Travels in West Africa, by Mary H. Kingsley

Chapter IV. The Ogowe.

Wherein the voyager gives extracts from the Log of the Move and of the Eclaireur, and an account of the voyager’s first meeting with “those fearful Fans,” also an awful warning to all young persons who neglect the study of the French language.

On the 20th of May I reached Gaboon, now called Libreville — the capital of Congo Francais, and, thanks to the kindness of Mr. Hudson, I was allowed a passage on a small steamer then running from Gaboon to the Ogowe River, and up it when necessary as far as navigation by steamer is possible — this steamer is, I deeply regret to say, now no more. As experiences of this kind contain such miscellaneous masses of facts, I am forced to commit the literary crime of giving you my Ogowe set of experiences in the form of diary.

June 5th, 1895. — Off on Move at 9.30. Passengers, Mr. Hudson, Mr. Woods, Mr. Huyghens, Pere Steinitz, and I. There are black deck-passengers galore; I do not know their honourable names, but they are evidently very much married men, for there is quite a gorgeously coloured little crowd of ladies to see them off. They salute me as I pass down the pier, and start inquiries. I say hastily to them: “Farewell, I’m off up river,” for I notice Mr. Fildes bearing down on me, and I don’t want him to drop in on the subject of society interest. I expect it is settled now, or pretty nearly. There is a considerable amount of mild uproar among the black contingent, and the Move firmly clears off before half the good advice and good wishes for the black husbands are aboard. She is a fine little vessel; far finer than I expected. The accommodation I am getting is excellent. A long, narrow cabin, with one bunk in it and pretty nearly everything one can wish for, and a copying press thrown in. Food is excellent, society charming, captain and engineer quite acquisitions. The saloon is square and roomy for the size of the vessel, and most things, from rowlocks to teapots, are kept under the seats in good nautical style. We call at the guard-ship to pass our papers, and then steam ahead out of the Gaboon estuary to the south, round Pongara Point, keeping close into the land. About forty feet from shore there is a good free channel for vessels with a light draught which if you do not take, you have to make a big sweep seaward to avoid a reef. Between four and five miles below Pongara, we pass Point Gombi, which is fitted with a lighthouse, a lively and conspicuous structure by day as well as night. It is perched on a knoll, close to the extremity of the long arm of low, sandy ground, and is painted black and white, in horizontal bands, which, in conjunction with its general figure, give it a pagoda-like appearance.

Alongside it are a white-painted, red-roofed house for the lighthouse keeper, and a store for its oil. The light is either a flashing or a revolving or a stationary one, when it is alight. One must be accurate about these things, and my knowledge regarding it is from information received, and amounts to the above. I cannot throw in any personal experience, because I have never passed it at night-time, and seen from Glass it seems just steady. Most lighthouses on this Coast give up fancy tricks, like flashing or revolving, pretty soon after they are established. Seventy-five per cent. of them are not alight half the time at all. “It’s the climate.” Gombi, however, you may depend on for being alight at night, and I have no hesitation in saying you can see it, when it is visible, seventeen miles out to sea, and that the knoll on which the lighthouse stands is a grass-covered sand cliff, about forty or fifty feet above sea-level. As we pass round Gombi point, the weather becomes distinctly rough, particularly at lunch-time. The Move minds it less than her passengers, and stamps steadily along past the wooded shore, behind which shows a distant range of blue hills. Silence falls upon the black passengers, who assume recumbent positions on the deck, and suffer. All the things from under the saloon seats come out and dance together, and play puss-in-the-corner, after the fashion of loose gear when there is any sea on. As the night comes down, the scene becomes more and more picturesque. The moonlit sea, shimmering and breaking on the darkened shore, the black forest and the hills silhouetted against the star-powdered purple sky, and, at my feet, the engine-room stoke-hole, lit with the rose-coloured glow from its furnace, showing by the great wood fire the two nearly naked Krumen stokers, shining like polished bronze in their perspiration, as they throw in on to the fire the billets of red wood that look like freshly-cut chunks of flesh. The white engineer hovers round the mouth of the pit, shouting down directions and ever and anon plunging down the little iron ladder to carry them out himself. At intervals he stands on the rail with his head craned round the edge of the sun deck to listen to the captain, who is up on the little deck above, for there is no telegraph to the engines, and our gallant commander’s voice is not strong. While the white engineer is roosting on the rail, the black engineer comes partially up the ladder and gazes hard at me; so I give him a wad of tobacco, and he plainly regards me as inspired, for of course that was what he wanted. Remember that whenever you see a man, black or white, filled with a nameless longing, it is tobacco he requires. Grim despair accompanied by a gusty temper indicates something wrong with his pipe, in which case offer him a straightened-out hairpin. The black engineer having got his tobacco, goes below to the stoke-hole again and smokes a short clay as black and as strong as himself. The captain affects an immense churchwarden. How he gets through life, waving it about as he does, without smashing it every two minutes, I cannot make out.

At last we anchor for the night just inside Nazareth Bay, for Nazareth Bay wants daylight to deal with, being rich in low islands and sand shoals. We crossed the Equator this afternoon.

June 6th. — Off at daybreak into Nazareth Bay. Anxiety displayed by navigators, sounding taken on both sides of the bows with long bamboo poles painted in stripes, and we go “slow ahead” and “hard astern” successfully, until we get round a good-sized island, and there we stick until four o’clock, high water, when we come off all right, and steam triumphantly but cautiously into the Ogowe. The shores of Nazareth Bay are fringed with mangroves, but once in the river the scenery soon changes, and the waters are walled on either side with a forest rich in bamboo, oil and wine-palms. These forest cliffs seem to rise right up out of the mirror-like brown water. Many of the highest trees are covered with clusters of brown-pink young shoots that look like flowers, and others are decorated by my old enemy the climbing palm, now bearing clusters of bright crimson berries. Climbing plants of other kinds are wreathing everything, some blossoming with mauve, some with yellow, some with white flowers, and every now and then a soft sweet heavy breath of fragrance comes out to us as we pass by. There is a native village on the north bank, embowered along its plantations with some very tall cocoa-palms rising high above them.

