Thursday, August 19, 2010


A Journey from Cape Town overland to Lake Nyassa.

  • Thursday, August 19, 2010
  • Samuel Albert
  • Share

  • Read at the Evening Meeting of the Royal Geographical Society in the United Kingdom, November 30th, 1885.

    In the autumn of the year 1883 I sailed from England for South Africa with a view to satisfy a long cherished wish, namely, the exploration of African lands as yet little known, and more particularly to study the character, habits, and customs of the negro races.

    Arriving at the Cape, I made all inquiries from the most reliable sources as to the probabilities of my success in accomplishing a journey alone overland to Central Africa. I did not get much encouragement, but, nevertheless, finally determined to make the attempt (whatever might be the results) to reach the Lake regions of Central Africa, and from thence to proceed towards the sea.

    I will now endeavour to explain how I got there and describe the chief features, geographical and ethnological, that fell within the range of my observations. Starting from the Cape I passed through the Orange River Free State and the Diamond Fields, and under the hospitable roof of Mr. J. Leask, at Klerksdorp, in the Transvaal, I found Mr. Selous, the well-known hunter and traveller, to whom I soon made my plans known. He thought that the principal opposition to my scheme of exploration to the far north-east of Matabeli-land would be given by the powerful and despotic ruler of that country, Lo Bengula, whose suspicions might be aroused by a traveller wishing to go through his country without asking permission to hunt ivory or to search for gold. As it would have taken a considerable time for me to have fitted out a wagon and oxen at this place, and in prospect of such a trip as I was about to make it being most important to reach the Zarnbesi river before the rains which would set in about October. Mr. Selous very kindly offered me a berth in his wagon. The next few davs were occupied in loading the wagons with all sorts of provisions, also cloth and beads for purposes of exchange. Then we were ready for the start, with sixteen oxen yoked to each wagon, about fifty sheep, dogs, hunting ("salted ") horses, and a large number of cows and calves, a few black savages of different types; Selous and myself completed the typical South African caravan. On the morning of the 5th of March, 1884, we left Klerksdorp. Heading towards the north, we passed through the great waving grassy plains of the Northern Transvaal with their varying tints of colour, and reached the town of Lichtenberg. By the action of the atmosphere, tropical rains, and human neglect, this town is fast becoming a ruin, as indeed is also the case in many other places in the Transvaal, where money as a medium of exchange is almost unknown, since the evacuation of the English in 1881. The traveller cannot but be impressed by the excessive poverty, utter loneliness, and want of trade, all due to the absence of vigorous life in these small centres of civilisation in the Transvaal.

    The next few weeks we trek...............


    ...................Crossing the Rumbuni river, with its large volume of water, and the Vilange, we arrived in an Angoni town under the shade of the Gutarre Mountains on the west. Moments of anxiety and awkward dilemmas surrounded me. The Landeens had deserted before reaching here, and now the Maraves or Tete men left me. I was alone ! Days passed by, and with signs, beads, and cloth, I recruit six men (Angoni from this village) to whom I could not speak. We wended our way to the north, and after a walk of 15 miles, crossed near to the head-waters of the Revuque river, at an elevation of about 4000 feet above the sea. Here in the deep silent pools may be seen hippopotamus, while crocodiles bask on the sandy banks. At length we reached the suburbs of the town of the Angoni despot. Under most disadvantageous circumstances am I brought before him (Tchikuse), who with numerous followers came down to the centre of the town, where I was seated on a rock, to examine me.

    No words were exchanged. He laughed and seemed rather to scoff at my dejected appearance. When he laughed all his courtiers chimed in. I was convinced I had given them a great surprise, if nothing worse. Tchikuse is a young man of enormous dimensions, with a light reddish brown complexion and rather a vacant countenance; but he is of a very observant nature and easily impressed by trifles. I may also add that he is quite wrapped up in his own importance. Vanity beams out from every line of his fat and sensual countenance. This is one of the chief characteristics of these African potentates.

