My Apingi Kingdom - Paul du Chaillu

Shark Fishing


For a few days after getting under way we had a light breeze, and then sailed into the region of calms, where vessels are sometimes detained for weeks for want of wind enough to fill their canvas. We were not so unfortunate, however, and thirty-eight days after our departure from Senegal our ship was plowing through the water finely. We had a nice breeze, all our sails were set, and the studding-sails were out. As I looked back one morning, I could see our wake for a long distance. The sun had risen half an hour before, and the deck had just been washed. I was enjoying the coolness of a morning at sea under the tropics. The captain was smoking a pipe as hard as he could. I could see that he was nervous and excited. The fact was that he had been expecting to see the land at sunrise, and had been disappointed. He concluded that the strong currents had thrown us northward.

One man had been sent to the top of the mainmast to watch for the land, for of course he could see it from such a height long before those who were on deck.

The captain and I were talking of the strength of the currents, and wondering how far we might be out of our course, when suddenly the cry of "Land ahead! land ahead!" came down to us from the man on the watch at the top of the mainmast. Immediately the captain and I took our spy-glasses and ascended the rigging, though I was satisfied not to go as high as the captain. The fact was that I did not care to go higher up, not being much of a sailor, and not knowing how I should like it up there, or how I should keep my footing. I had no idea of trying, for I knew that if I did not succeed. I should have a terrible fall. While I was thinking of these things, the captain looked down and said to me, "Do not go up higher." I was only too ready to obey. After looking a while through my glass, I shouted to him, "Land ahead land ahead!" The captain said, "Where?" I pointed toward the land, and said, "Don't you see it there?" I could not be mistaken. What I saw could not be a cloud, though it looked very much like one, so faint and very far away. All I could see above the sea was an indistinct bluish mass, having the appearance of a cloud or bank of mist; but there was a hazy atmosphere about it which looked very much as if it were land. As we came near it became more substantial, and at last the blue outlines of the great peak of Cameroons were seen. What a grand sight it presented! apparently rising like an island from the sea, for the country that surrounds it is low and marshy, and the peak, which rises to a height of thirteen thousand feet above the sea, is visible for several hours before the low lands above which it towers come into sight.

I wondered if this Peak of Cameroons was the same land which Hanno, the great Carthaginian admiral, mentions in the Periplus, where he says: "We discovered, at night, a country full of fire. In the middle was a lofty fire, larger than all the rest, which seemed to touch the stars. When day came we discovered it to be a large hill, called Teonocheiva, the Chariot of the Gods."

The Cameroons Mountains, being of volcanic origin, would seem to corroborate this theory. Extinct craters are to be seen there which must have been for ages in a state of repose, and there is no other spot on the West Coast where remains of volcanoes can be seen.

Hanno, if you remember well, mentions also the gorilla in the same book.

At a distance the Cameroons seems to rise abruptly from its base by a continuous slope; but, on nearer approach, it is seen to consist of a succession of hills and valleys, covered with alternating forest and pasture land. Perhaps one third is covered with dense forest, while the summit is bare.

After a few hours the island of Fernando Po, whose peaks rise to a height of more than ten thousand feet, was in sight, and we could see, at the same time, the two highest points found on the West Coast of Africa, for Fernando is only about twenty miles from the main land. It is situated in the very Bight of Biafra, which is the extreme end of the Gulf of Guinea. One of the affluents of the great River Niger, here falls into the sea.

While our vessel was heading for Fernando Po, I was seated near the rudder, looking now and then at the high land of which I have just spoken, when suddenly I saw the fins of a large shark in the water. By their size it must have been an enormous creature. It seemed to be hunting after fish, as it swam pretty fast. No doubt the shark was hungry. I threw something heavy in the water, which made a good deal of splashing, to attract its attention. I was not mistaken. The huge fish made for the vessel, swam round it, though we were sailing fast, and then came back to the stern, and followed us closely. Sometimes it almost seemed as if it touched the rudder. What a huge creature it was! how ugly, how voracious! Its little eyes seemed to see every thing; but its mouth could not be seen, for it is placed in such a way that it can only be seen when the shark turns over. I wondered how many rows of teeth the creature could have, and a cold shudder ran over me; for just at that time I had seated myself on the bulwarks of the vessel, and the least jerk might have sent me over into the sea, and, as the shark was swimming close to the vessel, there would have been no way of escape. I immediately jumped down on deck and looked at the creature. I do not wonder that the natives often call it the "leopard of the sea," for such a voracious creature seldom can be met any where. You may perhaps remember that in "Lost in the Jungle" there is an eagle called by the people "the leopard of the air" on account of its fierceness and boldness. The water has its representative for voracity, fierceness, and treachery in the shark, and the land has the leopard, which, as the natives say, can not be trusted.

As I was looking at that shark, I saw eight little fish swimming round it, on which the shark seemed to look complacently. At first I wondered why the shark did not gobble them up as he would other fish. Now these little tiny things would seem to rest on the back of their huge companion, then they would swim under its belly and round him. As I watched these little creatures, I was filled with wonder because they swam so fast. They seemed to be his best friends, and, as I learned, are called the shark's pilots, and follow him every where. Only large sharks have pilots. Wherever the shark goes his "little pilots" follow him. I believe they sometimes tell him of danger, for the great enemy of the shark is the "sawfish." At any rate, they never leave the shark, and it may be that they help to keep its skin clear from insects and parasites. I went to my stateroom, and took from a box two or three very small fish-hooks, which I tied to a thread, and then put a very small piece of fat pork on the hook, and dropped it in the water; but the little pilots would not bite.

