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



Chapter XVI : Belgian Campaigns against the Arabs (concluded) (pp.188-196)


While the events described in the preceding chapter were being enacted, M. Tobback, Resident for the Congo Free State at Stanley Falls, with his second in command, Lieutenant van Lindt, and a small force, occupied a position of imminent danger. Rashid, a nephew of Tippo Tip and cousin of Sefu, was installed there. This arch-traitor, while professing the utmost friendship for the State authorities, and accepting favours at the hands of Belgian officers, was really a confederate of the Arabs. His character, which had long been suspected, appeared unmistakably from evidence discovered by Lieutenant Dhanis at Kassongo, when that place was captured by the State troops. On May 13th, immediately after the fall of Kassongo, Rashid openly attacked the State garrison. A fierce fight ensued, in which three of Tobback's men were killed and seven wounded. Nearly a hundrd of Rashid's men were placed hors de combat; but he was better able to stand the loss than Tobback was his. Four days the struggle continued with varying fortune, but on the fifth day it became evident to Tobback that it was impossible for him, with the handful of men at his disposal, to successfully resist the large force operating against him. He was perfecting his plans for the evacuation of the station, and had prepared six large canoes, when the whole situation changed by the opportune arrival of Commandant Chaltin. The presence of this officer, and the State troops that accompanied him, justified the experiment of an attack upon the Arabs, which proved entirely successful. The State troops captured all the Arab positions, and took fifteen hundred prisoners, Rashid himself escaping capture in ignominous flight.
At this juncture the Congo State officers came to the conclusion that the Arab power was effectually broken, and they did not anticipate further trouble with the slave-traders beyond, possibly, an occasional skirmish. The State's progress, in it's campaign against the Arabs had, on the whole, been extremely successful, and it's Sovereign had good reason to be satisfied with the work accomplished. When, in June 1893, Captain Ponthier came up the Congo with reinforcements for Dhanis, that event seemed to give emphasis to this optimistic view. Certainly it so alarmed Sefu that he abandoned the struggle and fled to German territory.
Immediately after the flight of Sefu a painful incident occurred which greatly embarrassed the Congo State authorities. A Belgian officer, having come to the groundless opinion that Gongo Lutete was a traitor, ordered him to be court-martialled and shot. It was a disastrous event, not only wrong in itself, but alienating from the State the affection of Gongo's men, and affording it's enemies an opportunity of reviling the Congo Administration; a libel which, though it has been many times refuted, they still industriously disseminate.
It soon became evident that May, 1893, was not to be recorded in history as the month in which slave-trading Arabs had finally been repressed. A chief belonging to Ujiji, named Rumeliza, with a considerable force of Arabs, now appeared east of Tanganyika. Having penetrated as far as Kabambari, midway between Kassongo and the lake, he encamped there, and explained his presence by avowing his intention to reconquer Manyema.
Rumeliza's folowing was so numerous and so well equipped that October had arrived before Captain (for such he had recently become) Dhanis thought it expedient to move against him. When he did take the field, his force consisted of five officers (of whom Ponthier was one), about four hundred regulars, and three hundred auxiliaries; and they had with them the Krupp gun which had served them so well in many a battle. Unfortunately, ammunition for it was all but exhausted.
On reaching the Arabs' camp at Mwana Mkwanga, they were found to be very advantageously placed in two large, well-built bomas. -----

The following description of a boma is from the pen of Dr. Hinde :
"An Arab force on the march employs a large number of it's slaves in cutting down and carrying with them trees and saplings, from about twelve to fifteen feet in length and up to six feet in diameter. As soon as a halting place has been fixed on, the slaves plant this timber in a circle of about fifty yards in diameter, inside which the chiefs and officers establish themselves. A trench is then dug, and the earth thrown up against the palisades, in which banana stalks, pointing in different directions, are laid. Round the centre, and following the inequalities of the ground, a second line of stakes is planted, this second circle being perhaps three or four hundred yards in diameter. Another trench is then dug in the same way, with bananas planted as before in the earthwork. The interval between the two lines of fortifications is occupied by the troops. If the boma is only to be occupied for two or three days, this is all that is usually done to it; but if it is intended for a longer stay, a trench is dug outside the palisades. The object of using banana stalks in this way is ingenious. Within four of five hours they shrink, and on being withdrawn from the earth leave loopholes, through which the defenders can fire without exposing themselves. Little huts are built all over the interior of the fort, and these huts are also very ingeniously devised, and are, furthermore, bombproof. They consist of a hole dug a yard and a half deep and covered with wood. This wood forms a ceiling of a couple of feet, and a thatched roof placed over all to keep off the rain. In many of the bomas we found that the defenders had dug holes from the main trenches outwards, in which they lived, having lined them with straw. The whole fort is often divided into four or more sections by a palisade and trenches, so that, if one part of it is stormed, the storming party finds itself in a cross-fire - a worse position than when actually trying to effect an entrance. We found that the shells from the 7-5 Krupps did little or no damage to these forts."


