Richard Harding Davis.

The Congo and Coasts of Africa online

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America to drink absinthe or whiskey, or to play dominoes or
cricket. They work twice as long as do the other white men, and
during those longer office hours they toil twice as hard. One of our
passengers was a German agent returning for his vacation. I used to
work in the smoking-room and he always was at the next table, also
at work, on his ledgers and account books. He was so industrious
that he bored me, and one day I asked him why, instead of spoiling
his vacation with work, he had not balanced his books before he left
the Coast.

"It is an error," he said; "I can not find him." And he explained
that in the record of his three years' stewardship, which he was to
turn over to the directors in Berlin, there was somewhere a mistake
of a sixpence.

"But," I protested, "what's sixpence to you? You drink champagne all
day. You begin at nine in the morning!"

"I drink champagne," said the clerk, "because for three years I have
myself alone in the bush lived, but, can I to my directors go with a
book not balanced?" He laid his hand upon his heart and shook his
head. "It is my heart that tells me 'No!'"

After three weeks he gave a shout, his face blushed with pleasure,
and actual tears were in his eyes. He had dug out the error, and at
once he celebrated the recovery of the single sixpence by giving me
twenty-four shillings' worth of champagne. It is a true story, and
illustrates, I think, the training and method of the German mind, of
the industry of the merchants who are trading over all the seas. As
a rule the "trade" goods "made in Germany" are "shoddy." They do not
compare in quality with those of England or the States; in every
foreign port you will find that the English linen is the best, that
the American agricultural implements, American hardware, saws, axes,
machetes, are superior to those manufactured in any other country.
But the German, though his goods are poorer, cuts the coat to please
the customer. He studies the wishes of the man who is to pay. He is
not the one who says: "Take it, or leave it."

The agent of one of the largest English firms on the Ivory Coast,
one that started by trading in slaves, said to me: "Our largest
shipment to this coast is gin. This is a French colony, and if the
French traders and I were patriots instead of merchants we would
buy from our own people, but we buy from the Germans, because trade
follows no flag. They make a gin out of potatoes colored with rum or
gin, and label it 'Demerara' and 'Jamaica.' They sell it to us on
the wharf at Antwerp for ninepence a gallon, and we sell it at nine
francs per dozen bottles. Germany is taking our trade from us
because she undersells us, and because her merchants don't wait for
trade to come to them, but go after it. Before the Woermann boat is
due their agent here will come to my factory and spy out all I have
in my compound. 'Why don't you ship those logs with us?' he'll ask.

"'Can't spare the boys to carry them to the beach,' I'll say.

"'I'll furnish the boys,' he'll answer. That's the German way.

"The Elder-Dempster boats lie three miles out at sea and blow a
whistle at us. They act as though by carrying our freight they were
doing us a favor. These German ships, to save you the long pull,
anchor close to the beach and lend you their own shore boats and
their own boys to work your cargo. And if you give them a few tons
to carry, like as not they'll 'dash' you to a case of 'fizz.' And
meanwhile the English captain is lying outside the bar tooting his
whistle and wanting to know if you think he's going to run his ship
aground for a few bags of rotten kernels. And he can't see, and the
people at home can't see, why the Germans are crowding us off the
Coast."

Just outside of Duala, in the native village of Bell Town, is the
palace and the harem of the ruler of the tribe that gave its name to
the country, Mango Bell, King of the Cameroons. His brother, Prince
William, sells photographs and "souvenirs." We bought photographs,
and on the strength of that hinted at a presentation at court.
Brother William seemed doubtful, so we bought enough postal cards to
establish us as _étrangers de distinction_, and he sent up our
names. With Pivani, Hatton & Cookson's chief clerk we were escorted
to the royal presence. The palace is a fantastic, pagoda-like
building of three stories; and furnished with many mirrors, carved
oak sideboards, and lamp-shades of colored glass. Mango Bell, King
of the Cameroons, sounds like a character in a comic opera, but the
king was an extremely serious, tall, handsome, and self-respecting
negro. Having been educated in England, he spoke much more correct
English than any of us. Of the few "Kings I Have Met," both tame and
wild, his manners were the most charming. Back of the palace is an
enormously long building under one roof. Here live his thirty-five
queens. To them we were not presented.

