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Congolese Brain-Sucking Octopus

Lyle Zapato | 2015-06-29.4390 LMT | Cephalopods | Food | Retro

In 1902, English language newspapers brought word from the Congo, via a rather dubious source, that an unknown freshwater cryptopus with a hankerin' for human thought-meat was prowling the Uele river (from the Sept. 7 San Francisco Call, also reprinted elsewhere):


It Hunts the Natives and Feeds Upon the Brains of Its Human Prey.

A Belgian officer just returned from the Congo Free State reports that in the caverns of the Uelle River there dwells a species of octopus that presents a grave danger to all who navigate the river in small boats.

The strange beasts are called "megwe" by the natives, and are very numerous in the neighborhood of the station of the Amadis, owing to the number of rocks and caves in that region. They attack the native canoes, capsizing them easily with their tentacles and, according to their state of hunger, seizing one or two men.

The octopus drags his human prey to his cavern and there, without inflicting the slightest external wounds, feeds on his victim's brains by inserting the points of his tentacles in his nostrils. He generally keeps his prey fifteen hours, then lets the body float out on the river.

"I was an eye witness to a disaster of this kind," says the Belgian. "A canoe was capsized in the river and one of the three occupants disappeared. When the survivors swam ashore they told us that an octopus had turned their boat over and carried off their companion.

"The next morning about 9 o'clock the body was found floating and no trace of any wound could be found, while the only abnormal appearance was the swollen state of the nostrils. On examination it was found that the brains had been extracted. The natives of the Uelle all dread the 'megwe.' while those of the Itimbri know nothing of its existence."

It turns out this report was over two years old -- the officer hadn't "just" returned (and wasn't "Belgian", but that's another matter). It went viral, 1900s style, because everything old is new again.

However, I'm leading the post with it since it's pithy and things are about to get more wordy, ambiguous, and French.

(Note: I machine-translated then hand-corrected the French sources in blockquotes below. They may be imperfect. Click the cites to read the originals.)

The source of the article (which Australian papers ran with the subhead "THE BUNYIP OUTDONE") appears to be a translation of one in the Aug. 22, 1900 French newspaper Le Temps (or wherever they copied it from). The main differences are the octopus was named miga and the article ended with a bit of snark (that was left off in a reprint in La Croix the next day):

We see that at the dawn of the twentieth century the sea serpent is following the march of universal progress. It now has eight tentacles and supports freshwater.

The American press (e.g. Marshall County Independent, et al.) took note of the story at the time, but was even less impressed than Le Temps, especially considering the source:

The Belgian tells some strange stories of the performances of these creatures which he professes to have witnessed. These stories strain one's credulity and read like a page from one of Rider Haggard's novels."

The story itself seems to have originated from a series of letters to the journal La Belgique Coloniale. The first report is from the July 29, 1900 issue:

The Octopus of the Uele. — One of our subscribers, recently returned from the Congo, communicates the following note, which we recommend to the special attention of our compatriots staying in the region of the Uele, with a request to send us, if there occurs, more information about it.

"Descending, end of term, the Nile expedition, to reach the coast, I often heard said by paddlers of Dungu and Uele, that there was, deep in the caverns of the Uele, beasts with several long arms. These animals, called miga and megwe by local residents, are very numerous around the post of Amadis, because of the many rocks that are in the water. They attack the canoes by overwhelming them with their tentacles and, depending on whether they are hungry, seize one or several men. The octopus drags its prey to the depths of its lair and sucks his brain through the nostrils. Ordinarily, the animal keeps the victim for fifteen hours and then, satisfied, it releases the corpse to float back bearing no trace of a wound.

"I was able to verify the fact: Passing the post of Amadis, I found, in addition to the chef-de-poste and his deputy, Captain Wacquez on a tour of inspection. Around 7 pm, a soldier came running and told us that a canoe, manned by three men and going to the market with food, had just been hit by a megwe and a native had vanished. Moments later, the two escapees, who had been able to reach the shore by swimming, confirmed the fact. The natives of the post told us that the corpse floated back the next day. Indeed, around 9 am, it was fished out. He showed no signs of injury. The nose was merely swollen. The brain was gone, but some fragments still oozed from the nostrils.

"The natives, bordering the Uele, all know the megwe; but those of the Itimbiri and the Congo have never heard of it."

