Boma, at the head of the Congo delta, the great dépôt between the interior and the coast, owes its existence wholly to
“the cruel trade
Which spoils unhappy Afric of her sons.”
Father Merolla (1682), who visited it from “Angoij,” our “Cabinda,” speaks of it as a pretty large island, tributary to the Mani–Congo, extremely populous, well supplied with provisions, and outlaid by islets belonging to the Count of Sonho. Tuckey’s Embomma was an inland banza or town, and the site of the factories was called Market Point; the Expedition map and the hydrographic chart term it Loombee, the latter being properly the name of a large quitanda (market) lying two miles to the north-west. Early in the present century it is described as a village of a hundred huts, opposite which trading vessels anchored under charge of the “Fuka or king’s merchant;” no market was held there, lest, in case of dispute, the royal person might suffer. Although the main features of our maps are still correct, there have been great changes in the river-bed between Porto da Lenha and Boma, especially about the latter place, which should be transferred from its present site to Lumbi. The broad Chisalla Creek, which Mr. Maxwell calls Logan, between the northern bank and the island “Booka Embomma,” is now an arm only 200 feet wide. In fact all the bank about Boma, like the lower delta, urgently calls for re-surveying.
This part of the river belongs to the “Rei dos Reis,” Nessalla, under whom are some ten chief officers called “kings,” who buy and sell; indeed, Africa knows no other. The title is prostituted throughout the West Coast, but it is nowhere so degraded as in the Congo regions; the whites abuse it to flatter the vanity of the astute negro, who accepts it with a view to results — a “king-dash” must, of course, be greater than that of a subject. Every fellow with one black coat becomes a “preese” (prince), and if he has two he styles himself a “king.” Without permission of the “King of Kings” we could obtain neither interpreter, canoe, nor crew; a visit to Banza Chisalal was therefore necessary and, as it would have been vain to ask anything empty-handed, I took with me a fine spangled cloak, a piece of chintz, and a case of ship’s rum, the whole worth £9.
At 6.30 A.M. on September 5th we set out up stream in a fine canoe, wall-sided and rather crank, but allowing the comfort of chairs. She was of Mayumba make, superior to anything built on the river, and the six men that drove her stood up to pole, and paddle. Above Boma the hills, which are the outlines of the west African Ghats, form a graceful semicircle, separated from the water by a flat terrace garnished with little villages and tree-islets. On the north bank are many of the crater-like sinks which dot the coast from the Gaboon to Loango. We hugged the right side to avoid the rapid swirl; there was no backwater at the points, and hard work was required to prevent our being swept against the boulders of gneiss, schiste, and pudding-stone edging the shores and stretching into the stream. Here the fish is excellent as at Porto cla Lenha, and we found the people catching it in large spoon-shaped basins: I enquired about the Peixe mulher (woman-fish), the French sirène, which old missioners describe as an African mermaid, not exactly as she appeared to the “lovely lord of Colonsay,” and which Barbot figures with “two strutting breasts.” He makes the flesh taste like pork, and tells us that the small bones of the hand were good for gravel, whilst bracelets made of the left rib were worn near the heart, to stop bleeding. This manatus, like the elephant and the hippopotamus, has long disappeared before the gun.
After some three quarters of an hour we reached the entrance of Chisalla Creek, which is the northernmost branch of the main stream. On the left (north) was a plain showing traces of a large village, and we sighted our first grass-island — a compact mass of fibrous, earth-washed roots and reedy vegetation, inhabited by serpents and ardeine birds. To the right, or southward, rises the tall island of Boma, rocky and wooded, which a narrow channel separates from its eastern neighbour, Chisalla Islet. The latter is the royal Pere la Chaise, the graves being kept carefully concealed; white men who have visited the ground to shoot antelope have had reason to regret the step. Here also lie three officers of the Congo Expedition — Messrs. Galwey, Tudor, and Cranch — forgotten, as Gamboa and Reitz at Mombasah.
The banks of the winding creek were beautified with the malaguetta pepper, the ipomsea, the hibiscus, and a yellow flower growing upon an aquatic plant like a magnified water-cress. Animal life became somewhat less rare; we saw sandpipers, hawks, white and black fish-eagles, and long-legged water-hens, here supposed to give excellent sport. An embryo rapid, formed by a gneiss-band connecting the north bank with the islet, delayed us, and the rocks on the right showed pot-holes dug by the poling-staves; during the rains canoes from Boma avoid this place, and seek fuel down stream. After a total of two hours and a quarter we reached Banza Chisalla: it is a “small country,” in African parlance, a succursal of Boma proper, the Banza on the hills beyond the reedy, grassy plain. The site is charming — a flat palm-orchard backed by an amphitheatre of high-rolling ground, and the majestic stream approaches it through a gate, whose right staple is the tall Chisalla, and whose left is a rocky islet with outlying needles.
