A Crabbing Expedition
Start after land-crabs.—Village of the crabs.—Each crab knows his house.—Great flight of crabs.—They bit hard.—Feast on the slain.—A herd of hippopotami.
We have come down to the river. We are off in our canoes to hunt for ogombon (land-crabs), each one of us being provided with a basket and a short cutlass, and are paddling for some spot not far from the banks of the river where the land-crabs are found in abundance. There are several canoes full of women, for catching crabs is the special business of the women, as hunting is the special work of the men.
The land-crabs burrow in the ground. Their holes are found in very large numbers in some parts of the country. The burrows form the subterranean homes of the crabs, into which they retire when alarmed—and the slightest noise does that. They remain in their burrows until hunger drives them out in search of food, or when they fancy danger is averted.
We landed at last on a swampy bottom, the soil of which was very black. I immediately saw an innumerable quantity of crabs running in all directions—making for their burrows—alarmed at our approach and the sound of footsteps; and as they ran they displayed the two large claws with which they were ready to bite any one bold enough to seize them. The ground was covered with an incredible number of burrows.
These land-crabs are curious creatures. They are found in various parts of the world, and Equatorial Africa has a fair share of them, in goodly variety. The natives have any number of wonderful tales to tell about the ogombons.
There was a wild shout of joy among the people at having come to the right spot. The baskets were immediately opened, the short heavy sticks and cutlasses were got in readiness, and we scattered all over the thickly-wooded island, for it was an island where only mangrove grew. Not far from the island I could see huge hippopotami playing in the river, but we had taken it into our heads to come down the river and make a great haul of these crustaceĉ.
There was, as I have said, a general skedaddle of crabs, for at the least noise they ran away, having a counterpart in the women, who ran to and fro with great shouts, which were soon taken up by the men, in their wild excitement after land-crabs.
These crabs were of tremendous size, and were the real ogombons, the largest species found in the country, and the only ones the natives will eat. They were gray, almost of the color of the mud on which they walk. They were armed with tremendous claws, which warned us to be very careful in handling them, or we should get a good bite.
This island was celebrated as the home of the ogombons, and the whole of that part on which we landed was entirely covered with their burrows, which were in many places so thick and so close together as to communicate with each other. In these retreats the crabs remain in darkness. They never venture far from home. How Master land-crab knows his own habitation from those of his neighbor I can not tell, but now and then he would make a mistake and go into "somebody else's house," thus getting into the wrong box.
At this time of the year the land-crabs were fat, but the shells were somewhat hard, but not so hard as later in the season, when the crab is left to himself, not being so good to eat. Hence, in the season, land-crab parties start from every village for the spots where they are to be found.
When the crabs are ready to cast off their shells, they shut themselves up in their burrow, which they have stocked with leaves, closing the entrance with mud, and they remain there until their new armor is on. After quitting its old armor a crab is very soft, but in course of time the new shell becomes hard, even harder than the preceding one. I was never able to ascertain the age a land-crab could attain.
So we were racing in every direction after the land-crabs, which fled with the utmost speed for their burrows. Now and then one would be caught. We had to be very light of foot when approaching them, for at the least noise they would go and hide in their dark abodes.
Of the two large claws, one was a tremendous thing, and it was amusing to watch the crabs walking leisurely round their holes, as if there was no foe in their neighborhood, but yet holding up one of the large claws as if they were ready for any thing that might come along. This claw nodded backward and forward in a very comical manner.
I approached one very big fellow without his having perceived me, and, before he was aware, I laid my stick heavily on his back, and then seized him with my hand, to place him in the basket which hung at my side. I roared out with pain, for he had got hold of one of my fingers with its large claw, and shook it as if he would have torn it off. With my other hand I quickly seized the crab and twisted the claws from the body, which I thought would release me; but lo! although the body lay on the ground, the rascally claws gripped harder than ever. Oh! oh! oh!!! I shouted—which cries brought two or three of the women to my assistance. The muscles of the claws had retained their contractile power after they were separated from the body.
