With Stanley on the Congo - M. Douglas

A New Scheme

One day in the month of January 1878 two gentlemen stood on the platform of the railway station at Marseilles, awaiting the arrival of the Italian express. They had been sent by Leopold the Second, King of the Belgians, to meet a man whose name at that time was ringing through Europe—Henry Morton Stanley, who, a few years previously, had "found" Livingstone in the wilds of Africa. Stanley was now homeward bound, after having crossed the African continent from east to west, and traced the great river Congo from Lake Tanganyika to the spot where it discharged its waters into the broad Atlantic. The tidings of the discovery of a great water-way to the very heart of Africa had already been noised abroad; and even before the pioneer of the route had set foot in Europe, busy brains had begun to plan ways and means to take advantage of the new field of enterprise thus laid open. First and foremost among the planners was Leopold of Belgium, who, determined to take time by the forelock, had dispatched his commissioners to meet Stanley, and bespeak his co-operation and help in the great scheme.

Travel-worn, weary, and broken in health as Stanley was, he could not brook the idea of returning to Africa. Advice he was willing to give, but to lead another expedition!—no, that was out of the question, at any rate for the time being. But a few months' rest so entirely changed his views of life that November of the same year found him at Brussels in conference with King Leopold and several influential gentlemen, who had come from various parts of Europe to consider the best means of opening up the Congo region. Questions fairly showered on Stanley, the only man in Europe who could answer them. How much of the Congo was navigable? What view of commercial enterprise might the chiefs on its banks be expected to take? What tribute would they be likely to demand from traders? What were the productions of the region? These and other queries were propounded in rapid succession, and though some were unanswerable offhand, the result of the conference was so far satisfactory that 20,000 towards the proposed enterprise was subscribed in the room. A "Committee of Study of the Upper Congo" was also formed; and Stanley, whose vigour and activity were completely re-established, was appointed leader and commander of the expedition which was to carry out the objects of the Committee. His duties were to include the establishment of trading-stations at various convenient points, and to lease or purchase a suitable tract of ground around each station, and also, if desirable, along the connecting trade routes.

The preliminary arrangements were rapidly concluded, and by the beginning of February 1879 Stanley was making his way to Zanzibar on board the steamer Albion, which had been chartered by the Committee for the purposes of the expedition. At Zanzibar he enlisted pagazis, or porters, and performed various duties whilst awaiting the arrival of another steamer, the Barza, with other members of the expedition, and a cargo of stores for their use. These miscellaneous occupations included sending letters of advice and instruction to sundry officers who, during the time that Stanley had spent in Equatorial Africa, had been sent to Unyanyembe and elsewhere to establish trading-stations, make scientific observations, study native languages and customs, as far as possible suppress the slave trade, and otherwise endeavour to open up the country and form friendly relations with the natives.

All this work occupied some time, but towards the end of May the Albion, with Stanley, his secretary Mr. Swinburne, his black companions—many of whom had been with him on his recent journey down the Congo—and an assortment of stores, sailed for the Congo, via the Red Sea and Mediterranean route. Some slight delay was occasioned on the way by an accident to part of the machinery, which compelled the Albion  to call at Sierra Leone; but the interruption was pleasant rather than otherwise, and on August 14th Stanley arrived at Banana Point, the Dutch trading-station at the mouth of the Congo.

The view from the sea as the steamer approached was not very inspiring. A long line of low, red cliffs rose from the shore to an expanse of sloping land thinly clothed with parched-up grass, varied here and there by clumps of trees. Farther to the south lay a forest area, bounded on the north and south by hill ridges; and through the centre of this flowed the mighty Congo to its resting-place in the blue Atlantic. By degrees, as the Albion  approached, the great river disclosed itself, dividing the forest into two sections, and stretching away for miles like a broad silver streak under the blaze of sunshine.

Then out came the pilot—a fine big fellow, who for years had lived on the low sand-spit known as Banana Point—and in another hour the Albion, her voyage at an end, lay snugly at anchor near the Dutch factory. Here she was speedily boarded by the officers of the expedition—five Belgians, two Englishmen, two Danes, an American, and a Frenchman —who had arrived some time before in the Barza.

For a time Stanley was fully occupied in greeting and comparing notes with his future companions; but his attention had soon to be turned to other matters, for the Barza  had brought a full cargo of stores, and these, as well as a small fleet of river steamers moored near the Dutch factory, awaited his inspection.

