In many ways, the Congo Basin typifies the old idea of


Darkest Africa


by R.C. Honeybone and B.S. Roberson




The lagoon-fringed forest lands of the coast of West Africa offered many problems to the explorers from Europe and these problems existed in even more acute form in the Congo Basin. For example, when Diego Cao sailed southward from Portugal in 1482, hugging the coast as closely as he could, he discovered the mouth of the river, but did not venture to sail upstream. Probably the view of this that he had from the sea of a belt of densely forested lowland, interspersed with lagoons and backed by high mountains, was so forbidding that he decided to sail on. Three years later he retuned and did try to sail up the mighty Congo. Its mouth is nearly 10km wide at one point, but he found his progress blocked by a series of rapids. These occur where the river cuts through the edge of the great block of high but fairly level land that covers most of Africa. Such a block is usually called a tableland.




Most of the Congo Basin is a rather shallow depression in the great African tableland. At one time it was probably a great inland sea, parts of which still exist in Lakes Leopold and Tumba and the swampy area around them. The rest of the inland sea was drained centuries ago by the lower Congo River as it cut a narrow valley through the rim of the tableland just above where Matadi now stands. The ancient rocks of the tableland are so resistant that the river has not succeeded in cutting a smooth valley floor, but tumbles tempestuously over a series of rapids known as the Livingstone Falls. It was this obstacle that blocked the progress inland of Diego Cao in 1485.


Livingstone Falls


But for the discovery of the great deposits of copper ore near Lubumbashi, and the discovery of uranium, it is probable that the Congo Basin would be less known that it is. Much of it is certainly not very inviting country and less than a hundred years ago Central Africa was practically unexplored.

One of the most famous early explorers was Sir Henry Morton Stanley. Here is a description of travel as he experienced it when crossing the continent from east to west in 1877 ...


"We had to stand in our places minutes at a time, waiting patiently for an advance of a few yards, after which would come another halt, and another short advance. All this time the trees kept shedding their dew upon us like rain in great round drops. Every leaf seemed weeping. Down the boles and branches, creepers and vegetable cords, the moisture trickled and fell on us. Overhead, the wide-spreading branches, in interlaced strata, each branch heavy with broad thick leaves, absolutely shut out the daylight. We did not know whether it was a sunshiny day or a dull gloomy foggy day, for we marched in a feeble solemn twilight. The path soon became a stiff clayey paste, and at every step we splashed water over the legs of those in front and on either side of us. To our right and left, to the height of about twenty feet, towered the undergrowth, the lower world of vegetation. The soil on which this thrives is a dark brown vegetable humus, the debris of ages of rotting leaves and fallen branches, a very forcing bed of vegetable life, which, constantly fed with moisture, illustrates to an astonishing degree the prolific power of the warm moist shades of the tropics. Every man scrambles as best he may through the woods, the path being so slippery that every muscle is employed to assist our progress."



Nearly all his journey, however, was by canoe.


"On the 1st May, Uledi struck his axe into the tree, and two others chimed in, and in two hours, with a roaring crash which made the deep gorge of the river return a thundering echo, the tree fell ... I measured out the log, 37 feet 5 inches; depth 2 feet; breadth 2feet 8 inches, and out of this we carved the 'Stanley' canoe, in place of the unfortunate 'Stanley' which had been lost in the falls. Each of the boat's crew was allotted 3 and a half feet as his share to chop out ... Uledi swung his axe like a proficient workman who loved his work. He drove his axe into the tree with a vigour which was delightful to regard ... and on the 8th the canoe was finished, except for a few finishing touches, which were entrusted to the chief carpenter of the expedition, Salaam Allah."




One explorer at least has crossed these mighty rivers by making a rope bridge, from the plentiful, strong creepers which festoon the forest. He established his first foothold on the other side by swinging a pygmy across the river, pendulum fashion, on a rope of these creepers.