The river winds so that it seems to close in behind us, opening out in front fresh vistas of superb forest beauty, with the great brown river stretching away unbroken ahead like a broad road of burnished bronze. Astern, it has a streak of frosted silver let into it by the Move’s screw. Just about six o’clock, we run up to the Fallaba, the Move’s predecessor in working the Ogowe, now a hulk, used as a depot by Hatton and Cookson. She is anchored at the entrance of a creek that runs through to the Fernan Vaz; some say it is six hours’ run, others that it is eight hours for a canoe; all agree that there are plenty of mosquitoes.

The Fallaba looks grimly picturesque, and about the last spot in which a person of a nervous disposition would care to spend the night. One half of her deck is dedicated to fuel logs, on the other half are plank stores for the goods, and a room for the black sub-trader in charge of them. I know that there must be scorpions which come out of those logs and stroll into the living room, and goodness only knows what one might not fancy would come up the creek or rise out of the floating grass, or the limitless-looking forest. I am told she was a fine steamer in her day, but those who had charge of her did not make allowances for the very rapid rotting action of the Ogowe water, so her hull rusted through before her engines were a quarter worn out; and there was nothing to be done with her then, but put a lot of concrete in, and make her a depot, in which state of life she is very useful, for during the height of the dry season, the Move cannot get through the creek to supply the firm’s Fernan Vaz factories.

Subsequently I heard much of the Fallaba, which seems to have been a celebrated, or rather notorious, vessel. Every one declared her engines to have been of immense power, but this I believe to have been a mere local superstition; because in the same breath, the man who referred to them, as if it would have been quite unnecessary for new engines to have been made for H.M.S. Victorious if those Fallaba engines could have been sent to Chatham dockyard, would mention that “you could not get any pace up on her”; and all who knew her sadly owned “she wouldn’t steer,” so naturally she spent the greater part of her time on the Ogowe on a sand-bank, or in the bush. All West African steamers have a mania for bush, and the delusion that they are required to climb trees. The Fallaba had the complaint severely, because of her defective steering powers, and the temptation the magnificent forest, and the rapid currents, and the sharp turns of the creek district, offered her; she failed, of course — they all fail — but it is not for want of practice. I have seen many West Coast vessels up trees, but never more than fifteen feet or so.

The trade of this lower part of the Ogowe, from the mouth to Lembarene, a matter of 130 miles, is almost nil. Above Lembarene, you are in touch with the rubber and ivory trade.

This Fallaba creek is noted for mosquitoes, and the black passengers made great and showy preparations in the evening time to receive their onslaught, by tying up their strong chintz mosquito bars to the stanchions and the cook-house. Their arrangements being constantly interrupted by the white engineer making alarums and excursions amongst them; because when too many of them get on one side the Move takes a list and burns her boilers. Conversation and atmosphere are full of mosquitoes. The decision of widely experienced sufferers amongst us is, that next to the lower Ogowe, New Orleans is the worst place for them in this world.

The day closed with a magnificent dramatic beauty. Dead ahead of us, up through a bank of dun-coloured mist rose the moon, a great orb of crimson, spreading down the oil-like, still river, a streak of blood-red reflection. Right astern, the sun sank down into the mist, a vaster orb of crimson, and when he had gone out of view, sent up flushes of amethyst, gold, carmine and serpent-green, before he left the moon in undisputed possession of the black purple sky.

Forest and river were absolutely silent, but there was a pleasant chatter and laughter from the black crew and passengers away forward, that made the Move seem an island of life in a land of death. I retired into my cabin, so as to get under the mosquito curtains to write; and one by one I heard my companions come into the saloon adjacent, and say to the watchman: “You sabe six o’clock? When them long arm catch them place, and them short arm catch them place, you call me in the morning time.” Exit from saloon — silence — then: “You sabe five o’clock? When them long arm catch them place, and them short arm catch them place, you call me in the morning time.” Exit — silence — then: “You sabe half-past five o’clock? When them long arm — ” Oh, if I were a watchman! Anyhow, that five o’clocker will have the whole ship’s company roused in the morning time.

June 7th. — Every one called in the morning time by the reflex row from the rousing of the five o’clocker. Glorious morning. The scene the reversal of that of last night. The forest to the east shows a deep blue-purple, mounted on a background that changes as you watch it from daffodil and amethyst to rose-pink, as the sun comes up through the night mists. The moon sinks down among them, her pale face flushing crimson as she goes; and the yellow-gold sunshine comes, glorifying the forest and gilding the great sweep of tufted papyrus growing alongside the bank; and the mist vanishes, little white flecks of it lingering among the water reeds and lying in the dark shadows of the forest stems. The air is full of the long, soft, rich notes of the plantain warblers, and the uproar consequent upon the Move taking on fuel wood, which comes alongside in canoe loads from the Fallaba.

Pere Steinitz and Mr. Woods are busy preparing their respective canoes for their run to Fernan Vaz through the creek. Their canoes are very fine ones, with a remarkably clean run aft. The Pere’s is quite the travelling canoe, with a little stage of bamboo aft, covered with a hood of palm thatch, under which you can make yourself quite comfortable, and keep yourself and your possessions dry, unless something desperate comes on in the way of rain.

