THE LAND BEYOND OBSCURITY AND DARKNESS
The Congo that so horrified Joseph Conrad in the 1890s embraced nearly 1 million square miles, an area as large as the United States east of the Mississippi or all of Western Europe. When Europeans first discovered it in the late fifteenth century, it was home to at least 250 different ethnic groups, ranging over fifteen cultural regions as different as the Mbuti Pygmies, who lived by hunting in the Ituri Forest in the eastern Congo, and the prosperous farmers of the Bakongo Kingdom in the west, where cleared fields and large towns once supported well over a million people spread across three hundred square miles.1 Most of the peoples in the Congo spoke a Bantu language, and although most of these were not mutually intelligible, the first word an infant uttered in all of them was “Mama”—mother—and a dying person’s last utterance, too, was often “Mama.”2 There were also people in the northeast of the Congo who spoke Sudanic or Nigritic languages, including the warlike Azande people, who successfully resisted European rule well into the twentieth century.
Large portions of the Congo are open, strikingly beautiful, silver-baobab-tree-dotted savannas of tall, yellow elephant grass that are home to herds of wildlife. Some hilly areas are covered with ten- to twelve-foot-tall grass with edges so sharp that when dry, cut like razors. Other regions, particularly in the east, are steeply mountainous but split by deep valleys where bamboo, tree ferns, huge orchids, lobelias, and other beautiful flowers flourish. The volcanic peaks and glaciers in this eastern region, known as the Mountains of the Moon, are permanently snowcapped and higher than the Alps. Their foothills are black lava, and nearby lakes are jade green or a brilliant blue. These eastern uplands are so cold that they are completely free of both flies and mosquitoes, and the Europeans who later came to live there had to wear sweaters even at midday. But the low-lying regions of the Congo are intensely hot, steamingly humid, and home to multitudes of fleas, centipedes, large grasshoppers with green bodies and scarlet wings, cicadas, cockroaches, bees, ticks, leeches, hornets with a painful sting, little green fireflies, and myriads of beautiful butterflies and dragonflies of all colors. Throughout the low-lying, central Congo basin, there are hordes of flies as large as hornets, and blood-sucking mites, while every evening brings swarms of mosquitoes so voracious they can bite through European clothing.3
Large portions of the Congo are permanent swampland, but almost half of the country is covered by a dense, dark tropical forest—“darkness,” literally. Within these forests there are lichenand moss-covered ebony, oak, mahogany, cedar, walnut, and rubber trees, as well as clumps of bamboo all tied together by lianas and flowering vines. Within many of these dark forests there is rarely any sound or movement, and a sickening smell of decaying vegetation pervades the air. Usually, no birds, bats, or monkeys are to be seen, nor whirring insects to be heard. The silence is so profound that when explorers in large caravans first entered these forests, they felt compelled to speak in whispers, and if a monkey chattered, a toucan shrieked, or a tree limb fell, they were visibly startled.
In most of these forests, there are no flowers, but a dark green wall of trees usually rising two hundred feet overhead. The ground is covered with sodden, decaying vegetation that often is several feet deep. European explorers often despaired of cutting their way through these “jungles,” as they called them, a Hindi word meaning impenetrable thicket. Yet, in some parts of the Congo, forests such as these have long been cleared, allowing millions of people to farm the now open land. In many of these areas, palm trees flourished, providing both highly valued palm oil and palm wine in return for little effort. Bananas and yams also thrived in these hot, moist regions while older crops such as sorghum and millet would not. And in some parts of these forests there are bats, rats, flying squirrels, civet cats, hairy pigs, monitor lizards six feet long, and even elephants.
Much of the Congo basin is crisscrossed by so many wide, rapidly flowing, mud-brown rivers that together they make up one-sixth of the world’s hydroelectric potential. Spanned by hundreds of vine bridges, dotted by over four thousand islands covered with trees, reeds, mangroves, and water hyacinth, most of these rivers have long been traveled by people paddling standing up in long canoes made from hollowed-out tree trunks. The rivers are home to many crabs, shrimp, turtles, hippopotamuses, and crocodiles, while nearby live thousands of pelicans, egrets, ducks, pygmy geese even smaller than ducks, kingfishers with scarlet beaks, five-foot-tall purple herons, sacred ibises, white-tailed flycatchers, scarlet and black weaver birds, and fish-eating eagles. Many people came to live along the banks of these rivers, fishing and farming after they had cleared away the forests atop sandstone cliffs that were sometimes red, sometimes yellow, and even white. But most people did not live along riverbanks; they built their villages in fertile valleys farther inland and walked some distance to pick up water for drinking and bathing. The Congo River itself was not only a rich resource for fish and crustaceans, but it also posed few dangers because it neither flooded nor ran dry. Because the Congo’s tributaries come from both north of the equator and south of it, when it is the rainy season in one region, it is dry in the other, maintaining the huge river’s even flow year-round.
The Congo’s more open forests and grasslands are still home to elephants, giraffes, zebras, buffaloes, lions, leopards, cheetahs, and all manner of antelope, ostriches, and smaller animals, such as rabbit-sized nocturnal tree-hyraxes that emit ear-piercing screams, while carrion-eating hyenas, jackals, and vultures are still seemingly everywhere.4 But rhinos have never lived there. In some forested areas there are still seemingly millions of monkeys, while in others there are none. In parts of the eastern Congo there are both chimpanzees and gorillas. Pythons, cobras, mambas, puff adders, and other deadly snakes are commonplace as well, as are scorpions, huge, beautiful spiders, and fiercely biting, inch-long red ants. At times, so many black bats can fly overhead that the sky is literally obliterated. People still use machetes or even sticks to knock them out of the air and cook them. Even away from the rivers, hundreds of different sorts of birds live in the Congo, from majestic eagles and hawks to gray parrots with bright scarlet tails, long-winged blue swallows, red-chested cuckoos, thick, gray plovers, and black hornbills.