As in many other parts of Africa, there are two very different ways of life, that of the native, and that introduced by the white newcomer.

There are two quite different native peoples in the Congo basin, the shy, backward pygmies, of whom there are only some 20,000 left, and the Negro peoples who are similar to those of West Africa.

The pygmies dwell mainly in the remote parts of the dense forests, while the Negroes live in the more accessible parts. These are mainly in the west and toward the northern and southern edges of the great forests, where the trees thin out and there is more scope for agriculture.



The pygmies are only a little over 4 feet high, but their bodies are strongly built with powerful muscles, though their legs are often short and weak.

They know nothing of agriculture and live entirely by hunting although they sometimes do jobs for other people, such as carrying, in order to earn other things, like bananas, sugar cane, or manioc root.

Each carries a bow, a quiver full of poisoned arrows, a hunting knife thrust in this loincloth of monkey skin, and perhaps a spear. They cook little; their meat is eaten either raw or toasted. They catch varieties of antelope which have taken refuge in the forest, wild pigs, monkeys, and various smaller creatures, either by shooting them or by making a trap or pit.

They also search for, and eat, roots, fruits, berries, mushrooms and even grubs of young bees, beetles and caterpillars. As they are hunters, they must move about large areas of country, and their 'houses' are readily built.

These are simple beehive-shaped huts of branches, thatched with leaves, which can be made in a few hours and abandoned when they wish to move on.


The Negro cultivators, who have the general name of Bantu, are much more hightly developed. They live in permanent villages in clearings, where they grow food crops such as yams, bananas, rice and oil palm. Their life is very similar to that of the Negroes of the forested belt of West Africa. It is from these villages that people come to work on the plantations and in the mines.



A Tall Bantu man watches Pygmy Villagers dancing


All round the edge of the Congo Basin is the higher land of the African tableland. Here the weather is cooler and less trying for Europeans than the damp heat of the lower lands.

The south-east corner of the Congo is called the Katanga, and on this higher land there has grown up one of the most remarkable industrial developments of modern times. In what was previously a rather barren region, whose period of winter drought prevented the rich growth of forest, is now an industrial landscape.

Along the line of the railway from the Rhodesian frontier to Lubumbashi and beyond, there are at intervals huge factories with tall smoke stacks of smelters pouring forth fumes, high-tension lines carrying electricity from hydro-electric power stations on the falls on the rivers, and busy railway yards with truckloads of copper to be carried to the distant Atlantic Ocean.


"Big Hill" slag pile, located in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).


The heart of this region is Lubumbashi, a modern mining town dependent on copper. It is the headquarters of the Union Miniere du Haut-Katanga, the former Belgian company, now nationalised, which developed all the economic activities of the region. This well-planned town now has telephones, newspapers, cinemas, schools and hospitals where at one time there was only empty African bush. The largest industrial installations are at Likasi, 90 miles north of Lubumbashi, where there are electric furnaces, concentrators, machine shops for the repair of equipment, and many other subsidiary works.


The highest grade technicians, numbering several thousands, were mostly Belgians, but the great majority of workers were Africans. The came, usually for a year, to work in quarry, mine, or factory, but many of them stayed as permanent dwellers with their families in the industrial towns. The rows of little brick huts, roofed with thatch, looked almost like an African version of a council estate in a British suburb. The company took complete charge of these people, for they no longer lived the organised tribal life of their village with which they were familiar.


There are several other minerals besides copper found in the south-east part of the Congo Basin. Cobalt, zinc and uranium are important, and there are many diamonds found among the gravels of old river beds.


Most of the Congo Basin lies well above seal level. The drier parts of it are not very thickly forested and resemble more closely the wetter parts of the savanna. The higher outer rim of the basin has comparatively few trees. When the area was under Belgian control many Europeans settled here and organised large plantations of coffee, tea, sugar cane, and rubber.