By 10.25 we have got all our wood aboard, and run off up river full speed. The river seems broader above the Fallaba, but this is mainly on account of its being temporarily unencumbered with islands. A good deal of the bank we have passed by since leaving Nazareth Bay on the south side has been island shore, with a channel between the islands and the true south bank.

The day soon grew dull, and looked threatening, after the delusive manner of the dry season. The climbing plants are finer here than I have ever before seen them. They form great veils and curtains between and over the trees, often hanging so straight and flat, in stretches of twenty to forty feet or so wide, and thirty to sixty or seventy feet high, that it seems incredible that no human hand has trained or clipped them into their perfect forms. Sometimes these curtains are decorated with large bell-shaped, bright-coloured flowers, sometimes with delicate sprays of white blossoms. This forest is beyond all my expectations of tropical luxuriance and beauty, and it is a thing of another world to the forest of the Upper Calabar, which, beautiful as it is, is a sad dowdy to this. There you certainly get a great sense of grimness and vastness; here you have an equal grimness and vastness with the addition of superb colour. This forest is a Cleopatra to which Calabar is but a Quaker. Not only does this forest depend on flowers for its illumination, for there are many kinds of trees having their young shoots, crimson, brown-pink, and creamy yellow: added to this there is also the relieving aspect of the prevailing fashion among West African trees, of wearing the trunk white with here and there upon it splashes of pale pink lichen, and vermilion-red fungus, which alone is sufficient to prevent the great mass of vegetation from being a monotony in green.

All day long we steam past ever-varying scenes of loveliness whose component parts are ever the same, yet the effect ever different. Doubtless it is wrong to call it a symphony, yet I know no other word to describe the scenery of the Ogowe. It is as full of life and beauty and passion as any symphony Beethoven ever wrote: the parts changing, interweaving, and returning. There are leit motifs here in it, too. See the papyrus ahead; and you know when you get abreast of it you will find the great forest sweeping away in a bay-like curve behind it against the dull gray sky, the splendid columns of its cotton and red woods looking like a facade of some limitless inchoate temple. Then again there is that stretch of sword-grass, looking as if it grew firmly on to the bottom, so steady does it stand; but as the Move goes by, her wash sets it undulating in waves across its broad acres of extent, showing it is only riding at anchor; and you know after a grass patch you will soon see a red dwarf clay cliff, with a village perched on its top, and the inhabitants thereof in their blue and red cloths standing by to shout and wave to the Move, or legging it like lamp-lighters from the back streets and the plantation to the river frontage, to be in time to do so, and through all these changing phases there is always the strain of the vast wild forest, and the swift, deep, silent river.

At almost every village that we pass — and they are frequent after the Fallaba — there is an ostentatious display of firewood deposited either on the bank, or on piles driven into the mud in front of it, mutely saying in their uncivilised way, “Try our noted chunks: best value for money” — (that is to say, tobacco, etc.), to the Move or any other little steamer that may happen to come along hungry for fuel.

We stayed a few minutes this afternoon at Ashchyouka, where there came off to us in a canoe an enterprising young Frenchman who has planted and tended a coffee plantation in this out-of-the-way region, and which is now, I am glad to hear, just coming into bearing. After leaving Ashchyouka, high land showed to the N.E., and at 5.15, without evident cause to the uninitiated, the Move took to whistling like a liner. A few minutes later a factory shows up on the hilly north bank, which is Woermann’s; then just beyond and behind it we see the Government Post; then Hatton and Cookson’s factory, all in a line. Opposite Hatton and Cookson’s there was a pretty little stern-wheel steamer nestling against the steep clay bank of Lembarene Island when we come in sight, but she instantly swept out from it in a perfect curve, which lay behind her marked in frosted silver on the water as she dropt down river. I hear now she was the Eclaireur, the stern-wheeler which runs up and down the Ogowe in connection with the Chargeurs Reunis Company, subsidised by the Government, and when the Move whistled, she was just completing taking on 3,000 billets of wood for fuel. She comes up from the Cape (Lopez) stoking half wood and half coal as far as Njole and back to Lembarene; from Lembarene to the sea downwards she does on wood. In a few minutes we have taken her berth close to the bank, and tied up to a tree. The white engineer yells to the black engineer “Tom–Tom: Haul out some of them fire and open them drains one time,” and the stokers, with hooks, pull out the glowing logs on to the iron deck in front of the furnace door, and throw water over them, and the Move sends a cloud of oil-laden steam against the bank, coming perilously near scalding some of her black admirers assembled there. I dare say she felt vicious because they had been admiring the Eclaireur.

After a few minutes, I am escorted on to the broad verandah of Hatton and Cookson’s factory, and I sit down under a lamp, prepared to contemplate, until dinner time, the wild beauty of the scene. This idea does not get carried out; in the twinkling of an eye I am stung all round the neck, and recognise there are lots too many mosquitoes and sandflies in the scenery to permit of contemplation of any kind. Never have I seen sandflies and mosquitoes in such appalling quantities. With a wild ping of joy the latter made for me, and I retired promptly into a dark corner of the verandah, swearing horribly, but internally, and fought them. Mr. Hudson, Agent-general, and Mr. Cockshut, Agent for the Ogowe, walk up and down the beach in front, doubtless talking cargo, apparently unconscious of mosquitoes; but by and by, while we are having dinner, they get their share. I behave exquisitely, and am quite lost in admiration of my own conduct, and busily deciding in my own mind whether I shall wear one of those plain ring haloes, or a solid plate one, a la Cimabue, when Mr. Hudson says in a voice full of reproach to Mr. Cockshut, “You have got mosquitoes here, Mr. Cockshut.” Poor Mr. Cockshut doesn’t deny it; he has got four on his forehead and his hands are sprinkled with them, but he says: “There are none at Njole,” which we all feel is an absurdly lame excuse, for Njole is some ninety miles above Lembarene, where we now are. Mr. Hudson says this to him, tersely, and feeling he has utterly crushed Mr. Cockshut, turns on me, and utterly failing to recognise me as a suffering saint, says point blank and savagely, “You don’t seem to feel these things, Miss Kingsley.” Not feel them, indeed! Why, I could cry over them. Well! that’s all the thanks one gets for trying not to be a nuisance in this world.

