On the Slave Coast with a Camera

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

On the Slave Coast with a Camera is an article written by Arthur Conan Doyle first published in The British Journal of Photography on 31 march and 7 april 1882.

On the Slave Coast with a Camera

I do not suppose that there is any reader of THE BRITISH JOURNAL OF PHOTOGRAPHY who is meditating a journey to the West Coast of Africa.

If such there be, and he has any option in the matter, let me impress upon him Punch's time-honoured advice before matrimony — "Don't." Should it happen, however, that the force of circumstances is too strong for him, and that he is fain to go, he has my profound sympathy, and the cheering assurance that at least one of the cameriferous brotherhood has trod the path before him.

It was with a light heart that I packed up my boxes about the middle of October, and set out for Liverpool to join my vessel. There was a charm about the great list of ports at which we were advertised to call — Madeira, Teneriffe, Canary, Sierra Leone, Monrovia, Cape Coast Castle, Bonny, Lagos, Old Calabar, and a score of others, whose very names had been hitherto unknown to me. I had a beatific vision of strange negatives. The luxuriant growth of the African forest; the haughty grace of the untamed savage as he trod his native wilderness, or yearned in his simple untutored way for a slice out of the calf of your leg; the mighty rivers and the cloud-capped mountains — all these should be transferred to the tell-tale paper and be a record among countless generations yet unborn of the adventurous spirit of their ancestors. Such were a few of my milder aspirations as I stowed away my chemicals in the old deal box, and got together all the other photographic apparatus necessary for a lengthy campaign.

The voyage was to extend over rather more than three months, and the important question now arose as to what was to be taken and how much of each. I knew that everything there was any possibility of my needing must go with me, as I was informed that there was no town on the coast where decent gunpowder, to say nothing of such refinements as photographic necessities, could he obtained. It may be of interest to some other unfortunate wanderer to know the conclusions at which I arrived, and how hir they were justified by my subsequent experience.

My camera was my old favourite — a folding bellows-body half-plate, by Meagher, with double swing back. As I have already mentioned incidentally in THE BRITISH JOURNAL OF PHOTOGRAPHY, I much prefer those made upon the American principle, with the slides drawing entirely out. This holds good for all sizes up to and including full plate. There are many and very varied reasons for this opinion. They are lighter, less expensive, less liable to admit light owing to the fact of their not opening in the centre, and, finally, are far more easy to manage when there is any wind. The latter may seem rather a fanciful advantage at first sight, but I can recall instances in my own modest photographic career where great events hung upon this single fact, and I have little doubt that other readers of the Journal who have had much experience of outdoor working can corroborate me in what I say.

I took a stout ash tripod and also one of my own invention, which has already been described in the Journal. It simply consists of a single stout stick, fitted with a strong iron spike and a ball-and-socket joint. The difference of weight I have found to be no small consideration in a climate which is hot enough to render the weight of a napkin upon your knee at dinner time utterly unbearable.

The lenses which I took were the following:- First, a wide-angle "landscape" lens, which I used whenever I could, always bearing in mind that this form is comparatively slow and the angle limited. I find that the so-called "single" lens gives, coeteris paribus, a more brilliant picture than is given by any other. Secondly, I took a "symmetrical," to be used where a large angle was desirable. Thirdly, a "rapid rectilinear" of long focus, which would come useful where instantaneous effects were needed, as also in groups or portraits. I took no "portrait" lens, as with modern dry plates and the brilliant tropical sunlight I consider such to be quite unnecessary. I also took a drop shutter of the simplest possible description I had had made for me before leaving Liverpool, a leather case with compartments, into which each of the items mentioned above (always excepting the stand) fitted accurately, so that I could carry them readily across country.

