The first object of my curiosity was a book of medium size lying upon the table and presenting such an antediluvian aspect that I marvelled at beholding it outside a museum or library. It was bound in leather with metal fittings, and was in an excellent state of preservation; being altogether an unusual sort of volume to encounter in an abode so lowly. When I opened it to the title page my wonder grew even greater, for it proved to be nothing less rare than Pigafetta’s account of the Congo region, written in Latin from the notes of the sailor Lopez and printed at Frankfort in 1598.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Picture in the House”
The Portuguese had begun their colonial empire in Africa in the 15th century, and the explorer Diogo Cão had made contact with the BaKongo people and explored the Congo River in 1482. After the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 restricted Portuguese colonial interests in the Americas, they focused more strongly on trade with and colonial possessions in Africa, as well as sending missionaries to spread Christianity. In the Congo River region, the Portuguese missions became embroiled in local politics, especially the independence movement of the Kingdom of Ndongo, which was a tributary state to the Kingdom of Kongo.
In 1571, the Portuguese led a third mission to the Congo region with the intent of conquering territory for a permanent colony. The Kingdom of the Kongo at this time was faced with not only the independent Kingdom of Ndongo, but raids from other peoples on the border referred to ambiguously as Jagas. The Portuguese established a permanent presence in what they now called Angola, establishing São Paulo de Loanda in 1575, and the Portuguese military force established alliances with both Ndongo and Kongo to assist them against the Jaga as the Portuguese established further forts, trading posts, and settlements with an emphasis on the slave trade for plantations in the Americas.
In 1578, a Portuguese tradesman named Duarte Lopez traveled to the new colony. He stayed there through 1584, which would have including the beginning of the First Portuguese-Ndongo War in 1579. Lopez became involved with local politics, and was made ambassador by the Kongo king Alvaro II, and returned to Europe with letters to Phillip II of Spain (at the time joined with Portugal) and Pope Alexander II. According to Filippo Pigafetta, it was in Rome that he met Duarte Lopez. Filippo Pigafetta’s uncle was Antonio Pigafetta, who had written Relazione del primo viaggio intorno al mondo (Report of the First Voyage Around the World). The Mgr. Antonio Migliore, the Bishop of St. Mark, charged Filippo Pigafetta with writing a similar report of the Congo, with Lopez supplying the necessary data. At this point, Lopez apparently returned to Angola, and no more is known of him.
Pigafetta translated Lopez’ account from Portuguese into Italian, expanded it to cover more of Africa, and in 1591 published it in Rome as Relatione del Reame di Congo et delle circonvicine contrade tratta dalli scritti & ragionamenti di Odoardo Lopez Portoghese. The book proved popular and was translated into many more languages. The German edition of 1597 included plates by the famous engravers Johann Theodor De Bry and his brother Johann Israel De Bry. Although the two never traveled beyond Europe, their engravings of the exploration of the Americas and Africa would become infamous—not the least because of their elaborate illustrations cannibalism and other practices which the European explorers claimed the indigenous peoples practiced.
The De Bry plates, from the German edition, was also reproduced in the 1598 Latin translation, which went under the title Regnum Congo: hoc est Vera descriptio regni Africani Quod Tam ab Incolis Quam Lusitanis Congus Appellatur… which is the supposed volume that Lovecraft placed in the ancient Massachusetts house. That image, minus the blackletter, is the eponymous “Picture in the House” that Lovecraft’s ancient cannibal and his guest would have seen.
The remaining three are not of the fantastic but of the realistically gruesome type—the last, which I finished day before yesterday, being rather unique. I am wondering what Loveman will think of it. The title is “The Picture in the House”, & it hinges on a very old engraving by the brothers DeBry—Plate XII of Pigafetta’s “Regnum Congo”, printed in Frankfort in 1598.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 14 Dec 1920, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner 201
Except, Lovecraft almost certainly never saw an actual copy of the Regnum Congo. His account in “The Picture in the House” contains several errors because he was not taking it directly from Pigafetta’s book in any translation. Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi in “Lovecraft and the Regnum Congo” (1984) traces the probable source of the weird taler’s data on the book to Thomas Henry Huxley’s Man’s Place in Nature and Other Anthropological Essays (1894). Huxley was “Darwin’s bulldog,” a strong proponent of evolution in the late 19th century—however, he was also a racialist whose essays provided some of the framework and language for Lovecraft’s statements on race in the 1920s and ’30s.