We ascended the river-bank, greeted by the usual accidents of an African reception; the men shouted, the women rushed screaming under cover, and the children stood howling at the horrible sight. A few paces placed us at the “palace,” a heap of huts, surrounded by an old reed-fence. The audience-room was a trifle larger than usual, with low shady eaves, a half-flying roof, and a pair of doorways for the dangerous but indispensable draught; a veteran sofa and a few rickety chairs composed the furniture, and the throne was known by its boarded seat, which would have been useful in taking a “lamp-bath.”
Presently entered the “Rei dos Reis,” Nessalla: the old man, whose appearance argued prosperity, was en grande tenue, the State costume of Tuckey’s, not of Merolla’s day. The crown was the usual “berretta” (night-cap) of open work; the sceptre, a drum-major’s staff; the robes, a “parochial” beadle’s coat of scarlet cloth, edged with tinsel gold lace. His neck was adorned with hair circlets of elephants’ tails, strung with coral and beads; the effect, to compare black with white, was that of Beau Brummell’s far-famed waterfall tie, and the head seemed supported as if on a narrow-rimmed “charger.” The only other ornament was a broad silver ring welded round the ankle, and drawing attention to a foot which, all things considered, was small and well shaped.
Some of the chiefs had copper rings of home manufacture, with neatly cut raised figures. The king held in his right hand an article which at first puzzled us — a foot’s length of split reed, with the bulbous root attached. He may not, like his vassals, point with the finger, and without pointing an African can hardly give an order. Moreover, the Sangálávú or Malaguetta pepper (Amomum granum Paradisi), fresh or old, is not only a toothstick, but a fetish of superior power when carried on journeys. Professor Smith writes “Sangala woo,” and tells us that it was always kept fresh in the house, to be rolled in the hands when invoking the Fetish during war-time; moreover, it was chewed to be spat at the enemy. Possibly he confuses it with the use as a tooth-stick, the article which Asia and Africa prefer to the unclean hog’s — bristle brush of Europe.
On the left of the throne sat the Nchinu, or “second king,” attired in a footman’s livery of olive-coloured cloth, white-worn at the seams, and gleaming with plated buttons, upon which was the ex-owner’s crest — a cubit arm.
The stranger in Africa marvels why men, who, as Dahome shows, can affect a tasteful simplicity, will make themselves such “guys.” When looking at these caricatures, he is tempted to read (literally) learned Montesquieu, “It is hardly to be believed that God, who is a wise being, should place a soul, especially a good soul, in such a black, ugly body,” and to consider the few exceptions as mere “sporting plants.” But the negro combines with inordinate love of finery the true savage taste — an imitative nature — and where he cannot copy the Asiatic he must ape the European; only in the former pursuit he rises above, in the latter he sinks below his own proper standard. Similarly, as a convert, he is ennobled by El Islam; in rare cases, which may be counted upon the fingers, he is civilized by Christianity; but, as a rule, the latter benefits him so far only as it abolishes the barbarous and murderous rites of Paganism.
But there is also a sound mundane reason which causes the African “king” to pose in these cast-off borrowed plumes. Contrast with his three-quarter nude subjects gives him a name; the name commands respect; respect increases “dash;” and dash means dollars. For his brain, dense and dead enough to resist education, is ever alive and alert to his own interest; whilst the concentration of its small powers prevails against those who, in all other points, are notably his superiors. The whole of negro Africa teaches this lesson. “The Ethiopians,” says Father Merolla, “are not so dull and stupid as is commonly imagined, but rather more subtle and cunning than ordinary;” and he adds an instance of far-sighted treachery, which would not have been despicable even in a Hindoo.
