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Paul du Chaillu

The Wild Country of West Africa

Arrival on the Coast.—A King and his Palace.—Dancing and Idol-Worship.

About the year 1850 a three-masted vessel took me to a wild country on the West Coast of Africa, near the equator.

It was a very wild country indeed.

As we came in sight of the land, which was covered with forest, canoes began to start from the shore toward us; and, as we neared the land, we could see the people crowding down on the beach to look at the strange sight of a vessel.

The canoes approached the vessel in great numbers. Some of them were so small that they looked like mere nutshells. Indeed, some of the men paddled with their feet; and one man carried his canoe ashore on his shoulder.

At last the natives came on board, and what funny people they were! I could not discern one from another; they seemed to me all alike.

What a queer way of dressing they had, too! You would have laughed to see them. Some had only an old coat on. Others had an old pair of trowsers which probably had belonged to some sailor; these wore no shirt or coat. Some had only an old ragged shirt, and some, again, had nothing on except an old hat. Of course none of them had shoes.

How they shouted and halloed as they came about the vessel! They seemed to speak each a strange language. No one on board appeared to understand them. They made so great a noise that I thought I should become deaf.

One of them had a fowl to sell; another brought an egg or two; and another a few bunches of plantains.

Our captain knew the coast, for he had long been an African trader, though he had never been at this place before.

The ship cast anchor. It was not far from a river called Benito.

I left the vessel and went ashore with some others. As I landed I was surrounded immediately by crowds of natives, who looked so wild and so savage that I thought they would kill me at once.

I was led to the village, which stood not far from the sea and was hidden from view by the very large trees and the great forest that surrounded it. On one side of the village was a prairie.

I shall always remember this village. It was the first African village I had ever seen, and it was unlike those built in Southern Africa.

Don't think for a moment that I am going to speak to you of stone or wooden houses! No! These wild people lived in queer little huts, the walls of which were made of the bark of trees, and were not more than four or five feet high. The top of the roof was only about seven or eight feet from the ground. The length of these huts was about ten or twelve feet, and they were seven or eight feet wide. There were no windows, and the door was very small. They immediately took me to one of these houses, and said they gave it to me. They meant that it was mine as long as I would stay with them. It belonged to the son of the king.

So I went in. But where was I to sit down?

There was no chair to be seen.

Patience, thought I. These people had probably never seen a chair in their lives. It was so dark I could not see at first. By-and-by I saw how the hut was furnished. There were some calabashes to hold water, and two or three cooking-pots. There were some ugly-looking spears, an axe, and two or three large and queer-looking knives, which could sever the head of a man at one blow. Of course I looked for a bed: I need not tell you there was none; but, instead, there were some sticks to lie upon. The very looks of this sleeping-place made me shudder; I thought of snakes, scorpions, and centipedes. The dark hut seemed the very place for them. Shortly after the king's son came. If I remember well, his name was Andèké. He told me that his father, the king, was ready to receive me.

The king ready to receive me!

This was a great announcement. I must dress.

But how?

There was no washing-basin to wash myself in; besides, I had forgotten my soap.

I was glad I had no beard at that time, for I do not know how I could have shaved.

In short, I resolved to go and see his majesty as I was.

The sun being very warm, I took my umbrella with me. The people conducted me to the royal palace.

What do you suppose a palace to be in the Benito country? The king's palace was made of the same material (bark of trees) as the houses I have just described to you, and it was only about twice as big.

As I entered I went toward the king, who was seated on a stool. Another empty stool was by his side.

I may say that Apouron—such was the king's name—did not come up to my ideas of a king. In fact, I should have laughed at him had I dared.

His costume was composed of a red soldier's coat, and he wore a little bit of calico round his waist. That was all. You must understand he had no shirt.

He was a tall, slim negro, with gray hair, and had large scars on his face, and his whole body was covered with tattoos. He wore large earrings. He was smoking a big ugly pipe.

He looked at me, and I looked at him.

The room was full of people, and the king had several of his wives around him. The queen was there. Would you believe it? in that country a man marries as many wives as he chooses!

The king looked at me for a long time without saying a word. Finally he opened his month, clapped his hands, and said I was a funny-looking fellow.

He next said he was very glad to see me, and would take care of me. Then he touched my hair, and said I must give him some. He would like to have me remain with him always. At this the people shouted, "We want the ntangani  to stay with us!"

What do you think he did next?