In the mean time the rascal had retired into his burrow, no doubt in a good deal of pain, but saying to himself, "What do I care; a new limb will soon come out!" for among the crustaceĉ such is the case—a new limb soon springs out, and takes the place of the one lost; so I was left without my prize. The women again warned me to be very careful, instructing me how to catch crabs by seizing the big claw and severing it from the body; but, before doing this, the stick must be placed on the middle of the back, where the claws can not reach, as they can not move backward.
I soon spied another crab, but he heard my footstep, and with the utmost speed made for his burrow. Then I came suddenly upon another, just in front of me; he had not time to turn round; so, shoving my stick in front of him until it nearly touched his two big eyes, I put him into a furious rage. By-and-by he managed to seize the stick, which he shook, just as the other crab had done my finger. I was thankful that it was not my finger this time. The motion of the claw at the junction with the body was very queer. After some trouble, I managed to secure this fellow. Then I went after another, which at once took to his burrow and disappeared; but I was determined to watch and wait for him. I noticed him every now and then peering slyly out, drawing in his head at the slightest noise; so I hid behind his burrow, and kept very still. At last he came out, walking slowly from his hole. I put my foot on his burrow, upon which he turned round, and ran one way and then another, and finally made for another burrow, where he met the possessor coming out from his "castle," when a general fight of claws ensued. The aggressor, being the stronger, succeeded in winning the battle and getting in, while the other, in his fright, plunged into a burrow the owner of which had probably been killed that morning.
Great slaughter of the crabs had already taken place, and so many heavy, fat fellows had been captured that we were sure of a great feast. It was well for us that it was so, for at last the ogombons got thoroughly frightened and remained in their burrows; not one was to be seen; so, after having captured some thousands of them, we got back into our canoes and ascended the river again.
The ogombons are peculiar. I think they never go to the sea, but deposit their eggs on the shores of the island, for I never met them on the sea-coast. They feed on all kinds of refuse, on black mud, leaves, berries, etc., etc. The crabs found on the main land are not eaten, the natives believing that they sometimes visit their cemeteries. On the white sand of the sea-shore are found innumerable little crabs of the same color as the sand itself.
Besides the ogombons there are many other land-crabs, but they are much smaller, and are not eaten by the natives. Many of these crabs are of the most gorgeous colors, some purple and red, others blue and red; they are exceedingly wild, and swift of foot. They live close to the sea, and may be seen on the shore in great numbers during the night.
I wish I had had time to spare to study these crabs more thoroughly than I have done, but I have told you the little I know about them.
As we returned we had to pass through the midst of the tremendous herd of hippopotami which I have mentioned. For years that herd had taken possession of an immense mud-bank lying between the island and the main land, or rather the tongue of land which separated the sea from the River Fernand Vaz.
The hippopotami began to grunt, and plunged into the water, remaining there for some time, and then would come again to the surface, until gradually the navigation became dangerous, so much so that we had to be very careful, and paddle along the shore for fear of being upset by these huge creatures, who would surge from under the water in every direction, and we knew not where the next one would rise. Two or three times one rose very near my canoe. I did not want to fire at them, for they would have sunk to the bottom, and would not have risen for two or three days after, and then probably they would have been found at the mouth of the river, or been driven into the sea by the current. By the kind of groan or hoarse grunt they gave, I made up my mind that they were becoming enraged at having been disturbed, so we paddled carefully on until I thought we were at last out of their reach. But we were to receive a good fright before we had done with them, for I saw a canoe just ahead of the one in which I was seated rocking and jerking about in an extraordinary. manner, and the people in it shouting at the top of their voices, and there came up a huge hippopotamus, which gave a terrific grunt, immediately responded to by the other hippopotami we had left behind. We paddled hard in order to get out of the way, for the huge creature seemed to be maddened; and at last, with a thankful heart, I left all the hippopotami behind, and, after some severe paddling, we reached a safe place on the bank of the river, where a general and grand cooking of the crabs began.