The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man. — G. K. Chesterton

With Stanley on the Congo - M. Douglas




The First Station

To obtain the concession was one thing, to found the station was another; and when Stanley inspected his chosen site, he was forced to confess to himself that the difficulties in his way were legion. The first thing necessary was to construct a road from the landing-place to the plateau, and as this could not be done without men, tools, provisions, and materials, the steamer Esperance  was kept busy for some days in bringing men and stores from Mussako.

Early on October 1st the road was begun, and the chiefs of Vivi, with their people, turned out in force to watch the operations. As they stood gazing in open-eyed wonder an idea occurred to Stanley: there was much to be done, and he had but a hundred men—why should not the people of Vivi lend a hand, instead of standing idly watching?

Approaching the chiefs he introduced the subject, making judicious reference to the bales of cloth, bright-coloured handkerchiefs, beads, and ornaments in his stores at the landing-place. Would they not like to possess them? If so, let them set to work to clear the plateau; and then at night, when the wages earned during the day were paid, a jar of good rum—a luxury much appreciated on the Congo—should be thrown into the bargain.

To work for wages! The idea was a new and delightful one, at first hardly credible to men who among their own people had never been paid for their labour. It seemed too good to be true; but when, after much consideration and discussion, they ventured to believe it, they wasted less time than usual in bargaining, and soon sixty-five men, women, and children were busily at work clearing the plateau of stones and scrub. So far Stanley was the only European at Vivi, for the others were all engaged elsewhere with the stores and boats; he had therefore to supervise everything himself. But work went on merrily, and such good progress was made that by October 13th, though the road was not yet fit for wheeled traffic, goods could be carried up to the plateau. About this time, too, the European staff began to arrive, and the work of bringing up the stores and materials was pushed forward with renewed energy. No sooner was a cargo unloaded at the landing-place than gangs of men shouldered the goods, and thus, section by section, frame-houses, iron-work, and other necessaries were laboriously transported to the plateau, where the industrious natives had made a clean sweep of rocks, scrub, and rubbish. A few boulders too large to be handled still remained, and Stanley disposed of these by setting a gang to work with crowbars and hammers, to smash the rocks and hurl the fragments down the hill. His own prowess with the sledge-hammer, as he instructed the men in the use of that somewhat unwieldy implement, so greatly impressed the natives that, with the African love of bestowing nicknames, they forthwith dubbed him Bula Matari—that is, Breaker of Rocks.

A plan for the new settlement had been drawn out, and in accordance with this the carpenter and his crew proceeded to erect a series of wooden huts, while one of the engineers superintended the construction of iron storehouses. Other men were set to work to excavate a shallow hollow in the centre of the plateau, the dry, sun-baked earth they removed being used to level up inequalities, especially at the river end of the plateau, which was so rough and rocky that the only way of dealing with it was to build a low wall at the edge of the plateau, and fill up the space behind it with stones and rubbish. A force of Vivi natives meanwhile was detailed to carry up rich black soil from the fertile Nkusu valley, bounding the eastern side of the plateau. This soil was dumped in the central excavation, and thus, after about three weeks' work, a garden plot was made ready for the reception of sundry fruit trees and vegetable seeds brought by Stanley for the purpose. Aided by careful watering, these flourished amazingly, and speedily justified the trouble expended on them.

A residence for the chief of the station still had to be provided. As the site for this Stanley selected the terrace at the river end of the plateau, and here he built a substantial two-storied house, using for the purpose some big balks of timber originally destined for the construction of a dry dock.

By the middle of February 1880, matters were so far advanced that Stanley handed over the care of the station to its future chief, Mr. Augustus Sparhawk, associated with whom were Messrs. J. Kirkbright, assistant-in-chief; A. H. Moore, storekeeper; A. B. Swinburne, secretary; and F. Mahoney, whose duties were not at first defined. Three steamers the Belgique, Esperance, and En Avant—were also attached to the station, with about two hundred African natives to act as porters, labourers, etc.

Above Vivi the course of the Congo was so broken by rapids and cataracts that for several miles it was totally unnavigable. To Isangila, a fairly populous district, fifty-two miles distant upstream, where Stanley proposed to found his next station, it was therefore necessary that a wagon road should be constructed. But the country between the two places was only less difficult than the river: the construction of a road threatened to be a terrible task; and on February 21st, Stanley, with an escort of natives, set out to search for a route which did not offer insurmountable obstacles.

Go where he would, however, he first must descend the steep slope from the station plateau. The most promising route lay across the larger plateau to the eastward; so, crossing the fertile Nkusu ravine, the party climbed the steep ascent on the farther side, and after passing through the village of Chinsalla, ascended to the summit of Vivi Mountain, a thousand feet above the station. Here was another village, with well-tilled gardens; but beyond this the path—only a foot or so in width—plunged suddenly into a dense thicket of tall grass rising high above the men's heads, and after meandering for some distance along the crest, made a steep descent to another group of villages, or, as the natives called them, banzas.