At times I fancied the old big shark was looking at me, hoping all the time that I would come down into the water, when he would have made a jolly meal of me.

At last I gave up trying to catch the little pilot-fish. It is not often that I give up, but I saw that in this case it was of no use, for it did not even come and smell of my bait. Whatever little things I would throw over, such as crusts of bread, little pieces of chicken-meat, etc., they would not trouble themselves in the least about; so I came to the conclusion that they fed themselves on the parasites of the shark.

Just as I was thinking of catching the big shark, the bell for dinner rang, and I went down into the cabin in a hurry, for I was very hungry. A piece of salt pork and some beans was all we had for our dinner. I confess I should have willingly exchanged the salt pork for something else, for we had had so much of it.

After dinner I went immediately on deck again, and saw that the Shark was still following the vessel. The sailor at the wheel whispered to me, in a very low tone, that one of the crew was sick, and that he had no doubt that the shark was waiting for him to die; "for," added the sailor, "those horrid creatures smell sickness on board, and I have seen them follow a ship day after day till the man died and his body was buried in the sea." Almost every sailor believes what this man just told me, and that it is always a bad sign to see a shark follow after a sick man. I said, "Nonsense; I do not believe a word about it. You sailors are full of superstitions. At any rate, I am going to try to hook the 'fellow,' so that it shall be his last day in the sea." We had on board the vessel two large fish-hooks, which I had got specially for shark fishing. These big hooks were held by a chain about eighteen inches long, for a rope would have stood a poor chance against several rows of teeth.

As I was preparing my hook and was ready to put on it a piece of pork which weighed about one pound, the captain came and helped me. We attached to the chain a new, strong rope, for the shark was a big one, and we secured it to the deck. The vessel was not going at that time more than three miles an hour, for the breeze had become light; but we were going fast enough. The hook, with its piece of pork as a bait, had hardly dropped into the water, when the shark came at it, and suddenly turned over on its back, and showed a tremendous mouth, which it opened, and swallowed pork, fish-hook, and part of the chain. We gave a sudden jerk to our line, and the hook fastened itself tightly inside the jaw of Master Shark. Then came a great struggle to haul him up, especially when we got him out of the water and against the ship's side. The crew had to be called to assist us before we succeeded in landing him on the deck. It was all that eight men could do to pull him up. Now and then his powerful tail would strike with terrific force against the sides of the ship; the water was lashed into foam, and was soon discolored with blood from the wound made by the hook. At last we succeeded in drawing it out of the water, and the little pilot-fish swam about at random, not knowing where their protector and friend had disappeared. Then came the hardest part of the work, for the shark made a tremendous struggle, having no idea of being hauled on deck. Nevertheless, in spite of its desperate efforts, we succeeded. As soon as the huge creature felt on the deck we jumped out of its reach, for a single blow from its tail would have broken a man's leg. Now and then the shark would remain still a moment, then a quiver would follow, and the body would flop and twist till the strength of the monster appeared to be exhausted.

Capture of a shark


Finally it lay quite still. Having armed myself with a big axe belonging to the carpenter of the ship, I cut off the shark's tail with one blow. It was a monstrous shark. One of the sailors gave him a fearful blow on the head which almost split it in two. Even this rough treatment did not kill him, and it was still dangerous to approach within his reach. At length a powerful blow with an axe on the spine cut the monster in two and finished him, though the fragments of the body quivered for some time afterward.

This shark belonged to the most voracious species; it had a flat head, a big and very ugly-looking mouth, with several rows of teeth which looked like those of a wood-saw.

We had hardly killed this fellow than seven others appeared and followed in the wake of the ship. I threw overboard some pieces of the shark we had killed, upon which they threw themselves voraciously and gobbled them up. So they were cannibals, if we may use the expression, and, as the negroes say, they eat "their own people." They kept following the ship as if expecting that something more would be thrown over to them.

The thought came to my mind how dreadful it would be if one of the sailors should fall into the sea. It would be sure death to him, for the sharks would pounce upon him as the hungry and voracious hyena pounces upon a dead carcase. The captain seemed to have the same feeling, and, though such an accident hardly ever happens, he warned the men to look out sharp and be careful.

I was bound to kill these seven sharks if I could, for if I succeeded there would be, I thought, seven monsters less in the sea—seven creatures that would never again make a meal of a man. So the two hooks were again put out with big pieces of pork upon them. They hardly touched the water when two sharks were caught, and, after a great struggle, but not so severe as that with the one we had just captured, they were hauled up half way, and then I put a bullet through the head of each, cut their tails off, and then let their bodies drop into the water; the five that remained pounced upon them with a fury and a voracity which astonished me. Of course, the sharks could not swim, their tails having been cut off, though they seemed to try. They sank gradually, the five sharks sinking with them into the depths of the ocean, to devour them. I did not count on that. It never entered my head that these would follow the disabled and half dead sharks in this manner.

Half an hour after another immense fellow made its appearance. We were decidedly in a great region of sharks. This fellow was a blue-skinned shark, long, and of slender proportions. The baited hook was thrown over to him, and he approached it slowly and with great caution, smelling at it three or four times, and as often rejecting it. He was certainly not very hungry; but at last he swallowed the bait and was caught. We had great work to bring him on deck. This monster was fourteen feet long, and you may judge my astonishment when I found that his stomach was filled with fish, some of which were still alive, and the captain had them broiled for his dinner. In the mean time we were getting nearer to the island of Fernando Po, and by sunset we were safely anchored in Clarence Bay, within twenty or thirty yards of the shore.