After dinner I go back on to the Move for the night, for it is too late to go round to Kangwe and ask Mme. Jacot, of the Mission Evangelique, if she will take me in. The air is stiff with mosquitoes, and saying a few suitable words to them, I dash under the mosquito bar and sleep, lulled by their shrill yells of baffled rage.

June 8th. — In the morning, up at five. Great activity on beach. Move synchronously taking on wood fuel and discharging cargo. A very active young French pastor from the Kangwe mission station is round after the mission’s cargo. Mr. Hudson kindly makes inquiries as to whether I may go round to Kangwe and stay with Mme. Jacot. He says: “Oh, yes,” but as I find he is not M. Jacot, I do not feel justified in accepting this statement without its having personal confirmation from Mme. Jacot, and so, leaving my luggage with the Move, I get them to allow me to go round with him and his cargo to Kangwe, about three-quarters of an hour’s paddle round the upper part of Lembarene Island, and down the broad channel on the other side of it. Kangwe is beautifully situated on a hill, as its name denotes, on the mainland and north bank of the river. Mme. Jacot most kindly says I may come, though I know I shall be a fearful nuisance, for there is no room for me save M. Jacot’s beautifully neat, clean, tidy study. I go back in the canoe and fetch my luggage from the Move; and say good-bye to Mr. Hudson, who gave me an immense amount of valuable advice about things, which was subsequently of great use to me, and a lot of equally good warnings which, if I had attended to, would have enabled me to avoid many, if not all, my misadventures in Congo Francais.

I camped out that night in M. Jacot’s study, wondering how he would like it when he came home and found me there; for he was now away on one of his usual evangelising tours. Providentially Mme. Jacot let me have the room that the girls belonging to the mission school usually slept in, to my great relief, before M. Jacot came home.

I will not weary you with my diary during my first stay at Kangwe. It is a catalogue of the collection of fish, etc., that I made, and a record of the continuous, never-failing kindness and help that I received from M. and Mme. Jacot, and of my attempts to learn from them the peculiarities of the region, the natives, and their language and customs, which they both know so well and manage so admirably. I daily saw there what it is possible to do, even in the wildest and most remote regions of West Africa, and recognised that there is still one heroic form of human being whose praise has never adequately been sung, namely, the missionary’s wife.

Wishing to get higher up the Ogowe, I took the opportunity of the river boat of the Chargeurs Reunis going up to the Njole on one of her trips, and joined her.

June 22nd. — Eclaireur, charming little stern wheel steamer, exquisitely kept. She has an upper and a lower deck. The lower deck for business, the upper deck for white passengers only. On the upper deck there is a fine long deck-house, running almost her whole length. In this are the officers’ cabins, the saloon and the passengers’ cabins (two), both large and beautifully fitted up. Captain Verdier exceedingly pleasant and constantly saying “N’est-ce pas?” A quiet and singularly clean engineer completes the white staff.

The passengers consist of Mr. Cockshut, going up river to see after the sub-factories; a French official bound for Franceville, which it will take him thirty-six days, go as quick as he can, in a canoe after Njole; a tremendously lively person who has had black water fever four times, while away in the bush with nothing to live on but manioc, a diet it would be far easier to die on under the circumstances. He is excellent company; though I do not know a word he says, he is perpetually giving lively and dramatic descriptions of things which I cannot but recognise. M. S—— with his pince-nez, the Doctor, and, above all, the rapids of the Ogowe, rolling his hands round and round each other and clashing them forward with a descriptive ejaculation of “Whish, flash, bum, bum, bump,” and then comes what evidently represents a terrific fight for life against terrific odds. Wish to goodness I knew French, for wishing to see these rapids, I cannot help feeling anxious and worried at not fully understanding this dramatic entertainment regarding them. There is another passenger, said to be the engineer’s brother, a quiet, gentlemanly man. Captain argues violently with every one; with Mr. Cockshut on the subject of the wicked waste of money in keeping the Move and not shipping all goods by the Eclaireur, “N’est-ce pas?” and with the French official on goodness knows what, but I fancy it will be pistols for two and coffee for one in the morning time. When the captain feels himself being worsted in argument, he shouts for support to the engineer and his brother. “N’est-ce pas?” he says, turning furiously to them. “Oui, oui, certainement,” they say dutifully and calmly, and then he, refreshed by their support, dashes back to his controversial fray. He even tries to get up a row with me on the subject of the English merchants at Calabar, whom he asserts have sworn a kind of blood oath to ship by none but British and African Company’s steamers. I cannot stand this, for I know my esteemed and honoured friends the Calabar traders would ship by the Flying Dutchman or the Devil himself if either of them would take the stuff at 15 shillings the ton. We have, however, to leave off this row for want of language, to our mutual regret, for it would have been a love of a fight.