Despite its location astride the equator, the Congo has dramatically differing seasons. For much of the region, from February to May there is heavy rain and flooding. But, even during the rainy season, it does not rain every day. Some days are dry but the sky is gray and the sun is seldom seen. When rain does fall, it is sometimes so warm that some travelers have likened it to human sweat.5 However, every two or three days during the late afternoon, a huge purple-black cloud forms in the east. As it moves to the west, the air becomes still and claps of distant thunder grow louder by the minute. As the black, arching cloud finally passes overhead, lightning strikes, thunder crashes, and the wind suddenly roars at sixty or seventy miles an hour, driving torrents of rain almost horizontally, flooding everything for an hour or so before moving on, leaving behind a gentle rain that may continue throughout the night. In Katanga, the Congo’s southernmost province, when thunderstorms strike at its four-thousand-foot elevation, spray splashes five or six feet into the air, making it impossible to drive a car.
From May through October the weather is usually dry but cloudy, and it is cold at night with temperatures often falling to fifty degrees Fahrenheit even at lower elevations, and sometimes reaching freezing in Katanga. It can also be so cold during the day that hail the size of hen’s eggs has been known to fall for hours and people have to stay inside by a warm fire. October, November, and December are rainy and hot, while January is dry and still hot. Whether humid or dry, although mornings are usually damp and cold, in many areas the midday heat is oppressive.
Whatever the season, diseases continue to be rampant. There are waterborne afflictions such as schistosomiasis, Guinea threadworm, and “river blindness,” as well as bouts of malaria, sleeping sickness, dysentery, and yellow fever. Mosquito-borne yellow fever strikes abruptly with a high fever, headache, muscle pain, and violent vomiting. Blood pressure falls, blood oozes from every tissue surface, and the kidneys fail. As recently as 1960-62, yellow fever killed thirty thousand people in Ethiopia. The Congo has also been plagued by tuberculosis, pneumonia, smallpox, influenza, and with the arrival of Europeans and Arabs, syphilis. Until European rule took hold early in the twentieth century, there were wars, too, and both cannibalism and slavery were common although not universal. Nevertheless, the Congo’s population was large, perhaps as much as 20 million people, and growing at the time of European contact at the end of the fifteenth century.
The ancestors of these people began to migrate south and west into the Congo basin perhaps five thousand years ago. The first to arrive were light-skinned Pygmies, who lived by hunting and gathering in the Congo’s game-rich forests. They were not warlike, but despite their diminutive size they were well able to defend themselves if attacked. Capable of hiding almost to the point of invisibility in their dense forests, they could throw a spear hard enough to pass halfway through a man and could fire their deadly poisoned arrows so rapidly that four could be in the air before the first one struck. Although these little people-even today men average less than four feet six inches in height while the women are smaller still—did not practice any form of horticulture, they knew how to make fire, were skilled metallurgists, had effective medical practitioners, and created a joyous way of life that continues to this day among Pygmy groups.
Sometime around two thousand years ago, much taller, usually but not always darker-skinned Bantu-speaking horticulturalists began to move into the basin, fully settling it by A.D. 1,000. They borrowed much from the Pygmies, who traded dried meat and honey for agricultural products, salt, and iron.6 Bantu people treated the Pygmies as markedly inferior—“mere animals” they often called them—and in return the Pygmies had little respect for the Bantu people. Yet, in their growing interdependence with farmers, the Pygmies somehow lost their languages. Nevertheless, they were highly successful hunters and gatherers. Pygmy groups routinely gathered nine or ten types of fruit, as many as eight types of snails, thirteen kinds of termites, and over twenty kinds of caterpillars, as well as several kinds of honey and over thirty types of mushrooms. Their nutrition was every bit as good as that of the Bantu farmers, and sometimes better.7
Like the Pygmies, Bantu-speaking farmers sometimes hunted, trapped, and gathered, but they relied mainly on cultivation. Initially dependent on yams, they later adopted imported American plants such as maize, manioc, beans, and tobacco and also came to rely on avocados, sugarcane, pineapples, coconuts, tangerines, peanuts, and especially bananas, which were relatively easy to grow as they required little clearing of forests yet provided a yield ten times that of yams.8 One large Bantu society, the Bakongo Kingdom, cultivated twelve species of vegetables, a different one becoming ripe each month of the year.9 These farming people became highly skilled ironworkers, potters, weavers, and artists. The social systems they created were complex yet effective. There was little crime and steady population growth. There were many differences among the hundreds of societies in the Congo. Some had marked social inequality, while others were largely egalitarian; some had complex ceremonials, while others did not; some were fiercely warlike but others avoided conflict whenever possible; and some lived in simple bamboo houses, while others fashioned large wooden homes that were elegantly decorated. Despite warfare and the ravages of tropical disease, their populations grew, their religious beliefs and institutions prospered, and most people’s lives appear to have been rewarding.
In the fifth century B.C., Herodotus told of an expedition that sailed south of the Canary Islands, and in the first century A.D., Pliny described an admiral who sailed all the way to Senegal.10 But no European is known to have ventured into the Congo’s “darkness” until 1482, ten years before Columbus sailed to North America. Both dangerous and alluring, Africa south of the Sahara was still thought by Europeans to be the home of one-eyed or two-headed people, among other monsters, as well as ferocious, gigantic animals, including birds large enough to carry away elephants, and ants as big as foxes. It was also thought to be the home of long-lost Prester (Presbyter) John, a Christian king who according to legend possessed a fountain of youth as well as unimaginable wealth from his many gold mines. Thanks to a forged letter from Prester John that reached the pope around A.D. 1165, Europeans became terrified of Africa. The letter not only described his wealth, it warned of Africa’s horrible dangers and horrors. Thousands of copies were made and it was widely circulated. Some Europeans hoped to discover Prester John and share in his vast riches. But despite the lure of Prester John’s gold and his fountain of youth, Africa’s dangers remained terrifying.
