The Herald Melbourne Saturday November 9, 1935

This article is titled: The Empire of the Snakes


Strange African Tribes: By "TOUCHSTONE"

It is a strange, exciting story that is told in this amazing book, a story so strange that if the authors were not accredited scientists "The Empire of the Snakes by F-G Camochan and H-C Adamson (London: Hutchinson & Company Publisher) would probably be dismissed as a superb effort of the imagination. It tells of a shadowy African kingdom ruled by an ebony patriarch who is high chief of those of the Snake Blood, an absolute priestly-king who possesses the secret of strange medicine and Powerful mysterious drugs unknown as yet to Western science.

IN 1926 Mister Carnochan was in north-western Tanganyika, second-in-command of the Smithsonian-Chrysler Expedition which had gone to Africa to collect animals, birds, and reptiles for the National Zoological Park in Washington. He had been exploring for weeks with most disheartening results.  All he could boast of were a dozen or so mambas, cobras, puff-adders and pythons, a really miserable bag.

For some strange reason, the country seemed as snakeless as Ireland after the coming of Saint Patrick. His own boys and other natives helped willingly to capture any animal from a rhino to an antelope, but when snakes were wanted they hung back. The author came to the conclusion that they were afraid.

And they were, but not of snakes. At last, by judicious questioning, he found that their fears were inspired by a very real dread of the Snake-Men, members of a widespread secret society who had an absolute monopoly of the catching and killing of serpents.  As there were no Snake-Men in Mister Carnochan's safari he found himself helpless and his branch of the expedition threatened with failure.

He was on the point of giving up when a lucky combination of bluff on his part and a guilty conscience on the part of the local Sultan resulted in the addition of two smiling natives to his party. "Sultan Saidi told us you wanted snakes master. We have come to sell you some," said Nyoka, the taller of the pair.

VVITHOUT waiting for a reply, he lifted the lids off two boxes lying on the ground beside him and disclosed a writhing, twisting mass of animated death.

"What do you want for the snakes? "A penny a foot, master.
"Reasonable enough, but how would we figure out the combined length of serpents in those boxes? Nyoka solved the problem by asking if I had a yard-stick. Certainly.


I sent Salimu, after one, and when he returned I witnessed a performance the like of which few white men have ever seen. Nyoka placed the yard-stick on the ground while Sefu unceremoniously dumped the snakes from one box into the other. I wondered what would happen next, and I did not have long to find out. Without the slightest hesitation, Nyoka and Sefu stuck their bare hands into that pile of crawling death, caught a reptile by the neck, and yanked it out.

"I was to say the least, startled. I have handled all kinds of snakes in all sorts of places, but I have never dared, nor met anyone who did dare, stick bare hands into boxes filled with dozens of poisonous reptiles.

"Nyoka and Sefu pulled the snakes out one by one, stretched them full length on the ground and measured them, like salesgirls measure silk ribbons, while I kept track of the yardage. To this day, I do not know whether any addition was generous or skimpy, for 1 was so busy watching the flesh-creeping procedure, that I could not concentrate on anything else.

"Now and then, an infuriated reptile would drive its fangs Into the arms or hands of Nyoka or his assistant, they took this deadly treatment calmly, much too calmly for my spinning senses to grasp. How did they get away with it?  According to all standards of science and experience, they should be stretched dying upon the ground. Instead, they kept on unraveling snakes as though they were harmless worms.  "Scenting a secret worth knowing, I made up my mind there and then that I would leave no effort untried, to learn how these men made themselves impervious to virulent, death-dealing poisons."

That Mister Carnochan was able not only to bring back some of the drugs with which the Snake-Men render themselves immune but also, guided by Nyoka to be admitted as one of the Snake-People and taught their secrets and ritual is a tribute to his patience, resource, and courage. The task was no light one. It took two separate expeditions to Africa, and the best part of four years, before he was finally and completely accepted.

The Empire of the Snakes begins on the coast of Tanganyika and extends to the great central plateau that is the backbone of Africa. Its northern boundary reaches from Mount Kilimanjaro to Lake Victoria. In the south, it stops at the swamps that run along the Rovuma River on the frontier of Portuguese East Africa. Until the beginning of the 20th century, the Emperor of the Snakes ruled openly. When the Germans took charge of Tanganyika the Snake-Men tried to fight them but soon found that their medicines were of no use against Mausers. Although numbers of them were killed, their Empire was not destroyed. It was merely driven underground.

Today, although government frowns upon them, the Snake Lodges and Snake Guilds are as firmly established as they have ever been.

The author emphasizes the important part these lodges and guilds play in native life. They are the schools in which the youths of the tribe receive their education, and they play an equally important constructive part in establishing and maintaining, by virtue of their religious influence, tribal unity, and discipline.

The ordinary Snake-Man is a combination of medical, legal, financial, domestic and spiritual adviser to his district. The student enters "school" when he is about 14 and faces a course that lasts anything from four to seven years.

"The student must not alone past annual examinations as to his knowledge of herbs and snakes and the parts they play in curing the ill and placating the Ancestral Spirits; he must also prove himself worthy, from a moral standpoint, of continuing his studies. If he fails in one examination he is definitely finished, and can never try another. He is done and sent home. The reason for this severe attitude is that his failure is interpreted as an omen that the Ancestral Spirits look upon his candidacy with displeasure."

There are eight degrees of Snake-Men. Any native, who has the brains, character and money can pass through the first seven grades, but the eighth is open only to those of the royal "Snake" blood.

It was the author's good fortune to win the friendship of Kalola, a wizened old native who was reverenced by thousands as the Snake Emperor.  After his first expedition, Mister Carnochan handed the medicinal drugs and herbs he had gathered for analysis to Doctor Wallace. Professor of Pharmacology of the New York and Bellevue Hospitals. Some were found to be powerful heart stimulants. Some had a pronounced effect upon the brain. Others were unknown.