I must admit that one of my leading photographic faults hitherto has been a certain impetuosity, which has led me to prefer developing upon the spot to waiting until I had the conveniences of my laboratory around me. In spite of the precedent of Colonel Stuart Wortley and various others who have photographed in tropical regions, and, as I understand, brought their plates home for the purpose of development, I determined in this case also to attempt it as I went along. This being my resolution, I found it necessary to take with me chemicals sufficient to develop not only occasional test plates but my whole series. I may mention incidentally, and in my own excuse, that my experience has led me to believe that the latent image in gelatine plates actually fades to such an extent that a far different result is got if plates be developed within a few days of exposure from what would be brought about if they were kept for some months.

I have always been a strong advocate for alkaline pyro. development. I therefore took the chemicals necessary for this form with me, namely, pyrogallic acid, strong ammonia, and bromide of ammonium. I trusted to the medicine chest for the citric acid to mix up this developer.

And here I may mention the first of my shortcomings as a warning to such readers as "go down to the sea in ships" and take their cameras with them. I had taken a pint stoppered bottle of strong ammonia, which I kept in my berth with my other chemicals. Shortly after our arrival in tropical regions a strong pungent smell warned me of some casualty, and on examination I found that the stopper had been blown out of the bottle, owing, no doubt, to the great heat, and that the fluid had all escaped. There was not a dry eye at dinner that evening. As the captain remarked, paraphrasing Tom Moore — "You may scowl at the surgeon, and swear if you will, but the smell of his hartshorn will hang round you still." After this I was compelled to use washing soda as an alkali. I think, however, that upon the whole the results were quite as good as those afforded by ammonia.

Another piece of advice in travelling is never to take anything for granted. I had trusted to the medical department for a plentiful supply of spirits of wine to use for drying negatives and various other purposes. I found, however, after leaving Liverpool, that the ship was poorly provided in this respect. When the temperature was very high I was much annoyed by the tendency of negatives to "run," and found the want of spirit a very great drawback.

As regards the plates themselves, I should say that, as I had not had time to prepare them myself, I took nothing but commercial ones — in all twelve dozen.

I used the bath-room of the ship as a substitute for a dark-room, and by closing the port with a towel, and using one of the ship's lanterns wrapped completely in red Turkey cloth, I succeeded in extemporising a little "den," which answered every purpose wonderfully well. I found developing trays made of ebonite to be both the cheapest and the best owing to their combined lightness and toughness.

I had a great desire to "astonish the natives" by representations of their own hideous faces. I therefore took printing materials along with me, which included three light frames, some toning material, and ready-sensitised paper. The latter I cut to the size to be used, and kept in one of the printing-frames wrapped in waterproof cloth. It speaks well for the perfection to which the manufacture of this paper has been brought that a large piece in my possession, which has travelled the whole way to Africa and back, is still perfectly white.

I was delighted to find, on arriving at Liverpool, that one of my brother officers was an old schoolfellow — as good a fellow as ever breathed, and an enthusiastic disciple of gelatine. He is one of those photographic fanatics whose first impulse, if charged by a mad dog, would be to focus it, and his second to take to his heels. He was sitting on the poop, when I came aboard, on a box which might have been the twin brother of my own, with a venerable-looking camera propped up against the rail beside him, and in his enthusiasm at meeting me he very nearly succeeded in pushing the companion of his labours into the muddy waters of the dock. We got the ill-used veteran upon his legs again, however, with no greater injury than the loss of a little varnish, and we proceeded conjointly to stow away our apparatus in a place of safety.

It was as well that we got it comfortably down among the lumber, for immediately after leaving the Mersey we found ourselves in the middle of a terrible hurricane. To quote an old Scotch song — "It blew a most awfu' blow." We passed down the Irish Sea and into the channel, steaming before the wind in a fog so thick that it was hardly possible to see a wave before it came crashing in a green wall over our bulwarks. Had we but known it, the ill-fated "Clan Macduff' must at one time have been close beside us, but, even had we seen it, any attempt at a rescue would have been fruitless in such a sea. It was not until our third day out, when we were fairly in the Bay of Biscay, that the wind began to moderate, and that some appearance of order was restored among our goods and chattels. My own cabin had been flooded by a wave, but I was too busy attending to the prostrate ladies to have time to think about my own woes. As the sky cleared, however, and the angry sea changed into a long, greasy swell, there was a gradual divorce between our passengers and the basins. One of them even had the hardihood to appear upon deck with a sickly look of confidence upon his face, which, I regret to state, suddenly faded away, to give place to an earnest and all-absorbing interest in the appearance of the water alongside of the vessel.

