Sidebar -- Vessel of Last Resort, September 1996
"Is he not in Congo-land?"
Excerpts from the writings of the
With selected illustrations from the original editions
Henry Morton Stanley
From Through the Dark Continent (1878):
Looking 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
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.
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
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, and 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
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.
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
That with much cost, yet with more care was bred,"
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.
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.
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"Heart of Darkness"
Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights