Henry Wellington Wack
The Story of the Congo Free State
New York & London : Putnam 1905

Chapter XXIV : Navigation, Railways, Roads (pp.248-263)

The Sovereign of the Congo Free State adheres to a gospel of labour of which he is personally the greatest exemplar in Europe. His Majesty's industry is in motion at five o'clock every morning. It gathers force as the sun rises, and subsides only when his ministers and attendants have retired. In this respect much might be written to attract the world's admiration to a monarch who has the false reputation in America of toying with time and it's tintinnabulation.
Tremendous are the energies which the King's example inspires, not only in the Belgium which his rule has beautified, and which he has made the least-taxed country in Europe, but also in the heart of blackest Africa. There are, in that vast territory, manifold monuments to the infectious spirit of endeavour which prevails in the palace at Laeken, at Brussels, and in the lofty chalet at Ostend. These monuments, by their nature, appear to confirm Belgian intention to occupy the future of the Congo State with structures of enduring substance, whether they be material, political, ethical, or social. The charge, sometimes uttered against King Leopold, that his interest in the Congo is merely what it can be made to yield him during his lifetime, dissolves into the mist of the slander it becomes in the presence of the physical improvement going on, with mighty strides, in Congoland.
When the Congo Free State was founded, communication by water with Europe was infrequent and uncomfortable. Liverpool and Lisbon sent a few ships at irregular intervals. Later Germany and Holland followed their example at a time when Fuka-Fuka was the farthermost settlement on the Congo coast. No means of transport into the interior existed except by canoes, or by native carriers. Today all this has been altered by Belgian capital, skill and industry.
The maritime development of the Congo began in 1891, wgen the State, joining the commercial companies of the region, concluded an agreement with certain German and English steamship lines to establish a monthly service between Antwerp and Matadi. These ships left Antwerp on the 6th of each month and arrived at Matadi in about fifteen days.
In 1895, under the auspices of a syndicate composed of the masters of these ships, there was incorporated at Antwerp La Compagnie Belge Maritime du Congo, which provided a monthly service of steamers sailing under the Belgian flag. The success of this enterprise induced other companies to engage in the Congo trade, among them being L'Empresa Nacional de Navigacao, of Lisbon, Les Chargeurs Reunis, of Bordeaux, related to Fraissinet et Cie., of Marseilles; the Woermann Line, of Hamburg; the African Steamship Company, combined with the British and African Steam Navigation Company.
Extensive harbour works have been erected at Banana, Boma, and Matadi, and several signal lights have been placed at the mouth of the Congo to indicate the entrance to the channel, The Lower Congo, from Banana to Matadi, has been charted by buoys, and a pilot service has been organised at Banana. The river channel is being constantly improved by dredging, and Matebe, which in the dry season was inaccessible except to small craft, is now on the line of general navigation. A regular service of steamers plies the Lower Congo, and the State boats go regularly to Landana to meet the Portuguese mail.
In 1890 the shipping in the ports of Banana and Boma amounted to only 166,028 entries, and 163,716 departures. The present tonnage into and out of these ports is over 500,000.
On the Upper Congo a large flotilla carries on an excellent service. The State operates thirty-two of these vessels and the companies about forty-five, besides which there is a considerable number of smaller craft belonging to private individuals and to missions. The tonnage of the Upper Congo flotilla is 1675 tons. The marine service numbers 166 whites and 1300 blacks.
The first steamers launched on the Upper Congo were of only five tons, their component parts having been carried on men's backs along caravan routes long before the construction of the railway of the Cataracts. Even before the completion of the railway from Matadi to Stanley Pool the State had launched twelve five ton boats on the Upper Congo, each of which had a capacity of nearly 50,000 pounds. Besides these, the Government launched one steamer of twenty-three tons and four of fourty tons burden.
With the completion of the railway, the necessity for considering the weight of the loads ceased, and a new type of craft, the stern-wheel, was chosen. It's system of propulsion offered greater advantages against the variable conditions of navigability with which the vessels had to contend. The ports and landings are in a state of complete organisation at numerous points on the river, and cargoes are now moved with great facility. At regular intervals along the watercourse, posts at which Government workmen gather wood, supply the steamers with this form of fuel. In order that the forests along the banks may not be denuded, a State law enforces the replanting of trees as fast as they are cut down.
In 1896 the Government established a regular fortnightly steamship service between Leopoldville and Stanley Falls. The three steamers, Brabant, Hainaut, and Flandre, have been assigned to this service. The dates of their departure from Stanley Pool have been fixed to correspond with the dates of arrival of European ships. In order to ensure service on the navigable stretches beyond the Falls, steamers have been launched on the rivers Lualaba, Itimbiri, and Ubanghi. A sailing vessel has been launched on Lake Tanganyika and a steamer on the Nile. Native rowing crews have been organised in many regions, and their services are often of great value. All in all, the 102 steamers plying the Congo in the governmental and private service, the efficient port facilities, the means of transport up the navigable affluents, and the hydrographic surveys constantly going on constitute a condition of colonial development which truly merits the commendation of Herr von Puttkamer, Governor of the Cameroons, in which, amongst other things, he says : "The energy and practical sense displayed here deserve the greatest admiration".
As the Congo steamboat largely abolished the laborious native carrier system through the riverain districts of the State, so has the Congo Railway popularly known as the Cataracts Railway, largely contributed to relieve the black man, under Belgian rule, from lugging fifty-six pounds dead weight through the African jungle. The iron horse in Central Africa has given great momentum to the industries of a fertile region. In coonstructing the railway from Matadi, near the mouth of the Congo River, to Stanley Pool, traversing a distance of 260 miles over as tortuous and steep a route as ever daring engineers ventured to follow; climbing the Pallaballa Mountains at gradients of 150 feet in the mile, and finally steaming over a summit 17,000 feet above the sea, Belgian skill has again manifested it's extraordinary quality, a quality observed in all that it has accomplished in the Congo Basin.
To connect the navigable regions of the Lower and the Upper Congo by a line over the route just indicated seemed at first to be beyond the possibility of achievement. On July 6, 1898, after nine years of unremitting toil and expenditure of sixty million francs, the line was in complete and regular operation through a region which, on account of it's picturesque scenery, may be likened to the Simplon Pass in Switzerland.
Without a railway running round the thirty-two great cataracts which tumble furiously in their descent of eighty miles to the sea, the Congo River, in the opinion of Stanley, would not have much value in the development of the Basin.
The first estimate of the cost of constructing the line was twenty-five million francs. This was based on the surveys of Major Cambier for the Compagnie du Congo pour la Commerce et l'Industrie, which, as early as the year 1887, had been granted certain rights and privileges if it would undertake to build the railway. On July 29, 1889, the Belgian Chamber agreed to provide ten million francs of the Company's first capital, the remaining fifteen million francs having been subscribed chiefly by Belgian investors. The work so enthusiastically undertaken met with one setback after another, owing mainly to the engineering difficulties encountered in the rocky side of the mountain of Pallaballa, forming a spur of the great Crystal range, the western rampart of the Central African plateau. It required four years and indomitable perseverance to construct the section of the line from Matadi over the summit of Pallaballa, a distance of only twenty-six miles. In December, 1893, Colonel Wahis opened this part of the line with appropriate ceremonies, which many Europeans interested in Congo affairs attended. In the Mouvement Geographique appeared the following interesting description of this unique engineering triumph :