Leaving the villages the explorers passed along the pleasant valley of the Loa River, and then descended five hundred feet to a fertile plateau, which, however, soon terminated abruptly in another ravine, where they camped for the night at a village called Banza Kimpunzu, pleasantly situated in the grass-clad Muzonzila gorge. In the morning, after ascending the farther side of the gorge, they found themselves on a breezy, banza-studded plateau, around which it appeared the Muzonzila gorge wound its way, for later in the day they descended to De-de-de's village, nestling deep down in the serpentine ravine. Here it was necessary to halt, for news of Stanley's approach had already been noised abroad, and from all the villages around the chiefs had sent messengers to inform him that they purposed visiting him. This was equal to an announcement that every chief would expect a present, so, before the expected visitors appeared, stores were overhauled and suitable gifts prepared. When road-making was begun in earnest, the co-operation of all these chiefs would be required; it was therefore only politic to gain their good-will beforehand.

Soon they began to arrive with their followers and their gifts—chiefly goats, fowls, bananas, and palm wine; and when these had been presented to the white man, and greetings had been exchanged, the business of the meeting began. Stanley opened the proceedings by explaining the reason of his presence among them, and in a somewhat lengthy speech told them of his desire to carry a wagon road through their territory, and detailed the various concessions he wished to obtain from them. When he had finished his audience retired to consider the matter, and after a long deliberation returned with their answer. They were of opinion that the proposed road would be an advantage to the country, and were perfectly willing to sell land and allow their people to work for fair wages.

On the day after the palaver, Stanley, again advancing, entered the district through which he and his party, half-famished, weary, and almost hopeless, had struggled so painfully three years before on their journey down the Congo. Then all had looked gloomy and forbidding; but now, in happier circumstances, the very face of nature seemed changed.

True, the country was wild and rugged—by no means what a prospective road-maker might picture as an ideal route. But stay, was it necessary to follow the native path over mountain ridges, up and down gorges, and across the intervening plateaus? Stanley thought not, and as he advanced farther, and made more and more careful investigation of the lie of the ground, he came to the conclusion that much labour might be saved by ascending the valleys of the Lufu and Loa Rivers to the Muzonzila gorge, and then following its windings through the plateaus. But in the meantime he confined himself to the uphill and down-dale native path, which, after leading him over the rugged Inga plateau, in whose forests and gullies all manner of wild animals made their homes, brought him to the valley of the Bundi River. Thence, after crossing the stream—by no means an easy task, as at that point it flowed through a deep rocky gorge—he pushed on through a series of valleys to the Congo bank, where he halted on a water-plain rising about forty feet above the level of the water.

Having seen his party safely encamped, Stanley, with a few picked men, set out to explore the Congo bank down to the mouth of the Bundi River, some eighteen miles below the plateau. This took him through a considerable tract of uninhabited country, where buffaloes, elephants, and other wild animals browsed undisturbed by man. Another interesting discovery was that of a valley running parallel with the Congo, and evidently in former days the bed of that river, though how or why the course had changed was not immediately apparent. In fact, the scene continually varied. Monotonous the work certainly was not, but it was fatiguing in the extreme; and towards sunset, after a hard struggle to force a path through a dense thicket of cane, the explorers began to look for a pool or stream where they might camp for the night.

Neither pool nor stream, however, was visible. The apology for a path which they had been following now utterly disappeared; black darkness set in, and man after man exhausted himself in vain endeavours to find or make a road through the thicket. When many had failed, Mabruki, one of the lads who had accompanied Stanley on his previous journey down the Congo, tried his luck, declaring that, though others had failed, he would certainly succeed. The canes, however, still proved as stubborn as ever: again and again he assaulted them, only to retire discomfited among the jeers of his companions; and his temper was rapidly rising when, after an extra vigorous onslaught, he burst through the cane barrier and disappeared from view.

His comrades, instantly sobered, shouted to him; and then back came his voice from a deep narrow gully into which he had fallen. There was water, he said, at the bottom; but his joy at finding it was considerably dashed by the fact that in falling he had broken the gourd which served him as water bottle. The announcement of his woes once more raised a laugh at his expense; and when he had been pulled out of the water-course, the explorers, with restored good temper, pitched their camp and prepared supper.

On the morrow Stanley rejoined his men, and the expedition continued its toilsome way across the rugged, mountainous country to Isangila, memorable to Stanley as the scene of the camp where, in 1877, he had been compelled to abandon his boats and his donkey. On that occasion the chiefs of the district had not been remarkable for amiability; Stanley consequently did not expect a very friendly reception. But now all was changed. With a store of gifts for the white man, who, as rumour had it, had already worked such wonders at Vivi, they came thronging in to hold a palaver, which ended as usual in the concession of land for a "town," and of all else that Stanley required.

So far he had every reason to be satisfied with his discoveries. The country, it is true, was very rugged and broken; but by a judicious selection of valleys and gorges it would, he saw, be quite feasible at some future time to construct a railway from Vivi to Isangila. Numerous tunnels, cuttings, and bridges would, of course, have to be engineered. But a railway was then scarcely more than a vision, and in the meantime he had to think of a wagon road along which the boats and steamers intended to ply on the Upper Congo might be hauled past the rapids and cataracts that barred the stream between Vivi and Isangila. With a hundred and thirty men, the total force at his disposal, the task would be laborious enough; but the difficulties appeared to be only such as patience and perseverance could conquer, and on March 10th the reconnoitring party went back to Vivi to prepare for the heavy work awaiting them.