Up an African River with a Camera

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Up an African River with a Camera is an article written by Arthur Conan Doyle first published in The British Journal of Photography on 28 july 1882.

Up an African River with the Camera

"Bang!" goes the signal gun, and the anchor drops with a dull slush into the slow-flowing stream, sending a fountain of thick, peasoup-coloured water and yellow spray into the air. The ship swings round at her moorings, and we find ourselves opposite the straggling settlement of Old Calabar.

It is not an imposing place to look at, though to the African mind, for many a hundred miles up and down the coast, it represents the commercial capital and the centre of all that is gay and dissipated.

Looking at it from the deck of the good ship "Syria," we see a muddy beach covered with canoes, one or two white factories facing the water, a background of miserable huts, and two larger zinc-roofed buildings which surmount the whole, one being the king's palace and the other the church — not by any means the place that one would go to in search of pleasure; but it is the outlet for the oil of a large area of palm-covered country, and the only port of importance between Bonny and Gaboon, so that to a commercial steamer like our own there are inducements to crawl up that sixty miles of shallow, dangerous river, with the branches snapping against the yards of the ship and the lead going without intermission on both sides of the vessel. We can already see the great casks of oil lying littered about beside the crumbling wharfs, which show us that our journey has not been made in vain.

I am busily engaged bringing my wide-angle lens to bear upon the scene, and trying to tone down the glare by a temporary awning, when the Captain comes along cheerily rubbing his hands.

"Seventy forty-inch puncheons if there's one, Doctor!" said he; "hut it's one of their confounded saint's days or Eboe days, or whatever they call them, and they won't do a stroke of work till tomorrow. What shall we do this evening?"

"Well," I said, "I think the best thing I can do is to get a negative or two ashore."

"Bother that camera of yours!" says the skipper, shaking his fist at my trusty old folding bellows-body, half-plate, by Meagher.

"Can't you be sociable just for once in a way?"

"Well, what do you propose?"

"Anything that is lively. Here's Haines, the purser. We'll get his opinion. Here, Haines!"

"Well?" said Haines, with a grin of anticipation upon his rubicund countenance.

"Here's the Doctor wants to spend his evening with his head in a bag, glaring through a little round hole. What are we to do with him?"

"Take him a cruise up the river."

"Chacun a son gout," I remark, with an attempt at dignity.

"Everybody has the gout," the Captain translated with flippancy.

"Look here; we'll have a compromise. We'll start up the river when it gets cooler, and the Doctor shall have the bows of the boat for himself and camera. You and I will take our guns, Haines, and see if we can't get a shot. What do you say?"

"Capital!" said Haines, and as I echoed the sentiment the motion was declared to be carried.

The sun was beginning to sink in the heavens, and the sultry heat of the day exchanged for a languid, pleasant temperature, before the gig was launched and manned by her swarthy crew. Camera, double backs, a "wide-angle" and "rapid rectilinear," rifles, shot guns, and provisions were handled promiscuously in, and next moment we found ourselves shooting up the sluggish river with the dark hull of the "Syria" looming up behind us.

Give me a morning in Switzerland, a day in Scotland, an evening in Africa, and a night on the shores of the Mediterranean or in a hill station in India. There is a sensuous langour in the balmy air which resembles the after sensation of a Turkish bath more than anything else which I can compare it to. You lie across the thwarts of the boat watching the blue reek of your pipe curling upwards, and lulled by the measured stroke of the oars. I was in this enviable position, and just summoning up energy enough to quote the "Lotus eaters" —

"Our home
Lies far beyond the deep; we will no longer roam" —

when I hear a duet from Haines and the Captain. "Now, Doctor! There's your chance! Look sharp!" I sprang to my feet and saw my chance" bearing down upon me in the shape of the King of Duketown's great war canoe. It came sweeping along with its seventy canoe men, a group of warriors in the stern, a fetish man waving a brush in front clearing the evil spirits out of the way, and his gracious majesty in a kind of pagoda in the centre, with a white top hat, pea jacket, and all the other insignia of royalty. I clutch desperately at drop shutter and lens, while "happy and glorious" takes off his hat in answer to a half-derisive cheer from my two companions. I make a last gallant attempt to secure him, but miss him by a hair's breadth as the great canoe goes swishing round a curve under the combined influence of paddles and current.

