Alfred Collins In The Congo

A Photographic Record Of Daily Life With Introduction And Notes

By: Henry Usher Hall

Originally Published in 1926

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These notes were compiled from information kindly furnished to me by Mr. Collins and from such references as I could find in the writings of other travellers. The photographs have been selected from a series of several hundred made by Mr. Collins during his journey.

The northeastern portion of the Belgian Congo is inhabited by a number of little known tribes, chiefly of the type sometimes called forest negro from the fact that their most characteristic representatives are now to be found in and on the outskirts of the great Congo forests which stretch across the continent from the neighbourhood of the chain of lakes occupying the Albertine Rift Valley, in which the Nile takes its rise—Lakes Tanganyika, Kivu, Edward, and Albert—to the Gaboon and the Cameroons, near the west coast. Mr. A. M. Collins, the well known traveller and big game hunter, lately visited this region in quest of examples of rare species of the large animals which still haunt its forests and savannahs. Mr. Collins, whose generosity has enriched the zoological collections of Philadelphia, New York and Chicago with the results of this and former expeditions to tropical as well as to arctic regions, has with no less generosity made a valuable contribution to the African section of the University Museum in the form of a collection of objects and photographs illustrating the life of these forest negroes and other tribes of the northeastern Congo. The photographs which, with Mr. Collins’s kind permission, are here published for the first time, speak for themselves; the ethnographical collection is exhibited in the African room of the Museum.

Sketch map of North-East Belgian Congo

The route taken by Mr. Collins is indicated by the broken line on the accompanying sketch map. The line is seen to enter the country with which we are concerned at Ujiji on the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika and to leave it at the northern end of Lake Albert, after making two important detours westward to the middle and lower courses respectively of the Rivers Lowa and Ituri. Besides collecting objects from tribes immediately on his route, Mr. Collins also obtained some from members of tribes remote from it who were visiting his hosts. The region west of the lakes is one concerning whose population we know not very much more than the names of some of the tribes. Stanley, Junker, Stuhlmann, Johnston, skirted it on the north and east; Johnston has summarized in his “Uganda Protectorate” and in “George Grenfell and the Congo” the general information gained by himself and others concerning the peoples, especially the pygmies, on its confines; and a Belgian official, Commandant Delhaise, has written a not very lengthy account of an important tribe of its southern border, The Warega or Balega. Mr. Collins’ photographic and other illustrations of native life are on this account the more acceptable and important.

The types of negroes represented in the photographs are three: the Watusi of Ruanda, between Lakes Kivu and Edward; the forest negroes inhabiting the greater part of the region, both forest proper and savannah or parklands; and the pygmies, or dwarfish negroes of the Ituri forests, generally known as Wambuti or Bambuti. The first, especially when compared with the usually short forest type and the dimunitive pygmies, are strikingly tall and good looking people. They belong to a racial group sometimes known by the generic name of Hima, cattle raising aristocrats of various districts of British East Africa, and related to the Galla and Somali of the farther northeast. They probably represent an ancient blend of negro with a non-negroid north African and Asiatic stock. The shorter negroes, with whom they have to some extent intermingled, are agriculturists, practising a simple form of horticulture, without, that is, the use of the plough. Their principal garden products are bananas (or plantains), manioc (cassava), maize, and yams. They also consume large quantities of game. The pygmies, except in so far as they obtain cultivated vegetable produce from their neighbours in exchange for game, obtain their livelihood by the most primitive of pursuits, hunting and collecting wild fruits and roots.

The pygmies, where they have not entered into regular relations with their neighbours for the exchange of game for garden produce and implements and weapons, are notorious as pilferers of gardens. On some occasions, to stave off reprisals for their larcenies, they are said to leave gifts of game in place of the plantains or other produce that they carry off. In one place, at any rate, this quite irregular device for placating their victims has become regularized into a form of procedure which supplies an interesting example of what is sometimes known as the silent trade, instances of which have been recorded as a means of dealing with similar situations in various parts of the world. It occurs among the Akkas (pygmies) of the Upper Welle District of the Belgian Congo. When an Akka returns from hunting, he repairs to the nearest banana plantation, taking with him some pieces of meat wrapped up in leaves. Then he climbs a tree, cuts down a bunch of bananas, descends, leaves a packet of meat skewered to the stem, and repeats the process with as many packets as he carries, or as many bunches as he and his companions can carry off. Readers of “Kenilworth” will recall how customers of Wayland Smith got their horses shod by leaving horse and coin near his mysterious smithy and taking themselves off, to return after a given time to find the horse shod and the coin gone, though they had had no sight of the smith. Whatever ancient historical reality may be represented by the various forms of the Weyland legend in northern Europe may not be as old as the instance of the Silent Trade related by Herodotus in connection with the trading of the Carthaginians on the African coast beyond the Pillars of Hercules for gold. It is an ancient and widespread device for bringing together the objects of trade without necessary contact of the principals, if such contact is for one reason or another impossible or not desired. As in the case of the pygmies, it may lead in the end to free and open trade to the mutual advantage of former enemies; all the stages from hostile pillage to friendly intercourse with silent trading as the means of transition may be seen in the history of the relations of the pygmies with their neighbours.

