From the lost diary of Dr. Auguste VanZeeland.
Oostende Oct. 25th, 1840
My account, though true, is not to be believed by civilized man. As God is my judge, I am no liar. The speaking of untruths is sinful--as bad for mankind as gluttony--it is my solemn wish in these pages to inform my colleagues that the mouth can be a truly dreadul organ and those who are wise can lead by example to others that what goes through our lips, either inwards or outwards must be of the purest nature.
What happened to me in Africa is absolute fact.
But the remarkable tale, which is the "meat" of the following entries will doubtless be judged by both the scientific and religious authorities to be both offensive and ridiculous.
As we, the "enlightened" people of the European continent, seek to illuminate that much darker region to the South, we will certainly encounter mysteries and horrors to equal or surpass the nightmarish account in my diary. Neither God nor all the distinguished men of science could have prepared me for what I was to encounter in darkest Africa.
Those gentle readers among you may wish to stop reading here or opt to retire to an out-of-the-way location, preferably outdoors, where fresh air and close proximity to nature will be beneficial to the constitution and facilitate a more comfortable "digestion" of the disturbing material.
As a doctor, husband, and father, I discovered for myself with increasing familiarity that the human body, particularly the digestive system, is a truly fragile piece of work, far more vital than the eyes, ears or limbs, never to be abused, neglected, nor taken for granted. That the Creator in His wisdom should have given to man such tempermental innards is without question a religious mystery.
Perhaps He sought to tame mankind's growing arrogance, or simply He desired that His servants should rejoice in clean living by consuming only those plain and wholesome foodstuffs provided in Eden
Science, I am ashamed to say, takes a far more liberal view of what mankind can and should ingest; in their current and expert view, Homo Sapiens is an omnivore, much in the same category as the bear, the rat and the swine, equipped to dine on all manner of fare and be no worse for eating raw flesh instead of strawberries.
My late wife was a victim of this kind of muddled thinking. Her last bite of food, a greedy one at that, cost the good lady her life. The cause? Choking. Possibly combined with heart failure. The Danish style open-faced sandwich was crammed with tough pork, sprouts and crumbs which somehow didn't make it down her gullet. After this incident, my views of eating took a strange and disastrous course which led to my misadventure.
Stricken with grief, I abandoned by practice in Antwerp and set out for the coast where I arranged for passage at Oostende on a ship bound for Africa.
Suddenly a widower, I fell into a humble state of mind and was spiritually vulnerable. I took to wearing a tiny gold cross and more than once had to explain I wasn't a missionary bound for the Congo. Indeed, when the ship left Belgium, I was a very plump and well fed Fleming with a handsomely protruding belly, denoting my prestige in medicine and business and my brief marriage. The Holy Father in Rome may stand up before the masses and declare gluttony a sin and a departure from righteousness, but at that time, I felt having a full stomach three times a day brought me closer to heaven than anything.
Surely, there are worse crimes against God and man than to have a little extra to eat!
Upon boarding the ship at Oostende, I weighed a hefty 22 stone--as the British captain rightly reckoned--I was easily the fattest, roundest specimen of sea-going man the crew had ever laid eyes on.
(22 stone equals 308 lbs.)
Swarthy Muslims from Morroco, Egypt and Algeria stared at me with unkind faces, no doubt condemning my Christian vices among themselves. Eating and religion, at this point must, must, must be emphasized, for it was such mentality that steered me onward into disaster.
With some humor, I pondered if my being a fat man in Africa would make me more of a prize to lions, leopards and crocodiles than the skinnier men aboard who might be swallowed in one gulp.
"Nonsense, doctor!" Captain Briggs told me over dinner. "Do you honestly think the beasts are waiting there on the docks to eat you as you go down the gangplank?"
A simply vile Morrocan third mate poked me in the belly afterwards and spewed out a line of gibberish that made me thoroughly uncomfortable.
"Where you are going, Christian, it is the cannibals you must consider...if being eaten is your chief worry."