    I was led to a very small hut, and during the next few days a chapter of incidents occurred. It would be hard to describe the utter loneliness of my position. I passed disturbed nights, not knowing what the morning would bring forth. A dusky daughter of Africa, whom I afterwards discovered to be the king's sister, used to come in the night and sit beside me, and in whispering tones would talk by the hour, constantly repeating her brother's name, Tchikuse, with awe; and shaking her head and drawing deep sighs. Not a single word of her talk could I understand. She never forgot to bring some beer (pombe) with her, the bulk of which she imbibed herself. I studied the small chart under the light of the smouldering embers of a small root fire in order to fix my position, a thing I did not wish to do in the daytime, being particularly careful not to show my sextant, watch, or papers, so as to excite the suspicions of these fetish-worshippers; who, I may add, have their witch doctors, rain-makers, and dice-throwers. There suddenly appeared, as though dropped from the clouds, a Portuguese elephant-hunter, who having just returned from a hunt and hearing of my arrival immediately came to find me. Time will not allow of my going into details. He was very much surprised at finding me without any followers, as he never travels without a strongly armed escort. My gratitude to him for kindnesses compel me to say that a more noble, generous, kind-hearted man I have never met. He did every thing that lay in his power to help me and explain away the numerous speculations which filled the king's mind in regard to me.

    I was accused of being a spy and my presence was considered as ominous of evil. They insisted that I was not a man; that the race from whom I sprung had no home and no country, but were wanderers roaming on the face of the earth. Senor Da Costa, the hunter, was my interpreter on all these occasions. After some days the king sent for me, saying, " I want to see him speak, I do not believe he is your brother." I went and found the king surrounded by courtiers and slaves in a circular hut, the walls and roof formed of bamboo thatched with long coarse grass while the black polished floor was of plastered mud. The despot, in whose hands lay the destinies of a thousand souls, sat on a cane plaited mat, robed in a blue calico sheet, the gift of my friend. In his right hand he held a small gourd of native beer which was replenished by the slave girls as soon as he had emptied it. His old and fat mother sat in front of him, with whom he had indeed a heavy score of debts, having killed six of her lovers, and the seventh, a young and rather good-featured man, on whom she lavishes cloth and beads, is in daily danger of having his earthly career cut short. I was unable to get an answer as to when I could get men to take me to the Lake. The king's power is absolute. The headmen who rule the outlying villages dress their hair in the form of a skull-cap, trimmed neatly round and coped with a ring composed of the wax deposited on the bark of trees by a small insect. The ring is a gift of the king to the chiefs, which is a sign of distinction and raises them socially in the eyes of the people.

    The king does not wear the ring. He anoints his head with nut-oil and wears a very neat small bladder on the top of his head. The soil is poor, but abundant moisture insures good crops. Tobacco of a fairly good quality is grown, and the people are inveterate snuffers. Small hump-cattle and goats graze on the green grassy banks of the little rivers. These people are known as Angoni and are said to be of Zulu origin, although in reality they are a very mixed people, for when the Landeens or Zulus from the south conquered this country, the race that then occupied it were Chopetta, who of course became the slaves of the triumphant and victorious army.

    But through intermarriage the language of the Landeens has become corrupted. The Landeens when entering or leaving a hut or your presence salute you with the words " Sikomo Bambo." I noticed they used it on all occasions, and in thanking for a present, etc. The Chopetta people used the word " Eko " for the above. "Tekuone " is also a word used by them in saluting, mean ing " I see you," and answers to the " Sagubona " of the Zulus. If you come from a distance and are acquainted with them they clap the hands. The Makanga tribe, of whom I spoke, are great enemies of this tribe and the name must never be spoken out of a whisper.Excessive eye contact is considered to be provocative and is avoided, particularly between women and men.

    (A note from moderator: Zulu and Nguni Etiquette:The Greeting: Sawubona (I see you), response: Yebo, Sawubona, the person of the higher standing greeting the inferior member.)

    The Angoni do not disfigure their faces as do the tribes farther to the south. Their principal diet is maize meal, but when beer is plentiful they will live for days on it without touching solid food. It is a very palatable drink when strained, slightly acid, and great quantities may be drunk without intoxicating. A small species of rat is common among the loose rocks on the hill-side; and little boys may be seen at all times hunting them with sticks, for they are much valued as a delicate dish.

    The Angoni are essentially a tribe of slave kidnappers; they sweep down like a whirlwind on the neighbouring tribes of Ajawa and Manganja, e.t.c, in the Shire valley. They lay waste the villages, pillage the gardens, and triumphantly bear away the human spoils, young men, women and children, to offer for sale at slave markets in their highland home. This is one of the greatest slave-trading centres of Africa. On the march I have seen these young warriors playing to show their agility. Running, they jump forward and go through their numerous evolutions and warlike contortions, leaping in the air, kicking their shields while both feet are off the ground. When they would again alight they would entirely disappear in the long waving grass.

