Stories of the Gorilla Country - Paul du Chaillu

The Slave Barracoons

slaves sent on board



One day I passed by an immense inclosure protected by a fence of palisades about twelve feet high, and sharp pointed at the top. Passing through the gate, which was standing open, I found myself in the midst of a large collection of shanties, surrounded by shade-trees, under which were lying, in various positions, a great many negroes. As I walked round, I saw that the men were fastened, six together, by a little stout chain, which passed through a collar secured about the neck of each. Here and there were buckets of water for the men to drink; and, they being chained together, when one of the six wanted to drink, the others had to go with him.

Then I came to a yard full of women and children. These could roam at pleasure through their yard. No men were admitted there. These people could not all understand each other's language; and you may probably wish to know who they were. They were Africans belonging to various tribes, who had been sold, some by their parents or by their families, others by the people of their villages. Some had been sold on account of witchcraft; but there were many other excuses for the traffic. They would find suddenly that a boy or girl was "dull;" and so forth, and must be sold. Many of them came from countries far distant.

Some were quite merry; others appeared to be very sad, thinking they were bought to be eaten up. They believed that the white men beyond the seas were great cannibals, and that they were to be fattened first, and then eaten. In the interior, one day, a chief ordered a slave to be killed for my dinner, and I barely succeeded in preventing the poor wretch from being put to death. I could hardly make the chief believe that I did not, in my own country, live on human flesh.

Under some of the trees were huge caldrons, in which beans and rice were cooking for the slaves; and others had dried fish to eat. In the evening they were put into large sheds for the night. One of the sheds was used as a hospital.

In the midst of all this stood the white man's house—yes, the white man's house!—and in it were white men whose only business was to buy these poor creatures from the Oroungou people!

After I had seen every thing I left the barracoon, for that is the name given to such a place as I have just described. I wandered about, and it was dark before I returned to the little bamboo house which the king had given me. I got in, and then, striking a match carefully, I lighted a torch, so that I might not go to bed in darkness. You may smile when I say bed, for my couch was far from bearing any resemblance to our beds at home, with mattress, and pillows, and sheets, and blankets. Travelers in Equatorial Africa are utter strangers to such luxuries.

After I had lighted the torch, I cast my eyes round to see if any thing had been disturbed; for a thief, so disposed, could easily break into these houses. I noticed something glittering and shining under my akoko, or bedstead. The object was so still that I did not pay any attention to it; in fact, I could not see it well by the dim light of the torch. But when I approached the bed to arrange it, I saw that the glitter was produced by the shining scales of an enormous serpent, which lay quietly coiled up there within two feet of me. What was I to do I had fastened my door with ropes. If the snake were to uncoil itself and move about, it might, perhaps, take a spring and wind itself about me, quietly squeeze me to death, and then swallow me as he would a gazelle. These were not comforting thoughts I was afraid to cry out for fear of disturbing the snake, which appeared to be asleep. Besides, no one could get in, as I had barricaded the only entrance, so I went quietly and unfastened the door. When every thing was ready for a safe retreat, I said to myself, "I had better try to kill it." Then, looking for my guns, I saw, to my utter horror, that they were set against the wall at the back of the bed, so that the snake was between me and them. After watching the snake intently, and thinking what to do, I resolved to get my gun; so, keeping the door in my rear open, in readiness for a speedy retreat at the first sign of life in the snake, I approached on tiptoe, and, in the twinkling of an eye, grasped the gun which was loaded heavily with large shot. How relieved I felt at that moment! I was no longer the same man. Fortunately, the snake did not move. With my gun in one hand, I went again toward the reptile, and fairly placing the muzzle of the gun against it, I fired, and then ran out of the house as fast as I could.

At the noise of the gun there was a rush of negroes from all sides to know what was the matter. They thought some one had shot a man, and run into my house to hide himself; so they all rushed into it, helter-skelter; but I need not tell you they rushed out just as fast on finding a great snake writhing about on the floor. Some had trodden upon it, and been frightened out of their wits. You have no idea how they roared and shouted; but no one appeared disposed to enter the house again, so I went in cautiously myself to see how matters stood, for I did not intend to give undisputed possession of my hut so easily to Mr. Snake. I entered, and looked cautiously around. The dim light of the torch helped me a little, and there I saw the snake on the ground. Its body had been cut in two by the discharge, and both ends were flapping about the floor. At first I thought these ends wore two snakes, and I did not know what to make of it; but, as soon as I perceived my mistake, I gave a heavy blow with a stick on the head of the horrible creature, and finished it. Then I saw it disgorge a duck—a whole duck—and such a long duck! It looked like an enormous long-feathered sausage. After eating the duck, the snake thought my bedroom was just the place for him to go to sleep in and digest his meal; for snakes, after a hearty well, always fall into a state of torpor. It was a large python, and it measured—would you believe it?—eighteen feet. Fancy my situation if this fellow had sprung upon me, and coiled round me! It would soon have been all over with me. I wonder how long it would have taken to digest me, had I been swallowed by the monster!

One fine day, while walking on the beach of this inhospitable shore, I spied a vessel. It approached nearer and nearer, and at last ran in and hove-to a few miles from the shore. Immediately I observed a gang of slaves rapidly driven down from one of the barracoons. I stood and watched. The men were still in gangs of six, but they had been washed, and each had a clean cloth on. The canoes were immense boats, with twenty-six paddles, and held about sixty slaves each. The poor slaves seemed much terrified. They had never been on the rough water before, and they did not know what that dancing motion of the sea was. Then they were being taken away, they knew not whither. As they skimmed over the waves, and rolled, now one way, now another, they must have thought their last day had come, and that they were to be consigned to a watery grave.

I was glad that these poor creatures could not see me, for I was hidden from their view by trees and bushes. I felt ashamed of myself—I actually felt ashamed of being a white man! Happily, such scenes are rarely, if ever, witnessed nowadays, and the slave-trade will soon belong to the past.

Two hours afterward, the vessel, with a cargo of six hundred slaves, was on her way to Cuba.