Stories of the Gorilla Country - Paul du Chaillu

I Arrive Among the Cannibals

Paul Du Chaillu



We were, at last, near the Fan country. We had passed the last Mbichos village, and were on our way to the villages of the man-eaters.

I remember well the first Fan village I approached. It stood on the summit of a high hill in the mountains. All its inhabitants were very much excited when they perceived we were coming toward it, throng the plantation path; for the trees around the hill had been cut down. The men were armed to the teeth as we entered the village, and I knew not whether hundreds of spears and poisoned arrows might not be thrown at me, and I be killed on the spot. What dreadful spears those Cannibals had; they were all barbed. Each man had several in his hand; and, besides, had a shield made of elephant's hide, to protect himself with. Others were armed with huge knives, and horrible-looking battle-axes, or with bows and poisoned arrows.

Wild shouts of astonishment, which, for all I knew, were war-shouts, greeted me as I entered the village. I must own that I felt not quite at my ease. How wild and fierce these men looked! They were most scantily dressed. When they shouted they showed their teeth, which were filed to a point, and colored black. Their open mouths put me uncomfortably in mind of a tomb; for how many human creatures each of these men had eaten!

How ugly the women looked! They were all tattooed, and nearly naked. They fled with their children into their houses as I passed through the street, in which I saw, here and there, human bones lying about. Yes, human bones from bodies that had been devoured by them! Such are my recollections of my first entrance into a village of Cannibals.

The village was strongly fenced or palisaded, and on the poles were several skulls of human beings and of gorillas. There was but a single street, about two thirds of a mile long. On each side of this were low huts, made of the bark of trees.

I had hardly entered the village when I perceived some bloody remains, which appeared to me to be human. Presently we passed a woman who was running as fast as she could toward her hut. She bore in her hand a piece of a human thigh, just as we would go to market and carry thence a joint or steak.

This was a very large village. At last we arrived at the palaver house. Here I was left alone with Mbéné for a little while. There was great shouting going on at a little distance, at the back of some houses. One of them said they had been busy dividing the body of a dead man, and that there was not enough for all.

They flocked in presently, and soon I was surrounded by an immense crowd. Not far from me was a ferocious-looking fellow. On one arm he supported a very large shield, made of an elephant's hide, and of the thickest part of the skin, while in his other hand he held a prodigious war-knife, which he could have slashed through a man in a jiffy.

Some in the crowd were armed with cross-bows, from which are shot either iron-headed arrows, or the little insignificant-looking, but really most deadly darts, tipped with poison. These are made of slender, harmless reeds, a foot long, whose sharpened ends are dipped in a deadly vegetable poison, which these people know how to make. These poisoned darts are so light that they would blow away if simply laid in the groove of the bow. Hence they use a kind of sticky gum to hold them.

The handle of the bow is ingeniously split, and by a little peg, that acts as a trigger, the bow-string is disengaged. The bow is very stiff and strong, and sends the arrow to a great distance. As you see by the representation of a Fan bowman, they have to sit down and apply both feet to the middle of the bow, while they pull with all their strength on the string-to bend it back.

These little poisoned arrows are much dreaded by them, and are very carefully kept by them in little bags, and which are made of the skin of wild animals.

Some bore on their shoulders the terrible war-axe. One blow of this axe suffices to split a human skull. I saw that some of these axes, as well as their spears and other iron-work, were beautifully ornamented.

The war-knife, which hangs by their side, is a terrible weapon. It is used in hand-to-hand conflict, and is designed to be thrust through the enemy's body. There was also another sort of huge knife used by some of the men in the crowd before me. It was a foot long, about eight inches wide, and is used to cut through the shoulders of an adversary. It must do tremendous execution.

A few of the men had also a very singular pointed axe, which is thrown from a distance. When thrown, it strikes with the point down, and inflicts a terrible wound. They handle it with great dexterity. The object aimed at with this axe is the head. The point penetrates to the brain, and kills the victim immediately.

The spears were six or seven feet long, and are ingeniously adapted to inflict terrible wounds. They are thrown with an accuracy and a force which never ceased to astonish me. The long, slender staff fairly whistles through the air, and woe to the man who is within twenty or thirty yards of their reach.

Most of the knives and axes were ingeniously sheathed in covers made of snake or antelope skins, or of human skin. These sheaths were slung round the shoulder or neck by cords, which permit the weapon to hang at the side, out of the wearer's way.

These Fan warriors had no armor. Their only weapon of defense is the huge shield of elephant hide of which I spoke to you. It is three and a half feet long, by two and a half feet wide.

