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



Chapter XV : Belgian Campaigns against the Arabs (pp.177-188)


It had long been foreseen, as an inevitable result of the advent of the Belgians in Central Africa, that a direct conflict between them and the Arabs, continued to the extinction of one or other of the belligerents, must sooner or later take place. The chief cause of the presence of the Belgians in the country being the suppression of slavery was in itself sufficient to assure this. As shown in the chapter dealing with that subject, the Belgian pioneers in establishing posts throughout the country were guided chiefly in their selection of sites by a desire to obstruct the natural routes of the slave-traders; and this, as we have seen, had the effect of frequently bringing Belgians and Arabs into collision.
After the Belgian operations on the Uelle and Lualuba, the Arabs became seriously alarmed. They perceived not only their nefarious method of livelihood at stake, but their very existence as a coherent fighting force was also threatened. In dread at this prospect, the Arabs resolved to precipitate matters, and took the offensive. It is not easy to see what other conclusion they would have reached, for the Belgians had now concerted practical measures which rendered their raids upon Negro villages no longer possible, while such Negro chiefs as had hitherto been amenable to Arab influence had been either alienated or killed off in fair fight. A tax on ivory, too, imposed by the Congo Government in 1891, though moderate in amount and perfectly just in it's incidence, was bitterly resented by them. It was clear, therefore, that the only hope for the Arabs lay in recovering the country which the Belgians had wrested from them; and as with every day that passed their chances of doing this became more remote, they resolved to stake all that was left to them upon one desparate effort.

The first practical proof of this intention came upon the Belgians somewhat as a surprise. M. Hodister, acting on behalf of the Belgian Society of the Upper Congo, a company of merchant adventurers, had founded two stations on the river Lomami. In this act, M. Hodister was held by the Congo Administration to have exceeded the range permitted him, Lieutenant le Marinel, the Belgian officer commanding that region, having foreseen danger in pressing so closely upon the Arabs, a contingency with which he was not as yet prepared to deal. But the opportunity of striking a blow afforded by Hodister's precipitate act was too inviting to be neglected, and the Arabs promptly seized it. The blow fell March 15, 1892, near Riba Riba, on the Congo, the Arabs murdering Hodister and his 10 white companions. It was not a fight; it was a massacre. Elated by their success, the Arabs next proceeded to burn the factories belonging to the Belgian Society of the Upper Congo, and to kill their inmates; so that, for the moment, the collapse of Belgian power in that section of the country was complete.
Another event that occurred about this time served to emphasize the determination of the Arabs. Rashid, the Arab governor of Stanley Falls, on being invited by the Belgians to assist in obtaining the punishment of the murderers of Hodister and his companions, absolutely refused to have anything to do with the matter, and with difficulty concealed the satisfaction he felt at that tragic event. Sefu, a son of Tippo Tip, began now to realise his father's property, an ominously significant act. On all sides it was felt that a crisis was at hand, and Lieut, le Marinel prepared to meet it by appointing to the command of the camp at Lusambo Lieut. Francis Dhanis, an officer who had distinguished himself by founding the camp at Bosoko, on the Aruwimi, and in many other ways exhibited uncommon energy and resource.
Immediately upon the arrival of Lieut. Dhanis at Lusambo, intelligence reached him that Gongo Lutete was on the war path, seeking to pass the Sankuru. This Gongo Lutete was a Negro chief who had allied himself with the Arabs and assisted them in enslaving his own race. The following is a description of him from the pen of Dr. Sidney Hinde :

Gongo Lutete was by blood a Bakussu. He had himself been a slave, having as a child fallen into the hands of the Arabs. While still a youth, as a reward for his distinguished conduct and pluck on raiding expeditions, he was given his freedom. Starting with one gun at eighteen years of age, he gradually collected a band of brigands round him, whom he ruled with a rod of iron, and before long became Tippo Tip's chief slave and ivory hunter. At the time of his adhesion to the State, Gongo was perhaps thirty years of age. He was a well-built, intelligent-looking man of about five feet nine inches in height, with a brown skin, large brown eyes with very long lashes, a small mouth with thin lips, and a straight comparatively narrow nose. His hands were his most remarkable characteristic; they were curiously supple, with long narrow fingers, which when outstretched had always the top joint slightly turned back. One or both hands were in constant movement, opening or shutting restlessly, especially when he was under any strong influence. His features meanwhile remained absolutely immovable. One had to see this man on the war-path to realise the different aspects of his character. The calm, haughty chief, or the genial and friendly companion, became on the battlefield an enthusiastic individual with a highly nervous organisation who hissed out his orders one after another without a moment's hesitation. He was capable of sustaining intense fatigue, and would lead his warriors through the country at a run for hours together.

