Chapter VIII. A Visit to Banza Chisalla,
We ascended the river-bank, greeted by the usual accidents of an African reception; the men shouted, the women rushed screaming under cover, and the children stood howling at the horrible sight. A few paces placed us at the "palace," a heap of huts, surrounded by an old reed-fence. The audience-room was a trifle larger than usual, with low shady eaves, a half-flying roof, and a pair of doorways for the dangerous but indispensable draught; a veteran sofa and a few rickety chairs composed the furniture, and the throne was known by its boarded seat, which would have been useful in taking a "lamp-bath."
Presently entered the "Rei dos Reis," Nessalla: the old man, whose appearance argued prosperity, was en grande tenue, the State costume of Tuckey's, not of Merolla's day. The crown was the usual "berretta" (night-cap) of open work; the sceptre, a drum-major's staff; the robes, a "parochial" beadle's coat of scarlet cloth, edged with tinsel gold lace. His neck was adorned with hair circlets of elephants' tails, strung with coral and beads; the effect, to compare black with white, was that of Beau Brummell's far-famed waterfall tie, and the head seemed supported as if on a narrow-rimmed "charger." The only other ornament was a broad silver ring welded round the ankle, and drawing attention to a foot which, all things considered, was small and well shaped.
Some of the chiefs had copper rings of home manufacture, with neatly cut raised figures. The king held in his right hand an article which at first puzzled us - a foot's length of split reed, with the bulbous root attached. He may not, like his vassals, point with the finger, and without pointing an African can hardly give an order. Moreover, the Sangalavu or Malaguetta pepper (Amomum granum Paradisi), fresh or old, is not only a toothstick, but a fetish of superior power when carried on journeys. Professor Smith writes "Sangala woo," and tells us that it was always kept fresh in the house, to be rolled in the hands when invoking the Fetish during war-time; moreover, it was chewed to be spat at the enemy. Possibly he confuses it with the use as a tooth-stick, the article which Asia and Africa prefer to the unclean hog's- bristle brush of Europe.
On the left of the throne sat the Nchinu, or "second king," attired in a footman's livery of olive-coloured cloth, white-worn at the seams, and gleaming with plated buttons, upon which was the ex-owner's crest - a cubit arm.
The stranger in Africa marvels why men, who, as Dahome shows, can affect a tasteful simplicity, will make themselves such "guys." When looking at these caricatures, he is tempted to read (literally) learned Montesquieu, "It is hardly to be believed that God, who is a wise being, should place a soul, especially a good soul, in such a black, ugly body," and to consider the few exceptions as mere "sporting plants." But the negro combines with inordinate love of finery the true savage taste - an imitative nature, - and where he cannot copy the Asiatic he must ape the European; only in the former pursuit he rises above, in the latter he sinks below his own proper standard. Similarly, as a convert, he is ennobled by El Islam; in rare cases, which may be counted upon the fingers, he is civilized by Christianity; but, as a rule, the latter benefits him so far only as it abolishes the barbarous and murderous rites of Paganism.
But there is also a sound mundane reason which causes the African "king" to pose in these cast-off borrowed plumes. Contrast with his three-quarter nude subjects gives him a name; the name commands respect; respect increases "dash;" and dash means dollars. For his brain, dense and dead enough to resist education, is ever alive and alert to his own interest; whilst the concentration of its small powers prevails against those who, in all other points, are notably his superiors. The whole of negro Africa teaches this lesson. "The Ethiopians," says Father Merolla, "are not so dull and stupid as is commonly imagined, but rather more subtle and cunning than ordinary;" and he adds an instance of far-sighted treachery, which would not have been despicable even in a Hindoo.
A desultory palaver "came up;" the soul of the meeting not being present. M. Pissot explained my wish to "take walk and make book," carefully insisting upon the fact that I came to spend, not to gain money. The grizzled senior's face, before crumpled like a "wet cloak ill laid up," expanded at these last words, and with a grunt, which plainly meant "by' m' by," he rose, and retired to drink - a call of nature which the decencies of barbarous dignity require to be answered in private. He returned accompanied by his nephew, Manbuku Prata (pronounced Pelata), the "Silver Chief Officer," as we might say, Golden Ball. The title is vulgarly written Mambuco; the Abbe Proyart prefers Ma-nboukou, or "prince who is below the Makaia in dignity." The native name of this third personage was Gidifuku. It was a gorgeous dignitary: from the poll of his night-cap protruded a dozen bristles of elephant's tail hair, to which a terminal coral gave the graceful curve of a pintado's crest, and along his ears, like the flaps of a travelling casquette, hung two dingy little mirrors of talc from Cacongo, set in clumsy frames of ruddled wood. Masses of coral encircled his neck, and the full-dress naval uniform of a French officer, with epaulettes of stupendous size, exposed a zebra'd guernsey of equivocal purity. A long black staff, studded with broad-headed brass beads, served to clear the room of the lieges, who returned as fast as they were turned out - the baton was evidently not intended to be used seriously.