With Stanley on the Congo - M. Douglas

Discovery of Lake Leopold

The long-expected officer at length made his appearance, and on April 19th Stanley, with Lieutenant Janssen, Albert Christopherson, another European, and about fifty coloured men, including Stanley's old companions, Uledi and Susi, embarked in the En Avant, the whaleboat, and two canoes, to seek a convenient site for another station. It was the first time a steamer had ever plied on the waters of Stanley Pool; and for a time the little craft, with the two canoes in tow, hugged the southern shore. So strong was the current that it was all she could do to hold her own; but yard by yard she crept along, until, on reaching the village of Kinshassa, she cast off the tow rope, and leaving the canoes, struck boldly across the channel to Bamu Island in the centre of the Pool. The island was a long, low-lying piece of ground, the greater part of which showed unmistakable signs of being flooded whenever the stream was high; but it was well covered with grass and timber, and appeared to be the home of numerous wild animals, especially hippos, to whose amphibious nature the place was, no doubt, specially suited.

After skirting the shore of the island for some hours, a camping-place was found, and the crews landed for the night. A supply of wood for fuel was cut; but shortly after midnight a heavy storm came down, and so soaked the wood that in the morning, though the rain had cleared off, it was no easy matter to get up steam. When this was at last accomplished, the En Avant, once more taking the boats in tow, proceeded on her way up the Pool. Many were the miseries of the voyage, for the steamer was filled to overflowing with boxes and bales, and on these the pioneers had to crouch, exposed to the terrific heat of the sun, while the neighbourhood of the boiler added greatly to their suffering. But slow as the progress was, at last the end of the Pool was reached, and the boats emerged into the upper reaches of the Congo. Unfortunately, by this time a sense of physical discomfort had mastered most other feelings, and no one had thoughts to spare for the magnificent scenery of the great river, though Stanley, who had travelled in many countries, and seen some of the most celebrated rivers of the world, was afterwards fain to confess that none of them approached the glory of the Congo. At the time, however, cramped, half broiled, and wholly uncomfortable, he had no eyes for scenery, and was unfeignedly glad when, on April 26th, the boats were anchored at Mswata, a village on the south bank of the stream. The position seemed favourable for a station, and an invitation to land was willingly accepted.

The chief, a stout and very ordinary-looking personage, named Gobila, made no secret of his real position. He was no territorial ruler, but a well-to-do ivory trader, who, by permission of Gandelay, chief of the Banfunu tribe, had built a village as a centre for his trading operations. He made no pretence of being a chief in his own right, with power over the land, and when Stanley asked him to grant a site for a station he frankly said that he had no power to do so.

News of the arrival of the white men speedily reached Gandelay, and he came in state, with three canoes, a band of drums, horns, and bells, several attendants to brush off the flies, a hammock in which he was carried, and other paraphernalia, to greet the new arrivals, to whom he presented the usual gifts. Gobila then introduced the subject on which he desired to have Gandelay's opinion. Bula Matari, he said, wished to found a settlement in the neighbourhood, and he was willing to have the white man for a neighbour. But being there himself only, so to speak, on sufferance, as a trader, he had no right to make a grant of land, though, so far as his power went, he was willing to offer a choice of sites near his own village, if Gandelay would authorize him to do so.

No sooner had he finished speaking than Ganchu, the Bateke chief who owned the land on the farther bank, declared his willingness—nay, more, his desire—that the white man should settle in the country. If Gandelay would not have him, he had only to cross the river to find a warm welcome, and all the land he wanted, as well as plenty of trade. Then it was Gandelay's turn to speak. He was, he said, supreme chief of all that region, but the land in that particular locality he had given to Gobila. He might do as he would, and if he accepted the white man the Banfunu would do likewise, and Bula Matari should be the brother of Gandelay.

Nothing could have been more satisfactory, and when a site had been selected, Lieutenant Janssen, who was to take charge of the new station, was told off to superintend its erection. Stanley meanwhile paid a flying visit to Leopoldville, where he received an enthusiastic welcome. He had, however, no time to linger, and on May 14th was back at Mswata. Here matters were progressing in a most satisfactory way, and Lieutenant Janssen had established himself in Gobila's good graces. There was no need for Stanley to remain at Mswata; but as, until more Europeans came up, he could not go farther afield, he determined to use the time of waiting in exploring the Kwa River.

This stream, he learned, was formed by the union of two rivers—one, the Mbihi, of white water; the other, called the Mfini, a black stream. The Mbihi, if accounts were to be believed, was altogether a most remarkable river; for it was said to be subject to some sort of explosions, during which the water suddenly rose up in fury, raged for a while, and then abruptly sank to its normal calmness. The black Mfini, on the other hand, was a broad river, navigable from its mouth to a point many miles distant, where, according to the natives, the two banks curved round and met—a phenomenon which Stanley supposed to be really a sudd, or barrier of tangled water-plants, such as obstructs some parts of the Nile.

