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

Chapter V : The Waterways of the Congo (Part 1) (pp.42-52)

It was Diego Cam, an intrepid Portuguese mavigator, who, in 1484, voyaging towards the mythical East Indies, discovered the Congo. In the name of his sovereign, King Juan II., he took possession of the country, though it does not appear that he proceeded far into the interior. From n'zadi, the native name for river, the Portuguese formed the word Zaire, and it is by this name that the river was long called. It so appears in the map of Martin of Bohemia, who accompanied the expedition. The globe prepared by this German cosmographer is still to be seen in the museum of Nuremberg. It was not until two centuries later that the river was called Rio de Congo.
On the south promontory of the delta the Portuguese erected a pillar to commemorate their discovery. This promontory is still known as the Padrao Foreland. It is certain that these Portuguese, who were missionaries before they were explorers, remained a considerable time in the delta; for they converted the King of Ekongo, as the country was then called, to christianity. It was to this king that the sovereign of Angolo traced descent, and it is significant that their blue banner with the golden star is today the flag of the Congo Free State.
About seven years after the first expedition a second was sent out from Portugal, and the ruins of the trading posts then established, called San Antonio or Salvador, are still to be seen. The old Kingdom of Ekongo continued a hundred miles into the interior. It was bounded on the north by N'zadi, the modern Congo, and on the south by the river Coanza. The accounts of early traders, some of which are still preserved in the State Archives of Portugal, abound in fanciful descriptions. To the mediaeval mind the forest was peopled with mythical monsters. It was probably for this reason that the superstitious Portuguese kept so near the coast.
In 1534 San Salvador, which until the arrival of the Portuguese was known as Ambassa, became the seat of a bishopric. Here a cathedral was erected, but later the see was transferred to St. Paul de Loanda, which thus became the capital of the Portuguese authority.
In 1784, to maintain their occupation of the Congo, the Portuguese built a fort at Kabinda, about thirty miles north of the mouth of the river. Several slave stations also were established in the interior. From this position they were soon driven by the French, though the latter made no attempt to found a colony.
In 1816 the British Government despatched an expedition to the Congo. James Kingston Tuckey, the leader, explored the river from it's mouth to a distance of 170 miles into the interior. In his description of the country Tuckey speaks of the numerous slave stations along the banks. At this period two thousand slaves were exported annually. Fifty years later this number had increased to over one hundred thousand !

