Story of H. M. Stanley - Vautier Golding

Down the Rapids to the Sea

The river now ran down a gorge with hills on either side for more than 150 miles. Often the gorge widened into a valley, whose steep slopes were covered with grass, fern, brushwood, and timber; and here were long smooth reaches, broken now and then by swift but passable rapids. But sometimes the hills closed in and cramped the broad stream into a narrow cataract. Here the raging waters chafed and fumed between sheer crags, or fought with deafening fury against the jutting bedrock and the giant boulders that lay piled in hundreds beneath the cliffs.

There were also many falls. Some dropped from terrace to terrace, or plunged into a seething pool. Others shot sloping downward into a mighty basin, where ridge after ridge of white-plumed waves lay across the breast of the current, on either side of which were great whirlpools ready to suck down all that drifted into their swirling hollows.

The explorers spent four weary months in passing this part of the river; and had the natives been hostile, they never could have succeeded. They were able to shoot many of the rapids in their canoes, though very skilful handling was needed to clear the rocks and eddies and to make a safe landing when the river became dangerous. It was risky work, and many canoes were lost, sometimes through accident, sometimes because the men grew too confident and became rash. Once, against Stanley's orders, a canoe went down the middle of a furious stream; and two others, thinking by this example that all was safe, followed in her wake. All three canoes and nine men were swept over a fall and never seen again.

At some of the more difficult places the canoes were steadied from the shore by ropes of twisted cane. This was very anxious toil, for the rocks and boulders gave slippery foothold and the rope often broke. Stanley and six men were one day in the Lady Alice, taking her in this way down a rapid, which afterwards became a cataract and shot over a low fall into a large pool. Suddenly the stern rope broke, and the boat swung broadside to the current. This sudden strain tore the middle ropes from the hands on shore and jerked a man out of the boat. While Stanley was hauling him on board the bow rope parted, and the Lady Alice  was adrift on the racing stream.

It was well for the boat and her crew that Uledi was in her, for truly he was the hero of that fatal river. Not only had he saved many a canoe-load by his skill as a steersman, but more than a dozen times he had plunged in to bring drowning men safe ashore. Stanley had barely time to shout for him to take the tiller before the boat was darting down the cataract, where, in the din and strife of clashing waters, no human voice could possibly be heard. Their only hope, and that a feeble one, was to keep her end-ways in the smoother flood and clear the wild hazards in their course as best they could. The dark cliffs, rising 300 feet to the sky-line, seemed to spring out of the distance and slip behind them; while the massive boulders, piled along the edges of the cataract, were gliding past like a march of phantoms.

Here the boat narrowly missed a rocky islet wreathed in breakers and veiled in spray; there she just escaped the angry pucker and double tail of surf that fringed the eddy below a sunken reef. Then all in a moment she ran up the side of a rounded hump of water; but, ere she was well down the opposite slope, the hump settled into a hollow and the water began to wheel round—they were over a whirlpool.

Bending the oars with desperate strength, they managed to hold their own, though for a while the stern hung over a deep pit of swirling waters with a dark vortex-hole in the middle. In a few seconds the giant throat of the whirlpool began to refill with a horrible choking gurgle, till the hump once more replaced the hollow, and then the boat flew forward on her course.

At the neck of the cataract nearing the fall she went out of control and slewed round and round several times. Then, coming again under Uledi's guidance, she darted like an arrow down the centre of the slope, over wave after wave into the basin on an even keel. Here Uledi shot her off the tail of the downward flood into the return current of a vast eddy, which swept her near a strip of sand, where with a few good strokes she was grounded in safety.

Her crew jumped ashore and looked at each other, wondering how and why they happened to be alive. In about fifteen minutes they had come more than three miles, and Uledi's aching muscles knew best who had done most to save them. It took four days to bring the other vessels to the same spot. The holes between the boulders were filled with brushwood, and over this the canoes were dragged along beneath the cliff.

In this way they worked down the river bit by bit, but at the Inkissi Falls they found that the cliffs rose straight out of the water, with hills above them to the height of 1200 feet. There was no way by the river, so Stanley said he would go over the mountain. On hearing this the natives spread the report that he could make his canoes fly, and they shut up their pigs, goats, and fowls, lest the "white man's magic" should harm them. Two or three of the lighter canoes were soon drawn up the hill without any evil "magic" befalling their animals. Then about six hundred natives joined in the work, and soon all the canoes were again in the river below the Inkissi Falls. These natives had British crockery and other wares in their huts, and from this point onwards they were not at all eager to take Stanley's cloth and beads in payment for food. In this way food again became scarce, and hunger was added to the hardships of the rapids. Besides all this, nine canoes had already been lost, and Stanley was forced to halt while he made some more. Thus in two months he had scarcely passed through eighty miles of the gorge.