Soon after leaving Lembarene Island, we pass the mouth of the chief southern affluent of the Ogowe, the Ngunie; it flows in unostentatiously from the E.S.E., a broad, quiet river here with low banks and two islands (Walker’s Islands) showing just off its entrance. Higher up, it flows through a mountainous country, and at Samba, its furthest navigable point, there is a wonderfully beautiful waterfall, the whole river coming down over a low cliff, surrounded by an amphitheatre of mountains. It takes the Eclaireur two days steaming from the mouth of the Ngunie to Samba, when she can get up; but now, in the height of the long dry season neither she nor the Move can go because of the sandbanks; so Samba is cut off until next October. Hatton and Cookson have factories up at Samba, for it is an outlet for the trade of Achango land in rubber and ivory, a trade worked by the Akele tribe, a powerful, savage and difficult lot to deal with, and just in the same condition, as far as I can learn, as they were when Du Chaillu made his wonderful journeys among them. While I was at Lembarene, waiting for the Eclaireur, a notorious chief descended on a Ngunie sub-factory, and looted it. The wife of the black trading agent made a gallant resistance, her husband was away on a trading expedition, but the chief had her seized and beaten, and thrown into the river. An appeal was made to the Doctor then Administrator of the Ogowe, a powerful and helpful official, and he soon came up with the little canoniere, taking Mr. Cockshut with him and fully vindicated the honour of the French flag, under which all factories here are.

The banks of the Ogowe just above Lembarene Island are low; with the forest only broken by village clearings and seeming to press in on those, ready to absorb them should the inhabitants cease their war against it. The blue Ntyankala mountains of Achango land show away to the E.S.E. in a range. Behind us, gradually sinking in the distance, is the high land on Lembarene Island.

Soon we run up alongside a big street of a village with four high houses rising a story above the rest, which are strictly ground floor; it has also five or six little low open thatched huts along the street in front. 14 These may be fetish huts, or, as the captain of the Sparrow would say, “again they mayn’t.” For I have seen similar huts in the villages round Libreville, which were store places for roof mats, of which the natives carefully keep a store dry and ready for emergencies in the way of tornadoes, or to sell. We stop abreast of this village. Inhabitants in scores rush out and form an excited row along the vertical bank edge, several of the more excited individuals falling over it into the water.

Yells from our passengers on the lower deck. Yells from inhabitants on shore. Yells of vite, vite from the Captain. Dogs bark, horns bray, some exhilarated individual thumps the village drum, canoes fly out from the bank towards us. Fearful scrimmage heard going on all the time on the deck below. As soon as the canoes are alongside, our passengers from the lower deck, with their bundles and their dogs, pour over the side into them. Canoes rock wildly and wobble off rapidly towards the bank, frightening the passengers because they have got their best clothes on, and fear that the Eclaireur will start and upset them altogether with her wash.

On reaching the bank, the new arrivals disappear into brown clouds of wives and relations, and the dogs into fighting clusters of resident dogs. Happy, happy day! For those men who have gone ashore have been away on hire to the government and factories for a year, and are safe home in the bosoms of their families again, and not only they themselves, but all the goods they have got in pay. The remaining passengers below still yell to their departed friends; I know not what they say, but I expect it’s the Fan equivalent for “Mind you write. Take care of yourself. Yes, I’ll come and see you soon,” etc., etc. While all this is going on, the Eclaireur quietly slides down river, with the current, broadside on as if she smelt her stable at Lembarene. This I find is her constant habit whenever the captain, the engineer, and the man at the wheel are all busy in a row along the rail, shouting overside, which occurs whenever we have passengers to land. Her iniquity being detected when the last canoe load has left for the shore, she is spun round and sent up river again at full speed.

We go on up stream; now and again stopping at little villages to land passengers or at little sub-factories to discharge cargo, until evening closes in, when we anchor and tie up at O’Saomokita, where there is a sub-factory of Messrs. Woermann’s, in charge of which is a white man, the only white man between Lembarene and Njole. He comes on board and looks only a boy, but is really aged twenty. He is a Frenchman, and was at Hatton and Cookson’s first, then he joined Woermann’s, who have put him in charge of this place. The isolation for a white man must be terrible; sometimes two months will go by without his seeing another white face but that in his looking-glass, and when he does see another, it is only by a fleeting visit such as we now pay him, and to make the most of this, he stays on board to dinner.

June 23rd. — Start off steaming up river early in the morning time. Land ahead showing mountainous. Rather suddenly the banks grow higher. Here and there in the forest are patches which look like regular hand-made plantations, which they are not, but only patches of egombie-gombie trees, showing that at this place was once a native town. Whenever land is cleared along here, this tree springs up all over the ground. It grows very rapidly, and has great leaves something like a sycamore leaf, only much larger. These leaves growing in a cluster at the top of the straight stem give an umbrella-like appearance to the affair; so the natives call them and an umbrella by the same name, but whether they think the umbrella is like the tree or the tree is like the umbrella, I can’t make out. I am always getting myself mixed over this kind of thing in my attempts “to contemplate phenomena from a scientific standpoint,” as Cambridge ordered me to do. I’ll give the habit up. “You can’t do that sort of thing out here — It’s the climate,” and I will content myself with stating the fact, that when a native comes into a store and wants an umbrella, he asks for an egombie-gombie.