The Congo with it's multitudinous branches forms a river-basin unequalled even by that of the Mississippi. This great territory, over fourteen hundred miles in breadth, covers an area of nearly a million square miles. Though mere size is not always a measure of importance, yet this region is unsurpassed, in respect to natural resources, by any part of the world. Second only to the Amazon in volume, the Congo precipitates about 2,000,000 cubic feet of water each second into the Atlantic.
This immense basin has been divided by geographers into three gradual terraces : the first and lowest is near the coast; the second, in the region of the Upper Congo; and the highest in the vicinity of the great lakes. According to the official act the basin is bounded by the watersheds of the neighbouring basins of the Niari, the Ogowe, the Shari, and the Nile to the north; by the eastern watershed line of the affluents of Lake Tanganyika on the east; and by the watersheds of the basins of the Zambesi and the Loge on the south. Congoland is about 1,500,000 square miles in extent. From it's western frontage of 400 miles it broadens eastward until at Lake Tanganyika it has a frontier of about 1500 miles. The numerous ramifications of the Congo open rapid and economic channels of communication to the interior. To this magnificent system of waters the country also owes it's unequalled fertility. Many of the rivers now practically useless can in time be rendered navigable by the skill of the engineer. Where blasting out channels is not feasible canals can be built to connect the navigable parts of the stream. It is obvious, too, that the effects on that torrid climate of these great rivers, from one to twenty miles in breadth, must be considerable. Without them the country would be an arid desert, another Sahara, deadly to life, both animal and vegetable.
We shall first follow the successive stages of the Congo, as the Chambesi, the Luapula, and the Lualaba, in the huge watershed on the eastern border between Lakes Nyassa and Tanganyika.
The source of the Congo is in the Chingampo Mountains, in British territory, and about 50 miles from the western confines of German East Africa, whence it issues as the Chambesi. It was Livingstone who, in 1867, discovered the Chambesi. Mistaking it for the undiscovered source of the Nile, he explored it towards the south-west - 250 miles - as far as Lake Bangweolo. Thence he followed it's gradual curve to the north, first as the Luapula, through Lake Moero, as far as Ankorro; and then as the Lualaba, in a northwesterly direction to Nyangwe, 1300 miles from it's source. The river assumes the distinctive name of the Congo first at Nyangwe. It was from this place that Stanley, in 1876, made his famous descent of the river. This journey, which covered 1660 miles by water and 140 miles by land, was accomplished in 281 days.
From Nyangwe the river flows due north 400 miles as far as Stanley Falls. The country between these two places is peopled by the cannibal Bakumu. With "these insensate furies of savageland" Stanley had many bloody encounters. "At every curve of this fearful river", he writes in his now famous book, "the yells of the savages broke loud on our ears, the snake-like canoes dashed forward impetuously to the attack, while the drums and horns and shouts raised fierce and deafening uproar."
From Stanley Falls the river, flowing west and north-west, makes a huge curve, in the form of a horseshoe, to Equateurville, where the junction of the Congo with the Ruki takes place. Throughout this immense curve, called the Middle Congo, and as far south as Leopoldville, a distance of 1068 miles, the river is navigable. In the contiguous territory live the Balolo, or "men of iron", forgers of metal instruments. Famous as warriors, they are also noted as clever craftsmen, and are valuable allies of the State.
From the junction of Lake Matumba with the Congo, the river, flowing south-west about 450 miles to Manyanga, forms the boundary between the French and the Belgian possessions. Thence down to Matadi it pursues a southerly course of about 100 miles through the territory of the State. From Matadi, whence it flows toward the sea, it forms for 30 miles the northern boundary of the Portuguese Congo.
At Stanley Pool the Congo is no longer navigable. Here, gathering the full force of it's waters, the now immense river ploughs it's passage for over 200 miles through the Crystal Mountains, whence by a succession of plunges it bounds down to Matadi, 1800 feet below.
From Matadi, unobstructed and triumphant, it hurls the overwhelming volume of it's current far into the Atlantic. At it's meeting with the sea, the Congo. now over 3000 miles in length, is fully twenty miles wide.
Until a few years ago there was considerable controversy as to the true upper course of the Congo. This has been at last established by the explorations of Delcommune, Bia and Brasseur; and it is now agreed that the upper course is that continuation of the Chambesi called the Luapula, and not the Lualaba, as was formerly believed.
The Luapula, the boundary between the Congo State and North-Eastern Rhodesia, and navigable for 340 miles above Kassongo, is longer than the Lualaba. It is, however, inferior to the latter in size and in the number and importance of it's affluents. The Lualaba rises in the southern part of the Congo territory, about fifty miles west of North-Western Rhodesia. The source of this river was discovered by Lieutenants Derscheid and Francqui.
Along the important tributaries of the Luapula is the Lufupa, which joins it not far below Nzilo. It is at the Nzilo gorge that the first cataracts on the Luapula are encountered. They continue almost uninterruptedly for forty-three miles. Another affluent of the Luapula is the Lubudi, a considerable river on the left, which, because of it's breadth and volume, was at first mistaken for the main stream. The next important tributary - the Lufila - empties into the Luapula at Lake Kassali. It flows through the fertile country of the Katanga.
This region, noted for it's mineral resources, is described by travellers as "a land flowing with milk and honey". It was first explored by that indefatigable pioneer, Delcommune. Until a few years ago the Katanga was ruled by the tryculent tyrant, Msiri. Now that this despot is dead, the country is developing rapidly. The climate is far more healthful than in the regions around the Lower or Middle Congo. The fertility of the soil and the advantageous climate augur a brilliant future for this section of the State. The conditions are, in fact, well adapted to the needs of the white race, and here, no doubt, eventually will be established cities no less important and flourishing than those of Java. Already a railway to the Katanga is being constructed. Great deposits of copper are known to exist here, and it is expected that the development of these resources will begin a new era in the history of Central Africa. By the railway, Katanga will be brought within six weeks of the European centres.
In this vicinity also are the Kibala Mountains, which will, no doubt, soon attract tourists from all parts of the world. The beauties of this section are thus described by their discoverer, Delcommune :

Seated on a rock of sandstone, eagerly scanning all around us, glancing in every quarter, we were astonished by this picture, which no pencil could render. None of the loudly vaunted beauties of Switzerland and the Pyrenees, where charming scenery nevertheless exists, could rival these lost corners of the Kibala Mountains, of which the whole effect, in it's turn picturesque and savage, imposing and on a grand scale, seemed softened and rendered pleasant by the brilliant equatorial vegetation.