[Illustration: The Palace of the King of the Cameroons.]

Prince William asked me if I knew where in America there was a
street called Fifth Avenue. I suggested New York. He referred to a
large Bible, and finding, much to his surprise, that my guess was
correct, commissioned me to buy him, from a firm on that street,
just such another Bible as the one in his hand. He forgot to give me
the money to pay for it, but loaned us a half-dozen little princes
to bear our purchases to the wharf. For this service their royal
highnesses graciously condescended to receive a small "dash," and
with the chief clerk were especially delighted. He, being a
sleight-of-hand artist, apparently took five-franc pieces out of
their Sunday clothes and from their kinky hair. When we left they
were rapidly disrobing to find if any more five-franc pieces were
concealed about their persons.

The morning after we sailed from Duala we anchored in the river in
front of Calabar, the capital of Southern Nigeria. Of all the ports
at which we touched on the Coast, Calabar was the hottest, the best
looking, and the best administered. It is a model colony, but to
bring it to the state it now enjoys has cost sums of money entirely
out of proportion to those the colony has earned. The money has been
spent in cutting down the jungle, filling in swamps that breed
mosquitoes and fever, and in laying out gravel walks, water mains,
and open cement gutters, and in erecting model hospitals, barracks,
and administrative offices. Even grass has been made to grow, and
the high bluff upon which are situated the homes of the white
officials and Government House has been trimmed and cultivated and
tamed until it looks like an English park. It is a complete
imitation, even to golf links and tennis courts. But the fight that
has been made against the jungle has not stopped with golf links. In
1896 the death rate was ten men out of every hundred. That
corresponds to what in warfare is a decimating fire, upon which an
officer, without danger of reproof, may withdraw his men. But at
Calabar the English doctors did not withdraw, and now the death rate
is as low as three out of every hundred. That Calabar, or any part
of the West Coast, will ever be made entirely healthy is doubtful.
Man can cut down a forest and fill in a swamp, but he can not reach
up, as to a gas jet, and turn off the sun. And at Calabar, even at
night when the sun has turned itself off, the humidity and the heat
leave one sweating, tossing, and gasping for air. In Calabar the
first thing a white man learns is not to take any liberties with the
sun. When he dresses, eats, drinks, and moves about the sun is as
constantly on his mind, as it is on the face of the sun-dial. The
chief ascent to the top of the bluff where the white people live is
up a steep cement walk about eighty yards long. At the foot of this
a white man will be met by four hammock-bearers, and you will see
him get into the hammock and be carried in it the eighty yards.

For even that short distance he is taking no chances. But while he
nurses his vitality and cares for his health he does not use the sun
as an excuse for laziness or for slipshod work. I have never seen a
place in the tropics where, in spite of the handicap of damp, fierce
heat, the officers and civil officials are so keenly and constantly
employed, where the bright work was so bright, and the whitewash so
white.

Out at the barracks of the West African Frontier Force, the
W.A.F.F.'s, the officers, instead of from the shade of the veranda
watching the non-coms. teach a native the manual, were themselves at
work, and each was howling orders at the black recruits and smashing
a gun against his hip and shoulder as smartly as a drill sergeant. I
found the standard maintained at Calabar the more interesting
because the men were almost entirely their own audience. If they
make the place healthy, and attractive-looking, and dress for
dinner, and shy at cocktails, and insist that their tan shoes shall
glow like meershaum pipes, it is not because of the refining
presence of lovely women, but because the men themselves like things
that way. The men of Calabar have learned that when the sun is at
110, morals, like material things, disintegrate, and that, though
the temptation is to go about in bath-room slippers and pajamas, one
is wiser to bolster up his drenched and drooping spirit with a stiff
shirt front and a mess jacket. They tell that in a bush station in
upper Nigeria, one officer got his D.S.O. because with an audience
of only a white sergeant he persisted in a habit of shaving twice a
day.

[Illustration: The Home of the Thirty Queens of King Mango Bell.]

