Stories of the Gorilla Country - Paul du Chaillu

A Sea Voyage

Schooner in a storm



I have been a great wanderer. On the 6th of February,1857, I was on board of a little schooner of forty-five tons burden, bound for the mouth of a river called Fernand-Vaz. From there I expected to penetrate into the interior. I was on my way to a wild and unexplored region.

The name of the schooner was the Caroline. She was full of provisions and goods for the long journey I had to undertake, for I intended to make a very long exploration before my return to America. The captain was a Portuguese negro, Cornillo by name. The crew, seven in number, were Mpongwes, Mbingos, and Croomen, not more than two of whom could understand each other, and not a soul could properly understand the captain. A fine prospect for the voyage!

I got aboard at daylight, and should have been glad to go immediately on shore again; but, by dint of steady shouting, and a great deal of standing idle, with a little work now and then, we got the anchor up just at dusk. The captain did not like to leave port on Friday. I told him I would take the responsibility. He asked what good that would do him if he went to the bottom. It appears that the Portuguese have the same absurd superstitions as many of the sailors of other nations.

No sooner had we got into the swell than our two black women, and every man on board (except the captain), got sea-sick. The cook was unable to get the breakfast next morning; and the men were lying about, looking like dying fish.

We set sail from the Gaboon River, and hoped to get down to the Commi country in five days; but for four days after starting we had light wind and a contrary current, and on the fifth day we were caught in such a storm at sea as I hope never to experience again.

The steering went on so badly when Captain Cornillo was below that I was forced to stand watch myself. I had been steering for four hours, and had been perhaps one hour in my berth, when I was awakened from a sound sleep by the captain's voice giving orders to take down the mainsail. I sprang on deck immediately, knowing there must be at least a heavy squall coming. But no sooner did I cast my eyes to the leeward than I saw how imminent the danger was. A tornado was coming down upon us. The black clouds which had gathered about the horizon were becoming lurid white with startling quickness. It seemed almost as if they were lit up by lightning. The tornado was sweeping along, and in a moment would be upon us. As yet all was still—still as death. There was not a breath of wind.

I turned to see if the mainsail was down, but found that nothing had been done. The captain was shouting from the wheel; the men were also shouting and running about, half scared to death; and, in the pitchy darkness (for I could not see my hands when held close before my eyes), no one could find the halliards. In the midst of our trouble the wind came roaring down upon us. I seized a knife, determined to cut every thing away; but just then somebody let go the halliards, and, in the nick of time, the mainsail came halfway down. The tornado was upon us. The jibs flew away in rags in a moment. The vessel was thrown upon her beam-ends. The water rushed over her deck, and the men sang out that they were drowning, as, in fact, we should have been in a very few minutes. Happily, the wind shifted a little, and by the light of some very vivid lightning we seized on the mainsail like men that felt it was their last hope, and pulled it down, holding it so that the wind should not catch it again. The vessel righted, and in less than twenty minutes the squall died away, and was succeeded by a driving rain, which poured down in such torrents that in a very short time I was drenched to the skin. The lightning and thunder were something terrific. I was afraid of the lightning striking us, as the Caroline had no lightning-rod, and we had powder enough on board to blow us all to atoms. The deck was so leaky that even below I could not get protection from the rain.

The next morning we had no jibs, and our other sails were severely damaged. To add to our difficulties, no one on board, not even the captain, knew where we were. At that time I knew not how to make astronomical observations The captain was in the habit of bringing up, every day, an old quadrant, but about the use of it he knew as much as a cow does about a musket.

At last we made the land. A canoe came on board, and we asked where we were. We found that we must be somewhere near Cape St. Catharine, and therefore a good many miles south of the mouth of the Fernand-Vaz, the place where I was bound; so we turned about to retrace our path. Sailing close in shore, when I passed the village of Aniambia, or Big Camilla, the natives came with a message from their king, offering me two slaves if I would stay with him.

I was immovable, for I had set my heart on going to the Fernand-Vaz River, of which I heard a good deal from my friend Aboko while in the Cape Lopez regions. As we approached that river, the vast column of water, pushing seaward, forced its separate way through the ocean for at least four or five miles, and the water there was almost fresh, and seemed a separate current in the sea.

At last we came to the mouth of the Fernand-Vaz, and our fame had gone before us. Some of the Commi people, the inhabitants of the Fernand-Vaz, had seen me before at Cape Lopez. The news had spread that I wanted to settle at the village of a chief called Ranpano; so, as we passed his sea-shore village, a canoe came off to ask me to land; but, as the breakers were rather formidable, I begged to be excused.

