My Apingi Kingdom - Paul du Chaillu

Fugitives from Slavery


The next morning when I went on deck, the beautiful island rose before me in all its picturesque charms. Not a cloud hung over its high summit. The hills were covered with dense forest to their very tops, and from their gentle declivities numberless little rivulets ran sparkling down to the sea. The island is very beautiful to the eye, but very unhealthy for a residence.

There was at that time on the island a settlement of negroes captured from slavers, called Freetown, where several missionaries lived who had undertaken the care of the benighted people. The village was pretty and quite clean. Fruit-trees had been planted about the houses, and the little settlement appeared to be very thrifty. The island seemed to be under English rule, though belonging to Spain. A good, kind Hollander, who had been many years on the island, was the virtual governor.

Two or three days after my arrival, as I was rambling among the valleys and hills of the island, shooting birds and other small game (for, of course, there were no elephants nor leopards to be found, no hippopotami, etc., etc., there), I came across several settlements of the primitive inhabitants. These natives are called Boobees, and are, no doubt, the remnants of a powerful tribe which once inhabited the island. Strange to say, these Boobees are unlike the negroes of the main land, being far more ugly and degraded. They were accustomed to rub their bodies with clay and palm-oil mixed together, and many had a curious way of arranging their hair in plaits, each of which was stuck together with the same disgusting mixture in the shape of cigars. Some of them seemed to have hundreds of these cigar-shaped plaits or braids on their heads, sticking out on all sides like the quills on a porcupine.

Our camping-ground was situated in a nice little nook on the shore of one of those charming miniature bays which are found now and then along the coast of Fernando Po. Close beside it ran a beautiful little rivulet, the waters of which were as clear as crystal, and so cool that one might have been tempted to think that it came from some snowy peak. This little stream, indeed, rose in the mountains, and had meandered on its way to the sea through the dark forests of the island. Before us lay the sea. On the beach were two small canoes for fishing.

One morning when I returned from a hunt, in which I had succeeded in killing several squirrels, which were to be roasted that day on sticks, before a bright fire, for my dinner, and had stretched myself out on the sand under the protecting shade of some huge cotton-trees, I was looking at the water, and thinking that I would like, after a while, to go a-fishing. There was a lazy feeling in the atmosphere, and my men were taking their afternoon nap not far from where I was lying. I had been lying on the ground for about an hour, I suppose, when my attention was suddenly drawn to a black spot in the offing. What could it be? It was so far off that I took my spy-glass to examine it, and then discovered it was a small canoe, with a sail made of matting.

The little black spot grew bigger and bigger, for the wind was strong and from the sea. By the way the canoe sailed, I could see that the people wanted to make for the island. I wondered where the canoe could come from, and my curiosity was much excited; so I kept watching it as it came nearer and nearer, and after a while I could see that it contained five people. By the time it came within half a mile of the land, and was about that distance to the leeward of where our camp was, the breeze had gradually died away, and there was a dead calm. The canoe-men then took to their paddles, but, to my surprise, paddled very slowly. Examining them carefully through my glass, I recognized distinctly that there were four men and one woman in the canoe. They appeared to be emaciated, and, as they paddled very feebly, I concluded that they must be either sick or starving. Nevertheless, they were making headway. Who knows, said I to myself, but that it is a canoe belonging to the Boobees, which has been driven far out to sea by one of the fearful tornadoes which blow with such terrific force at this time of the year? I awoke my men, who immediately declared it was a canoe with fugitive slaves from Prince's or St. Thomas Island.

My sympathies were at once fully aroused, and I said, "Boys, suppose we launch one of our canoes and go to meet them?" "No," said my men; "for we might frighten them away." So I suggested that we should skirt the beach in the woods, and be near them when they landed. This was no sooner said than done, with all the more alacrity because the negroes forming my own camp were also fugitives from slavery. One of them, who had escaped from St. Thomas Island, and had lived on the banks of the Ogobai River, had been sold into slavery by his people because suspected of being a wizard. He had been three years in the English settlement of Fernando Po, and could speak the English language tolerably well, besides the Portuguese. His name was Fasiko.

We kept skirting the beach, taking good care to remain in the woods, in order not to raise the suspicions of the fugitives. By the time we came opposite them they were not more than one hundred yards from the shore. Through my glass I could see how careworn they were. They seemed to be very suspicious and shy as they approached the land, and I could see fear and anxiety on their faces. I was not surprised, for they had never seen the country, and knew not if the people were wicked and ready to kill them, or make slaves of them again. Now and then they would stop their paddles, look around anxiously, give two or three more strokes, then stop again, and look around. At last they landed, and appeared to be hardly able to walk. What a little bit of a canoe it was that they came in! I wondered that they had not been swamped.