South of the Canary Islands off the southern coast of Morocco lay what was known to Europeans as the dreaded Sea of Darkness, where every imaginable horror awaited any European explorer rash enough to enter it—liquid sheets of flame falling from the sky, a boiling ocean, mountainous waves, and deadly whirlpools where Satan lay in wait to kill. Should anyone miraculously survive these deadly terrors, he would be forever lost in the inescapable and even more fearsome Sea of Obscurity, which lay beyond the Sea of Darkness. Yet urged on by their king, who craved the riches of unknown lands as well as the discovery of a passageway to the great wealth of India, dauntless Portuguese ship captains eventually sailed through the Seas of Darkness and Obscurity in such numbers that by the middle of the fifteenth century, fifty of their ships had reached the coast of Guinea. They returned to Portugal with over a thousand African slaves. Arabs had long taken African slaves from Sudan, but these were the first Africans known to be enslaved by Europeans.11
All the while, shipbuilders in Lisbon—at the cutting edge of their profession—worked to improve their sailing ships, especially the new caravel, a relatively small vessel, only sixty to a hundred feet long, with a broad bow, small stern, three masts bearing cloth and lateen sails, and a crew no larger than fifty or sixty men. By the latter half of the fifteenth century these new ships were able to survive powerful storms and to sail into the wind. As the years passed, Portuguese caravels sailed progressively farther south down Africa’s northwest coast and then east along its south-facing western “slave” and “gold” coast, as it would later be named by British explorers and slave traders. In 1482, an experienced ship captain, Diogo Cão, sailed his caravel farther south than any other European had ever been, well beyond the Sea of Darkness and the Sea of Obscurity, even beyond the equator.
As he sailed south below the equator, still 150 miles from shore, Cão was surprised to see the blue-green ocean slowly turning the color of tea, then dark brown, before, to his amazement, it became covered by plants of all sorts, including large trees. As he approached the shoreline, sailing against a current of nearly ten miles an hour although he was still dozens of miles offshore, he finally saw the seven-mile-wide mouth of a silt-filled river surrounded by several more miles of small streams, sandbanks, and mangroves. The Congo, home to more than five hundred species of fish, some of them over four feet long, was far larger than any river that Cão or any other European had ever seen. It was the second-largest river in the entire world. Only the Amazon carried more water to the sea.
After he had come ashore, Cão somehow managed to ask the Bakongo people who lived along its estuary what the river was called; they answered, “Nzere, the river that swallows all others.”12 Cão misheard the name as Zaire, and the river was known by this name until some years later, when it became known as the Congo, after the Bakongo people to whom Cão had spoken. In the Bantu language spoken by these natives, the prefix Ba in Bakongo indicates “people of” Kongo. Cão sent four of his sailors to the king of the Bakongo with gifts, giving the men a date beyond which he could not wait for their safe return. Although Cão actually waited well past this deadline, his men did not return. In retaliation, Cão seized four high-ranking Bakongo hostages at gunpoint and sailed home.
Before Cão sailed to Portugal, he erected a five-foot-tall stone pillar topped by an iron cross that he had carried from Portugal—a padrão—as an official notification of Portuguese dominion. Carved into the stone by order of Portugal’s King John II were these memorable, if immodest, words: “In the year 6681 of the world and in that of 1482 since the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, the most serene, the most excellent and potent prince, King John II of Portugal did order this land to be discovered and this pillar of stone to be erected by Diogo Cão, an esquire in his household.”13 The pillar stood until the mid-1600s when a Dutch warship shelled it.
Cão sailed back to Africa three years later. He first tried and failed to find a route to India by sailing as far south as he could. He was forced to return to the great river, where he hoped to recover the four men he had left behind. This time he found them. They explained that they had missed the deadline three years before because of language difficulties, then regaled Cão with tales of how well they had been treated, with ample food, comfortable housing, and bevies of attractive young women. Cão then set free his four Bakongo hostages, who had been treated exceptionally well in Portugal, where they had received many indulgences from King John II. They had lived in the royal palace, been taught to speak Portuguese, and exposed to the dazzling wonders of Lisbon. In return for all of this, King John II hoped that when returned to their homeland, they would convince the king of the Bakongo to become an ally of Portugal’s.14 To the amazement of the Bakongo, these four men returned wearing the elegant garments of Portuguese noblemen and had nothing but praise for King John II and the Portuguese. The king of the Bakongo was so impressed that he designated one of those noblemen, a man named Nsaka, as his ambassador to John II. Accompanied by several children of other nobles, Nsaka went to Portugal with Cão and spent five years in Lisbon. The children were adopted as the godchildren of Portuguese nobility.
After an exchange of gifts and pleasantries with the king of the Bakongo, Cão then sailed one hundred miles up the Congo River until he was stopped by the Yellala Cataract at the Crystal Mountains, a three-hundred-foot-tall waterfall that sent deafening torrents of water crashing down. Cão and his party were awestruck. They managed to climb to the top of the cataract, where Cão engraved an open rock face with the shield of Portugal, a cross, and an inscription reading, “Here arrived the ships of the illustrious King John II of Portugal. Diogo Cão. Pêrc Anes. Pêro de Costa.”15
Cão left no written record of what he saw, but in 1883, the English adventurer Sir Harry Hamilton Johnston described what he saw from the spot where Cão and his companions must have stood:
It was a grand view … we looked down some hundred feet on the giant Congo, leaping over the rocks and dashing itself wrathfully against the imprisoning hills. Several islands bestrewed its stream, one especially remarkable from being a mass of velvet woods. This was called the Island of Pelicans, for numbers of these giant birds used this inaccessible spot as a breeding-place.
