlet if he could. But he assured me plaintively that he must lie to live, and, after all, la prudence des souris n’est pas celle des chats. Before dark, Forteune appeared, and swore that he had spent the day in the forest, he had shot at a gorilla, but the gun missed fire — of course he had slept in a snug hut.
This last determined me to leave Mbátá; the three Kru-men had returned; one of them was stationed in charge of the boat, and next morning we set out at 6 A.M. for Nche Mpolo, the headquarters of “Young Prince.” The well-wooded land was devoid of fetor, even at that early hour; we passed Ndagola, a fresh clearing and newly built huts, and then we skirted a deep and forested depression, upon whose further side lay our bourne. It promised sand-flies, the prime pest of this region; a tall amphitheatre of trees on a dune to the west excluded the sea-breeze, and northwards a swampy hollow was a fine breeding place for M. Maringouin.
Nche Mpolo lies some three miles nearly due south of Mbátá; the single street contains fourteen cottages and two palaver houses. We were received with distinction by “Young Prince’s” daughter, a huge young woman, whose still huger mamma was from Cape Lopez. She placed mats upon the bamboo couch under the verandah, brought water to wash our feet, and put the kettle on that we might have tea. The sun was fiery and the day sultry; my companions complained of fatigue after a two hours’ walk, and then busied themselves ostentatiously in cleaning their muskets, in collecting provisions, and in appointing certain bushmen to meet us on the morrow. Before dark Hotaloya returned to his village, declaring that he could find no bed at his papa’s. Probably the uxorious youth had been ordered home by his pet wife, who had once lived with a European trader, who spoke a few words of English, and who cooked with peculiar skill — the solid merits of a “superior person.”
At dawn on the 23rd we set out for the southern bush, Selim, Forteune, and a carrier Kru-man — to carry nothing. We passed through a fresh clearing, we traversed another village (three within five miles!), we crossed a bad bridge and a clear stream flowing to the south-east, and presently we found ourselves deep in the dew-dripping forest. The leaves no longer crackled crisp under foot, and the late rains had made the swamps somewhat odorous. After an hour of cautious walking, listening as we went, we saw evident signs of Mister Gorilla. Boughs three inches in diameter strewed the ground; the husks of Ntondo or Ibere (wild cardamom) had been scattered about, and a huge hare’s form of leaves lay some five yards from the tree where Forteune declared that Mistress and Master Gorilla had passed the night, Paterfamilias keeping watch below. A little beyond we were shown a spot where two males had been fighting a duel, or where a couple had been indulging in dalliance sweet; the prints were 8 inches long and 6 across the huge round toes; whilst the hinder hand appeared almost bifurcate, the thumb forming nearly a half. This is explained in the “Gorilla Book” (chap, xx.): “Only the ball of the foot, and that thumb which answers to our great toe, seem to touch the ground.”
Presently we came upon the five bushmen who had been appointed to meet us. They were a queer-looking lot, with wild, unsteady eyes, receding brows, horizontal noses, and projecting muzzles; the cranium and the features seemed disposed nearly at a right angle, giving them a peculiar baboon-like semblance. Each had his water-gourd and his flint-gun, the lock protected by a cover of monkey’s skin or wild cow’s hide, whilst gibècieres and ammunition-bags of grass-cloth hung from their shoulders. There were also two boys with native axes, small iron triangles, whose points passed through knob-sticks; these were to fell the trees in which our game might take refuge, and possibly they might have done so in a week. A few minutes with this party convinced me that I was wilfully wasting time; they would not separate, and they talked so loud that game would be startled a mile off. I proposed that they should station me in a likely place, form a circle, and drive up what was in it — they were far above acting beaters after that fashion. So we dismissed them and dispersed about the bush. My factotum shot a fine Mboko (Siurus eborivorus), 2 ft. 2 in. total length: the people declare that this squirrel gnaws ivory, whence its name. I had heard of it in East and Central Africa, but the tale appeared fabulous: here it is very common, half a dozen will be seen during the day; it has great vitality, and it will escape after severe wounds. The bushmen also brought a Shoke (Colubus Satanas), a small black monkey, remarkably large limbed: the little unfortunate was timid, but not vicious; it worried itself to death on the next day. They also showed me the head of the Njíwo antelope, which M. du Chaillu (chap, xii.) describes as “a singular animal of the size of a donkey, with shorter legs, no horns, and black, with a yellow spot on the back.”1
In the afternoon Selim went to fetch my arsenical soap from Mbátá, where I had left it en Fitiché: as long as that “bad medicine” was within Hotaloya’s “ben,” no one would dare to meddle with my goods. Forteune walked in very tired about sunset. He had now added streaks of red to the white chalk upon his face, arms, and breast, for he suspected, we were assured, witchcraft. I told him to get ready for a march on the morrow to the Shekyáni country, lying south-east, but he begged so hard, and he seemed so assured of showing sport, that the design was deferred, and again “perdidi diem.”
