Stories of the Gorilla Country - Paul du Chaillu

In Search of Cannibals

accused of witchcraft



In the year 1856 I was again in the equatorial regions. I was in the great forest, on my way to the Cannibal country; yes, the country where the people eat one another. It was a long way off, and how was I to get there through the dense jungle? How was I to find my way in that vast African forest? These were the thoughts that troubled me when I was in the village of Dayoko.

A glance at the map will show you how the village of Dayoko is situated. It lies not far from the banks of the Ntambounay River, and is surrounded by beautiful groves of plantain-trees.

Dayoko is one of the chiefs of the Mbousha tribe, and a wild and savage set of people they are, I can tell you. But Dayoko became my friend, and said he would spare me a few men to take me part of the way.

These Mbousha people look very much like the Shekiani I have already described. They are superstitious and cruel, and believe in witchcraft. I stayed among them only a few days. I will now tell you what I saw there.

In a hut I found a very old man. His wool (hair) was white as snow, his face was wrinkled, and his limbs were shrunken. His hands were tied behind him, and his feet were placed in a rude kind of stocks. Several negroes, armed to the teeth, stood guard over him, and now and then insulted him by angry words and blows, to which he submitted in silence. What do you suppose all this meant?

This old man was to be killed for witchcraft.

A truly horrible delusion this witchcraft is!

I went to Dayoko, the chief, to try to save the old man's life, but I saw it was in vain.

During the whole night I could hear singing all over the town, as well as a great uproar. Evidently they were preparing for the sacrifice of the old man.

Early in the morning the people gathered together with the fetich-man. His bloodshot eyes glared in savage excitement as he went around from man to man. In his hands he held a bundle of herbs, with which he sprinkled, three times, those to whom he spoke. Meantime there was a man on the top of a high tree close by, who shouted from time to time, "Jocou! Jocou!" at the same time shaking the trees.

"Jocou"  means devil among the Mbousha; and the business of this man was to scare the evil spirit, and keep it away.

At last they all declared that the old man was a most potent wizard, that he had killed many people by sorcery, and that he must be killed.

You would like to know, I dare say, what these Africans mean by a wizard or a witch? They believe that people have within themselves the power of killing any one who displeases them. They believe that no one dies unless some one has bewitched him. Have you ever heard of such a horrible superstition? Hence those who are condemned for witchcraft are sometimes subjected to a very painful death; they are burnt by slow fire, and their bodies are given to the Bashikouay ant to be devoured. I shall have something to tell you about ants by-and-by. The poor wretches are cut into pieces; gashes are made over their bodies, and Cayenne pepper is put in the wounds. Indeed, it makes me shudder to think of it, for I have witnessed such dreadful deaths, and seen many of the mutilated corpses.

After I witnessed the ceremony, the people scattered, and I went into my hut, for I was not well. After a while I thought I saw a man pass my door almost like a flash, and after him rushed a horde of silent but infuriated men toward the river. In a little while I heard sharp, piercing cries, as of a man in great agony, and then all became still as death.

I came out, and, going toward the river, was met by the crowd returning, every man armed with axe, spear, knife, or cutlass; and these weapons, as well as their own hands, and arms, and bodies, were sprinkled with blood. They had killed the poor old man they called a wizard, hacked him to pieces, and finished by splitting open his skull, and scattering the brains into the water. Then they returned. At night these blood-thirsty men seemed to be as gentle as lambs, and as cheerful as if nothing bad happened.

Ought we not to be thankful that we were born in a civilized country?

Now came the "grand palaver" over my departure. I called Dayoko and all the elders of the village together. When they had all assembled, I told them I most go into the Fan country inhabited by the Cannibals.

Dayoko said I should be murdered by the Cannibals, and eaten up, and tried to dissuade me from going.

Finally I said that go I would.

So it was determined that I should go under Dayoko's protection. Accordingly he gave me two of his sons to accompany me, and ordered several men to carry my chests, guns, powder, bullets, and shot.

