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



Chapter V : The Waterways of the Congo (Part 2, pp.52-63)


On the right or northern bank of the Congo are to be found several large affluents. Of these, one of the most important is the Aruwimi, which joins the Congo just below Nyangwe. The Arumwimi rises in the Blue Mountains, not far from Lake Albert Nyanza. Thence flowing westward about seven hundred miles and gathering on it's way the waters of it's numerous tributaries, it is, when it reaches the Congo, a copious stream over a mile wide. Above Yambuya the navigation of the Aruwimi is rendered impossible by a succession of cataracts, that bane of the African navigator. However, the beauty and the resources of the surrounding country somewhat compensate for these hindering conditions. Here is the famous forest of Ituri, the home of a vast population and the haunt of many species of game. In and round the Ituri occurred some noted skirmishes with the mutinous Batetelas.
About 150 miles west of the Aruwimi the Rubi reaches the Congo at Itembo. Rising in the Mabode about 500 miles north of Stanley Falls, it flows west and south-west for a distance of 600 miles.
Three hundred miles west of the Rubi is the Mongalla. It rises at the northern boundary of the State and, flowing south-south-west, reaches the Congo at Molieka. The Mongalla is a fine, open stream, and on it's banks the Government has established a line of important stations. By these the State maintains control of the surrounding territory and renders possible commerce with a large population. Similar stations have been and are being erected along the smaller navigable streams, and these, when connected with the centres by railroad and by telegraph, as eventually they will be, will make the whole interior equally accessible.
Probably no tributary of the Congo is of more importance than the Ubanghi. It was van Gele who, in 1886, first explored the Ubanghi country and demonstrated the strategic value and commercial possibilities of this mighty river. The Uelle, which flows in a north-westerly direction, rises in the Blue Mountains. It was discovered by Dr. Junker, the German explorer, and may be considered the upper course of the Ubanghi. Above the Panga Falls, the Uelle is navigable for large vessels as far as Niangara.
After receiving the waters of the Uelle the Ubanghi forms for a long distance the boundary between the Free State and the French territory. Beyond Banzyville the river makes a wide curve towards the north to Waddas, whence it flows almost directly south, joining the Congo a little above Lake Matumba. The rich valley through which this splendid stream, over a thousand miles in length, takes it's winding course, comprises an area of 160,000 square miles. Emin Pasha described it as possessing wonderful productivity - "The Granary of Equatoria" he called it. Here the natives, who are instinctively agricultural, raise tobacco, coffee, and sugar-cane in large quantities. The highways now being constructed will give to the industry of this region an intermediate impetus, and the natives, who are skillful in the making of brick, will greatly contribute to the development. It is also proposed to continue the Uelle Railway to the left bank of the Nile. Such a continuous route, amply justified by the resources of this section and by commercial considerations, will be a most desirable consummation.
The Lua, an eastern branch of the Ubanghi, will prove of great commercial importance. Captain Heymans, who first navigated the Lua, explored it as far as Bowara. The Dekere, which also has been partly explored, is probably the upper course of the Lua, and this continuous stream will prove a convenient route to the Uelle.
In this way the great detour of the Ubanghi, in which are the impossible cataracts of Zongo and Mokoangi, can be successfully avoided.
The importance of the Mbomu, a northern ramification of the Ubanghi, is increased by the fact that it forms for a considerable distance a natural boundary between the Congo Free State and the French possessions. It's position, therefore, renders it of considerable political consequence. The Mbomu, although not yet entirely explored, is destined therefore to play, with it's numerous branches, a large part in the history of the Congo. The country around is not only of great fertility, but also very beautiful. Here is to be found one of the finest forests in the territory.
By means of the Congo and it's tributaries an sdmirable system of communication is being established, the ramifications of which, supplemented by the telegraph and the railway, will within a few years render every part of this vast territory accessible. In proportion thereto will increase the authority of the State and it's civilising influence. The growth of commerce, and the security and advancement of the native population, are, in fact, coexpansive with the extension of the facilities of intercommunication. The larger rivers - the Kassai, the Kwango, the Lualaba and the Ubanghi, are all patrolled by government steamers.
Of hardly less importance than the rivers of the Congo are the lakes. Besides the larger and navigable lakes are hunfreds of smaller ones. There are thousands of shallow pools along the courses of the rivers, as those along the upper Lualaba. It was that keen observer, M. Delcommune, who foretold that many of these lakes will eventually disappear. He contended that a combination of causes, chief among which being the dryness of the equatorial climate and the consequent evaporation of water, will gradually bring about this result. By a succession of experiments, covering a period of more than two years, he discovered a diminution of the water of the Lualaba. This process of evaporation, incessantly continued for centuries, will completely absorb the water in the marshes and pools, and decrease the volume of the great rivers themselves. However, this need occasion no alarm. On the contrary, it is believed that it will aid materially the development of the country. Not only will it dry the pestiferous marshes, but it will also define the beds of the rivers, whose courses, because of the construction of their channels, will thus be rendered simpler and more definite.
By the disappearance of the pools and lagoons, now to be found in the vicinity of the rivers, hundreds of thousands of acres of valuable lands will be reclaimed. And as this soil, formed of alluvial deposits, is exceedingly fertile, the benefits that will accrue therefrom is incalculable. The famous polders of Holland, and the lowlands of Egypt near the mouth of the Nile, demonstrate the possibilities of such a soil.
But it will not be necessary to wait for the slow processes of nature. Vast areas can be drained by artificial means, and this, since the sun is for ever assisting, can be done without great cost. The lands so drained will possess, besides their extraordinary fertility, other advantages, not the least of which is their accessability.
The most important lake in the western part of the State is Lake Leopold II., discovered by Stanley in 1882. It is broad but shallow, and it is joined to the Congo by the Mfini and the Kassai. On it's banks are several flourishing stations. North-west of Lake Leopold is Lake Matumba, from which the navigable river, Irebu, flows upwards into the Congo.
On the north-eastern boundary is Lake Albert Edward, the western part of which belongs to the State. This lake, the haunt of numerous hippopotami, is joined to Lake Albert Nyanza, which is about 150 miles north, by the Semlika, the boundary between the Belgian and British possessions.
Directly south of Lake Albert Edward is Lake Kivu. From this lake, part of which is yet unexplored, flows the river Rusisi. This torrential stream dashes through a rocky country, descending 2380 feet in 68 miles. It empties into Lake Tanganyika. On the eastern shore of the lake are Lubuga and Luahilimta, trading stations, established by the State. Lake Kivu is dotted with hundreds of islets, and is situated in the centre of a lofty plateau. Towering from this plateau rises a range of enormous snow-clad volcanic cones, from eight to over fourteen thousand feet above the level of the sea. Of these the highest is Kirunga-cha-gongo, which is said to be the largest inland volcano in the world. It was first ascended by it's discoverer, Count von Goetzen, and later by the English naturalist, Moore. All around Kivu are inaccessible crags, calcined gorges, and arid deserts, showing that the whole region is of volcanic origin. Such is the wondrous clarity of the atmosphere that the outline of every crag and spur of the mountains is visible sixty miles away. The forests of Kivu abound in elephants. Travellers report seeing here as many as a thousand in one day.
Of Lake Kivu Count von Goetzen, it's discoverer, has given an excellent account. I quote the following from his work, "Durch Afrika von Ost nach West" :