"After all," said another — a clergyman of scientific proclivities, as he found himself getting over his ailments — "the sea is a very paltry thing when you come to think of it — only an endless repetition of two molecules of hydrogen with one of oxygen, and some salts in suspension. There's nothing very dignified about that. I have no reverence for the ocean." I was about to remark that the ocean seemed to have precious little reverence for him, but he was called away at this moment by pressing business at one of the port-holes.

After a week's pitching and tossing we made the rugged island of Porto Sancto inhabited by a few scattered fishermen and collectors of seaweed. Here, encouraged by the steadiness of the ship, my friend Tom and I began operations, and with very fair success. We had a most enjoyable little run ashore next morning at Funchal, the capital of Madeira, obtaining several excellent little "bits" and characteristic groups. Our best result was a photograph of the town, done from the sea-side with a very wide-angle lens in the evening. We found that the soft light of the setting sun was better adapted for good work than the midday glare, as the whitewashed houses tend to produce a very chalky effect. This tendency to chalkiness caused me much mental perturbation in all the tropical views which included anything in the shape of a house. It was only by reducing the strength of the developer that I was enabled to obtain harmonious pictures, and even then some were sadly marred by the hard, white effects. We were unfortunate that day in other ways, as a misunderstanding as to who was to regulate the requisite exposure very nearly ruined one of our finest plates.

Leaving Madeira behind us, we got into the trade winds, and found ourselves within thirty-six hours lying abreast of Vera Cruz, the capital of Teneriffe. I regret to say that, though we had a momentary glimpse of the Peak, it became clouded over with mist, and we were unable to add it to our little series. We got capital views of some of the lesser mountains, however, and of the quaint little town itself, with its cathedral and frowning batteries. It was these batteries which had the honour of inflicting upon our immortal Nelson the only defeat he ever sustained, and in the cathedral the ensign captured from him on that occasion used to be hung. A midshipman came ashore, however, some years ago from a British man-of-war, and managed to break into the cathedral and carry off the flag. What became of the young reefer I know not, though rumour says dismissal from the service was the reward of his ill-judged patriotism.

After touching at Canary we pursued our way to Sierra Leone. This was the most pleasant part of our voyage, steaming steadily for seven days through a lonely and unruffled sea. It is true that there was no variety to charm the eye of the photographer, yet it was pleasant to lie under the awnings in the cool of the evening, watching the flying fish as they flickered, like bars of silver, over the crests of the waves. When the moon came out, too, our ladies used to be enticed upon deck, the music and songs would while away the time. The only blot which I can remember upon the peacefulness of this life was a vile proposal from my brother artist that he and I should sing "The March of the Camera Men" — a remark which I regarded as a jocular curiosity, and am willing to back for imbecility against any utterance of modern times.

Sierra Leone — cheerfully designated "The White Man's Grave" — is situated on the bed of a river about five miles from the sea. As we lay in front of the town a whole fleet of canoes passed us having aboard some negro chieftain of eminence, as was indicated by the shouts of the rowers and the beating of the drums. The appearance of this flotilla induced me to fix to my camera the rapid lens and shutter. Under the combined influence of current and paddles they were passing very rapidly. They were so far away that the lens, having been focussed for the "distance," did not require to be altered. In such cases I never use the focussing glass, but trusted to my eye to inform me when the nearest canoe was crossing the axis of the lens. Let me here once again lay stress upon having the aperture in the shutter several times the diameter of the lens in the direction in which the shutter moves, otherwise the amount of light which reaches the plate is practically reduced, without the advantages resulting from the same reduction of light if caused by a smaller diaphragm. In this particular instance one plate was a failure, but three others were all fairly successful.

