Wild Life Under the Equator - Paul du Chaillu

The First Gorilla Hunter


As I and my men lay by the fire, I said to them—"Now to-night I am going to tell you a story; an old story from the white man's country concerning yours." There was a very great silence at once, for they knew it was not often I came out with a story, and they all shouted with one accord—"Tell us a story!" at the same time forming a circle round me.

So I begun: "Ever so long ago, and a long way off from here, but still in your own land, there was a powerful country called Carthage. The people of that country were brave and not afraid of war. They had many ships, and their ships went into different countries. At that time the Commi nation must have been a long way in the interior and your people had never seen the sea.

"Would you believe," said I, "that these Carthaginians came with their ships round here? And I really think they saw the very country in which we now are! They not only saw this country, but saw the gorilla, yes, saw the gorilla! If you were in the white man's country I would show you the old manuscript (the book), where we have an account of what I am going to say. You know," said I, "that words coming from the mouth are soon forgotten, but these words that are written are not." Then taking from my chest my journal, I read it to them, and then said—"When I am dead, and you and your children are dead, and for ever so long afterward, that journal, if it is not lost, will be read in the same manner as I read it to you to-day, and the people will understand the meaning of it then as you do to-day, and will know what I did, though thousands of rainy and dry seasons may pass away.

"So Hanno the Carthaginian," I continued, "was the head-man of all these ships, and left Carthage with sixty vessels. In that time the ships were unlike those you see now, and thirty thousand men and women are said to have sailed with him. Each ship was rowed by fifty oarsmen. When we read that book called the 'Periplus; or, The Voyage of Hanno,' we find the following words in which we now suppose he alludes to the gorilla:

"'On the third day, having sailed from thence, passing the streams of fire, we came to a bay called the Horn of the South."

["That 'Horn of the South,'" I added, "might be Cape Lopez."]

"'In the recess was an island like the first, having a lake, and in this there was another island full of wild men.'"

[At this point of my story they looked in each other's faces with amazement]

"'But the greater part of them were women with hairy bodies, whom the interpreters called Gorillas.'"

[Here there rose a wild shout of astonishment.]

"'But pursuing them, we were not able to take the men, who all escaped from us by their great agility, being cremenobates  (that is to say, climbing precipitous rocks and trees, and defending themselves by throwing stones at us). We took three women, who bit and tore those who caught them, and were unwilling to follow them. We were obliged to kill them, and took their skins off, which skins were brought to Carthage, for we did not navigate further, provisions becoming scarce.'"

Telling tall tales


During this latter part of my story there was a dead silence, and as soon as I had finished they said—"Chaillee, is this a real story or not?" And when I assured them it was, they said—"Yes, it must be the gorilla that that man called Hanno saw."

I was quite astonished at their remembering the name of the admiral; it showed me what an impression my story had created on their minds.

Then said I: "Boys, there are two or three points in the story I have told you which inclines me to believe that the country Hanno speaks of is not this one, and still there are several facts which make me think that the country where we are now is the same.

"The very land on which we stand is sandy; not far off is the River Fernand Vaz, and on one side another river, the Commi River, is found. It may be that the land on which we stand was then an island, and that Cape Lopez is the Horn of the South of which that great man Hanno speaks. Time changes countries; in one part the sea will take away, in another part the sea will give. Such is the country in which we are."

They shouted with one accord that it could not be; how could land rise? how could the land go down? As to the sea eating away the land, they believed it, for they had seen it; and as to the land gaining in some places, they believed that also, for they had seen it.

They all wondered how near the word Gorilla was to that of Ngina and Nguyla, the latter name being given by the Bakalai to the beast.

After my story, we all went to bed. I wrapped myself carefully in my blanket and soon fell asleep, thinking unconsciously of the gorillas, and hoping soon to meet some.

It was the dry season; we were in the month of August, and I was near Cape St. Catherine. The wind was blowing hard, the atmosphere was chilly, the sky was clouded as though it was going to rain, but no rain was coming, for no rain falls at this time of the year. The thermometer stood at 70°, but I felt quite cold, and I wore a sailor's woolen shirt.

