The New York Times, November 7, 1886, p.6:|
ON FERNANDO PO ISLANDTHINGS TO SEE IN A ROBINSON CRUSOE SORT OF PLACE.
THE FINEST ISLAND ON THE COAST--A MAGNIFICENT GROVE OF MANGOES--AN ARMY OF TERRIBLE ANTS.
FERNANDO PO ISLAND, BIGHT OF BIAFARA, WEST AFRICA, Aug. 7--Had that great historical navigator, Captain Robinson Crusoe, been wrecked here instead of lighting upon that mysterious islet "near the mouth of the great river Oreonoque," he would be a lucky man indeed. This is just the very island where all young readers of his adventures long to be wrecked themselves. Fancy an English or American schoolboy turned loose in a land where pineapples grow wild like huckleberries, where banana palms cluster so thickly that one can hardly squeeze one's self between them, where one's foot slips on ripe bread fruits and bread nuts at almost every step, and where mangoes and oranges lie rolling in the dirt like stones do at home.
Nor is the beauty of this dainty little paradise of the ocean less wonderful than its fertility. From the first faint glimpse of it as a vast pyramid of purple shadow towering far up against the bright southern sky down to the moment when the wood-crowned headland of Point William is seen drooping its garlands of dark, rich foliage into the cool, transparent water within a cable's length of the anchored ship, this equatorial Teneriffe fills the eye with a wealth of tropical coloring and tropical splendor which no words can describe. Tennyson himself could hardly wish a more perfect illustration of one of the finest passages in Locksley Hall:
Never comes the trader, never floats a European flag,|
Slides the bird o'er lustrous woodland,
swings the trailer from the crag.
Droops the heavy-blossomed bower, hangs the heavy fruited tree,
Summer isles of Eden lying in dark purple spheres of sea.
Fernando Po [now called Bioko Island] possesses all the above requisites except one, and should the depression of West African trade go much further, the elimination of the "European flag" will not be long wanting to complete the picture.
Most magnificent of all is the panorama of the northern shore as seen from the anchorage at Clarence Cove on a fine Summer evening. In the huge corpse of the dead volcano time and storm have scooped a charming little bay of sunlit water, fenced on the landward side by a wall of cliff straight and even as the rampart of a fortress, which sweeps in one great curve around the whole of the wide crescent between Point William and Point Adelaide.
So thickly has the luxuriant African vegetation trailed itself over this great intrenchment of nature that only here and there can one catch a passing glimpse of the bare gray rock beneath. Similar masses of leaves hide the tops of the craggy islets that stud the bay and hang in graceful festoons down their gaunt black sides.
Along the brow of the cliff, like chimney ornaments ranged upon a colossal mantlepiece, stand five or six houses and storesheds, with the white walls, broad overhanging roofs, and spacious verandas characteristic of all European dwellings in West Africa. To the right of these stands a neat little church, outlining its snow-white belfry very prettily against the sea of green leaves and feathery tree tops that fills up the background, while high above all, more than 10,000 feet above the blue, sparkling sea from which it rises, the mighty summit of Clarence Peak soars upward into the sky like an embodied prayer.
"I'll take you for a run on shore if you care to come," said our worthy skipper, Capt. Jolly, (who deserves his name as fully as a man can do,) tapping at our door between 5 and 6 o'clock this morning. "I'll have the boat alongside by the time you're ready and we'll go and look at some of the coffee plantations on the ridge above the bay and then come back in time for breakfast by way of the town and cemetary."
Such a chance was far too precious to be neglected. To have our bath, dress, and swallow our early tea and biscuit--without which no one should ever venture upon a morning walk in this climate--was, as a sensation novelist would have said, "the work of a moment," and just as the sun peered above the woodcrowned hills overhead our boat darted away from the ship's side as quickly as four sturdy Kroo oarsmen could drive her.
It is in these burning equatorial latitudes that one learns to appreciate at their true value the cool hours of early morning, while their freshness is still unmarred by the destroying heat to come. The Captain has certainly chosen his time well. The light morning breeze is just beginning to ruffle the great waste of smooth sea--upon which, about half a mile astern of us, rise the tapering masts and graceful spars of two British gunboats--and to sway languidly the broad banner-like leaves of the vast host of cocoa palms and plantains which cover the whole hillside down to the water's edge.
