Imatges de pÓgina


the idea of their being the bed of an ancient ocean. is not the place to enter into a speculation on the formation of the earth. That every part of its surface lay once beneath the waters is sufficiently apparent; but there is at least no historical proof that Africa emerged later than other continents. The earliest records represent her deserts to have been as extensive as they are in our days, and to have pressed equally close upon the cultivated belt along the northern coast. In general, all regions between the tropics, when not copiously watered, moulder into sand, alternating with a hard and impenetrable stratum of clay. The central wastes of Asia, those of Arabia and of Sindetic Hindostan, though inferior to those of Africa, are yet of similar character, and of immense extent.

In order to obviate the extreme effects of the tropical sun, which produces a desolation so dreadful, Nature has provided suitable remedies. Every country under this latitude has its rainy season, when, amid the blaze of lightnings and the noise of thunders rending the sky, heaven seems to open all her windows to pour an unbroken flood upon the earth. The ground is covered as with a deluge, and the dry beds of the rivulets are converted into torrents; yet so intense are the sun's rays, that the moisture thus lavished upon the surface is quickly dried up. Great rivers, which, swollen by the rains, overflow their banks and lay the surrounding country under water, or at least afford the means of artificial inundation, are the principal source of that luxuriant fertility, that mighty growth of vegetable forms, which singularly characterize the tropical climates. It is to the waters which descend from the lofty precipices and eternal snows of the Himmaleh, that the plains of Hindostan and China owe their amazing fruitfulness. Africa, too, has elevated mountain-chains, which give rise to several rivers of great magnitude and most fertilizing influence. Atlas, along its northern border, presents even in so hot a climate pinnacles wrapped in everlasting snow. Still more extensive is that central range, which, amid its various local names, is most generally known under the poetical appellation of "The Mountains of the Moon." Yet these chains, besides being not altogether so gigantic as those of the other continents, labour under the peculiar disadvantage of extendIng across the breadth only of Africa. The Andes and the

Himmaleh, those stupendous heights of America and Asia, as they traverse these continents in the direction of their length, cover a much greater surface, and thus create fertility in the more limited plains which intervene between the mountains and the ocean. But the largest of the African rivers, directing their course through a vast extent of low land, reach the sea only by a very circuitous course. Several of them, too, diffusing their waters into lakes or marshes, expire in the very heart of the continent. The result is, that the enormous breadth of the Sahara, or Great Desert, is scarcely irrigated even by a streamlet. It depends entirely on the periodical rains; and these sink into the sandy and porous surface, till being arrested at the depth of eight or ten feet, they form that "sea under ground” which has been traced over a large portion of the waste.

Vegetable life, in consequence of this absence of moisture, is scantily diffused over a great extent of the continent. In the heart of the mountains, however, and in the kingdoms along their border, the soil is most profusely watered, and, under the influence of a tropical sun, produces, perhaps, beyond any other part of the world, that luxuriant growth and those gigantic vegetable forms, which distinguish the equatorial regions. The baobab, or great calabash, appears to be the most enormous tree on the face of the earth. Adanson assures us, that the circumference in some cases is equal to thirteen fathoms, as measured by his arms clasped round the trunk, that is, varying from seventy-four to seventy-seven feet. Branches extending horizontally from the trunk, each equal to a large tree, make the baobab a forest as it were in itself. The mangrove, too, which rises on the borders of rivers, or inundated spots, diffuses itself in a manner truly remarkable. The branches, dropping down upon the watery bank, strike root and grow; hence the original plant, spreading farther and farther, forms over the stream a species of natural arcade. These mighty trees do not stand alone, but have their interstices filled up by numberless shrubs, canes, creeping and parasitical plants, which intersect and entwine with each other till they form a thick and impenetrable mass of underwood. To cut even a narrow path through these dense forests is a laborious process; and as shoots are continually protruding inwards on cach side, the track, without constant

travelling, and the diligent use of the axe, soon becomes impassable.

As we approach the confines of the Desert these giants of the wood disappear, and vegetation presents a different and more pleasing aspect. It exhibits now the light and gay form of the acacia, whole forests of which rise amid the sand, distilling those rich gums that afford an important material of African commerce. The lotus, a celebrated and classical shrub, the tamarisk, and other small and elegant trees, afford agreeable and nutritive berries, which constitute the food of several nations. Various flowering shrubs of the most delicate tints, rising in wild and spontaneous beauty, embellish the precincts of the waste. Thus the Desert, in its first approaches, and before vegetable life begins to expire, does not assume its sternest character, but wears even a peculiarly pleasing and smiling aspect.