A desultory palaver “came up;” the soul of the meeting not being present. M. Pissot explained my wish to “take walk and make book,” carefully insisting upon the fact that I came to spend, not to gain money. The grizzled senior’s face, before crumpled like a “wet cloak ill laid up,” expanded at these last words, and with a grunt, which plainly meant “by’ m’ by,” he rose, and retired to drink — a call of nature which the decencies of barbarous dignity require to be answered in private. He returned accompanied by his nephew, Manbuku Prata (pronounced Pelata), the “Silver Chief Officer,” as we might say, Golden Ball. The title is vulgarly written Mambuco; the Abbé Proyart prefers Ma-nboukou, or “prince who is below the Makaia in dignity.” The native name of this third personage was Gidifuku. It was a gorgeous dignitary: from the poll of his night-cap protruded a dozen bristles of elephant’s tail hair, to which a terminal coral gave the graceful curve of a pintado’s crest, and along his ears, like the flaps of a travelling casquette, hung two dingy little mirrors of talc from Cacongo, set in clumsy frames of ruddled wood. Masses of coral encircled his neck, and the full-dress naval uniform of a French officer, with epaulettes of stupendous size, exposed a zebra’d guernsey of equivocal purity. A long black staff, studded with broad-headed brass beads, served to clear the room of the lieges, who returned as fast as they were turned out — the baton was evidently not intended to be used seriously.
But the Manbuku Prata is not a mere “Punch in a puppet show.” His face expresses more intelligence and resolution than usual, and his Portuguese is not the vile article of the common trader. He means business. When other chiefs send their “sons,” that is their slaves, to fight, he leads them in person — venite, non ite. The French “Emigration Libre” put 30,000 dollars into his pocket, and he still hopes against hope to ship many a cargo for the Banana factory. He has some 300 armed serviles at Chinímí and Lámbá, two villages perched like condors’ nests upon hills commanding the river’s northern bank, and, despite the present dearth of “business,” he still owns some 100,000 francs in cloth and beads, rum and gunpowder.
As the “Silver Minister” took his seat upon the ground before the king, all removed their caps with a simultaneous grunt and performed the “Sákilá” or batta-palmas; this hand-clapping must be repeated whenever the simplest action is begun or ended by king or chief. Monteiro and Gamitto (pp. 101 et seg.) refer to the practice everywhere on the line of country which they visited: there it seems to be even a more ceremonious affair than in the Congo. The claps were successively less till they were hardly audible; after a pause five or six were given, and the last two or three were in hurried time, the while without pronouncing a word. The palaver now opened steadily with a drink: a bottle of trade “fizz” was produced for the white man, and rum for his black congeners; then the compliment of healths went all round. After this we fell to work at business. By dint of abundant wrangling and with an immense display of suspicion, natural under the circumstances, it was arranged that the king should forward me in a couple of his own canoes to Banza Nokki, the end of river navigation, as we were told, and falsely told; in my turn I was to pay goods valued about £6, at least three times the usual tariff. They consisted of fourteen red caps, as many “sashes,” and fifty-two fathoms of cloth for the crew; ten Peças de lei or Chiloes for each interpreter, and two pieces for the canoes. I should have given four fathoms for each man and the same for each boat. The final scene was most gratifying to the African mind: I solemnly invested old Nessala with the grand cloak which covered his other finery; grinning in the ecstasy of vanity, he allowed his subjects to turn him round and round, as one would a lay figure, yet with profound respect, and, lastly, he retired to charm his wives.
This part of the negotiations ended with presenting some “satin stripe” and rum to the Nchinu and Manbuku Prata, and with shaking hands — a dangerous operation. The people are cleanly; they wash when rising, and before as well as after every meal; they are always bathing, yet from prince to pauper, from baby to grey beard, they are affected with a psora known by its Portuguese name, “sarnas.” The Congo “fiddle” appears first between the articulations of the fingers, and bleaches the hands and wrists as if it were leprosy. Yet I did not see a single case of true lepra Arabum, or its modifications, the huge Barbadoes leg (elephantiasis), and the sarcoma scrotale and sarcocele of Zanzibar and East Africa. From the extremities the gale extends over the body, especially the shins, and the people, who appear in the perpetual practice of scalpturigo, attribute it to the immoderate use of palm wine. I observed, however, that Europeans, in the river, who avoid the liquor, are hardly ever free from this foul blood-poison, and a jar of sulphur mixture is a common article upon the table. Hydrocele is not unfrequent, but hardly so general as in the Eastern Island; one manner of white man, a half caste from Macáo, was suffering with serpigo, and boasted of it.
All predicted to me a similar fate from the “botch of Congo,” but happily I escaped. Indeed, throughout the West African Coast, travellers risk “craw-craw,” a foul form of the disease, seen on board the African steamers. Kru-men touching the rails of the companion ladders, have communicated it to passengers, and these to their wives and families.
