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The New York Times, November 7, 1886, p.6:



    CREEK TOWN, CROSS RIVER, WEST AFRICA, Sept. 16--The cool temperature which we found on the south side of the equator is being amply counterbalanced by the stifling, breezeless, vapor bath heat to the north of it, of which our present position, more than 50 miles from the sea, between two thick walls of rank tropical vegetation, is giving us an experience more striking than agreeable. I have already quoted the famous couplet:

Beware, beware of the Bight of Benin
For one that comes out, there were forty went in.

    But the sister gulf might be justly described in a similar fashion:

Beware, beware of the Bight of Biafara,
Which toasts every white man as black as a Kaffir, ah!

    It is in such places that one learns to appreciate the real conditions of life in the tropics and the overwhelming difficulties which beset every European whether trader or soldier, in contending with the untamed might of equatorial nature. Sitting sungly at home in an armchair, with a map of Africa on one's knee, it is easy enough to make successful campaigns or establish thriving markets, to bridge rivers, hew down forests, and construct level highways, and to prate glibly of "all obstacles yielding to the magical power of science and determination."
    But the man who has to translate these comfortable theories into fact naturally begins to lose faith in the efficacy of science and determination when he finds his new highroad buried several feet underwater by a single storm, his bales of cloth devoured by white ants, his bridges swept away like straws by a flood or a landslip, his half-cleared jungles springing up again faster than he can cut them down, his trading stations torn in pieces by a tornado or plundered and burned by a gang of marauding savages, himself and his colleagues prostrated three or four times a month by fever or dysentery.

    Happily the prevalent heat--although quite sufficient to justify our Captain's forcible assertion that he would rather "have his nose rubbed with a brick than write a letter"--falls short of the amazing temperature ascribed to this region in the fourteenth century by good old Sir John Maundeville:

Now in this Lybique (African) sea there bene no manner of fish, forasmuch as the water thereof is boiling hot, like unto the water of a caldron, so that all fish which happen therein do die straightaway, neither may any live there in any wise.

    To pull up a dish of cooked herring or cod straight out of the sea would certainly be an interesting novelty, recalling the inventive Irishman who gave his fowls hot water to dring "so that they'll be afther layin' boiled eggs." But even as it is, the damp, steaming heat that makes every breath a labor is a dismal change after the glorious freshness of Ambas Bay, (our intermediate halting place between the Cameroons River and our present station,) annexed by England in 1884 as a set-off against Bismarck's pounce upon Cameroons.
    The worthy folks who think of Africa as a boundless desert, flat as a fashionable novel, and bare as a subscription list, would be mightily astonished by the panorama of this splendid bay, which is unquestionably the finest specimen of African scenery that we have encountered since losing the sight of the coast of Angola.

    On entering the bay one might almost fancy one's self the first explorer that had ever penetrated it, so silent and lonely is the aspect of the vast shadowy mountains which, clothed with an unbroken mass of dark woods from base to summit, start up sheer out of the sea on every side. Overshadowed by these mighty ramparts our steamer looks a mere toy as she lies motionless on that league-broad expanse of smooth, steel-gray water, in the centre of which MondolÚ Island towers grim and solitary, one great castle of clustering leaves.
    Amid such surroundings one may well be opressed by that unquiet sense of being an alien and an intruder which haunted me amid the tremendous desolation of the Sahara Desert and the cold, unearthly splendor of the Himalaya.

    But on a closer inspection the signs of man's presence begin to assert themselves here and there in this great sanctuary of nature. Far away to our left the sea of dark-green foliage, outspread over the curving shore, is broken at one point by a patch of yellowish brown suggestive of withered leaves, but really formed by the grass thatches of the 20 or 30 hovels composing a native "town."
    In front of us stand, perched on the only strip of level beach anywhere visible, the two small white cottages forming the missionary "village" of Victoria, while on our right, half way up the shaggy side of MondolÚ Island, hangs like a picture upon a wall the little whitewashed hut of bamboo which is the present residence of the British Vice-Consul, whose boat, with the union jack fluttering at her stern, comes gliding out toward us from among the trees as we stand watching.

    Just then an officer calls our attention to the famous "tunneled rocks," which are perhaps the most characteristic feature of this region of wonders. On the northern side of the bay a sombre procession of craggy islets, crested with dark-green clumps of overhanging trees, stretch forth from a projecting headland into the sea.
    Through each of these rocky towers the ceaseless hammering of the waves has hewed a mighty arch, huge and massive and gloomy as the portal of the underground temple at Elephanta, and around the grim gateways which they have fashioned the breakers are still roaring and leaping and dashing in mast-high spouts of foam, like monsters of romance guarding the door of some enchanted palace against the coming of the champion destined to break the spell.

