The Boy Travelers - Africa by Thomas W. Knox Boy Travelers-Africa by Thomas W. Knox    

Chapter 22: Travels of Dr. Rohlfs. The Tsetse Fly.

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A Village on the Guinea Coast

"There's another brave explorer of the valley of the Niger," said Doctor Bronson as he resumed his seat after the conference with Abdul, "whom we should not omit from the roll of honor."

"I know to whom you refer," said Frank.

"Who is it?" Fred asked.

"Dr. Gerhard Rohlfs," was the reply. "He is a German traveler, born near Bremen, in 1834, who graduated in medicine, and afterward entered the French army, and obtained the highest distinction open to a foreigner. His service was mostly in Algeria, where he learned the Arabic language, and in 1861 went to Morocco, where he assumed the character of a Muslim, and travelled a long distance in the Sahara desert."

"Quite right," said the Doctor, as Frank paused. "It was in that first exploration he was attacked and robbed by his guides in the desert, who left him for dead on the sands, with a broken arm. In 1864 he again travelled in Morocco, and a year later he started from Tripoli, in the disguise of an Arab, and went to Lagos, on the Gulf of Guinea, by way of Moorzook and other cities in that part of Africa. He passed Lake Tchad, and continued to the Niger, which he partially explored, together with the river Benoowe, which has already been mentioned. His name is familiar to many people in America, as he visited the United States in 1875, and lectured there on his travels.

"He tells some interesting stories of his adventures," the Doctor continued, "while traveling in disguise. He had managed to make the Grand Shereef of Morocco his friend, and he secured letters that caused him to be received with distinguished honors in most of the towns and cities that he visited. As he spoke Arabic fluently, and knew all the Muslim prayers by heart, his religious faith was not often called in question. Occasionally, however, he was open to suspicion, and as he was among the most devout Muslims his life was in great danger.

"At Tidikelt he was received very kindly by the prince to whom he had several letters of introduction. One day a Tuareg sheik came to him and said,
Scene Near Lake Tchad

"'I am a prince of the Tuaregs; I have been in Paris, and know the whole country of France, and I know the Sultan of the Christians. I know you, and have seen you; you are a Christian, and a Frenchman or an Englishman.'

"Rohlfs assured the man that he was neither French nor English; but the latter was so certain about it that he went to the Prince of Tidikelt and stated his suspicions that Rohlfs was a French spy, who had come to see what the land contained. Fortunately, the prince did not believe him; and when Rohlfs spoke about the matter the prince replied that he was certain he would not have been able to get a letter of recommendation unless he had been a Muslim. He added, 'If a Christian should come into our land provided with letters from the Sultans of Stamboul and Morocco, I should at once hand him over to the people, for we don't want any Christians here.'

"The answer was not at all encouraging, as it showed the great danger he was in. He would gladly have left at once, but could not do so, as the mere fact of his trying to escape would only strengthen the suspicion against him. So he put on a brave front, and by the practice of his medical skill and careful attendance to the religious ceremonies he managed, in the course of a month or so, to get on friendly terms with everybody once more. Then he continued his journey, and in due time reached the regions where Christians were safe.

"In his journey from the Mediterranean to the Gulf of Guinea, Dr. Rohlfs had many narrow escapes, not only from the hostility of the natives, but from fevers and other diseases which have caused the death of so many explorers. In the neighborhood of Lake Tchad, during the period of the inundation of the flat country surrounding it, he was obliged to travel for several days where the water was five or six inches deep, and frequently he was forced to wade where it rose to his waist. He suffered much from fever caught in this region; and so unhealthy was the locality that several of his Arab companions died from the diseases contracted there. He was the first European to make the complete journey over the route he followed, and it was nearly two years from the time he started from Tunis until he arrived at the Gulf of Guinea.

"After leaving the Niger he traversed a part of the kingdom of Dahomey, but did not visit its capital. Do you know for what Dahomey is famous?"