The Van Lancker Estate, at Moerbeke on the railway line between Matadi and Kinshasha, in an area which is nearly 6 degrees south of the Equator and at a considerable elevation, was started in 1923.

Where a few years ago leopard, wild buffalo, and elephant roamed, the estate consisted of an extensive plantation of oil palms, a palm-oil pressing plant, a cattle ranch enclosed by hundreds of miles of barbed wire, and schools, churches, shops and residences for the 4,000 natives living on the estate.

It was a kind of medieval fief with M. Jules van Lancker as the landlord in the feudal sense of the word.

He was especially proud of the fact that nearly everything (the main exceptions being the American oil-pressing machinery and the barbed wire) had been made on the place; bricks for building, mortar, roof tiles, doors, sills, sashes, tools for the forges, leather from the cattle hides, and so on. Leopards were still a pest on the cattle range; to drive them out, he gradually cut down all stands of dense tree growth.

Crocodiles occasionally seized calves by the muzzle while they were drinking at the water's edge; they usually drag them into deep water and drown them before commencing their meal. There were still a few antelope in the cattle country, but the many elephants had entirely disappeared. A few of the wild Congo buffalo were sometimes seen.


In 1960 the Congo became an independent state. Since that time there has been a sad story of political upheaval, riots and massacres. Many Belgians returned to Europe, though some technicians remained. During this period copper production declined, but by 1965 had reached the 1960 output of 300,000 tons and by 1967 was 320,000. Place names were changed, but for a while the former Belgian ones still appeared in some atlases ...


Stanleyville ... Kisangani

Elizabethville ... Lubumbashi

Leopoldville ... Kinshasa

Albertville ... Kalemi

Jadotville ... Likasi

Coquilhatville ... Mbandaka

Port Francqui ... Mbuji-Mayi

Ponthierville ... Ubundi







Beneath the African Sun


by Donald Payne and Richard Snailham



The Europeans who fought, traded and settled in Africa were often told tall stories by the Arabs. According to one story, huge snowcapped mountains astride the Equator reached up towards the Moon and encircled two lakes, which were the sources of the Nile.

When in 1848, two German missionaries, Ludwig Krapf and Johann Rebmann, sighted the snowcapped peaks of Kenya and Kilmanjaro, almost exactly on the Equator, this gave credence to the story, and also to the map of the 2nd century Greek cartographer Ptolemy, which showed Lunae Montes (Mountains of the Moon) encircling two lakes, from which one river flowed west and one north.

This revived interest in an age-old mystery ... where did the River Nile come from?


The original site discovered by Speke as the Source of the Nile


The Nile, the longest river on Earth, at over 4,100 miles, appears to flow out of an arid desert augmented by few tributaries and little rain. Efforts to follow its course were invariably thwarted by cataracts, swamps, heat, fever and sheer distance.


The missionaries' report acted as a spur to exploration, and in 1857 an expedition was launched to search fro the mysterious mountains and lakes. In command was the erudite and flamboyant Richard Francis Burton, who spoke 26 languages and was a leading authority on Islamic erotic literature and second-in-command was the determined John Hanning Speke.



The Ripon Falls,  the Source of the White Nile, as Speke encountered it in 1862.


The Ripon Falls have  now been submerged beneath  a hydro-electric dam,  and the area is flooded  and presents itself much  less spectecular.


The expedition made slow progress, for the climate was humid, the terrain difficult and both men were ill from tropical fevers. Burton's legs became paralysed. Speke went temporarily deaf and blind. And when they came at last to an inland sea, they found that, although several rivers ran into it, none ran out of it. They had discovered a great lake, Lake Tanganyika, but it was not the source of the Nile. They then heard about a larger lake, and Speke set out in search of it. After 25 days he came to a vast expanse of pale blue water, stretching into the distance as far as the eye could see. Returning to Burton, he told him he had found the source of the Nile. It was the start of years of acrimony. Burton pointed out that Speke hadn't followed his discovery up, and that he had no proof that the Nile flowed out of the lake to the north.



