Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Through the Congo (still working on the title)

Heart of Darkness anyone?
In this piece Marlowe (our narrator) encounters Sir Henry Morton Stanley's last expedition through Africa. The fiction written below - including cannibalism - is based on what actually occurred during Sir Stanley's last expedition.

Rivets, rivets, anything for some bloody rivets! But once again, it seemed the universe was against me, and every foolish gorilla in the Congo knew nothing and had nothing. By then, of course, Kurtz was no more and we had no urgency to progress downstream, but we were madly exhausted and even the shabby outer station seemed like Buckingham Palace. A bed, a bed, oh anything for a bed! Alas, our steamer had not taken well to my previous repairs – as I had been forced to use parts that did not quite fit – and we were stranded in the banks of that blasted river. We waited for weeks, depending on wild animals to eat, which thankfully pacified the cannibals and their desire for fresh meat.

Finally a passing expedition stopped nearby, providing us with all the materials necessary for the repairs. I shall admit it was one of my oddest encounters in the heart of darkness. Their captain was the renowned Sir Henry Morton Stanley, whose fame, especially in those parts of the world, I need not recount. The man lived up to my very last expectations; he had a hard black gaze, stood proud, and knew exactly what he was doing and how he would go about it.

“Sir Stanley, I presume!” He answered with a hearty laugh.
“Indeed sir! I see you lads are in a bit of rut here, no? We can help with your repairs; you need not worry, my boy.”
“Thank you, sir! I must say this is quite a surprise. Are you exploring past Stanley Falls?”
“We will be passing through those lands. You see, I’ve been hired to rescue a man by the name of Emin Pasha, and my regular contractor, King Leopold of Belgium, has ordered me to pass through these lands. My true concern is over my European companions. I doubt very many will endure the journey.”

Only madmen would travel the Congo, but there is a certain kind of madness that few possess that allows you to survive - the release of your inner savage.

“You should be careful, sir. We’ve just come back from the innermost station along the river, and the head there, Mr. Kurtz, who kept the natives sedated has just died.”
“I’ve fared worse, my boy. I’m just glad finally to meet another Englishman out here. Seems as though the Queen has you lot tied up in India, eh? … Never mind, not to worry, not to worry, I’ve had a fair share of experience here if I may say so myself. Now, would you care for some fine Irish whisky? One of my companions, an Irishman, owns the brand and he’s been quite generous.”

That night we gathered on their ship’s deck enjoying a few rounds of whisky. The Irishman, James Jameson, seemed like a neat sort of fellow, quite self-satisfied, polite, and very jovial – something I suspect had more to do with his flask and less with his personality. I was surprised to hear that such a rich man had never traveled beyond the British Isles, which explained his curiosity about that place. Jameson was fascinated with the savages; in fact, he spent the next couple of days chatting up the cannibals on board our steamer. Had we known his real intentions, I would not have permitted this. Naturally, he was quite interested in Kurtz and his relationship with the tribes, hoping I could tell him more about their behavior and how Kurtz had achieved his status. How had I come to recruit cannibals on our expedition? Why hadn’t they eaten us yet? Despite my hesitance to answer, every word I spoke was registered in his little white journal – strange how he could keep it so clean – where he would record our conversations.

Our fourth day into repairs, he returned with a small native girl, perhaps ten years old, whom he had purchased. Even at her young age she stood proud and unafraid, surrounded by strange looking people she couldn’t understand, but she held her head high. We believed Jameson had depraved intentions with the poor child, which Sir Stanley would not allow on his ship.

“Whatever your intentions might be with an eleven-year old slave-child, I will not allow it on my ship. This is a rescue expedition and there is no room for children!”
“But Sir! I think she would make an excellent house-maid for my wife, and she could surely help with chores on the ship.”
“Codswallop! She’s a savage, man! Do you think I’ll believe that ridiculous excuse? You’ve bought her for something else and I shall have nothing to do with it. Have her gone by tomorrow, and that’s the end of it.”

The next day, the little girl had vanished. The scandal had been prevented and the pilgrims onboard my ship resumed conversing with Jameson; we gathered on the deck of Stanley’s ship that very night. Something was different that night, James Jameson was solemn, and he drank more than I thought possible for a man, even an Irishman. Soon enough he began to drivel about savages and England and other drunken poppycock; the man began to cry. I looked away, for his sake rather than mine. I couldn’t imagine the shame he’d feel after this display. Sir Stanley, a no-nonsense man, took the liberty of reading the little white journal to discover what was wrong with the bloke.

“Good God, man! What has this brute done?”
Reading over his shoulder we learned of Jameson’s true intentions with the girl.

Cannibals ate her.

My cannibals.

The last ten pages of his journal were filled with notes and sketches of the process, of how the cannibals cooked and ate her. Jameson killed her and then offered her body to them ‘in the name of science,’ after the first two pages I had to look away.

“What a repulsive man!”
“How could anyone? … So cold-bloodedly …”
“What am I to do with the cannibals? They didn’t kill her, and I had known they defiled human bodies before I hired them. Should we continue on? Should our crews hear of this?”
“This expedition has been a bloody disaster since we left England! Sometimes I feel these Englishmen are greater brutes than the savages themselves. I can’t continue my journey with that man on board.”
“The men at the Outer Station will simply let him go. Their only interest is ivory, not justice.”
“You are two days’ journey from the Outer Station. Do you think you can manage without the cannibals?”
“I believe so. What is your plan, Sir?”
“I say we leave Jameson stranded out here with the cannibals, and let them do each other justice.”

When the repairs to our steamer were completed a day later, the Irishman and my cannibals were left behind; in effect, we left Jameson to experience cannibalism first-hand. Regardless of the incident with the child, I still felt sympathy for the cannibals, perhaps was because they refrained from eating us during the journey; perhaps they were simply efficient workers I appreciated, but having the pilgrims shoot at them filled me with rage.
Sir Henry Morton Stanley continued in his journey, but the atrocities that occurred during that expedition, even beyond the incident with the Irishman, tarnished the man’s reputation.
That was to be his last, and most grievous, expedition.

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