There are very few women in Calabar. There are three or four who are
wives of officials, two nurses employed by the government, and the
Mother Superior and Sisters of the Order of St. Joseph, and, of
course, all of them are great belles. For the Sisters, especially
the officers, the government people, the traders, the natives, even
the rival missionaries, have the most tremendous respect and
admiration. The sacrifice of the woman who, to be near her husband
on the Coast, consents to sicken and fade and grow old before her
time, and of the nurse who, to preserve the health of others, risks
her own, is very great; but the sacrifice of the Sisters, who have
renounced all thought of home and husband, and who have exiled
themselves to this steaming swamp-land, seems the most unselfish. In
order to support the 150 little black boys and girls who are at
school at the mission, the Sisters rob themselves of everything
except the little that will keep them alive. Two, in addition to
their work at the mission, act as nurses in the English hospital,
and for that they receive together $600. This forms the sole regular
income of the five women; for each $120 a year. With anything else
that is given them in charity, they buy supplies for the little
converts. They live in a house of sandstone and zinc that holds the
heat like a flat-iron, they are obliged to wear a uniform that is of
material and fashion so unsuited to the tropics that Dr. Chichester,
in charge of the hospital, has written in protest against it to
Rome, and on many days they fast, not because the Church bids them
so to do, but because they have no food. And with it all, these five
gentlewomen are always eager, cheerful, sweet of temper, and a
living blessing to all who meet them. What now troubles them is that
they have no room to accommodate the many young heathen who come to
them to be taught to wear clothes, and to be good little boys and
girls. This is causing the Sisters great distress. Any one who does
not believe in that selfish theory, that charity begins at home, but
who would like to help to spread Christianity in darkest Africa and
give happiness to five noble women, who are giving their lives for
others, should send a postal money order to Marie T. Martin, the
Reverend Mother Superior of the Catholic Mission of Old Calabar,
Southern Nigeria.

And if you are going to do it, as they say in the advertising pages,
"Do it now!"

[Illustration: The Mother Superior and Sisters of St. Joseph and
Their Converts at Old Calabar.]

At Calabar there is a royal prisoner, the King of Benin. He is not
an agreeable king like His Majesty of the Cameroons, but a grossly
fat, sensual-looking young man, who, a few years ago, when he was at
war with the English, made "ju ju" against them by sacrificing three
hundred maidens, his idea being that the ju ju would drive the
English out of Benin. It was poor ju ju, for it drove the young man
himself out of Benin, and now he is a king in exile. As far as I
could see, the social position of the king is insecure, and
certainly in Calabar he does not move in the first circles. One
afternoon, when the four or five ladies of Calabar and Mr. Bedwell,
the Acting Commissioner, and the officers of the W.A.F.F.'s were at
the clubhouse having ice-drinks, the king at the head of a retinue
of cabinet officers, high priests, and wives bore down upon the
club-house with the evident intention of inviting himself to tea.
Personally, I should like to have met a young man who could murder
three hundred girls and worry over it so little that he had not lost
one of his three hundred pounds, but the others were considerably
annoyed and sent an A.D.C. to tell him to "Move on!" as though he
were an organ-grinder, or a performing bear.

"These kings," exclaimed a subaltern of the W.A.F.F.'s, indignantly,
"are trying to push in everywhere!"

When we departed from Calabar, the only thing that reconciled me to
leaving it and its charming people, was the fact that when the ship
moved there was a breeze. While at anchor in the river I had found
that not being able to breathe by day or to sleep by night in time
is trying, even to the stoutest constitution.

One of the married ladies of Calabar, her husband, an officer of
the W.A.F.F.'s, and the captain of the police sailed on the
_Nigeria_ "on leave," and all Calabar came down to do them honor.
There was the commissioner's gig, and the marine captain's gig, and
the police captain's gig, and the gig from "Matilda's," the English
trading house, and one from the Dutch house and the French house,
and each gig was manned by black boys in beautiful uniforms and
fezzes, and each crew fought to tie up to the foot of the
accommodation ladder. It was as gay as a regatta. On the
quarter-deck the officers drank champagne, in the captain's cabin
Hughes treated the traders to beer, in the "square" the non-coms. of
the W.A.F.F.'s drank ale. The men who were going away on leave tried
not to look too happy, and those who were going back to the shore
drank deep and tried not to appear too carelessly gay. A billet on
the West Coast is regarded by the man who accepts it as a sort of
sporting proposition, as a game of three innings of nine months
each, during which he matches his health against the Coast. If he
lives he wins; if he dies the Coast wins.