Doctor though I was, I knew my way around firearms, being a capable marksman with both rifle and shotgun. If any savage wished to add me to his menu, I would not be an easy prize! But the Morrocan turned out to be right, after all. Man-eating men was not something I had thought through before leaving Antwerp.
Africa, I was told, was a land overflowing with food from insects to antelope to elephants. Why would men, even savages, stoop to dining upon one another with so many other kinds of flesh to feast on?--to say nothing about the endless varieties of fruit and similar delicacies so common in the tropics.
I had little time to ponder African ethics.
When a sudden storm hit us as we rounded the coast of Spain, food once again took on a monstrous character.
The darkest aspects of the mouth, the belly and all the inner regions of man played a part in my life that was to keep me from ever leaving Africa.
End of part one.
Dry land is and will always be mankind's domain.
Whatever drove men to the open sea is a subject I will never be ready to respond to.
It was November 2nd when the Aquarius rounded the southerly tip and Spain and steered a course under dark clouds. The wind and waves lashed at the packet and the decks swarmed with hands. Slow and awkward with my bulk, I was bumped and jostled about while sails were trimmed and hatches were battened down.
I will never forget the horrendous tossing of the ocean; the surface became so many fugitive blue mounds and craters into which the ship dived and vaulted over.
Seasickness of the most diabolical sort affected me and I lay helpless at the stern rail, vomiting out what was left of my glorious supper into the sea. A thoughtful steward lashed a deckchair to the one of the deck cleats and this was my bed for the night as I couldn't manage to get to the salon or my cabin in my weakened condition. The chances of me falling overboard were quite real and sobering. Unable to keep anything down, not even watery broth, I was transformed into a pitiable creature, rather like a crippled walrus unable to drag his way back into the water. I lay on the deck chair, a fat, shivering mound while the salt spray gusted over me and my stomach wrung itself out to the last of its juices.
If God was trying to tell me something abouy my frailty, I listened.
My thoughts were consumed with images of my innards. Satan himself must be inside my entrails, kicking and bouncing around in an effort to make me renounce my beliefs and perish like a modern day Job. But no, I held on with childish faith for two days until the storm blew itself out.
The power of the storm had been such that we were driven from the West coast of Africa. I had prayed for a smooth, safe docking at Casablanca, but this was not to be. The Canary Islands were our only haven now, and with some storm damage to repair, the practical-minded Captain Briggs put the Aquarius in at Las Palmas on the evening of the 5th.
Dry land didn't help my stomach which seemed to have been stricken with amnesia. The sight of food drove me to nausea and when I glimpsed eatables or even smelled them, I was obliged to turn away.
I could manage water, but good water wasn't always easy to obtain. Letting the ship leave without me, I found sanctuary in a Portuguese church and with the help of the well-meaning brothers, I slowly coaxed my tortured bowels into accepting solid food once more.
I remained in religious seclusion for some time, having prayed for relief of my illness which very likely might have cost me my life. My experience as a physician was much valued in the islands and I saw numerous patients and overheard many fascinating stories. My obsession with food and mouths came back to me in an atrocious way when I was called to the docks. A huge shark had been caught by one of the local fishermen and as the gray-scaled brute was hauled up by its tailfins, it disgorged the body of a small boy. Like the others who watched in horror, I lost my appetite all over again. Here was a creature that could swallow a human being whole--with only a few bite marks--and still had the urge to bite a baited hook.
Never had I hoped or expected to see or touch a person that had been in the jagged maw of a monster fish. The young victims lungs were filled with salt-water, making me wonder for months afterward if he had died from drowning, rather than from being swallowed. Could it be that a person could be alive in the stomach of a beast, and if so, for how long?
My diary began that night as I commenced to describe the dead boy's body as well as the carcass of the shark that had swallowed him. The next day and all through the winter, I combed the islands, searching for similar tales of people being swallowed and what animals could possibly manage the feat.
I suppose I must have been quite mad with my quest, for when the Aquarius and Captain Briggs returned from Africa in April, I was greeted with the most curious proposal.
