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

Early Belgian Expeditions, 1877-1883 (pp.31-41)

Having narrated the principal political circumstances which eventuated in the founding of the Congo Free State, it now becomes necessary to revert to an earlier period, and sketch briefly the various Belgian expeditions to whose labours are so largely owing our knowledge of the geography of Central Africa, the suppression of the slave trade there, and the establishment of civilising and humanitarian government by Belgians.
It is hardly necessary to say that so great an enterprise was not possible of achievement without loss of life, and much personal sacrifice and suffering; that many men of high intellectual power and indomitable courage fell by the way, martyrs to disease, treachery, and the innumerable accidents by flood and field which ever dog the footsteps of pioneer explorers. The official records of the expeditions, for the most part vouched for by independent testimony (chiefly in English), establish beyond possibility of dispute the patient forbearance and humanity of the explorers in their dealings with the natives. The dignity of truth is lost with too much protesting, and that some few mistakes were committed here and there, the result of over-zealousness on the part of particular individuals, is frankly admitted, such admission in no way detracting from the confident assertion that no exploration of unknown lands had ever before been made which occasioned so small an amount of friction with their indigenous occupiers. A sound discretion is not so much indicated by never making a mistake as by never repeating it. Mistake, error, is the discipline through which we all advance, and the greatest of faults is to be conscious of none.