Before the first fall took place the river came gliding on so smoothly, with such a glass surface, as if never suspecting the terrible conflict before it, and when at first it met the rocks and the descent it streamed over them almost unresistingly until, exasperated by repeated checks, in the last grand Fall of Yelala [sic], it lashed itself into white and roaring fury, and the sound of its anger deafened one’s ears, and the sight of its foam dazzled the eyes.16
Cão had no means of knowing that for the next two hundred miles upriver, the Congo River is torn by thirty-one powerful cataracts like the one before him. Beyond them lay a large, still pool, twenty-five miles long and sixteen miles wide, containing seventeen islands. Inland from this pool, the river is navigable for one thousand miles, after which there are more dramatic waterfalls. Fed by innumerable rivers and streams, in places the Congo River is an incredible ten miles wide. Though his ships successfully sailed back to Portugal, Cão himself was never again mentioned in written records. It is believed that he died there in the Crystal Mountains.17
Six years later, in 1491, in response to a request by Afonso I, the king of the Bakongo, an expedition of Portuguese soldiers, laborers, priests, masons, carpenters, and artisans, many of them accompanied by their wives, arrived at the mouth of the Congo. After a ten-day march of 150 miles along a road that was swept clean by the orders of Afonso I, who also sent food to them each day, they arrived in the capital of the Bakongo people. They were immediately taken to the king, who welcomed them on his handsome ebony throne inlaid with ivory on a raised platform.18 One by one, the men knelt and kissed his hand before showering him with gifts, including bolts of silk and satin, gold and silver jewelry, and for some obscure reason, a flock of red pigeons. The king welcomed them warmly in a grand, if tumultuous, ceremony. His hospitality may have been sincere; he had, after all, heard such wondrous praise of the Portuguese from the four Bakongo who had spent three years with them. But it may also have reflected his wish to use their muskets to put down a troublesome provincial rebellion. Still, undoubtedly, he was also greatly impressed by Portuguese riches, which he hoped to share.19 The Portuguese immediately set themselves to building stone churches, schools, and living quarters. As soon as the first church was built, the king was baptized, as were many of his nobles.20
King Afonso I maintained an elaborate court at the capital town of San Salvador, located on a cliff top to the southeast of the Congo River. He was surrounded by a host of slaves, pages, and personal attendants, as well as his harem of wives. Special officials such as a chief priest and a royal executioner were also in attendance.21 Afonso I had a ritual relationship to the land, and as was common in West Africa, no one was permitted to observe a sovereign eating or drinking—he intended to convince his subjects that, unlike mere mortals, he needed no earthly sustenance. The symbols of his high office included that throne with its ivory carvings, a white cap, and a zebra’s tail. He exercised supreme judicial power, including the exclusive right to order the death penalty. However, such orders appear to have been rare. Instead, the king spent his days in public discussions. As a later British visitor noted of the Bakongo people, “They take a keen delight in oratory, which may in fact be said to constitute one of their important arts. They talk fluently and employ many metaphorical and flowery expressions. Possessing a natural gift of rude eloquence, it is greatly enhanced in effect by the soft inflections and the harmonious euphony of their language; they reason well and display great aptitude for debate.”22
The visitors soon learned that in addition to the yams, bananas, and other various fruits and vegetables they cultivated, the Bakongo also raised cattle, goats, and pigs. They used cowrie shells as currency, their value regulated by the royal court, which also collected taxes. The Portuguese were enormously impressed not only by the low rate of crime but by the artistry the Bakongo displayed in smelting iron, forging copper by means of the lost wax process, carving marble into columns and obelisks, weaving cloth, and carving wood and ivory. The ivory impressed them most of all; they soon exported it to Europe in large quantities. The Portuguese were pleased to learn that not only were the Bakongo horrified by the idea of cannibalism, which the Portuguese believed was practiced by all Africans, but they were also mild-mannered, dignified people who were respectful of their women and children.23 They were anything but the “naked savages” the Portuguese had expected to find.
The Portuguese priests, who rapidly undertook missionary activities, were, however, appalled by the multiple wives possessed by the Bakongo men who could afford them, but they were unable to end the practice. Nor did they succeed in convincing the Bakongo to destroy their fetishes and idols, or to cease the erotic rituals the priests found so un-Christian. Most important for the course of future events in the Congo, neither Portuguese laymen nor priests were at all horrified by the Bakongo practice of slavery.
The Bakongo had four categories of slaves: persons from other tribes captured in warfare, Bakongo debtors, criminals, and children given away by their families as part of a dowry. Some types of slaves were treated quite well, while others, especially criminals, were not, but all slaves were productive members of society, and some earned their freedom.24 Even though King Afonso I banished the increasingly meddlesome Portuguese from his kingdom in 1495, only four years after their arrival, they remembered avidly the large numbers of Bakongo slaves, their many useful skills, and the obvious reality that many other valuable people like them could either be purchased or, thanks to Portuguese muskets, captured.