After Calabar, at each port off which we anchored, at Ponny,
Focardos, Lagos, Accra, Cape Coast Castle, and Sekonni, it was
always the same. Always there came over the side the man going
"Home," the man who had fought with the Coast and won. He was as
excited, as jubilant as a prisoner sentenced to death who had
escaped his executioners. And always the heartiest in their
congratulations were the men who were left behind, his brother
officers, or his fellow traders, the men of the Sun Hat Brigade, in
their unofficial uniforms, in shirtwaists, broad belts from which
dangled keys and a whistle, beautifully polished tan boots, and with
a wand-like whip or stick of elephant hide. They swarmed the decks
and overwhelmed the escaping refugee with good wishes. He had
cheated their common enemy. By merely keeping alive he had achieved
a glorious victory. In their eyes he had performed a feat of
endurance like swimming the English Channel. They crowded to
congratulate him as people at the pit-mouth congratulate the
entombed miner, who, after many days of breathing noisome gases,
drinks the pure air. Even the black boys seem to feel the triumph
of the white master, and their paddles never flashed so bravely, and
their songs never rang so wildly, as when they were racing him away
from the brooding Coast with its poisonous vapors toward the big
white ship that meant health and home.

Although most of the ports we saw only from across a mile or two of
breakers, they always sent us something of interest. Sometimes all
the male passengers came on board drunk. With the miners of the Gold
Coast and the "Palm Oil Ruffians" it used to be a matter of
etiquette not to leave the Coast in any other condition. Not so to
celebrate your escape seemed ungenerous and ungrateful. At Sekondi
one of the miners from Ashanti was so completely drunk, that he was
swung over the side, tied up like a plum-pudding, in a bag.

When he emerged from the bag his expression of polite inquiry was
one with which all could sympathize. To lose consciousness on the
veranda of a café, and awake with a bump on the deck of a steamer
many miles at sea, must strengthen one's belief in magic carpets.

Another entertainment for the white passengers was when the boat
boys fought for the black passengers as they were lowered in the
mammy-chair. As a rule, in the boats from shore, there were twelve
boys to paddle and three or four extra men to handle and unhook the
mammy-chair and the luggage. While the boys with the paddles
manoeuvred to bring their boat next to the ship's side, the extra
boys tried to pull their rivals overboard, dragging their hands from
ropes and gunwales, and beating them with paddles. They did this
while every second the boat under them was spinning in the air or
diving ten feet into the hollow of the waves, and trying to smash
itself and every other boat into driftwood. From the deck the second
officer would swing a mammy-chair over the side with the idea of
dropping it into one of these boats. But before the chair could be
lowered, a rival boat would shove the first one away, and with a
third boat would be fighting for its place. Meanwhile, high above
the angry sea, the chair and its cargo of black women would be
twirling like a weathercock and banging against the ship's side. The
mammies were too terrified to scream, but the ship's officers
yelled and swore, the boat's crews shrieked, and the black babies
howled. Each baby was strapped between the shoulders of the mother.
A mammy-chair is like one of those two-seated swings in which people
sit facing one another. If to the shoulders of each person in the
swing was tied a baby, it is obvious that should the swing bump into
anything, the baby would get the worst of it. That is what happened
in the mammy-chair. Every time the chair spun around, the head of a
baby would come "crack!" against the ship's side. So the babies
howled, and no one of the ship's passengers, crowded six deep along
the rail, blamed them. The skull of the Ethiopian may be hard, but
it is most unfair to be swathed like a mummy so that you can neither
kick nor strike back, and then have your head battered against a
five-thousand-ton ship.

How the boys who paddled the shore boats live long enough to learn
how to handle them is a great puzzle. We were told that the method
was to take out one green boy with a crew of eleven experts. But how
did the original eleven become experts? At Accra, where the waves
are very high and rough, are the best boat boys on the coast. We
watched the Custom House boat fight her way across the two miles of
surf to the shore. The fight lasted two hours. It was as thrilling
as watching a man cross Niagara Falls on a tight-rope. The greater
part of the two hours the boat stood straight in the air, as though
it meant to shake the crew into the sea, and the rest of the time it
ran between walls of water ten feet high and was entirely lost to
sight. Two things about the paddling on the West Coast make it
peculiar; the boys sit, not on the thwarts, but on the gunwales, as
a woman rides a side-saddle, and in many parts of the coast the boys
use paddles shaped like a fork or a trident. One asks how, sitting
as they do, they are able to brace themselves, and how with their
forked paddles they obtained sufficient resistance. A coaster's
explanation of the split paddle was that the boys did not want any
more resistance than they could prevent.