Huxley’s book does not contain a full reproduction of the de Bry plate XII, instead it includes a partial facsimile. So what Lovecraft would have seen, and what would have inspired “The Picture in the House” is this:
The Regnum Congo exists in rare territory similar to The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) by Margaret A. Murray: an authentic book which has become a part of the Mythos (“The Picture in the House” is the first story to mention Arkham). However, it’s also a case where the actual truth behind the eponymous picture has been almost lost behind several layers of translation and distortion. So it is important to break down not just how Lovecraft utilizes the Regnum Congo in this story, but how he got to that point.
What annoyed me was merely the persistent way in which the volume tended to fall open of itself at Plate XII, which represented in gruesome detail a butcher’s shop of the cannibal Anziques. […] The book fell open, almost of its own accord and as if from frequent consultation at this place, to the repellent twelfth plate shewing a butcher’s shop amongst the Anzique cannibals. My sense of restlessness returned, though I did not exhibit it. The especially bizarre thing was that the artist had made his Africans look like white men—the limbs and quarters hanging about the walls of the shop were ghastly, while the butcher with his axe was hideously incongruous. […] Thet feller bein’ chopped up gives me a tickle every time I look at ’im—I hev ta keep lookin’ at ’im—see whar the butcher cut off his feet? Thar’s his head on thet bench, with one arm side of it, an’ t’other arm’s on the graound side o’ the meat block.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Picture in the House”
They have shambles [slaughterhouses] for human flesh, as we have of animals, even eating the enemies they have killed in battle, and selling their slaves if they can get a good price for them; if not, they give them to the butcher, who cuts them in pieces, and then sells them to be roasted or boiled.
—Filippo Pigafetta, trans. Margarite Hutchinson,
in A Report of the Kingdom of the Congo (1881), 29
The infamous cannibal butcher shop is supposed to have belonged to the “Anziques” (the Anziku Kingdom, north of Kongo and Loango). Accounts of cannibalism in European travelogues in Africa, the Americas, and Polynesia are more often hearsay and imputation than not, and Lopez never claims to have seen these supposed butcher shops or slaughterhouses himself. Other accounts of cannibalism in the Regnum Congo involve the Jaga, who were also enemies of the Kongo, and likewise Lopez isn’t an eyewitness, but is depending on local accounts. Readers today might compare such tales of cannibalism to rumors of Germans making soap from human corpses during WWI; an exaggerated polemic against an enemy.
Jared Staller in Converging on Cannibals: Terrors of Slaving in Atlantic Africa, 1509–1670 points this out, and also that Pigafetta knew what he was doing: lurid accounts of cannibalism would shock and entice European readers, confirming implicit biases of “primitiveness” and brutality and the need to Christianize the indigenous peoples. The descriptions were already cliched by the 16th century, with the cannibals described as gluttonous for human flesh, the opposite of civilization. This kind of polemic toward indigenous peoples would survive for centuries, finding a home in the pulps in stories like Robert E. Howard’s “The Man-Eaters of Zamboula” (published as “Shadows in Zamboula,” Weird Tales Nov 1935), and even in mid-century cartoons where indigenous peoples put white explorers in great cooking pots.
So the indigenous peoples in the Regnum Congo were probably not cannibals. So why were they depicted as white?
And them men—them can’t be niggers—they dew beat all. Kinder like Injuns, I guess, even ef they be in Afriky. […] The especially bizarre thing was that the artist had made his Africans look like white men—the limbs and quarters hanging about the walls of the shop were ghastly, while the butcher with his axe was hideously incongruous. But my host seemed to relish the view as much as I disliked it.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Picture in the House”
Elmer Kolfin in “Tradition and innovation in Dutch ethnographic prints of Africans c. 1590-1670” notes the technical difficulties as well as artistic traditions of engraving indigenous Africans. Early woodcuts did not allow much depiction of skin coloration beyond some shading; in a flat, black-and-white medium, the difficulty of providing detail of the body when so much of the skin is dark would have been prohibitive (compare early depictions of the Drow in Dungeons & Dragons products). Relatione del reame di Congo was the first travel book with engravings of Africans; this involved 8 prints by Roman engraver Natale di Bonifazio. The de Bry brothers in their illustration for the German (and reused for the Latin) edition followed Bonifazio’s preference of anatomy over color, trying to capture the curly hair and using hatching to imply a darker skin tone.
So it isn’t so much that the Africans were depicted as white, as that skin color was not easy to depict with early print technologies and the artists focused on detail rather than color. Lovecraft would have likely been oblivious to the technical side of things, and there’s no evidence that he was familiar with early print efforts at depicting non-European skin tones. Even that bit of detail was lost when W. H. Wesley created his facsimile of a detail of Plate XII for Huxley’s Man’s Place In Nature, which grossly simplified the de Bry’s hatching and features.