On his second visit, the author brought with him a refined laboratory sample of the drug used by the snake-men to counteract the effect of a snake-bite. He presented some to the old Emperor, who showed a crafts man's appreciation of its purity.

"Mkalia, Look, look, how clean it is!" he shouted, taking advantage of Kalola's enthusiasm, Mister Carnochan pleaded with him as one physician to another to reveal the secrets of the drugs for the benefit of humanity. After long deliberation, the old chief consented to do so if the author would allow himself to be initiated as a member of the Snake-Lodge and swear to observe its secrets, and only use his knowledge towards good ends.

To all this, he assented readily enough, although he had qualms about the rough insanitary inoculation that was to make him immune to snake-bite. Apart from a severe headache for a few hours, he was none the worse for his experience, although he has shirked putting the inoculation to the test of deliberately allowing himself to be bitten. It is however, only fair to say that he actually saw one of his boys, who was a snake-man bitten on the calf of the leg by a black mamba, one of the most deadly snakes in the world. The boy laughed at the author's horror as he wrenched the snake's jaws apart and went calmly on with his job. A slight stiffness in the leg was the only result of a bite that should have killed him in a few minutes.  It was the sacred medicine— lukago, the  natives  call it— which Interested Mister Carnochan. On analysis, it proved to contain several drugs, Including mkalia, the heart stimulant. "Leading in volume and variety are the dried heads and tails of boomslangs, cobras, puff-adders, and mambas. The reason for their presence is  Katola, Emperor of the Snakes the belief that like cures like. In short, just a crude application of the scrum principle. Moreover, it appears to work in the lukago too, because its actual effect seems to be that a natural immunity is built up through the placing of small doses of venom-containing drugs under the skin.

"All practicing Snake-Men get these inoculations every few weeks during the first year and additional ones at least once every year thereafter, and I feel quite positive that the final immunity that is built up is very high. This was virtually proved at the time the mamba bit Nyoka."

OTHER weird ingredients— drawn from superstition and witchcraft, —range from the brains of an owl (for wisdom) to the feet of a hyena for cunning.  Of another drug known throughout East Africa as "kingo"— an abbreviation of its full name, which is "kingoliolo," the author writes. "I can say without reservation that kingo has the most dangerous potentialities of any drug within my ken, and that includes everything from opium to cocaine."

''Our known narcotics kill slowly, but kingo turns men into robots by robbing them of all power to think and act for themselves. Later I was to see men in the clutch of this vicious drug run until they dropped from exhaustion; or, poor wretches, who might be called the Living Dead, sit absolutely motionless for hours on end, staring with unseeing eyes, and answering no questions and taking no food. I was to try it myself, one of the most foolishly insane things I ever did."

When Mister Carnochan decided to test some on himself he shut himself up in the privacy of his hut.  Placing a clock a shaving mirror and a pencil and pad on a table before him, he put a teaspoonful of the powder into a glass of water and drank it Lifting the pencil, he wrote: "Took powder at 2 o clock. Then he sat back and waited for things to happen. 

Here is his own account of his experience: "The cheap alarm-clock on the table ticked noisily for two minutes while I watched my eyes in the mirror and took inventory of my sensations. My eyes did not change. The pupils neither expanded nor contracted. My head? Yes. It felt a little funny. I lifted the pencil and wrote, 2:03 my head feel, that was as far as I got. My hand fell flat upon the table and the pencil rolled to the floor. I did not have the will to write another word! I lacked all power to move.

"The drug did evidently paralyze my cerebrum and cerebellum. I could not think. I could not feel. I could not plan. I had no hallucinations. No dreams. No craving for sleep. None of the reactions, mental or physical, of any of the known habit-forming drugs that are derived from opium or the coca leaf. For two hours I sat in that chair and stared in the mirror with unblinking eyes while my image stared back.

"I could hear the clock tick and sounds outside my hut, but if a fire had broken out, I would have continued to sit stock-still looking at my-self in the glass and let the flames have their way. My Will, energy and initiative were dead. I can readily understand how anyone under the influence of the drug could be dragged into a gruesome form of thralldom.

"The hands of the clock pointed a quarter past four when the drug released me as quickly as it had taken hold. One moment I was as soulless as an image in the mirror, and the next I was absolutely normal. There were no after-effects of any sort. It was an interesting test. I have never tried it since. One voluntary visit to the realm of the living dead is enough to the life of any man!"

AFTER his initiation into the higher ranks of the Snake-Men the author discovered an entirely new and to white men, unknown side of native life. Not only was the work of the expedition made easy, but he himself was received with deference and admitted into the inner councils of native affairs. He spoke with local medicine men as an equal and discussed remedies and problems.

He was made a rain-maker and given a rain-stick. His reputation in this respect was enhanced about a year later when the rainy season was unduly prolonged. It so happened that coming upon his rain-stick in his baggage he used it unthinkingly as a switch to keep his face free from flies.

Meanwhile, it rained and rained. Then one morning the stick disappeared and could not be found. Not one of his boys had seen it. Next day the rains stopped. Another proof—in the eyes of the natives — of the Snake Men's magic.

At times the author's unique position as a white Snake-Man proved embarrassing.  On one occasion, when he came into Mwanza after a year in the bush, with his thoughts full of baths, fresh vegetables, wine, and companionship.  Captain Buckley, the Provincial Commissioner, asked him kindly but firmly, to leave, the hotel and camp outside the town, as the streets were crammed and traffic blocked by the crowds of natives waiting to get a glimpse of him.