With a Camera on an African River

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

With a Camera on an African River is an article written by Arthur Conan Doyle and published in The British Journal of Photography on 30 october 1885.

With a Camera on an African River

The great ship is lying at her anchor in the Calabar River, and the groaning of her chains and the whizzing of her steam-winches as she hoists the hogsheads of palm-oil on board show that her loading is not yet done. What can the idlers and passengers do, then? Why not explore, a little higher up, the mysterious peasoup-coloured stream, and, since a camera is to be had, take a few plates, which may be of interest in days to come?

It needs but a word to the amiable captain, and the thing is done. Down goes the gig with a splash into the water. Her crew of red-capped, copper-faced Kroomen clamber like monkeys down the falls, and then sit like swarthy Apollos with the long oars in their dark sinewy hands. The camera is handed into the stern; its owner and his companions follow, and push off from the high black hull; four blades dip simultaneously into the water; and the long, thin boat speeds swiftly on its way.

The popular notion of a West African river is not usually associated with beauty. The fever and the miasma have given an evil reputation to those deadly streams, and their very name calls up visions of decaying vegetation and of malarious swamps. Yet in the coolness of the early morning there was much that was beautiful in the luxuriant foliage which skirted the banks and the tangle of palm trees which formed a background in every direction.

Opposite us in the town of Old Calabar, a confused assemblage of brown thatched native huts, and just along the water's edge a row of whitewashed factories in which the European agents do their business. Hills, all clad in feathery foliage, rise up behind the town. It is worth a plate now, for at this early hour there is some hope of a soft effect. A little later and the glaring sun will admit only those of chalky and hard effects which mar so many tropical pictures.

As we row lazily upstream there is much on either bank which would furnish a pretty and interesting picture. Here is a great mangrove tree with its hundred sinuous roots — a vegetable patriarch which has flourished there for generations. There on that muddy bank is a great crocodile basking in the morning sun. We turn our camera on him and are about to perpetuate his charms, but he looks up, sees what he no doubt considers to be the latest invention in fire-arms turned in his direction, and at once shuffles off into the yellow stream. Birds of the most beautiful colours, and butterflies almost as large as the birds, dart above and across our course, like flashes of coloured lightning. No doubt when the photographic millenium has come we shall be able to take these too, and to reproduce all their native brilliancy. At present we could but watch and wish.

Here is an island in mid-stream; a fluffy, feathery, palmtree-bearing island, on which some fever-proof Paul and Virginia might have taken up their abode. It is as pretty a "bit" as could be desired and we take it en passant. Even as we take the cap from the lens a solemn old pelican emerges from the bushes, like some quaint genius loci, and includes himself in the picture.

We have another characteristic group now in a dozen or more canoes coming down the stream with merchandise for Calabar. Their occupants with their dark childish smiling faces make an excellent study. Behind them comes the larger canoe of some chief. A priest in the bows waves a miniature broom from side to side, by means of which the evil spirits are supposed to be swept out of the great man's way. His lordship sits very complacently under an awning in the sheets of the boat, and the canoemen under his august eye bend sturdily to their strokes.

And now our appetite reminds us that, interesting as all this may he, the sight of our breakfasts would be more so still. The tide and stream aid our homeward journey and within an hour we are seated round the hospitable board of the Mayumba. Perhaps, some day in England, looking over our portfolio we may acknowledge that that morning was spent to advantage.