Gateway to the Classics: Wild Life Under the Equator by Paul du Chaillu
Wild Life Under the Equator by  Paul du Chaillu

A Deserted Village

A deserted village.—Fear of death.—Wars between villages.—African wild boas.—The hunt.

I have just arrived in a deserted village; there was not a soul to be seen. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, to remind us of living man except the abandoned huts. How sad every thing looked all around! The plantain-trees were growing back of the huts, and young bunches of plantains were gracefully hanging down from them.

Even the little Sycobii birds had left, and only their deserted nests on the trees testified that once they had built their homes there.

What had become of the people? They had left: they had abandoned their village. How often I have met these abandoned villages in the forests of Africa, but especially in the regions inhabited by the Bakalais, the Mbondemos, the Mbishos, the Shekianis.

This village was situated on the broad waters of the River Ovenga, about 90 miles south of the equator. As I was not afraid of evil spirits, I concluded I should use the huts to sleep in at night; but there was tremendous opposition at first, for the men who were with me said it was a bewitched village; two people had died there within a few days of each other; the place was not good to live in; some of us would die if we remained. Poor creatures, though daring and brave in the hunt, how afraid they are of death! Hence if a man dies in a village there is a great commotion, if another dies the village must be abandoned.

A village is scarce built, often the plantations have not borne fruit for the first time, when they feel impelled to move. Then every thing is abandoned; they gather up what few stores of provisions they may have, and start off, often for great distances, to make, with tedious labor, a new settlement, which will be abandoned in turn after a few months. Sometimes, however, they remain for two or even three months more in the same place.

Many things contribute to their roving habits, but first of all I have said is their great fear of death. They dread to see a dead person. Their sick, unless they have good and near friends, are often driven out of the village to die in loneliness in the forest. Those Bakalai have no burying-ground. After a man is dead the body is thrown anywhere in the forest, and no more attention is paid to it.

The people of these tribes are very superstitious, and often after the death of a man several friendless creatures are accused and condemned in a breath, and murdered in cold blood. Afterward the village is broken up, the people set up again after their wanderings, and fix upon some lonely spot for a new plantation and a new home.

What a life this must be, to be all the while vainly fleeing from the dread face of death, as if such a thing were possible. What can stand still in the world? Nothing; absolutely nothing; constant changes are taking place.

These people are of a treacherous disposition, and are constantly quarrelling among their neighbors. They are most barbarous in their mode of warfare, in which women, children, and even babies are killed. Once while staying in a Bakalai village there were two women, who were quietly washing, and were killed and left there, until the people, wondering at their disappearance, looked for them, and found them dead.

When war has once really broken out in the country there is no rest or safety. No man or woman in any village can take a step in any direction, day or night, without fear of death. They lie in ambush to surprise each other's villages. If they have guns, they come on the sly and shoot through the bark of which their houses are made, and kill sleeping persons; hence no one could sleep for two consecutive nights at the same place. In passing a tree, sometimes the enemy steals in behind, and will spear the poor luckless man, woman, or child. They use every unfair means of warfare; and the meaner the attack, and the greater the treachery, the more glory they have won. In such times of war the fires are put out after dark, because they give light to the enemy, and the glare of the fire makes blind those near it, while those who come through the darkness can see well. The people keep a dead silence, lest their voices should betray their whereabouts; the hunters are loth to hunt, for fear of falling into an ambush of some hidden enemies; the women and slaves fear to plant, and therefore every body approaches a condition of semi-starvation. This sometimes lasts for months. At last whole districts are depopulated; those who are not killed desert their villages to seek safety in some remote and unknown spot of the forest where they think they may be safer; hence very often I felt quite astonished to meet little villages far off. Many of their villages are palisaded, and their dogs keep watch.

Yes, among such people I have lived for a long time when there was war in the country, and I never knew if by mistake they might not kill me.

Now I have given you a slight idea of these warlike and treacherous Bakalai. I am happy to say that on the right bank of the Ovenga Quengueza has succeeded in preventing these wild men from making war upon each other's villages.

We have come to shoot wild boar. It is the season when they are very fat, for we are in the month of March, and I tell you these wild boars of Equatorial Africa are glorious eating, and are magnificent beasts to bag.

Do not think they look like the wild boars they have in Europe. Nothing of the kind. It is no easy matter to come near enough to have a shot at these wild beasts, for they are exceedingly shy.

Night came, and my fellows were so afraid of evil spirits that they kept tremendous fires and kept talking all night, and when daylight came they felt so tired that they all went to sleep. This will never do, I said to myself, for if a man does not sleep at night he certainly can not work hard in the day.