A Bad Start

The first Belgian expedition arrived at Zanzibar in December, 1877, having been three months on it's voyage from Ostend. It was commanded by Captain Crespel, an officer of the Belgian Army, and included, besides Lieutenant Cambier, also of the Belgian Army, Dr. Maes, and M. Marno, an Austrian. Some time was spent by these explorers in Zanzibar, purchasing supplies and engaging an escort, before starting for the interior; a task in which they were assisted by the Sultan, Seyyid Burghash, an enlightened ruler, opposed to slavery and sympathetic with the expedition and it's objects. Unfortunately, these favourable auspices were not followed by correspondingly happy events. In less than a month after the arrival of the expedition in Zanzibar, Dr. Maes was dead of fever; and Captain Crespel, who was ill from the first moment that he set foot on African soil, survived Dr. Maes only a few days.
Shortly before these two sad events, Cambier and Marno had started on their journey into the interior, and at once became the victims of every sort of misfortune. Their cattle were tormented and destroyed by the tsetse fly, which in that year assumed the proportions of a plague, and, their route lying through a marshy region, progress was rendered impossible. Two months later they returned to Zanzibar worn out and dispirited, having achieved nothing, only to be greeted by the melancholy news of the death of Captain Crespel and Dr. Maes. Command of the expedition now devolved upon Lieutenant Cambier, who resolved to await reinforcements from Belgium.
It was not until September of the following year that Lieutenant Cambier, accompanied by Lieutenant Wautier and Dr. Dutrieux, ventured to move forward. On the occasion of his second attempt he started from Bagamoyo. His difficulties, if not so great as on his previous journey, would have daunted any ordinary mortal. His native carriers gave great trouble, continually deserting or threatening to desert him, while crossing the Mgonda-Mkali Desert. However, after passing through infinite danger and difficulty, Cambier succeeded in reaching the territory of Mirambo, and prospered so well in his efforts to secure the friendship and assistance of that powerful chief that the two entered into a treaty of alliance, and went through the strangely barbarous ceremony of taking the oath of blood; after which, according to African superstition and custom, they became brothers. This was the first example of a Belgian officer and a native chief taking the oath of blood. It was entered into by Cambier only after he had informed himself that it was a ceremony the sanctity of which the Negro race held to be inviolable, and was therefore exactly suited to his purpose.
The object of the expedition was to found a station on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. Having been provided with some necessary supplies by his newly made "blood brother", M. Cambier was about to resume his journey, of which another hundred and fifty miles remained, when he learned with consternation of the death of M. Wautier, the able lieutenant to whom he had entrusted the difficult task of keeping open his communications with the coast, who had succumbed to the climate after prolonged exposure to torrential rain. M. Wautier was the third Belgian who had lost his life in the cause of African exploration. His place was taken by M. Bryon, a Swiss traveller of much experience, who rendered good and faithful service. But though so near to his destination, M. Cambier's difficulties were by no means ended. As before, it was his carriers who made the trouble. They were insubordinate, quarrelled among themselves, and deserted in great numbers, on the slightest provocation, and often for none at all. Finally, however, on August 12, 1879, Karema, on Lake Tanganyika, was reached in safety, and the first station of the International Association for the Exploration and Civilisation of Central Africa established by the Belgian Committee. The site chosen for the station was about five thousand acres of land, very healthfully situated, which Cambier obtained by treaty with a local chief. Thus through difficulty and danger, by the expenditure of energy, money, and of life itself, was the object of the first Belgian expedition successfully accomplished, and M. Cambier set out to return to Belgium. When he reached the coast he was surprised to meet a second expedition, of whose existence he knew nothing, which had just arrived from Belgium. In consequence, M. Cambier decided not to return to Europe, but to remain in Africa for a while to assist, so far as he was able, in this second enterprise. The period was May, 1879. The new expedition, under command of Captain Popelin, of the Headquarters Staff, assisted by Dr. van den Heuvel and Lieutenant Dutalis, had not completed their arrangements for their inland journey when the latter fell ill and was obliged to return at once to Belgium. The expedition had brought with it four Indian elephants, attended by two English keepers accustomed to the management of those animals, it having been suggested to King Leopold that elephants were better adapted for transport purposes in Central Africa than oxen. The experiment proved a costly failure. All four of the elephants died before any use could be made of them, and their English keepers were waylaid by brigands and murdered on their way back to Zanzibar. Notwithstanding these misfortunes, MM. Cambier and Popelin persevered bravely with their task, stocked the station at Karema with provisions, and organised a native guard for it's protection.
The third expedition, judged by results, hardly deserves to be called such. It consisted of only two Belgians (MM. Burdo and Roger), and the health of the former breaking down immediately on his arrival at Zanzibar, he was obliged to return home at once. War was now being waged between the chiefs Mirambo and Simba; but though each of the contestants was friendly to the Belgians, the conflict rendered their position very precarious. In the circumstances, MM. Cambier and Popelin judged it expedient to divide their forces, so as to ensure efficient protection for the newly founded station at Karema, and the route thence to the coast.
While matters were standing thus, a fourth expedition arrived, the strongest and best equipped yet sent out by Belgium, commanded by Captain Ramaeckers, an experienced African traveller, skilled in native wiles, who had been more successful in his dealing with the black man than any other Belgian. Captain Ramaeckers was ably seconded by MM. Becker and de Leu, lieutenants in the Belgian Artillery, and an expert photographer. The moment of the arrival of this expedition was opportune, for the difficulties of MM. Cambier and Popelin, due to the war between the natives, increased daily, and they were in a bad way. Captain Ramaeckers made all possible haste to succour them, and after a perilous journey succeeded in joining his colleagues on the banks of Lake Tanganyika; but he lost by death on the way his brave lieutenant, de Leu, a victim of malarial fever, and the health of the photographer failed so completely that it was found necessary to send him home. Captain Ramaeckers now took over the command from Lieutenant Cambier, who had carried on the work in Central Africa for three years, and was now desirous of returning to Europe. In that period Cambier had contrived to achieve much valuable work, of which the worth is more apparent to-day than it was in December, 1880, when he resigned his command. But in estimating it's value, then or now, the enormous difficulties under which he laboured should never for a moment be lost sight of. These difficulties were so great as hardly to admit of exaggeration. Language is inadequate to convey any just conception of the trackless deserts, impenetrable forests, and malarial swamps, through which the explorers' route lay, complicated by two friendly, but warring tribes, each suspicious of the strangers' relation with the other.
Popelin and Ramaeckers, unlike Cambier, were not destined to see their native land again. Eighteen months after the departure of Cambier, Popelin died of malarial fever, and a short while after Ramaeckers also, from a like cause. In spite of these terrible losses, the Belgian station continued to exist, and even prospered in it's work. The command now devolved upon Lieutenant Storms, then on his way to Central Africa to establish a new station on the western shore of Lake Tanganyika. When Storms arrived and took command he chose at his site of the new station a spot called Mpala, immediately opposite Karema. The chief of the district, who himself bore the name of Mpala, proved friendly to the expedition, and the new station soon became as important as Karema itself. So great was the influence exerted by Storms over Mpala that that chief, when dying, left the appointment of his successor to be determined by the Belgian officer. Storms showed himself a clever diplomatist, and during his two-and-a-half-years' control did much to consolidate the work of his predecessors.
So far, we have seen, these expeditions were exclusively Belgian. They owed their inception to King Leopold, by far the larger part of the heavy expense they entailed was met out of his Majesty's private purse, and the personnel was Belgian almost to a man. Humanitarian in their object, the expeditions have been conducted so humanely that no injury had resulted to any one for which the expeditions could be blamed. With the exception of the two English elephant-keepers, murdered by Arab brigands, the loss of life was wholly Belgian, resulting in every case from the trying climate of Equatorial Africa.

