Marcus Roberts Phipps Dorman.

A Journal of a Tour in the Congo Free State online

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and guns are restored to us with pretty little souvenir marks on the
butts. We next apply for a special licence to shoot big game, and this
is promised, but as it takes time to prepare will be sent up country
after us.

The import duly on alcohol is very heavy and runs up to 47 per cent. _ad
valorem_ and no still of any kind is permitted to be set up in the
country. Beyond Matadi indeed, special permission has to be obtained
before Europeans can carry any spirituous liquors, and then they have to
declare that it is not for sale to the natives. Heads of commercial
houses are made responsible for the observance of this law by their
employés and the State officials themselves are only permitted to have
three litres of spirits each month, while absinthe is entirely
prohibited. Every white man, however, is given one litre of red wine
each day as a ration and there seems to be no limit to the amount of
beer which may be drunk, except its great price, for a bottle of lager
costs 3 francs at Leopoldville and twice that amount higher up the

It is indeed becoming apparent that the Government is a veritable parent
and a stern one also. However, as we promise to be good boys we are
permitted to carry a few cases of whisky and wine - after paying the
duty - to act as _medical comforts_. in case of sickness. These medical
comforts are also a feature of the State, each white being allowed a
bottle or two of champagne and port every three months. Every official
indeed receives much kindness and consideration from the State but is
severely punished any lapse of duty. The whites are fined for
carelessness or negligence, by stopping their pay for a certain number
of days, and for serious offences any official may be revocated, when he
will perhaps lose six months' or even a years' pay. Offences against the
penal laws are of course punished by imprisonment.

An excellent institution in Boma is the _colonie scolaire_ where
foundlings are reared and educated. Orphans, deserted children,
half-castes, all are received and trained for some useful purpose, some
entering the army, some engaging on the plantations, some becoming
servants to the officials.

It is impossible to form any idea of the Congo native in Boma, for the
blacks are of very different nationalities. Natives from Lagos,
Sierra-Leone, Portuguese and French territory, all are attracted by the
high wages to be earned in the town. Indeed at present most of the
positions of responsibility, requiring a fair education, are held by
foreign blacks, for very few true Congolese can be trusted. The personal
servants we engaged were thus all foreigners in the State service. Two
rejoiced in the names of Chikaia and Jean, and acted as _boys_. _i.e._ as
valets, butlers and general servants while Luembo was cook, and Mavunga,
washerman. Each one had a formal contract of five articles signed by us,
by a delegate for the Governor General, and by the Judge of Première
Instance, whose duty it was to see the contract was not broken. The
State indeed, superintends everything even to the finding and engaging
of private servants for travellers. The wages earned by these boys are
very much higher than servants receive in India or China. The cook was
paid 35 francs and the others 25 francs per month and all found.

The Customs, the Post Office, and the Land Office, are all conveniently
situated in one building on the beach near to the landing pier. In the
latter, all the landowners in the State are registered, careful maps
being prepared showing the extent and position of each plot of land. The
land laws are very simple. The villages are the absolute freehold
property of the natives, and are registered in the names of the Chiefs.
Vacant lands as usual are the property of the State and the Chartered
Companies, Missionaries, and Traders, as a rule, are annual leaseholders
but the lease is always renewed if the conditions on which it is granted
are observed.

On Sunday we lunched with the Governor General, Mr. Gohr, the Director
of Justice - who at present is in the unenviable position of having many
critics in Europe, usually imperfectly informed of the details and
evidence laid before the judges - Mr. Vandamme, who knows everyone and
everything connected with the State, Commandant and Madame Sillye, Judge
and Madame Webber, and some others. Afterwards, Mr. Webber, the Judge of
the Court of Première Instance, who is an excellent pianist, gives us
proof of his talent. This is the last pleasant music we are fated to
hear for many a month, for nothing but concertinas and gramophones are
found in the interior.


