Lake Ngami: or, Explorations and Discoveries during Four Years' Wanderings in the Wilds of South-Western Africa (by Charles John Anderssen, 1856).
It is a singular fact that Southern Africa seems to possess attractions for explorers, equalled only by the dreary discomfort with which it is associated in the minds of all other persons. Endless sandy deserts, savages ferocious to the last degree, and almost too barbarous to be human, a scorching sun, drenching rains, and a profusion of noxious beasts of every kind, are, to most of us, the principal features of the country which seems to exercise an irresistible fascination over the minds of some of the most experienced and courageous of travellers. There is, however, another side to the picture. It is the pride, and we might almost say the profession, of our country to replenish the earth and to subdue it. Wherever there is a navigable river, or a commodious harbour, or rich mines, or fertile pastures, there is an outlet for some part of the energy and wealth of England or the colonies; and those who supply us with authentic information upon these subjects render most valuable service. There is no part of the world in which there is so much demand for labours of this kind as in Southern Africa. It contains many isolated districts which have very considerable natural wealth, and the savages by whom they are inhabited are not without noble qualities. It is, therefore, with considerable interest that we have read Mr. Anderssen's book. We wish he had put it into the shape of a digested account of the country, rather than into that of a journal; but this is mere matter of arrangement, and the book as it stands undoubtedly contains a very considerable amount of solid information, as well as much curious description of personal adventure.
Mr. Anderssen is a Swede of English descent, who, having been a traveller from his earliest youth, gladly embraced the opportunity of accompanying Mr. Galton in his African expedition in 1850. Mr. Galton appears to have behaved with great generosity, paying all the expenses of the expedition, and making over to Mr. Anderssen, on his own return to Europe, the stores and animals necessary to enable him to undertake a second journey. The countries which were explored-on these occasions were Namaqua-land, Damara-land, and Ovambo, and the districts which surround the Lake Ngami. The starting-point was Walfisch Bay, a roadstead on the western coast of Africa, about 700 geographical miles north of the Cape of Good Hope, and just within the tropic of Capricorn. Namaqua-land lies immediately to the south, and Damara-land to the north, of Walfisch Bay, while Ovambo is to the north of Damara-land. Lake Ngami, the ultimate object of the expedition, attained by Mr. Anderssen but not by Mr. Galton, is as nearly as possible half-way across the continent, in latitude 20° south, and about 800 miles from both the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans.
Great Namaqua-land is a vast and almost entirely desert district, extending northward from the Orange River, and containing about 148,000 square miles, with a population of scarcely 30,000. It consists to a great extent of immense sand plains, traversed by hills and rocks, and thickly strewn with quartz, which dazzles and perplexes the traveller. The district seems to be rich in minerals, as iron and sandstone are not uncommon, whilst tin, lead, and copper also occur. Mr. Anderssen has found specimens of the latter, containing from forty to ninety per cent. of pure metal. The region has been subject to great volcanic influences, for it abounds in hot springs, and rumbling noises and tremors of the earth are not uncommon. The Namaquas are a very superstitious race. They have little or no belief in a God, except in so far as it may be inferred from an opinion that a kind of demon, called Heit-jeebib, lives in graves; and in his honour they throw stones upon tombs in passing, which, in time, have formed many heaps of great size. They are great believers in witchcraft, and are much tyrannized over by witchdoctors. They believe that sickness is frequently caused by the presence in the body of some snake, frog, or insect, and that a cure may be obtained by making incisions in the patient by which the animal may be extracted. They are a very idle race, frequently almost perishing from thirst and hunger; “for why,” say they when urged to work, “should we resemble the worms of the ground?” They understand the manufacture of intoxicating liquors, but have scarcely any other arts.