The primitiveness which such facts imply is borne out in all other respects by the circumstances of these people so far as they are known. Even their small stature and other infantile features of their physical constitution have led some writers to apply to investigations of pygmy life and origins tempting analogies connecting them with what might be called the childhood of man. However that may be, they present an interesting example of people organized in what is, so far as is known, the least complicated form of society in existence. They have, it is said, no language of their own, speaking only, with certain peculiarities of pronunciation, modified forms of the language of their neighbours.

A Congo village seen from above
A Congo village commonly consists of a row of houses on each side of a single street. The street usually forms part of the trail through the forest, where one exists, and the trail itself is one that has been made by the habitual passage of larger game animals along a definite line of march to and from their customary feeding and drinking places.
Image Number: 1023
A rectangular hut and men adding leaf roof
The boundary between rectangular and dome shaped huts in this part of Africa passes in a generally north to south direction through the northeast Congo. Canes or reeds are used for covering the walls and a long coarse grass for thatching over the open wattle construction of the roof. A reed screen covers the small window. The quadrangular house is the form of dwelling which lies to the west of the boundary referred to.
Image Number: 1025
Dome shaped house with people working on a boat outside
The dome shaped house with a porch is the type characteristic of the eastern part of this region, near the lakes. The boats on Lake Edward are constructed by sticking together long pieces of bark. The cone shaped object made of twigs placed near the bow of the boat is a fishpot. Another characteristic possession of the people of this neighbourhood, the spool shaped portable stool, is seen beside the squatting figure near the bow of the boat.
A large group of people paddling a boat on the water
The long dugout, made from the trunk of a single large tree, is the form of canoe used on Lake Kivu. It is hewn and hollowed by means of the iron axes and chisels that the negro blacksmiths are very clever in manufacturing. See page 199.
A suspension bridge over a river
The suspension bridge of withes moored to trees on either bank of a stream, wherever in Africa it originated, seems to have developed principally in the valleys of the two great rivers of negro Africa, the Congo and the Niger, or the regions bordering those valleys. This bridge crosses the waters, apparently rather higher than usual, of the Ituri River.
A group of people holding spears standing in front of a house
These tall, often quite handsome negroes, are found as a kind of ruling caste among the shorter people on the eastern borders of this region. Their different groups are known by different names. These are Watusi of Ruanda, between Lake Edward and Lake Kivu. The dignified personage in front of the group is the son of a chief, the others are his household and retainers. They are in curious contrast in the matter of clothing—which is not due to modern Christian influence—to the unclad people who live so near to them. The difference in their physical appearance is probably due to an ancient admixture of non-negroid blood when their ancestors lived further north.
A scarified back
Perhaps the African negroes, and negroid peoples in other parts of the world, are better able through experience than anybody else to appreciate the truth of the ironic French saw about the necessary connection between suffering and beauty. At any rate, it is they who are peculiarly addicted to the practice whose results are beautifully shown in this photograph from the northern shore of Lake Edward. These results are obtained by the process known as scartattooing, or, since it is not tattooing proper, as cicatrization. A large number of incisions are made in the skin and the juice of a plant or some other irritant is rubbed into the wounds, causing them to heal up after much suppuration into prominent weals along the lines of what are often quite elaborate designs.
A man grinning at the camera
Face and body are both cicatrized in the case of this man from Kitunda, far to the west of Lake Kivu. In addition he has had a gap in the shape of an inverted V chipped out between his two upper middle incisor teeth. This latter mutilation, like the other, is, at least sometimes, an outward sign of entrance into the adult state.
A group of women showing off upper lip plugs
While an elaborately sculptured dark skin has a certain beauty of its own, it is difficult to see any in the lip ornament known usually by the name given to it further east as the pelele. Babili women pierce the upper lip and insert a series of plugs increasing in diameter up to the limit of tension of the tissues of the lip. When this limit is approximately reached, the last plug employed is retained as a permanent ornament. It is not on record that Babili women are by nature especially voluble; but it would almost seem that masculine Babili guile by judicious references to the greater modishness of greater and greater lip plugs had brought about a state of things in which the last, or any, word has died on feminine Babili lips.
A hunter with a gorilla
The natives do not commonly hunt the gorilla, but Mr. Collins employed native hunters as guides and assistants in reaching the haunts of these great apes in the forest halfway between Lake Kivu and the main stream of the Congo (Lualaba). Mr. Collins writes: “Gorillas were the chief object of my expedition. We obtained them on the Lowa River about three days southwest of Walikali. They were two or three weeks’ travel west of the volcanoes where Mr. Akeley procured his for the American Museum of Natural History and were at an altitude of 3000 to 4000 feet, whereas his were above 10,000 feet.”