Although their priests had been expelled, a few Portuguese slave buyers continued to arrive in the Congo, particularly after Brazil was “discovered” by the Portuguese in 1500. That new colony’s developing mines and coffee plantations cried out for slave labor, and Portuguese of all sorts, including even some of the Roman Catholic priests who had been expelled, rushed back to the Congo to engage in the already immensely profitable slave trade. Located several hundred miles to the north of the Congo River’s estuary, the island of São Tome played a crucial role in the early days of the slave trade. First sighted by the Portuguese in 1470, it soon after became a colony for exiled Portuguese Jews, expatriates, and criminals, who served their time there while supervising the agricultural labor of thousands of African slaves, many of whom would later be shipped to Brazil. Until well into the 1500s, however, most of the African slaves from the Congo wound up in Portugal itself, not Brazil. In 1535, for example, four thousand to five thousand slaves were sent to Portugal from the Congo, and in several parts of Portugal, Africans made up more than 50 percent of the population.25 There were illicit sexual relations between Portuguese men and slave women, but African slaves were typically not well treated. Slave owners were not even required to bury dead slaves. Instead, their bodies were thrown into a roadside ditch where dogs ate them.26
Meanwhile, more and more heavily armed Portuguese slave traders, inevitably followed by Catholic priests, made their way to the shores of the Congo River, most of them moving inland some sixty miles to Boma on the north bank of the Congo River, a place that was then so hot, swampy, and infested by huge mosquitoes that it was virtually unlivable. Others went to nearby areas in the west of the Congo, where missions and schools were built to “civilize” and baptize the Bakongo people who lived in this region. Many Portuguese traders did not set an exemplary example of Christian civilization. One of these, a ship’s captain named Gonsalve Rodrigues, arrived in the court of King Afonso I in 1506, claiming falsely that King Manoel of Portugal had sent him to pick up two missionaries and take them back to Portugal. Hoping to create a positive relationship with King Manoel, Afonso I gave up the missionaries, who were at odds with him in any event, and sent the Portuguese king many expensive gifts and valuable slaves. When sickness broke out aboard ship, Rodrigues heartlessly put the afflicted slaves ashore on a deserted coast to fend for themselves. He also ruthlessly threw overboard slave children, who had little value because of their age, along with at least one older slave who had somehow displeased him. And he kept all the gifts meant for King Manoel for himself.27
By this time, King Afonso I had been baptized and was promoting the missionaries’ efforts to Christianize the Bakongo, but relations between him and his European visitors remained tense. Portuguese priests simply could not abide polygyny, but those Bakongo men who were wealthy enough to afford multiple wives staunchly refused to give them up. Matters worsened when it became clear to the Bakongo that Church doctrine called only for baptizing slaves, not doing anything to improve the quality of their lives. As far as the priests were concerned, it was quite acceptable for Africans to be taken into slavery as long as they were baptized. The priests’ greatest fear was that slaves, or any other Africans, might live as “heathens.”28 More remarkable still, many priests actually joined in the slave trade, explaining that their low salaries forced them to do so.29
Afonso I grew disillusioned with his Christian visitors and the increasingly vicious slave trade they were causing to expand. Slavery had become so profitable by the 1530s that some Bakongo were actually selling members of their own family into slavery. In 1540, after King Afonso I had increased his earlier attempts to curtail the slave trade, several Portuguese merchants tried unsuccessfully to kill him during a mass that he attended on Easter Sunday. By the time of his natural death, three years later, his support for the missionaries had ended, and by 1560, almost all of the Catholic missionaries had been made to feel so unwelcome that they returned to Portugal.
In the 1600s, Dutch sea power weakened the grip of Portuguese slave traders in the Congo. Other European traders began to arrive in significant numbers as well. More and more, the remaining Portuguese retreated south into what is now Angola. In 1665, the Bakongo king, Antonio I, assembled an army of some seventy thousand men, led by ten Europeans, and attacked a force of three hundred and sixty Portuguese soldiers plus six or seven thousand warlike Yaga tribesmen, in Angola. The attack failed, and King Antonio I was killed along with one hundred of his Bakongo leaders, precipitating a disorganized and bloody flight by the surviving Bakongo. Pursued into their homeland, they were so shattered that their kingdom would never again regain its former power.
The Angolan victors also took many slaves, aided by Portuguese priests, many of whom lived astonishingly dissolute lives. They drank heavily, kept concubines, took part in pagan ceremonies, and actually charged a fee for administering the sacraments. Some priests were even accused of cannibalism, and one priest was accused of poisoning another.30 At the same time that these less than Christian actions were taking place, two Catholic priests became the first Europeans to get past the Crystal Mountain’s Yellala Cataract and the others behind it on the lower Congo River and actually reach what later became known as Stanley Pool, two hundred miles inland. Their reports were buried in long-forgotten archives.31 Despite feats like this, as the years passed, the priests’ influence, like that of the sober Capuchins—an austere branch of the first order of St. Francis of Assisi—who had followed them, weakened so steadily that by the early 1800s, those Congolese who wore crucifixes viewed them as simply another talisman.
That the Capuchins were anything but enamored of the Bakongo as potential Christians can be seen in these comments made by the Capuchin missionary Antonio de Gaeta in 1669:
Devils by the deformation of their features, devils by the blackness of their bodies, devils in their souls because their wills are always fixed on evil; devils in their thinking, by continually having in mind superstition, witchcraft and sorcery; devils in their speaking, by the great lies they utter; devils in their actions, by so many grave sins which they commit; and finally, devils and more than devils, damned and more than damned, by that bestial pride, that inhuman and barbarous cruelty, which they display all the time and in every action.32
French Catholic missionaries, on the other hand, learned to speak Kikongo, generally respected the Bakongo people, and were well received by them in return. However, deadly diseases soon forced the French priests to abandon their work.
While most European missionaries and slave traders stayed near the coast in the far west, a few explored inland. In 1806, two Portuguese mulattoes walked all the way from coastal Angola to Mozambique, spending considerable time during their journey in mineral-rich Katanga in the southernmost part of the Congo, where they were the first non-Africans the inhabitants there had ever seen.33
British interest in Central Africa was negligible until 1807, when Britain outlawed slavery and the Royal Navy began to suppress the transatlantic slave trade. Even so, the British expressed no apparent interest in the Congo River until 1814, when two Royal Navy frigates sailed fifty miles up the river to the dismal trading station of Boma. Their officers found little worthy of mention in their reports except the dangers posed by the river’s strong current and its “floating islands with trees still erect,” as they described the river’s debris that they observed floating out to sea.34 However, their visit must have had an impact on the Foreign Office because, in the following year, the British government not only financed a major expedition to the Congo River but commissioned the first steamship ever built by the Royal Navy to lead it. The ship’s construction took much longer than anticipated, so it was replaced by the sailing sloop Congo, accompanied by the troopship Dorothy, filled with supplies, not soldiers. The two ships set sail from England on February 25, 1815, under the command of Royal Navy captain James Kingston Tuckey, a thin, tall, forty-two-year-old veteran of naval service in the Caribbean, Europe, and India, as well as nine years of captivity in France during the Napoleonic wars. During his captive years, he married an Englishwoman, also a prisoner, and had two sons.
