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Paul du Chaillu

The Bay of Corisco

The Bay of Corisco.—The mangrove-trees.—The wonderful flock of birds.—What I found in the pouch of a pelican.—How an old king is buried, and the new king crowned.

Now that you have followed me in the Benito country, and to Cape St. John, I will take you a little farther down the coast to the Bay of Corisco. There, two rivers empty their waters into the sea. One of them is called the Muni River, and the other the Monda.

I will leave the Muni, for we shall have to come to it by-and-by, and will speak to you only of the Monda. It is throughout a low-banked, swampy stream. The banks are covered with mangrove-trees. Every limb or branch that grows in the water is covered with oysters—real oysters, too—so that at low tide you can see, in some places for a long distance, immense beds of this kind of shell-fish.

The mangroves, on which the oysters grow so curiously, are very extraordinary trees. The main trunk, or parent tree, grows to an immense size. From a single tree a whole forest will grow up in time, for the branches send down shoots into the ground, which in their turn take root and become trees; so that generally, almost the whole of the mangrove forest may be said to be knitted together.

The inhabitants of the country at the mouth of the river are called Shekiani. They are a very warlike tribe, and many of them are armed with guns, which they obtain from the vessels which come here from time to time to buy barwood, ivory, or India-rubber.

I arrived at the mouth of the river in a small canoe manned by several Mbinga men. The canoe was made of the trunk of a single tree, and had a mat for a sail. At the mouth of the river, high above the swamps that surround its banks, are two hills. On the top of one of these hills a village was situated. There I stayed. It was a village of insignificant size.

At low tide, the high, muddy banks of the river are exposed. So many birds as are there I never saw elsewhere: they are to be seen in countless thousands. The shore, the mud islands, and the water were so covered with them that it was really a sight worth seeing. Here and there flocks of pelicans swam majestically along, keeping at a good distance from my canoe. You would probably wish to know what these pelicans are like. I will tell you. They are large birds, and have an enormous bill, under which is a large pouch, capable of containing several pounds of fish. They have webbed feet, and their feathers are white. I wish you could see them looking out for their prey. How slyly they pry in the water for the fish they are in search of, and how quickly they pounce upon them unawares with their powerful beak! In an instant the fish are killed and stored away in the pouch; and when this is full, the Master Pelican begins to eat. The fish are put in the pouch as if it were a store-house.

Now and then a string of flamingoes go stretching along the muddy shore, looking for all the world like a line of fire. Most beautiful are these flamingoes! and very singular they appear when not on the wing, but standing still on their long red legs! They are very wild, however, and difficult of approach.

Wherever the mud peeped out of the water, there were herons, cranes, gulls of various kinds. Scattered every where were seen these beautiful white birds (Egretta flavirostris). Some of the shore trees were covered with them, looking like snow in the distance.

Of course I wished to kill some of these birds. So I took a tiny little canoe, and covered it with branches of trees, that the birds might think it was a tree coming down the stream, as is often the case. Then I took a Shekiani with me to paddle, and, putting two guns in the canoe, we made for the pelicans. The sly birds seemed to suspect something, and did not give me a chance to approach them for a long time. But, as you know, in order to succeed in any thing, people must have patience and perseverance. So, after chasing many, I finally succeeded in approaching one. He was just in the act of swallowing a big fish when—bang!—I fired, and wounded him so that he could not fly. His wing had been broken by my shot. At the noise made by firing my gun, the birds flew away by thousands. I made for Master Pelican. The chase became exciting; but, at last, we succeeded in coming near him. But how to get hold of him was now the question. His wing only was broken; and, with his great beak, he might perhaps be able to cut one of my fingers right off. I was afraid to spoil his feathers if I fired again. He became exhausted, and with one of the paddles I gave him a tremendous blow on the head, which stunned him. Another blow finished him, and we lifted him into the canoe.

I can not tell you how pleased I was. His pouch was full of fish. They were so fresh that I resolved to make a meal out of them.

I had hardly put the bird at the bottom of the canoe, when there came flying toward me a flock of at least two hundred flamingoes. In a moment I had my gun in readiness. Would they come near enough for me to get a shot at them? I watched them anxiously. Yes! Now they are near enough; and—bang! bang!—I fired the two barrels right into the middle of the flock, and two beautiful flamingoes fell into the water. Quickly we paddled toward them. In order to go faster, I took a paddle also, and worked away as well as I could. They were dead. Both had received shots in the head.

We made for the shore. When I opened the pouch of the pelican—just think of it!—I found a dozen large fishes inside! They were quite fresh, and I am sure they had not been caught more than half an hour. You will agree with me that the pelican makes quick work when he goes a fishing.

