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



Chapter XIII : Tribes of the Congo State (pp.151-163)


The difficulty in arriving at an estimate of the native population of the Congo Free State that tolerably approximates the truth is very great. Some authorities place it as high as 30,000,000, some as low as 15,000,000, while other observers, equally entitled to respect, assert that 20,000,000 is about accurate.
This wide divergence of opinion ceases to be matter for surprise when we reflect that the population of an empire so important as China, known to white men for centuries, is variously estimated by them at anything between 300,000,000 and 400,000,000.
Compared with our knowledge of China, our acquaintance with the countries and peoples comprised within the boundaries of the Congo Free State is a thing of yesterday. The nomadic habits of the various semi-savage tribes of which the population of the Congo Free State consists renders their exact enumeration impossible. Besides, there can be no doubt but that vast numbers of the dwarf (Pigmy) race inhabit parts of the great Central African forest not yet penetrated by the white man.
It is certain, however, that all the vast region with which this book is concerned contains no race or tribe that has not come in contact with the civilising Belgians, or whose barbarous habits and customs have not, in greater or lesser degree, been modified into some semblance of conformity with the standard of civilisation exemplified by their new masters. At present that conformity is far from being general, and where it is found it is invariably more superficial than real. To frankly admit so much is in nowise a reflection upon the extent or value of the civilising influence exerted by the Belgians upon their King's dusky subjects. The complete transformation of the barbarian into the civilised man is not possible in one generation. A consideration of the principal tribes, their habits and customs, as they were when the white strangers first appeared among them, and as to some extent they continue to this day, cannot, therefore, fail in interest.
The nomadic habits of the native races inhabiting the Congo region, discussed at length in another chapter, render an inquiry into their origin a work of great difficulty and uncertain result. Sir Harry Johnston, G.C.M.G., K.C.B., whose expert opinion upon this subject is entitled to the utmost respect, believes that the Negro type which originated in Southern Asia wandered across the peninsula of Arabia into Eastern Africa, mingling, perhaps, on the way, with the Caucasians from the north, evolving that negroid race known as the Hamite, whence sprang the early Egyptians, and to which the Somali, Gala, Abyssinian, and Nubian owe their origin.
From Eastern Africa this primitive race is thought to have spread, in the course of ages, throughout all Central Africa, and probably to have penetrated almost to the southern and western coasts of that continent, changing theit physical characteristics according to their environment, and again modifying those characteristics by subsequent intermixture. The numerous Central African tribes, as they exist today, exhibit marked differences in height, shape, language, habits, customs, and even in colour, some being an intense black, some of a chocolate hue, some reddish brown, and some of a bronze aspect. The five main divisions, according to Johnston, appear to be : (1) the forest Pigmy; (2) the Bantu; (3) the Nile Negro; (4) the Masai, and (5) the Hamite.
The native tribes in the neighbourhood of Leopoldville consist chiefly of the Musseronges, the Kakongos, the Baoilis, and the Mayombes/i>.
The Musseronges are difficult of approach. Not only do they hold themselves severely aloof from the white man, they are also very shy and guarded in their intercourse with other native tribes, and are never known to combine with any of them, even when threatened by a common enemy. They are tall, strong, and better-looking than most members of the Negro race, though this commendation must not be taken for a certificate of beauty. They file their teeth to a pont, or cut them square, or into semicircles, their object being to provide themselves thereby with a weapon for use as a last resort in a fight, when they literally throw themselves upon their enemies and seize them by the throat with their fangs, as a bulldog might do. They wear their hair short, and indulge in the practice of tattooing, for purposes of ornament, but not to amy great extent. Strange to say, the women are taller and stronger than the men, which may perhaps be explained by the fact that all the work of the tribe, except hunting and fishing, falls to their share.
The Kakongos and Mayombes are less intensely distrustful, but the Baoilis are markedly hostile to the white man. They have been known to refuse to barter oysters - their principal diet, of which they frequently have supplies largely exceeding their requirements - for European commodities which it has been certain that they ardently desired to possess.