With such a redoubtable fighter as Gongo Lutete to contend with, it was clear to Lieut. Dhanis that no time must be lost. Believing, with von Moltke, that the best defence against your enemy is to attack him, Dhanis moved against Lutete without delay, and brought him to battle on the 23rd of April, and again on the 5th and 9th of May. The first two engagements were undecisive. The third proved a hard fight. At first the fortunes of the day were all in favour of the Arabs; and when his native auxiliaries turned and fled it seemed impossible for Lieut. Dhanis to gain the victory. But that very circumstance, so disconcerting in itself, saved the Belgians. As the Arabs advanced, they shouted "Do not fire ! These are natives; make them prisoners." It was a fatal command. The Belgians rallied, and received their foes with such a tremendous fusillade that they were thrown into confusion and took refuge in flight. Gongo Lutete surrendered unconditionally to Lieut. Dhanis, and professed himself henceforth a faithful vassal of the Congo State. He was an able man, probably the most intelligent of the Negro race in the country, and certainly the best acquainted with the wily Arab and his ways; so, after some hesitation, his overtures of friendship were accepted. The force which Gongo Lutete had commanded being now at the disposal of the Belgians, it's first employment under it's new masters was the establishment of a new post on the Lomami, at Gandu, on the route to Nyangwe and Kassongo.

Meanwhile Sefu, son of Tippo Tip, had not been inactive. With cunning worthy of his father, he had no sooner returned from Stanley Falls to Kassongo than he made war on the station there and seized it. Two Belgian officers, Lieutenant Lippens and de Bruyn, were also captured by him, to whom he confided the comforting assurance that he only refrained from putting them to death because he hoped to find them useful as hostages in his negotiations with the Congo Government. Sefu had for his ally Munie Moharra, chief of Manyema, a powerful Arab leader. Between them they raised a formidable force, which they hastened to employ against the Belgians. Before doing so, they stated the terms upon which they would make peace. As these terms included, among other provisions, handing over to them Gongo Lutete and the establishment of a new frontier to be indicated by them, there was really nothing for the Belgians to consider. Their terms being, of course, refused, the Arabs marched from Nyangwe and Kassongo in the direction of the Lomami. Their exact numbers are not known; but notwithstanding the defection of Gongo Lutete and his following, it is certain that they were very numerous.
The force at the disposal of Lieut. Dhanis, though not so great as that of the Arabs, was yet a considerable one. His staff consisted of seven Europeans, and he had three hundred and fifty regular troops and one 7-5 Krupp gun. The command of the troops acquired by Gongo Lutete's defection from the Arabs, numbering several thousands, was entrusted to Captain Michaux, with Lieut. Duchesne second in command. The Arabs having crossed the Lomami at a lower point than where they had been expected, were met by Captain Michaux and Gongo Lutete at Chige, and a battle ensued. The Arabs numbered sixteen thousand men, not more than half of them were armed with muskets, the rest carrying bows and spears. Lutete having complained that his men could not fight because their guns had become wet with the rain, Michaux, knowing that the Arabs must be labouring under a like difficulty, ordered a general attack. His men responded nobly and a fierce fight ensued, but it was of brief duration. Perceiving that they were outgeneralled, the Arabs became confused and rushed madly into the river which they had recently been at so much pains to cross, only to find that retreat was impossible. In that situation they were shot down in great numbers. Twelve hundred Arabs were drowned, more than half that number lay dead upon the battle-field, and nearly a thousand prisoners were captured, together with a large quantity of war material. Thus opened the Arab campaign on November 23, 1892, with the Battle of Chige.
Having re-formed his forces, Lieut. Dhanis now crossed the Lomami, determined to carry the war into the enemy's stronghold. His army, which had been reinforced, was now quite a large one, numbering six Belgian officers, four hundred regulars, and twenty-five thousand natives, the latter being commanded in detail by their own chiefs. Lieut. Scherlink and Dr. Hinde commanded the advance guard. Michaux and Gongo Lutete marched together, and joined forces with Scherlink and Hinde at Lusana. On the route, several Negro chiefs made their submission and strengthened the force with men and provisions.
On reaching Lusana, the Belgian leaders learned with deep regret that Sefu, son of Tippo Tip, had put to death their brave comrades, de Bruyn ans Lippens, and that he had also executed a native who had endeavoured to save them, in circumstances at once pathetic and heroic. Sefu, it now appeared, accompanied by Munie Moharra, was hurrying to attack Dhanis, and the latter instructed Lieutenants Delcommune and Francqui, then just returned from Katanga, to intercept him if possible.
But the second battle of the campaign was to be fought by Dhanis' force. It took place on December 30th, and opened inauspiciously for the Belgians, Gongo Lutete's men being defeated and dispersed. Fortunately they formed only an advance guard, and on Dhanis and Michaux' coming up the fortune of the day changed. Dhanis confined his energies to a frontal attack, while Michaux assailed the Arabs' flank. What Lutete had been unable to do, the Belgians accomplished - but not easily. Part of the battle was fought in a swamp.
The Belgians displayed great courage under extraordinary difficulties, and continued to fight until the Arabs broke and fled. The honours of the day rested with the Krupp gun, which killed many and frightened more. The Arabs left two hundred men dead on the field, the Congo State only eighty, in which number is included the wounded. When the Belgians captured their enemies' camp, it was found that they had slain their own women, that being the barbarous custom of the Arabs to which they resort whenever there is danger of their women being made prisoners of war.
Immediately after this battle the Congo State force crossed the Mwadi to a plateau known as the Gois Kapopa, and, having set up a camp there, rested for a week. At the end of that period intelligence reached Lieutenant Dhanis that Sefu had gathered about him a vast following and was again threatening trouble. Slightly counteracting the danger this implied, the same messenger also announced that, by order of Lieutenant Delcommune, Lieutenant Cassart, with a numerous body of men, was then on his way to join Dhanis.
Cassart came, as announced, but met with a desparate adventure by the way. He had been entrusted to bring to Dhanis fifty thousand cartridges, and was provided with an escort of thirty European soldiers and about two hundred and fifty of Gongo Lutete's men. All went well with him until dawn of January 9, 1893, when he was suddenly attacked by Moharra. A short, sharp fight ensued, as a result of which Cassart contrived to reach Dhanis' camp with a loss of only seven men; he also saved his cartridges, all but the fuve thousand or so that he had used during the fight.
The conflict between Moharra and Cassart occurred not far from the Belgian camp and was heard there, whereupon Dhanis sent a detachment of his men under Lieutenant de Wouters to join Cassart. De Wouters failed to effect his object; but he came upon a portion of Moharra's men, who mistook his force for a contingent from Sefu coming to their aid. When within twenty yards of the Arabs, de Wouters undeceived them by opening a terrific fire upon them. At the first volley Moharra fell dead. He had been wounded in his fight with Casart, and was being carried by his wives when he met his fate.
The manner in which the news of Moharra's death was conveyed to Sefu is a sufficiently striking proof of the debased savagery with which the Belgian civilisers have had to contend. They "broke the news gently" to him, thus "We ate Moharra a few days ago."