Besides their weapons, many of the men wore a small knife, as a table-knife or jack-knife.

From this description of the men by whom I was surrounded, you may judge with what amazement I looked around me, with my guns in my hands. It was a grand sight to see such a number of stalwart, martial, fierce-looking fellows, fully armed and ready for any desperate fray, gathered together.

Finer-looking savages I never saw; and I could easily believe them to be brave; and the completeness of their warlike equipments proved that fighting is a favorite pastime with them. No wonder they are dreaded by all their neighbors!

Here was I, at this time only a lad, alone in the midst of them.

Presently came the king, a ferocious-looking fellow. His body was naked. His skin in front was painted red, and his chest, stomach, and back were tattooed in a rude but effective manner. He was covered with charms, and wore round his neck a necklace made with leopard's teeth. He was fully armed. Most of the Fans wore queues; but the queue of Ndiayai, the king, was the biggest of all, and terminated in two tails, in which were strung brass rings. His beard was plaited in several plaits, which contained white beads. His teeth were filed sharp, to a point. He looked like a perfect glutton of human flesh.

I looked around me in a cool, impassive manner. Ndiayai, the king, fairly shook at the sight of me. He had refused to come and see me, at first, from a belief that he would die in three days after setting eyes on me. But Mbéné had persuaded him to come.

Ndiayai was accompanied by the queen, the ugliest woman I ever saw, and very old. She was called Mashumba. She was nearly naked, her only covering being a strip of cloth about four inches wide, made of the soft bark of a tree, and dyed red. Her body was tattooed in the most fanciful manner; her skin, from long exposure, had become rough and knotty. She wore two enormous iron anklets, and had in her ears a pair of copper rings two inches in diameter. I could easily put my little fingers in the holes through which the earrings passed.

The people looked at me, wondered at my hair, but never ceased to look at my feet. They thought my boots were my own feet. "Look at the strange being," said they to each other; "his feet are not of the color of his face, and he has no toes!"

Finally the king said to Mbéné that, when surrounded by his people, he was not afraid of any body.

I could well believe him. When fighting they must look perfect devils.

When night came I entered my house, and looked about to see how I could barricade myself for the night, for I did not fancy putting myself entirely at the mercy of these savage Fans. Their weapons had been sufficient to show me that they were men who were not afraid to fight. I told Mbéné to send for Ndiayai. The king came, and I presented him a large bunch of white beads, a looking-glass, a file, fire-steels, and some gun-flints. His countenance beamed with joy. I never saw astonishment as he exhibited when I held the looking-glass before his face. At first he did not know what to make of it, and did not want to take the glass, till Mbéné told him that he had one. He put his tongue out, and he saw it reflected in the looking-glass. Then he shut one eye, and made faces; then he showed his hands before the looking-glass—one finger—two fingers—three fingers. He became speechless, and with all I had given him, he went away as "happy as a king;" and "every inch a (savage) king" he was.

Shortly afterward, Mashumba, the queen, thinking that probably I had something for her, also came and brought me a basketful of plantains. They were cooked. At once the idea rushed into my mind that perhaps the very same pot that cooked the plantains had cooked a Fan's head in the morning, and I began to have a horrible loathing of the flesh-pots of these people. I would not have cooked in their pots for the world.

A little after dark, all became silent in the village. I barred my little bit of a door as well as I could with my chest, and, lying down on that dreadful Fan bed, I placed my gun by my side, and tried hard, but in vain, to go to sleep. I wondered how many times human flesh had entered the hut I was in. I thought of all I had seen during the day, which I have related to you. The faces of those terrible warriors, and the implements of war, were before my eyes, though it was pitch dark.

Was I afraid? Certainly not. What feeling was it that excited me? I can not tell you. It was certainly not fear; for if any one the next day had offered to take me back where I came from. I should have declined the offer. Probably I was agitated by the novel and horrible sights that had greeted my eyes, and which exceeded all my previous conceptions of Africa. Now and then I thought that as these men not only killed people, but ate them also, they might perhaps be curious to try how I tasted.

Hour after hour passed, and I could not get to sleep.

I said my bed was a dreadfully bad one. It was a frame composed of half a dozen large round bamboos. I might as well have tried to sleep on a pile of cannon-balls. Finally I succeeded in going to sleep, holding my gun tightly under my arm.

When I got up in the morning, and went out at the back of the house, I saw a pile of ribs, leg and arm bones, and skulls piled together. The Cannibals must have had a grand fight not long before, and devoured all their prisoners of war.

In what was I to wash my face? I resolved at last not to wash at all.