The proposed trip was expected to occupy about nine days, so provisions and trade goods sufficient for that period were placed on board the En Avant;  and Stanley, with Christopherson, who acted as engineer, a coloured crew, and a couple of native guides, set out. Less than four hours' steaming brought them to the mouth of the Kwa, which proved to be a broad, rapid, winding stream, considerably darker in colour than the Congo. Two or three uninviting-looking villages were passed, and it was not until after sunset that a suitable camping-place was found, near a village ruled by one of Gobila's brothers. The place had rather a poverty-stricken air, but a kindly welcome was accorded to the travellers; and in the morning, while the crew turned out to cut firewood, Stanley was taken by one of the guides to see the fields of cassava, sugar-cane, and ground-nuts. These productions he was allowed to sample to his heart's content, and was permitted, further, to take back a supply to Christopherson, who was engaged in getting up steam. Soon all were once more on board, and the little steamer puffed noisily off towards Musye, where Gankabi, a rather celebrated person in those parts, was queen.

The next afternoon Musye was reached. It was a large, straggling, and eminently prosperous-looking place, with a capital position for trade, as it faced the confluence of the Mfini and the Mbihi, and had, of course, convenient access to the Congo. Crowds of people turned out to gaze at the wonderful boat which, of its own power, could travel upstream, and to welcome the scarcely less wonderful white-faced visitors. Gankabi, however, was not at home, and her subjects did not know when she would return. In her absence no one ventured to invite the travellers to land ; and even Eela, the wife of a trader, who had made acquaintance with Stanley at Mfwa, where she had been extremely friendly, now declined to have anything to do with him. There was no choice but to go ahead, and the En Avant, with her attendant boats, pushed on to a conveniently situated island some miles farther up the Mfini. Here the explorers camped, but soon discovered that they had not by any means chosen an ideal resting-place, for scarcely had they settled down when they were attacked by swarms of mosquitoes. Out from the tall grass they came in clouds; and though a circle of fires was lighted, in the hope that the smoke would be some protection, not one whit did the insects care, and the hapless crew passed a miserable night.

In the morning came the usual search for firewood—a rare article in that locality, where spear grass was the principal product. This grass had its uses, for an inferior kind of salt largely used by the natives was obtained from its ashes.

About an hour after the boats got under way two large canoes were seen approaching, and seated in one of them was a fine-looking woman, whom the guides soon recognized as Gankabi. Both parties came to a standstill, and Gankabi, in the style of one accustomed to obedience, commanded Stanley to go back with her. This he politely declined to do; and when she insisted, he pointed out that, great as Gankabi might be, he was Bula Matari, the man who broke rocks and rose superior to all difficulties.

Of course the inference intended was that he was the greater of the two; but Gankabi failed to see the force of the argument. Finally a compromise was effected by Stanley consenting to accompany her to a neighbouring village, where she obtained for him a goat and some bananas. At this place she wished him to wait, while she went up to another large settlement, called Ngete; but fearing complications, and having no mind for further argument, after waiting for a little time, he decided to go on his way. On approaching Ngete a full head of steam was got up, and the boat dashed past in fine style; while Gankabi, standing on the bank, helplessly watched the white man's disregard of orders.

Several villages were passed, and on May 26th the boat came to a point where two streams met. Stanley decided to pursue his course up the right-hand stream—the broader of the two—and he soon became aware that the current was less strong than before. Then the channel widened out, and he grew more and more convinced that he was approaching a lake, of whose existence hitherto not so much as a rumour had reached Europe. The water was very dark in colour, and at that point was covered with sulphur-coloured dust, which, in the rays of the westering sun, glittered like cloth of gold. It was, however, time to think of halting for the night, and the camp was pitched on a smooth pebbly beach, backed by a line of dark impenetrable-looking forest. Here plenty of good hard firewood was obtainable, and the remaining daylight was spent in laying in a stock for use on the following day.

In the morning the En Avant  steamed merrily forward into what soon proved to be a new lake of considerable size, since to the eastward, far as the eye could reach, nothing but water was visible. This was a discovery well worth making; and, fired with new zeal, Stanley pushed rapidly ahead, regardless of the fact that the contemplated nine days were already ended, and that provisions were rapidly lessening.

The day passed without incident. No sign of human life was seen, and the explorers began to think that, save for the birds and beasts, they had the lake to themselves. On the following morning, however, on rounding a point they came suddenly on a small fleet of fishing canoes, and saw in the distance the village to which the boats doubtless belonged. At first the fishermen were too much absorbed to notice the approach of the strange, snorting object which was so rapidly bearing down upon them; but when at last they perceived it, their horror was extreme. What on earth could it be? For a few moments they gazed in silent wonderment, and then it occurred to one of them to seek safety in flight. As his paddles struck the water, the others recovered from their first alarm, and soon all but one were rapidly skimming off in the direction of home. He, poor fellow, was much farther from land, and so far had remained unconscious of the new and unheard-of terror that had invaded his peaceful waters.

