Gateway to the Classics: The Country of the Dwarfs by Paul du Chaillu
The Country of the Dwarfs by  Paul du Chaillu

Gorillas and Plantains

Life at Nkongon-Boumba.—Gorillas and plantains.—Odanga scared by a gorilla.—A captive gorilla.—Superstitions respecting the leopard.

The dry season had now fairly begun. We were in the month of June, and the nights and evenings were quite pleasant. The days were generally cloudy, and it was a good time of the year for hunting, as most of the bog-land was drying fast.

Nkongon-Boumba was situated in a charming spot an the summit of a gentle hill, at the foot of which ran a little stream of clear, water. The country which surrounded it was partly prairie and partly wooded; the soil on the prairie was sandy, but where the woods grew the soil was better. In many places the primitive growth had been cut down, and there the fine plantation of plantain-trees and bananas of King Olenga-Yombi were flourishing well.

How beautiful the country looked in the morning just before sunrise, when a veil of mist seemed to hang over it, and when the dew was still thick on the blades of grass, or was dropping fast from the plantain-leaves! I would get up just at daylight, and would start with my gun on my shoulder, in the hope that I might see a gazelle or an antelope feeding.

Gorillas, were very plentiful near Nkongon-Boumba, and were committing great depredations among the plantain and banana trees; the patches of sugar-cane were also very much devastated. I heard one afternoon that the day before gorillas were in the forest not far from the village, and had already begun to play sad havoc with the plantain trees.

The morning after the news, if you had been in the village, you would have seen me, just a little before daybreak, getting ready to go after the gorillas. I was painting my face and hands with a mixture of powdered charcoal and oil. After my toilet was done, I put on my old, soiled Panama hat, took one of my best guns, called Odanga, one of my boys, to accompany me, and started off. There was just daylight enough for us to see our way, and in a short time we came to a plantation, surrounded by virgin forest, covered with plantain and banana trees, most of which were bearing fruit in different stages of growth. This plantation had just been made on the skirt of the forest.

It was a lovely morning; the sky was almost cloudless; every thing was still, and one could only hear the slight rustling of the tree-tops moved by the gentle land breeze. Before reaching the grove of plantain trees I had to pick my way through a maze of tree-stumps, half-burnt logs, and dead, broken, and half-burnt limbs of trees, where the land had been prepared for a new plantation. If gorillas are to be seen in a plantation near a village they most generally come in the early morning.

By the side of the plantain-trees was a field of cassada, and just as I was going by it I heard suddenly in the plantain-grove a great crashing noise like the breaking of limbs. What could this be? I immediately hid myself behind a bush, and then looked in the direction from which the sound proceeded. What do I see? A gorilla, then a second gorilla, and a third one, coming out of a thick bush; then another one made his appearance—there were four altogether. Then I discovered that one of the females had a baby gorilla following her.

So do not be astonished when I tell you that my eyes were wide open, and that I gazed on the scene before me with intense excitement. These gorillas looked so droll, walking in the most absurd way on all fours, and now and then walking erect. How impish the creatures seemed! how intensely black their faces were! how hideous their features! They looked like men, but like wild men with shaggy hides, and their big, protuberant abdomens did not make them less ridiculous or repulsive.

The gorillas went immediately at their work of destruction. I did not stop them, but merely looked on. Plantain-tree after plantain-tree came down; it seemed to me that they were trying to see which could bring down the greatest number of trees in the shortest space of time. They were amusing themselves, I suppose. In destroying a tree, they first grasped the base of the stem with one of their powerful hand-like feet, and then with their prodigious long arms pulled it down. This, of course, did not require much strength with so light a stem as that of the plantain. Then they would set their big mouths upon the juicy heart of the tree, and devour it with great avidity; at another time they would give one bite, or would simply demolish the tree without eating it.

How strange sounded the chuckle they gave as if to express their contentment! Now and then they would sit still and look around—and such a look! Two or three times they looked in the direction where I was; but I lay so quiet; and was so concealed, they could not see me, and, as the wind was blowing from them to me, they could not smell me. How fiendish their look was! A cold shiver ran through me several times, for, of all the malignant expressions I had ever seen, theirs were the most diabolical. Two or three times they seemed to be on the point of running away, and appeared alarmed, but recovered their composure, and began anew their work of destruction.

The little baby gorilla followed his mother wherever she went. Gradually, without my taking notice of it, they came to the edge of the dark forest, and all at once disappeared like a vision—like a dream. I went to look at the spot where they had made such havoc, and counted over one hundred plantain-trees down on the ground, which they had destroyed.

The next morning I went again with Odanga to the same spot, with no expectation of seeing gorillas again, for I did not think they would make another visit there with their roving propensities, but I thought I might see an antelope or two, attracted by the young leaves of the cassada-tree, of which they are very fond. I carried a light double-barreled shot-gun, while Odanga carried my heavy double-barreled rifle, to use in case we should see an elephant.