It would probably weary my readers to hear of our uneventful cruise down that fever-haunted coast. Many of our men were struck down by the miasma, and for some weeks the quinine bottle was more familiar to me than the developing tray. Passing the model colony of Liberia — pompously called "The New States" — and flying the American flag with one star in the corner, we rounded Cape Palmas and steamed down what may be fairly called, "The Cannibal Coast," it we may believe the accounts of the natives given by those who know them best and have had most opportunities of studying their customs. A great deal has been said about the regeneration of our black brothers and the latent virtues of the swarthy races. My own experience is that you abhor them on first meeting them, and gradually learn to dislike them a very great deal more as you become better acquainted with them. In spite of the epidemic of sickness which broke out among us, I succeeded in getting photographs of many of the men of light and leading among these interesting and primitive races. The majority of them are depicted as, to quote Mark Twain, wearing a smile and nothing more. I have one, however, resplendent in all the glory of a plug hat and umbrella. The rest of his clothing, however, he had apparently left behind in the family wardrobe!

A rather amusing incident occurred at Accra, which was our first important port after leaving Cape Coast Castle. A large canoe full of negroes happened to be engaged fishing within twenty yards of the ship, as she lay at her anchorage. I thought the opportunity of getting a characteristic and lifelike group too good to be neglected. I therefore got up my camera and was engaged focussing them, when, to my astonishment they gave a united yell and sprang overboard. The effect of the row of woolly heads glaring at me from the other side of the boat was so ludicrous that I attempted to make good use of the opportunity and expended a plate upon the group. I am sorry to say, however, that the results exhibited little better than a chaotic mass of white foam, distorted faces, and waving paddles, hardly distinguishable from each other. I then hailed them and asked what was the matter. "Me know dem thing," shouted one of them. "Me serve in man-o'-war. Dem thing gatling gun — all same Queen's ship have in tops. What you want point him at poor nigger for?" It was only when I had carried off the obnoxious instrument that the unfortunate fishermen could be persuaded to creep into their boat once more.

At Lagos I was myself knocked over with the fever, and was for several days in a semi-delirious condition. I am blessed, however, with a strong constitution, and before reaching Bonny, at the mouth of the Niger, I was able to crawl upon deck — very weak, it is true, but otherwise none the worse for what was undoubtedly a dangerous attack.

I had an opportunity, while at Bonny, of photographing one of the great war-chiefs, Wawirra by name — a sort of African Duke of Cambridge. He informed us that in his last campaign he had taken five hundred men. I remarked that I could "take" as many as that in a single moment. This small joke had to be explained to him at great length, until it gradually lost what little fun there was originally in it, and struck me as being about the most dismal piece of pleasantry that had ever been perpetrated. In spite of my frantic efforts I am convinced that that African left the ship with the deeply-rooted impression that I was a blood-curdling warrior, and was consumed by a chronic thirst for human gore! I afterwards learned that, in spite of his high position and ferocious exterior, he was a poor fighter himself — "too full of pluck to stand up," as my informant expressed it, so he lies at the bottom of the canoe and does the heavy work and the shouting.

Another very successful photograph was taken a little further down the coast, where we fell in with a British gunboat. She was steaming about eight knots at the time, and crossed our bows at a distance of a hundred and fifty yards. She came out wonderfully well, the ripple of the water and the faces of the man at the wheel and the officer on the bridge being, all things considered, remarkably distinct.