Huxley takes Pigafetta’s account at face value; that and Wesley’s partial copy of a fragment of the de Bry’s work is all that Lovecraft had to go on. The Rengum Congo in “The Picture in the House” is as accurate as Lovecraft could make it given his limited and flawed information—although as Joshi notes, Lovecraft uses a little literary license in making the text a bit larger than it was in real life, and gave it metal fittings which wouldn’t have been standard. The acuteness of Lovecraft’s attention to detail can be seen in a reference to:
[“]Some o’ these here critters looks like monkeys, or half monkeys an’ half men, but I never heerd o’ nothing like this un.” Here he pointed to a fabulous creature of the artist, which one might describe as a sort of dragon with the head of an alligator.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Picture in the House”
Leslie Klinger in his The New Annotated Lovecraft notes that “Some strange creatures are depicted in the De Bry illustrations, but none that matches this description”—which he is wrong about; this creature, one of the strange animals described in Pigafitta’s text and mentioned by Huxley on page 3, is actually depicted on Plate XI, and can be seen on the middle-right.
So—”The Picture in the House” deals with an at least somewhat sensationalized account of Africa, transmitted from Portuguese to Italian, Italian to German, the etchings from the de Bry brothers taken from the textual descriptions, translated into Latin—and select parts of it quoted, summarized, and partially reproduced in a turn-of-the-century work of racialist essays. Any number of hands added their prejudices and biases to make the book that finally ended up in Lovecraft’s hands and so fired his imagination that in late 1920, he would sit down and write “The Picture in the House.”
What you say of the dark Saxon-Scandinavian heritage as a possible source of the atavistic impulses brought out by emotional repression, isolation, climatic rigour, and the nearness of the vast unknown forest with its coppery savages, is of vast interest to me; insomuch as I have often both said and written exactly the same thing! Have you seen my old story “The Picture in the House”? If not, I must send you a copy. The introductory paragraph virtually sums up the idea you advance.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 4 Oct 1930, A Means to Freedom 1.67
It is maybe a little odd to talk about how Lovecraft’s prejudices are expressed in the story, given that the only characters that appear are two white men, and even they recognize the Regnum Congo as something almost quaint and inaccurate in its depiction of indigenous Africans. Yet it is probably important that neither the nameless narrator or his rustic host ever question the validity of the book’s contents. Both white men are willing to accept the reality of Africans as cannibals, and between themselves, the older and less educated man shows no compunction about using the “n-word” (which is rare in Lovecraft’s published fiction).
The horror that the Regnum Congo gives rise to in “The Picture in the House” isn’t so much the cannibalism, which the bigoted white men accept as a matter of course—it’s the idea of white people committing cannibalism on members of their own race. The act which Pigafetta depicted so luridly as a contrast to “white” European civilization in the 16th century is the very same act that the rustic Yankee is implied to have degenerated to. So “The Picture in the House” is very similar in that respect to stories like “The Beast in the Cave,” “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family,” “The Lurking Fear,” and “The Rats in the Walls”—the atavistic horror that white people, for all their supposed superiority, can fall back into the same habits and qualities that centuries of prejudice had attributed to black Africans.
What makes this somewhat ironic is that such prejudices proliferated thanks in no small part due to books like the Regnum Congo itself. While it may have been obscure by 1920 when Lovecraft wrote the story, the Regnum Congo in many ways helped spread the libel that Africans were inferior, savage, and cannibalistic. Such depictions would influence pulp fiction tales like “The Picture in the House” and “Mother of Serpents” (1936) by Robert Bloch, general fiction like Black Magic (1929) by Paul Morand with its cannibalistic African cult, and still influences depictions of Africa and Africans today.
In the wider sense of the Cthulhu Mythos, “The Picture in the House” is an outlier. It is the start of Lovecraft’s “Arkham Cycle,” but otherwise contains no overt connections to the Mythos and no supernatural elements beyond the suggestion of cannibalism leading to unnatural longevity. As a story, it has been effective enough to get a couple of graphic adaptations, and the de Bry print of Plate XII (or other de Bry cannibalism depictions) are relatively popular as illustrations. The Regnum Congo isn’t a “Mythos tome” in the sense of the Necronomicon, or even as The Witch-Cult in Western Europe is sometimes taken to be. The strongest effort to tie it in to Lovecraft’s greater body of work is in Alan Moore & Jacen Burrow’s Providence, where the idea of cannibalism as a potential method of immortality is presented as a viable option in the Kitab Al-Hikmah Al-Najmiyya (“The Book of Starry Wisdom”).
Many versions of the Regnum Congo are now in the public domain and can be read for free online. The 1598 Latin edition with the de Bry plates may be found here, and the 1881 edition of the English translation may be found here.
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).