The train, on leaving the station of Matadi, passes in front of the works of the State and the Belgian and Portuguese commercial establishments, and debouches immediately by the Neck of the Guinea Fowls (Col de Pintades) into the Leopold Ravine, which it crosses by a bridge of sixty-five feet. It follows for a few minutes the right bank of the ravine, and then on the bank of the Congo, whose magnificent panorama is suddenly exposed. Here commences the sensational part of the journey. For four miles, first alongside the Congo and then alongside the Mpozo, the way is hooked on to the side of the strong rock of Matadi. It mounts by a gentle incline, having on it's right a perpendicular rocky wall, in some places seven hundred feet high, and on it's left, in the foreground, the river rolling in rapids; and in the background the grand landscape of the right bank, with Vivi and Mount Leopold. At the sixth kilometre, where the Mpozo flows into the Congo, and before entering the valley of the former river, the view is exceedingly grand. At this point the railway is two hundred feet above the river - the Congo, enclosed in a gorge, rolls it's tumultuous waters with extreme rapidity, as they have just made a descent from the Falls of Yellalla. On the left, to the north-east, the scenery is quite wild. It is equally so to the south-east, while the water is closed in in the narrow valley of the Mpozo. It was in these parts, at the very commencement of the work, that the difficulties were the greatest. From the Leopold Ravine to the bridge of the Mpozo, or for over four miles, the platform of the line had to be cut in terraces on the side of an immense rock of hard stone, through the thick equatorial vegetation which encumbered every ravine. Beyond Sleepy Hollow (Ravin du Sommeil), and after passing the ancient camp of Matadi-Mapembe, commences the famous ascent of Pallaballa. At the tenth kilometre the line attains a height of three hundred feet, or a rise of six hundred feet in four and a half miles. Beyond this the line traverses the Devil's Ravine to reach the summit of the mountain, one thousand seven hundred feet, and in the course of this part of the work several bridges have had to be thrown across the intervening chasms or ravines. The whole of this part of the journey is really inspiring. The scenery is grand, works of skill succeed each other every minute, the perspective modifies itself to each of the numerous curves the road makes at every passage across the ravines. The railway ever ascends, hanging on to the mountain, suspended in places from three hundred to five hundred feet above the bottom of the Devil's Ravine. The engine blows with force to the very moment of reaching the station of Pallaballa. Here the most interesting portion of the journey is over. The great difficulties, the long slopes of ascent at a maximum incline, recur no more.