"Yes," replied Fred; "at least, I know one thing which travelers have mentioned—it has an army of women instead of men."

"Not exactly an army of women instead of men," said Doctor Bronson, "but an army of both. The Amazons, as the feminine warriors are generally termed, are in a separate division; and, according to Captain Burton, who has visited the country, they have officers of the same rank as the other portion of the army, and these officers are always of their own sex. There are about three thousand of these Amazons, and they are armed, as far as possible, with the same weapons as the men. They are said to be the bravest portion of the army, and are the great reliance of the king whenever a fortified place is to be attacked."

One of the boys asked how they were recruited.

"As to that," was the reply, "the whole population is liable to military duty, and the king can call to arms every person in his dominions who is able to enter the military ranks. Before a girl can be married she is taken before the king, and if he likes her looks she is at once enlisted for a soldier, and that is the end of the proposed match. The Amazons are not allowed to marry, and any man who asks one of them to do so is in danger of losing his head. Captain Burton says many are larger than the men, more capable of enduring fatigue, and, as far as his observation went, they make better soldiers.
1. The Tsetse. 2. The Tsetse, Magnified. 3. Its Proboscis.

"There is a good deal of romance about the kingdom of Dahomey," the Doctor continued. "It is a country with less than half a million inhabitants, few manufactures, little commerce, and under the rule of a tyrannical king. Human sacrifices were formerly very frequent, but within the last twenty years they have been mostly suppressed, through the influence of the British, who invaded the country in consequence of an insult to their consul at Lagos. The country abounds in wild beasts of nearly all the kinds known in Africa, and it is said that the boa constrictor in Dahomey grows to an enormous size. We are not likely to visit the country, and so it will not make much difference to us whether they are large or not."

The conversation was again interrupted by Abdul, who came to say that he thought one of the horses was suffering from the bite of the tsetse fly, and was afraid they might lose it.

"I have been fearing for some time," said the Doctor, "that as soon as we entered the region of the tsetse fly we should lose the horses. We are not fairly in its range at present, and I hope the report that the horse has been bitten by one of these pests is incorrect."

The incident naturally changed the topic of discussion. Doctor Bronson gave a brief account of one of the dreads of all African travelers. It will be found more fully described in the first volume of Dr. Livingstone's travels.

"The tsetse fly," said the Doctor, "is scientifically known as Glossina morsitans; it is about the size of the common housefly, and is of a brownish color. It is very quick in its movements, and will evade the most dexterous attempts to capture it with the hand except in cool mornings or evenings, when it is less agile than at other times. Its bite causes the death of the ox, the horse, and the dog. A remarkable feature about it is that, while it is fatal to oxen and cows, it is perfectly harmless to calves until after they are weaned."

"How is it that men can travel where this fly abounds, if its bite is so deadly?" one of the boys asked.
Colonel Long's Battle at Mrooli

"Because," was the reply, "its bite is no more injurious to man than is that of a mosquito. It causes a slight itching, just as does the sting of a mosquito, and that is all.

"The horse is the most ready victim of the tsetse fly. It comes in swarms sometimes, and lights on the back of a horse by hundreds. There is no known remedy for its bite, and in less than a week the animal will die.

"The sting is not a sensible one to the horse or ox, and very often an animal may be bitten without being aware of it. In a few days there are symptoms of a cold; the eyes and nose throw off quantities of mucus, swellings appear under the jaws and elsewhere, the poor beast begins to grow thin, as if starving, and finally dies of exhaustion.

"The period for the disease to perform its work varies from one week to eight or ten weeks, and sometimes longer. It is a singular circumstance that, while oxen, dogs, and horses are killed by it, the donkey and mule escape altogether. Sheep perish from the bite of the tsetse, while the goat is unharmed; and it does not seem at all injurious to any of the wild animals of Africa. In the valley of the Zambesi there are whole districts where the natives can keep no domestic animals except goats; and it sometimes happens that, while one bank of a river is infested by the deadly fly, the other will be wholly free from it, and cattle may graze there in safety.

