Clarence and Richard Examiner Tuesday January 27, 1903
This article is titled: Chased by Chimpanzees À THRILLING AFRICAN ADVENTURE.
By Sir H. H. Johnston:
Between 1882 and 1888 I spent something -like four years on the West Coast of Africa between the Gambia and the Cameroons, I doubt if any period of my service in the African continent was more interesting to me Amongst the many curious people I met was a Dutchman, whom I will call Var Beulingh though that was not his name, I learn that he is recently dead. This curious creature was full of extraordinary stories; good and bad, told often in very picturesque English with just a trace of Dutch construction in his sentences, and be sprinkled with a great variety of indigenous negro terms. His ostensible livelihood I might- remark was that of a Natural History collector for various museums, and for one or two personages in the English world of science. He had some strange freemasonry, which took him far and wide amongst all native tribes uninjured. It would have been of the greatest interest, I now believe, to have taken down textually a selection of his stories, some of which I ascertained to be absolutely true, while the others, if fictitious; were at any rate of considerable Interest. Here, as nearly as I can remember it, is one of the stories he told me, though I decline to vouch for its accuracy. Not to weary the reader I have shortened it a good deal and have put it into plain English without attempting to imitate Van Beulingh's picturesque but discursive and disjointed style.
The first night was spent in the forest after leaving the banks of the river there were bands of chimpanzees all round us hooting and screaming. Apparently, in one direction they had got hold of a hollow cylinder of wood possibly the section of a thick branch, or one: of the natives large wooden mortars for, pounding food. They seemed to be slapping their natural drum with their hands and hooting in chorus, the notes rising in the scale until they end in deafening shrieks and a sound not unlike laughter. A chimpanzee baby was whimpering and crying, draying at last in its passionate anger, as a child brays when madly angry.
I was rather anxious to shoot one of these apes, lit up for the moment by the blaze of our fire, and standing not more than twenty yards away. But my men implored me to do nothing of the kind, averring that the whole of the band would then assault our camp, and that although we may kill two or three, or even four, we should be eventually overpowered and torn to pieces.
On the third day of our journey, a huge chimpanzee plopped down from a branch that hung, over the path, and stood erect as if challenging the advance of our caravan. This time I could not resist the opportunity, both of disposing of a possible aggressor and of getting a magnificent specimen for the museums. So I took aim with my single-barrelled .450 and shot him through the heart. He gave a fearful scream like a man might do before he fell. That scream did-for us. A number of other chimpanzees, males and females, full grown and half grown, and some of them looked to me to be pretty nearly as large as gorillas-were suddenly visible, dropping to the ground from the lower branches, scrambling down trunks, and making straight for their dead comrade and myself.
I tell you I was panic-struck. I had not much ammunition with me on my body, and without attempting to fire any more cartridges, for the moment I turned right around and fled up along the path meaning to make a stand with any, men who had plenty of ammunition. But my men at the sight of the chimpanzees had flung down their loads and fled into the forest, fleeing for their lives, hiding themselves in the brushwood. Fortunately for me, the greater part of the chimpanzees went after them in pursuit. Two old fellows came for me, but I killed them both.
The path we had followed was of the faintest. Indeed on the second day we repeatedly lost it, and I more than suspect, to use a native phase, it had died for want of use. We really seemed, at the time the chimpanzees came after us, to have been following an old elephant track.
After sitting for half an hour and seeing no more chimpanzees, I began to shout to my men to return. No human being replied, but my shout, unfortunately, attracted the chimpanzees, either the same ones that had attacked us before or a fresh lot. The forest resounded with their hoots. Suddenly they began to pour into the relatively clear space In which I was sitting, and where the bodies of the three dead ones lay. In a mad panic, I rose and took to my heels, running desperately in the direction where the forest seemed clearest. Of course, when I was able to run pretty quickly the chimpanzees could not, with their shambling gait on the ground, keep up with me. Yet every now and then a fresh, enemy would drop down from the trees and make for me.
I dodged to the right and to the left, I hid myself for a space in a clump of huge plants, I was cruelly stung by ants, and nearly dead with heat, fatigue, and want of breath. I scarcely dared to shout again. At last, feeling that I should meet with my death by starvation, and the abandonment of my porters, if I made no effort, I attempted to retrace my steps to the accrual spot where the chimpanzees lay dead. But the forest looked the same in all directions. There, were no landmarks to guide me; I had completely lost my way. My only idea then was to look at the little compass attached to my watch chain and attempt to walk composedly in a south-easterly direction, believing that to have been the general trend of the path we were following, and hoping that it might bring me to a village of the Babom people. Even if these were the fierce cannibals they were represented to be they seemed brothers and friends compared to those awful apes.
Night overtook me, however, and I had reached no sign of human habitation. I had been able to quench my thirst because rills of water were commonly met with in this magnificent but alarming forest. After all, I was no neophyte in African exploration and had several times before been lost in the wilderness. I was therefore determined not to take too gloomy a view of the case or to wear myself out with unnecessary fatigue. According, I sat down on ferns and moss by the side of a little stream and prepared myself to pass the night. I had matches on me with a pipe and tobacco. The pipe put heart into me, and with one or two matches I managed to light a fire of sticks.
The blue smoke curled up into the sombre darkness of the forest, and a cheery little red flame produced at once an atmosphere of home. I kept my fire within reasonable bounds so as not to attract too much notice from the chimpanzees. Utterly exhausted as I was from my flight through the forest. I fell asleep. Some hours later I awoke, the fire had burnt down to a heap of white ashes from which a dull red heat glowed. I put on my sticks and blew the fire up industriously until it burst into a bright flame. Then with a shudder and a start which wrung from me an involuntary shriek, I realized that a human face was looking at me, framed in leaves.
