THE EXPLORATION AND COLONIZATION OF AFRICA, I
|A kafila of slaves.
(Fac-simile of early engraving.)
Here and there in the desert are oases containing towns of greater or less importance, at which the caravans halt. Kishi is one of the most frequented of these places, and there the money for the right of crossing the desert is paid. The Sultan of Kishi, the ruler of a good many of these petty principalities, and who takes the title of Commander of the Faithful, was remarkable for a complete disregard of cleanliness, a peculiarity in which, according to Denham, his court fully equalled him.
This sultan paid Boo-Khaloum a visit in his tent, accompanied by half a dozen Tibboos, some of whom were positively hideous. Their teeth were of a dark yellow colour, the result of chewing tobacco, of which they are so fond that they use it as snuff as well as to chew. Their noses looked like little round bits of flesh stuck on to their faces with nostrils so wide that they could push their fingers right up them. Denham's watch, compass, and musical snuffbox astonished them not a little. He defines these people as brutes with human faces.
A little further on the travellers reached the town of Kirby, situated in a wâdy near a low range of hills of which the highest are not more than 400 feet above the sea level, and between two salt lakes, produced by the excavations made for building. From the centre of these lakes rise islets consisting of masses of muriate and carbonate of soda. The salt produced by these wâdys, or depressions of the soil, form an important article of commerce with Bornou and the whole of the Soudan.
It would be impossible to imagine a more wretched place than Kirby. Its houses are empty, containing not so much as a mat. How could it be otherwise with a place liable to incessant raids from the Tuaricks?
The caravan now crossed the Tibboo country, inhabited by a peaceful, hospitable people to whom, as keepers of the wells and reservoirs of the desert, the leaders of caravans pay passage-money. The Tibboos are a strong, active race, and when mounted on their nimble steeds they display marvellous skill in throwing the lance, which the most vigorous of their warriors can hurl to a distance of 145 yards. Bilma is their chief city, and the residence of their sultan.
On the arrival of the travellers at Bilma, the sultan, escorted by a number of men and women, came out to meet the strangers. The women were much better-looking than those in the smaller towns; some of them had indeed very pleasant faces, their white, regular teeth contrasting admirably with their shining black skins, and the three "triangular flaps of hair, streaming with oil." Coral ornaments in their noses, and large amber necklaces round their throats, gave them what Denham calls a "seductive appearance." Some of them carried fans made of grass or hair, with which to keep off the flies; others were provided with branches of trees; all, in fact, carried something in their hands, which they waved above their heads. Their costume consisted of a loose piece of Soudan cloth, fastened on the left shoulder, and leaving the right uncovered, with a smaller piece wound about the head, and falling on the shoulders or flung back. In spite of this paucity of clothing, there was not the least immodesty in their bearing.
A mile from Bilma, and beyond a limpid spring, which appears to have been placed there by nature to afford a supply of water to travellers, lies a desert, which it takes no less than ten days to cross. This was probably once a huge salt lake.
On the 4th February, 1823, the caravan reached Lari, a town on the northern boundary of Bornou, in lat. 14° 40' N. The inhabitants, astonished at the size of the "kafila," fled in terror at its approach.
"Beyond, however," says Denham, "was an object full of interest to us, and the sight of it produced a sensation so gratifying and inspiring, that it would be difficult for language to convey an idea of its force or pleasure. The great Lake Tchad, glowing with the golden rays of the sun in its strength, appeared to be within a mile of the spot on which we stood."
On leaving Lari, the appearance of the country changed completely. The sandy desert was succeeded by a clay soil, clothed with grass and dotted with acacias and other trees of various species, amongst which grazed herds of antelopes, whilst Guinea fowls and the turtle-doves of Barbary flew hither and thither above them. Towns took the place of villages, with huts of the shape of bells, thatched with durra straw.
The travellers continued their journey southwards, rounding Lake Tchad, which they had first touched at its most northerly point.
The districts bordering on this sheet of water were of a black, firm, but muddy soil. The waters rise to a considerable height in winter, and sink in proportion in the summer. The lake is of fresh water, rich in fish, and frequented by hippopotami and aquatic birds. Near its centre, on the south-east, are the islands inhabited by the Biddomahs, a race who live by pillaging the people of the mainland.
The explorers had sent a messenger to Sheikh El Khanemy, to ask permission to enter his capital, and an envoy speedily arrived to invite Boo-Khaloum and his companions to Kouka.
On their way thither, the travellers passed through Burwha, a fortified town which had thus far resisted the inroads of the Tuaricks, and crossed the Yeou, a large river, in some parts more than 500 feet in width, which, rising in the Soudan, flows into Lake Tchad.
On the southern shores of this river rises a little town of the same name, about half the size of Burwha.