Having obtained bundles of permits to do various things, and arranged
for letters and parcels to be sent after us into the interior, we left
Boma on the morning of July 19th for Matadi in the _Leopoldville_.. The
Congo just above Boma somewhat resembles the Highlands of Scotland, and
the similarity was emphasised by the fact that it was raining hard.
The hills were bare of trees, the current ran rapidly, forming
whirlpools, while many sleepy crocodiles lazily flopped into the water
as we passed. After ascending some twenty miles, the river turns sharply
to the right and runs between cliffs which descend sheer into the water,
forming a narrow chasm not more than half a mile broad. As the whole of
the immense volume of water in the Congo has to pass through this gorge,
it is enormously deep and the current is very rapid. The depth has not
been accurately ascertained, but it is certainly 500 feet, if not more,
and the flow of the water is at the rate of nearly ten knots an hour, so
that the smaller steamers cannot ascend at all, and the larger only
creep slowly up.


Matadi is soon after in sight. It is built on the south side of the
Congo valley, for, as a glance at the map will explain, the State owns
both banks at this point, but further up, the river becomes the frontier
with the French Congo. Matadi is an ancient - if the word may be used in
connection with the Congo at all - settlement, constructed at the point
where navigation on the river is interrupted by cataracts and rapids for
some two hundred miles until smooth water is reached again at Stanley
Pool. A caravan route runs from Matadi to Leopoldville, and it was
during the march of twenty days over the mountains that in the early
days, so much trouble was occasioned by the native porters. All this is
abolished now by the railway. The town itself stands on the side of a
steep hill and consists of narrow streets paved with cobbles. Here as
usual in the Congo, man is restricted to his primeval method of
locomotion. Two iron piers jut into the stream and at their ends the
European steamers discharge their cargoes into the railway trucks
alongside. High up on the hill stands a capacious stone structure, the
house of the Commissioner of the Matadi District, Mr. De Rache, with
whom we dine, after arranging to leave by the train which starts next
day. The distance to be traversed is 220 miles and the fare is £8 each
1st. class and £1 second for the boys. Besides this, baggage over a
hundred kilos, is charged at the rate of one franc a kilo, which is
probably the highest rate paid for railway travelling in the world. Our
fares indeed cost us about £80.

Early in the morning of the 20th, we leave Matadi. The train consists of
two engines, two open covered carriages for the second class passengers,
who are mostly natives, a saloon and baggage wagon. The gauge is a very
narrow one, so space is all-important, but the man who designed the
chairs in the saloon must have exercised the most fiendish ingenuity to
make them as uncomfortable as possible. There are six on each side,
arranged in pairs with a small bracket table in between, and each one is
on a pivot. The back is straight upright and the seat is of cane,
cone-shaped, the highest point being in the centre. Now as the curves
and gradients of the line are very sharp indeed, it is necessary to hold
fast the whole time, to prevent slipping on to the floor. If one puts a
foot on the opposite seat to steady oneself, it at once revolves,
leaving the leg in mid air. However, we fix ourselves in as well as
possible and enjoy the magnificent scenery. For a few hundred yards the
line runs along the valley of the Congo and a good view of the lowest
cataract is obtained, the brown water dashing over the rocks and
throwing up spray which is converted into brilliant jewels by the
youthful sun not yet an hour old. Then turning sharply to the right, the
train runs up the valley of the Posu, a mountain torrent which rushes
and roars through a narrow defile. Snorting angrily, the engines climb
up this steep gradient, cross the river by an iron bridge and then
groaning under the brakes, slide down into another valley. The main
direction however, is upwards, and as the country opens out below, one
gets a first impression of the enormity and grandeur of Central Africa.
As far as the eye reaches, are ranges of hills, the Palabala Mountains
crowned by a great cone which appears first on one side then the other,
as we cork-screw our way up. The line indeed is a marvel of engineering
construction, for a most difficult piece of country is traversed without
a single tunnel and with very few cuttings and embankments. The length
of the railway is, of course, very much greater than a straight line
would be between the same points, for it frequently countermarches
backwards and forwards up a hill side, and after a detour of perhaps a
quarter of a mile, comes back to the same place, but thirty or forty
feet higher up. The company which undertook the task of building the
line met with many difficulties, but finished it at a cost of £3,000,000
and many native lives. It was built between the years 1891 and 1897 and
the workmen were recruited from Senegal and the British Colonies of
Africa. Frequent stops are necessary for the engines to drink and gain
their second winds, for their work here is very arduous. After two or
three hours, however, a plateau is reached and the line runs for miles
through dense forests of palms, acacias and _parasol_ trees (native
Motumbi). The name exactly describes these trees, for the branches are
arranged like the ribs, and the leaves spread out and form the covering
of the sunshade.