It had now become apparent that the railway would cost more than double the sum originally estimated. Additional powers having been granted to the Company and a tripartite convention having provided the Congo Free State and the Belgian Government with power to buy the road, capital was raised to bring the total up to sixty million francs. By an extension of the time when the Congo State and Belgium may buy the line, the railway Company has possession until 1908.
The Cataracts Railway has some unique characteristics. It maintains a first- and a second-class car on each train. Trains leave Matadi every other day. Persons returning from the Congo refer to it as the strangest as well as the most profitable railway line in the world. It runs the distance between Matadi and Stanley Pool in twenty-four hours. First-class passage costs 500 francs, the second-class 50 francs. The former is, therefore, at the rate of 40 cents a mile. This, it is to be hoped, is at least some compensation for the great difficulties encountered in the construction of the line. For the final accomplishment of what is regarded in Europe as one of the great engineering feats in Africa, the energy and skill of Lieutenant Thys, the original surveys of Major Cambier, and the support of the King and the Belgian Parliament are largely to be credited. Outside assistance was almost entirely lacking.
The Mayumbe Railway is the second which was undertaken in the development of the Congo Free State. It connects Boma with Lukula, eighty kilometres (about fifty-four miles) distant, and has been in operation since 1901. It is narrow gauge (0,60 metre), while the Cataracts Railway is 0,70 metre.
On the completion of the Mayumbe Railway, the State inspired the construction of three lines of one-metre-gauge, with a total length of 1600 kilometres (1080 miles). These lines are being undertaken by the Compagnie des Chemins de Fer du Congo Superieur aux Grands Lacs Africains under an agreement made with the State on January 4, 1902. The latest report of the Vice-Governor General (July, 1904) indicates the present stage to which these lines and others have attained :

A route for a railroad from Stanleyville to the Great Lakes has been surveyed. This survey comprehends a principal trunk line, Stanleyville-Bafwaboli-Mawambi-Irumu, 762 kilometres in length. Near Irumu the track branches off in two directions, one, Irumu-Mahagi, of 358 kilometres, the other, Irumu-Beni, of 135 kilometres. At present the surveys are being made for a track from Beni to Lake Tanganyika.
In addition, the track has been completely surveyed for a railway from Dufile to Redjaf, following the left bank of the Nile, which would be 157 kilometres in length.
This railway would turn the unnavigable part of the river.
At this moment a line is being constructed between Stanleyville (left bank) and Ponthierville. This line will be 140 kilometres in length. The rails have been placed over ten kilometres, and the embankment finished for fifty kilometres. This line will permit of transports being made on the river above Ponthierville. As soon as this first line is finished, others will be constructed along the unnavigable parts of the river.
At the present moment surveys are also being made for a railway connecting a point on the southern frontier of the Congo Independent State (Katanga) with a point situated on the Lualaba, south of the junction of that river with the Lufila.
The approximate length of this line, the survey of which commenced as far back as 25th April, 1903, will be about 500 kilometres.

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Last revised on February 14th 2002

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