The Damaras live in a district to the north of Walfisch Bay. The country resembles Namaqua-land in general appearance, being for the most part quite unfitted for habitation by the scarcity of water, and by inextricable jungles of thorn-wood. As it lies within the tropic of Capricorn, the order of the seasons is the reverse of our own. In August, hot winds begin to blow, which quickly destroy the vegetation; and at the same time, “whirlwinds sweep over the country with tremendous velocity, driving along vast columns of sand, many feet in diameter, and several hundred in height. At times, ten or fifteen of these columns may be seen chasing each other.” The Damaras call them “rain beggars,” as they immediately precede the rainy season, which begins in September, though it does not set in with its full violence till December, after which it continues, with slight intermissions, till May. The Damaras are even more savage than the Namaquas—they know nothing of agriculture, and have no word for cereal food in their language. They have only appeared in their present district within the last seventy years, when they are believed to have invaded it from the north or north-east. It is a curious instance of the character of traditions in savage countries, that the best confirmation of this assertion is to be found in a legend that they sprang originally from a particular kind of tree, whole forests of which are found in the direction from which they are said to have come. The remainder of the myth is wild enough. “When men and beasts first burst from the parent tree, all was darkness;” then a Damara lit a fire, which frightened the zebra, the giraffe, the gnoo, and the other wild beasts, whilst the domestic animals flocked around it. The present condition of the tribe is far from prosperous, as they are at war with the Namaquas, who have on several occasions defeated and weakened them. They are divided into “candas,” or castes, each of which has its own rule about what it may or may not eat. A man would almost prefer dying of hunger to eating of an ox spotted with white, if the rule of his caste forbade it. They have vague notions both of a God and of a future state. They practise circumcision and polygamy, being allowed to have as many wives as they please, though “I never,” says Mr. Anderssen, “knew one who more than twenty.” A curious proof that they are in a state of degeneracy rather than in a state of nature, is to be found in the fact that, though they have numerals up to 100, they are almost unable to use them, or to count beyond the number of their fingers.
The Ovambos live to the north of the Damaras. They are a much less savage race, cultivating grain, calabashes, pumpkins, beans, peas, and an inferior kind of tobacco. The natives live like the patriarchs of old, in separate families—each homestead is situated in the middle of a corn field, and surrounded by high and stout palisades. They are rather a fine-looking race, strictly honest, and attend the sick and aged carefully, whereas the Damaras frequently put them to death. The Ovambos are moreover hospitable. They are polygamous, and regard women simply as an article of commerce. They are said to be entirely destitute of any notion of a God; but Mr. Anderssen thinks that this may arise from an imperfect acquaintance with the language. It is a curious circumstance that they are ignorant of the art of swimming. They trade with the Damaras, and have some skill in working with metals.
The great object of Mr. Anderssen's expedition was the exploration of the great lake “Ngami” or “the waters.” It is a remarkable sheet of water, though not of any very extraordinary size, according to European notions. Its circumference is probably about seventy or eighty English miles, and its width from seven to nine. It is narrow in the middle, and bulges out at both ends. Mr. Anderssen tells a story, which we do not pretend to explain, but which certainly seems hardly credible, about its being subject to a tidal flux and reflux. It receives the river Teoge at its north-west extremity, and finds its outlet in the Zouga, towards the east. The Zouga is said to run about three hundred miles, and finally to lose itself in an immense marsh, called the Great Reed Vley, the favourite resort of innumerable buffaloes. The Teoge is a fine river, some forty yards wide, and very deep. It is so serpentine that, after ascending it for thirteen days, Mr. Anderssen only made one degree of latitude north of the lake. It widens as it approaches its source, and is thickly studded with reeds and well-wooded islands. The configuration of the country is so singular, that the Teoge, which is the feeder, and the Zouga, which is the outlet of the lake, are said sometimes to communicate. A third constantly flowing river is said to exist west of the Teoge. The natives call it the Cunené, and say that it is only a branch of a much larger river, of which Mr. Anderssen seems to have received several accounts, and which may possibly be navigable almost to its source. It is supposed to fall into the Atlantic in latitude 17° S., or thereabouts. If this be true, it is not only curious, but important, as indicating a possible means of communication with the very centre of Southern Africa.