He quietly proposed to me that I should get married to some of his country-women; and added that whomsoever I should choose would become my wife. The suggestion was received by all the people with a tremendous grunt of approval, to show that they thought just as their king. Then they shouted, "The girl he likes he shall marry!"

I said, "I don't want to get married; I am too young." I did not want to tell him that I would not, for all the world, marry one of his people.

It was getting very warm in the hut, and there was a strong odor. The people were packed so close together that they reminded one of herrings in a barrel, and you must remember I said the house had no windows.

Then the king presented me with one fowl, two eggs, and one bunch of plantain; and as I went away he said I had better give him my umbrella. But I went off as if I had not heard what he said. I thought it was rather too much for a king to ask a stranger to give up his umbrella. I had just begun to learn what African kings were.

The people followed me every where; I wish I could have understood their language. One man could talk English, and I am going now to give you a specimen of his English.

When he thought I must be hungry, he said, "Want chop? Want chop?" When he saw that I could not understand what he meant, he made signs with his hands and mouth, which at once explained to me that he had asked me if I wanted to eat. I said "Yes;" and after a while, some cooked plantains, with some fish, were brought to me. I did not care for the plantains; it was the first time I had ever tasted them.

After my meal I walked through the street of the village and came to a house, in the recess of which I saw an enormous idol. I had never in all my life seen such an ugly thing. It was a rude representation of some human being, of the size of life, and was made of wood. It had large copper eyes, and a tongue of iron which shot out from its mouth to show that it could sting. The lips were painted red. It wore large iron earrings. Its head was ornamented with a feather cap. Most of the feathers were red, and came from the tails of gray parrots, while the body and face were painted red, white, and yellow. It was dressed in the skins of wild animals. Around it were scattered skins of tigers and serpents, and the bones and skulls of animals. Some food also was placed near, so that it might eat if it chose.

It was now sunset, and night soon set in over the village. For the first time in my life I stood alone in this dark world, surrounded by savages, without any white people near me. There was no light in the street, and only the reflection of the fires could be seen now and then. How dismal it was!

I looked at my pistols and my guns, and was glad to find that they were in good order.

By-and-by the people began to come out of their huts, and I saw some torches lighted, and taken toward the large mbuiti, as they call the idol, and there placed on the ground. The large drums or tom-toms were also carried there, and the women and men of the village gathered around. The tom-toms beat; and soon after I heard the people singing. I went to see what was the matter.

What a sight met my eyes!

The men had their bodies painted in different colors. Some had one cheek red and the other white or yellow. A broad white or yellow stripe was painted across the middle of the chest and along both the arms. Others had their bodies spotted. Most ugly they looked! The women wore several iron or brass rings around their wrists and ankles.

Then the singing began, and the dancing! I had never seen such dancing before. It was very ungraceful. The drummers beat on the tom-toms with all their might. As they became warm with exertion their bodies shone like seals, so oily were they.

I looked and looked, with my eyes wide open; I was nearly stunned with the noise. As the women danced and sung, the brass and iron rings which they wore struck against each other, and kept time with the music and the beating of the tom-toms.

But why were they all there, dancing and screeching around the idol? I will tell you.

They were about to start on a hunting expedition, and they were asking the idol to give them good luck in their sport.

When I found it was to be a hunting expedition, I wanted to go at once with these savages, though I was only a lad under twenty yeas old.

I retired to my hut with a valiant heart; I was going to do great things.

If you had been in my place, boys, would you not have felt the same? Would you have left the gorillas alone? I am sure you all shout at once, "No! no!" Would you have left the elephants go unmolested in the forest? "Certainly not," will be your answer.

And what about the chimpanzee, and the big leopards who carry away so many people and eat them, the huge buffaloes, the wild boars, the antelopes, and the gazelles?

Would you have left the snakes alone?

Perhaps you are all going to say "Yes" to that; and I think you are right, for many of these snakes are very poisonous, and they are numerous in these great forests; for the country I am telling you about is nothing but an immense jungle. When a man is bitten by one of these snakes he often dies in a few minutes. There is also to be found in those woods an immense python, or boa, that swallows antelopes, gazelles, and many other animals. I shall have a good deal to tell you about them by-and-by.

So I resolved that I would try to see all these native tribes; that I would have a peep at the Cannibals; that I would have a good look also at the dwarfs.

I am sure that, if any one of you had been with me on that coast, you would have said to me, "Du Chaillu, let us go together and see all these things, and then come back home and tell the good folks all we have seen."

Yes, I am certain that every one of you would have felt as I did.