Monday the 24th was a Black Monday, sultry and thundery. We went to the bush, and once more we returned, disgusted by the chattering of the wild men. As we discussed our plans for moving, Forteune threw cold water upon every proposal. This puzzled me, and the difficulty was to draw his secret. At last Kángá, a black youth, who, being one of the family, had attached himself uninvited to the party, blurted out in bad French that the Shekyáni chief, to whose settlement we were bound, had left for the interior, and that the village women would not, or rather could not, give us “chop.” This was a settler to my Mpongwe friends. Nimrod, however, declared that some bushmen had lately seen several gorillas in the direction of Sánga-Tánga, two marches down coast from Mbátá, and about half-way to Cape Lopez. I did not believe a word of his intelligence; the direction is south-west instead of south-east, towards the sea instead of into the forest. But it was evidently hopeless to seek for the “ole man” in these parts, and I had long been anxious to see Sánga-Tánga; we therefore agreed nem. con. to set out before dawn on the next day.
But the next day dawned, and the sun rose high, and the world was well heated and aired before the bushmen condescended to appear. After a two hours’ battle with the sand-flies we set off at 7.35 A.M., Forteune, Hotaloya, and Kángá at the head of the musketeers, one of them also carrying an axe; sixteen guns form a strong party for these regions. The viol (nchámbí) was not allowed to hang mute in Mbata’s halls, this instrument or the drum must never be neglected in African travel; its melody at the halt and the camp-fire are to the negro what private theatricals are to the European sailor half fossilized in the frozen seas. Our specimen was strung with thin cords made from the fibre of a lliana; I was shown this growth, which looked much like a convolvulus. The people have a long list of instruments, and their music, though monotonous, is soft and plaintive: Bowdich gives a specimen of it (“Sketch of Gaboon,” p. 449), and of a bard who seems to have been somewhat more frenzied than most poets. Captain Allen (iii. 398) speaks of a harp at Bimbia (Camarones) tightly strung with the hard fibre of some creeping plant. The Bákele harp (M. du Chaillu, chap, xvi.) is called Ngombi; the handle opposite the bow often has a carved face, and it might be a beginning of the article used by civilized Europe — Wales for instance.
The path plunged westward into the bush, spanned a dirty and grass-grown plantation of bananas, dived under thorn tunnels and arches of bush, and crossed six nullahs, Neropotamoi, then dry, but full of water on our return. The ant-nests were those of Yoruba and the Mendi country; not the tall, steepled edifices built by the termites with yellow clay, as in Eastern Africa, but an eruption of blue-black, hard-dried mud and mucus, resembling the miniature pagodas, policeman’s lanterns, mushrooms, or umbrellas one or two feet high, here single, there double, common in Ashanti and Congo-land. Like most of their congeners, the animals die when exposed to the sun. The “Bashikouay” and Nchounou (Nchu’u) of M. du Chaillu are the common “driver-ant” of West Africa (Termes bellicosa). It is little feared in the Gaboon; when its armies attack the mission-houses, they are easily stopped by lighting spirits of turpentine, or by a strew of quicklime, which combines with the formic acid. The different species are described in “Palm Land” and “Western Africa” (pp. 369–373), from which even the account of the “tubular bridge” is taken — Mr. Wilson less sensationally calls it what it is, a “live raft.” The most common are the Nkázeze, a large reddish and fetid ant, which is harmless to man; the Njenge, a smaller red species, and the Ibimbízí, whose bite is painful.
We passed the mortal remains of a gorilla lashed to a pole; the most interesting parts had been sold to Mr. R. B. N. Walker, and were on their way to England. I was shown for the first time the Ndámbo, or Ndambié (Bowdich, “Olamboo”), which gives the india rubber of commerce; it is not a fat-leaved fig-tree (Ficus elastica of Asia) nor aeuphorbia (Siphonia elastica), as in South America, but a large climbing ficus, a cable thick as a man’s leg crossing the path, and “swarming up” to the top of the tallest boles; the yellow fruit is tart and pleasant to the taste. In 1817 the style of collecting the gum (olamboo) was to spread with a knife the glutinous milk as it oozed from the tree over the shaved breast and arms like a plaister; it was then taken off, rolled up in balls to play with or stretched over drums, no other use being known. The Rev. Mr. Wilson declares (chap. ii.) that he “first discovered the gum elastic, which has been procured, as yet, only at Corisco, Gabun, and Kama.” In 1854, Mr. Thompson (p. 112) found it in the Mendi country, near Sherbro; he describes it as a vine with dense bark, which yields the gum when hacked, and which becomes soft and porous when old. The juice is milk-white, thick, and glutinous, soon stiffening, darkening, and hardening without aid of art. I should like to see the raw material tried for making waterproofs in the tropics, where the best vulcanized articles never last. The Ndámbo tree has been traced a hundred miles inland from the Liberian Coast; that of the Gallinas and Sherbro is the best; at St. Paul’s River it is not bad; but on the Junk River it is sticky and little prized. The difficulty everywhere is to make the negro collect it, and, when he does, to sell it unadulterated: in East Africa he uses the small branches of the ficus for flogging canes, but will not take the trouble even to hack the “Mpira” tree.