In the evening I felt so tired that I went straight to bed; and I slept so soundly, that if the Shekianis had chosen, they could have murdered me without my even opening my eyes.

This village had a new king; and I wondered if his majesty were made king in the same fashion as the sovereign of the Mpongwe tribe—a tribe of negroes among whom I have resided, and I will tell you how their king was made.

Old King Glass died. He had been long ailing, but clung to life with determined tenacity. He was a disagreeable old heathen; but in his last days he became very devout—after his fashion. His idol was always freshly painted and brightly decorated; his fetich, or "monda," was the best-cared-for fetich in Africa; and every few days some great doctors were brought down from the interior, and paid a large fee for advising the old king. He was afraid of witchcraft; he thought every body wanted to put him out of the way by bewitching him. So the business of the doctors was to keep off the witches, and assure his majesty that he would live a long time. This assurance pleased him wonderfully, and he paid his doctors well.

The tribe had got tired of their king. They thought, indeed, that he was himself a most potent and evil-disposed wizard; and, though the matter was not openly talked about, there were very few natives indeed who would pass his house after night, and none who could be tempted inside by any slighter provocation than an irresistible glass of rum. In fact, if he had not been a great king, he would probably have been killed.

When he got sick at last, every body seemed very sorry; but several of my friends told me, in confidence, that the whole town hoped he would die, and die he did. I was awakened one morning by those mournful cries and wails with which the African oftener covers a sham sorrow than expresses a real grief. All the women of the village seemed to be dissolved in tears. It is a most singular thing to see how readily the women of Africa can supply tears on the slightest occasion, or for no occasion at all. They will cry together at certain times of the day, on mourning occasions, when a few minutes before they were laughing. They need no pain or real grief to excite their tears. They can, apparently, weep at will.

The mourning and wailing on this occasion lasted six days. On the second day the old king was secretly buried by a few of the most trusty men of the tribe, very early in the morning, before others were up—or perhaps at night. Some said he had been buried at night, while others said he had been buried in the morning, thus showing that they did not know. This custom arises from a belief that the other tribes would much like to get the head of the king, in order that with his brains they might make a powerful fetich.

During the days of mourning the old men of the village busied themselves in choosing a new king. This, also, is a secret operation, and the result is not communicated to the people generally till the seventh day.

It happened that Njogoni (fowl), a good friend of mine, was elected. I do not know that Njogoni had the slightest suspicion of his elevation. At any rate, he shammed ignorance very well.

While he was walking on the shore on the morning of the seventh day—probably some one had told him to go—he was suddenly set upon by the entire populace, who proceeded with a ceremony which is preliminary to the crowning. In a dense crowd they surrounded him, and then began to heap upon him every manner of abuse that the worst of mobs could imagine. Some spat in his face. Some beat him with their fists—not very hard, of course. Some kicked him. Others threw dirty things at him. Those unlucky ones who stood on the outside, and could only reach the poor fellow with their voices, assiduously cursed him, and also his father, and especially his mother, as well as his sisters and brothers, and all his ancestors to the remotest generation. A stranger would not have given a farthing for the life of him who was presently to be crowned.

Amid the noise and struggle, I caught the words which explained all to me; for every few minutes some fellow, administering a comparatively severe blow or kick, would shout out, "You are not our king yet; for a little while we will do what we please with you. By-and-by we shall have to do your will."

Njogoni bore himself like a man and a prospective king, and took all this abuse with a smiling face. When it had lasted about half an hour, they took him to the house of the old king. Here he was seated, and became again for a little while the victim of his people's curses and ill usage.

Suddenly all became silent, and the elders of the people rose, and said solemnly (the people repeating after them), "Now we choose you for our king; we engage to listen to you, and to obey you."

Then there was silence; and presently the silk hat, of "stove-pipe" fashion, which is the emblem of royalty among the Mpongwe and several other tribes was brought in, and placed on Njogoni's head. He was then dressed in a red gown, and received the greatest marks of respect from all those who had just now abused him.

Then followed six days of festival, during which the poor king, who had taken the name of his predecessor, was obliged to receive his subjects in his own house, and was not allowed to stir out. The whole time was occupied in indescribable gorging of food, and drinking of bad rum and palm wine. It was a scene of beastly gluttony, and drunkenness, and uproarious confusion. Every thing to eat and drink was furnished freely, and all comers were welcome.

Old King Glass, for whom during six days no end of tears had been shed, was now forgotten; and new  King Glass, poor fellow, was sick with exhaustion.

Finally, the rum and palm wine were drunk up, the food was eaten, the allotted days of rejoicing had expired, and the people went back to their homes.