Tuckey was instructed to record as much as possible about the Congo’s slave trade, its geography, animal life, minerals, vegetation, climate, and its people’s “genius and disposition.”35 To assist him in this daunting mission, Tuckey assembled a crew of fifty-three Europeans including carpenters, blacksmiths, a surgeon, fourteen Royal Marines, an anatomist to study local animals, a gardener from the Royal Gardens at Kew, a self-taught natural historian, and a thirty-one-year-old Norwegian professor of botany with the unlikely name of Smith. Several African seamen sailed with the expedition as well. A kind and courteous man, Tuckey demonstrated a respect for the Congolese people that was remarkable for that time—and would remain so for a century to come—issuing this written order to his crew: “As one of the objects of the expedition is to view and describe manners, it will be highly improper to interrupt, in any matter, the ceremonies of the native, however they may shock humanity or create disgust; and it is equally necessary, in the pursuits of the different Naturalists, to avoid offending the superstitions of the natives in any of their venerated objects.”36
When Tuckey’s ship arrived at the mouth of the Congo on July 5, 1816, the current was slow and he sailed on to Boma without difficulty. There he found seven Portuguese slave ships along with one apparently (from the colors it was flying) Spanish slaver that actually fired a warning shot toward him, then fled. Tuckey ignored the incident and the remaining slave ships and went ashore. He soon concluded that the practice of kidnapping slaves would not exist were it not for the presence of European slave traders, who, he noted with disgust, gave the Congolese only brandy, muskets, and gunpowder in return for slaves.37 He described the Africans he saw in Boma as “sulky looking vagabonds, dirty, swarming with lice,” a product, he wrote, of the shameful Portuguese “civilization” that had given the Congolese nothing but the torn and filthy clothes the people wore. He also met with the Bakongo chief of the Boma area. After an exchange of gifts and pleasantries, the British visitors were offered women, but Tuckey declined their services. Thanks to the unbelievably fortuitous presence of an English-speaking Bakongo member of Tuckey’s crew, they learned a great deal about Bakongo culture.
In a story that is truly stranger than fiction, eleven years earlier this same wealthy and powerful Bakongo chief had seen enough of European ships, weapons, and material culture to realize that a European education could vastly improve the life—and the influence—of an African who received one. Choosing one of his favorite sons, who was then about ten years old, he trustingly gave much ivory and other valuables to a British ship captain to take the boy to Britain, to see that he was educated there, then to safely return him to his father. This captain, whose name is unknown, happily accepted the gifts and readily agreed to see to the boy’s education, but he sailed not to England but to the Caribbean, where he promptly sold the boy into slavery in St. Kitts. There the boy, who became known as Simmons, learned English as a field hand, and after some eleven years of life as a slave managed to stow away on a British ship and escape to England, where he was immediately set free. Sir H. Popham, the captain of the ship on which Simmons had stowed away, learned about Tuckey’s expedition and told Simmons about it. He was taken on as a cook’s mate.38
As fortune would have it, Simmons’s father was still alive when Tuckey’s expedition arrived. The aging chief had faithfully met every British ship that had visited the Boma area for the past eleven years hoping to find his son. When he was finally reunited with his son, he was overjoyed, hugging him passionately as Tuckey and his crew looked on.39 Tuckey observed that Simmons, dressed in an English jacket and trousers, and proud of his ability to speak English, seemed somewhat embarrassed by his father’s ecstasy.40 If so, the old chief could not restrain himself. He immediately ordered his son treated as a prince, dressing him in a silk coat embroidered with silver, a black glazed hat sporting an enormous grenadier feather, and a silk sash that held a ship’s cutlass. Shaded by slaves carrying umbrellas, the young man was carried everywhere in a palanquin, escorted by twenty men with muskets, given every favor, and addressed as Prince Schi.
Simmons, or Prince Schi, continued to interpret for Tuckey as he sailed farther up the Congo past scenery that Tuckey called “as beautiful and not inferior to any on the banks of the Thames.”41 But once beyond the Kikongo language area, Simmons abandoned the expedition, returning to his father and his people. Tuckey was able to sail upriver for 145 miles before he encountered the impassable Yellala Cataract as Cão had done, and like Cão, he was determined to press on. For another fifty miles, he and several of his men struggled ahead, climbing up the steep, rugged, almost perpendicular, quartz-rock-strewn Crystal Mountains, dotted with red boulders, tufts of purple grass, and scrubby thorn trees. However, by early September the terrain had become so formidable, food so scarce, and the Europeans so sick with intense fevers that he had to turn back.
Tuckey and his botanist colleague, Dr. Chetien Smith, left extensive descriptions of the landscape as well as sensitive accounts of the people and their cultures. They, too, reported that they found no cannibalism. However, Smith was concerned about what he saw as the exploitation of women as laborers by “indolent” men.42 He also concluded that three hundred years of Portuguese missionary work had achieved no significant effect, largely, he believed, because the Catholic missionaries were so intolerant of polygyny that the Congolese ignored them.43 Tuckey went on to describe the Congolese people as honorable, honest, “extremely hospitable to strangers and always ready to share their pittance, sometimes scanty enough, with the passing stranger.”44
As the explorers attempted to make their way back to their ships, the onslaught of fever—in all probability yellow fever—worsened, and Tuckey’s last journal entry was on September 18, 1816. His last written words were: “Flocks of flamingos going to the south denote the approach of the rains.”45 Although the weather was idyllic throughout their stay in the Congo with the mercury rarely rising over seventy-six degrees Fahrenheit or falling below sixty degrees at night, Tuckey, Smith, and nineteen others of the fifty-six Europeans on the expedition died. The ship’s surgeon wrote that most died of a violent fever, but that some, including Tuckey, seemingly died of exhaustion. It is assumed that Prince Schi survived and chose to remain with his father in the Congo, but nothing is known about the remainder of his life.