Between the belts of forests the country is covered with coarse grass,
six or seven feet high, dotted here and there with palms. No vestige of
animal life is visible and only a few natives who are engaged on the
railway. These inhabit villages near at hand, formed of huts built of
reeds or bamboo and thatched with grass. The men wear a loin cloth only,
but the women are wrapped in a plain piece of richly coloured cloth
which reaches from the neck to the ankle leaving the arms and feet bare.
This is evidently a simple length of stuff some three or four feet wide
and, to the masculine eye at least, its method of support remains a
mystery, for no trace of button, hook or pin is apparent. Their faces
are of the negroid type with broad noses and thick lips and the figures
of the women approach the shape of an S reversed thus [backwards S] and
are similar to those which our American cousins have so largely
developed. The men are as a rule thin and tall with very long legs and
all appear to have only small arches to their feet. On the lower Congo
however, there are many foreigners and several other types are visible.
As far as one can judge by the railway cuttings, the soil on the plateau
is coarse sand and gravel containing iron and quite unsuitable for
agricultural purposes under such a hot sun. The air however, as we
approach Tumba, about 2000 feet above sea level, is dry and fresh and at
4 p.m. we halt there for the night.

We are met by Commandant Delhaz, the Commissaire of the Cataracts
District, who kindly places a bungalow at our disposal for the night and
shows us round the settlement. There is only a small native village
here, but large barracks consisting of lines of clean, clay huts
constructed by the soldiers. Tumba is indeed an important military
centre and here again the appearance of the troops is very fine as they
march to the strains of the band which renders snatches from _Faust_,
_Carmen_ and other well known airs with a few native variations. A farm
has been established in the neighbourhood to feed the garrison and an
automobile road is in course of construction.

Next morning, we dress by candle light and make a hasty breakfast, in
the midst of which, at 6 a.m., reveille sounds and the troops assemble
in the square in front of the Residency. Half an hour afterwards, the
train starts, and having perched ourselves on the summits of the seats,
we soon reach Sonna Gongo the half-way house for travellers of the
future. Here is a depot for locomotives and carriages and wooden hotels
are being constructed to accommodate travellers who, after August, will
stop here for the night instead of at Tumba.

Leaving Sonna Gongo, the line rapidly searches for a lower level and the
view is magnificent, as a great endless expanse of land is unfolded.
Here and there are banks of smoke caused by the veldt fires and often
close to the railway the high dry grass has been lighted by a chance
spark from an engine, and is burning furiously. We now zigzag down hill
instead of up and far beneath, can be seen the thin line of rails
glistening in the sun like fillets of silk. Having reached this level,
we plunge through inviting looking forests at one time full of
elephants, buffaloes and other game, but practically deserted now save
by monkeys and parrots.

Soon after the train stops at a station where the natives have assembled
to sell fruit and kwanga, a kind of bread made from the flour of the
manioc root and the chief article of native diet. It consists chiefly of
starch and is not unpleasant when fresh and toasted. The natives
however, prefer all food in a high stage of decomposition and it is some
time before the very smell of it ceases to make one feel ill. To see
them eating kwanga fish or the flesh of elephants, monkeys, antelopes or
other animals generally both rotten and raw is most disgusting and
brings home the fact sharply that man here is of a very low type.

The oranges the natives sell are very acid, more resembling grape-fruit
than the orange of Florida, but the bananas are as good as any in the
world and the pine apples - three of which can be bought for half a
franc - are equal to the finest hot-house variety.

[Illustration: THE STEAMER _FLANDRE_.]