The animal world* in Africa changes equally its nature as it passes from one to another of these opposite regions. In those plains which are inundated by the great rivers, it multiplies at an extraordinary rate, and often assumes huge and repulsive forms. Throughout all this continent the wild tribes exist in large and formidable numbers, and there is scarcely a tract which they do not either hold in full possession, or fiercely dispute with man. Even the most denselypeopled countries border on wide forests and wastes, whose savage tenants find their prey occasionally in man himself, as well as in the domestic animals which surround him; and when the scent of human slaughter is wafted on the breeze, bands of hungry monsters hasten from every side to the feast of blood. These ferocious creatures hold, indeed, so commanding a position, that the colonist scarcely makes any attempt to extirpate them, or even to keep down their numbers. He wages against them only a defensive war, and employs his courage and skill chiefly in hunting the elephant, the antelope, and other peaceful species, by whose spoil he may be enriched.

The lion, that king of the desert, that mightiest among the tribes which have the wilderness for their abode, abounds in Africa, and causes all her forests to re-echo his midnight

* In the present chapter we allude only to a few of the more conspicuous and peculiar characteristics of African zoology. The subject is treated of at greater length in a subsequent part of this volume.

roar. Yet both his courage and fierceness have, it is said, been overrated; and the man who can undauntedly face him, or evade his first dreadful spring, rarely falls his victim. Wider ravages are committed by the hyena, not the strongest, but the most ferocious and untameable of all the beasts of prey. These creatures, by moving in numerous bands, achieve what is beyond the single strength of the greater animals; they burst with mighty inroad into the cities, and have even carried by storm fortified enclosures. The elephant roams in vast herds through the densely-wooded tracts of the interior, disputing with the lion the rank of king of the lower creation; matchless in bulk and strength, yet tranquil, majestic, peaceful, led in troops under the guidance of the most ancient of the number, having a social and almost moral existence. He attacks neither man nor beast. The human being is more frequently the aggressor, not only with the view of protecting the fruits of the earth, but also in order to obtain the bony substance composing his tusks, which, under the name of ivory, forms one of the most valued articles of African trade. The prodigious strength of the elephant, his almost impenetrable hide, his rapid though unwieldy movements, render him a most perilous object of attack, even to the boldest hunters; so that pits and snares of various kinds are the usual modes by which his capture is effected. Instead of the tiger, Africa has the leopard and the panther; belonging, however, only to certain of its districts.

In the large and broad rivers of Africa, and through the immense forests which overshadow them, a race of amphibious animals of monstrous form and size display their unwieldy figures. The rhinoceros, though not strictly amphibious, slowly traverses marshes and swampy grounds, and almost equals the elephant in strength and defensive powers, but wants his stature, his dignity, and his wisdom. The single or double horn with which he defends himself is an article of commerce in the East, though not valued in Europe. A still huger shape is that of the hippopotamus, or river-horse, fitted alike to stalk on land, to march along the bottom of the waters, or to swim on their surface. He is slow, ponderous, gentle; yet when annoyed, either by design or accident, his wrath is terrible; he rushes up from his watery retreat, and by merely striking with his enor

mous tusks, can overset or sink a loaded canoe. But the most dreaded of all the inhabitants of the African rivers is the crocodile, the largest and fiercest of the lizard tribe. He lies like a log upon the waters watching for his prey, attacking men, and even the strongest animals, which, however, engage with him in obstinate and deadly encounters.

We have not yet done with all the monstrous and prodigious forms which Africa generates. She swarms with the serpent brood, which spread terror, some by their deadly poison, others by their mere bulk and strength. In this last respect the African serpents have struck the world with amazement; ancient history records that whole provinces were overrun by them, and that one, after disputing the passage of a river with a Roman army, was destroyed only by the use of a battering engine.

Emerging from these dank regions, where the earth, under the united influence of heat and moisture, teems with such a noxious superabundance of life, we approach the Desert. Here a change takes place equally singular and pleasing as in the vegetable world. Only light, airy, and fantastic forms trip along the sandy border; creatures innocent, gentle, and beautiful,—the antelope of twenty different species, all swift, with bright eyes, erect, and usually elegant figures, preying neither on men nor animals, but pursued by all on account of the delicate food which they afford. Here, too, roams the zebra, with its finely-striped skin wrapped around it like a robe of rich cloth; and the camelopard, the tallest and most remarkable of animal forms, with its long fore-legs and high-stretching neck of singular and fantastic beauty, crops the leaves of the African forest. Though a rare species, he is seen occasionally straying over a great proportion of that continent.

Nature, sporting as it would seem in the production of extraordinary objects, has filled Africa with a wonderful multitude of those animals which bear the closest alliance to "the human form divine." The orang-outang appears to constitute the link between man and the lower orders of living things. Standing erect, without a tail, with flat face, and arms of not greatly disproportioned length, it displays in every particular a deformed resemblance to the lord of the creation. It seems even to make a nearer approach than any other animal to the exercise of reason. It

« AnteriorContinua »