They were to take me to one of Dayoko's fathers-in-law, a Mbondemo chief who lived in the mountains.

I was going farther and farther from the sea; if the savages were to leave me and run away in the forest, what would become of me?

We started in canoes, ascended the Muni River, and then paddled up a river called the Ntambounay (you must not mind these hard names—they are not of my choice. I must call things by the names the natives give them).

After paddling all day, toward sunset we all felt very tired, for we had gone a long way up the river, and reached a Shekiani village. I was quite astonished to meet Shekiani here, but so it happened.

I shall always remember this Shekiani village, for I thought I should be murdered and plundered there. After we had landed in the village, I was told, at once, that I could not go any farther, for the road belonged to them. I must pay a tribute of six shirts similar to those I wore, three great-coats, beads, etc., etc. This would have entirely ruined me.

I could not sleep at all. Through the whole night a crowd surrounded my hut, talking, shouting, and singing in the greatest excitement. My guns and revolvers were all loaded, and I made up my mind not to be killed without fighting desperately. If I was to die, I resolved, at all events, to die like a brave man. All my party were in my hut except Dayoko's two sons, who had gone to talk with the Shekiani chief. The Shekiani chief was a friend of Dayoko, and Dayoko's sons told him I was their father's stranger-friend.

At last things became more quiet, and toward morning the people were still or asleep.

We left the hut. All was still peaceful. My men said that Dayoko's sons had a big fetich to avert war.

I gave a present to the Shekiani chief, and off we started. We left our large canoes and took smaller ones, for we were to go through a very small stream.

As we ascended the beautiful river, we could see the lofty mountains of the interior. A great many islands studded the stream. From the trees on the banks the monkeys looked down at us with astonishment. What curious creatures they were, with their blank faces peeping out through the dark foliage, and looking as if they were making grimaces at us. By-and-by we left the river, and made our way along the creeks or through the woods toward the Mbondemo village. Now and then we walked freely through the wide openings which the elephants had made. The rushing of a herd of elephants effects quite a clearing in the forest. On we went, till finally we came to a place where a great number of large trees had been prostrated. Wherever we looked trees were lying on the ground, many of them of enormous size. As I looked I heard, not far off, a tremendous crash—a most awful noise. I could not conjecture what was the matter. It turned out that a tree had come down; and as it fell, being a huge one, it crushed a dozen others around it, and each, as it broke, gave a great creak so that the combined effect was awful to hear.

We had to go through these fallen trees; and what tough work it was! I never had seen any thing like it. Now we had to climb on a fallen tree and follow its trunk; then we had to come down, and were entangled in its branches, or in those of other trees. At other times we had to creep under them. I was continually afraid that my gun would be fired off by some creepers or boughs getting hold of the trigger.

At last, when my patience was entirely gone, and my few clothes literally hanging in ribbons about me, my legs sadly wounded, and my face and hands scratched, we arrived at the camp of the Mbondemos, situated almost at the foot of the mountain.

These mountains were covered with an immense forest; and so thick were the trees that no open view could be obtained in any direction. The mountains ended somewhere in the interior, no one knew where, but this they knew, that it was near the home of the Fans, a Cannibal tribe, and that elephants were plentiful, and gorillas were occasionally seen there. This encampment of the Mbondemos was called an olako. There was not a house in the camp, and it was a romantic scene to look at. Scattered under huge trees, on the edge of the woods, were leafy shelters, opening toward the forest. Under these the people lived. A few sticks put close together formed their beds. They contrived to sleep upon them, and I did the same. I assure you that they were hard enough, and reminded me that a mattress was a very good thing. Every family had its fire prepared beside the beds, and around these fires in the evening they clustered, men, women, and children.