At a brook of the sweetest water, purling over the cleanest and brightest of golden sands, we filled the canteens, this being the last opportunity for some time. Forest walks are thirsty work during the hot season; the air is close, fetid, and damp with mire; the sea-breeze has no power to enter, and perspiration streams from every pore. After heavy rains it is still worse, the surface of the land is changed, and paths become lines of dark puddles; the nullahs, before dry, roll muddy, dark-brown streams, and their mouths streak the sea with froth and scum. Hardly a living object meets the eye, and only the loud, whirring flight of some large bird breaks the dreary silence. The music of the surf now sounded like the song of the sea-shell as we crossed another rough prism of stone and bush, whose counter-slope fell gently into a sand-flat overgrown with Ipomaa and other bright flowering plants. After walking about an hour (equal to 2.50 miles) between south and south-west, we saluted the pleasant aspect of <Greek> with a general cheer. Northwards lay Point Ipizarala, southways Nyonye, both looking like tree-clumps rising from the waves. I could not sufficiently admire, and I shall never forget the exquisite loveliness of land and sea; the graceful curve of the beach, a hundred feet broad, fining imperceptibly away till lost in the convexity of waters. The morning sun, half way to the zenith, burned bright in a cloudless sky, whilst in the east and west distant banks of purple mist coloured the liquid plain with a cool green-blue, a celadon tint that reposed the eye and the brain. The porpoise raised in sport his dark, glistening back to the light of day, and plunged into the cool depths as if playing off the “amate sponde” of the Mediterranean; and sandpipers and curlews, the latter wild as ever, paced the smooth, pure floor. The shoreline was backed by a dark vegetable wall, here and there broken and fronted by single trees, white mangroves tightly corded down, and raised on stilted roots high above the tide. Between wood and wave lay powdered sandstone of lively yellow, mixed with bright white quartz and débris of pink shells. Upon the classic shores of Greece I should have thought of Poseidon and the Nereids; but the lovely scene was in unromantic Africa, which breeds no such visions of
“The fair humanities of old religion.”
Resuming our road, we passed the ruins of an “Olako,” the khámbí of East Africa, a temporary encampment, whose few poles were still standing under a shady tree. We then came upon a blockaded lagoon; the sea-water had been imprisoned by a high bank which the waves had washed up, and it will presently be released by storms from the south-west. Near the water, even at half-ebb, we find the floor firm and pleasant; it becomes loose walking at high tide, and the ribbed banks are fatiguing to ascend and descend under a hot sun and in reeking air. A seine would have supplied a man-of-war in a few hours; large turtle is often turned; in places young ones about the size of a dollar scuttled towards the sea, and Hotaloya brought a nest of eggs, which, however, were too high in flavour for the European palate. The host of crabs lining the water stood alert, watching our approach, and when we came within a hundred yards they hurried sideways into the safer sea — the scene reminded me of the days when, after “tiffin,” we used to “már kankrás” on the Clifton Sands in the Unhappy Valley.
Presently we came to a remarkable feature of this coast, the first specimen of which was seen at Point Ovindo in the Gaboon River. The Iberian explorers called them “Sernas,” fields or downs, opposed to Corôas, sand-dunes or hills. They are clearings in the jungle made by Nature’s hand, fenced round everywhere, save on the sea side, by tall walls of dark vegetation.; averaging perhaps a mile long by 200 yards broad, and broken by mounds and terraces regular as if worked by art. These prairies bear a green sward, seldom taller than three feet, and now ready for the fire — here and there the verdure is dotted by a tree or two. It is universally asserted that they cannot be cultivated; and, if this be true, the cause would be worth investigating. In some places they are perfectly level, and almost flush with the sea; in others they swell gently to perhaps 100 feet; in other parts, again, they look like scarps and earth-works, remarkably resembling the lower parasitic craters of a huge volcano; and here and there they are pitted with sinks like the sea-board of Loango. These savannahs (savánas) add an indescribable charm to the Gaboon Coast, especially when the morning and evening suns strike them with slanting rays, and compel them to stand out distinct from the setting of eternal emerald. The aspect of the downs is civilized as the banks of the Solent; and the coast wants nothing to complete the “fine, quiet old-country picture in the wilds of Africa” but herds of kine grazing upon leas shining with a golden glory, or a country seat, backed by the noble virgin forest, such a bosquet as Europe never knew.
After another hour’s walk, which carried us about three miles, we sighted in one of these prairillons a clump of seventeen huts. A negro in European clothes, after prospecting the party through a ship’s glass, probably the gift of some slaver, came down to meet us, and led the way to his “town.” Finding his guest an Englishman, the host, who spoke a few words of French and Portuguese, at once began to talk of his “summer gîte” where pirogues were cut out, and boats were built; there were indeed some signs of this industrie, but all things wore the true Barracoon aspect. Two very fine girls were hid behind the huts, but did not escape my factotum’s sharp eyes; and several of the doors were carefully padlocked: the pretty faces had been removed when he returned. This coast does an active retail business with São Thomé and the Ilha do Principe — about Cape Lopez the “ebony trade” still, I hear, flourishes on a small scale.