The borders of the lake are inhabited by a branch of the Bechuanas, called, Batoanas. They are an invading people lately settled in their present territories, having reduced the aborigines to serfdom. Their government is partly monarchical, partly patriarchal. They have parliaments after a fashion; in which they sometimes speak with considerable eloquence. Their language is very soft, few syllables ending with a consonant. It contains no word signifying “God,” and they seem to be destitute of any religious impressions. The only institution which has the slightest connexion with any belief in invisible wers is that of a set of impostors called rain-makers, who rive a trade by professing to manufacture rain. The boats with which these people navigate their lake are of the rudest kind. When descending the river Teoge with Mr. Anderssen, they made use of reed rafts, which consisted merely of a great mass of reeds cut down and thrown into the water, without being in any way bound together or fenced in. Fresh layers were occasionally added to supply fresh buoyancy, as the bottom ones sunk. On a raft of this kind, which simply floated down the stream, without guidance of any kind, Mr. Anderssen travelled about one hundred and fifty miles in nine days.
Besides his contributions to geography, Mr. Anderssen has devoted much attention to natural history, and especially to zoology. His description of some of the animals which he observed is very full and interesting. He devotes a whole chapter to the rhinoceros, of which four distinct species live in South Africa—two of them dark, and two light in colour. The black species are extremely fierce, and feed principally on thorns and roots, which they plough up with their horns. The white species are much larger and gentler, seldom attacking men unless in defence of their young or themselves. The horns of the rhinoceros are composed of very fine longitudinal threads, and are not fixed to the skull, but only to the skin. The body weighs from four thousand to five thousand pounds, and one of them is worth as much as three oxen for food. They are said to live to the enormous age of one hundred years, and are prodigiously strong—they are moreover very active, notwithstanding their appearance, and hear and smell most acutely, though their sight is very imperfect. The black rhinoceros is subject to fits of apparently groundless and uncontrollable ferocity, when he will charge every object in his way-men, beasts, stones, and even the skeletons of his own species. Mr. Anderssen was once witness of a performance of this kind. They will occasionally fight with each other. Mr. Anderssen once saw four of them so engaged; and “so furious was the strife, and their gruntings so horrible, that it caused the greatest consternation” to his party. One of them was ultimately shot, and was “quite rotten” from wounds received in such encounters. It is a curious thing that the brain of this enormous beast, whose bulk probably equals that of twenty-five men, is but little larger than the human brain. The cavity in one of their skulls was found to hold barely a quart of peas, whilst a man's held little less than three pints. Mr. Anderssen states that he has known a rhinoceros to be killed with a single leaden ball at a distance of one hundred yards, and he considers the common opinion, that such balls cannot pierce their hides, to be fallacious.
The most remarkable creature mentioned in the book would, however, seem to be the tsetse fly. It is somewhat smaller than a common bluebottle, but has longer wings. Its bite, however, is so venomous that it will go far to kill an ox, or a horse. On being bitten, the animal loses flesh, and dies, perhaps months afterwards, of emaciation. The most remarkable feature of the case is, that the poison affects domestic animals only, and has no effect on man, though the fly certainly bites him, nor on wild animals, which feed undisturbed in its district. Dogs die on being bitten, though reared on milk; but sucking animals of all kinds escape unhurt.
There are many other curious facts relating to the different tribes of antelopes found in South Africa, to the hippopotamus, and to other animals, mentioned in Mr. Anderssen's work, but the above are fair specimens of their general character. We ought also to say that the book contains far the best assortment of wild-beast stories that we are acquainted with. Wishing to give our readers the more substantial results of the expedition, we have not referred to them; but we must say that they seem to us better selected and better told than any others which we have lately seen, and they are illustrated by a most admirable set of engravings. One—which forms the frontispiece—representing lions pulling down a giraffe, appears to us admirably spirited and vigorous.
Saturday Review, July 12, 1856.