The heart of Africa is being rapidly depopulated in consequence of the enormous deathroll caused by the barbarous slave-trade. It is not merely the bondage which slavery implies that should appeal to the sympathies of the civilised world: it is the bloodshed, cruelty, and misery which it involves.

During my residence in Central Africa I was repeatedly travelling about in the villages along the Congo River and its almost unknown affluents, and in every new village I was confronted by fresh evidences of the horrible nature of this evil. I did not seek to witness the sufferings attendant upon this traffic in humanity, but cruelties of all kinds are so general that the mere passing visits which I paid brought me in constant contact with them...

At Lukolela... I had hardly settled down in my encampment when I was introduced to one of those horrible scenes of bloodshed which take place frequently in all the villages along the Congo, and which will be enacted so long as the life of a slave is counted as naught, and the spilling of his blood of as little account as that of a goat or a fowl.

In this particular instance the mother of a chief having died, it was decided, as usual, to celebrate the event with an execution.... The drums are wildly beaten as groups of men, women, and children form themselves in circles and excitedly perform dances, consisting of violent contortions of the limbs, accompanied with savage singing and with repeated blasts of the war horns, each dancer trying to outdo his fellow in violence of movement and strength of lung.

About noon, from sheer exhaustion, combined with the heat of the sun, they are compelled to cease; then large jars of palm wine are produced, and a general bout of intoxication begins, increasing their excitement and showing up their savage nature in striking colours. The poor slave, who all this time has been lying in the corner of some hut, shackled hand and foot and closely watched, suffering the agony and suspense which this wild tumult suggests to him, is now carried to some prominent part of the village, there to be surrounded and to receive the jeers and scoffs of the drunken mob of savages. The executioner’s assistants, having selected a suitable place for the ceremony, procure a block of wood about a foot square. The slave is then placed on this in a sitting posture; his legs are stretched out straight in front of him; the body is strapped to a stake reaching up the back to the shoulders. On each side stakes are placed under the armpits as props, to which the arms are firmly bound; other lashings are made to posts driven into the ground near the ankles and knees.

A pole is now planted about ten feet in front of the victim, from the top of which is suspended, by a number of strings, a bamboo ring. The pole is bent over like a fishing-rod, and the ring fastened round the slave’s neck, which is kept rigid and stiff by the tension. During this preparation the dances are resumed, now rendered savage and brutal in the extreme by the drunken condition of the people. One group of dancers surround the victim and indulge in drunken mimicry of the contortions of face which the pain caused by this cruel torture forces him to show. But he has no sympathy to expect from this merciless horde.

Presently in the distance approaches a company of two lines of young people, each holding a stem of the palm tree, so that an arch is formed between them, under which the executioner is escorted. The whole procession moves with a slow but dancing gait. Upon arriving near the doomed slave all dancing, singing, and drumming cease, and the drunken mob take their places to witness the last act of the drama.

An unearthly silence succeeds. The executioner wears a cap composed of black cocks’ feathers; his face and neck are blackened with charcoal, except the eyes, the lids of which are painted with white chalk. The hands and arms to the elbow, and feet and legs to the knee, are also blackened. His legs are adorned profusely with broad metal anklets, and around his waist are strung wild-cat skins. As he performs a wild dance around his victim, every now and then making a feint with his knife, a murmur of admiration arises from the assembled crowd. He then approaches and makes a thin chalk mark on the neck of the fated man. After two or three passes of the knife, to get the right swing, he delivers the fatal blow, and with one stroke of his keen-edged weapon severs the head from the body.

The sight of the blood brings to a climax the frenzy of the natives: some of them savagely puncture the quivering trunk with their spears, others hack at it with their knives, while the remainder engage in a ghastly struggle for the possession of the head, which has been jerked into the air by the released tension of the sapling. As each man obtains the trophy, and is pursued by the drunken rabble, the hideous tumult becomes deafening; they smear one another’s faces with blood, and fights always spring up as a result, when knives and spears are freely used....

When the taste for blood has been to a certain extent satisfied, they again resume their singing and dancing while another victim is prepared, when the same ghastly exhibition is repeated. Sometimes as many as twenty slaves will be slaughtered in one day. The dancing and general uproar is continued until midnight, when once more absolute silence ensues, in utter contrast to the hideous tumult of the day....

All tribes I have known have an idea of immortality. They believe that death leads but to another life, to be continued under the same conditions as the life they are now leading; and a chief thinks that if when he enters into this new existence he is accompanied by a sufficient following of slaves he will be entitled to the same rank in the next world as he holds in this. From this belief emanates one of their most barbarous customs – the ceremony of human sacrifices upon the death of anyone of importance. Upon the decease of a chief, a certain number of his slaves are selected to be sacrificed, that their spirits may accompany him to the next world. Should this chief possess thirty men and twenty women, seven or eight of the former and six or seven of the latter will suffer death. The men are decapitated, and the women are strangled. When a woman is to be sacrificed she is adorned with bright metal bangles, her toilet is carefully attended to, her hair is neatly plainted, and bright coloured cloths are wrapped around her. Her hands are then pinioned behind, and her neck is passed through a noose of cord; the long end of the cord is led over the branch of the nearest tree, and is drawn taut at a given signal; and while the body is swinging in mid-air its convulsive movements are imitated with savage gusto by the spectators. It often happens that a little child also becomes a victim to this horrible ceremony, by being placed in the grave alive, as a pillow for the dead chief. These executions are still perpetrated in all the villages of the Upper Congo....