    The women shave their heads, but in time of sorrow and trouble ihe hair is allowed to grow. In men and women the dirtier they are the more eomplete is the mourning. The wives of a dead chief become the property of his successor who keeps those he fancies and gives the rest to his friends. The women and men adorn themselves with bracelets and anklets of hide, ornamented with brass, showing to advantage against the dark skin.

    Yery small aprons of leather, feathers, or even a piece of rag cover the nakedness of the men, while the women use cloths of bark; but all the king's wives had calico round their loins, for he is paid well for slaves and by ivory hunters. Many young girls were seen going about entirely naked, others with small fringes of beads. They were much delighted on being presented with the smallest piece of cloth or a thimbleful of beads.

    Cruelties by the king are common; one of my followers having had his ear cut off and one of his eyes put out. Other indescribable horrors are perpetrated on men and women at the pleasure of his majesty. I remarked that many of the men carried the small carved wooden pillow similar to those used by tribes south of the Zambesi.

    At last, through the strenuous efforts of my friend, arrangements were made for a start, although grave apprehensions filled my mind at the thoughts of travelling with these Angoni. We saunter through the town; the sun has just risen and smiles upon the earth. We see the preliminaries of an execution; a crowd is coming, knobkerries and other weapons fill the air; the motley crowd rush onwards, pushing their victim roughly on either side, until they gain a little distance from the town; we follow and see the assegai plunged into the side of the writhing figure, the excited crowd rush on, boys of all sizes and ages, their clubs swinging like the arms of a windmill in a gale. One after another would go up and have a smash at the lifeless corpse which is there left as prey to the hyena.

    The day dawns, and with gladness and a heart full of gratitude to my kind friend Acosta, I bade farewell to the town of Tchikuse. Taking a N.N.E. direction we struck out into the great, wide, and treeless plain, with its barren peaks of igneous rock adorning the disconnected mountain tops which rise at intervals from the vast tableland stretching far away to the horizon, and forming one of the principal geological features of Equatorial Africa. Large troops of cranes beautify the river banks. In every village may be seen the slave in the yoke, who after purchase is taken to the headquarters of the East Coast trader "Nazaras," as the people call the Zanzibar agents, some of whom are constantly in this district. There he sits and waits and sees the sun rise and set for months, but the yoke is still round his neck. When the caravan is ready to start he is attached to another man, and with loads on their heads turn their faces to the east and leave their homes for ever. They are well looked after with a view, if hurt, of their probable depreciation in value. The numbers in a caravan vary. One that started during my stay had 350 all told. I will not endeavour to paint the horrid picture of this atrocious traffic, for it has been so frequently described.

    We passed numbers of villages thickly inhabited by the Angone tribe, all under Tchikuse, and crossed the Eevubwe or Eevuque river for the third and last time; here it is a small rippling stream. Still farther to the north, rising gradually, for now we are 4500 feet above the sea, I saw some native iron-smelting furnaces; the slag that lay in small heaps I found was very vesicular, the metallic iron was in irregular buttons, evidently reduced from brown haematite or hydrated peroxide of iron. The climate of the plateau is bracing and healthy. On the morning of the 25th of September the course was changed, and with joy I turned my face towards the rising sun. The mists of early dawn still hung over the gigantic mountains of the Kirk Eange, which towered up on every side with their rugged peaks of torn and tilted granite. We descended into the valley of Lake Nyassa. Here many little streams leap down the mountain sides,and their glancing rippling waters run singing to the great lake. We camped in a village beneath the shade of great sycamore trees. I was endeavouring to get to a village on the shores of the lake called Mpemba, in the hope of canoeing across the lake, but reports of the chiefs attitude being very antagonistic to white people, while the natives of the village where we stayed said it would not be safe. Compelled to alter the course, we skirted round the southern shores of the lake through intense heat and arrived, after encountering a host of difificulties, at the deserted mission station of Livingstonia. Here I was destined to see another phase of vicissitude, but this time it was quite the opposite of my last exciting experience. All the hopes of being welcomed by white faces were dashed to the ground. I walked along the lonely and deserted street and looked in vain for the white man. Empty and deserted houses appeared on every hand, with a few sepulchres to add to the melancholy scene. My Angoni men showed great uneasiness at the surroundings, and seemed inclined to fly and desert me. But I was determined to keep the Marave men Acosta had given me, so as night drew near I shut them in with myself in the deserted dwelling of a missionary. The following morning as I walked out the sun had risen in all its splendour on the lake; I looked around, and discovered that my anticipations were well founded. The Angoni had fled. My position was a deplorable one. My stock of trading articles was exhausted with the exception of a few yellow and blue beads, and the former the Ajawas would not take. They had evidently gone out of fashion. The question arose in my mind as to how I should get away. The Ajawas would not risk their canoes on the Shire river for fear of the hippopotamus. Day followed day, but no change in the melancholy surroundings. I would wander on the shore and watch the silvery waters of the lake as they played on the sandy beach. I would climb the highest point of the rocky hills at the back of the village and with telescope scan the far horizon.