The sea was rolling up the shore in heavy rollers which would upset a canoe in the twinkling of an eye; we had just arrived, and had come to hunt, fish, and be merry.

My Commi men had all gone to the woods to cut branches of palm-trees, and collect poles to build shelters.

I wish you could have seen the place where I had my encampment. On that part of the coast from Cape Lopez, and further south than Cape St. Catherine, the whole coast is low and covered with prairies which lift but a few feet above the sea level. They are wooded here and there, and shrubs are often mixed with the grass growing on the sandy soil; the grass is good, not growing to a great height, but at this time of the year it has been burned down. The landscape has a great sameness, and from the sea it is most difficult to know any special spot of the land. Altogether it is a dreary country, a very dreary country to look at, but after all I was thankful not to be shut up in the forest; for to see nothing but trees and trees is very tiresome; besides, the Atlantic was before me, and as I gazed upon its broad waters I wished I could see the shores of America.

The spot where I stood was about two degrees south of the equator.

Our camp was to be built near one of those numerous islands of trees which dot the prairie, and we were to have it built in such a manner as to protect us from the high winds which blew almost directly from the south that time of the year.

One by one the men came back—some with a load of long stem-branches of the palm; others with the leaves; others with fire-wood, and others with sticks to make our beds with.

Then we went to work in earnest, and as they worked the men sang songs. These men, my own people, had always been with me wherever I went except when I went too far into the interior. They were all splendid canoe-men.

There was Kombé whom we had called the quarreller; Ratenou his brother, who was a splendid fellow to go with his canoe through the breakers; Oshimbo, who could paddle better than any man I ever knew; Ritimbo, a jolly good fellow, always ready to beat the tam-tam when asked for; Makombé, a splendid one to tell us marvellous stories in the evening; Rakenga, a great fisherman; Bandja, a man who knew how to climb the palm-trees and get palm wine; Adouma, who could trap game and was said to possess a wonderful fetich to make the game come to him; Risani, a good carpenter, who said he was willing to work, but who was continually talking of the amount of food he could eat; then came Yombi, who constantly bragged of how much palm wine he could swallow, but was always promising never to get tipsy—for I had promised him as good a drubbing as ever he would wish to get if I caught him in a state of intoxication. The last man of the party was a slave, a harp player.

There was no hunter but myself.

So you see we were a nice set altogether, and all were devoted to me and obeyed me cheerfully. They all loved me dearly. Indeed, all the people of that country loved me.

We had also quite an outfit of things with us. The cooking utensils were numerous: we had three brass kettles, three iron pots, one frying-pan, and three water-jars. We had also three axes, half a dozen machetes, and several fishing-nets, and I had three of my guns, fifty pounds of shot, a couple of hundred bullets, and there were flint-lock guns for the men. We did not care to be armed; we were in our own country—in the Commi Country, where my settlement of Washington is situated.

I had three chests, one containing my clothes and one filled with splendid heads of Kentucky tobacco for my men, for they were all inveterate smokers, myself being the only one that did not smoke. I had also several dozens of pipes.

All rejoiced at the unbounded supply of tobacco and pipes: they were to have such a glorious time; they were to take such great care of their friend Chaillee, their king; there was no other Ntangani (white man) like him; he was their good Mbuiti (spirit); all this talk was to soften my heart about the tobacco.

At last the camp was done, and we were not sorry, for we had worked hard the whole day. We had a huge pile of plantains with us, which the wives and slaves of King Olenga Yombi had brought to us; we had a large quantity of sugar-cane and some baskets of ground-nuts; the river and the sea were not far off, and having our nets with us there was a prospect of getting plenty of fish.

In the evening, when my men were smoking their pipes, we quietly talked about our hunting and fishing prospects.

I had discovered that this Cape St. Catherine was a very great gorilla country. These huge beasts roam in the forests which grow down to the very edge of the sea, and now and then get a peep at the ocean. I wonder what they think of it. I would have given the world to see them looking at it; to see their deep gray eyes gazing on the broad expanse of the waters. I have seen their very footsteps within a few yards of the beach.