The New York Times, November 1, 1885, p.12:|
THE GAMBIA'S FEVER SWAMP.
BATHURST [Banjul], River Gambia, Aug. 11.—This will probably be our last sight of Africa till we steam past Cape Verde [Cap-Vert] toward the Congo next May. For the present, what with shipwrecks, fevers, short provisions, ants, ulcers, bad water, and other "local industries," we have had almost enough of it, and the dismal series is appropriately closed by our visit to the pretty little island metropolis whose painted houses and clustering palm trees stretch along the water's edge on our starboard bow, beautiful and picturesque to all outward appearances, but in reality one of the deadliest spots in the whole of this fatal continent.
The first sight of this little capital of England's settlements on the Gambia suggests the sudden transportation of Coney Island by some magical power to the west coast of Africa. True, the resemblence is somewhat marred by a stray clump of tropical vegetation every here and there. But the trim white houses, with their green "Venetians" and smart red roofs, the tall trees that start up among them, the constant flutter of gay-colored flags, the long wooden pier jutting out into the greenish-gray water, the flat, sandy beach, the big, many-windowed, whitewashed buildings midway along it, the strip of level ground on which they stand, and the dark mass of wooding that closes in the picture exactly reproduce the figures of the American Margate, although the latter happily falls short of its African prototype, both in malaria and mosquitos.
Malaria indeed, is the one thing that never fails at any West African port. However the supplies of life may run short, the supply of death is inexhaustible. I still hope that when once we get clear of this fatal coast and come fairly out into the pure air of the breezy Atlantic our plague-stricken ship may at length shake off the taint that has clung to her so long. But just at present it seems only too probably that the fever may finish with more than one of us what the shipwreck began.
Only this morning one of our sick men on the forecastle came running aft in a fit of delirium with nothing on but his shirt, and was just going to jump overboard, when two or three of us seized and held him back.
Of the three fever patients on the after deck one is so weak that he can scarcely lift his hand to his mouth, while another seems to be literally on fire, the temperature of his skin being at 105° Fahrenheit when I saw him yesterday afternoon. Our third officer is still in a very bad way, and even our first, who has borne up manfully till now, is "on his back" at last.
Poor Capt. Porter is still suffering terribly from the ulcerated limb which has tormented him unceasingly while he was caring for our shipwrecked company, and giving himself no chance of the rest which he so greviously needed. In a word, our present muster is on a par with that of the Irish officer whose company was reduced to "twelve effective men, five of whom were in hospital with typhus fever."
To return to Bathurst, one may notice other points of resemblence to Coney Island in the size and shape of the islet on which it stands, and its separation from the mainland by the narrow, muddy winding length of Oyster Creek. Its dignity as capital is amply sustained by its venerable antiquity (having been founded as long ago as 1816) and its vast population, which, when the fever season is over, occasionally rises as high as 9,000 souls.
Its spacious piers, 30 feet in length, thronged with crowds of two or three people, and piled high with two biscuit boxes and a sardine tin, bear witness to its flourishing commerce, while its possession of an actual hotel, two flagpoles, and a battery of real cannon—which, however, the prudent inhabitants never attempt to fire—naturally makes it one of the brightest second-hand jewels in the crown of England.
An official "Blue Book" would probably sum it up as follows: "Principal exports, fever and dysentery; principal imports, quinine and rum; internal communication, chiefly by wading or jumping; manners, none; customs, extremely hard to pass with baggage; religion, not yet ascertained; inhabitants, frogs, crocodiles, mosquitoes, and 'chigoes,' (burrowing fleas); chief local artistry, thieving; revenue, varying according the the success of overcharges; language, unprintable; government, a limited monarchy, extending about two miles on either side of Government House."
The approach to this charming place is in every way worthy of it, and would have exactly suited that delightful moralist who spoke of having witnessed "every popular English amusement, from the quiet, sociable cheerfulness of a funeral to the boisterous gayety of a hanging." Even he, however, could scarcely have evolved much cheerfulness from the seaward aspect of Cape St. Mary.
The first sign of its presence is a kind of "rash" of tree tops all along the surface of the sea, which is fast changing from its usual deep blue to the foul greenish-gray borrowed from the thick, soup-like current poured into it by the Gambia. Presently another vegetable eruption breaks out on the opposite side, and we find ourselves sailing between two long slanting bands of drowned forest, which seem outstretched like the jaws of some mighty monster gaping to devour us.