A man holding a spear
The African pygmies adopt the mode of dress and to a less extent the ornaments and fashions of personal decoration of their neighbours. Of their own initiative they seem to have little inclination towards the adornment of their persons either by mutilation or by the attachment of trinkets or amulets. The face of this hunter is daubed with clay in a manner which suggests the ritual preparation for important undertakings which is practised by some negro tribes.
A man in a big pot pedefacturing
A sweet and heady beverage is made from bananas mashed and mixed with water, the mixture then being allowed to ferment. The photograph indicates a process of manufacture—or pedefacture, if one may be allowed the coinage—not unlike that followed in ancient (and contemporary) times in European and Oriental lands, where the juice of the grape was expressed by trampling, and fermented into wine. Another method has been reported for this region of Africa, according to which the bananas are sliced into rounds, placed in a pot, covered with water, and allowed to ferment for two days, at the end of which time the infusion has become a highly intoxicating brew. The scene here is a banana grove near the northwest corner of Lake Edward. Further north, among the Mangbettu, banana wine plays an important part in the ceremonies connected with the initiation of youths into adult male society. There it is drunk on these occasions by the elders from an earthenware jug the upper portion of which represents a human head. A fine specimen is to be seen in the MUSEUM among the many interesting objects in Mr. Collins’s collection.
A man inhaling through an extremely long pipe
Among the forest tribes of the northeastern Belgian Congo the tobacco pipe consists of an earthenware bowl with a stem about an inch long. This is inserted into the thicker end of the midrib of a banana leaf which has previously been perforated longitudinally. Sometimes a piece of banana leaf rolled up into a small funnel takes the place of the earthenware bowl. On the march the smoker carries with him the bowl only of his pipe. The stem is renewed from occasion to occasion as a suitable halting place is reached. Smoking while actually en route would seem to be out of the question. The man is one of the Watembo (Batembo) from the country northwest of Lake Kivu.
A seated group of people starting a fire
The most primitive peoples yet discovered have all known the use of fire, though it is not quite certain that all have known how to produce it. One of the most primitive ways of doing this is illustrated here, on the westward trail from Lake Kivu. On a flattened stick held horizontally upon the ground the extremity of another stick, held vertically between the hands and rapidly twirled by a reciprocal movement of the hands, is pressed. The friction at this point of contact of the two sticks generates sufficient heat to ignite either the wood dust produced by the friction or some other form of tinder held close to this point for the glowing wood dust to fall upon.
A squatting man starting a fire
Of the two types of bellows used in negro Africa the one illustrated here is the wider spread. It consists of two cylinders loosely covered with skin (or sometimes with banana leaves). To this covering two handles are attached, which by raising and lowering alternately the loose covering of each of the cylinders force a continuous stream of air through a tube which is placed in direct contact with the fire. With his primitive smelting furnace and forge, in both of which this kind of bellows plays its part, the negro craftsman turns out excellent work in iron.
A group of people making bark cloth
In the South Seas the industry here illustrated is in the hands of the women. Here, between the middle course of the Semliki and the upper Ituri River, this industry, the making of the fabric which serves as loin cloths and blankets, seems to be the business of the men. One of several kinds of slender trees, of which the commonest is a species of fig, provides the bark for the manufacture of this so called bark cloth. The trees are ringed with parallel incisions passing through the bark and this is peeled off in strips. These are vigorously beaten with a club of ivory or heavy bone or horn into a sort of vegetable felt, the strips being stitched together to form pieces of the size desired. Some of this bark cloth, the bark from which it is made, and a bark beater, are among the objects presented to the MUSEUM by Mr. Collins.
A group of people seated and standing
The people of the great forest and its fringes though not distinguished for the lavish use of clothing have a fondness for simple ornaments of various kinds. An important industry of the men to the west of Lake Kivu consists in the making of butegas, anklets or leg ornaments which are also used as currency. A butega is a ring of split cane or bamboo wrapped with raphia fibre. Each ring passes current for one centime and a considerable number of them may be carried in the manner indicated—a great convenience to pocketless people. Girdles of butega are also worn. This leads to a higher unit of currency: once round the waist, five centimes.
A person holding an instrument