All these four tribes are of cleanly habits; and their practice of bathing daily, when the proximity of a river or lake puts it in their power to do so, may put to shame some of the inhabitants of great cities. The forest tribes, to whom cleanliness by water is impossible, smear their bodies with palm oil and a kind of red ochre, which they afterwards scrape off. The original costume of a few leaves, or an exceedingly small apron made from fibrous bark, for women, and a loincloth of the same material for men, has yielded to the superior attraction of common cotton goods, which now reach them from far-away Manchester or Saxony. These stuffs, ornamented by large patterns in flaming reds or yellows, delight the eye and rejoice the heart of the Congolese maid and matron, while such of the men as desire to stand well with the gentler (?) sex will also condescend to use them. No time and skill are devoted to making a garment. A piece of the gaudy stuff wound in loose folds around the loins suffices for both men and women. In every tribe, children of both sexes are entirely nude until they reach the age of puberty. In at least one tribe, neither men nor women wear any covering. In a few tribes it is customary for the women to remain nude until they are married. Some women denote their married state by covering their breasts with strange ornaments, while others secure this object by elaborately dressing their hair, which they build up to a great height by aid of palm fibre and gum. Both men and women, of whatever tribe, ornament themselves with just as many collars, bangles, and anklets as they can obtain. Without exception, the possession of a few strings of coloured beads is to them a source of great happiness. They gaze upon such treasures with delight and guard them with jealous care. Some of their customs are very peculiar. Men and women will not eat together. A man guilty of eating in company of jis wives would be hopelessly disgraced. In time past they have eaten one another, and would doubtless do so again should existing restraint be removed, but they may not eat together. After their separate repast, the sexes mingle again freely, and both engage in smoking their long-stemmed pipes. All the males of the Congo Pigmies seen by Sir Harry Johnston were circumcised, and all in both sexes had their upper incisor teeth and canines sharpened to a point. In their forest homes they go naked, both men and women; but in presence of strangers the men usually don a small covering of genet, monkey or antelope skin, or a wisp of bark-cloth, and the women leaves or bark-cloth.

The Pigmies have practically no religion, and no trace of spirit- or ancestor-worship. They have some idea that thunder, lightning and rain are the manifestations of a Power or Entity in the heavens, but a bad Power, and when (reluctantly) induced to talk on the subject, they shake their heads and clack their tongues in disapproval, for the mysterious Something in the heavens occasionally slays their comrades with his fire (lightning). They have little or no belief in life after death, but sometimes think vaguely that their dead relations live again in the form of the red bushpig, whose strange bristles are among the few brightly coloured objects that attract their attention. They have no settled government or hereditary chief, merely clustering round an able hunter or cunning fighter, and accepting him as law-giver for the time. Marriage is only the purchase of a girl from her father. Women generally give birth to their offspring in the forest, severing the navel string with their teeth, and burying the placenta in the ground. The dead are usually buried in dug graves, and if men of importance, food, tobacco, and weapons are buried with the corpse.

The same authority has observed that all the Bantu-speaking forest folk on the Upper Congo practise cicatrisation. Scores and weals of skin are raised either by burning or cutting with a knife, and introducing the irritating juice of a plant into the wound. The effect of this is to raise on the surface of the body large or small lumps of skin. Sometimes these raised weals are so small that they produce almost the effect of tattooing; at other times they are large, ugly excrescences. The Babira people cicatrise their chests and stomachs; but in the forest, toward the waters of the Congo, their faces are hideously scarred. Both men and women of the Bantu Kavirondo extract the two middle incisor teeth from the lower jaw, in the belief that if a man retains all his lower incisor teeth he will be killed in warfare, and that if the wife fails to put out her teeth it may cause her husband to perish. For the same reason of averting ill-fortune, a woman inflicts cuts on the skin of her forehead, which leave small scars. The women also, as a means of securing good fortune for themselves and their husbands, make a number of small incisions, usually in patterns, in the skin of the abdomen, into which they rub an irritant, so that huge weals rise up into great lumps of skin. The Kavirondo husband, before setting out to fight or starting on a journey attended with great risks, usually makes a few extra incisions on his wife's body.