After the survivors of the Tuckey expedition returned to England, the country’s political leaders and traders alike lost interest in the Congo until 1840, when antislavery patrols by the Royal Navy began in earnest in that part of Africa. Previous to that time, the Royal Navy had been restricted to patrols north of the equator. Slave ships could often outsail the Royal Navy ships, and even when the British succeeded in capturing Portuguese slave ships, the result was usually hellish. In 1857, Commander Jason Hunt of the steam sloop Alecto captured the slave vessel Windward, with 603 slaves on board, chained and packed almost on top of one another. Hunt drove the slave ship toward the the British Colony of St. Helena, but before he could land, 149 of the slaves had died. Many of the others Hunt freed far from home probably died as well. 46
At the same time, British trading firms set themselves up at Boma, dealing in ivory, copper, and palm oil. It is seldom recognized that, by the 1880s, British trade in the Congo had become extensive, worth £2 million per annum in 1884, compared to £3 million for the far more developed and seemingly richer West African Bights of Benin and Biafra combined.47 The British government and its traders insisted on their commercial rights in the Congo, where they typically practiced humanitarianism, providing decent wages and living conditions for their employees, and no tolerance for slavery. British and American Protestant missionaries were active as well.48
The impact of the European presence—slavers, traders, and missionaries—on most Congolese societies was profound, but some chiefdoms and even one large kingdom remained untouched for centuries. The Bakuba Kingdom (also known as Bushongo) in what became Kasai Province in the east-central Congo was not even seen by a European until 1892, when black American missionary William H. Sheppard was permitted to visit their royal court despite a fiercely enforced prohibition against any foreigner doing so. Sheppard had learned the Kuba language from traders who visited his nearby mission station, and his fluency in it convinced Bakuba king Lukenga that Sheppard was a reincarnated Bakuba. The Bakuba had been so isolated that until Sheppard’s arrival they had never seen or even heard a gun.
The kingdom was small, about two-thirds the size of Belgium, and had perhaps 120,000 to 160,000 inhabitants.49 But for Sheppard, and all other Europeans who would later visit the kingdom, it seemed remarkably complex compared to its African neighbors. Public ceremonies exhibited astonishing pomp—honors, insignia, and pageantry. And its artistic tradition was one of the finest in all of Africa. The Bakuba also had a remarkably sophisticated social system, one with marked differences in wealth and power, ranging from wealthy patricians who were virtually above the law, to peasants and slaves. There was greater social inequality among these people than among any other in Central Africa, yet slaves were well treated, and their offspring always became free people. A few slaves were buried with their deceased patrician masters to serve them in the next world; still, there had never been a slave revolt. Bakuba also had a legal system that was unique to all of Africa in its day. Each person accused of a crime was judged by a jury chosen specifically for that case.50
Their religion was intricate as well, boasting a rich variety of gods and a belief in reincarnation, as well as fear of witchcraft and sorcery, a central role for diviners to detect witches, and many cults, ceremonies, and practitioners. There was much grieving for the dead, who were buried in wooden coffins eight feet into the earth. Bakuba men were more involved in clearing fields, harvesting crops, and building granaries than were men in any other Congolese society. Women and girls worked hard as well, tending crops, drawing water, cooking, and caring for the household. The capital city of some ten thousand people was noteworthy for its wide, clean streets, which were tended to early every morning by war captives and convicted criminals. The king’s palace included meeting halls where eighteen powerful counselors discussed and sometimes even dictated policy, but as was the case with the Bakongo, the king alone had the power to order an execution. His palace also held storehouses, his harem, and courtyards for public assemblies, all enclosed by a wall nine to ten feet high. The court collected taxes, imposed corvée labor when needed, and maintained a uniformed police force.51
The king lived lavishly. Pampered in every way, shown every obeisance, and adorned with jewels and cowrie shells, he was sung to sleep by his wives, who also sang him awake in the morning. 52 The wealthy patricians lived almost as grandly. As anthropologist Jan Vansina wrote:
The wealthier patricians lived within fenced compounds in lavishly decorated houses having several rooms and sometimes a separate kitchen, with slaves to serve them and perhaps a snake charmer or other performer for after-dinner entertainment … . The men’s interests among all the patricians revolved around the court, its intrigues ahd its ceremonies, while the women embroidered raffia cloth, did the shopping and kept house, freed from the hard chores of most other women.53
Nothing distinguished the Bakuba more than their artwork. Elegant carvings of wood and ivory were commonplace. Doors and sliding door panels were beautifully carved as well, as were masks, stools, drums, boxes, dishes, and tobacco pipes. There were highly ornamented pots, swords, and metal jewelry. There were also sculptures of people and animals. One that survived to become a museum piece included realistically carved women paddling a canoe filled with boxes of goods. There were elegant gowns of weaving and delicate embroidery. Their cloth was soaked and then beaten until it took on a velvety, silken finish.54 There were also four life-size ebony statues of former kings that were considered sacred.55 Bakuba art has been displayed in museums in Europe and the United States for over a century. Several European artists have been influenced by the Bakuba art they have seen in these museums. Art critics have pointed out that Picasso’s cubist period owes a great deal to the Bakuba art he saw in an exhibit in Paris in 1907.