The uniformity of the height of the individual trees in one of these patches is striking, and it arises from their all starting fair. I cannot make out other things about them to my satisfaction, for you very rarely see one of them in the wild bush, and then it does not bear a fruit that the natives collect and use, and then chuck away the stones round their domicile. Anyhow, there they are all one height, and all one colour, and apparently allowing no other vegetation to make any headway among them. But I found when I carefully investigated egombie-gombie patches that there were a few of the great, slower-growing forest trees coming up amongst them, and in time when these attain a sufficient height, their shade kills off the egombie-gombie, and the patch goes back into the great forest from which it came. The frequency of these patches arises from the nomadic habits of the chief tribe in these regions, the Fans. They rarely occupy one site for a village for any considerable time on account — firstly, of their wasteful method of collecting rubber by cutting down the vine, which soon stamps it out of a district; and, secondly, from their quarrelsome ways. So when a village of Fans has cleared all the rubber out of its district, or has made the said district too hot to hold it by rows with other villages, or has got itself very properly shelled out and burnt for some attack on traders or the French flag in any form, its inhabitants clear off into another district, and build another village; for bark and palm thatch are cheap, and house removing just nothing; when you are an unsophisticated cannibal Fan you don’t require a pantechnicon van to stow away your one or two mushroom-shaped stools, knives, and cooking-pots, and a calabash or so. If you are rich, maybe you will have a box with clothes in as well, but as a general rule all your clothes are on your back. So your wives just pick up the stools and the knives and the cooking-pots, and the box, and the children toddle off with the calabashes. You have, of course, the gun to carry, for sleeping or waking a Fan never parts with his gun, and so there you are “finish,” as M. Pichault would say, and before your new bark house is up, there grows the egombie-gombie, where your house once stood. Now and again, for lack of immediate neighbouring villages to quarrel with, one end of a village will quarrel with the other end. The weaker end then goes off and builds itself another village, keeping an eye lifting for any member of the stronger end who may come conveniently into its neighbourhood to be killed and eaten. Meanwhile, the egombie-gombie grows over the houses of the empty end, pretending it’s a plantation belonging to the remaining half. I once heard a new-comer hold forth eloquently as to how those Fans were maligned. “They say,” said he, with a fine wave of his arm towards such a patch, “that these people do not till the soil — that they are not industrious — that the few plantations they do make are ill-kept — that they are only a set of wandering hunters and cannibals. Look there at those magnificent plantations!” I did look, but I did not alter my opinion of the Fans, for I know my old friend egombie-gombie when I see him.

This morning the French official seems sad and melancholy. I fancy he has got a Monday head (Kipling), but he revives as the day goes on. As we go on, the banks become hills and the broad river, which has been showing sheets of sandbanks in all directions, now narrows and shows only neat little beaches of white sand in shallow places along the bank. The current is terrific. The Eclaireur breathes hard, and has all she can do to fight her way up against it. Masses of black weathered rock in great boulders show along the exposed parts of both banks, left dry by the falling waters. Each bank is steep, and quantities of great trees, naked and bare, are hanging down from them, held by their roots and bush-rope entanglement from being swept away with the rushing current, and they make a great white fringe to the banks. The hills become higher and higher, and more and more abrupt, and the river runs between them in a gloomy ravine, winding to and fro; we catch sight of a patch of white sand ahead, which I mistake for a white painted house, but immediately after doubling round a bend we see the houses of the Talagouga Mission Station. The Eclaireur forthwith has an hysteric fit on her whistle, so as to frighten M. Forget and get him to dash off in his canoe to her at once. Apparently he knows her, and does not hurry, but comes on board quietly. I find there will be no place for me to stay at at Njole, so I decide to go on in the Eclaireur and use her as an hotel while there, and then return and stay with Mme. Forget if she will have me. I consult M. Forget on this point. He says, “Oh, yes,” but seems to have lost something of great value recently, and not to be quite clear where. Only manner, I suppose. When M. Forget has got his mails he goes, and the Eclaireur goes on; indeed, she has never really stopped, for the water is too deep to anchor in here, and the terrific current would promptly whisk the steamer down out of Talagouga gorge were she to leave off fighting it. We run on up past Talagouga Island, where the river broadens out again a little, but not much, and reach Njole by nightfall, and tie up to a tree by Dumas’ factory beach. Usual uproar, but as Mr. Cockshut says, no mosquitoes. The mosquito belt ends abruptly at O’Soamokita.