Lake Tanganyika is the longest lake in the world stretching 660 km north to south. It is also the second deepest freshwater lake in the world with a maximum depth of 1436 metres.


In 1860, Speke headed into the heart of Africa on a follow up expedition. He at least reached the lake, which he named Lake Victoria. He explored round it, until he eventually came to a river, which debouched from the lake and flowed north. Assuming this was the Nile, he headed straight for home. Near the border with the Sudan he met Samuel Baker who had also come to search for the source of the Nile. Speke told Baker he was too late, and returned to a hero's welcome in London.



Lake Victoria


But Speke had failed to bring back proof that the river and lake were indeed the Nile and its source. His enemies were soon picking holes in his achievements. A public meeting was arranged at which Burton and Speke would thrash out their differences, but Speke died the afternoon before it was due to take place ... he accidentally shot himself.


Speke, as it turned out, was right ... Lake Victoria was the main source of the Nile. But there were others. In 1864, Samuel Baker and his wife Florence, in an epic journey, discovered Lake Albert, near Lake Victoria. Albert turned out to be a secondary source of the Nile. This discovery enticed further explorers into the heart of Africa, intent on mapping all the great river's sources.



Murchison Falls National Park:  Nildelta kurz vor dem Lake Albert




The most celebrated explorer of them all was David Livingstone.


When he first set foot in Africa in 1841, it was as a medical missionary rather than as an explorer. Fired with enthusiasm for spreading the Gospel and ending the slave trade, David Livingstone devoted himself to bestowing on African peoples the triple 'blessings' of Christianity, commerce, and civilisation.


He arrived in Cape Town and journeyed northwards, initially searching for converts. He came into conflict with the Boers and Arab traders, both of whom treated the indigenous Africans as less than human. He was appalled by the slave trade and thought the best way to stop the trade would be to promote legitimate commerce, which would be viable only once Africa had been explored. A few years later, he decided to try to open up a route from the Atlantic Ocean to the interior that would bypass the slave-traders.


During the 1850s and 1860s he became the first white man to see the Victoria Falls and Lake Nyasa.


On his first expedition begun in 1853, he crossed the continent with 26 of his African friends ... he never thought of them as servants or porters and the Africans always had the greatest of respect for him.


As they followed the Zambezi River their journey was, at the beginning, near idyllic. But in the vast rain-forest plateau in the centre of the African continent, it rained without respite. Food became scarce, and Livingstone suffered continuous bouts of fever and dystentry. At Luanda on the Atlantic coast, he was nursed back to health and offered a passage back home. He rejected the offer and instead made his way back eastwards to the coast of Mozambique. He regarded his expeditions as failures because the routes he had pioneered was clearly too arduous for trade and the rivers too full of rapids and waterfalls to navigate.


His final expedition, begun in 1866, concentrated on a quest for the source of the Nile. For three years no word of him reached the West and it was widely assumed that he had died. But when in 1871 reports began circulating of a sick and destitute man living in the region of Lake Tanganyika, an Anglo-American journalist, Henry Morton Stanley, was asked to search for Livingstone. Stanley found Livingstone at Ujiji and urged him to return to Britain but Livingstone refused.


Less than two years later Livingstone died at Chitambo in Zambia. His African friends carried his embalmed body on a nine month journey to Zanzibar to be shipped back to Britain where he was buried in state in Westminster Abbey. His heart though, they removed, and buried it in Africa.


After his historic meeting with Livingstone, Henry Morton Stanley continued exploring Africa and his discoveries enabled the European map of Africa to be completed. In 1884 he found the Ruwenzori Range, the so-called Mountains of the Moon, which were the last major physical feature of the continent to be discovered.