    But the bustle and shouting that greet the arrival of the vice-consular boat make us turn round just in time to see coming up the ladder toward us a figure which at first sight seems appears to be that of a slim, palefaced, rather limp boy in a straw hat, who may have overworked or overeaten himself at school and had to take a holiday. On a nearer view this surmise is contradicted by the light smear of down on his upper lip, but had I not previously met him in the Calabar district, I should certainly be slow to believe that this soft-voiced, smooth-cheeked little fellow can really be the local representative of the majesty of the British Empire, the ascender of the Congo as far as Bolobo, the most recent explorer of the Upper Cameroons--in a word the reknowned H. H. Johnstone himself, author of The River Congo.

    At Duke Town, the capital of the Calabar district, (which lies a few hours sail to the west of Ambas Bay,) we met another man of some celebrity, who, in virtue of his dignity as British Consul, inhabited the ugliest house in the whole settlement. This was Mr. Hewitt, who was a good deal heard of two years ago in connection with the German annexation of the Cameroons, and who is otherwise known to the world as the brother of that Admiral Hewitt who, as Paddy would say, "succeeded in failing" in his famous mission to King John of Abyssinia at the close of the Soudan war.

    Beyond Duke Town--which I have fully described in a former letter--is Old Town, a tiny cluster of trading houses and stores on the brink of the river, overhung by a steep bank. A few miles further up the stream lies Creek Town, named from the creek which connects it with Cross River. Our voyage up to it in the ship's steam launch--for no larger craft could have threaded its way through the gloomy maze of drowned thickets that lay between--gave us a good idea of what Equatorial Africa really is.
    Scarcely had we come in sight of the town when a torrent of rain, which made the whole sky seem like one waterfall, drove us ashore to seek shelter in the nearest house, where a hospitable English trader at once made us welcome. From his spacious veranda--upon the sloping roof of which the great bullets of rain came hammering with a noise like the roll of a drum--we looked down upon a perfect sea of intertwined boughs and dark coiling leaves, so thickly massed together that within a few paces of the edge of the clearing that surrounds the house 100 men might lie in amush without giving the slightest token of their presence.

    When we went back to the launch we found it nearly level with the top of the rude wooden pier to which it was moored, the creek having risen several feet in an hour and a half. In fact, there are only two ways to Creek Town--one by water and the other under water. When the current permits--which it very seldom does--you may go thither by water, and when you find two natives strong enough to carry you on their shoulders through the swamp, you may go by land, or rather by mud. Beneath the wide waste of rank grass and black half-liquid mire encircling the little cluster of thatched huts lies buried fathoms deep the road that once led to it. The neat little mission building, with its adjoining church, and the smart new house belonging to the local King--for every acre of West Africa seems to have a king of its own--are almost the only redeeming points of this amphibious "town."

    I must not forget to chronicle my visits to the two principal chiefs of the hilly district lying immediately behind Duke Town, in company with the ship's doctor, always a welcome visitor among men who habitually do their best to destroy with overeating or overdrinking (and not unfrequently with both) what little health the prevalent fevers of the country have left them.
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    The path by which we mounted the slope from the water's edge had been cheaply and promptly constructed by a stream rushing down the hill during the rainy season, the only street commissioner known in this part of Africa, though his work is quite as neat and durable as that of some of his civilized brethren. Zigzagging up this uneven trench of red clay, amid a perfect forest of plantains, whose broad, bannerlike leaves almost shut out the sun from the half-grown yams beneath them, we passed the simple church and neat little white houses of the Presbyterian mission, and gained the summit of the ridge.

    But our descent to the hollow beyond it, in which lay one of the two villages whither we were bound, was a ticklish undertaking. The path ran downward in the most literal sense, (thanks to the torrent rains of the past fortnight,) forming something very much like a river of gravy soup relieved by an occasional island of molasses, while the sides of the gully were so steep and slippery that when the doctor attempted to find footing on one of them and I on the other we instantly came flying down again into the central puddle like two billiard balls into one pocket, splashing ourselves and each other with the liquid red mud till we looked as if weh had just committed a dozen murders in succession.
    The low thatched houses of the village were built, like those of Creek Town, each in the form of a hollow square, one side being occupied by the master of the house and his family, and the rest by his retainers, slaves, &c. Significantly enough, each of these complicated dwellings had only one door, which could be shut and barred at a moment's notice, though this would avail little against assailants, who could easily climb up by the projecting thatch, which came down to within a few feet of the ground.
    A clamor of discordant cries from one of the largest houses, mingled with the dreary monotone of the native drums, tempted us to peer through the low, narrow doorway, within which we saw a kind of awning of colored cloths fantastically arranged, and beneath it a crowd of natives seated on the ground, gesticulating wildly and uttering shrill, doleful cries. In answer to our questions we were informed that "Big woman live for die," which, being translated, meant that a native lady of some note, probably the wife of a chief, was just dead.

