Compagnie Belge Maritime Du Congo.
To-morrow, we will be in Banana, which is the first port in the Congo. When I remember how far away the Congo seemed from New York and London, it is impossible to believe we are less than a day from it. I am so very glad I came. The people who have lived here for years agree about it in no one fact, so, it is a go-as-you-please for any one so far as accurate information is concerned, and I am as likely to be right as any one else. It has been a pleasant trip and for us will not be over until some days, for at Matadi, which is up the river, we will probably live on the steamer as the shore does not sound attractive. Then I shall probably go on up the river and after a month or six weeks come back again. At Boma I am to see the Governor, one of the inspectors on board is to introduce me, and I have an idea they will make me as comfortable as possible, so that I may not see anything. Not that I would be likely to see anything hidden under a year. Yesterday was the crossing of the Equator. The night before Neptune, one of the crew, and his wife, the ship's butcher, and a kroo boy, as black as coal for the heir apparent came over the side and proclaimed that those who never before had crossed the Equator must be baptized. We had crossed but I was perfectly willing to go through it for the fun. The Belgians went at it as seriously as children, and worked up a grand succession of events. First we had gymkana races among the kroo boys. The most remarkable was their placing franc pieces in tubs of white and red flour, for which the boys dived, they then dug for more money into a big basket fitted with feathers and when they came out they were the most awful sights imaginable. You can picture their naked black bodies and faces spotted with white and pink and stuck like chickens with feathers. Then the next day we were all hauled before a court and judged, and having all been found guilty were condemned to be shaved and bathed publicly at four. Meantime the Italians, is it not the picture of them, had organized a revolution against the Tribunal, with the object of ducking them. They went into this as though it were a real conspiracy and had signs and passwords. At four o'clock, in turn they sat us on the edge of the great tank on the well deck and splashed us over with paste and then tilted us in. I tried to carry the Frenchman who was acting as barber, with me but only got him half in. But Milani, one of the Italians, swung him over his head plumb into the water. The Frenchman is a rich elephant hunter who is not very popular. When the revolution broke loose we all yelled "A bas le Tribunal" "Vivela Revolution"! and there was awful rough house. I made for the Frenchman and went in with him and nearly drowned him, and everybody was being thrown into the tank or held in front of a fire cross. After dinner there was a grand ceremony, the fourth, in which certificates were presented by an Inspecteur d'Etat who is on board, and is a Deputy Governor of a district. Then there was much champagne and a concert and Cecil and I sat with the Captain, the Bishop, in his robes and berretta and the two inspectors and they were very charming to both of us.
Compagnie Belge Maritime Du Congo. S. S. February 13th, 1907. DEAR MOTHER:
We reached Banana yesterday morning, and the mouth of the Congo, and as the soldier said when he reached the top of San Juan Hill, "Hell! well here we are!" Banana looks like one of the dozen little islands in the West Indies, where we would stop to take on some "brands of bananas," instead of the port to a country as big as Europe. We went ashore and wandered around under the palm trees, and took photos, and watched some men fishing in the lagoons, and we saw a strange fish that leaps on the top of the water just as a frog jumps on land. It is certainly hot. Milani and I went in swimming in the ocean, and got finely cool. Then we paddled the canoe back to the ship to show the blacks how good we were, and got very hot, and the blacks charged us a franc for the voyage. To-morrow we will be in Boma, the capital, which is much of a place with shops and a lawn tennis court.
Boma is more or less laid out and contains the official residences of the Government. I walked all over it in an hour, and here you walk very slow. There are three or four big trading stores AND a tennis court. It is, however, a dreary place. We called on the missionary and his wife, but she does not speak English and their point of view of everything was not cheerful or instructive. Cecil plans to remain on board while at Matadi and return with this same boat to Boma. I want her to go home in this boat or in some other, as I believe Boma most unhealthy and I know it to be most uncomfortable. She would have to go to a hotel which is very hot and rough, although it is clean and well run. I am undecided whether to go up the river for ten days, to where it crosses the equator, or to leave the upper Congo and go up the Kasai river. This is off the beaten track, and one may see something of interest. I will know better what I will do in an hour, when I get to Matadi.
We are now at Matadi. The Captain invited us to stop on board and it is well he did. We dine on deck where the wind blows but the rest of the ship is being cleaned and painted for the trip North. Four hatches are discharging cargo all at once, from four in the morning until midnight. Officers and kroo boys get four hours sleep out of the twenty-four, but I sleep right through it, so does Cecil. Sometimes they take out iron rails and then zinc roofs and steel boats, 6000 cases of gin and 1000 tons of coal. Still, it is much better than in the Hotel Africa on shore. Matadi is a hill of red iron and the heat is grand. Everything in this country is grand. The river is, in places, seven miles wide, the sunsets are like nothing earthly, and the black people are like brooding shadows of lost souls, that is, if souls have shadows. Most of the blacks in this town are "prisoners" with a steel ring around the neck, and chained in long lines. I leave on the 23d to go up the Kasai River, because that is where the atrocities come from and up there there are many missionaries. I don't want you to think I say this to "calm your fears," but I say it because it is as true of this place as of every other one in the world, and that is, that it is as easy to get about here as it is in Rhode Island. It is not half as dangerous as automobiling. I have not even felt feverish, neither has Cecil. I never felt better. Cecil stays on board and goes back to Boma. There she stops a week and then takes another ship back to London. She will not wait at Boma for me, at least, I hope not and cannot imagine her doing so. In any event, after I start, there will be no way for us to communicate, and I will act on the understanding that she has started North.
I have two very good boys and both speak English, and are from Sierra Leone. I take a two-day trip of 200 miles by rail, then four days by boat up the Kasai and then I may come back by boat or walk. It depends on how I like it, how long I stay, for I can hope to see very little, as under a year it would be impossible to write with authority of this country. But I'll see more of it than some at home, and I'll hear what those who have lived here for years have to say. It is awfully interesting, absolutely different and more uncivilized than anything I ever saw. But all the time you are depressed with how little you know and can know of it. I will be here six weeks or two months and then should get up the coast to London about the middle of May or sooner.
From diary of February 22nd, 1907.