The traveller in the Congo will frequently observe repulsive disfigurements in the natives, and is very liable to attribute to the cruelty of oppression what are but manifestations of old-time tribal customs. The danger is accentuated by the organised campaign of slander now proceeding against the Congo Free State, which does not scruple to make capital out of such an opportune circumstance.
Almost all the tribes entertain a hazy notion of an invisible Supreme Being; but they regard themselves as of no account in His estimation, and direct their petitions for supernatural aid to their fetiches, which they endeavour to propitiate by gifts through the medium of their witch doctor or medicine man, a kind of priest who pretends to possess supernatural powers and abuses the credulity of his followers to an extraordinary extent.
Among the Mangbettus, a dead chief is buried in a sitting posture, in the centre of a new hut specially built on the banks of a stream. Five of his widows are strangled and their bodies laid out with their feet towards their dead husband. The bodies are then covered with bark-cloth saturated with palm oil, after which the spot is held to be sacred and must not be approached under penalty of death, by anybody but the ruling chief and one attendant.
At the mouth of the Uelle is found the great mass of the Azande, a very numerous and important tribe, who range the country from 23 degrees east to 30 degrees west, and from 6 degrees north to 3 degrees south. There are three subdivisions of the Azande - the Abandija, the Avongura, and the Makraka, born fighters all, and devoted to cannibalism. Some of the Azande men, however, will eat only the flesh of their enemies whom they have slain in battle, declining a diet of human flesh otherwise obtained, though they all (except such of them as dwell south of the Uelle) forbid their women and children to touch it.
And here arises a curious subject for speculation. The cannibalistic Azande are much farther advanced in the arts of peace and war than many other tribes that are not cannibal - the forest Pigmies, for instance. Notwithstanding some peculiar customs concerning them, they hold their women in high regard, and never barter them for goats and cows, the almost universal practice among other Central African tribes. Their skill, too, in agriculture, pottery, and in the making and playing of their musical instruments, seems quite incompatible with their abhorred anthropophagy.
Each Azande chief is really a despotic king. His power over his subjects is absolute, and any one of them who is so unfortunate as to offend him is simply handed over to the executioner, a procedure which to the Azande mind seems the most natural thing in the world. The courage of the Azande is beyond praise. They know no fear; and when assailed by a murderous fire, against which they have no chance of success, they will rush right up to their enemy and grapple with him hand to hand, though nine-tenths of their fellows fall by the way. Their favourite weapons are the lance and light throwing-spear, and each warrior carries, in addition, a shield.
Among the Azande, criminals condemned to death are despatched with the lance. Occasionally, however, they employ a peculiar method of trial, known as the ordeal by poison, which precludes this method of execution. On such occasions the chief acts as a judge, and the person accused is made to drink a cup of poison, the theory being that if the accusation is baseless the accused survives unharmed. Of course the invariable result is that the drinker falls dead within a minute or so. It is safe to assume that an Azande chief is sufficiently intelligent never to subject one of his tribe to this ordeal whose death he has not previously determined upon.
Another singular custom, not peculiar to the Azande, but common to all Central African tribes, is the ceremony of blood-brotherhood. Two men who are in no way related having agreed to become "blood-brothers", i.e. to live in peace and amity for ever after, meet in the open air, in the presence of the chiefs and people, when a small incision is made in the forearm of each "brother", sufficiently deep to cause a little blood to flow. Each mutilated one then licks the blood from the other's arm, and thenceforth they are related as brothers.