But even before setting foot on the beach we can discern abundant proofs of the wasteful and destructive neglect by which Spain has been paralyzing the magnificent resources of the finest island on the coast of Africa ever since she first obtained possession of it in 1778. The few buildings around the landing place, whose torn and half-decayed thatches seem to be fast parting company with their moldering planks, wear a look of chronic and undisguised slovenliness which tells its own story.
Out of the shallow water close to the beach starts gauntly a mass of rotting timbers that once formed the hull of a gallant ship, which seems to gaze at us through its empty ports with the blank, unseeing stare of a man born blind. The "quay" at which we land is merely a rickety framework of battered and rusty iron plates, (evidently taken from some dismantled steamer,) every part of which is honeycombed with holes so many and so deep that any man who should venture upon it in the dark would have as little chance of escaping unhurt as Bunyan's Pilgrim amid the countless traps and pitfalls which beset his way through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
Just in front of this elegant pier the luxuriant wooding which clothes the ridge from base to summit at every other point has been unsparingly hacked away, and two zigzag paths have been made up the face of the hill, one curving to the right and the other to the left. At the point where they diverge there yawns in the green hillside a deep low-browed archway, damp, black, and dismal as the mouth of a tunnel, which suggests some enchanted cavern like that in which Aladdin found his wonderful lamp, or that whence Ali Baba carried off the spoils of the Forty Thieves.
But no, it is only a "lock-up"--a terribly exact reproduction of the dark, dripping, rock-cut dungeon which a handsome young Montenegrin chief showed us with patriotic pride close to the church at Cettinje six years ago. Happily, this underground prison is no longer used as such, but the broad, deep groove in the rock which once held the ponderous door that has long since moldered away calls up ghastly visions of what may have happened on this spot a century ago. For in those days a Spanish colonial Governor held irresponsible power, and might conveniently forget the doomed wretch whom he had immured in this horrible vault until famine or the teeth of the hungry rats had done their work, and had left only a few whitening bones in mute witness of the nameless horrors that had been.
"These chaps ain't the regular people of the island, you know," says Capt. Jolly, as three or four tall negroes, neatly dressed in white, go past us with a civil greeting in English. "These are Kroo boys, imported from the West Coast. The folks of the island live more up among the hills, and I doubt if we'll fall in with any of 'em to-day. The white men call 'em 'Boobies,' because whenever they meet a stranger they sing out 'Booby,' which is only as if we should say 'Good-morning,' though of course it don't sound very polite. But you can't get 'em to do a stroke of work at any price, so the Spaniards have to import Kroo boys from the West Coast and make them work for 'em instead."
"They seem to have learned English pretty well," observed I.
"Well, you see, this place where we are now is the most English part of the island. We had a regular supply station here in 1827 for the British cruisers that were running up and down the coast after the Portigee slavers, but the place turned out unhealthy, and the Spaniards made a fuss about our being there upon their ground, and so we gave it up. Then after a while some English missionaries came and settled there and started a school for the natives. But a year or two ago the Spaniards began bothering them in all sorts of ways. They wouldn't let 'em teach English in their school, and they told 'em to ring their bells and sing their psalms quietly, so as they couldn't be heard outside, and at last they bundled the whole kit of them out of the place, neck and crop, and forbade 'em ever to come back. Now, I wonder how they'd like it themselves if we were to kick all the Spaniards out of Gibraltar some fine morning."
The Captain concludes his explanation by pointing out the ex-mission, a snug little building with the usual projecting roof, long low front, and shady veranda, standing in a pretty garden close behind the church...
From the little "town"--which is smaller than many an American hamlet--we pass at one stride into the "breadths of tropic shade and palms in cluster" which Tennyson loved to picture. African roads are in some points very much like African rivers, although the former contain by far the more water of the two. Near the mouth of the road, before quitting the street which forms its estuary, it is usually broad and straight enough to be perfectly navigable. But as you ascend its channel the road dwindles to a path, and the path to a goat track, till by the time you near its source you will require a microscope to find out whether you are on the "road" or off it.
Moreover, the path which we are following is as slippery as a skating rink from the recent rains, and when it mounts a steep rise or slopes suddenly down into a hollow we have much ado to keep from going sprawling on our backs at ever step.
We have hardly got clear of the town when we plunge into a magnificent grove of mangoes, whose dark masses of foliage, forming a perfect arch overhead, soften the bright morning sunshine into a rich Summer gloom of purple twilight, which harmonizes well with the solemn silence of this great cathedral of nature.
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