During our halt for breakfast at the barracoon, we were visited by Petit Denis, a son of the old king. His village is marked upon the charts some four miles south-south-east of his father’s; but at this season all the royalties, we are assured, affect the sea-shore. He was dressed in the usual loin-wrap, under a broadcloth coat, with the French official buttons. Leading me mysteriously aside, he showed certificates from the officials at Le Plateau, dating from 1859, recommending him strongly as a shipbroker for collecting émigrants libres, and significantly adding, les nègres ne manquent pas. Petit Denis’s face was a study when I told him that, being an Englishman, a dozen negroes were not worth to me a single “Njína.” Slave cargoes of some eight to ten head are easily canoed down the rivers, and embarked in schooners for the islands: the latter sadly want hands, and should be assisted in setting on foot a system of temporary immigration.
At 10.45 A.M. we resumed our march. The fiery sun had sublimated black clouds, the northeast quarter looked ugly, and I wished to be housed before the storm burst. The coast appeared populous; we met many bushmen, who were perfectly civil, and showed no fear, although some of them had probably never seen a white face. All were armed with muskets, and carried the usual hunting talismans, horns and iron or brass bells, hanging from the neck before and behind. We crossed four sweet-water brooks, which, draining the high banks, flowed fast and clear down cuts of loose, stratified sand, sometimes five feet deep: the mouths opened to the north-west, owing to the set of the current from the south-west, part of the great Atlantic circulation running from the Antarctic to the equator. Those which are not bridged with fallen trees must be swum during the rains, as the water is often waist-deep. Many streamlets, shown by their feathery fringes of bright green palm, run along the shore before finding an outlet; they are excellent bathing places, where the salt water can be washed off the skin. The sea is delightfully tepid, but it is not without risk — it becomes deep within biscuit-toss, there is a strong under-tow, and occasionally an ugly triangular fin may be seen cruizing about in unpleasant proximity. As our naked feet began to blister, we suddenly turned to the left, away from the sea; and, after crossing about 100 yards of prairillon, one of the prettiest of its kind, we found ourselves at Bwámánge, the village of King Lángobúmo. It was then noon, and we had walked about three hours and a half in a general south-south-west direction.
His majesty’s hut was at the entrance of the village, which numbered five scattered and unwalled sheds. He at once led us to his house, a large bamboo hall, with several inner sleeping rooms for the “Harím;” placed couch, chair, and table, the civilization of the slave-trade; brought wife No. 1 to shake hands, directed a fowl to be killed, and, sitting down, asked us the news in French. As a return for our information, he told us that the Gorilla was everywhere to be found, even in the bush behind his town. The rain coming down heavily, I was persuaded to pass the night there, the king offering to beat the bush with us, to engage hunters, and to find a canoe which would carry the party to Sánga-Tánga, landing us at all the likely places. I agreed the more willingly to the suggestion of a cruize, as my Mpongwe fashionables, like the Congoese, and unlike the Yorubans, proved to be bad and untrained walkers; they complained of sore feet, and they were always anticipating attacks of fever.
When the delicious sea-breeze had tempered the heat, we set out for the forest, and passed the afternoon in acquiring a certainty that we had again been “done.” However, we saw the new guides, and supplied them with ammunition for the next day. The evening was still and close; the Ifúrú (sandflies) and the Nchúná (a red gad-fly) were troublesome as usual, and at night the mosquitoes phlebotomized us till we hailed the dawn.2 A delightful bath of salt followed by fresh water, effectually quenched the fiery irritation of these immundicities.
Wednesday, as we might have expected, was wasted, although the cool and cloudy weather was perfection for a cruize. As we sat waiting for a boat, a youth rushed in breathless, reporting that he had just seen an “ole man gorilla” sitting in a tree hard by. I followed him incredulously at first, but presently the crashing of boughs and distant grunts, somewhat like huhh! huhh! huhh! caused immense excitement. After half a day’s hard work, which resulted in nothing, I returned to Bwámánge, and met the “boat-king,” whose capital was an adjacent settlement of three huts. He was in rags, and my diary might have recorded, Reçu un roi dans un très fichu état. He was accompanied by a young wife, with a huge toupel, and a gang of slaves, who sat down and stared till their eyes blinked and watered. For the loan of his old canoe he asked the moderate sum of fifteen dollars per diem, which finally fell to two dollars; but there was a suspicious reservation anent oars, paddles and rudder, mast and sail.
Meanwhile the sanguine Selim compelled his guide to keep moving in the direction of the gorilla’s grunt, and explaining his reluctance to advance by the fear of meeting the brute in the dark. Savage Africa, however, had as usual the better of the game, and showed his ‘cuteness by planting my factotum in mud thigh-deep. After dark Forteune returned. He had fired at a huge njína, but this time the cap had snapped. As the monster was close, and had shown signs of wrath, we were expected to congratulate Nimrod on his escape. Kindly observe the neat gradations, the artistic sorites of Mpongwe lies.