The town was neat and clean as the people. The houses were built upon raised platforms, and in the little fenced fields the Cajanus Indicus vetch was conspicuous. In Hindostani it is called Thur, or Doll-plant, by the Eastern Arab Turiyan, in Kisawahili Mbarazi, in Angola voando (Merolla’s Ouuanda), and in the Brazil Guandu.1 The people had lost their fear, and brought their exomphalous little children, who resembled salmon fry in the matter of umbilical vesicles, to be patted by the white man; a process which caused violent screams and in some cases nearly induced convulsions — the mothers seemed to enjoy the horror displayed by their hopefuls. There is little beauty amongst the women, and settled Europeans prefer Cabinda girls. The latter have perhaps the most wiry and wig-like hair on the whole West African coast, where all hair is more or less wiry and wig — like. Cloth was less abundant in the village than a smear of red; the bosom even after marriage was unveiled, and the rule of fashion was shown by binding it tightly down. The rich wore armlets and leglets of staircase rods, brass and copper, like the metal gaiters and gauntlets of the Gaboon River. The only remarkable object was the Quesango, a wooden effigy of a man placed in the middle of the settlement: Battel mentions it amongst the “Gagas or Guides,” and Barbot terms it “Likoku Mokisi.” Three faint hurrahs, a feeble African echo of England like the “hoch!” of Vienna, and the discharge of a four — pounder were our parting honours.
We returned viâ the gateway between the two islets. On the south-eastern flank of Chisalla is a dwarf precipice called Mbondo la Zumba and, according to the interpreters, it is the Lovers’ Leap of Tuckey. But its office must not be confounded with that attributed to the sinister-looking scaur of Leucadia; here the erring wives of the Kings of Boma and their paramours found a Bosphorus. The Commander of the First Congo Expedition applies the name to a hanging rock on the northern shore, about eighteen miles higher up stream. A portentous current soon swept us past Père la Chaise, and shortly after noon we were comfortably at breakfast with Sr. Pereira.
During the last night we had been kept awake by the drumming and fifing, singing and shouting, weeping and howling, pulling at accordions and striking the monotonous Shingungo. Merolla names this cymbal Longa, and describes it justly as two iron bells joined by an arched bar: I found it upon the Tanganyika Lake, and suffered severely from its monotonous horrors. Monteiro and Gamitto (p. 232) give an illustration of what is known in the Cazembe’s country as “Gomati:” The Mchua or gong-gong of Ashanti has a wooden handle connecting the cones. Our palhabote had brought up the chief Mashel’s bier, and today we have the satisfaction of seeing it landed. A kind of palanquin, covered with crimson cloth and tinsel gold like a Bombay “Tabút,” it had three horns or prominences, two capped with empty black bottles, and the central bearing the deceased’s helmet; it was a fancy article, which might have fitted him of Gath, with a terrific plume and the spoils of three horses in the sanguine hues of war. Although eight feet long by five broad, the coffin was said to be quite full. The immense respect which the Congoese bear to their rulers, dead as well as alive, prevented my verifying the accounts of the slave dealers. I knew that the chief who had died at Kinsembo, had been dried on a bamboo scaffolding over a slow fire, and lay in state for some weeks in flannel stockings and a bale of baize, but these regions abound in local variations of custom. Some declared, as we find in Proyart, that the corpse had been mummified by the rude process of smoking; others that it had been exposed for some days to the open air, the relatives sitting round to keep off the flies till preliminarily bandaged. According to Barbot (iii. 23), the people of Fetu on the Gold Coast and the men of Benin used to toast the corpse on a wooden gridiron; and the Vei tribe, like the Congoese, still fumigate their dead bodies till they become like dried hams. This rude form of the Egyptian rite is known to East as well as to West Africa: Kimera, late King of Uganda, was placed upon a board covering the mouth of a huge earthern pot heated from below.
Instances are known of bodies in the Congo region remaining a year or two above ground till the requisite quantity of fine stuffs has been procured — the larger the roll the greater the dignity, and sometimes the hut must be pulled down before it can be removed. Here, as on the Gold Coast, we find the Jewish practice recorded by Josephus of converting the tomb into a treasury; in the case of Mashel some £600 in gold and silver, besides cloth, beads, and ornaments, shared, they say, his fate. The missionaries vainly fought against these customs, which are evidently of sentimental origin —
“Now bring the last sad gifts, with these
The last lament be said;
Let all that pleased and still may please
Be buried with the dead.”