Ranpano's men wanted much to hug me, and were so extravagant in their joy that I had to order them to keep their hands off, their shining and oily bodies having quite soiled my clothes. They went back to the king to tell him the good news. I kept one of these men on board for a pilot, being now anxious to get across the intricate bar, and fairly into the river before dark.

As we sailed along up the river, canoes belonging to different villages shot out to meet us, and presently I had a crowd alongside anxious to come on board, and sufficient almost to sink us. They took me for a slaver at first, and their joy was unbounded, for there is nothing the African loves so much as to sell his fellow-men. They immediately called out their names in Portuguese. Where they had learned this language I could not tell, unless it were in Sangatanga. I could not understand them, so I sent my captain to talk with them. He had some difficulty to persuade them that I came on no such errand as slave-trading. They insisted that I had, and that the vessel looked exactly like a slaver. They said we must buy some of their slaves; they had plenty of them.

They insisted that I should not go to Ranpano. I should put up a factory in their place. They belonged to Elindé, a town just at the mouth of the Fernand-Vaz, whose king is named Sangala. They praised the power and greatness of Sangala, and derided poor Ranpano, until I had to order all hands ashore for the night, being anxious to get a good quiet sleep to prepare for the morrow.

During the night, the men on watch said they heard the paddling of a canoe coming toward us. What could it be? Let us be ready. These men might be coming to board us and make war. At length the canoe came within hailing distance; we shouted to them. (I may say that the Commi speak the same language as the Oroungou people—the inhabitants of Cape Lopez.) They came, they said, with a message from King Sangala. I recognized the voice of the head man in the canoe to be that of Nchouga. He was brother of King Bango, of Cape Lopez. Bango had accused Nchouga of bewitching him, whereupon the latter, to save his life, fled from the country, and, having married one of the daughters of Sangala, he came to his father-in-law for protection.

Nchouga was a very cunning fellow; fortunately I knew him well, and he could not fool me so easily as he thought. He came to tell me that Sangala was the master of all the river; that he was a very great king; that he would not let me go to Ranpano, who was only a vassal of the great Sangala; therefore he advised me as a friend—an old friend—to go ashore at Elindé.

I could read the cunning rogue. He had been one of the greatest rascals of Cape Lopez, and his slave-dealings had not improved him. So I sent Nchouga off: I wanted to go to sleep. He had come out to test me; they thought I was a green hand at slave-trading.

Early next morning Sangala sent off a boat for me. On my arrival at Elindé, which village was about two miles from the river's mouth, I was conducted to the best house. Hither presently came King Sangala, who, in order to nerve himself for the occasion, had got drunk, and came attended by a great crowd of eager subjects. He grew very angry when I stated my intention of passing up the river and going to Ranpano, and also into the interior. He declared that I should not go; he was the big king there and every where all over the world, and I must settle in his town.

I declared that I should go on. Sometimes I wonder that they did not at once make me a prisoner.

We had some sharp words, and I explained to his majesty that I was an old African traveler, and saw through all his lies; that he was not the big king of the country, as he said. Then he said I might go wherever I liked provided I would have a factory built in his village; but I offered to "dash" him (give him some presents).

He refused this offer; and now Ranpano, having just come, assured me that I should be backed up. I told Sangala I should force my way up. Sangala and all his people shouted with all their might that there should be war; Sangala, as he got up to say so, reeled and tumbled down, he was so drunk.

So I left Sangala. By that time it rained so hard that no one followed us. It is wonderful how a crowd is dispersed by a shower of rain.

A great palaver was looming up; the excitement had spread over the country. In the mean time I had succeeded in going to Ranpano's village, situated up the river, five or six miles above Elindé. Ranpano gave me as much land as I wanted. My goods must come to his village; but it seemed that they could not be brought there without great trouble. Our canoes would be attacked by Sangala's people. Men would be killed; and we might be routed, unless we had a powerful force.

One morning the war drums beat. All Ranpano's friends had gathered to help fight Sangala. Canoe after canoe came in loaded with armed men, with drums beating, and all hands shouting, and waving their swords, guns, and spears. All were prepared to assist Ranpano's white man; all were anxious to burn and plunder Elindé, ready even to die in the undertaking. There was King Ritimbo, with two canoes and fifty men; King Mombon, from Sanguibiuri, also had two canoes; altogether we had no less than twenty big canoes, and could muster about three hundred men, most of whom were drunk on mimbo (palm wine), and as noisy and as ready for fight as drunkenness will make an African. The drums were beaten, war-songs were sung, and guns fired as we paddled down the river. All hands had their faces painted white, which is a sign of war; and were covered with fetiches and other amulets. The white chalk or ochre was a sovereign protection against danger, and their war fetiches would prevent them from being killed. I could not recognize old Ranpano, his body was so daubed with paint.