After they had all landed, they looked carefully in every direction, while we kept ourselves hidden. Suddenly they saw human footsteps on the beach, where Boobees had been walking, and a kind of panic seized them. Poor people! I felt sorry for them. At last my men came out of the forest, shouting to them not to be afraid; but the shouts were of no avail. They took to their heels' and ran away as fast as they could; but, in their weakened condition, they were no match for us. We ran after them, and in a short time they were all captured. They immediately recognized friend Fasiko, however, who had lived on a neighboring plantation to theirs, and all at once their fears were allayed.

We took them back to the camp, and gave them a good meal of boiled plantains. Two chickens I had brought for myself were cooked for them, and the broth seemed to do them good. They were very grateful to us, and, after they had eaten, they lay down to seek the rest and sleep of which they stood so sadly in need. They were negroes from the interior of Africa, as we knew without being told by their sharp-pointed teeth and tattooed bodies.

Darkness had come, and we had given a fresh start to our fires, which were bright and cheerful, and our five runaway captives were lying by them with anxious looks, for they did not know what was to happen to them. Perhaps they thought I was one of the whites who bought slaves by the sea-shore, and that they were going to be re-enslaved.

"I want to hear your story," said I. "I want to know how you dared to go to sea in such a small canoe, and why you were sold into slavery by your own people." The eldest of the five rose from his reclining position, seated himself on the ground, and began to tell his story in Portuguese, which Fasiko translated into English.

"All of us you see here," said the old man, "belong to a tribe called Ishogos, living far away from that big water" (he pointed to the sea), "of which we had never heard before we came to it, as none of those who go away from our country and see the ocean ever come back to tell the tale of what they have seen, for many tribes are between the ocean and our land; and, even if we escaped from the people of the coast, we should be enslaved by other tribes. A stranger in a strange land is not safe in the country of the black man." Here the man gave a sigh, and the others said, "To, yo, yo," which meant "That is so."

"White man," he continued, "seest thou that woman? She lived in a village not far from mine. We grew up together. I saw her father and mother killed for witchcraft, and she saw my father and mother sold into slavery for the same cause; and, if we had dared to cry, or say that our parents were not sorcerers, we should have been killed, and therefore we were obliged to join the crowd, and shout with the rest of the people, 'Death to the wizards! Death to those who bring disease and death among us!' For, white man, in the country of the Ishogos, we all believe that people can become sorcerers; and if the people suspect that there are sorcerers in the village, we are afraid of each other, for we know not if our next neighbor does not wish to kill us. The father mistrusts his son, the son the father, the mother her children, the husband his wife, and the wife her husband, the uncle his nephew; and the nephew his uncle. Fear seizes every body, and there is no peace in the village till the sorcerers are found.

"So the people mistrusted us as belonging to a family of aniembas (sorcerers), and, as our people wanted brass rings, we were sold. In our country even mothers and fathers sell their own children, and our own family sold us into slavery. So one morning we left our village with a people called Apingi. They tied our hands behind our backs, and led us through the forest to their own country. This woman and I kept together. Oh how afraid we were of being separated; for when we were young we loved each other, and I wanted her to be my wife; but another man gave her father one slave more than I could afford to give, and two goats, and she became his wife.

"When we reached the Apingi village we saw three more Ishogos, and knew they too had been sold into slavery. This Apingi village was on the bank of a large river. After a few days the man who owned us sold us to another tribe called Aviia, living lower down on the banks of the river. A canoe took us there. Oh how frightened we became as we sailed in the little canoe! Happily we were sold together again, but the three other Ishogos did not go with us, so we had to bid them good-by. When night would come our new masters would leave people to watch us, and would put us in nchogo (a kind of stocks), and threatened us with death if we tried to escape.

"The Avila man who owned us, wanting to marry a girl of another village, gave us to her father in order to get her, for he had bought us especially for this object. The Apingi had bought us for four large copper rings, and this man had bought us for; eight—such as women wear round their ankles.

"We noticed, as we came down the river, that it got wider and deeper continually, and this, filled our hearts with fear. We were resold again, and traveled in the forest, and afterward came to the river again. In this manner we were sold from tribe to tribe living down the river, taking larger canoes as we came down, till, one morning, when we came out into the sea, the canoe began to rock, and Mishoumbi and I almost died with fright.