A slight modification of this ceremony was early conceded by the various chiefs to accomodate the pardonable squeamishness of Europeans; and now, instead of licking each other's blood, the "brothers" merely rub their incisions together, so that their blood may mingle. Stanley was made blood-brother to so many African chiefs that at last his arm was well-scored with incisions. Several Belgian commandants, and a few Englishmen, have submitted to this operation; always, it is almost needless to remark, from motives of policy, for it has been proved that Africans regard the rite with real veneration, and esteem the "brother" they acquire by it at least as highly as they would a natural brother.
It is not necessary in this place to give the names of all the tribes of which the native population of the vast Congo region is composed. They are numerous, and for the most part not easily pronouncable. Of the tribes not already referred to, the Basundis, Bakuendas, Batekas, Bayanzis, Batetelas, Mongos, Bantu, and Mombettus are most prominent. While differing in personal appearance, prowess, habits, and customs, clearly denoting that they are not descended from a common stock, there are not wanting certain traits which distinguish them all. All are polygamous, nearly all are cannibal, and the morals of the most advanced among them such as shock the average civilised man upon his first contact with them. Strangely inconsistent with the low moral sense which prevails among most of the tribes, some of them punish the crime of adultery with death, others by horribly mutilating the male offender. Cannibalism has long been suppressed by the Congo Government just as murder is suppressed among civilised communities; but the horrid practice is still indulged here and there, as opportunity occurs for evading the vigilance of the authorities. So recently as 1898, and possible to the present day, it was necessary to maintain a constant guard at the cemetery in Leopoldville, the chief station on the Upper Congo, to prevent the Bangalas unearthing the dead and carrying them off to feast upon. Several such cases were proved against them, and capital punishment had to be resorted to in order to stamp it out. This horrid subject is sickening to contemplate; but no description, however brief or superficial, of the Congo people, can ignore a fact which has occasioned, and still presents, such a tremendous difficulty for civilisation to surmount. This is but one of many difficulties with which the Congo Free State has had to contend, and those who sit in judgment upon that State should bear in mind that the Central African black is not by nature predisposed to civilisation. Not all the cannibal tribes are so repulsive and cruel as the Bangalas. Most of them eat no other human flesh but that of their enemies slain in battle. That source of supply will not suffice for the Bangalas, who make up it's deficiency with prisoners or slaves. Having broken their victim's limbs, they place him in a pool of water, with his head supported just above it's surface so that he may not drown. After having left him in that position for three days (if he survives that long), he is killed and eaten. Another method is to behead a victim, singe all the hair from the body over an ember fire, and then cut it into pieces for cooking. The portions not immediately eaten are smoke-dried and put aside for another occasion. The teeth are extracted and made into necklaces by the women. Sometimes the skin is used for drumheads.
It is general opinion of competent observers that polygamy will for many years survive the extinction of cannibalism. Nothing but the spirit of christianity will overcome that evil. The native mind cannot be induced by ordinary argument to see any wrong in it. Why a man should not have just as many wives as he can afford to buy and keep is too much for his comprehension. He regards women as created solely for his pleasure and profit, and trades in her accordingly. He buys her from her father for one or two goats or a cow; she becomes the mother of his children, and prepares and cooks his food for him. That is her career, and she shares it with as many other wives as her husband's inclination and resources permit him to buy. When she dies she is buried - sometimes. Certain Central African tribes regard burial after death as a superfluous ceremony for women, and place their bodies where they will be devoured by hyaenas and vultures. From two to three wives is the average quantum of the ordinary Central African barbarian, and between thirty and forty for a chief.
After their prodigious effect and expense in suppressing the slave trade, the Belgians set to work to weld into a homogeneous civilised State a vast region full of warring tribes with attributes such as these, utterly oblivious to all sense of right and truth as readers of these pages understand these words.
Looking at the Congolese as they were in 1876, and again as they are in 1905, who can honestly deny that King Leopold has, so far, well performed his arduous mission ?








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