The chief of this Mbondemo encampment was called Mbéné, and I liked him very much. He was very kind to me, and always tried to furnish me with food. There was scarcity of provisions, at the time, in the camp of the Mbondemos. There were no plantain and cassada fields near, and often I had to go without breakfast or dinner. The people lived chiefly on the nuts of the forest, and at that season of the year these were very scarce.

Poor Mbéné said they had very little to eat, but would give me what they could. I had carried with me a few little crackers, which I found very precious—more precious than gold, and which I reserved for time of sickness; but one by one they disappeared. I looked at them every time I took one, but I felt so hungry that I could not refrain from eating them.

Have you known what hunger is—real craving hunger? I can assure you it is a dreadful feeling.

During that time of the year, this people had half the time nothing to eat but the nut of a kind of palm. This nut was so bitter I could scarcely eat it. It is shaped like an egg, with rounded ends. To prepare it for eating, it is divested of its husk, and soaked in water for twenty-four hours, when it loses part of its exceedingly bitter taste, and becomes tolerably palatable—that is, to a starving man. Sometimes hunger will make them eat the nut without soaking it. I have done so myself when lost in the forest. It is dreadfully disagreeable.

Now and then the women succeeded in getting a few little fish in the streams, and gave me some. I could bear a good deal, for I had firmly resolved to go into the Cannibal country.

These Mbondemos are continually moving their villages. Mbéné had moved his village three times within a few years. I asked him why he made these frequent changes. He said that he moved the first time because a man had died; and the place was "not good" after that event. The second time he was forced to move became they had cut down all the palm-trees, and would get no more mimbo (palm wine), a beverage of which they are excessively fond. They tap the palm, just as the maple-tree is tapped in America, only they tap the tree at the top. This palm wine has somewhat of a milky color; and, when drunk in great quantity, it intoxicates. The palm-trees are very plentiful all over this part of the country, and it seems easier for them to move than to take care of the trees surrounding their settlements, useful as they are to them; for they furnish not only the wine they love, but the bitter nut I mentioned before, which often keeps them from actual starvation. When the tree is cut down they get what we call the palm cabbage which grows at the top. When cooked this palm cabbage is very good.

A country which has plenty of palm-trees, plenty of game, a good river or rivulet, and plenty of fish, is the country for a Mbondemo settler or squatter.

In these forests there is a vine or creeper which I might call the traveler's vine. If thirsty you may cut it, and within less than a minute a tumblerful of water will come out of it. This vine hangs about in the forest, and seemed to me to grow without leaves. What a capital thing it would be if water were not abundant in this country! The water procured from it has hardly any taste, and is perfectly pure and limpid.

Being unable to endure the continual hunger, I called Mbéné, and told him that his place had no food to give, and he must take me to a country where there was something to eat, and which would be on my way to the Fan country. Good Mbéné said, "Spirit, I will try the best I can to take you where you want to go. I will send some of my people with you."

In the mean time, Dayoko's people had all returned to their village. These forests had no game. I spent hour after hour scouring the forest, but I could see nothing except birds, some of which were extremely pretty. I am afraid that if I had succeeded in killing a snake I should have eaten it, as I felt desperately hungry. I did not like the bitter nuts; so it was agreed that Mbéné's brother Mcomo, together with several of his people, should accompany me as far as the country of the Fan tribe. I could hardly believe such good news could be true.

Mbéné's wife always cooked my food. She was a dear good old woman, and I gave her a fine necklace of beads when I left. She was delighted with my present They were big white porcelain beads of the size of a pigeon's egg. One day Mbéné succeeded in getting a fowl for me. His wife cooked it; she made soup, and put plenty of Cayenne pepper into it. I had also some plantain. How I enjoyed this meal! The more so that it was probably the last I should get for a good many days, unless we were unusually lucky, and should kill some antelopes or elephants on our road to the Fan country.

Elephant meat is execrable, as you would say on tasting it. But, as you may not have the chance, I will tell you by-and-by how it tastes.

As much food as possible was collected for our journey, and at last every thing was ready.