Stories of the Gorilla Country - Paul du Chaillu

The Slave King

african burial ground



Cape Lopez is a long sandy arm of land reaching out into the sea. As you approach it from the ocean it has the appearance of overflowed land. It is so low that the bushes and the trees growing on it seem, from a distance seaward, to be set in the water.

The bay formed by Cape Lopez is about fourteen miles long. Among several small streams which empty their water into it is the Nazareth River, one of whose branches is the Fetich River. The bay has numerous shallows and small islands, and abounds in all sorts of delicious fish. On the cape itself many large turtles from the ocean come to lay their eggs. I will tell you by-and-by what a nice time I had fishing at Cape Lopez, but I have many other things to talk about before I come to that.

I arrived at Cape Lopez one evening when it was almost dark. The next morning I prepared myself for a visit to King Bango, the king of the country. The royal palace is set upon a tolerably high hill, and fronts the sea-shore. Between the foot of this hill and the sea there is a beautiful prairie, over which are scattered the numerous little villages called Sangatanga. I never tired of looking at this prairie. I had lived so long in the gloomy forest that it gave me great delight to see once more the green and sunlit verdure of an open meadow. I found the royal palace surrounded by a little village of huts. As I entered the village I was met by the mafouga, or officer of the king, who conducted me to the palace. It was an ugly-looking house of two stories, resting on pillars. The lower story consisted of a dark hall, flanked on each side by rows of small dark rooms, which looked like little cells. At the end of the hall was a staircase, steep and dirty, up which the mafouga piloted me. When I had ascended the stairs I found myself in a large room, at the end of which was seated the great King Bango, who claims to be the greatest chief of this part of Africa. He was surrounded by about one hundred of his wives.

King Bango was fat, and seemed not over clean. He wore a shirt and an old pair of pantaloons. On his head was a crown, which had been presented to him by some of his friends, the Portuguese slavers. Over his shoulders he wore a flaming yellow coat, with gilt embroidery, the castoff garment of some rich man's lackey in Portugal or Brazil. When I speak of a crown you must not think it was a wonderful thing, made of gold and mounted with diamonds. It was shaped like those commonly worn by actors on the stage, and was probably worth, when new, about ten dollars. His majesty had put round it a circlet of pure gold, made with the doubloons he got in exchange for slaves. He sat on a sofa, for he was paralyzed; and in his hand he held a cane, which also answered the purpose of a sceptre.

This King Bango, whom I have described so minutely, was the greatest slave king of that part of the coast. At that time there were large slave dépôts on his territory. He is a perfect despot, and is much feared by his people. He is also very superstitions.

Though very proud, the received me kindly, for I had come recommended by his great friend, Rompochombo, a king of the Mpongwe tribe. He asked me how I liked his wives. I said, Very well. He then said there were a hundred present, and that there were twice as many more, three hundred in all. Fancy three hundred wives! He also claimed to have more than six hundred children. I wonder if all these brothers and sisters could know and recognize each other!

The next night a great ball was given in my honor by the king. The room where I had been received was the ballroom. I arrived there shortly after dark, and I found about one hundred and fifty of the king's wives, and I was told that the best dancers of the country were there.

I wish you could have seen the room. It was ugly enough: there were several torches to light it; but, notwithstanding these, the room was by no means brilliantly illuminated. The king wanted only his wives to dance before me. During the whole of the evening not a single man took part in the performance; but two of his daughters were ordered to dance, and he wanted me to marry one of them.

Not far from the royal palace were three curious and very small houses, wherein were deposited five idols, which were reputed to have far greater power and knowledge than the idols or gods of the surrounding countries. They were thought to be the great protectors of the Oroungou tribe, and particularly of Sangatanga and of the king. So I got a peep inside the first house. There I saw the idol called Pangeo: he was made of wood, and looked very ugly; by his side was his wife Aleka, another wooden idol. Pangeo takes care of the king and of his people, and watches over them at night.

I peeped also into the second little house. There I saw a large idol called Makambi, shaped like a man, and by his side stood a female figure, Abiala his wife. Poor Makambi is a powerless god, his wife having usurped the power. She holds a pistol in her band, with which, it is supposed, she can kill any one she pleases; hence the natives are much afraid of her; and she receives from them a constant supply of food, and many presents (I wonder who takes the presents away?). When they fall sick they dance around her, and implore her to make them well. For these poor heathen never pray to the true God. They put their trust in wooden images, the work of their own hands.

I looked into the third house, and there I saw an idol called Numba. He had no wife with him, being a bachelor deity. He is the Oroungou Neptune and Mercury in one—Neptune in ruling the waves, and Mercury in keeping off the evils which threaten from beyond the sea.

As I came away after seeing the king, I shot at a bird sitting upon a tree, but missed it, for I had been taking quinine and was nervous. But the negroes standing around at once proclaimed that this was a "fetich bird"—a sacred bird—and therefore I could not shoot it, even if I fired at it a hundred times.

I fired again, but with no better success. Hereupon they grew triumphant in their declarations; while I, loth to let the devil have so good a witness, loaded again, took careful aim, and, to my own satisfaction and their utter dismay, brought my bird down.

During my stay in the village, as I was one day out shooting birds in a grove not far from my house, I saw a procession of slaves coming from one of the barracoons toward the farther end of my grove. As they came nearer, I saw that two gangs of six slaves each, all chained about the neck, were carrying a burden between them, which I knew presently to he the corpse of another slave. They bore it to the edge of the grove, about three hundred yards from my house, and, throwing it down there on the bare ground, they returned to their prison, accompanied by the overseer, who, with his whip, had marched behind them.

"Here, then, is the burying-ground of the barracoons," I said to myself, sadly, thinking, I confess, of the poor fellow who had been dragged away from his home and friends—who, perhaps, had been sold by his own father or relatives to die here and be thrown out as food for the vultures. Even as I stood wrapped in thought, these carrion birds were assembling, and began to darken the air above my head; ere long they were heard fighting over the corpse.

The grove, which was in fact, but an African Aceldama, was beautiful to view from my house, and I had often resolved to explore it, or to rest in the shade of its dark-leaved trees. It seemed a ghastly place enough now, as I approached it more closely. The vultures fled when they saw me, but flew only a little way, and then perched upon the lower branches of the surrounding trees, and watched me with eyes askance, as though fearful I should rob them of their prey. As I walked toward the corpse, I felt something crack under my feet. Looking down, I saw that I was already in the midst of a field of skulls and bones. I had inadvertently stepped upon the skeleton of some poor creature who had been lying here long enough for the birds and ants to pick his bones clean, and for the rains to bleach them. I think there must have been the relics of a thousand skeletons within sight. The place had been used for many years, and the mortality in the barracoons is sometimes frightful, in spite of the care they seem to take of their slaves. Here their bodies were thrown, and here the vultures found their daily carrion. The grass had just been burnt, and the white bones scattered every where gave the ground a singular, and, when the cause was known, a frightful appearance. Penetrating farther into the bush, I found several great piles of bones. This was the place, years ago—when Cape Lopez was one of the great slave-markets on the West Coast, and barracoons were more numerous than they are now—where the poor dead were thrown, one upon another, till even the mouldering bones remained in high piles, as monuments of the nefarious traffic. Such was the burial-ground of the poor slaves from the interior of Africa.