"When the natives are about to pass with their cattle through a tsetse region they endeavor to do so on a cold night, when the fly is quiet; and they take the precaution of smearing their animals with a paste made from ashes and other substances, so that the tsetse cannot bite through it. Inoculation does no good; and, until some remedy is discovered, many portions of Africa will be uninhabitable to those who desire to keep oxen and horses."

It turned out that the bite on the horse was not that of the dreaded tsetse, and so the animals were safe for the present at least.

It was getting late, and the conference came to an end with the dissertation on the deadly flies of Africa. The Doctor closed by saying that there was an insect in the western part of Africa whose bite has somewhat the same effect on man as the tsetse on the ox, though not likely to be as fatal.

"It is called the tampan," said he, "and bites between the fingers or toes in preference to other places. It varies from the size of a pin's head to that of a small pea, and abounds in the native huts. Natives do not suffer much inconvenience from its bite, but with Europeans there follows a swelling and itching of the wound; then come fever and some of the symptoms of cholera, and the fever occasionally results in the death of the victim. Happily, this insect does not abound in many parts of the country."
Colonel Long's Companions at Mrooli

It rained most of the time during the night, and the next morning the ground was so wet that the caravan did not get under way until a late hour.

In the afternoon they passed close to Mrooli, a large village of Bunyoro, situated where the river widens into the appearance of a small lake. A few hours later they crossed the Kafou River, where the water was up to the saddle girths of the horses, and required the porters to use a good deal of caution in wading over it. Doctor Bronson said it was from this point of the main route that Baker turned aside along the banks of the Kafou when he went to discover Lake Albert.

"Colonel Long describes a battle which he had in front of Mrooli," the Doctor remarked while they were resting by the side of the path; "and it must have been where we see the river widening out that the fight took place.

"He was the first European to descend the river from Lake Victoria, and he did so in spite of the opposition of the natives. He discovered a lake, since called Lake Ibrahim, between here and Lake Victoria, and as he approached Mrooli he saw a great number of canoes, full of natives armed with spears. They were stretched in a double line across the stream in such a way as to prevent its passage except by fighting, and their number was so large as to make the chance of victory very small for him and his few men.

"There were five hundred natives against Long and his two soldiers; the natives were armed with spears and bows and arrows, while the others had breech-loading rifles of the best systems. They laid their cartridges ready, so as to fire as fast as possible, and Long ordered his two boats to be lashed together, and the Egyptian flag hoisted at the stern of the one occupied by himself; then he advanced. The Africans called out for him to stop, and when he refused to do so the battle began.

"The power of the European's weapons over those of the African was never more clearly shown than in this light. Long used a rifle carrying explosive shells, which shattered the sides of the boats, throwing the men into the water, and completely putting an end to their thoughts of fighting in the effort to save their lives.
Traveling on Foot

"In little more than an hour the battle was over. Four hundred and fifty cartridges had been expended by Long and his two soldiers, and the river was practically clear of their enemies, as most of the boats had been sunk, and the remainder returned to the shore. A large crowd gathered on the land and pursued along the banks; but they could do no harm, as the river was wide enough to enable the strangers to keep out of reach of the weapons of their enemies.

"The report of this battle was received at Cairo before Colonel Long arrived there. The Khedive sent him a letter of congratulation for his skill and bravery, and promoted him to a high office in the Egyptian service. The two soldiers received the decoration of the Order of the Medjidieh and the rank of sergeant major in the army."

Soon after moving on from the point where Long's adventures at Mrooli were narrated the party met a group of men in a style of dress which was new to the boys. The principal garments, and by far the most valuable part of the wardrobe, consisted of rings made of brass wire. These rings were around the arms of the wearers in three places—at the wrist, elbow, and shoulder—and also around the neck, which was enclosed so stiffly as to remind the Doctor of the stocks formerly worn as a fashionable adornment in England and America, and not yet altogether out of use. The men carried spears and shields, and some of them had their ears decorated with enormous rings of brass.