The line now descends again until it reaches a flat hot, sandy and
uninteresting plain across which it runs absolutely straight for seven
miles until it reaches Kinshasa on the South bank of Stanley Pool. A few
miles further on, is the rail head, Leopoldville. Like everything else
in the Congo, this town has been arranged and built for practical use.
The railway runs along the beach so as to facilitate the loading and
unloading of the steamers of the upper river, and in a very short time
all our baggage is taken from the train and carried straight on board
the _Flandre_ where we find cabins booked for us. This is an excellent
arrangement and saves much trouble, for although the steamer does not
sail for two days, passengers are allowed to live on board while in
port. Indeed it is very necessary, for there are no hotels in the town,
and no accommodation for visitors except a few rooms in the commercial

Some traits of the native's character were now to be demonstrated to us.
His main idea always is, to do as little work as possible and he will
often take the greatest trouble in his effort to accomplish this object.
Each native endeavoured to put his load as near the gangway as possible
which was soon blocked and then he had to come back, hoist the package
on his head again and carry it to its proper place. Although this
performance took place every day, unless an officer was constantly on
the watch, the foolish fellows in their attempts to shirk duty brought
upon themselves extra work. The cabins were unfurnished, for everyone
carries his own bed on the Congo, and most also their own tent. It was
therefore necessary to unpack a bed. Here was a difficulty. All the bags
and boxes were carefully numbered by the Army and Navy Stores and the
invoice no doubt sent to my London address but I left before it arrived,
and there was no possibility of discovering which number meant bed.
Seizing a likely looking bale, the boys unlace it, and find a part of a
tent, and a second attempt brings to light another part of a tent. It is
now growing dark and a light is necessary, but in which of these seventy
odd cases is the lamp? Not knowing the native mind, I explain that it is
necessary to hurry and find the bed before dark. This evidently conveys
no meaning at all to the boys, for in the first place it was not their
bed and so it mattered nothing to them, and in the second, they had
never hurried before in their lives, and could not do so now, even if
they wished. Lacing the first bales up slowly and deliberately, they
open another and find a canvas bath and washhandstand. These are at any
rate useful, and encouraged by success we try again and come across
hand-irons and starch. At length we find a thing like a large concertina
which is really a folding bed with pillows and blankets, complete. By
great good luck a mosquito curtain is then found and the steward kindly
lends a candle.

Hot, sticky, tired and cross we prepare for our first meal on a Congo
steamer. It consisted of a soup of mystery, chicken, which had been
washed in the river close to a group of natives bathing and a goat,
killed an hour before dinner, whose flesh was thrown quivering into the
pot. However, there was some bread and tinned peaches and it was no use
being fastidious in Central Africa. This was washed down with the
regulation half litre of red wine, a kind of claret which is quite
drinkable and some native coffee which had a delicate and fine aroma,
but was badly made.

The captain - as indeed are nearly all the officers of the river
steamers - was a Scandinavian and spoke English very well. He explained
that the ship was not very clean or inviting-looking, which was the
truth, but as the lower deck was lumbered up with the horses of
Commandant Sillye and was swarming with natives, it was only to be

Then to bed, but not to sleep, for the boys to save themselves trouble,
had not fixed the mosquito net properly. In my innocence I merely
ordered them to do it and had not stood by and watched. It is indeed
necessary always to see that the native does as he is told, for the
moment one's back is turned, he is eating if there is anything rotten
enough at hand to tempt him and if not, he quietly goes to sleep. Even
these State servants who speak the native language and also a kind of
French, really live the lives of animals, for they eat, drink, and sleep
if left alone and only work when they are shown how, and watched all the

The result was that I spent a most horrible night, for the mosquitoes
were terribly hostile and evidently recognised a new European with some
healthy blood. In the morning, my head, which I had had shaved in the
Congo fashion, was covered with large bumps and face, neck, hands and
wrists were all blotches. It was therefore with little appetite that I
sat down to a breakfast of bread, dutch cheese, curious tinned butter
and weak coffee without milk. Little however, did I think then that in
six short months a Congo steamer would seem like a first class hotel, so
entirely is everything altered by comparison.