The bier was borne by slaves, as the head men would not even look at it; at times the carriers circled round, as if to deprecate the idea that they were hurrying it to its bourne. The grave was a pit fifteen to twenty feet deep, cut like a well, covered with stones to keep out wild beasts, and planted round with the cylindrical euphorbia by way of immortelles.
I could not find out if the Congoese still practise the vivi-sepulture so common on the Western Coast — the “infernal sacrifices of man’s flesh to the memory of relatives and ancestors,” as the old missioners energetically expressed themselves. According to Battel, the “Giaghi” corpse was seated as if alive in a vault; in this “infernal and noisome dungeon” were placed two wives with their arms broken, and thus there was no danger of the Zumbi or ghost killing men by reapparition. When the king of Old Calabar died, a huge hole was dug, with an off chamber for two sofas, one of which supported the dressed and ornamented corpse. Personal attendants, such as the umbrella, sword, and snuff-box bearers, holding the insignia of their offices, together with sundry virgins, were either slaughtered or thrown in alive, a rude in pace. Quantities of food and trade goods, especially coppers, were heaped up; after which the pit was filled and the ground was levelled. The less wealthy sort of “gentlemen” here are placed in smaller graves near the villages; and the slaves are still “buried with the burial of an ass,”— cast forth into the bush.
Yet, by way of showing themselves kind to the dead, the Congoese are “commonly very cruel to the living.” Lately, a chief, called from his wealth, “Chico de Ouro” (Golden Frank) died somewhat suddenly. The Nganga or medicine man who, on such occasions, here as elsewhere, has the jus vitæ et necis, was called in; he charged one of the sons with parricide by witchcraft, and the youth was at once pierced by the bayonets of his brothers. “Golden Frank” was peculiar in his ways. He used to entertain the factors at dinner, imitating them from soup to cheese; his only objections were to tea, and to drinking toasts out of anything but the pet skull of an enemy: it was afterwards placed upon his grave.
Boma is no longer “the emporium of the Congo Empire,” if it ever did deserve that title. Like Porto da Lenha, it is kept up by the hopes of seeing better days, which are not doomed to dawn. Even at the time of my visit some 400 to 500 negroes were under guard in a deserted factory, and, whilst we were visiting Nessalla, they were marched down to bathe. When I returned from the cataracts, the barracoon contained only fifty or sixty, the rest having been shunted off to some unguarded point. At a day’s notice a thousand, and within a week 3,000 head could be procured from the adjoining settlements, where the chattels are kept at work. As in Tuckey’s day, “those exported are either captives in war or condemned criminals.” During the Free Emigration as much as $80 have been paid per man, a large sum for “Congoes:” whilst a cargo of 500 “Minas” (Guinea negroes) loses at most 20 per cent., these less hardy gangs seldom escape without at least double the deaths by dysentery or some other epidemic. Now they are freely offered for $10 to $20, but there are no buyers; the highest bid of which I heard was $100 for a house-“help.”
The slave-traders in the Congo look upon their employment as did the contrabandist in the golden days of smuggling; the “free sailor” whom Marryatt depicts, a law-breaker, yet not less a very pleasant, companionable fellow. The unhappy differences between the late British Commissioner for Loanda and the Judge of the mixed Court, Sr. José Julio Rodriguez, who followed his enemy to the grave on April 12, 1863, rendered São Paulo anything but a pleasant place to an English resident; but the rancour had not extended to the Congo, and, so far from showing chagrin, the agents declared that without the “coffin squadron,” negroes would have been a mere drug in the market. The only déplaisir is that which I had already found in a Gaboon factory, the excessive prevalence of petty pilfering. The Moleques or house-boys steal like magpies, even what is utterly useless to them; these young clerks of St. Nicholas will scream and writhe, and confess and beg pardon under the lash, and repeat the offence within the hour: as they are born serviles, we cannot explain the habit by Homer’s,
“Jove fixed it certain that whatever day
Makes man a slave takes half his worth away.”
One of our watches was found in the pocket of a noble interpreter, who, unabashed, declared that he placed it there for fear of its being injured; and the traders are constantly compelled to call in the Fetishman for the protection of their stores against the prigging chiefs. Yet in Tuckey’s time there was only one thief at Boma, a boy who stole a knife, confessed, and restored it. During a month’s residence amongst the pagans of the interior, where the houses swarmed with serviles, and where my outfit, which was never locked up, must have represented a plate-chest in England, not the smallest article was “found missing,” nor could anything be touched except by collusion with the head man.
1 See the note of the learned Robert Brown, p. 472, Appendix V., Tuckey’s “Congo.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:48