In the long term, Livingstone's achievements far outweighed his failures. He awoke the world to the horror of the slave trade, and by his love of Africa and the Africans, he helped disseminate a more positive image of


'The Dark Continent'


In 1876 King Leopold II of Belgium convened a conference in Brussels to discuss how the nations of Europe could open up the continent of Africa ... exploration now gave way to exploitation.



Before 1880 almost the whole of Africa was ruled by the Africans, but from the 1880s onwards the continent was taken over by the countries of Europe.


By 1902 seven countries: Britain, France, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, and Italy ... had carved up Africa between them in the Scramble for Africa.


What made Africa so attractive was its untapped wealth of raw materials ... timber, ivory, diamonds, gold ... and its potential as a market for European goods.





Now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Is a republic in central Africa with a narrow strip of land along the Congo River leading to the Atlantic in the west. The land rises in the east from a low-lying basin to a densely-forested plateau, which is bounded to the east by volcanic mountains marking the western edge of the Great Rift Valley; the Ruwenzori Mountains in the north-east, on the Ugandan frontier rise to 5110m in the Mount Stanley Massif; the Mitumbar Mountains lie further south; in the Rift Valley the chain of lakes includes Albert, Edward, Kivu and Tanganyika; a narrow strip of land follows the River Congo the the Atlantic Ocean and a short 43km coastline.

It is bounded to the west by the Congo, to the south-west by Angola, to the south-east by Zambia, to the east by Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, to the north-east by Sudan; and to the north and north-west by the Central African Republic.

By 1000AD most of the country was settled by the Bantu. The first Europeans to visit were the Portuguese in 1482. The country was claimed by King Leopold II of Belgium and recognized in 1895 at the Congress of Berlin as the Congo Free State. In 1908 it became a Belgian colony and was renamed the Belgian Congo.

On gaining independence in 1960 it was renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Katanga province claimed independence which resulted in civil war and destroyed the new government of Patrice Lumumba. A UN peace keeping force was sent in and remained there until 1964. In 1965 President Mobutu Sese Seko seized power in a coup backed by the CIA of the United States of America.

The country was renamed Zaire in 1971 and Sese Seko was at first credited with introducing stability. However, his regime became increasingly corrupt and unpopular.

Further conflict erupted in 1977 and 1978 and there were power struggles in the early 1990s with violent ethnic unrest in 1993.

Over 1 million refugees from the civil war in Rwanda in 1994 entered Zaire and in 1996 the country was again invaded by a rebel army led by Laurent Kabila forcing Sese Seko into exile.

Kabila was installed as head of state and the country was renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo. However civil war continued backed by extensive foreign intervention. Kabila was assassignated in 2001 and was succeeded by his son.

Congo Free State (1885-1908)

Belgian Congo (1908-1960)

Democratic Republic of the Congo (1960-1971)

Zaire (1971-1996)


The capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire) is Kinshasa.


Zaire is the native name for the River Congo



Republic of Congo


Is a republic in west Central Africa and was formerly the French colony of Middle Congo, part of French Equatorial Africa. It became independent in 1960.

It consists of mostly equatorial forest with savanna and extensive swamps and is drained chiefly by the Rivers Congo and Ubangi.

It was discovered by the Portuguese in the 14th century. The French established a colonial presence there in the 19th century. From 1908 to 1958 it was part of French Equatorial Africa and known as the Middle Congo.

It gained independence as the Republic of Congo in 1960 and in 1968 a military coup created the first Marxist state in Africa. The country was renamed the People's Republic of the Congo.

Marxism was renounced in 1990 and opposition parties were permitted. In 1993 election took placed but the results were disputed and fighting between ethnic and political groups broke out.

In 1997 President Pascal Lissouba was ousted by a military coup and was replaced by former military leader and head of state Denis Sassou-Nguesso. Civil war ensued. Peace came with the drafting of a new constitution in 2001 but violence once again flared in 2002 when Sassou-Nguesso was re-elected.

The capital of the Republic of Congo is Brazzaville.


Henry Moreton Stanley




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