For seven days the expedition remained at Banana Point, enjoying the hospitality of the Dutch employees, who doubtless welcomed a little variety in their somewhat monotonous lives. They lived well, it is true; but to young fellows, as almost without exception they were, neither the daily round at the factory nor the natural features of Banana Point can have been very exciting. The point itself—a low, sandy promontory, protected against the inroads of sea and river by stakes, piles, and imported rocks—nowhere rose more than twelve feet above high water-mark, and apparently had been named in accordance with the rule of contrary, for not a single banana plant was visible. On the seaward side the Atlantic waves dashed restlessly against the firm white sand. Landward the view was bounded by the mudbanks and mangrove swamps of Banana Creek.

The factory itself, with its storehouses and numerous employees, white and black, was busy enough. There men-of-war and mail steamers called to coal; natives from all the country round came to barter their palm oil and other produce for gunpowder, cutlery, firearms, cast-off military coats, or the hundred and one other articles with which the traders sought to attract them; while Kruboys and other labourers noisily performed the multitude of miscellaneous duties incidental to the station.

Amid this scene of activity Stanley and his companions were not idle. First, there were a few minor difficulties to be adjusted among the officers, several of whom found ground of complaint: one demanding higher pay, a second higher rank, a third objecting to his messmates, a fourth aspiring to fame, honour, and the post of second in command; while almost everybody pressed claims for wine, board and lodging, tobacco, and clothing, free, gratis, and all for nothing. To all these complaints Stanley had to attend; and when they were satisfactorily settled, a new difficulty arose in the discovery of a number of imperfections among the steamers. Some merely required a few minor alterations; but one, the En Avant, a paddle-boat of six horse-power, performed extraordinary freaks, and drove her engineers to the verge of despair before one of them, an Italian named Flamini, discovered that her vagaries were due to slight defects in her machinery.

By August 27th the last preparations were completed, and on the morning of that day the fleet began the voyage up the tawny waters of the Congo. On either shore nature seemed to be asleep; the mudbanks, the mangrove swamps, the wooded shores, were alike silent. On the broad expanse of the great river the only sound that broke the stillness was the throbbing of the engines of the boats.

Four hours' steaming brought the expedition to Ponta da Lenha, or Wood Point—not a very distinctive title, seeing that almost every foot, both of banks and islands, was densely forested. Here there was another Dutch settlement; and as the vagaries of the En Avant had left her far behind the rest of the flotilla, Stanley decided to halt. In the morning the missing boat was still conspicuous by her absence; so, leaving her to follow at her leisure, the expedition pushed forward to Boma, the principal European trading-station on the Congo.

From Boma, where Stanley engaged the services of De-de-de, a chief who had befriended him on his last expedition, the Albion  steamed on to Mussako, four hours farther upstream. Here the landing-place proved so convenient that Stanley promptly decided to bring up all his stores, and form a temporary base. Orders were given to discharge the cargo; and while the work was in progress, Stanley, with Captain Thompson of the Albion, took the steam lifeboat Royal, and reconnoitred the river above Mussako. But, ignorant as they were of the proper course to steer, the current simply played with the boat, tossed her about like a cork, and finally drove her back ignominiously towards the camp. The disappointed navigators then decided to look for hippopotami, and Stanley showed Thompson one of the huge creatures calmly reposing in the water, with his head resting on the bank. Thompson, however, flatly refused to believe that the object pointed out to him had any connection with a hippo, and when no movement followed the discharge of an Express rifle, aimed point-blank at the ungainly object, he laughed Stanley to scorn for having, as he declared, "fired at a rock." But when he had landed and made personal inspection of the slaughtered hippo, he was forced to admit his error, and atone for various gibes by many compliments addressed to the amused and triumphant sportsman.

For about a fortnight all hands were kept busy in fetching, unloading, and safely bestowing the stores; but at length the not over-agreeable task was completed, and the Albion  started on her homeward voyage. So far not an hour's pioneering work had been done; but only one factory—at Nokkilay above Mussako, and beyond that point it was doubtful whether a steamer could ascend, as the rocky banks closed in upon the river, forming a comparatively narrow canon, through which the stream rushed like a mill race. One navigator indeed—Captain Tuckey, who in 1816 was detailed by the Admiralty to explore the Congo—safely negotiated the canon; but near Vivi, a little farther upstream, he lost his life in a whirlpool. Thence-forward the Congo above Nokki had been left severely alone, and to Stanley, therefore, remained the honour of opening up the navigation. By dint of hugging the southern bank, and watching every curve of the shore and swirl of the current, the steamers passed safely through the canon, and anchored at the mouth of the river Lufu, which bounded the rocky district of Vivi. Farther than this Stanley did not consider it prudent to ascend; and, moreover, his friend De-de-de assured him that there was an excellent site for a station in the immediate neighbourhood.