At 7.30 A.M. on the next day the loads were placed upon the crew’s heads, and we made for the village, where the boat was still drawn up. The “monoxyle” was full of green-brown rain water, the oar-pins were represented by bits of stick, and all the furniture was wanting. After a time, the owner, duly summoned, stalked down from his hut, and began remarking that there was still a “palaver” on the stocks. I replied by paying him his money, and ordering the craft to be baled and launched. It was a spectacle to see the bushmen lying upon their bellies, kicking their heels in the air, and yep-yep-yeping uproariously when Forteune, their master, begged of them to bear a hand. Dean Presto might have borrowed from them a hint for his Yahoos. The threat to empty the Alugu (rum) upon the sand was efficacious. One by one they rose to work, and in the slowest possible way were produced five oars, of which one was sprung, a ricketty rudder, a huge mast, and a sail composed half of matting and half of holes. At the last moment, the men found that they had no “chop;” a franc produced two bundles of sweet manioc, good travelling food, as it can be eaten raw, but about as nutritious as Norwegian bark. At the last, last moment, Lángobúmo, who was to accompany us, remembered that he had neither fine coat nor umbrella — indispensable for dignity, and highly necessary for the delicacy of his complexion, which was that of an elderly buffalo. A lad was started to fetch these articles; and he set off at a hand-gallop, making me certain that behind the first corner he would subside into a saunter, and lie down to rest on reaching the huts.
Briefly, it was 9 A.M. before we doubled Point Nyonye, which had now been so long in sight. With wind, tide, and current dead against us, we hugged the shore where the water is deep. The surf was breaking in heavy sheets upon a reef or shoal outside, and giving ample occupation to a hovering flock of fish-eating birds. Whilst returning over water smooth as glass I observed the curious effect of the current. Suddenly a huge billow would rear like a horse, assume the shape of a giant cobra’s head, fall forward in a mass of foam, and subside gently rippling into the calm surface beyond; the shadowy hollow of the breakers made them appear to impinge upon a black rock, but when they disappeared the sea was placid and unbroken as before. This is, in fact, the typical “roller” of the Gaboon coast — a happy hunting ground for slavers and a dangerous place for cruizers to attempt. As the sea-breeze came up strong, the swell would have swamped a European boat; but our conveyance, shaped like a ship’s gig, but Dalmatian or Dutchman-like in the bows, topped the waves with the buoyancy of a cork, and answered her helm as the Arab obeys the bit. To compact grain she added small specific gravity, and, though stout and thick, she advanced at a speed of which I could hardly believe her capable.
Past Nyonye the coast forms another shallow bay, with about ten miles of chord, in every way a copy of its northern neighbour — the same scene of placid beauty, the sea rimmed with opalline air, pink by contrast with the ultramarine blue; the limpid ether overhead; the golden sands, and the emerald verdure — a Circe, however, whose caress is the kiss of death. The curve is bounded south by Point Dyánye, which appeared to retreat as we advanced. At 2 P.M., when the marvellous clearness of the sky was troubled by a tornado forming in the north-east, we turned towards a little inlet, and, despite the heavy surf, we disembarked without a ducking. A creek supplied us with pure cold water, a spreading tree with a roof, and the soft clean shore with the most luxurious of couches — at 3 P.M. I could hardly persuade myself that an hour had flown.
As we approached Dyánye, at last, a village hoisted the usual big flag on the normal tall pole, and with loud cries ordered us to land. Lángobúmo, who was at the helm, began obeying, when I relieved him of his charge. Seeing that our course was unaltered, a large and well-manned canoe put off, and the rest of the population walked down shore. I made signs for the stranger not to approach, when the head man, Angílah, asked me in English what he had done to offend me, and peremptorily insisted upon my sleeping at his village. All these places are looking forward to the blessed day when a trader, especially a white trader, shall come to dwell amongst the “sons of the soil,” and shall fill their pockets with “trust” money. On every baylet and roadstead stands the Casa Grande, a large empty bungalow, a factory in embryo awaiting the Avatar; but, instead of attracting their “merchant” by collecting wax and honey, rubber and ivory, the people will not work till he appears. Consequently, here, as in Angola and in the lowlands of the Brazil, it is a slight to pass by without a visit; and jealousy, a ruling passion amongst Africans, suggests that the stranger is bound for another and rival village. They wish, at any rate, to hear the news, to gossip half the night, to drink the Utangáni’s rum, and to claim a cloth for escorting him, will he, nill he, to the next settlement. But what could I do? To indulge native prejudice would have stretched my cruize to a fortnight; and I had neither time, supplies, nor stomach for the task. So Lángobúmo was directed to declare that they had a “wicked white man” on board who e’en would gang his ane gait, who had no goods but weapons, and who wanted only to shoot a njína, and to visit Sánga-Tánga, where his brother “Mpolo” had been. All this was said in a sneaking, deprecating tone, and the crew, though compelled to ply their oars, looked their regrets at the exceedingly rude and unseemly conduct of their Utangáni. Angílah followed chattering till he had learned all the novelties; at last he dropped aft, growling much, and promising to receive me at Sánga-Tánga next morning — not as a friend. On our return, however, he prospected us from afar with the greatest indifference; we were empty-handed. There has been change since the days when Lieutenant Boteler, passing along this shore, was addressed by the canoe-men, “I say, you mate, you no big rogue? ship no big rogue?”