And now there arises before us in tall its terrible monotony one of the gloomiest spectacles in existence, viz., a genuine seaboard forest on the low-lying coast of West Africa. What an untamed African jungle really is no one who has not actually seen it can easily imagine. The nearest approach that I can make to describing it must be given in better words than my own, the words of one of us who has had as his playmates for years past the worst perils and hardships and diseases of the Dark Continent:
"We, accustomed to rapid marching, had to stand in our places for minutes at a time, waiting patiently for an advance of a few yards, after which would come another halt and then another short advance, only to again be halted. And all this time the trees kept shredding their dew upon us like rain in great, round drops. Every leaf seemed weeping. Down the boles and branches, the creepers and vegetable cords the moisture trickled and fell on us.|
"Overhead the wide-spreading boughs, in many interlaced strata, (each bough heavy with broad, thick leaves,) absolutely shut out the daylight. We knew not whether it was a sunshiny day or a dull, foggy, gloomy one, for we marched in a solemn twilight, such as you may experience in temperate climes an hour after sunset. The path soon became a stiff clayey paste, and at every step we splashed water over the legs of those in front and on either side of us. To our right and left, to the height of about 20 feet, towered the undergrowth, the lower world of vegetation. The soil on which this thrives is a dark brown vegetable humus, the debris of ages of rotting leaves and fallen branches—a very forcing house of vegetable life, which, constantly fed with moisture, illustrates us in an astonishing degree the prolific power of the warm, moist shades of the tropics.
"This terrible undergrowth, which here engrossed all the space under the shade of the pillared bombax and the mast-like 'mvulé,' was a miracle of vegetation. It consisted of ferns, spear grass, water-cane, and orchidaceous plants mixed with wild vines, cable thicknesses of the [illegible], and a sprinkling of mimosas, acaclas, tamarinds, lhanes, palms of various species—the wild date, the oil palm, the Raphia vinitera, the fan, rattans, and a hundred other varieties—all struggling for every inch of space and swarming upward with a rank luxuriance and density that only this extraordinary hothouse atmosphere could nourish. We had certainly seen forests before, but this scene was an epoch in our lives, ever to be remembered for its bitterness. The gloom enhanced the dismal misery of our life. The slopping moisture, the unhealthy, reeking atmosphere, the monotony of the scenes—nothing but the eternal interlaced branches and the tall, aspiring stems, rising from a tangle through which we had to burrow and crawl like wild animals on our hands and feet."
This is what both banks of the Gambia are like for several miles above it actual mouth, the three or four mighty trees that tower above the dead level of the surrounding jungle intensifying instead of relieving its grim and gloomy sameness. The one redeeming feature in the whole of this dismal landscape is the headland of St. Mary itself, the red cliffs of which, rising 50 feet above the sullen waters, and crested with feathery cocoa palms, give to the lifeless panorama a gleam of color which it sorely needs, while the broad white front of the Convalescent Home, standing boldly out from among the trees, offers a satisfactory assurance that civilization has penetrated even here.
Other evidences of the white man's presence appear in the form of the buoys that mark the channel and the "light-ship" that sentinels its entrance. But these are soon left behind, and as we sweep onward up the river, the town of Bathurst begins to define itself in jaunty white and red against the dark green background of clustering leaves. A few small houses, scattered like torn paper along the low, flat shore of St. Mary Island, are dimly visible under the shadow of the trees.
Further on, the white walls and scarlet roof of the hospital stand boldly out in the foreground, with a sturdy "I'm not ashamed of myself" air that contrasts very favorably with the shrinking attitude of Government House, half buried in overhanging boughs whose shadows symbolize aptly enough the cloud of official mystery in which all do-nothing Governments prudently envelop their weakness, while the tall, bare flagpole overhead seems to typify their customary barrenness in point of results.
A second flagpole sentinels the low, brown seam of the battery, just opposite which, as if in order to invite a comparison that cannot be otherwise than favorable to herself, lies the Alecto gunboat, with her two pale yellow smokestacks, her sturdy "dam" bow, and her low, white solid business-like hull.
And now, gliding past the end of the wooden pier, we come right upon the main town itself. I have already compared it to Coney Island; but any one who has been upon the Isthmus of Panama and has seen the quaint half-Spanish houses of Aspinwall [Colón] clustering along the low, flat, thickly wooded shore of Manzanilla Island, can easily suggest another and perhaps a better parallel.
More than a dozen craft are settled like flies upon the water in front of the town, but we look in vain for the trading steamer which goes up and down the river at stated intervals, ascending the stream from as far as Macarthy Island [MacCarthy Island], 150 miles from the sea. In fact, light vessels with a draught of not more than 10 feet can penetrate as far as Yahlahlenda, 70 miles further up.
see also: Mauritania News - Mali News - Senegal News - Guinea News|
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The Gambia gained its independence from the UK in 1965. Geographically surrounded by Senegal, it formed a short-lived federation of Senegambia between 1982 and 1989. In 1991 the two nations signed a friendship and cooperation treaty, but tensions have flared up intermittently since then.
Yahya A. J. J. JAMMEH led a military coup in 1994 that overthrew the president and banned political activity. A new constitution and presidential elections in 1996, followed by parliamentary balloting in 1997, completed a nominal return to civilian rule.
JAMMEH has been elected president in all subsequent elections, including most recently in late 2006.
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