The next great trouble came where a long and wild rapid rushed over the Massassa Falls into a stormy basin. Stanley had gone forward with the baggage to choose a camp and make friends with the natives. Before starting he told Uledi to take nine men in a big canoe, called the Jason, and to pioneer the rapid as far as he thought safe. Just as the canoe was pushing off, Pocock decided to go in her, though he really ought to have stayed with the rest of the fleet. Uledi took the Jason halfway down the rapid and then put into a creek, beyond which both he and Manwa Sera said it was madness to venture. Pocock, however, thought he saw a safe way, and he hastily called Uledi a coward. "See," answered Uledi indignantly, holding up his hands, "all my fingers will not count the number of lives I have saved on this river." But Pocock had his own way, and Uledi at length asked his crew if they were ready to die in the river. "Our fate is in the hands of God," they answered, taking their places in the canoe. "Bismillah, in the name of God," said Uledi as the Jason shot out of the creek.

Sir H.M. Stanley


In a few moments poor Pocock saw that they must be swept over the fall; and, in bitter regret, he felt he could never forgive himself for his headstrong mistake. But there was no going back, and Uledi once more set himself to do all that remained to be done. If he could shoot the canoe end-ways into the basin, there was still just a chance of life. With his wonderful skill he steered her past all dangers and headed her straight for the middle of the fall. True as an arrow she shot into the pool and darted forward; but a wave leapt up and tossed her aside into a whirlpool as though she were a twig. Then, after coursing a few times round and round the deepening hollow, she tilted on end and was sucked down into the whirling vortex.

In a few seconds the whirlpool refilled, and the Jason shot keel uppermost to the surface. The men swarmed from beneath her like otters and scrambled astride of her keel; but Uledi could only count eight of her crew, and Pocock was gone. While they were struggling to right the canoe, a second whirlpool refilled and threw up the missing white man. In a moment Uledi sprang from the canoe and dashed through the water to aid him; but, before he could reach the spot, the whirlpool began again. Uledi might well have turned back; yet still the noble fellow swam on, and plunged over the edge and into the dreadful hollow to do his best and die if need be. It was all in vain, for Pocock was drawn down the vortex and Uledi followed him.

When next the whirlpool refilled, Uledi rose to the surface and regained the canoe, but they never saw Pocock again. The Jason could not be righted, so they left her and swam ashore. Many days afterwards she was found farther down the river broken in half.

This adventure brought gloom over the camp and broke the spirit of many men. Soon afterwards thirty-one of them refused to go farther and deserted in a body. Stanley let them go, and in a few days they were thankful to return. Then the party again struggled onwards; but food grew scarcer and scarcer, for the natives would not sell. When at last, towards the end of July, they reached the Isangila Falls they were all like gaunt and bony spectres. Stanley found out that this fall was the one Captain Tucky had reached from the sea in 1816, and it was needless to explore the river any farther. So the poor Lady Alice, which had travelled nearly 7000 miles, was carried to the top of the cliff and left to her fate; and on August 1, 1877, the caravan started on foot for Boma, near the mouth of the Congo.

The hunger they suffered on this march was terrible. The natives would scarcely look at Stanley's cloth and beads in payment for food, and the travellers soon found out what they wanted instead. They had just passed through a village when a chief and fifty armed men ran after them. Stanley turned to meet them; whereupon the chief sat down on a three-legged stool in the pathway, and pompously said—

"Know you I am king of this country?"

Stanley asked what tribute he might require.

"Rum," answered the king; "I want a bottle of rum."

Stanley looked so surprised that Uledi asked him what the king had demanded.

"He wants rum, Uledi; just think of it!" replied Stanley.

"Rum!" said Uledi wrathfully; "there's rum for him!"

Saying this he slapped his majesty's face with such force that he fell off his three-legged throne into the dust. His fifty subjects fled in dismay with their king at their heels, and nothing more was heard about tribute.

For more than a week the travellers went starving in a district where a bottle of rum would have bought more food than they could eat. "We don't want wire," the natives said; "if you have got rum you can have plenty of food." The natives were too ignorant and too weak-minded to use even their own palm-wine temperately, and drinking spirits often drove them into disease and ruin, if not to crime. Indeed, to give a native a bottle of ruin was like putting sweet poison into the hands of a child. Yet there were many white men whose greed for money led them into this selfish way of trade.

Natives with rum


In a few days the caravan broke down from want of food, and Stanley sent Uledi forward to Boma with a letter asking for speedy help. Uledi was not long in returning with a party of bearers loaded with good things; and then the starving band had the first hearty meal they had tasted for more than a month. At last, on August g, 1877, they reached Boma, on the 999th day from Zanzibar.

Stanley did not stay long in Boma, but started almost immediately to take his men by sea round the Cape to their homes. At the end of November they reached Zanzibar, and Stanley then returned to England. It was not long, however, before he was back on African soil.