At 5 P. M. we weathered Point Dyánye, garnished, like Nyonye, with a threatening line of breakers; the boat-passage along shore was about 400 yards wide. Darkness came on shortly after six o’clock, and the sultry weather began to look ominous, with a huge, angry, black nimbus discharging itself into the glassy livid sea northwards. I suggested landing, but Lángobúmo was positive that the storm had passed westwards, and he objected, with some reason, that in the outer gloom the boat might be dashed to pieces. As we had not even a stone for an anchor, the plea proved, valid. We guided ourselves, by the fitful flashes of forked and sheet lightning combined, towards a ghostly point, whose deeper blackness silhouetted it against the shades. Suddenly the boat’s head was turned inland; a huge breaker, foaming along our gunwales, drove us forwards like the downwards motion of a “swing-swong,” and, before we knew where we were, an ugly little bar had been crossed on the top of the curling scud. We could see the forest on both sides, but there was not light enough to trace the river line; I told Hotaloya to tumble out; “Plenty shark here, mas’r,” was the only answer. We lost nearly half an hour of most valuable time in pottering and groping before all had landed.
At that moment the rain-clouds burst, and in five minutes after the first spatter all were wet to the skin. Selim and I stood close together, trying to light a match, when a sheet of white fire seemed to be let down from the black sky, passing between us with a simultaneous thundering crash and rattle, and a sulphurous smell, as if a battery had been discharged. I saw my factotum struck down whilst in the act of staggering and falling myself; we lay still for a few moments, when a mutual inquiry showed that both were alive, only a little shaken and stunned; the sensation was simply the shock of an electrical machine and the discharge of a Woolwich infant — greatly exaggerated.
We then gave up the partie; it was useless to contend against Jupiter Tonans as well as Pluvialis. I opened my bedding, drank a “stiffener” of raw cognac, wrapped myself well, and at once fell asleep in the heavy rain, whilst the crew gathered under the sail. The gentlemen who stay at home at ease may think damp sheets dangerous, but Malvern had long ago taught me the perfect safety of the wettest bivouac, provided that the body remains warm. At Fernando Po, as at Zanzibar, a drunken sailor after a night in the gutter will catch fever, and will probably die. But he has exposed himself to the inevitable chill after midnight, he is unacclimatized, and both places are exceptionally deadly — to say nothing of the liquor. The experienced African traveller awaking with a chilly skin, swallows a tumbler of cold water, and rolls himself in a blanket till he perspires; there is only one alternative.
Next day I arose at 4 A.M., somewhat cramped and stiff, but with nothing that would not yield to half a handful of quinine, a cup of coffee well “laced,” a pipe, and a roaring fire. Some country people presently came up, and rated us for sleeping in the bush; we retorted in kind, telling them that they should have been more wide-awake. Whilst the boat was being baled, I walked to the shore, and prospected our day’s work. The forest showed a novel feature: flocks of cottony mist-clouds curling amongst the trees, like opals scattered upon a bed of emeralds; a purple haze banked up the western horizon, whilst milk-white foam drew a delicate line between the deep yellow sand and the still deeper blue. Far to the south lay the Serna or prairillon of Sánga-Tánga, a rolling patch, “or, on a field vert,” backed by the usual dark belt of the same, and fronted by straggling dots that emerged from the wave — they proved to be a thin line of trees along shore. We were lying inside the mouth of the “Habanyaá” alias the Shark River, which flows along the south of a high grassy dome, streaked here and there with rows of palms, and broken into the semblance of a verdure-clad crater. According to the people the Nkonje (Squalus) here is not a dangerous “sea-tiger” unless a man wear red or carry copper bracelets; it is caught with hooks and eaten as by the Chinese and the Suri Arabs. The streamlet is a favourite haunt of the hippopotamus; a small one dived when it sighted us, and did not reappear. It was the only specimen that I saw during my three years upon the West African Coast — a great contrast to that of Zanzibar, where half a dozen may be shot in a single day. The musket has made all the difference.