It was too late to make a detailed investigation that day, and notwithstanding De-de-de's assurances, Stanley felt considerable doubts as to the suitability of the spot for his purpose. Still, as there was certainly the possibility that what the chief said was correct, Stanley decided to make an inspection. Early on the following morning he accompanied De-de-de to a hill above the camp, whence the chief pointed out a safe channel up the rushing, tumultuous stream. As he further professed an entire acquaintance with the navigation, Stanley consented to let him pilot the steamer Esperance  up the channel, and within a few minutes the little boat was working her way up the Congo with dangers on either hand. To the right the water boiled, heaved, and raged in a series of whirlpools and rapids; while on the left a line of rocky islets threatened destruction to any unfortunate craft that the furious stream might hurl upon them. But perilous as it looked, the passage was safely accomplished, and the Esperance, leaving the rapids astern, reached a safe anchorage near a sandy beach, from which a precipitous cliff reared its rocky face to a level plateau three hundred feet above.

To the eastward the cliff was inaccessible, and on the landward side of the spur, which formed the plateau, the ground rose abruptly to a rocky eminence, whose castle-like summit promptly gained for it the title of Castle Hill. But on the westward the spur, though steep, was climbable, and it was on the natural fortress thus formed that De-de-de proposed to found the first station. To Stanley, however, the idea seemed almost absurd, for to his unaccustomed eyes the place looked like a wilderness of hills and rocks, fronted by a turbulent river, and backed by forests of unknown extent. Still he was willing to be taught, and having, at De-de-de's suggestion, fired the high grass, so as to clear the way to the plateau, he sat down to breakfast.

By the time the meal was finished the flames had done their work, and, guided by the chief, he climbed the toilsome ascent to the plateau. To the eastward lay another and larger plateau, while inland the Castle Hill towered at least six hundred feet above him. Altogether the spot was not by any means all that Stanley's fancy had painted for the site of his first and main station.

"To be, or not to be?" And while he was turning over the pros and cons a party of natives from the village called Chinsalla, which occupied a fertile hollow on the larger plateau, came to see the white man who had suddenly appeared in their district. They were manifestly friendly, and their amiability, combined with the obvious healthiness and defensibility of the plateau, turned Stanley's decision in its favour—provided, of course, that easy access both from the sea and the interior could be assured. As these points could only be ascertained by careful investigation, after visiting Chinsalla and sending messengers to summon the five chiefs of Vivi district to a palaver that evening, Stanley proceeded to survey the plateau, and take careful soundings in the river. These investigations kept him fully occupied for several hours; but the results were satisfactory, and about four o'clock in the afternoon he returned to his camp to meet the chiefs and open negotiations with them.

At the appointed hour they made their appearance, attired in a curious mixture of native and European clothing. Two wore cast-off military tunics, a third was gorgeous in a discarded livery coat, while the others were more soberly clad—one in a brown and one in a black coat. All wore native loin-cloths instead of trousers, and the majority were decorated with anklets and bracelets of brass wire. Their followers, who were armed with "Tower" flint-lock muskets, were dressed in native style, with striped cotton caps or felt or straw hats, according as their fancy dictated.

When all were seated the palaver was opened by Massala, the linguist or spokesman of Chinsalla, who, in the name of all the chiefs, formally welcomed the mundele, or trader—a term applied in that locality to all whites—to Vivi. Stanley returned thanks, and then proceeded to explain his wants—namely, land on which to build a station, and the right to make roads on which all men, white and black, might go to and fro unmolested. He further suggested that the chiefs should retire to talk over his proposition, and return on the following day with their answer. To this they agreed, and having begged a bottle of gin apiece, retired with De-de-de to consider the matter.

On the following day, when the palaver was resumed, Massala informed Stanley that they were willing to grant any unoccupied land that the mundele  might select for his station; he might build as many houses and make as many roads as he pleased; he should be the sole mundele  of Vivi, and without his permission no other white man should be permitted to set foot in the district. The people of Vivi should have full permission to work for him in any capacity. Immunity from molestation was guaranteed to all and sundry of his employees; and in the event of any disagreement between the strangers and the people of Vivi, the chiefs promised that the complaint should be laid before the mundele. For all these concessions some equivalent was, of course, expected, and after a considerable time spent in bargaining, Stanley agreed to pay a monthly rent of 2—or, rather, of cloth to that value—and also a cash-down sum of 32 worth of cloth. The price was rather high as values went, but as no better terms could be obtained an agreement was forthwith drawn up and signed by all the parties concerned.