[The Lolo] villages are constantly attacked by the powerful roving tribes of the Lufembe and Ngombe. These two tribes are voracious cannibals. They surround the Lolo villages at night, and at the first signs of dawn pounce down upon the unsuspecting Balolo, killing all the men who resist and catching all the rest. They then select the stronger portion of their captives, and shackle them hand and foot to prevent their escape. The remainder they kill, distributing the flesh among themselves. As a rule, after such a raid they form a small encampment; they light their fires, seize all the bananas in the village, and gorge upon the human flesh. They then march over to one of the numerous slave markets on the river, where they exchange the captives with the slave-traders of the Lulungu River for beads, cloth, brass wire, and other trinkets. The slave-traders pack the slaves into their canoes and take them down to the villages on the Lulungu River where the more important markets are held. Masankusu, situated at the junction of the Lupuri and Malinga tributaries, is by far the most important slave-trading centre. The people of Masankusu buy their slaves from the Lufembe and Ngombe raiders, and sell them to the Lulungu natives and traders from down river. The slaves are exhibited for sale at Masankusu in long sheds, or rather under simple grass roofs supported on long poles. It is heartrending to see the inmates of one of these slave sheds...

They are hobbled with roughly hewn logs which chafe their limbs to open sores; sometimes a whole tree presses its weight on their bodies while their necks are penned into the natural prong formed by its branching limbs. Others sit from day to day with their legs and arms maintained in a fixed position by rudely constructed stocks, and each slave is secured to the roof-posts by a cord knotted to a cane ring which either encircles his neck or is intertwined with his woolly hair. Many die of pure starvation, as the owners give them barely enough food to exist upon, and even that they grudge them. These hungry creatures form indeed a truly pitiable sight. After suffering this captivity for a short time they become mere skeletons. All ages, of both sexes, are to be seen: mothers with their babes; young men and women; boys and girls; and even babies who cannot yet walk, and whose mothers have died of starvation, or perhaps been killed by the Lufembe. One seldom sees either old men or old women; they are all killed in the raids; their marketable value being very small, no trouble is taken with them...

There were certainly five hundred slaves exposed for sale in this one village alone. Large canoes were constantly arriving from down river, with merchandise of all kinds with which they purchased these slaves. A large trade is carried on between the Ubangi and Lulungu rivers. The people inhabiting the mouth of the Ubangi buy the Balolo slaves at Masankusu and the other markets. They then take them up the Ubangi River and exchange them with the natives there for ivory. These natives buy their slaves solely for food. Having purchased slaves they feed them on ripe bananas, fish, and oil, and when they get them into good condition they kill them. Hundreds of the Balolo slaves are taken into the river and disposed of in this way each month. A great many other slaves are sold to the large villages on the Congo, to supply victims for the execution ceremonies.

Much life is lost in the capturing of slaves, and during their captivity many succumb to starvation. Of the remainder, numbers are sold to become victims to cannibalism and human sacrifice ceremonies. There are few indeed who are allowed to live and prosper.

Cannibalism exists among all the peoples on the Upper Congo east of 16º E. longitude, and is prevalent to an even greater extent among the people inhabiting the banks of the numerous affluents. During a two-months’ voyage on the Ubangi River I was constantly brought into contact with cannibalism. The natives there pride themselves upon the number of skulls they possess, denoting the number of victims they have been able to obtain. I saw one native hut, around which was built a raised platform of clay a foot wide, on which were placed rows of human skulls, forming a ghastly picture, but one of which the chief was very proud, as he signified by the admiring way he drew my attention to the sight. Bunches of twenty and thirty skulls were hung about in prominent positions in the village. I asked one young chief, who was certainly not more than twenty-five years old, how many men he had eaten in his village, and he answered me thirty. He was greatly astonished at the horror I expressed at his answer. In one village again, as I had bought a tusk of ivory, the natives thought perhaps I might buy skulls, and several armfuls were brought down to my boat within a few minutes...

During my first visit to the upper waters of the Malinga River cannibalism was brought to my notice in a ghastly manner. One night I heard a woman’s piercing shriek, followed by a stifled, gurgling moan; then boisterous laughter, when all again became silent. In the morning I was horrified to see a native offering for sale to my men a piece of human flesh, the skin of which bore the tribal tattoo mark of the Balolo. I afterwards learned that the cry we had heard at night was from a female slave whose throat had been cut. I was absent from this village of Malinga for ten days. On my return I inquired if any further bloodshed had taken place, and was informed that five other women had been killed.

While in the Ruki River at the beginning of this year, I was furnished with another proof of the horrible fate of the slaves. At Esenge, a village near which I stopped to cut wood for my steamer, I heard ominous beating of drums and outbreaks of excited mirth. I was informed by one of the natives from the village that an execution was taking place. To my inquiry whether they were in the habit of eating human flesh, he replied, ‘We eat the body entirely.’ I further asked what they did with the head. ‘Eat it,’ he replied; ‘but first we put it in the fire to singe the hair off.’

The Slave Shed at Massankusu
A slave shed at Massankusu, sketched by Glave

From E. J. Glave, ‘The Slave Trade in the Congo Basin’ in The Century Magazine, April 1890

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