Read The Book of the Heathen Online
Authors: Robert Edric
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Imagine how we might now be forced to reconsider our understanding of the situation were the so-called heathen of the Bula Matari (Congo Free State) to contain among his multitudes men capable of keeping accounts of these terrible events, of this shameful history told only once â imagine his own books and what they might tell us â imagine then how we might be forced to live with our disgraceful part in all of this.
Diary, 20 July 1893
â¦ thou knowest the people,
that they are set upon mischief.
For they said unto me
âMake us gods, which shall
go before usâ¦'
Exodus, 32, 22â23
Marked in the personal Bible of N.E.S. Frere (1864â1897)
The Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford
The Ukassa Falls Concessionary Station
The Congo Free State
Across the river the Custom House gun was fired, and at the instant it sounded I raised my pen from the chart on which I was working so that my momentary distraction might not become a waver, an irregularity on the contour where none otherwise existed, a tree in the treeless desert, or, worse still, a blot, the map-maker's clumsy footprint.
It was two in the afternoon, and the gun was normally fired only at the start and close of each day's trading; for it to be fired then suggested an unexpected arrival or some alarm.
I rose from my desk and removed the weights from my chart, allowing it to roll stiffly inwards until all its new country was lost. I knew that no arrival of any consequence had been anticipated that day, and that none of the usual business of such arrivals â none of the excited gatherings, the shuffling of the smaller vessels, the congregation of the traders and middle-men â had preceded the gun.
I waited as the shot faded in its smothered echoes, and even before these were gone my mind turned from the possibility of a vessel to the near-certain conviction that what the gun heralded was the return of Frere.
I remained where I stood, unable to act upon that conviction. He had been gone from us for fifty-one days â and perhaps I alone knew that much â and fifty-one days was a lifetime in that place.
Securing my chart in a strong-box, I went outside.
The river beyond the compound was broad and high, and the far shore was so crowded with vessels and stalls and men moving among them that it was impossible to determine what might be happening there.
Fletcher and Cornelius emerged together from one of our warehouses, and they too stood and looked across the water. I heard Fletcher say something and then laugh. Cornelius came to me, and I knew without asking that he shared my concern regarding Frere. He pointed to where a drift of pale smoke hung above the trees. We searched the river in both directions, but saw nothing.
âPerhaps Hammad,' he said, but with no real conviction.
Fletcher walked closer to the water's edge. He raised the binoculars from his chest and focused them on the distant shore, slowly scanning whatever he saw there. We watched him for several minutes, waiting for him to tell us what he'd seen.
Cornelius wiped an already saturated cloth over his wet face.
âWe'll know soon enough,' he said.
I had been about to suggest finding someone to take us across to the Belgians, and perhaps Cornelius suspected this, for he repeated, âSoon enough,' and then left me, his words a check to my impulse.
Soon after, a second, lesser shot sounded across the water, but this was of no consequence, a pistol or a rifle in the hands of a man who fired it with no more thought for the consequences than a child throwing a stone.
I stood in the full heat of the sun for several minutes longer before returning to the relative cool of my room and the smaller, more calculated dramas of my map.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
It was a joke they played in those mongrel towns of Yaba, Kabinda and Boma. Each newly arrived European was met and told there was a certain place to be seen and a decision to be made prior to his journey inland. It was a joke less frequently played by the French and Portuguese, and not at all by the Belgians since the Lado debacle â something better suited, everyone was agreed, to the schooled and face-saving determination of the English. And the joke was this: someone would await these excited newcomers, greet them effusively and then take them to the nearest overgrown graveyard, whereupon they would be asked to pick out a grave-site for themselves and then be asked whether they wished to be buried facing the sea upon which they would never sail home again, or inland, where they were certain to die.
Some saw the joke for what it was and despised the men who played it, the men who moved not ten miles in any direction year in year out. Others grew angry and marched cursing away from the bone-yards. And others still, those men so unexpectedly and painfully conscious of everything they had left behind them â men whose entire lives and their every possession, their names and futures included, still hung in the balance â took the joke at its true worth and pointed to the particular plots they might prefer. Some even went so far as to conquer the joke and the men who played it and put down a deposit on their chosen sites.