Answering their call for more info, Léon Huwaert obliges (Oct. 14), only to confuse things by giving an account of a seemingly unrelated -- albeit equally cerebrophagic -- regional hominoid (either that or the Congo has been invaded by space monsters):

The Octopus of the Uele. — In our issue of July 29 (p. 355), we recommended to the special attention of our compatriots staying in the Congo, especially in the area of the ​​Uele, a note from one of our subscribers about an octopus of the Uele, with a request to submit, if possible, more information. The latest mail from the Congo has just brought to us a letter from Mr. Léon Huwaert, chef-de-poste at Kwamouth.

While thanking our honorable correspondent for his interesting communication, we observe that, as with the first note we published, the exploits of the legendary animal are based only on the words of negroes, often questionable.

We simply record the new document, also submitting as to its value, to past and present residents of the Uele region.

"Having read your article, The Octopus of the Uele," writes Léon Huwaert, "I recalled that the boy of Mr. Van Linthout, of the L. T., who is found at the post, is originally from the Uele; with the first question we posed to him about the subject, this boy, who is very smart, knew what we meant and, asking two more soldiers just arrived from the Uele, we find that everyone knows the animal to which they give the name of manguita.

"It is very large, covered with hair on the upper part of the body that is very dark brown red: it stands still near the rocks in places where the water is very deep. Sometimes, around noon, it appears lying, sitting it seems, on a rock; from a distance you take it for a man, and all those who, deceived by this resemblance, wanted to pick him up in a canoe, never returned. Many times it was believed to have been killed with guns, but no one has ever been able to find a corpse.

"To attack a canoe, it sticks to the back and quickly reaches to lift the front end so that the boat plunges; then it seizes its prey to suck out his brains through the nostrils. It has great strength and the natives claim that at the village of Kindie it often seized the elephants and dragged them; only, they were brought to the surface without being entirely dead, but not worth much better.

"Local natives know the places where these animals are and, when they have to lead a white, for example, up the river, here's how they do it: At each village one takes new paddlers and in this way one easily avoids the monster."

Finally, Captain Wacquez, from the original report, writes in to set the record straight (Nov. 4):


I read in your journal two articles (1) related to the octopus of the Uele. Having traveled a bit in this part of Africa, I am able to give you some information that, if not interesting, at least has the merit of having been drawn from the same country.

(1) See the Belgique Coloniale of July 29 and October 14, which also provide details as precise as fantastic on this curious animal.

The animal in question is known throughout the part of the Uele between Dongu (confluence of the Dongu and Kibali) and Bima (confluence of the Bima) as the kilima. It is, according to the residents, an evil being of whose exact form they are ignorant and which inspires in them great superstition mingled with terror.

At the end of 1898, on my return from the expedition to the Nile, I took command of the post of Amadis, and was witness to some facts which make the terrible kilima sadly interesting. I had as a neighbor, some 500 meters from my post, one of those unknown monsters. It had taken up residence at the crossing of the Uele, a place so deep that the paddlers could not touch the bottom with the long poles they use to cross the rapids. One day I was at dinner with my deputy, Mr. Bareau, when one of my head-workers came to tell me that the kilima took four natives who were bathing on the banks of the river; it had dropped two, but the others had been swallowed up. I ran with Mr. Bareau to see my worker and found there two escapees, a man and a woman, unconscious in the middle of the tribe in tears. Thanks to the drugs we provided, I was able to revive them and draw some information from the man: as he made his ablutions with his comrades, the kilima had seized the four and carried them under water; he had been released immediately, but two of his companions had not returned. As for him, he was gagged by something that resembled a serpent. We could see that his upper lip and nose were swollen. The woman, herself, was intact and appeared to have been seized by fear more than by kilima. The next day, the other two victims were fished out: the bodies had no bite marks, but the nose and upper lip showed signs of suction and the skulls were empty; you could still see in the nostrils a bit of blood-tinged brains.

In November 1899 I was passing Amadis when a native came to tell the chef-de-poste, Mr. Keyper, that the kilima had just capsized a canoe; one single man was missing and the others had all pulled through for better or worse. The next day (as I had predicted to the whites present) the body was recovered; he bore no bite mark, the nose and upper lip were swollen and the brains had been sucked out. These facts were verified by Mr. Keyper and Mr. Degrez, present on the post that day.

