Stories of the Gorilla Country - Paul du Chaillu

Life Among the Cannibals

African blacksmiths



After we reached Ndiayai, I went back to my little hut, and found every thing I had left there. I had hidden my powder and shot in different places, and had dug holes in which to hide my beads.

The news had spread among the surrounding Cannibal villages that the spirit, as they called me, was still in the village of Ndiayai, and the people flocked to see me. Among those who came to see me was a chief of the name of Oloko. He gave me the long war-knife, of which you have seen a drawing, and explained to me how it had several times gone right through a man.

Mbéné went away for a while, and left me entirely alone with these Cannibals. During his absence I studied the habits of these strange people, and you may be sure that wherever I went I kept my eyes wide open.

By the way, I see I have omitted to give a description of the town of King Ndiayai. It was a very large town, composed of a single street. When I say a large town, I do not mean, of course, that it could bear any comparison as to size with London, Paris, or New York. I mean that it was a large town for this part of Africa. It contained five or six hundred men. The houses were quite small, and were all made of the bark of trees; none of them had windows. They were nearly all of the same size.

Strange to say, these Fans seemed to be very fond of music, and very funny instruments they make use of! To hear some of their music would make you laugh. They have not the slightest idea of what we consider harmony in sound, but they evidently have a great liking for music after their own notion. It is very much the same with their dancing. They have not the slightest idea of the dances in use with us, such as waltzes, galops, polkas, or quadrilles; and I am sure, if they were to see as dancing in our fashion, they would laugh quite as much as you would laugh, if you could see them capering in their uncouth style.

Like all the savage tribes of Africans, they are very fond of the tom-tom, or drum. These drums are of different sizes, but many are from four to six feet in length, and about ten inches in diameter at one end, but only six or seven at the other. The wood is hollowed out quite thin, and skins of animals are stretched tightly over the ends. The drummer holds the tom-tom slantingly between his legs, and with two sticks he beats furiously upon the larger end of the drum, which is held upper-most. Sometimes they beat upon it with their hands. The people form a circle round the tom-tom, and dance and sing, keeping time with it. They often invited me to hear them.

But now I am going to speak to you of a far more curious instrument. It is called by these Cannibals the handja, and I never saw it except among their tribes.

musical instrument


Ndiayai was very fond of hearing the handja, and I often went to his shed to hear some one play upon it. Sometimes, on these occasions, Ndiayai would come out, surrounded by Queen Mashumba and some of his other wives, and listen for an hour or two to the music of the handja.

I give you here a representation of the handja, so that you will understand it better when I describe it to you.

It consists of a light reed frame, about three feet long and eighteen inches wide, in which are set, and securely fastened, a number of hollow gourds. The handja I saw contained seven gourds. These gourds are covered by strips of a hard red wood found in the forest. These gourds and cylinders, as you see, are of different sizes, so graduated that they form a regular series of notes. Each gourd has a little hole, which is covered with a skin thinner than parchment. And what kind of skin do you think it was? It was the skin of the very large spider which abounds in that country, and from which I should not care to receive a bite, it is so poisonous.

The performer sits down, with the frame across his knees, and strikes the strips lightly with a stick. There are two sticks, one of hard wood, the other of much softer wood. The instrument is played on the same principle as a chime of bells, or an instrument used in France, and which, perhaps, some of you have seen, composed of a series of glasses. The tone of the handja is very clear and good, and, though their tunes were rude, they played them with considerable skill.

The Fans work iron better than any tribe I met with. They are very good blacksmiths. Their warlike habits have made iron a very necessary article to them. It is very plentiful in their mountainous country.

At the head of this chapter is a picture of two Fan blacksmiths. Look at the curious bellows they have. It is made of two short, hollow cylinders of wood, surmounted by skins very well fitted on, and having an appropriate valve for letting in the air. As you see, the bellows-blower is on his knees, moving down these coverings with great rapidity. There are two small wooden pipes, connected with two iron tubes which go into the fire.