    On these occasions my only company were numerous monkeys, and now and then great fish eagles with their strange and weird notes wculd swoop down close to me on their way to the lake. Then I would return again at night and watch the sun set, the loveliness of which would carry my thoughts far away from the loneliness of my position. Game was scarce, and in view of a long stay I economised my small supply of beads and lived on fish eagle and doves and occasionally a fowl. Sixteen days and nights thus passed away. On the 11th of October, ever to be remembered by me, I was awoke at night by the natives excitedly calling out " A white man !" I sprang from my blanket, and running along the beach I could see a faint light on the lake, but the night was very dark. I soon set fire to the dry grass which lined the beach, and in a moment there was an immense blaze throwing rays of light far into the lake. It would be impossible to express my feelings in words. I could discera the bows of a small steamer peering through the darkness. Two men put off in a small boat. They were perfectly th under struck at finding me, and many were the questions which they put as to where I had come from. The men turned out to be Lieutenant Giraud, who had been in command of an expedition sent by the French Government to explore Lake Bangweolo, a gentleman with whom I formed the strongest friendship, and whom I found to be a most intelligent companion, besides being a good sportsman and kind friend ; the other, a Mr. Harkiss, who was in charge of the small steamer, which is kept in connection with the missionaries on the lake. M. Giraud had been deserted on Lake Tanganyika by his men, and was on his way to the coast. So we travelled together down the Shire river, the banks of which teem with game of all descriptions, including abundance of water-fowl. Touching at the mission station of Blantyre, we then canoed down the lower Shire. The banks were lined with the Mazinjire tribe taking refuge from the Portuguese, with whom they were at war. This latter part of the journey was full of incident. We arrived in Quillimane in November. It was particularly noticeable that in Northern Bechuanaland, also on Lake Nyassa, and on the Shire river, that these regions are yearly becoming desiccatod. Hunters who have camped by the rivers I speak of, at intervals extending over many years, can remember running water in the beds of numerous tributary streams even in the dry season, but now they have to dig wells in the arid sands. With regard to Lake Nyassa, the level of the water is several feet lower than it was, when Livingstone discovered it in 1859. The Shire river and Lake Pamalombe, through which the Shire runs, have less water to a marked degree every year; a fact that .has been observed by those who have constantly been going to and fro in the little steamer which supplies the missionaries on the lake. My friend M. Giraud, I may also state, found the waters of Lake Tanganyika receding.

    From what I have said it will be seen with what difficulties a single European without reliable followers has to contend in traversing the unknown central regions of Africa. But does it not say much for the negro that such was possible, for of him I have heard many hard things said. But he has many good points. True, he deserted me many times, and left me in unhappy dilemmas, but then again he has treated me kindly too. I lived for the most part like the Kaffirs, and never tasted alcohol during my whole journey; tea proved by far the most refreshing drink when I could get it. It has not been my fortune to fall upon any extraordinarily fertile spots or any such countries as some of our most eminent travellers have described as offering inducements to the inhabitants of overcrowded Europe. In every instance the discouragements have been greater than the inducements to foster the colonisation of Africa by European subjects. The primitiveness of the modes of transportation forms a great barrier to progress. The accompanying maps have been carefully compiled from observations made from day to day, principally by compass bearings, time, and meridian altitudes of stars for latitude. The heights marked on the sectional elevation were for the most part taken by aneroid barometer corrected at Kew Observatory, and checked at various points on my route with reference to heights arrived at by boiling-point thermometer. From the time I left the Cape of Good Hope till I arrived on the shores of Lake Nyassa I was never robbed of a single bead or a yard of cloth, although for months the goods were completely at the mercy of the natives. As far as my own dealings with them were concerned, I found kindness, firmness, and justice, combined with truthfulness, have been the best guide to success.....................

    0 Responses to “A Journey from Cape Town overland to Lake Nyassa.”

    Post a Comment