Frank recognized them as Kidi men, from the description in Speke's book, and the illustration accompanying it. Kidi is on the other side of the Nile, and these men come over the river to pay tribute to the King of Bunyoro, who has a sort of nominal control over them.

Kidi is said to be an excellent hunting ground, especially for large game, and the boys regretted that there was no time to visit it. Abdul said the natives hunted elephants in a way not common in other parts of Africa. At Fred's request he described the process.

They have a spear with a long blade, sharp on both sides, and fastened to a short handle of iron, in the shape of a pear, so as to make it very heavy. Armed with these spears, men climb into trees where the herd can be made to pass, and when all is ready other men go out to drive the animals in the desired direction. As the elephants pass beneath the trees the heavy spears are dropped upon them. The hippopotamus is sometimes killed in the same way, but more frequently by the trap already described.
Approaching Camp

The road lay through a swampy region, and the rains caused many of the holes to be filled with water, so that the traveling was none of the best. In many places it was not safe to remain on the horses, and a good part of the way was made on foot by the Doctor and his young companions. Doctor Bronson said that if this kind of road continued it would be necessary to walk altogether, or be carried on litters, after the custom of Africa.

The horses began to show signs of fatigue, and indicated very plainly that the climate of Central Africa was not suited to their constitution. Their temper was not at all improved, though perhaps this was due quite as much to their treatment by their grooms as to the climate of the country. Frank said his horse never omitted an opportunity to kick at him, and it was preferable to approach the animal at the head rather than at the heels. The Doctor said it would be something never before accomplished to take a horse all the way across Africa, and if they succeeded in getting their steeds beyond the southern end of Lake Victoria they would have done something to be proud of.

They had many speculations as to the possibility of escaping the tsetse, which had already given them an alarm, though happily a false one. Fred proposed to envelop his horse in a garment of antelope skin, or something equally impervious to the sting of the fly. The Doctor suggested that he would have a hard time to make the horse understand the use of this new covering, and if he was compelled to wear it constantly the health of the beast would be endangered almost as much as by the fly.

On the whole, they concluded not to borrow too much trouble about the future, but to take as good care as possible of the animals that carried them and hope for the best. Both boys gave strict orders to their grooms and other servants to keep a sharp watch for the tsetse, and report the first indication of its presence. It was agreed that when there was reason to believe it was among them the native precautions should be adopted, and if any new measures could be devised they would be tried on the first occasion.

    The Boy Travelers - Africa by Thomas W. Knox Boy Travelers-Africa by Thomas W. Knox    

Chapter 22: Travels of Dr. Rohlfs. The Tsetse Fly.


Study the chapter for one week.

Over the week:

  • Read and/or listen to the chapter.
  • Review the vocabulary terms.
  • Complete the enrichment activities.


Tsetse: A type of fly native to Africa, that feeds on human and animal blood and is primarily known as a carrier of parasitic trypanosomes.
Gulf: A portion of an ocean or sea extending into the land; a partially landlocked sea.
Inundation: a rising and spreading of water over grounds.
Dahomey Amazons: An all-female military regiment in the Kingdom of Dahomey (modern times Benin).
Tyrannical: Despotic, oppressive, or authoritarian.
Inoculation: The introduction of an antigenic substance or vaccine into the body to produce immunity to a specific disease.


Activity 1: Narrate the Chapter

  • Narrate the events aloud in your own words.

Activity 2: Study the Chapter Pictures

  • Study the chapter pictures and describe how each relates to the story.

Activity 3: Observe the Modern Equivalent

  • Examine the chapter setting in modern times: Dancing and drumming in Benin (previously called Dahomey).

Activity 4: Map the Chapter

Find the countries of Morocco, Algeria, Benin, and Niger on the map of Africa.

Activity 5: Map the Chapter on a Globe

  • Repeat the applicable mapwork from Activity 4 on a three-dimensional globe.