    As we passed on the doctor pointed out to me a very primitive schoolhouse, consisting chiefly of a roof of corrugated iron, the mud walls being so low as to leave the sides completely open. Seats there were none, the students being doubtless in the habit of squatting on the earthen floor, and an ordinary printed alphabet, hanging from one of the posts that supported the roof, was the sole token of the building's real character.
    Equally original was the appearance of the old chief himself, whom we found in a little box-shaped hut built upon high piles, accessible only by a rickety ladder from the outside, and looking altogether very much like a small tumble-down windmill. The worthy potentate proved to be a monstrously fat and hideous old man, with no clothes but a greasy skirt of colored cloth, whose broad flat face, sloping skull, and projecting under jaw, with its thick, hanging lip, were so thoroughly animal that he needed only a pair of short horns to make him a perfect satyr. In a word, any one who has seen an illustration of Longfellow's

Old Silenus, bloated, drunken,
Led by his inebriate satyrs,

can form an exact idea of Henshaw Duke in his glory. His room was as extraordinary as himself, so small that I almost expected to see him walk off with it on his back as a snail carries its shell, and littered with European knickknacks of every kind, conspicuous among which were a stopped clock and a "daily register" that had not been changed for three months.

    As we passed on just beyond a palm grove stood a large thatched house of the same form as those of Henshaw Duke's village in the midst of a spacious courtyard surrounded by a high bamboo palisade, which we entered just as the downpour began to descend upon us in earnest. The interior of the dwelling parodied that of an English college. Round the four sides of a small quadrangle ran a kind of cloister with numerous doorways opening into it, which our appearance instantly filled with staring native ladies and their paunchy, round-eyed, bare-limbed children.
    The chief's right-hand man, a tall West Indian negro, whose toilet displayed the reckless extravagance of a new shirt and a new straw hat, greeted us in very tolerable English, and went to announce our arrival to his master, into whose august presence we were speedily ushered. But with all my experience of the ways of Africa chiefs I was considerably startled by the spectacle which burst upon us as we waded after our black master of the ceremonies through the already flooded gateway on the opposite side of the quadrangle.

    A veteran Australian bushman used to say that the best side of a house was the outside; but it is not every day that one finds the richest man of an entire district lying in bed outside his own house on a pouring wet morning. Under the projecting eaves of the outer wall, with the pelting rain splashing into an ever-growing pool of muddy water withing a few inches of him, lay, upon a rough bed, swathed in coarse quilts and blankets, a small, sharp-featured, terribly emaciated young negro; and this was Ephraim Bassi, the great chief whom we had come to visit.

    At a sign from the chief's wasted hand a black woman, who was sitting on the ground in front of him, stitching industriously at a piece of colored cloth, the end of which was tied to her great toe, vanished into the house and speedily returned with two tumblers brimfull of a pale gray liquid, very much like ginger beer both in appearance and in flavor.
    This was the famous tumbo or palm wine, (called malaf¨ on the Congo,) which is obtained by piercing the trunk of the palm and drawing off the fresh sap into a calabash.

    Then, while Bassi was explaining that "big pain live for back," and the doctor was pronouncing it a bad attack of rheumatism--which, considering the situation of the chief's bedroom, was hardly to be wondered at--I had time to look about me a little.
    Just at the foot of the bed a bunch or rather rib of stone about 18 inches high ran out from the wall of the house with a row of cracked and blackened cooking pots paraded around it. Close to the spot where the sick man was lying fowls were scratching and kids frolicking about, while two or three rough, wolfish-looking dogs, so thin that one might almost have corded a trunk with them, sniffed hungrily around us where we sat. Three or four tiny black images crept up to stare at the white men, but vanished with shrieks of real or pretended horror when I snapped my fingers at them.

    Having finished his talk with the doctor, Ephraim Bassi began to ask me various questions about New-York, and to tell me that when he had gone to England he had thoughts of going over to America if he had had time.
    Then another measure of palm wine was passed around, and the rain having ceased by this time we took our leave and departed.

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