This is what I saw myself. Now about what I learned by questioning the natives.

According to them, the kilima, very powerful, feeds on the brains of people he manages to capture. It has the appearance of a serpent, a little red on one side, but no one could give me some good details on its structure. It lives in very deep places, is strong enough to capsize a canoe, and never keeps his victims more than one night. I have seen this last fact twice.

One thing worthy of note, is that the native does not say "a kilima" nor "kilimas", but "the kilima". I objected one day that the monster, unique throughout the Uele, could not take its victims in different locations that in moving along a river crossed with rapids it risked being seen and killed. I was told that I, with my gun, would not manage to kill it if I saw it; furthermore, it travels in the sky where it sees perfectly its way on certain days. Hence in the Uele the rainbow is also called kilima.

The kilima is known not only on the this river, but also on its tributaries.

An Abuabua of Libokwa (on the Bima) told me that it once had a lot of victims, but had disappeared since the whites had set up a post along the river. This fact is easily explained, because the kilima seems to love peace and quiet as much as the human brain.

At the post of Bafuka (north of Niangara) there exists, it seems, a kilima that the sentinels have previously seen at night in the middle of the river.

At the post of Poke (on the Bomokandi) paddlers understood very well a drawing that we had shown them, representing an octopus;—they called the animal kilima like the residents of the Uele.

Antwerp, October 27, 1900


Years later, in the journal Le Congo (June 26, 1904), Dr. L. Védy dismissed the idea that the kilima was an octopus, which he considered a forced interpretation by Europeans of what they wanted to see, and instead argued that it's a simplistic water-spirit myth (while being oblivious to his own forced interpretation fitting how European's wanted to see the Congolese people):


The Kilima, according to Europeans, is the octopus of the Uele. The characteristic that most distinguishes the animal from all others is that no one has ever seen it; we know neither its size nor its shape. Yet, saying that no one has ever seen it, I exaggerate a little. On a certain day, Sergeant L... tells me he saw this prodigious monster and described it to me, saying: "That it's red and it's big is well known!" And his hands, to sketch a dimension, parted about sixty centimeters. It was impossible to obtain more precise details on this fantastic animal.

We mainly know the Kilima from its misdeeds: it is he who overturned the canoes and took the men to be drowned. It is, according to the natives, huge and has a colossal strength that makes it able to overturn the larger boats and seize and hold at the bottom of the water several men at once.

In the presence of categorical statements by residents of the Uele, many Europeans believed in the existence of an animal that appropriated the shape of a large octopus. But the fact that nobody ever saw an animal of this species in the river, even though in the dry season it has only very little depth, and that, secondly, most shipwrecks recorded are explained very well by the clash of boats against the rocks or tree trunks, casts much doubt on the existence of the monster.

Here is what the Bakongo and Mangbele of the Uele say about Kilima:

There exists only one couple who separately travel each side the whole length of the Uele. Male and female are capable of the same misdeeds and are ambushed preferably around the rapids or in the deepest parts of the river.

It is mainly in the rainy season, when the Uele's waves roll fast and tumultuous like a torrent, that the Kilimas stand at the falls to capsize canoes that venture to pass.

The men taken by the Kilima are dragged to the bottom of the river by an invincible force. Anyone who would try to rescue a drowning man would be drawn towards the abyss in turn.

Besides these misdeeds committed only within the Uele, we see many natives blame the floods on the same Kilima. A bridge is washed away by floods of a stream suddenly swollen by the rains, a village invaded by water, it is always the myth that we wished to make an octopus which is accused. Finally we have seen the natives regard lightning and the rainbow as Kilima.

The result of all this evidence is that, for residents of the Uele especially and for the generality of the natives who live in the basin of this river, Kilima is some kind of water spirit: an African Neptune, an abstraction intended to represent the dreaded side of the liquid element.

The spirit of the black is not sufficiently developed to understand a being or an abstract force; he must personify his ideas. Unable to conceive of a force, the negro imagines a protean animal, huge and with an invincible power that he tries to describe. And it is in these fantastic descriptions that some Europeans wanted to see that of an octopus.

Dr. L. Védy.

Dr. Védy was right about at least one thing: Europeans, while they may feign a "developed understanding" of things, really just want a brain-sucking octopus stalking the tributaries of the Congo, and dammit if the press won't give it to them, repeatedly.

End of post.