"So doctor...you wants to know about men bein' swallowed up, does ye?" Briggs ushered me into a tavern in Las Palmas and ordered up rum and oysters. "Well, I've just returned from the Congo with a tale that might be of hinterest..."
He noted the Bible under my arm.
"An' ye've gone and become a padre as well, 'aven't ye?"
"I was always a decent man, Captain Briggs. Besides, I keep my notes in here as well." I sat down across from him.
"Christ on his throne, you've lost weight, Augie. That belly of yours must have melted off overnight. You're down to twelve stone if not lower. Have you been as sick as all that?"
"Las Palmas isn't Antwerp after all, captain. I've learned to live a little better."
"So now your body is a bleedin' temple, is it? Well, bully for ye. And on that note, I'm goin' to let you in on a bit of news. I 'eard about your fascination with people bein' eaten and all...I've got a letter from a German fellow way down in Angola who's actually met a man who was swallowed alive. Call me a bleedin' liar, doctor, but that's the truth. A native fellow it seems. Shunned by his fellows in the bush...lives in a Spanish colony along the equator...hot as hell, but it's the only place you can go to see him. Ingagi's the fellow's name. In his native tongue, it means 'Offering' or something mighty similar. He's gettin' along in years, though. If you want to talk to this chap, you'll get on the next ship bound for Angola."
"This can't be! Or can it? What sort of an animal could swallow a full grown man?"
Captain Briggs lowered his voice. "I didn't say nothin' 'bout no hanimals now, did I?"
My mind was made up. In ten days, I was back on board ship, bound for Angola. Now a much slimmer man, I could get around with greater ease. My diary and research continued. Now that I wasn't a walking obstacle, the crew took me more seriously.
The first night out, I went down into the hold of the ship to the engine room, the virtual bowels of the ship where blasts of steam, waves of heat and the rumblings of heavy iron drowned out my nervous breathing. I felt as though I had been swallowed up myself. All around me were huge walls slick with moisture. The deck shuddered under my feet and roars of flame and the pounding of pistons told me I was in a vital spot of the ship. Once again, I took to thinking of my own demanding innards.
Silhouetted by the leaping flames was a hunched figure of a man with a coal shovel. He was busy feeding the boilers and didn't turn. I could barely stand the stifling conditions of the engine room, but here was a human being who could endure the heat, the close confines, the darkness and the danger for days and hours on end. The notion of people surviving in a monster's belly seemed frighteningly rational.
Since I was convinced I was too frail to survive falling down a flight of steps, let alone an esophagus, I made my way topside in a bath of sweat.
The nightmare was beginning again.
It was still night when Aquarius came within sight of the African coast. Lights on shore at the Spanish colony seemed to beckon. I had come too far to turn back, despite my increasing fear of finding out something best left alone.
I was among the first ones off the ship in the morning.
From the lost diary of Auguste VanZeeland
April 14, 1841
The "Spanish Colony" on the coast of Angola was no colony at all; the region was firmly in the hands of Spain's neighbor, Portugal. The settlement I had seen from the AQUARIUS was no more than a dingy, lackluster shanty town. The morning was hot, "beastly" as Captain Briggs put it, the sun turned hungry as it rose, simmering me in the oven of the tropics, basting my body in its own sweat.
North, in Antwerp, I had always dressed in the somber dark colors as befit a doctor, but now that I was in the equatorial regions, I threw out my ill-fitting black, brown and dark blues in favor of off-whites and pale tans. Stained with perspiration as I clambered up the rungs to the pier, I was immediately set upon by gnats, flies and other pestiferous insects who seemed intent on making a feast of me.
I swatted myself sore with sunburnt arms while the swarthy men of AQUARIUS laughed at my misfortune; only two of the brown men aboard ship had actually shown some actual Christian charity, but this pair, who ironically were Hindus, stayed aboard.
They were pair of brothers, from Calcutta, who generally avoided the company of the African Muslims.
Brijesh and Hitesh spoke halting English, but had heard of my sickness and my studies of digestion.