Next morning I go ashore and start on a walk. Lovely road, bright yellow clay, as hard as paving stone. On each side it is most neatly hedged with pine-apples; behind these, carefully tended, acres of coffee bushes planted in long rows. Certainly coffee is one of the most lovely of crops. Its grandly shaped leaves are like those of our medlar tree, only darker and richer green, the berries set close to the stem, those that are ripe, a rich crimson; these trees, I think, are about three years old, and just coming into bearing; for they are covered with full-sized berries, and there has been a flush of bloom on them this morning, and the delicious fragrance of their stephanotis-shaped and scented flowers lingers in the air. The country spreads before me a lovely valley encompassed by purple-blue mountains. Mount Talagouga looks splendid in a soft, infinitely deep blue, although it is quite close, just the other side of the river. The road goes on into the valley, as pleasantly as ever and more so. How pleasant it would be now, if our government along the Coast had the enterprise and public spirit of the French, and made such roads just on the remote chance of stray travellers dropping in on a steamer once in ten years or so and wanting a walk. Observe extremely neatly Igalwa built huts, people sitting on the bright clean ground outside them, making mats and baskets. “Mboloani,” say I. “Ai! Mbolo,” say they, and knock off work to stare. Observe large wired-in enclosures on left-hand side of road — investigate — find they are tenanted by animals — goats, sheep, chickens, etc. Clearly this is a jardin d’acclimatation. No wonder the colony does not pay, if it goes in for this sort of thing, 206 miles inland, with simply no public to pay gate-money. While contemplating these things, hear awful hiss. Serpents! No, geese. Awful fight. Grand things, good, old-fashioned, long skirts are for Africa! Get through geese and advance in good order, but somewhat rapidly down road, turn sharply round corner of native houses. Turkey cock — terrific turn up. Flight on my part forwards down road, which is still going strong, now in a northerly direction, apparently indefinitely. Hope to goodness there will be a turning that I can go down and get back by, without returning through this ferocious farmyard. Intent on picking up such an outlet, I go thirty yards or so down the road. Hear shouts coming from a clump of bananas on my left. Know they are directed at me, but it does not do to attend to shouts always. Expect it is only some native with an awful knowledge of English, anxious to get up my family history — therefore accelerate pace. More shouts, and louder, of “Madame Gacon! Madame Gacon!” and out of the banana clump comes a big, plump, pleasant-looking gentleman, clad in a singlet and a divided skirt. White people must be attended to, so advance carefully towards him through a plantation of young coffee, apologising humbly for intruding on his domain. He smiles and bows beautifully, but — horror! — he knows no English, I no French. Situation tres inexplicable et tres interessante, as I subsequently heard him remark; and the worst of it is he is evidently bursting to know who I am, and what I am doing in the middle of his coffee plantation, for his it clearly is, as appears from his obsequious bodyguard of blacks, highly interested in me also. We gaze at each other, and smile some more, but stiffly, and he stands bareheaded in the sun in an awful way. It’s murder I’m committing, hard all! He, as is fitting for his superior sex, displays intelligence first and says, “Interpreter,” waving his hand to the south. I say “Yes,” in my best Fan, an enthusiastic, intelligent grunt which any one must understand. He leads the way back towards those geese — perhaps, by the by, that is why he wears those divided skirts — and we enter a beautifully neatly built bamboo house, and sit down opposite to each other at a table and wait for the interpreter who is being fetched. The house is low on the ground and of native construction, but most beautifully kept, and arranged with an air of artistic feeling quite as unexpected as the rest of my surroundings. I notice upon the walls sets of pictures of terrific incidents in Algerian campaigns, and a copy of that superb head of M. de Brazza in Arab headgear. Soon the black minions who have been sent to find one of the plantation hands who is supposed to know French and English, return with the “interpreter.” That young man is a fraud. He does not know English — not even coast English — and all he has got under his precious wool is an abysmal ignorance darkened by terror; and so, after one or two futile attempts and some frantic scratching at both those regions which an African seems to regard as the seats of intellectual inspiration, he bolts out of the door. Situation terrible! My host and I smile wildly at each other, and both wonder in our respective languages what, in the words of Mr. Squeers as mentioned in the classics — we “shall do in this ’ere most awful go.” We are both going mad with the strain of the situation, when in walks the engineer’s brother from the Eclaireur. He seems intensely surprised to find me sitting in his friend the planter’s parlour after my grim and retiring conduct on the Eclaireur on my voyage up. But the planter tells him all, sousing him in torrents of words, full of the violence of an outbreak of pent-up emotion. I do not understand what he says, but I catch “tres inexplicable” and things like that. The calm brother of the engineer sits down at the table, and I am sure tells the planter something like this: “Calm yourself, my friend, we picked up this curiosity at Lembarene. It seems quite harmless.” And then the planter calmed, and mopped a perspiring brow, and so did I, and we smiled more freely, feeling the mental atmosphere had become less tense and cooler. We both simply beamed on our deliverer, and the planter gave him lots of things to drink. I had nothing about me except a head of tobacco in my pocket, which I did not feel was a suitable offering. Now the engineer’s brother, although he would not own to it, knew English, so I told him how the beauty of the road had lured me on, and how I was interested in coffee-planting, and how much I admired the magnificence of this plantation, and all the enterprise and energy it represented.

“Oui, oui, certainement,” said he, and translated. My friend the planter seemed charmed; it was the first sign of anything approaching reason he had seen in me. He wanted me to have eau sucree more kindly than ever, and when I rose, intending to bow myself off and go, geese or no geese, back to the Eclaireur, he would not let me go. I must see the plantation, toute la plantation. So presently all three of us go out and thoroughly do the plantation, the most well-ordered, well-cultivated plantation I have ever seen, and a very noble monument to the knowledge and industry of the planter. For two hot hours these two perfect gentlemen showed me over it. I also behaved well, for petticoats, great as they are, do not prevent insects and catawumpuses of sorts walking up one’s ankles and feeding on one as one stands on the long grass which has been most wisely cut and laid round the young trees for mulching. This plantation is of great extent on the hill-sides and in the valley bottom, portions of it are just coming into bearing. The whole is kept as perfectly as a garden, amazing as the work of one white man with only a staff of unskilled native labourers — at present only eighty of them. The coffee planted is of three kinds, the Elephant berry, the Arabian, and the San Thome. During our inspection, we only had one serious misunderstanding, which arose from my seeing for the first time in my life tree-ferns growing in the Ogowe. There were three of them, evidently carefully taken care of, among some coffee plants. It was highly exciting, and I tried to find out about them. It seemed, even in this centre of enterprise, unlikely that they had been brought just “for dandy” from the Australasian region, and I had never yet come across them in my wanderings save on Fernando Po. Unfortunately, my friends thought I wanted them to keep, and shouted for men to bring things and dig them up; so I had a brisk little engagement with the men, driving them from their prey with the point of my umbrella, ejaculating Kor Kor, like an agitated crow. When at last they understood that my interest in the ferns was scientific, not piratical, they called the men off and explained that the ferns had been found among the bush, when it was being cleared for the plantation.