"We then sailed along the coast till we came to the land of the Oroungous, who had bought us in the Ngalois country. The next morning they took us to some people looking like you. They were white men. They looked at us, they touched us, they felt us all over, and opened our mouths. Then the Oroungous sold us to them. We were so glad that Mishoumbi and I were sold together, for then we could talk together of Ishogo land—of our people. We knew that our country lay in the direction where the sun rose, and that we had come to the sea where the sun set. So every morning we would look toward the rising sun.

"A few days after we were resold to a white man, who sent us, before daylight, with many others, on board of a ship. It was quite dark. During the night we were put under the deck, and during the day we came out. There were on board many white men armed with guns and pistols, and the sight of them frightened us very, much. All the men were kept together, and the women were apart, so I could only look at Mishoumbi, for we were not allowed to talk to any one.

"We could see that we were going away from where the sun rises, and going toward where it sets going away, away, far away from the good Ishogo country, where we were born, and where our fathers of old were born: Fear was on the countenance of as all, for we knew not what was to become of us. We knew not if the white men were not to kill and eat us. We were afraid of the water, for land was nowhere to be seen.

"After two days and two nights we came in sight of an island. The land was as high as that of our Ishogo mountains. As we came near the land, canoes came alongside with white and black men on board, and took us all away, and landed us in the woods, where we slept, the people keeping guard over us. By-and-by some other white men came and bought us by sixes, eights, or tens. I parted with Mishoumbi, as I thought, forever; but no one dared to cry, for we were afraid of being killed on the spot.

"I was led, with seven others, to a plantation, and there I remained till I ran away, and it is there that I learned to speak Portuguese."

"How is it," said I, "that Mishoumbi and your three Ishogos friends are with you to-day?"

"Wait," said he, "and I will tell you. The island we came from is called St. Thomas. The name of the master to whom I belonged was Silva; he was kind, and his plantation was by the sea. It had a great quantity of coffee-trees. All his slaves were free, after work, to walk to and fro. After being accustomed to the country, I, began to visit round, and one day whom should I meet on a neighboring plantation but Mishoumbi—yes, Mishoumbi. She told me that our three Ishogos were living not far from her on another plantation, and from that time we saw each other very often. We would sometimes meet after our work was done, and talk of Ishogo land, and look in the direction where the sun rises, knowing that the land we left was there. Often we said to ourselves, 'Only two days took us to this island; how pleasant it would be if we could go back, and live in the woods, and be free.'

"Then we began to talk all the time about running away, and very soon events occurred which helped us. My master wanted to teach me how to fish, and, after I had learned, I took a canoe every day and went out and fished. Of course I never went far from the land. After a while I became quite an expert canoeman. Dry seasons and rainy seasons passed away in that manner. One day I was ordered to make a big canoe from a tree that was in the forest, and, when the canoe was nearly finished, the idea came into my head of running away, and going again toward where the sun rises. When I told Mishoumbi of it, she said, 'Let us run away.' We swore to keep our plan a profound secret, and every evening, when we met, we would say, 'Let us run away,' for the three Ishogos were to escape with us.

"The canoe was finished, and I was to take it to the beach in front of my master's house within a few days. In the mean time I had made paddles and prepared a sail of matting; and we collected food on the sly. One dark evening we all met in the woods, and, going down to the beach, launched the canoe, got into it, and paddled away from the island in the direction toward where the sun rises. The next morning we were far away, the land of St. Thomas appearing dimly in the horizon. The breeze bore us rapidly toward where the sun rises, but still we were afraid the people would chase us.

"Two days passed away, and no land came in sight. Fear began to seize us, and we were sorry we had ran away. Four days more passed away, and still no land; we thought we should never see it again. Happily we had plenty of food, but the water began to get scarce. The fifth night a tornado blew and threatened to swamp us, but we collected a little water after the wind went down. The tornado was followed by a dead calm.

"While we were in all this trouble we spied a sail, and at first we thought it was in pursuit of us, which put us in great terror. Was it a St. Thomas vessel? If so, it would take us back, and our master would be hard upon us. But the vessel, after a while, changed its course; its sails grew dimmer and dimmer, and became lost to our sight. We continued to sail toward where the sun rises, hoping to find the land; but for a long time no land was to be seen, and at last we made up our minds that it was all over with us. But at last we saw the land! It did not look like the land of the Oroungous, and we were afraid, as we knew not where we were. But we had no food, no water, and we had to land or choose to die in our canoe."

We were much affected by the man's pathetic story, and told our new friends that they were free forever, as on this island there were no slaves. Here they would meet with some who, like themselves, had fled from where they came, though many more had perished in their attempt, while others have landed on the main land, and then were re-enslaved by the natives. We told them to go to sleep without fear. The next day they went to the old governor, who made them welcome to the little settlement of Freetown.