Chapter I. Landing at the Rio Gabao (Gaboon River). - le Plateau, the French Colony.
I remember with lively pleasure my first glance at the classic stream of the "Portingal Captains" and the "Zeeland interlopers." The ten-mile breadth of the noble Gaboon estuary somewhat dwarfed the features of either shore as we rattled past Cape Santa Clara, a venerable name, "'verted" to Joinville. The bold northern head, though not "very high land," makes some display, because we see it in a better light; and its environs are set off by a line of scattered villages. The vis-a-vis of Louis Philippe Peninsula on the starboard bow (Zuidhoeck), "Sandy Point" or Sandhoeck, by the natives called Pongara, and by the French Peninsule de Marie- Amelie, shows a mere fringe of dark bristle, which is tree, based upon a broad red-yellow streak, which is land. As we pass through the slightly overhung mouth, we can hardly complain with a late traveller of the Gaboon's "sluggish waters;" during the ebb they run like a mild mill-race, and when the current, setting to the north-west, meets a strong sea-breeze from the west, there is a criss-cross, a tide-rip, contemptible enough to a cruizer, but quite capable of filling cock-boats. And, nearing the end of our voyage, we rejoice to see that the dull down-pourings and the sharp storms of Fernando Po have apparently not yet migrated so far south. Dancing blue wavelets, under the soft azure sky, plash and cream upon the pure clean sand that projects here and there black lines of porous ironstone waiting to become piers; and the water-line is backed by swelling ridges, here open and green- grassed, there spotted with islets of close and shady trees. Mangrove, that horror of the African voyager, shines by its absence; and the soil is not mud, but humus based on gravels or on ruddy clays, stiff and retentive. The formation, in fact, is everywhere that of Eyo or Yoruba, the goodly region lying west of the lower Niger, and its fertility must result from the abundant water supply of the equatorial belt.
The charts are fearful to look upon. The embouchure, well known to old traders, has been scientifically surveyed in our day by Lieutenant Alph. Fleuriot de Langle, of La Malouine (1845), and the chart was corrected from a survey ordered by Capitaine Bouet- Willaumez (1849); in the latter year it was again revised by M. Charles Floix, of the French navy, and, with additions by the officers of Her Britannic Majesty's service, it becomes our No. 1877. The surface is a labyrinth of banks, rocks, and shoals, "Ely," "Nisus," "Alligator," and "Caraibe." In such surroundings as these, when the water shallows apace, the pilot must not be despised.
Her Majesty's steam-ship "Griffon," Commander Perry, found herself, at 2 P.M. on Monday, March, 17, 1862, in a snug berth opposite Le Plateau, as the capital of the French colony is called, and amongst the shipping of its chief port, Aumale Road. The river at this neck is about five miles broad, and the scene was characteristically French. Hardly a merchant vessel lay there. We had no less than four naval consorts "La Caravane," guard-ship, store-ship, and hospital-hulk; a fine transport, "La Riege," bound for Goree; "La Recherche," a wretched old sailing corvette which plies to Assini and Grand Basam on the Gold Coast; and, lastly, "La Junon," chef de division Baron Didelot, then one of the finest frigates in the French navy, armed with fifty rifled sixty-eight pounders. It is curious that, whilst our neighbours build such splendid craft, and look so neat and natty in naval uniform, they pay so little regard to the order and cleanliness of their floating homes.
After visiting every English colony on the West Coast of Africa, I resolved curiously to examine my first specimen of our rivals, the "principal centre of trade in western equatorial Africa." The earliest visit - in uniform, of course - was to Baron Didelot, whose official title is "Commandant Superieur des Etablissements de la Cote d'Or et du Gabon;" the following was to M. H. S. L'Aulnois, "Lieutenant de Vaisseau et Commandant Particulier du Comptoir de Gabon." These gentlemen have neat bungalows and gardens; they may spend their days ashore, but they are very careful to sleep on board. All the official whites appear to have a morbid horror of the climate; when attacked by fever, they "cave in" at once, and recovery can hardly be expected. This year also, owing to scanty rains, sickness has been rife, and many cases which began with normal mildness have ended suddenly and fatally. Besides fear of fever, they are victims to ennui and nostalgia; and, expecting the Comptoir to pay large profits, they are greatly disappointed by the reverse being the case.
But how can they look for it to be otherwise? The modern French appear fit to manage only garrisons and military posts. They will make everything official, and they will not remember the protest against governing too much, offered by the burgesses of Paris to Louis le Grand. They are always on duty; they are never out of uniform, mentally and metaphorically, as well as bodily and literally. Nothing is done without delay, even in the matter of signing a ship's papers. A long proces-verbal takes the place of our summary punishment, and the gros canon is dragged into use on every occasion, even to enforce the payment of native debts.