Fernando Po was our next port, and here again I was enabled to secure something which I flatter myself was a photographic novelty, namely, the picture of a large shark as it cruised about close to the surface of the water. These tigers of the sea are as numerous as flies on some parts of the African coast. If you drop anything with a splash into the water you will see far down on the confines of the realms of eternal darkness a horrible shadow appear, and this will come flickering up, developing a fin here and a patch of colour there; then you will see a cruel green eye looking up at you out of the water, and you will know that you have seen the Devil, or as near an approach to him as is to be found in this world. After photographing my friend I had the ingratitude to put a bullet through his dorsal fin, which seemed to astonish him considerably; for, after a wobble to express his opinion of the unwarrantable liberty I taken with him, he dived under the ship and disappeared.

Another interesting picture which I secured was that of the interior of one of the old slave barracoons, with the iron rings and fetters still riveted to the walls. In these horrible caves, dug out of the rock, hundreds of unfortunate negroes — men, women, and children — used to be packed pending the arrival of the slaver. From what I saw of them I should think that, when full of their struggling, thirsty occupants, the Black Hole of Calcutta would be a sanatorium by comparison.

Leaving Fernando Po we arrived at Old Calabar — a British colony situated sixty miles up the Calabar River. This was the turning point in our voyage, and we lay in the river for nearly a week, getting cargo aboard. While here I had several very interesting little runs up the stream, the photographic results of which I hope to dwell upon in a separate communication.

I had the privilege, while at Duke Town, of taking the portrait of a native prince. His highness did me the honour of informing me that it was wonderfully unlike him. The delight of his retinue, however, at seeing the ugliness of their lord so faithfully represented more than assuaged my wounded photographic feelings. It was an excellent likeness; but the monarch probably missed the smell of premature putridity which was so characteristic of the original, and yet could not be transferred to paper.

On our way up the coast we touched once again at the ports which we had already visited, and several interesting scenes that had been passed over through accident or press of work were now taken. The accursed fever broke out among us again, however, and one of our crew succumbed to it on Christmas Eve, and was buried at sea.

I fear that I have prolonged this little sketch to most unreasonable length. There were few incidents worth recording upon our homeward journey, until after we left Madeira. The Peak of Teneriffe was once again shrouded in vapour, and avoided our ever-watchful lenses.

After leaving Madeira we had a little temporary excitement, owing to the ship taking fire. The cause of it was unknown, but the mischief lay at the bottom of one of the great coal bunkers. It seemed a serious matter, as the greater part of our cargo consisted of palm oil. We hoped at first that it would smoulder until our arrival in Liverpool, but by the third morning matters looked so threatening that energetic measures had to he taken. All hands were called, and as many men as would fit sent below to move the coal, while the rest hoisted up the buckets from below. I took a photograph of this deck at this time, but such was the coolness and discipline aboard that no one looking casually at the picture would guess that anything was amiss. Four ominous streams of smoke, however, from the bunker-ventilators, disclose to a nautical eye the great danger in which the vessel lay. After twenty-four hours' anxiety, however, we were able to get the fire under, and the weary and exhausted crew were permitted to take a much-needed rest. The remainder of our voyage was devoid of interest, and the 14th of January found us once again in the docks of Liverpool.

This three months' voyage may, I think, be fairly called a photographic success. Both my fellow-worker and myself obtained a series of characteristic and picturesque effects which will be of interest to us for all our lives. The tendency to hardness and failure in giving idea of distance which I have already mentioned, and which is common to all tropical or semi-tropical views, is the only fault which I can find with them. I have already given it as my opinion that for general results gelatine is superior to any process which has gone before it. I have come to the conclusion, also, that the hardness to which I have just referred makes itself less evident when this process is used than with any other.

These artistic results, however, have been obtained at considerable risk to our health, and even to our lives. There is one advantage which I can confidently ascribe to the West Coast of Africa, and that is that after once visiting it there is no spot so barren that it does not seem luxurious in comparison. The laureate sings —

"Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay,"

and I cordially endorse the sentiment. Better a week in the Welsh mountains with a light camera and a good companion than all the lights and shades of fever-haunted gorilla-land.