One would have supposed these terrible fellows were bent upon the most bloody of raids. I wondered if all this uproar would end in smoke; I thought it would; nor was I disappointed. As these terrible warriors approached the village of Elindé they became less demonstrative. When they came in sight of Sangala's town, they pushed over to the other shore, out of the way, and took care to keep the Caroline between the enemy and themselves. The sight of Sangala's warriors had wrought a wonders fill change in their warlike feelings. They really began to think that there might be some fighting.

We found that Sangala had also gathered his friends, and had about one hundred and fifty men ready for the fight, who probably felt about as courageous as my men did. These fellows were painted more outrageously than mine, having red as well as white applied in broad stripes. They looked like so many devils, shouting and firing guns, each side knowing their mutual lack of courage, and thinking it prudent to scare the other in advance.

My men fired guns, sung, and danced war-dances. I went on board my schooner. One small canoe on Sangala's side, with two men, who were unarmed, started from the shore toward us. This, of course, meant a palaver; they came on board of the Caroline where I was. I sent word to Sangala, pointing to two little guns we had on deck, that if he stopped me I would blow his canoes out of the water with grape-shot, and would then go and bring a man-of-war to finish him up. I loaded my guns and pistols before them. I made my men put good charges into their pieces, and showed Sangala's men the bag of bullets I loaded them with, and then sent them back, and awaited the event.

I spied them with a glass. As soon as they landed the people surrounded them; there was a grand palaver.

Presently, from Sangala, came a small canoe to ask me ashore. Sangala sent his konde (chief wife) to be hostage for my safety. I determined to go ashore, and, to show these negroes that I had no fear of them, I took the woman along with me, to her great joy. Ranpano and his brother kings protested against my rashness, as they thought it. "Why not keep Sangala's woman on board?" said they. But I told them it was not the fashion of white people to fear any thing. They looked at me as if to say, "If you are not afraid, we are." All this had its effect upon them, and Ranpano and his brother kings were evidently impressed, and so also was old Sangala when he saw me come with his wife by my side.

We met on neutral ground outside his town. His army was drawn up in battle array, and made a fine savage display, many of the men wearing beautiful leopard-skins about their waists. They came up to us at full trot when we were seated, and made as though they would spear us all; and, if Sangala had not been close to me, I should have thought it was to be the end of us all. Ranpano kept whispering in my ears, "Why did you not keep Sangala's wife on board?"

But this advance upon us was only a kind of military salute. Sangala this time had become more gentle; he was not drunk, and, thinking that perhaps there might really be a fight, he had become very quiet. He did not wish to push matters to extremity.

Presently Sangala said he would let me pass if I would give him a barrel of rum—a big one. I refused; I said I had none. He insisted that they must rejoice and get drunk. He wanted to get drunk for several days, and drink rum to his heart's content. At last the palaver was settled, and I gave him many presents, and thereafter King Sangala became one of my best friends.

Ranpano was delighted; he hugged Sangala; he swore eternal friendship, and said that he loved him with all his heart. Sangala returned these compliments. We made a sign, agreed upon to our men, that every thing was settled. Immediately they fired guns, embarked in their canoes, and came over to Sangala's village. They made a fine display, as all their canoes came in a line, and they were singing their war-songs. They were met by Sangala's warriors; and they made a rush toward each other as if they were to have a real fight, and then all was over, and they laughed over the palaver, and swore they would not hurt each other for the world.

I need not say how glad I was that every thing had ended so well. Captain Cornillo, when every thing looked black, swore that he never would come again to this wild country; and the crew said I wanted them all to be murdered.

I found these Commi very good people. I took ashore canoe after canoe loaded with goods which might well tempt these poor negroes sorely. Many of the things were brought loose to Ranpano's, and yet not a single thing was stolen, not even the value of a penny. They were proud that I had come to settle among them. I was the first white man who had done so.

I love these Commi people dearly, and I am sure they all love me also, they took such great care of me. Ranpano was a very good king, and he always tried to please me, and so did his people. Now and then they did wrong, but these poor people knew no better, and they were sorry afterward. Not one would have tried to do me an injury, and I could sleep with my doors wide open.