This is a disappointment, and I "gird up my loins" with a mental vow not to be caught napping again. It is gall and wormwood to me to think that the chief mate aboard the "Syria" will have the war canoe safe and snug in his plate-carrier before my return, while I have missed it. The chief mate (I may mention in parenthesis) is another harmless insect — Scarabceus cameriferus — and there is a keen rivalry between us. This rivalry is increased by the fact that we are working on different systems. I develop as I go in an extemporised dark room, while he, following the lead of Colonel Stuart Wortley and other travellers in the tropics, reserves his negatives until his return. I have already, I think, mentioned my belief that the latent image always fades to a certain extent, and that a very different result is brought about when plates are developed shortly after exposure to what obtains when they are reserved for some months. That, however, is a matter which can only be settled by a consensus of individual experiences. Chafing over my failures I get the camera ready, while my two companions clear for action and stand to their guns; for we are paddling along the edge of the forest, and there is every prospect of game.

None of us are disappointed. I lead of by a characteristic "bit," which would serve as an epitome of the whole western coast — a dark lane of water, with the gloomy mangrove trees meeting overhead, and the slow, turbid current eddying about their roots, while every vile creature born of vegetable putrescence crawls upon the slimy bank. Dante might have made another circle in hell to rival the frozen stream and the burning marl, had he ever realised the horrors of an African swamp. I am mildly chaffing my companions on having drawn first blood, when their artillery opens with a roar, and a couple of gorgeous kingfishers, light blue and green, come fluttering down into the river. We pass a native woman drifting down in her canoe, with a basket of palm nuts for the traders at Old Calabar. I put up the rapid lens and shutter, focus for "distance," and resume the lead by transferring the swarthy dame to the tell-tale plate; but the Captain equalises matters by the death of a magnificent squirrel, and the purser knocks over a bird resembling a snipe with a very long shot, which became longer every subsequent occasion on which he narrated the anecdote.

We are passing some thick and tangled brushwood now, when there is a sudden alarm among our negro crew, and the steers-man gives a sweep with his paddle which takes us half-a-dozen yards from the bank.

"What is it, eh?" "A snake massa! There him be — there, on dem bush!" There he was, sure enough — an enormously-exaggerated worm livid in colour, with a couple of little beady eyes and a tongue that flickered venomously in front of him. Up go the two shot-guns.

"Stop a minute, do!" I implored, as I wrestled frantically with the camera; but there is no restraining the ardour of the sportsmen, and before I can change the lens and focus him the reptile is floating down the stream with his back broken, and my photographic novelty is lost for ever.

Another couple of miles are passed without yielding anything of importance. Now and again we see the long eddy of an alligator, or his sharp snout appears for a moment above the thick water, but the monarch of the mud is too wary for either rifle or camera. We pull through a series of lagoons, and then, as we come round a bend of the river, we see a great native village in front of us. The captain tells us that it is called Creektown, and that on the occasion of his last visit to it he saw a poor wretch buried in an ant-heap by order of the king, from which his skeleton was dug out in a few hours picked perfectly clean. We land with a resolution — on my part, at least — to have as little as possible to say to his majesty.

It is curious to see the effect which a photograph has upon the perfectly-untutored mind. I have frequently observed it on the coast when showing natives prints of places with which they were familiar from their infancy. A portrait would be hailed with roars of delight; but landscape was a dead letter among them, and I have never known a savage recognise a place from its representation. Appreciation of perspective seems to be entirely a matter of training and cultivation. The savage eye sees a large but and a small one in the picture before it, but the undeveloped brain fails to draw the inference that the small one is small because it is further away. Children and artists in the early days of art always depicted every object as being on the same plane. I have frequently observed in Africa that the first thing a native does when you show him a landscape is to turn it round and look at the other side of it. What the exact object of this manoeuvre may be I do not pretend to know, but the action is so unvarying and universal — whether among Kroomen, Mandingoes, Houssars, Ashantees, or any other tribe — that there must be the same good reason for it. Oliver Wendell Holmes formulated the proposition that every equal brain with similar factors to work on will evolve the same product, and the remark seems to hold good among the wild tribes of the coast.