The bed of Lake Kivu, according to my measurement with the hypsometer, it at an altitude of 4800 feet. It's extent should be considerable, for on my crossing it I saw the immense sheet of blue water disappear far off into the clouds. It's general direction is from North to South ... The appearance of the isles of Lake Kivu is most picturesque. Their rocky and snow-white banks rise in peaks and are frequented by herons and cranes. A fresh breeze ever rustles across the lake and cools the air agreeably .... When one turns one's gaze to the north a sort of immense barrier formed by the Kirunga-cha-gongo and the four other Virunga Mountains is to be seen ..... The neighbourhood of Kivu is extremely fertile in provisions of every kind.

Directly south of Kivu, and connected with it by the river Rusisi, is Lake Tanganyika, partitioned equally between the Congo Free State and German East Africa. It is four hundred miles in length and nearly 50 in breadth. It was Stanley who first circumnavigated Lake Tanganyika, though it had been discovered in 1858, about twenty years before, by Burton and Speke. It was, in fact, the latter who first called the attention of the world to the Congo region. On the shores of this lake Lieutenant Cambier, in 1879, established, at Karema, the first station of the International Association of the Congo. Cambier was so impressed with the possibilities of this region that, by purchase and treaty, he obtained from it's native ruler about five thousand acres of land, and this tract may be regarded the nucleus of King Leopold's colony. It was this station on Tanganyika also that afterwards became the basis of operations against the Arab slave-trade.
From Albertville, Baudouinville, and other stations on it's western shore a flotilla of small vessels and several steam-yachts now navigate this lake, and to these other and larger craft will soon be added. A telegraph and telephone line, connecting Kassongo on the Lualaba with Baraka on Lake Tanganyika, was opened in the latter part of 1903. This line will soon be extended to Lake Kivu.
The region around Tanganyika is noted for it's beautiful scenery, and a large part of it is said to be unusually healthful. Like Kivu, this lake is situated in an immense plateau, six thousand feet above the sea. The angular inclination and general configuration of all these lakes in the eastern part of the Congo is, in fact, very similar; each lake, however, has it's individual scenery, climate and peculiar flora. Moore found Tanganyika floored with the shells of millions of molluscs, the zoological remains of a dead sea. He discovered here also three kinds of sponges. On the eastern shores abound huge swamps and immense tracts of mimosa. The dark red cliffs on the West Coast form a brilliant contrast to the blue African sky and the white clouds. Between Tanganyika and Nyangwe, the old slave-capital of Tippo Tip, the country is tenanted by the Manyema, famous as collectors of ivory. Surveys are now being made for a railway from Beni to Tanganyika. This is proposed to continue to Stanleyville on the Middle Congo.
Lake Moero, one hundred miles south-west of Tanganyika and the south-eastern boundary between British territory and the State, was discovered by Livingstone. It was first explored, however, by the Belgian officers, Bia and Francqui. This lake, which is one hundred miles long and about half as broad, is now patrolled by a steam-yacht.