After they awoke they came in a body, friend Malaouen leading, saying that we had better go and make our camp far away in the forest, for the place where we were was not good at all. I thought some of them might get ill through fear, so I concluded I had better move, for the people would lay the blame upon me. People have to be very prudent in such a wild country.

So we moved our traps a few miles off and built our camp; this was hardly done when a storm burst upon us, and the rain poured down by bucketsful, and the thunder and the lightning was something terrific. It was a good thing that our shades were right, for we should have been wet to the skin.

Early the next morning I shouldered my rifle and set off for the wildest part of the wood with friends Malaouen and Querlaouen, who now felt quite happy since we had left the abandoned village. The woods were pretty hard to go through, for the hunting-paths had not been used often, for fear of the Bakalai living in the Ashankolo.

In this gigantic forest there is a most extraordinary kind of wild boar, its body being of a bright red-yellow color, somewhat like that of an orange. How strange they look as they wander through the forest, sometimes a few together, at other times twenty or thirty, or even larger numbers!

That morning we got into new and fresh tracks of the wild boars; the earth was all uprooted by their snouts. I am sure they had not come to the place a half-hour before we did, and what a havoc they had made! We followed the tracks in hot haste; soon we could hear their grunts, and we thought they must be numerous by the noise they made.

How to approach them was the difficult question; for if there is any wild game, this is certainly one of the wildest sort I know. If there had been two or three of them together we might not have had so much difficulty in approaching them; but how were we to approach so many without being detected?

So we concluded to go by a roundabout way and try to get ahead of them, and then lay in ambush, waiting for them to pass.

The wild boars were in a valley, where the ground was somewhat soft, and they would, I thought, continue to follow it. In the midst of this valley there was a beautiful little rivulet of clear water meandering crookedly on in the same uneven manner as the narrow valley itself, which was flanked on each side by tremendous high hills, covered like the valley and all the country round with gigantic trees, which bore different kinds of fruits and nuts.

Then we concluded to ascend a hill close by and descend in as swift a manner as we could into the valley on the other side, which was the same one in which we, were standing: by doing so, we could make a short cut and get ahead of the wild boars, and then choose our ground and wait for them.

The plan succeeded perfectly. After crossing, we found a huge dead tree fallen on the ground, and behind it we hid ourselves.

Soon we heard the grunts of the wild boars coming; we were delighted; we looked at our guns, then fixed the barrels on the trunk of the tree, raised our heads hardly above it, and only so high that our eyes could get a glimpse at the wild boars.

Here they come! I can see them through the jungle, snorting unconsciously and eating what they have up-rooted. How little do they think there are such formidable enemies close at hand! They came nearer and nearer. Then after looking at each other; as if to say, Is it time? We took steady aim, put our fingers on the triggers, and bang! bang! bang! Our three guns went off at the same time, three wild boars biting the ground, and the others giving tremendous leaps. Four of them, crazy with fright, came rushing along, leaping over the trunk of the trees behind which we were hidden, and right above our heads. My goodness! If they had come down upon us they would have completely smashed us. I turned round, fired my second shot, and bagged another.


Killing four wild boars.

"Four wild boars are killed!", we shouted with frantic joy!

What splendid animals two of them were! How big! the wild boars of the black forest in Germany could not have compared with them.

This wild boar is a new species, and I have called it Potamochúrus albifrons:  that is to say, white-fronted.

What strange-looking animals! They had a long muzzle, and on each side there was a large warty protuberance half-way between the nose and the eyes. These, and a singular sort of bristle, surround the eyes. The ears, which are long and ended in tufts of coarse hair, give the animal a strange expression. The bodies of the boars were of the color I have mentioned.

On my return to the United States, in 1860, I gave a full description of this curious animal, and of many others I discovered, before the Boston Society of Natural History. I have always retained a pleasant recollection of my visit to that society, of its president, Professor Jeffries Wyman, of its secretary, my friend Dr. Kneeland, and of many other members, who were very kind to me.

But how to take away that meat? We could by no possible means carry the meat of four wild boars. So myself and Malaouen were to keep watch and sleep in the forest while Querlaouen would go and fetch the people to assist us.

This Potamochúrus albifrons  is a great jumper. I have seen no antelope that could leap as it does; one day I saw three of them leap over the Ovenga River, the distance being thirty or forty yards. It was the dry season, and one of them fell into the water. The bank from which they sprung was much higher than the opposite one.

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