At 6 A.M. on Friday, March 28, the boat was safely carried over the bar of Shark River, and we found ourselves once more hugging the shore southwards. The day was exceptional for West Africa, and much like damp weather at the end of an English May; the grey air at times indulged us with a slow drizzle. After two hours we passed another maritime village, where the farce of yesterday evening was re-acted, but this time with more vigour. Ignorant of my morning’s private work, Hotaloya swore that it was Sánga-Tánga. I complimented him upon his proficiency in lying, and poor Lángobúmo, almost in tears, confessed that he had pointed out to me the real place. Whereupon Hotaloya began pathetically to reproach him for being thus prodigal of the truth. Núrya, the “head trader,” coming down to the beach, with dignity and in force told me in English that I must land, and was chaffed accordingly. He then blustered and threatened instant death, at which it was easy to laugh. About 10 A.M. we lay off our destination, some ten miles south of Dyánye Point. It was a beautiful site, the end of a grassy dune, declining gradually toward the tree-fringed sea; the yellow slopes, cut by avenues and broken by dwarf table-lands, were long afterwards recalled to my memory, when sighting the fair but desolate scenery south of Paraguayan Asuncion. These downs appear to be a sea-coast raised by secular upheaval, and much older than the flat tracts which encroach upon the Atlantic. We could now understand the position of the town which figures so largely in the squadron-annals of the equatorial shore; it was set upon a hillock, whence the eye could catch the approaching sail of the slaver, and where the flag could be raised conspicuously in token of no cruiser being near.
But the glory had departed from Sánga-Tánga (Peel–White? Strip–White?); not a trace of the town remained, the barracoons had disappeared, and all was innocent as upon the day of its creation. A deep silence reigned where the song of joy and the shrieks of torture had so often been answered by the voice of the forest, and Eternal Nature had ceased to be disturbed by the follies and crimes of man.
Sánga-Tánga was burned down, after the fashion of these people, when Mbango, whom Europeans called “Pass-all,” King of the Urungu, who extend up the right bank of the Ogobe, passed away from the sublunary world. King Pass-all had completed his education in Portugal: a negro never attains his highest potential point of villany without a tour through Europe; and thus he rose to be the greatest slave-dealer in this slave-dealing scrap of the coast. In early life he protected the Spanish pirates who fled to Cape Lopez, after plundering the American brig “Mexico:” they were at last forcibly captured by Captain (the late Admiral) Trotter, R.N.; passed over to the United States, and finally hanged at Boston, during the Presidency of General Jackson. Towards the end of his life he became paralytic, like King Pepple of Bonny, and dangerous to the whites as well as to the blacks under his rule. The people, however, still speak highly of him, generosity being a gift which everywhere covers a multitude of sins. He was succeeded by one of his sons, who is favourably mentioned, but who soon followed him to the grave. I saw another, a boy, apparently a slave to a Mpongwe on the coast, and the rest of the family is scattered far and wide. Since Pass-all’s death the “peddlers in human flesh and blood” have gone farther south: men spoke of a great depot at the Mpembe village on the banks of the Nazareth River, where a certain Ndábúliya is aided and abetted by two Utangáni. Now that “‘long-sea” exportation has been completely suppressed, their only markets must be the two opposite islands.
South of Sánga-Tánga, lay a thin line of deeper blue, Fetish Point, the eastern projection of Cape Lopez Bay. From Mbango’s Town it is easy to see the western headland, Cape Lopez, whose low outliers of sand and trees gain slowly but surely upon the waters of the Atlantic. I deferred a visit until a more favourable time, and — that time never came.
Cape Lopez is said to have considerable advantages for developing trade, but the climate appears adverse. A large Catholic mission, described by Barbot, was established here by the Portuguese: as in the Congo, nothing physical of it remains. But Mr. Wilson is rather hard when he asserts that all traces have disappeared — they survive in superior ‘cuteness of the native.
Little need be said about our return, which was merrier than the outward bound trip. Wind, tide, and current were now in our favour, and we followed the chords, not the arcs, of the several bays. At 9.30 P.M. we gave a wide berth to the rollers off Point Nyonye and two hours afterwards we groped through the outer darkness into Bwámánge, where the good Azízeh and Asúnye, who came to receive us, shouted with joy. On the next day another “gorilla palaver,” when a large male was reported to have been shot without a shadow of truth, detained me: it was the last straw which broke the patient camel’s back. After “dashing” to old King Lángobómo one cloth, one bottle of absinthe, two heads of tobacco, and a clay pipe, we set out betimes for the fifteen miles’ walk to Mbátá. Various obstacles delayed us on the way, and the shades of evening began to close in rapidly; night already reigned over the forest. Progress under such circumstances requires the greatest care; as in the streets of Damascus, one must ever look fixedly at the ground, under penalty of a shaking stumble over cross-bars of roots, or fallen branches hidden by grass and mud. And the worst of these wet walks is that, sooner or later, they bring on swollen feet, which the least scratch causes to ulcerate, and which may lame the traveller for weeks. They are often caused by walking and sitting in wet shoes and stockings; it is so troublesome to pull off and pull on again after wading and fording, repeated during every few hundred yards, that most men tramp through the brooks and suffer in consequence. Constant care of the feet is necessary in African travel, and the ease with which they are hurt — sluggish circulation, poor food and insufficient stimulants being the causes — is one of its deplaisirs. The people wash and anoint these wounds with palm oil: a hot bath, with pepper-water, if there be no rum, gives more relief, and caustic must sometimes be used.
We reached Mbátá at 6.15 P.M., and all agreed that two hours of such forest-walking do more damage than five days along the sands.