As it turned out, the brothers were quite keen on the connection between religion and diet and offered me ample "food for thought" during the visits to the engine room where they toiled.
As the Hindus shunned flesh foods, they claimed that eating was a means of purifying the soul and body--as important as prayer--and that in order to achieve the proper enlightenment in my work, I should follow their example.
I should note here that the galley aboard the AQUARIUS, and possibly all ships, was not the cleanest place on board, and that here and there in the various and sundry containers could be seen the squirming white larvae of beetles and tiny worms of a sort I hadn't known in Europe. These burrowed in the rice and wheat as much as in the pork and fresh fruit.
If the Hindus swore to have consumed no animals on their voyages aboard the AQUARIUS, they must indeed have gone through their meals with astounding attention to detail.
What they did with the vermin they combed out of their dinners I never thought to ask. I have always thought that the stomach's own digestive juice was potent enough to dissolve such tiny pests, but popular medical texts abound in Europe with descriptions of the foulest parasites that can survive the corrosive fluids of the stomach and thrive deeper down in the intestines. Hookworms, tapeworms and liver flukes are tough despite their tiny dimensions and can utterly ruin the health and sap the vitality of thousands of otherwise hale people.
In some cases, the infestation can be lethal.
In Belgium, with our modern scientific equipment of the 19th century, we are becoming increasingly aware of the fact that organisms can live inside our innards and pass out with our wastes and blood to propagate in other places.
With this in mind, I was always careful where I stepped. Midday was so fiercely hot I abandoned my little tour of the colony and followed the sound of Enlgish voices to a shaded area near the marketplace. Not so sad was I to finally see the AQUARIUS steam off into the horizon. With solid ground under me once again, I could regain my appetite.
At least somewhat.
The everpresent hordes of infernal flies coated all the plates and dishes outside the shanty bar. I complained in three languages to the server and he took me inside the thick-walled courtyard adjacent to the bar. I passed through three curtained doorways and at last, the flies were sufficiently hedged out.
After refreshing myself, I made numerous inquiries about lodging and other neccesities and was finally introduced to a tall, muscular German named Nofziger.
Nofziger spoke that most peculiar Plattdeutsch, as he lived in the border regions of Germany and Denmark. His English was fair and we conversed in that. He was surprised to hear of my association with Captain Briggs and after that he became more amicable and generous. As a trader, he had contacts and money. He paid for my light midday meal and more drinks and pointed out any number of available guides who might lead me to Ingagi.
"I'm merely doing some medical research," I told Nofziger, "I'm not a missionary."
My crucifix and Bible seemed to bely my statements. How good of a Holy man could I be if I couldn't convince a European that I was telling the truth?
"Zo den, let us haff das book--" Nofziger took my Bible and opened it with alarming speed. "Es ist filled mit stories about food and eating. We start out mit a wonderland...a paradise in the beginning unt den what goes to wrongness? Eating. Food. Mortal man in his mouth puts zumting he oughtn't and eats it and the rest of us goes to hell for it."
"Scripture is a bit more deep than that, Herr Nofziger--" I maintained.
"Dach, here in Africa, well then, it something else ist. We white-skinned church-going volk has our communion right and proper. But dems in the Congo don't schtop mit keks und shcnapps...they don't read their religion like Martin Luther...they goes and eats it, ja?"
"Cannibalism, Herr Nofziger!?"
"Captain Briggs told you, he should have. And quite righteous im the eyes of the native volk. Eatin the fleisch of the correct man is as great as by ein Angel saved for you and me, Doctor VanZeeland!"
"But I had heard of a man being swallowed whole!"
"And I too. I have this man even met!"
"He was swallowed whole?"
"Did I not chust say that?"
"But there's not an animal in all of the Dark Continent that can swallow a man whole. Even the crocodile has a stomach only the size of a pillow...and has to tear the limbs off its prey--unless the largest of sharks come up the rivers from the ocean...."
Nofziger looked hard at me and then finished his beer. "I didn't say nichts about animals, did I?"
End of part 3. To be continued.
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