Ultimately, with many bows and most sincere thanks from me, we parted, providentially beyond the geese, and I returned down the road to Njole, where I find Mr. Cockshut waiting outside his factory. He insists on taking me to the Post to see the Administrator, and from there he says I can go on to the Eclaireur from the Post beach, as she will be up there from Dumas’. Off we go up the road which skirts the river bank, a dwarf clay cliff, overgrown with vegetation, save where it is cleared for beaches. The road is short, but exceedingly pretty; on the other side from the river is a steep bank on which is growing a plantation of cacao. Lying out in the centre of the river you see Njole Island, a low, sandy one, timbered not only with bush, but with orange and other fruit trees; for formerly the Post and factories used to be situated on the island — now only their trees remain for various reasons, one being that in the wet season it is a good deal under water. Everything is now situated on the mainland north bank, in a straggling but picturesque line; first comes Woermann’s factory, then Hatton and Cookson’s, and John Holt’s, close together with a beach in common in a sweetly amicable style for factories, who as a rule firmly stockade themselves off from their next door neighbours. Then Dumas’ beach, a little native village, the cacao patch and the Post at the up river end of things European, an end of things European, I am told, for a matter of 500 miles. Immediately beyond the Post is a little river falling into the Ogowe, and on its further bank a small village belonging to a chief, who, hearing of the glories of the Government, came down like the Queen of Sheba — in intention, I mean, not personal appearance — to see it, and so charmed has he been that here he stays to gaze on it.

Although Mr. Cockshut hunted the Administrator of the Ogowe out of his bath, that gentleman is exceedingly amiable and charming, all the more so to me for speaking good English. Personally, he is big, handsome, exuberant, and energetic. He shows me round with a gracious enthusiasm, all manner of things — big gorilla teeth and heads, native spears and brass-nail-ornamented guns; and explains, while we are in his study, that the little model canoe full of Kola nuts is the supply of Kola to enable him to sit up all night and work. Then he takes us outside to see the new hospital which he, in his capacity as Administrator, during the absence of the professional Administrator on leave in France, has granted to himself in his capacity as Doctor; and he shows us the captive chief and headmen from Samba busily quarrying a clay cliff behind it so as to enlarge the governmental plateau, and the ex-ministers of the ex-King of Dahomey, who are deported to Njole, and apparently comfortable and employed in various non-menial occupations. Then we go down the little avenue of cacao trees in full bearing, and away to the left to where there is now an encampment of Adoomas, who have come down as a convoy from Franceville, and are going back with another under the command of our vivacious fellow passenger, who, I grieve to see, will have a rough time of it in the way of accommodation in those narrow, shallow canoes which are lying with their noses tied to the bank, and no other white man to talk to. What a blessing he will be conversationally to Franceville when he gets in. The Adooma encampment is very picturesque, for they have got their bright-coloured chintz mosquito-bars erected as tents.

Dr. Pelessier then insists on banging down monkey bread-fruit with a stick, to show me their inside. Of course they burst over his beautiful white clothes. I said they would, but men will be men. Then we go and stand under the two lovely odeaka trees that make a triumphal-arch-like gateway to the Post’s beach from the river, and the Doctor discourses in a most interesting way on all sorts of subjects. We go on waiting for the Eclaireur, who, although it is past four o’clock, is still down at Dumas’ beach. I feel nearly frantic at detaining the Doctor, but neither he nor Mr. Cockshut seem in the least hurry. But at last I can stand it no longer. The vision of the Administrator of the Ogowe, worn out, but chewing Kola nut to keep himself awake all night while he finishes his papers to go down on the Eclaireur tomorrow morning, is too painful; so I say I will walk back to Dumas’ and go on the Eclaireur there, and try to liberate the Administrator from his present engagements, so that he may go back and work. No good! He will come down to Dumas’ with Mr. Cockshut and me. Off we go, and just exactly as we are getting on to Dumas’ beach, off starts the Eclaireur with a shriek for the Post beach. So I say good-bye to Mr. Cockshut, and go back to the Post with Dr. Pelessier, and he sees me on board, and to my immense relief he stays on board a good hour and a half, talking to other people, so it is not on my head if he is up all night.

June 25th. — Eclaireur has to wait for the Administrator until ten, because he has not done his mails. At ten he comes on board like an amiable tornado, for he himself is going to Cape Lopez. I am grieved to see them carrying on board, too, a French official very ill with fever. He is the engineer of the canoniere and they are taking him down to Cape Lopez, where they hope to get a ship to take him up to Gaboon, and to the hospital on the Minerve. I heard subsequently that the poor fellow died about forty hours after leaving Njole at Achyouka in Kama country.

We get away at last, and run rapidly down river, helped by the terrific current. The Eclaireur has to call at Talagouga for planks from M. Gacon’s sawmill. As soon as we are past the tail of Talagouga Island, the Eclaireur ties her whistle string to a stanchion, and goes off into a series of screaming fits, as only she can. What she wants is to get M. Forget or M. Gacon, or better still both, out in their canoes with the wood waiting for her, because “she cannot anchor in the depth,” “nor can she turn round,” and “backing plays the mischief with any ship’s engines,” and “she can’t hold her own against the current,” and — then Captain Verdier says things I won’t repeat, and throws his weight passionately on the whistle string, for we are in sight of the narrow gorge of Talagouga, with the Mission Station apparently slumbering in the sun. This puts the Eclaireur in an awful temper. She goes down towards it as near as she dare, and then frisks round again, and runs up river a little way and drops down again, in violent hysterics the whole time. Soon M. Gacon comes along among the trees on the bank, and laughs at her. A rope is thrown to him, and the panting Eclaireur tied up to a tree close in to the bank, for the water is deep enough here to moor a liner in, only there are a good many rocks. In a few minutes M. Forget and several canoe loads of beautiful red-brown mahogany planks are on board, and things being finished, I say good-bye to the captain, and go off with M. Forget in a canoe, to the shore.

14 The villages of the Fans and Bakele are built in the form of a street. When in the forest there are two lines of huts, the one facing the other, and each end closed by a guard house. When facing a river there is one line of huts facing the river frontage.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56