An Intrepid Journalist

But before any Belgian expedition had started, Henry M. Stanley, the great Anglo-American traveller, had penetrated Africa as far as the mouth of the Congo, and had startled the world by the information contained in his letters addressed thence to the New York Herald and the London Daily Telegraph. In glowing and incisive language Stanley demonstrated the future commercial importance of the superb Congo River, and significantly pointed out that, so far, no European power, except Portugal, had put forth any claim to it's control - a claim which England, France and the United States had refused to recognise.
This pregnant statement excited widespread remark, but the King of the Belgians was alone in acting upon the startling information. His Majesty invited Mr. Stanley to Brussels to confer with some distinguished geographers, merchants, and financiers; and out of that meeting grew the Comite d'Etudes du Haut-Congo, to which reference has been made in an earlier chapter. Soon after, however, the name of this body was changed to that of the International Association of the Congo. Mr. Stanley was invited to enter it's service, and to establish along the Congo a series of stations, designed as bases for future operations, humanitarian and commercial, i.e. suppression of the slave trade and securing the commerce of the Congo country.
How Stanley accepted that invitation, and carried out the mission which the King of the Belgians entrusted to him, is almost as well known as the story of the same intrepid traveller's discovery of Dr. Livingstone a few years before. With only ten companions (five Belgian, two English, two Danish, and one French), Stanley left Europe in January, 1879. At Zanzibar he hoped to be reinforced by at least some of those who had been associated with him on his previous journey. Meanwhile the steamboats En Avant and Royal, the twin-screw steamer La Belgique, one-screw barge Young Africa, and two steel lighters, were sent direct from Belgium to the mouth of the Congo, there to await Stanley's coming. Stanley recruited a hundred and forty blacks (Askaris and Kabindas), to say nothing of carriers, whom he obtained as he required them during his progress along the Congo.

Difficult Pioneering

The first station to be founded was Vivi, and six months were spent in fortifying it. Then came the construction of a road from Vivi to Isanghila - fifty miles higher up the river - required for the conveyance of the steamers in section, stores, merchandise, etc. This proved a formidable task and took a whole year to accomplish. But Stanley and his men proved equal to it, and another station was founded at Isanghila. At the station, fortunately, the Congo was again found navigable, and Stanley pushed on to Manyanga by boat, where he founded a third station. It was while at Manyanga that Stanley first learned of M. de Brazza's having set up the French flag on the northern shore of Stanley Pool, and calling it Brazzaville, a fact previously referred to.
Stanley countered this act by founding, on the plain of Kintamo, near the lake, a station out of which has grown the modern Leopoldville, named in honour of the King of the Belgians, and now recognised as the capital of Central Africa.
The spread of French influence so far as Brazzaville was significant and ominous. Clearly the nations of Europe were waking up to the importance and value of Central Africa. Leaving the expedition in charge of Captain Hanssens, Stanley hurriedly returned to Brussels to report the circumstance in person. That was in April, 1882; and by February, 1883, he was back again with the expedition in Africa, recharged, as it were, with energy, and busied himself in establishing numerous stations.
In all, Stanley served five years with this expedition, which, notwithstanding his nationality, must in all fairness be accounted a Belgian expedition.

Such, then, were the early expeditions in Central Africa undertaken by Leopold, King of the Belgians. There were other contemporaneous expeditions in the same region undertaken by France, Germany, and Russia, or rather by natives of those countries presumably working in the interest of their respective nations, but their results will not stand comparison with those achieved by the Belgians. At one time it was the intention of King Leopold to appoint General Gordon to the chief command on the Congo, and that extraordinary man had agreed to accept his Majesty's offer; but the British Government had a prior claim on Gordon's services, who went to Khartoum and lost his life there in tragic circumstances so well known that they need not be recounted here.

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Last revised on February 14th 2002

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