The most ancient of stringed instruments is the musical bow. The most primitive, users of the bow in warfare or hunting must have been struck by the musical tone produced by the twanging of the bowstring as the arrow was discharged—” the song of the bow.” In the simplest form of the musical bow the resonance of the vibrating string twanged with the finger or a short stick is enhanced by holding the string in the mouth, the cavity of which acts as a resonator. At a later stage of development a gourd is attached to the bow stave and brought into contact with the string by a loop fastened to the gourd and encircling both stave and string. From this primitive instrument develops, in eastern Africa, the monochord, in which a rigid staff replaces the elastic bow stave, while the gourd resonator remains attached in a similar manner. This photograph and the next were taken near Mbeni, a Belgian post on the Semliki River, close to the eastern edge of the great Congo Forest.
A man holding a stringed instrument
The musical bow, in Africa, is characteristic of the negro inhabitants proper. The insertion of one end of the bow stave into the gourd, or its successor, a box covered with skin, and the addition of several strings attached to pegs in the stave and to the stretched skin covering of the resonator may have given rise to the harp-guitar, an instrument known in ancient times in Egypt, and still found there as well as in Nubia, the Sudan and northern and northeastern Congo. Two interesting examples, one resembling the crudest type of instrument shown here, the other a fine example with carved ivory stern from the Mangbettu further north, may be seen in the African Room at the MUSEUM, in one of the cases devoted to the collection donated by Mr. Collins.
A tom-tom
Among percussion instruments, besides the drum proper, the tom-tom has a wide distribution in negro Africa. The tom-tom is rather a wooden gong than a drum, being formed of a section of a tree trunk hollowed out through a long narrow longitudinal slit in its upper surface. While it is often beaten as an accompaniment to dances, the most important function of the larger kind of torn-torn is in signalling. In some parts of Africa, especially the west, elaborate messages can be sent by beating the tom-tom according to a system of varying tones and tempo, well-known within the tribe, to a distance of several miles and relayed over a territory of any extent within which the particular drum language is known. The tom-tom of this type is often the property of the chief, and by it villagers or tribesmen are summoned to assemble on important occasions. The photograph was made five days out on the road from Irumu, near the southwestern shore of Lake Albert, to Stanleyville, on the main stream of the Congo.
A shrine at the entrance of the village
The placing of a shrine for offerings, similar to this, in the village street, or at the entrance to a village, as here, has been reported from various parts of the Congo. In this region, west and southwest of Lake Kivu, the erection of shrines of this kind has not hitherto been reported. From analogy with other Congo customs, known further west, and from what little is known of the beliefs with regard to spirits of the people in this eastern region, it is likely that the offerings placed in this shrine are for the benefit of the disembodied souls of recently deceased relatives of the villagers. These, at any rate for a certain period after the death of the body, are in a habitually wrathful frame of mind. If angry, hence also malevolent. For their appeasement and thus to avert the results of their ill will from the villagers, shrines to afford these homeless and disgruntled ghosts shelter and refreshment are sometimes erected.
Two woodcarvings of stylized humans
Woodcarvings representing human beings in the northeastern Congo are, as a rule, less common, much ruder, and more highly conventionalized than such carvings are in the western basin of the great river. While, in the western Congo, these figures are either toys, examples of “art for art’s sake,” or receptacles or bearers of “medicine,” i. e. of substances regarded as magically potent, in the northeast it seems, so far as our meagre information goes, that these figures are commonly representations of ancestors or in some other way connected with the worship or commemoration of deceased worthies. The examples here figured are said to be a “god and goddess worshipped before going elephant hunting.” They were photographed at the Belgian post of Masisi (Micici) southwest of Lake Kivu.
A group of people with a fire in front of their camp
The African pygmies, dwarfish forest people living in scattered groups in the equatorial woodlands of Africa, were known to the ancients, but have been rediscovered only within recent times. Their hemispherical huts, placed in convenient glades in the forest as temporary shelter in their wandering existence, appear to be the primitive forerunners of the dome shaped houses illustrated elsewhere in these pages and of the similar dwellings of the Kaffirs in South Africa. Driven into the deep forests by the incursions of their taller neighbours, the pygmies have achieved the respect of the latter by their skill with the bow, from which they discharge small arrows, the otherwise comparatively insignificant wounds from which are rendered deadly by the application of poisons to the arrowheads. As a consequence the pygmies are generally left unmolested by their neighbours. In some cases their skill in hunting has led to their becoming attached as dependents to the more advanced negro tribes living on the borders of the forest, who supply them with iron, vegetable food, and other supplies in return for products of the chase.
Image Number: 1024
Alfred Collins with a short Bambuti hunter
Mr. Collins is standing beside a pygmy hunter in an encampment near the Ituri River. The pygmies of this region are known to their Bantu neighbours as Bambuti or Wambuti.
Image Number: 1036

Cite This Article

Hall, Henry Usher. "Alfred Collins In The Congo." The Museum Journal XVII, no. 2 (June, 1926): 167-217. Accessed June 15, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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