The Higher Congo.

Next day we make a formal call on Mr. Mahieu, Inspecteur d'Etat of the
Congo State, whose headquarters are at Leopoldville. He is a very busy
man with a multitude of duties, for the paternal system is continued all
through the State and the most trivial matters are always referred to
the highest official in the neighbourhood. As we are to lunch at the
Residency, we do not stay long, but take a ride with Commandant and Mme.
Sillye on four of the horses the former purchased at Dakar. Although a
little stiff after their holiday of a month, they have not been
otherwise affected by their sea voyage and two days in the train. Along
the beach are many steamers charging and discharging and others on the
slips being repaired or partly built. These steamers are all brought out
in sections and put together on the beach. They are flat bottomed, are
driven by stern wheels and only draw three or four feet of water. They
all burn wood, and special depots are formed at intervals on the rivers
where stores of this fuel are collected. Should however, a steamer run
short, it is only necessary to stop and send the crew ashore with knives
for the banks are lined with forest.

Leaving the beach we ride through avenues of palms and mango trees to
higher ground, whence a beautiful view can be obtained of Stanley Pool.
This is really a part of the river about sixteen miles wide, shut in by
hills on each side, but its size is not apparent from the water itself,
as a great number of islands cut the stream into numerous narrow
channels. Towards the south, the river narrows again and at this point
is the uppermost of the cataracts, the water hurling itself against the
rocks in its efforts to escape and recoiling in spray high into the air.
From just below Leopoldville all the way to Matadi, the river indeed
rushes down narrow gorges, but above, for nearly a thousand miles, it is
navigable for steamers. On a hill above the rapid, is a large tree under
which Stanley pitched his tent and which still bears his name.

Many native villages exist near Leopoldville, consisting of huts formed
of wooden frames and thatched with grass. There are no plantations or
factories here but great numbers of natives are at present employed in
road making and in constructing a new slip for launching the steamers.
Evidently our little party gives rise to much comment for several of
the natives have probably never seen a horse before, and a cavalcade of
four of these strange animals is something entirely new. On our way back
to the ship we pass down the main street in which are the administrative
offices, the mess, the doctors' and other private houses and close to
the beach, the Residency, over which flies the State flag and in front
of which patrols a sentry. At first one thought the sentry in front of
the chief official's house in each town, was merely a symbol of
authority as in Europe, afterwards however, it becomes apparent that the
system of Government in the Congo is based on absolute uniformity. Every
Post, however big or small, has its State flag and every chief official,
from the Governor to the chief of a Wood Post, has a sentry at his door.
Each morning at sunrise the flag is hoisted, while the guard presents
arms and every evening at sunset it is lowered with like ceremony.
Indeed, the whole system is military, for everyone rises, works, eats
and sleeps at the command of the clarion. It is a custom at most
official and private parties in the Congo, to hand round port wine and
cigars before sitting down to table. At first this seemed a strange kind
of _aperative_., but soon the glass of port became very agreeable after
the morning's work.

Ten or twelve guests were assembled on the verandah when we arrived, and
soon Mr. Armarni joined the group. He is an Italian, an ex-naval officer
of distinction and now Commissaire du Roi of the Congo, a position which
ranks with, but after, that of Governor General. By a simple and
practical device, the relative rank of all the Administrative and
Military officials can be determined at a glance. Each wears a blue
gauntlet on each wrist and forearm over the white sleeve of his coat and
affixed on this are a number of gold bands. A captain of a river
steamer, perhaps has three or four bands, a Chef de Poste, four or five,
a Commissaire of a Zone or District, seven or eight, an Inspecteur
d'Etat, nine or ten, and the Governor General, eleven. In order however,
to economise space and perhaps to facilitate counting, when more than
three stripes are worn, a broad strip is substituted which corresponds
to the original three. Thus an official with five stripes wears one
broad and two narrow ones, while the Governor General wears three broad
stripes and two narrow ones. The chief decoration, the order of the

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Online LibraryMarcus Roberts Phipps DormanA Journal of a Tour in the Congo Free State → online text (page 3 of 13)