I learned all this from Fletcher. He and Abbot were taken together to the graveyard at Boma. Upon realizing their purpose there, Abbot, already weak and emaciated from his illness at sea, vomited a fine spray of yellow bile over his feet. Fletcher, having been aware all along of what was happening, took out his pistol, pushed it into the cheek of the Zanzibari who had taken them, forced him to his knees and told him to wipe Abbot's boots clean with his sleeve. The man laughed and begged not to be shot. He prostrated himself, and Abbot retched again, this time over the man's head and shoulders. Fletcher watched for a moment, looked slowly around them, and then pointed his pistol to the side of the man and fired into the dirt. Scavenging dogs froze briefly at their digging, waited, and then resumed. The Zanzibari screamed and clasped his hands over the back of his head.
I heard all this on Fletcher's return to the Station. He had been gone two months on rubber business, and had planned his visit to Boma so that he might collect Abbot, our new senior clerk, and travel back with him on the mission steamer. Upon their return, Abbot, still suffering, demanded to be shown to his quarters and to be left alone there. I asked Fletcher what he thought of the man, but all he would say was, âUntrustworthy,' â the shaky plinth upon which Abbot for ever afterwards stood. Then Fletcher told me how much he had paid for his own burial plot at Sinda almost twenty years earlier, and how he had demanded a certificate of sale to prove his ownership of this unthinkable future.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
James Charles Russel Frasier. My name. A staff and guide of a name. The Leicestershire Russels, the Northamptonshire Frasiers. A history and a geography of a name. Two baronets, three members of parliament, one secretary of state; two lord justices; one bishop, still serving, and military men beyond number garlanded with praise and burnished by success. A cradle to grave of a name.
I have seen none of these people for three years, and neither sent nor received any communication for ten months.
Educated at Rugby, Trinity and Sandhurst, I served with the Seventh Fusiliers in India and Kandahar, and afterwards with Brackenbury in Egypt. I believe the phrase is âServed with Honour and Distinction'. I was wounded twice at Tel-el-kebir and still bear both marks â one on my shoulder, the other across my thigh.
And now I have lost all that. I am not a man given to exaggeration or melodrama, but, equally, I am a man no longer in possession of that history and geography, that staff, guide, light and sustaining warmth. The great enterprise upon which I and the others here were once embarked has collapsed and left us barely recognizable as the men we once were.
As a girl, my mother was a companion of the young Queen, and my father walked the corridors of state as though he were passing along the clean, dry stalls of his stables. My great-uncle â whom I will not name â swept his palm across a map and thousands of men moved one way and then another. As a small boy I imagined him just as capable of controlling the ebb and flow of the tides. A man possessed of faith in himself is possessed of everything, that great-uncle once told me. By extension, I can only assume that a man who once had that faith and who has it no longer is possessed of nothing.
When I was four years old and about to be dispatched to the first of my schools, my General uncle visited me and presented me with a short sword. He told me something of the man he had killed and from whom he had taken it. He spoke of this man â an Afghan tribesman, I remember â with great respect, affection almost. At the time I was a frightened child with a frightened child's grasp of the spreading world and I understood little of what he was telling me.
When I first came here, the whole world was devoted to the unstoppable profit of our enterprise. Profit at a cost we none of us then truly understood; or a cost we carelessly ascribed elsewhere. On the occasion of my being introduced to Fletcher by Cornelius we were interrupted by the arrival of three Kallisa River savages who had escaped from the diamond beds there and who had brought stolen gems to sell to us. Cornelius examined these. It was a poor crop. But the savages remained excited about the size of the stone still in the stomach of the third man, which he was having difficulty passing. Cornelius squeezed and prodded the man's stomach, saying that if what he could feel was a diamond, then judging by its size it was a valuable one. Fletcher pushed the three men out of the room, accusing them of wasting our time. If the diamond could not be produced then it was of no value. He told the men to come back when it was in their hands. Two of the men returned the following day with the gem. Fletcher quizzed them on the whereabouts of the man who had carried the stone, and they became evasive, saying he was in the forest tending to his wounds.
âIt could have been worse,' Fletcher said. âThey could have brought us his corpse.'
Cornelius concurred with this, and he washed the stone with brandy before handling it.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
For the rest of the day I remained distracted, unable, despite sitting at my desk for several hours longer, to concentrate on the minutiae of my charts. I sought no-one out and was visited by no-one. The work of the compound went on around me.