Only a few years ago the immense basin of the Congo was an untamed wilderness, "a slave-park" Stanley called it, bare to raids of murderous marauders. Bands of predatory Arabs swooping down upon the defenceless natives decimated whole tribes, and carried away men, women, and children by the thousand. The slave-trader stalked like a pestilence through the land, leaving in his wake the smoking ruins of a hundred villages and the charred skeletons of his black victims.
It was not only the natives who suffered from the raids of merciless ravagers; but the Europeans, explorer, merchant, and missionary, were also subject to their tyrannical impositions. And when, as in the case of Emin Pasha, they opposed the designs of these despoilers, they were ruthlessly murdered. Flame and sword, robbery and massacre, - such, until ten years ago, were the chief episodes in the epic of the Congo.
Today the vast region is not only geographically determined, occupied, and effectually protected, but the power of the Arab raider has been forever annihilated. Regions which for ages were the scene of carnage and holocaust have now been pacified. Where all was insecurity and turbulence a reign of law and order has been substituted.
Nature has here been so prodigal of her gifts that her very extravagance renders in some respects the task of colonisation less easy. Before roads could be built it was necessary to hew down huge forests; before stations could be established it was needful to explore and conquer the wilderness. The paths that plunged into the jungle ended in trackless solitudes. The vastnesses bristled with unknown terrors. There was call for the explorer and the pioneer, but it seemed as if ages must elapse before there was need of the carriers of commerce.
To conduct broad highways from the coast to the centre, through a territory so vast in extent, so dangerous, and so impenetrable, would seem indeed a task for centuries. Such, too, it is safe to assume, would be still the situation had it not been for the magnificent water-system of the region and the great colonising genius who turned it's natural destiny to the civilising course of an onward industry. Without these splendid flowing highways of commerce, pulsing from the heart of the continent to the sea, the wonderful progress of the last quarter of a century would not have been possible. Following the lead of the Congo and it's tributaries, Belgian pioneers have moved through the great wilderness, planting the plough and the cross, until today Central Africa, so long curtained from the eyes of civilised man, lies bare to the world.
It was by this instrument that the siege of the great unknown was prosecuted. It was thus that that citadel of despair, the stronghold of Darkest Africa, was subjugated. And as we look at the magnificent results, and at the still more magnificent future which those results foreshadow, we cannot but conclude that this natural aid to the efforts of a heroic band of explorers was more than the mere manifestation of blind chance.
The campaign of exploration planned by King Leopold, and executed by his courageous subjects and his able ally, Stanley, was the first of these remarkable achievements of practical utility that have no parallel in the history of modern colonisation. In the Congo and it's affluents these State-builders found a providential and generous auxiliary. These wide rivers, the veins of the civilisation of the Congo, are the key to a situation of which triumphant Belgian sacrifice and valour in Central Africa will yet perfect the sequel.
To the existence of these natural allies, then, is largely due the speedy extirpation of the slave trade, the suppression of cannibalism, the control of the country, the gradual conversion of it's populations to the saving influences of civilisation, the effective system of communication between port and port, and the beginnings of the development of those vast resources which already excite the cupidity of nations less successful. Indeed, without such advantage it is doubtful whether the King of the Belgians would have been equal to the onerous responsibilities he so cheerfully assumed.
But now with more than nine thousand miles of waterways open to navigation, few sections of this domain are today inaccessible. Great areas which but a few years ago were virgin forests are now under successful cultivation. The jungle, once the lair of the cannibal, is safe and peaceful. Where the raider ravished his shrieking victims, the state and the Mission instruct in the attributes of a useful life. Chaos has at last yielded to order, and another triumph has been added to civilisation in the short term of twenty years. It is a great story, and the Prince who wrote it on the face of Africa need not deign to hear the hiss of envy straining at the gorge. Let Leopold II. fond consolation in that rugged philosophy of Carlyle which mocked at the timid temper of his own time : "To subdue mutiny, discord, widespread despair by manfulness, justice, mercy and wisdom, to let light on chaos and make it instead a green flowery world, is great beyond all other greatness, a work of God."








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