Suddenly he turned round, and catching sight of the boat with sail spread and paddles revolving, he sank down in his canoe in abject fear. Then, as the steamer approached, he pulled himself together, cast a despairing glance around, and began to paddle for dear life, dodging skillfully as the steamer pursued him. In this way he gained a little time; but by degrees the En Avant  overhauled the canoe, and realizing that he could not escape by paddling, as a last resource he sprang overboard and disappeared from view.

Slowly the steamer moved towards the empty canoe, and at a word from Stanley, Dualla and Uledi held themselves ready to jump overboard and catch the frightened fisherman. As the object of his fears approached he dived in terror; but the Zanzibaris were too quick for him. Over they went, and in a few moments swam back with their captive, who was quickly taken on board, where the two guides spoke soothingly to him in the hope of gaining his confidence. At first no answer was forthcoming, and then it appeared that the poor fellow thought his captors intended to make a slave of him. He could or would give no information; and it was not until he had been laden with gifts and allowed to paddle off, that he realized that no evil was intended, and that he was a rich man, free to do what he would.

By May 31st, Lake Leopold II., as Stanley named his new discovery, had been successfully circumnavigated and explored. It covered a considerable area, probably as much as eight hundred square miles; but it was everywhere shallow, though, in addition to a large tributary which entered its northern end, it was fed by numerous small streams. From a few words spoken by the captured fisherman, it appeared that slave hunters had been busy in the locality; and this doubtless accounted for the extreme shyness of the natives, none of whom would so much as approach the explorers, though the guides said that they did a large trade with Gankabi in rubber, fish, redwood, ivory, and powder. The immediate result of their shyness was that no supplies had been obtainable, and consequently, as the provisions on board were exhausted, by the time the boats reached Gankabi's village the crews were in a ravenous condition; while, to make matters worse, Stanley found himself in the grip of a severe attack of fever. Three days' halt did not benefit him. He grew worse rather than better, and was compelled to resign the command to Christopherson, who safely navigated the boat to Leopoldville.

For nearly three weeks Stanley remained in a semi-conscious state, varied by occasional intervals during which he was able to think clearly. In one of these it occurred to him that the three years for which some of the Zanzibaris had been engaged were at an end; they had a right to their discharge, and he gave directions that they should convey him as far as Vivi on their way to the coast. Of the events of the journey he had little knowledge, for it was not until Mpakambendi was reached that he permanently regained anything like full consciousness. He was still very ill; indeed, fresh disorders manifested themselves, and he was heartily glad of a few days' rest at Isangila, where Mr. Swinburne had contrived to impart quite a homelike aspect to his surroundings.

At Vivi, where the party arrived on July 8th, less progress had been made. The garden, indeed, had prospered finely, but the bridges and roads were out of repair, and only one magazine had been added to the original structures. It was disappointing; but a surprise awaited Stanley, which in some degree turned his thoughts from vexatious subjects.

Among the Europeans who came out to greet him was Dr. Peschuel Loeche, who had done good service as an explorer in West Africa, and who, as Stanley had been informed some months previously, had been entrusted by the Committee with some important work in the Loango district. What was Stanley's surprise, then, when a man whom he had fully believed to be far away in the interior welcomed him at Vivi. Weak, ill, and unfit for work as he was, it was a great relief to his mind when Loeche showed him a sealed commission from the President of the Congo Association, by which, in the event of Stanley's becoming incapacitated by illness or accident, the doctor was empowered to act for him.

A holiday was the very thing he needed, and when the time-expired Zanzibaris had been started on their homeward voyage under the charge of Christopherson, whose service was also at an end, Stanley set out for Europe.

On the way several delays occurred, and it was not until October that he appeared before the Committee of the Congo International Association, into which the "Committee of Study "had expanded, to report progress. More had been done than had originally been planned: five stations had been founded instead of the three contemplated; a steamer and a sailing boat instead of a single steamer had been launched on the Upper Congo; while roads and bridges, about which no special stipulations were made, had been constructed. Further, the natives along the route were all amiably disposed and quite ready to trade. Altogether, the Committee had good reason to be satisfied; but if the work already accomplished was to bear permanent fruit, much still remained to be done. Of this fact the members expressed themselves as thoroughly convinced, and if only Stanley would continue at the head of affairs they were quite prepared to go forward. To this, in his broken health, he was disposed to demur, but he finally consented to return to Africa on condition that the Committee provided him with an efficient second in command, who should take charge on the Lower Congo while he was engaged on the Upper Congo. To this very reasonable request ready consent was given, and when Stanley suggested General Gordon as a suitable man King Leopold promised to endeavour to obtain his services. On this understanding Stanley agreed to limit his holiday to six weeks, and then to resume work on the Congo, where the territory acquired by purchase and treaty was rapidly assuming the dimensions of a state.