We shall now briefly refer to the more important tributaries of the Congo proper, first taking up those that join the river from the south.
Of these the Lomami is navigable for nearly 650 miles. Rising in the Usamba Plateau, 600 miles east of Lake Moero, it runs almost parallel to the Congo till it joins that stream 150 miles west of Stanley Falls. The Lomami varies in breadth from 60 to 400 yards. In places it has a depth of twenty feet, and it is destined to play an important part in the development of this part of the continent. It was on the Lomami that one of those entrenched camps was established which proved so effective in the expulsion of the Arabs and suppression of the slave trade. The many tributaries of the Lomami, some of which are navigable, make that river the natural base also of commercial operations.
The next southern affluent of the Congo is the Lulongo. Rising not far from the valley of the Lomami it flows for several hundred miles in a south-westerly direction and empties into the Congo at Uranga. A northern tributary of the Lulongo is the Lopori. Both of these streams are rendered more important by the fact that, being free from obstruction, they are navigable. They water a beautiful and exceedingly fertile country, some of which is yet unexplored.
South of the Lulongo and almost parallel to it is the Ruki. It has two upper courses and rises near the great valley of the Lomami. The Ruki is a wide, open river, nearly six hundred miles in length. It empties into the Congo at Equateurville, and because of it's several tributaries it renders a large territory easily accessible.
But the largest of all the southern affluents is the Kassai, which ranks in importance next to the Congo itself. The exact course of the Kassai was until recently a matter of considerable speculation. This has now been definitely determined, and the Sankuru, formerly thought by some geographers to be the main course of that river, is now known to be it's largest affluent. The Kassai rises nearly one thousand miles south of where it joins the Congo, near the Portuguese possessions in the south-western corner of the Congo State. It's course is north, north-east and north-west. Navigable from Wissmann Falls, which is situated about midway it's length, it forms it's junction with the Congo not far above Stanley Pool. Joining the Kassai, near Bokala, is the river Kwango, which, rising in the Portuguese possessions, flows directly northward for several hundred miles. The Sankuru, like so many other of the Congo rivers, rises in the Sambas Plateau. It's course is first due north, then west, and it's junction with the Kassai, is an imposing stream, about as deep and broad as the Kassai itself. The Lubefu, a northern tributary of the Sankuru, reaches almost to the valley of the Lomami.
It is intended soon to built a railroad connecting these rivers, and when it is accomplished a large area not now accessible will be open to commerce. Necessarily such trading stations will, for a while at least, need governmental protection. Hence each station will be in the nature of a military establishment, and will form also the nucleus for a future city. The Caucasian, observing, of course, certain necessary precautions, will find the climate of a large part of this section quite congenial. It is not unlike that of the tablelands of Java or of the highlands of Ceylon. Moreover, the soil no less than the forests and the mineral resources of this vicinity will offer splendid opportunities to the investor.
Necessarily the future of this part of the Congo, as well as that of all regions distant from the navigable rivers, is dependent upon the construction of a railway system which will bring them into touch with the rest of the world. That such railways cannot be built without a great expenditure of money is obvious, but the success of the lines already established and the enormous profits sure in the end to repay the investors are calculated to attract sooner or later the necessary capital. All who have visited this part of the Congo country are agreed that it's natural resources are incomparably greater than those of any part of Europe. When developed they will excite the wonder of the world. But this result, so devoutly to be wished, involving as it does the betterment of millions of lives lately enveloped in densest ignorance, is not to be attained without some sacrifices. Capital, time, and labour must cooperate to bring about this result.

This page is part of World History at KMLA
Last revised on February 14th 2002

Click here to go Home
Click here to go to Information about KMLA, WHKMLA, the author and webmaster
Click here to go to Statistics

Impressum · Datenschutz