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Sidebar -- Vessel of Last Resort, September 1996

"Is he not in Congo-land?"

Excerpts from the writings of the
nineteenth-century explorer Henry Morton Stanley

With selected illustrations from the original editions

From Through the Dark Continent (1878):

bankspicLooking from the house, my eyes rested on the river. Ah! the hateful, murderous river, so broad and proud and majestically calm, as though it had not bereft me of a friend, and of many faithful souls, and as though we had never heard it rage and whiten with fury, and mock the thunder. What a hypocritical river! But just below the landing a steamer was ascending -- the Kabinda, John Petherbridge, master. How civilization was advancing on me! Not a moment even to lie down and rest! Full-blooded, eager, restless, and aggressive, it pressed on me, and claimed me for its own, without allowing me even the time to cast one retrospective glance at the horrors left behind. While still overwhelmed by the thought, the people of the Expedition appeared, pressing forward to admire and gaze wide-eyed at the strange "big iron canoe driven by fire" on their river; for there were several Wanyamwezi, Waganda, and east coast men who would not believe that there was anything more wonderful than the Lady Alice."


From The Founding of the Congo Free State (1885):

Beyond the village was low forested land, which either came in dense black towering masses of impenetrable vegetation to the waterside, or else ran in great semicircles half enclosing grassy flats, whereon hippopotami fed at night time.

The Congo was now enormously wide.... Few could imagine that a slow ascent up the Congo in steamers going only two and a half knots against the current of the great river could be otherwise than monotonous. mappic Taken as a whole, the scenery of the Upper Congo is uninteresting; perhaps the very slow rate of ascent has left that impression.... We sighed for change ... we are menaced with ... ennui.... As for your own fancies, during this day trance, created mainly by what you see as the banks glide steadily past, who will dare to fathom them? They come in rapid succession on the mind, in various shapes, rank after rank. Unsteadfast as the grey clouds which you see to the westward, they pile into cities, and towns, and mountains, growing ever larger, more intense, but still ever wavering and undergoing quick transitions of form. The flowing river, the vast dome of sky; the aspiring clouds on the horizon; the purpling blue, as well as the dark spectral isles of the stream; the sepulchral gloom beneath the impervious forest foliage; those swaying reeds; that expanse of sere-coloured grassy plain; that grey clay bank, speckled with the red roots of some shrub; that narrow pathway through the forest -- all suggest some new thought, some fancy which cannot be long pursued, since it is constantly supplanted by other ideas suggested by something new, which itself is but a momentary flash.

* * *

Meantime, at dusk, each steamer's crew of white officers and passengers stachiefpicwill be found around their dinner-tables on deck or on the bank, if the camp has permitted it.... Of food there is abundance, but not much variety. It may comprise soup of beans or vegetables, followed by toasted chikwanga (cassava-bread), fried or stewed fowl, a roast fowl, or a roast leg of goat meat, a dish of dessicated potatoes, or yams, roast bananas, boiled beans, rice and curry, or rices with honey, or rice and milk, finishing with tea or coffee, or palm-wine.... A few months of this diet makes the European sigh for his petit verre, Astrachan caviar, mock-turtle, salmon -- with sauce Hollandaise -- filet de boeuf, with perhaps a pastete and poularde mit compôte und salat.... How glorious a view of Congo life one could take when exhilarated by half a pint of champagne.... It is only a grand moral manhood like Livingstone's that rises above these petty vanities of a continental stomach. Think of his thirty-two years' life in Africa, and of the unsophisticated mannikins who to-day are digging their eyes out with weeping at the memories of a European restaurant before they have been scarcely three months out!

* * *

As we anticipated, the natives soon came up, caravanpicand fowls, goats, ripe and green plantains and bananas, cassava rolls, cassava flour, sweet potatoes, yams, eggs, and palm oil were bartered so speedily that by sunset we had sufficient to last two or three days.... At sunrise the following day canoe after canoe appeared, and the barter was so successfully conducted that we had soon secured three dozen fowls, four goats, a sheep, and eight days' rations for each member of the coloured force. The fear the natives entertained of the strange steamer was now changed for liveliest admiration. We were no longer supposed to be laden with mischief, but full of "good things."

* * *

The young European --

"His mother's joy, his father's sole delight
That with much cost, yet with more care was bred,"
sighing after adventure, volunteers his services, and sails hopefully to the Congo. He is evidently in splendid health on his arrival, but what to do with that priceless blessing, which has been, if possible, bettered by the long sea voyage, he knows no more (if the Darwinian theory is right) than his long-tailed progenitor. He has heard that it is slightly warm on the Congo -- at least, so the meteorologists say; but in Europe, he smiled at this; thought he could well endure that heat, since Europe in summer was "ever so much hotter." Still, after the ship drops anchor in Banana Creek, an uncomfortable quantity of perspiration exudes through the pores of his skin, and the flannels that were endurable at sea become almost intolerable. batekepic On stepping ashore this warmth increases, the flannels absorb the perspiration until they are wet and heavy, and cling uncomfortably to his body. The underclothes are full; the outward clothing has begun to be damp, and dark streaks along the seams of his coat show that they are actually wet, until in fact he represents a water-jug covered with wet flannel such as we sling up in the tropics as a water-cooler....

No one would offer water to a stranger, but wine, schnapps, beer, gin, seltzer, & c.... See the unsophisticated home-bred youth, how bashfully he accepts! Is he not in Congo-land? Why may he not ape the moustached and brave manhood about him? "I will take wine, if you please." Thanks! and a glass of black-red Portuguese wine is handed to him, which after trial he discovers to be more potent than a bottle of champagne....

The ill-fated youth has enjoyed his dinner and potent wine, and a comfortable arm-chair receives his repleted form. The night is cool, and gracious, and bland; the stars shine brightly, but there is an unaccountable chilliness in the air.... At last he seeks the couch offered him by the hospitable trader, on which he tosses about till cockcrow with disturbed dreams. langapic In the morning he feels unwell; his tongue is furred, and a strange lassitude has taken possession of him. This feeling grows into a nauseous sickness. He is visited about the time of déjeuner, and is discovered with flushed face, watery eyes and a rapid pulse, and declared to have a fever!

Then there is the medicating of the sick man in a rude unskilful way, and a rough but kindly nursing of him. But the personal attendant is a black negro, to whom the white man is an absolute stranger. The scene ends after a few days with convalescence perhaps, and a slow recovery, or, in an extreme case, with death, when the body will be interred at the Point among the remains of the other unfortunates.... Truly it is extremely discouraging to feel that of the twenty other young or mature gentlemen who may have seen this youth ... there is not one of them can make an approachable guess at the real cause which cut him off so prematurely. Each will have his opinion.... all mere surmises, as far opposite to the truth as the truth is to lying!

The fever was caused by sitting in his wet flannels in the cold night air.

Return to "Vessel of Last Resort"
Go to excerpts from Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness"


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