The death of Moharra and defeat of his troops so upset Sefu's calculations that he immediately abandoned his strong camp on the Kipango, and betook himself and his followers behind the Lualaba, on Nyangwe. But for the unfortunate breaking of a bridge, Dhanis would have attacked him in his retreat. In consequence of that accident, Sefu was enabled to cross the river without molestation. Dhanis, having no canoes, could not come up with him; so the two forces settled down on either side of the river for five weeks and occasionally exchanged harmless shots.
The canoes in which the Arabs had crossed the river belonged to the Wagenia, a tribe who made their home hereabouts and who lived chiefly by fishing. Nearly all their canoes were now in the possession of the Arab, who evinced no disposition to part from them. Dhanis exerted all hit wit to induce the Wagenia to provide him with canoes, but they either could not or would not. Professing friendship for both belligerents, and ready at all times to take bribes from each, they proved useful go-betweens. One day the Wagenia reported that the store of provisions in Nyangwe was almost exhausted. "Here", said Dhanis to his informant, "take these six fowls to Sefu and present them to him from me. Tell him that at present I have plenty, but when my supply runs out I will cross the river." This message deceived Sefu, as it was intended to do. As a matter of fact, the six fowls were the only ones Dhanis had in his camp. The effect of this stratagem was perceived before many days, the Arabs coming over to the western side of the river, where they began to build forts, or "bomas", as they call them, a short distance below the Belgian camp. Dhanis resolved to attack them at once, and with this object divided his force into two columns. The engagement that ensued proved a complete triumph for the State troops. The Arabs lost nearly a thousand men, many being drowned in an attempt to swim across the river. The Wagenia, anxious to ally themselves with the winning side, hastened to produce canoes in abundance. Dhanis was now able to transport his troops across the Upper Congo and, that object achieved, he captured Nyangwe almost without an effort, Sefu retreating to Kassongo without firing a shot. This event occurred on 4th March, 1893.
Though Dhanis was now master of Nyangwe, his difficulties were not all surmounted. He had not been installed there many days before it became necessary to burn down a large part of the town in order to frustrate an attempt by the Arabs to surpeise it. Then other and worse dangers threatened. Influenza and smallpox broke out among his men and decimated them. No active prosecution of the campaign was possible until April, when these plagues abated and reinforcements, five hundred strong, under Commandant Gillain and Lieutenant Doorme, arrived. Leaving de Wouters in command at Nyangwe, Dhanis now marched on Kassongo. It was a bold venture, for while the Arabs had sixty thousand men, and held four "bomas", Dhanis disposed of only three hundred regular troops and two thousand auxiliaries. On April 22nd, Doorme had the good fortune, at the beginning of the fight, to rush an important fort which commanded the Arab rear. The Arabs were greatly perturbed by this circumstance, and fought with less than their usual valour. Before two hourd had passed, Kassongo was in the hands of the Congo State troops, with vast quantities of valuable spoil. The triumph of civilisation over savagery was complete, the only jarring note in Belgian ears being confirmation of the murder of Emin Pasha a month before.


For more detailed accounts of the Arab wars see :

D.C. Boulger, The Congo State
A.J. Wauters, Le mouvement geographique, 1884-1898
Rapport de Baron Dhanis sur la campagne arabe dans le Manyema, 1895
Dr. Sidney L. Hinde, The Fall of the Congo Arabs








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