[Illustration: The Kroo Boys Sit, Not On the Thwarts, but On the
Gunwales, as a Woman Rides a Side Saddle.]

There is no more royal manner of progress than when one of these
boats lifts you over the waves, with the boys chanting some wild
chorus, with their bare bodies glistening, their teeth and eyes
shining, the splendid muscles straining, and the dripping paddles
flashing like twelve mirrors.

Some of the chiefs have canoes of as much as sixty men-power,
and when these men sing, and their bodies and voices are in
unison, a war canoe seems the only means of locomotion, and a
sixty-horse-power racing car becomes a vehicle suited only to the
newly rich.

I knew I had left the West Coast when, the very night we sailed from
Sierra Leone, for greater comfort, I reached for a linen bed-spread
that during four stifling, reeking weeks had lain undisturbed at the
foot of the berth. During that time I had hated it as a monstrous
thing; as something as hot and heavy as a red flannel blanket, as a
buffalo robe. And when, on the following night, I found the
wind-screen was not in the air port, and that, nevertheless, I still
was alive, I knew we had passed out of reach of the Equator, and
that all that followed would be as conventional as the "trippers"
who joined us at the Canary Isles; and as familiar as the low, gray
skies, the green, rain-soaked hills, and the complaining Channel
gulls that convoyed us into Plymouth Harbor.




VII

ALONG THE EAST COAST


Were a man picked up on a flying carpet and dropped without warning
into Lorenço Marquez, he might guess for a day before he could make
up his mind where he was, or determine to which nation the place
belonged.

If he argued from the adobe houses with red-tiled roofs and walls of
cobalt blue, the palms, and the yellow custom-house, he might think
he was in Santiago; the Indian merchants in velvet and gold
embroideries seated in deep, dark shops which breathe out dry,
pungent odors, might take him back to Bombay; the Soudanese and
Egyptians in long blue night-gowns and freshly ironed fezzes would
remind him of Cairo; the dwarfish Portuguese soldiers, of Madeira,
Lisbon, and Madrid, and the black, bare-legged policemen in khaki
with great numerals on their chests, of Benin, Sierra Leone, or
Zanzibar. After he had noted these and the German, French, and
English merchants in white duck, and the Dutch man-of-warsmen, who
look like ship's stewards, the French marines in coal-scuttle
helmets, the British Jack-tars in their bare feet, and the native
Kaffir women, each wrapped in a single, gorgeous shawl with a black
baby peering from beneath her shoulder-blades, he would decide, by
using the deductive methods of Sherlock Holmes, that he was in the
Midway of the Chicago Fair.

Several hundred years ago Da Gama sailed into Delagoa Bay and
founded the town of Lorenço Marquez, and since that time the
Portuguese have always felt that it is only due to him and to
themselves to remain there. They have great pride of race, and they
like the fact that they possess and govern a colony. So, up to the
present time, in spite of many temptations to dispose of it, they
have made the ownership of Delagoa Bay an article of their national
religion. But their national religion does not require of them to
improve their property. And to-day it is much as it was when the
sails of Da Gama's fleet first stirred its poisonous vapors.

The harbor itself is an excellent one and the bay is twenty-two
miles along, but there is only one landing-pier, and that such a
pier as would be considered inconsistent with the dignity of the
Larchmont Yacht Club. To the town itself Portugal has been content
to contribute as her share the gatherers of taxes, collectors of
customs and dispensers of official seals. She is indifferent to the
fact that the bulk of general merchandise, wine, and machinery that
enter her port is brought there by foreigners. She only demands that
they buy her stamps. Her importance in her own colony is that of a
toll-gate at the entrance of a great city.

Lorenço Marquez is not a spot which one would select for a home.
When I was first there, the deaths from fever were averaging fifteen
a day, and men who dined at the club one evening were buried


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Online LibraryRichard Harding DavisThe Congo and Coasts of Africa → online text (page 8 of 10)