The first efforts to dislodge them met with no success. The Krupp gun proved of very little service. Of the scanty supply of ammunition, a large portion was wasted by the native troops through lack of skill in manipulating the gun, and finally they abandoned it, after which it was worked by European officers who could be ill spared for the duty. When one of his officers, de Lange, fell wounded, Captain Dhanis decided to retire, and a position was taken up scarcely inferior to that held by the Arabs.
Emboldened by what they erroneously regarded as a great victory, the Arabs lost no time in attacking the State camp. But this time the tables were turned, and they were repulsed with heavy loss. The arrival of reinforcements from Kassongo contributed to this result; but in consequence of some error, Kassongo was left without sufficient guard. The fact coming to the knowledge of the Arabs, they hastened to take advantage of it. To avert this calamity, de Wouters, by order of Captain Dhanis, marched night and day, through a violent storm, and eventually intercepted them. Not a day passed without a fight, victory first inclining to one and then to the other belligerent. On the whole, the Congo State troops continued to hold their own fairly well against great odds. Wearing of the protracted struggle, the Arabs decided to make a desperate attack in full force upon the State camp. They selected a foggy day on which to make their assault, and were greatly aided thereby. At first they succeeded so well that they actually entered the State camp and engaged the Congo troops in a hand-to-hand combat. The struggle lasted five hours. The State troops lost fifty men, including the brave Captain Ponthier, notwithstanding which they succeeded in completely repulsing the Arabs, whom they chased right up to Rumaliza's boma. The Arab losses were far heavier than the State's. Captain Dhanis had every reason to be satisfied. Leaving de Wouters in active command, he now returned to Kassongo to reorganise.
After the departure of Dhanis, de Wouters continued the aggressive policy of his chief. In attacking the boma of Lubukine, Lieutenant de Heusch was killed, and so hot was the fight that his men fled. De Wouters lost five men killed (including de Heusch) and ten wounded; but the Arab loss was far heavier, and included Sefu, the son of Tippo Tip, who had returned from German territory and was pursuing his old courses.
It was not until the end of December that Dhanis was again strong enough to take the offensive. By that time his troops had been rested and reinforced. They were none too early in taking the field, for information now came to hand that Rashid had rallied his forces after their defeat at Stanley Falls and was hastening to join Rumeliza.
To deal with this combination, Dhanis despatched Commandant Gillain with one hundred and eighty soldiers and two hundred auxiliaries to cut off Rumeliza's retreat, while de Wouters attacked Rumeliza's great boma at Bena Kalunga, Dhanis, with two Krupp guns, personally commanding the reserve. Rumeliza's boma proved impregnable, the Krupp guns failing to injure it, and news arrived that fresh forces were on their way from Tanganyika to aid Rumeliza.
Matters stood badly for the State when the opportune arrival of Commandant Lothaire, with three hundred men, changed the outlook entirely. This occurred on January 9th, 1894, a day marked by another piece of good fortune. The boma which so long defied the best efforts of the besiegers was set on fire and destroyed, a shot from the Krupp gun having blown up the Arab magazine. In their haste to abandon it, many Arabs were shot, while others were drowned in a desparate attempt to cross the river. By cutting off their water supply, the other garrisons were compelled to surrender, so that within three days over two thousand Arabs were taken prisoner by the State troops.
The Arab power was now effectually broken. To break it was an arduous task, expensive both in blood and money, but on the whole it was conducted as humanely as it is possible to conduct military operations. The sufferings of the Europeans were fully as great as, if not greater than, the sufferings of their enemies. Proportionate to their numbers, their mortality was higher. More succumbed to disease and the hardships of the campaign than were killed by the enemy's bullets, among them the gallant de Wouters, who passed away in the very hour of his triumph.

The chief honours of the Belgian campaigns against the Arabs undoubtedly rest upon Dhanis, who had exhibited foresight, patience, and skill in his every act. His ability and success were recognised by King Leopold, who conferred upon him the title of Baron. In his final report to King Leopold of the Arab campaign, dated December 20, 1894, Baron Dhanis thus tersely sums up the results of that memorable struggle :

The annihilation of the Arab power has brought about the complete suppression of the devastating bands which, in order to procure slaves, had been ravaging the country with fire and sword, from the Uelle in the north down to the Sankura in the south. With them the slave trade disappears from the regions they exploited, and, very soon, we may hope, it will no longer exist in the Congo State. The native chiefs who have submitted have been reinstated in authority; others who have disappeared have been replaced by intelligent soldiers of the State; and some of the Arabs, who made their submission, have been left in enjoyment of their possessions. All have been disarmed and warned that their authority must be exercised under the direction of the State's agents, who are charged with the pacific settlement of any differences that may arise. ..... Large camps will be formed at Kassongo and Kabambari, and the numerous soldiers instructed there will form the nucleus of the national army. From this point of view the Arab campaign has forcibly shown that the natives of the various districts of the Congo are in no way inferior as soldiers to the blacks of the coast, who are most famous for their bravery. The Baluba and others trained and led by Lieut. Doorme, the Bangala under Captain Lothaire, etc., have been admirable. In the near future we may expect that it will no longer be necessary to recruit soldiers abroad at great expense. The country will mainly supply it's own requirements, and the Manyema will be of great importance, alike from the number of men they can furnish and from the special aptitude of these men to the profession of arms.








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