At my exclamation the face was drawn with a slight rustling, I sat paralyzed with terror hardly knew why. Presently a spur of flame showed the face" again peering through the leaves. The features were those of a negro woman, of rather degraded type, probably belonging to one of the prognathous forest tribes, bordering in their physique on the Pygmy. But the eyes had a kindly expression. The woman was holding something in her arms. For some minutes we sat gazing at each other speechlessly. Every now and then the flames died down. At last, the woman made some sound like human speech. I began to realize that she might be my salvation, so I motioned her to draw near. I spoke to her in a few words of Efik. This she did not understand, yet the language was evidently one slightly familiar to her in pronunciation. She boldly stepped up to the fire, took more chips and sticks, and replenished it, clutching the while what appeared to be a young child. She squatted down on her hunkers, on the opposite side of the fire to myself, cleared her throat several times, and then began to talk in a low, hurried voice.
Unfortunately, I could not understand a word of the language she used. I said, "Do you know any Efik?" She repeated the word Erik several times, as though it were familiar, and then in a fresh outburst of speech repeated over and over again the word Akwa or Akpa. I guessed that she explained to me that she knew something of the Akwa language which is spoken to the east of Old Calabar.
Fortunately, I had in the side pocket of my coat a small notebook in which I had written down a few, words of this language. By this means and by the abundant and explanatory gestures of which she made use, I elicited from her what would appear to be a most extraordinary story. I can only
give it as I understood it at the time, but will not vouch for its being true. I can only tell you what I gleaned by this strange conversation, and what I actually saw.
The woman, I gathered, had been driven out of a not far distant Babom village because she had given birth to twins. This, as you know, is considered to be terrible disgrace amongst the negroes of this part of Africa. Traces of this superstition still remain at Old Calabar. Not only are the twins invariably, killed, but the mother is often killed also, or at any rate is made fetish and driven off into the forest. There she built a little hut, and sustained herself by feeding on the wild fruits, the excellent fungi, and certain roots; while occasionally when hard pressed for other food she stealthily approached villages at night and robbed the banana plantations. On one occasion she narrowly escaped being caught and killed.
One day she found her little shelter in the forest surrounded by a number of chimpanzees. They squatted round her and hooted, screamed and chattered. Then a large male chimpanzee laid hold of her, not unkindly. This act provoked some of the females to fling themselves on the unfortunate woman with teeth and nails; but the old man chimpanzee turned, on them one after the other with extraordinary fierceness and drove them off. The woman was compelled to follow, where he dragged her. For some time I could not gather how long-she had more or less lived with the chimpanzees. Her skin bore many signs of, ill-treatment at the hands and teeth of the jealous females, but she had managed at last to conquer a place for herself in this strange tribe and was now on excellent terms with all of them. She had, as before, to find her own food, for generosity, had no place in their narrow minds, but she often shared in the results of their bold raids on the neighboring plantations and villages. (She appeared well nourished on the whole.) She had heard the extraordinary clamour of the chimpanzees, had seen the dead ones, and in the night had smelt the smoke of my wood fire.
Finding her way to the place where I lay asleep, she sat down, hoping to see by daylight what creature it was that lit the fire. When I stirred the embers and revived the flames she had seen that it was no negro that had done this. The existence of white men some days: journey to the west and south was known to her, and she concluded that I must be one of those wonderful beings, and in all probability beneficent. Then my fire died, down again, and in spite of my interest and curiosity, my weariness caused me to sleep a few more hours until morning. The woman was still sitting there, evidently watching over me. I asked to see what she held in her arms. It was a horrible, gnome a gross caricature of a human child.
That -woman, saved my life in all probability. She led me by devious ways through the forest until at last, I saw a welcome burst of open sky, and the glistening green of banana plantations. Then I gathered from her gesture that I was to find the rest of my way into the village myself. I tried to explain my thanks to her, but she had turned and fled back into the forest with her awful infant.
Knowing how the suspicion of savages is aroused by anything like a stealthy approach to their abodes, I set up a great shout. Presently men came running out of the plantations gazing in all directions. I shouted again. They advanced towards me somewhat threateningly, but I showed by my gestures that I had an unloaded gun, and was peaceably inclined. There was a short consultation, and then an elder advanced towards me holding out his hands. I met him halfway and shook hands with extreme cordiality. Thenceforward my difficulties came to an end, and what had seemed likely to end in an appalling tragedy became ultimately, a most successful expedition. The Babom people turned out in force "and ransacked the forest, the loads which were deserted by my porters were picked up, and what, was more, we also secured two of the bodies of the immense chimpanzees, I had killed. From the appearance of the ground it looked as though the third, had been, dragged away by the other apes.
I rested for several days In the Babom village. Meantime these savage but friendly people were ranging the woods in large bands (for protection against, the chimpanzees), raising shouts that might be heard by my porters. My three Accra servants were discovered in a very exhausted condition, having sustained themselves by gathering fungi and Amomum fruits. Most of my canoe-men were also found. As to the thirty porters, they had evidently run all the way back to their homes on the Cross River, where they naturally spread abroad the rumour (about the fiftieth that, has occurred) that I was dead torn to pieces by infuriated chimpanzees.-"The Weekly Scotsman."