The anvil, as you see in the picture, is a solid piece of iron. The sharp end is stuck into the ground; and the blacksmith sits alongside his anvil, and beats his iron with a singular-looking hammer, clumsy in form, and with no handle; in fact, it is merely made of a heavy piece of iron.

The blacksmiths sometimes spend many days in making a battle-axe, knife, or spear. They make, also, their own cooking utensils and water-jugs. They also make their own pipes, for they are great smokers. Some of their pipes are not at all ungraceful in shape.

Besides the water-jug, they frequently use the calabash as a vessel to carry water in; and some of their calabashes are really pretty, and very nicely ornamented. Some of the spoons, with which they eat their human broth, are very beautiful They are made of various woods, and sometimes of ivory.

It is quite sickening to think what horrible people these Fans are! Such inveterate cannibals are they, that they even eat the poor wretches who die of disease. As I was talking to the king one day, some Fans brought in a dead body, which they had bought, or bartered for, in a neighboring town, and which was to be divided among them. I could see that the man had died of some disease, for the body was very lean. They came round it with their knives; and Ndiayai left me to superintend the distribution. I could not stand this; and when I saw them getting ready, I left the spot and went to my hut. Afterward I could hear them growing noisy over the division of their horrid spoil.

In fact, the Fans seem to be perfect ghouls. Those who live far in the interior practice unblushingly their horrid custom of eating human flesh. It appears they do not eat the dead of their own family, but sell the corpse to some other clan or make an agreement that when one of their number dies they will return the body in exchange.

Until I saw these things I could not believe a story I had often heard related among the Mpongwe tribe, which is as follows: A party of Fans once came down to the sea-shore to view the ocean. While there, they actually stole a freshly buried body from the cemetery, and cooked and ate it. Another body was taken by them and conveyed into the woods, where they cut it up and smoked the flesh. These acts created a great excitement among the Mpongwes.

But you must not think that the Fans are continually eating human flesh. They eat it when they can get it, but not every day. They kill no one on purpose to be eaten.

One day Ndiayai took me to an Osheba town, the king of which tribe was his friend; and let me tell you that the Oshebas were also great man-eaters, like the Fans, whom they greatly resemble in appearance. The chief of that Osheba village was called Bienbakay.

The Fans are the handsomest and most resolute-looking set of negroes I have over seen in the interior. Eating human flesh does not seem to disagree with them, though I have since seen other Fan tribes whose men had not the fine appearance of these mountaineers. Here, as every where else, the character of the country doubtless has much to do with the matter of bodily health and growth. These Cannibals were living among the mountains, and had come from still higher mountain regions, and this accounts for their being so robust and hardy.

The strangest thing in connection with the Fans, next to their hideous cannibalism, is their constant encroachment upon the land westward. Year by year they have been advancing nearer to the sea. Town after town has been settled by them on the banks of the Gaboon River. In fact, they seem to be a conquering race, driving every other tribe before them.

The color of these people is dark brown rather than black. They feed much upon manioc and the plantain. They have also two or three kinds of yams, splendid sugar-cane, and squashes, all of which they cultivate with considerable success. Manioc seemed to be the favorite food. Enormous quantities of squashes are raised, chiefly for the seeds, which, when pounded and prepared in their fashion, are much prized by them, and I confess I relish this food myself. At a certain season, when the squash is ripe, their villages seem covered with the seeds, which every body spreads out to dry. When dried they are packed in leaves, and placed over the fire-places in the smoke, to keep off an insect which also feeds upon them. They are all suspended by a cord, for, besides being infested by insects, they are subject to the depredations of mice and rats, both of which are fond of them.

The process of preparation is very tedious. A portion of the seeds is boiled, and each seed is divested of its skin; then the mass of pulp is put into a rude wooden mortar and pounded, a vegetable oil being mixed with it before it is cooked.

While on the subject of the food of the Cannibals, I ought to mention that they do not sell the bodies of their chiefs, kings, or great men; these receive burial, and remain undisturbed. It is probable, also, that they do not eat the corpses of people who die of special diseases.