As one European visitor after another noted, the peoples of the Congo differed greatly. Some practiced slavery and cannibalism, but others did neither. Some welcomed Europeans, others fled or fought. Some were warlike, others were peaceful. Some welcomed the opportunity to work for the Europeans, others fled to the forests. Perhaps predictably, some European visitors characterized the Congolese people as above all lazy, infantile, unintelligent, ungrateful, and lacking foresight.56 One Belgium Catholic missionary described them as “laziness incarnate, turning their hands to nothing, becoming drunk, dead drunk … whereas the women and slaves, driven with the whip, work pitifully hard.”57 A British Protestant missionary wrote, “The chief characteristics of [the Congolese] people appear to be drunkenness, immorality and cruelty.”58 But other Europeans described the Congolese people they met as intelligent, elegant, courageous, gentle, communicative, gay, and thoughtful.59 One young British man who spent several years with different peoples in the Congo concluded in a book he wrote: “It has been my experience that the longer one lives with Africans, the more one grows to love them. Prejudices soon vanish. The black skin loses even something of its unpleasant characteristics, for one knows that it covers such a very human heart.”60
While British firms were setting up trading stations along the Congo coast, followed to a lesser extent by French, Dutch, and other European companies, European exploration continued. In 1848, Hungarian explorer László Magyar, a former lieutenant in the Argentine navy in its wars against Uruguay and the illegitimate son of a Hungarian minor landowner, led a two-month expedition up the Congo River. In his diary he reported that Boma was by then a huge slave market with a large resident population of white slave traders. Tuckey had estimated the annual export of slaves from Boma in 1817 at two thousand; thirty years later, Magyar estimated it at twenty thousand. He was outraged by the inhuman abuses of slaves that he witnessed: “The most heartrending spectacle is when five- or six-year-old children who followed their manacled parents on the long, pitiful journey, as it were sharing their miserable existence, are torn without pity from the arms of their screaming mothers by the inhuman [slave drivers].”61 Magyar climbed to the top of the Yellala Cataract, describing it in his diary:
Then a majestic scene of nature appeared before my eyes. The air was vibrating with the thundering weight of the water, which fell with the speed of lightning. The greenish welter at the base of the fall dissolved into spray, which rose towards heaven, in which the sun transcribed rainbows. An aweinspiring spectacle, at which an ordinary mortal could only worship his creator in amazement … . I could not overcome the depth of the impression this made on me. I watched for a long time sunk into myself.62
Magyar then explored farther inland, leaving behind in his diary detailed and insightful portraits of the people he met. Had he translated his diary into a better-known European language such as German, Italian, Portuguese, or Spanish—all of which he spoke and wrote as well—then sent it to the British Royal Geographical Society, he would have become at least as famous as Dr. David Livingstone later did, as we will see. Instead, the diary languished unread in Hungarian, and Magyar remained virtually unknown, though he spent the next five years exploring Angola and South Africa, traversing much of the same territory later described by Livingstone, who refused Magyar’s request to meet with him.63
After 1853, Magyar lived and explored widely in Central and Southern Africa, marrying the daughter of a chief and also acquiring several slave women as wives, and lots of children. Lacking sponsorship and a source of funding, he could not mount a major exploration of the Congo. He eventually became impoverished and died in 1864 at the age of forty-six. One serious student of Magyar’s life believes that he actually starved to death.64 Unfortunately, most of his letters were lost, and his diary, as I’ve explained, had little impact, although his observations were keen and insightful and his adventures at least as thrilling as those that made David Livingstone famous during the same period.
In 1857, German geographer-ethnographer Adolf Bastian visited the Congo south of the river’s estuary. He wrote warmly of the inhabitants—their great kindness, generosity, and courtesy. But like Magyar, he described an active and brutal Portuguese slave trade. He also reported that Portuguese missionaries publicly flogged Congolese daily. Even women were flogged by the missionaries, who called upon St. Michael and his angels to give them strength. Bastian had little sympathy for the missionaries’ attempts to convert the Congolese people to Christianity, saying that all baptism accomplished was to replace tattooing as a ritual practice, and that baptism was an “easily displaceable rite.”65 As Tuckey had noted earlier, Bastian wrote that crosses were to be seen everywhere but that for the Congolese people they were simply another of their many fetishes and had no Christian significance.
The legendary British adventurer Sir Richard F. Burton traveled up the Congo River in 1863, visiting a number of tribal peoples. As was usual in his African travels, Burton described these people as members of “lower races,” but his view did not prevent him from consorting with beautiful Somali women, from whom he acquired syphilis. His ardor may have contributed to his conflict with Somali warriors, one of whom drove a spear into his left cheek and out his right one. After his widely published travels in East Africa in the late 1850s that led to many controversies about the source of the Nile, Burton became British consul for West Africa from 1861 to 1864. When he began his trip up the Congo River, he was recovering from a severe bout of malaria but found the cool air near the Yellala cataract “charming, quite a sanitarium.” His account of his exploration was preceded by lengthy comments about the Portuguese missionaries’ brutal despotism.66 Like others before him, he noted that while many Congolese people wore crucifixes, “all traces of Christianity had disappeared.”67 Burton was as critical of missionaries as he was of slave traders.
Burton also described the Congo’s topography, vegetation, animals, and villages in great and erudite detail, often referring to obscure aspects of African history. But the spirit of Africa still comes through. He was particularly struck by the total silence that night brought—“neither beast, nor bird nor sound of water.” 68 He climbed to the top of Yellala Falls, which he measured at 390 feet, and grudgingly declared that it had “a certain beauty and grandeur,” but he was unable to travel farther upriver.69 Because Burton’s expedition had not been approved by the British Foreign Office, he had to pay all of its expenses himself. Burton’s two-volume book about his travels appeared in 1876. Yet, despite Burton’s genius and the power of his writing, not until 1877 did Henry Stanley bring the Congo to the world’s attention. As we shall see in the next chapter, Stanley’s book in 1877 describing his adventures down the Congo to the sea, opened “The Land Beyond Obscurity” to European rapacity, and a new kind of darkness.
THE TROUBLED HEART OF AFRICA: A HISTORY OF THE CONGO. Copyright © 2002 by Robert B. Edgerton. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.