Since my departure from the coast, French naval officers, travellers and traders, have not been idle. The Marquis de Compiègne, who returned to France in 1874, suffering from ulcerated legs, had travelled up the Fernão Vaz, and its tributary the highly irregular Ogobai, Ogowaï, or Ogowé (Ogobe); yet, curious to remark, all his discoveries arc omitted by Herr Kiepert. His furthest point was 213 kilometres east of “San Quita” (Sankwita), a village sixty-one kilometres north (??) of Pointe Fétiche, near Cape Lopez; but wars and receding waters prevented his reaching the confluence where the Ivindo fork enters the north bank of the Ogobe. He made observations amongst the “Kamma” tribe, which differs from the Bakele and other neighbours. M. Guirold, commanding a cruiser, was also sent to the estuary of the Rembo or Fernão Vaz, into which the Mpungule (N’poulounay of M. du Chaillu?), ascended only by M. Aymès, discharges. The explorers found many shoals and shifting sands before entering the estuary; in the evening they stopped at the Ogobe confluence, where a French seaman was employed in custom-house duties. M. de Compiègne, after attending many palavers, was duly upset when returning to the ship.
On the Fernão Vaz there are now (1873) five factories, each named after some French town: Paris Factory, however, had fallen to ruins, the traders having migrated 150 miles higher up the Kamma River. Here a certain drunken kinglet, “Rampano,” breaks everything he finds in the house, and pays damages when he returns to his senses. On March 31st there was a violent quarrel between the women of two settlements, and the “reguli” embarked with all their host, to fight it out; Rampano was the victor, and after the usual palaver the vanquished was compelled to pay a heavy fine. M. du Chaillu’s descriptions of the country, a park land dotted with tree-mottes, are confirmed; but the sport, excepting hippopotamus, was poor, and the negroes were found eating a white-faced monkey — mere cannibalism amongst the coast tribes. The fauna and flora of the Ogobe are those of the Gaboon, and the variety of beautiful parrots is especially remarked.
On January 9, 1874, M. de Compiègne passed from the Fernão Vaz through the Obango Canal into the Ogobe, which, bordered by Fetish rocks, flows through vast forests; his object was to study the manners and customs of the Kammas, a more important tribe than is generally supposed, far outnumbering the Urungus of the coast. Their country is large and contains many factories, the traders securing allies by marrying native women. The principal items of import are dry goods, guns, common spirits, and American tobacco; profits must be large, as what costs in France one franc eighty cents, here sells for ten francs’ worth of goods. The exports are almost entirely comprised in gum mastic and ivory. At the factory of Mr. Watkins the traveller secured certain figures which he calls “idols”— they are by no means fitted for the drawing-room table. He also noticed the “peace of the household,” a strip of manatus nerve, at times used by paterfamilias.
Mr. R. B. N. Walker, who made sundry excursions between 1866 and 1873, also wrote from Elobe that he had left the French explorers, MM. de Compiègne and Marche, on the Okanda River which M. du Chaillu believes to be the northern fork of the Ogobe. Their letters (Feb. 12, 1874) were dated from Osse in the Okanda country, where they had made arrangements with the kinglet for a journey to the “Otjebos,” probably the Moshebo or Moshobo cannibals of the “Gorilla Book.” The rocks, shoals, and stony bottom of the Ogobe reduced their rate of progress to three miles a day, and, after four wearisome stages, they reached a village of Bákele. Here they saw the slave-driving tribe “Okota,” whose appearance did not prepossess them and whose chief attempted unsuccessfully to stop the expedition. They did not leave before collecting specimens of the language.
Further eastward, going towards the country of the Yalimbongo tribe, they found the Okanda River, which they make the southern fork, the Okono being the northern, descending from the mountains; here food was plentiful compared with Okota-land. The active volcano reported by Mr. R. B. N. Walker, 1873, was found to bear a lake upon the summit — which, in plutonic formations, would suggest an extinct crater. East of the Yalimbongo they came upon the Apingis, whom M. du Chaillu, after two visits, also placed upon the southern fork of the Ogobe. The tribe is described as small in stature, of mild habits, and fond of commerce; hence their plantations on the north or right bank of the river are plundered with impunity by the truculent “Oshieba” (Moshebo or Moshobo?). Further east the river, after being obstructed by rapids, broadens to a mile and becomes navigable — they were probably above the “Ghats.” It is supposed to arise south in a lakelet called Tem or N’dua. A Bákele village was seen near Ochunga, a large riverine island; and thence they passed into the country of the mountaineer Okandas. They are described as fine men, but terrible sorcerers; their plantations of banana and maize are often plundered by the “Oshieba,” the latter being now recognized as a kindred tribe of the Pahouin (Fán).
1 M. du Chaillu’s description of the animal is excellent (p. 282), and the people at once recognized the cut.
2 I did not see the Iboko, which M. du Chaillu (chap, xvi.) calls the “boco;” but, from the native description, I determined it to be the tsetse. He names the sandfly (chap, xvi.) “igoo-gouai.” His “ibolai” or “mangrove fly” is “owole” in the singular, and “iwole” in the plural. The wasp, which he terms “eloway,” is known to the Mpongwe people as “ewogoni.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:06