The part of the plantation upon which we had come extended over two hills, with a deep hollow between planted with sugar-cane. I was taking the lead in the narrow path, and just as I was going down the hill to get over to the other side of the hollow, my eyes suddenly fell upon a monstrous gray-haired male gorilla standing erect and looking directly toward me. I really did not know if he was looking at me or at something else, or if he thought of crossing to my side, in which case he would have come toward me. Without turning my head (for I did not dare to lose sight of the gorilla), I beckoned Odanga to come toward me, so that I might get hold of my rifle and shoot down the huge monster. I beckoned in vain. I made a quicker motion with my hand for Odanga to come, but no Odanga was coming. The huge beast stared at me, or at least seemed to stare at me, for two minutes, and then, without uttering any uttering any roar moved off into the great forest on all fours. Then I looked round to see what was the matter with my boy Odanga, but no Odanga was to be seen; I was all alone. The fellow had bolted, gun and all; the gorilla had frightened him, and he had fled. I was furiously angry, and promised myself to give friend Odanga such a punishment as he would not soon forget, that he might not play me such a trick a second time.

Odanga had fled to the plantation, and a little after what I have just related I heard a good many voices. They were the plantation people, all armed to the teeth, coming to my rescue; but Odanga had taken good care to remain out of the way, though he had sent the gun. The little scamp knew very well what was coming, but when I went back he was not to be seen, and the fellow hid himself for two days. When at last I got hold of him he made me the most solemn promise never to do such a thing again, and said, "Chally, Abamboo (the devil) must have made me leave you."

On my return from Nkongon-Boumba a great surprise awaited me—a live  gorilla. An old chief, a friend of mine, named Akondogo, had just returned from the Ngobi country, situated south of Cape St. Catharine, and there, with some slaves of Olenga-Yombi, he had killed the mother, and captured the rascal before me. He was bigger than any gorilla I had captured, or that had ever been taken alive. Bigger he was than Fighting Joe, which many of you no doubt remember.

Like Joe, this fellow showed the most ungovernable temper, and to bite somebody seemed to be the object he was always aiming at. We had no chain with which to confine him, so that a long forked stick round his neck was the only means we could employ of keeping him at a safe distance.

In the evening, as Akondogo and I were seated together, the good fellow, smoking his huge pipe, said to me, "Chally, I have had a great deal of trouble since I have seen you. A leopard has killed two of my people, and I have had a great many palavers with their families on account of their death."

I said, "Akondogo, you could not help it; you are not chief over the leopards. But, after the first man had been killed, why did you not make a trap to catch the leopard?"

"The leopard I mean," said he, "is not one that can be trapped; it was a man who had changed himself into a leopard, and then, after he had been a leopard for some time, he changed himself into a man again."

I said, "Akondogo, why do you talk to me in that way? You know I do not believe that men are turned into beasts, and afterward into men again. It is stupid for people to believe so, but I can not shake that belief in you alombč" (black men).

Poor Akondogo said, "Chally, I assure you that there are men who change into leopards, and from leopards into men again."

Not wishing to argue the question, I said, "Never mind; tell me the story of your trouble." Then Akondogo once more filled his pipe with tobacco, gave three or four big puffs of smoke, which rose high in the air, and thus began:

"My people and myself had been in the woods several days collecting India-rubber. One day a man disappeared, and nothing could be found of him but a pool of blood. The next day another man disappeared, and in searching for him more blood was found. We all got alarmed, and I sent for a great doctor; he came and drank the mboundou, so that he might be able to say how these two deaths came about. After the ouganga (doctor) had drank the mboundou, and as all the people stood round him asking him what had killed these two men, and just as we were waiting with breathless silence for what he was going to say, he spoke to me and said, 'Akondogo, your own child [his nephew and heir] Akosho killed the two men.' Immediately Akosho was sent for and seized, and he answered that it was true that he had killed the two men, but that he could not help it, he remembered well that that day, as he was walking in the woods, he suddenly became a leopard; that his heart longed for blood, and that he killed the two men, and then, after each murder, he became a man again.

"There was a great uproar in the village; the people shouted, 'Death to the aniemba Akosho!'

"But," said Akondogo, "I loved my boy so much that I said to the people, 'Let us not believe Akosho; he must have become a kendé (idiot, fool). But Akosho kept saying he had killed the men, and took us into the woods where lay the two bodies, one with the head cut off, and the other with the belly torn open.

"Upon this," said Akondogo, "I ordered Akosho to be bound with cords, and tied in a horizontal position to a post, and to have a fire lighted at his feet, and be burned slowly to death, all which was done, the people standing by until he expired."

The end of the story was so horrid that I shuddered. It was a case of monomania. Akosho believed that he been turned into a leopard, and committed two murders, the penalty of which he paid with his life. Here, in our country, he would have been sent to the insane asylum.

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