With the exception of the natives, who have been demoralised by contact with the traders and by the brutality of the slave trade, the inhabitants of the dark continent are really a quiet and inoffensive race of men, whose whole ambition is to be allowed to lead an agricultural life, unmolested and in peace. That, at least, is the opinion which I have formed of them, not only from what I have seen but from frequent conversation with the more intelligent chiefs who had travelled in the interior. My firm belief is that an unarmed, unescorted Englishman could travel without let or hindrance through the length and breadth of Africa. Kings, have, however, a very natural objection to large parties, armed to the teeth with formidable weapons, forcing their way through their dominions. This is why they begin to get their stew-pans and sauce-bottles ready when they see a Stanley or any other modern explorer coming down on them.

On landing at the village, one of the first objects that met our view was a very ancient and supernaturally-ugly hag, who was lying under a sort of cow-shed with heavy iron manacles round her wrists and ankles and a chain connecting them, which might have been a piece of the cable of the "Syria." What this unfortunate woman had done we were unable to find out, but the punishment was being inflicted by order of the king. I need hardly say that I lost no time in adding her to my collection — a proceeding which she seemed most strenuously to object to. Her captivity she was reconciled to, but that a real, live, white man should come and put up a three-legged fetish in front of her was more than she could bear. In spite of kind words and many coppers we could hear her howls — "linked sweetness long drawn out" — for some time after she had disappeared from view.

We were rather amused to find that the king had erected a large building dedicated to the Devil, in close proximity to the church. He was nominally a Christian, but used to go on alternate Sundays to the two different establishments. The idea of "hedging" in matters of religion had evidently never occurred to his imperial mind. If he went to heaven, well and good; but if he were unfortunate enough to be consigned to the other place, at least the Devil could not have the heart to do him much damage after he had built him a house.

My view of Creektown, which included both of these rival edifices was unfortunately rather spoiled by the chalky effect produced by the missionary's house and one or two other white-washed buildings. I was the more disappointed because I had generally found the soft light of the setting sun most adapted for photography in Africa, and especially useful in toning down crude, hard colours and staring outlines. The failure in giving idea of distance so common in tropical countries is also rectified to a certain extent by working in the evening, and is minimised by the introduction of the gelatine process. The resident missionary, whom we proceeded to visit, proved to be a capital fellow and seemed delighted at our appearance, a new white face being a rare sight in his parish.

The light was waning now and no more negatives were to be had, so that I was able to settle myself down to a quiet pipe without any arriere pensee. Our entertainer told us much that was interesting about life in the interior and his journeyings there. One of his anecdotes struck me as being amusing. The Captain had been anxiously inquiring about heavy game, to which the missionary answered that he had only once seen an elephant on the banks of the river, and never wished to see another. "I'm not much of a shot," he said, apologetically. "You see, the beast was standing among some bushes, so I went ashore with the heavy rifle and got as near him as I could. There were some flies bothering him, so he kept moving about, wagging his little stump of a tail. At last he stood still, with his head in the air and his tail standing straight up, so I let fly.' The bullet must have passed over its head, for it hit the tail and snapped it clean off like a carrot. If I had aimed at it, it would have been a magnificent shot. The animal was too astonished to be vindictive, and when last I saw him he was leaning against a tree, apparently trying to recall the circumstances which led up to this painful affair. I made for the boat as fast as I could scamper, and very glad I was to find myself safe and sound inside it."

It was almost night time before we took our leave of the hospitable clergyman and made our way down to the boat. We passed the house of the Devil and the still disconsolate prisoner, and were hailed by a cheer from our crew, who, during our absence, had drunk decidedly more rum than was good for them. We pushed off into the stream, and were just starting on our return when we made out a tall warrior gesticulating on the bank. He had come down to inform us that the king was waiting to see us.

"Confound the king!" remarked the Captain.

"Supper's waiting on board," said Haines.

I am not proud. I thought of the man in the ant-hill and threw in my vote for avoiding his majesty, and the measure was carried. We explained to the ambassador that if the king waited until he saw us he would have one of the finest opportunities of waiting that might ever occur to him. With that, and a strong conviction that "Britons never, never, never," &c., we swung the boat round and went gliding rapidly down the broad, glistening stream, till a few scattered lights and a dark hull rising out of the water in front of us informed us that Old Calabar and the "Syria" were reached once more.

There was a scrambling up the latter, a delicate handing of plate-carriers, and a few anxious inquiries from my fellow amateur, who chuckled much on learning that the war canoe had escaped me. And so to supper, with the satisfied feeling produced by half-a-dozen negatives in the background (most of which, I may mention, gave very excellent results), and the consciousness of an evening both pleasantly and usefully spent.