The Congo Free State

THE reader of Mr. Stanley’s flourishing work on The Congo,1 if he have an agile fancy, may please himself with the notion that he is doing double duty: he is an American of the nineteenth century aglow with enthusiasm at the splendid achievement of his countryman ; he is an Englishman of the seventeenth century stirred by the True Relation of Captain John Smith. The two heroes are cast in much the same mould, the two continents under discussion stand opposite each other, and the homekeeping Englishman who heard of the wonders of Virginia was in the midst of as exciting movements as the American who follows Mr. Stanley in his perilous adventures among the Congo savages.

The reader need sniff no mischief because we liken Mr. Stanley to Captain Smith. The comparison breaks down only upon the one familiar trait of Smith’s character. No Tragabizanda or Pocahontas figures in Stanley’s annals. Indeed, there is something almost ominous in the silence which he keeps regarding the women of Africa. In his speculations regarding the African character he takes no account of their influence. There is a certain gallantry in the Virginia captain which the frank explorer appears to lack ; but the spirit of adventure, the sturdy common sense which rides through or over difficulties, — whichever is the nearer way, — the instinctive power of leadership, the quick wit in dealing with savages, the indomitable, cheerful will, the healthy absorption in the work at hand, and the highly developed imaginative faculty — these qualities are shared by the two men, and we really think that Mr. Stanley’s candid tale helps us to understand the more obscure experience of Captain Smith.

This is, to be sure, a somewhat ulterior use to which to put a fresh book. One does not need to have his mind burdened with a historical parallel in order to appreciate the heroic labors of this nineteenth-century Paladin. Yet, if one follows Stanley in his kind of interest, one can scarcely fail to read this book much as he would read history, looking beyond the details of incident for those large and general movements which need time and generations of men for their final issue. Who shall say that imagination is dead when a reporter of a newspaper fills his brain with the idea of a great free state in the basin of a majestic river, which he was the first white man to open in its length to the view of the world ? and that this reporter is not a visionary is clear enough from the record of the steps which he took to lay the foundations of the Congo state. The whole narrative supposes a conception so large and historical that one reads it with a sort of incredulous admiration, and, failing to find any similar enterprise with which to compare this scheme, is very likely to remember the history of colonies which suggest contrasts.

It is scarcely necessary to do more than remind the reader of the circumstances which occasioned these two portly volumes. The famous journey across Africa, in which Mr. Stanley had traced the Congo from its source to its mouth, commended him to men, notably to King Leopold II., of Belgium, as the proper agent for carrying out plans which had begun to form themselves for the exploiting, and in effect the redemption, of Central Africa. His advice and coöperation were sought, and the Comité d’Etudes du Haut Congo was formed. Later, the African International Association was founded with a view to actual occupancy and sovereignty. It is not entirely clear to us what relation the two associations held to each other, but as the personnel was much the same in each, King Leopold being at the head of both companies, and Mr. Stanley the chief executive officer, we judge that the work done on the Congo compelled a reorganization of the home committee.

Under the general authority of the European association an expedition was organized, consisting of Europeans of various nationalities for officers and factors, while a body of Africans from the east coast, men of Zanzibar who had accompanied Stanley on his previous journey, served as laborers. Steam launches and stern-wheel boats were carried out for use in navigating the upper Congo, and the plan was to establish permanent stations at various points along the river, to man these with small companies of men, and to make such treaties with the tribes occupying the banks as should practically render the International Association suzerain of these tribes.

It was in August, 1879, that the expedition entered the Congo, and in August, 1884, that Stanley made report to the King of the Belgians that he had accomplished the task assigned to him. The report which he gave is expanded in these two volumes, but it is evident that the thousand pages containing the narrative might have been multiplied many times, without exhausting the incidents of this extraordinary enterprise. There are two chapters, the eleventh and twelfth, which, read attentively, fill one with amazement at the energy shown in overcoming obstacles. If Captain John Smith had had the story to tell, we suspect he would have told it as modestly as Stanley himself, for really great achievements tone down a braggadocio ; there is no temptation to exaggerate when the real facts are incredible. For a year, lacking one month, the party of a hundred and six men was engaged in transporting their goods by land to avoid the impassable Livingston Falls, a distance of fifty-two miles ! Let Stanley’s own modest summary of the year indicate something of its laborious character.

“ Computing by statute miles the various marchings, and as frequent countermarchings, accomplished during the year, we find they amount to the grand total of 2352 English miles, according to tape-line measurement of foot by foot, making an average of six and a half miles performed throughout each day in the year, to gain an advance into the interior of only fifty-two English miles. Take away the necessary days of rest enjoyed during the year, the period of ninety-one days employed in making a passable road for our wagons, which, unless tolerably level, would have been impassable for our top-heavy wagon-loads, and the average rate of travel will prove that we must have had an unusual and sacred regard for duty, besides large hope that some day we should be rewarded with positive success after all this strenuous endeavor. That it was not a holiday affair, with its diet of beans and goat-meat and sodden bananas, in the muggy atmosphere of the Congo cañon, with the fierce heat from the rocks, and the chill bleak winds blowing up the gorge and down from sered grassy plateaus, let the deaths of six Europeans and twenty-two natives, and the retirement of thirteen invalided whites, only one of whom saw the interior, speak for us.” It is necessary, however, to read slowly the entire record of this year to appreciate the immense labor of these brave men.

The secret of their success must be sought finally, we are convinced, in the qualities of the leader of the expedition. Stanley, like Captain Smith again, is not without a sense of his own valor, but there is a cheerful recognition of himself which is very far removed from idle vanity. He had brave and willing associates, but it is leadership which, in the long run, tells in such a case. The miserable story which he is obliged to tell of ruined and neglected stations testifies to this. In every instance he traces the failure to lack of leadership, and the loss is retrieved when the leader is found.

It is this personal power which must lie at the base of such an enterprise as these volumes illustrate, and herein, it seems to us, is the vital need of the entire scheme for the maintenance of the Congo state. Stanley shows very clearly that the stations scattered along the banks of the river are the dependence of the state. They are the points where the European meets the African. They must be the centres of civilizing influence. From them, the association must exercise its peaceful authority. But Stanley’s candid narrative shows that the stations depend upon the quality of the chief or superintendent. If he be a man capable of leading men ; if he have tact in managing the natives, energy in developing the resources of the station, and practical acquaintance with the conditions of healthful living in Africa, then the station becomes a civilizing power for the whole neighborhood. If, on the other hand, these qualities in the chief be lacking, the place quickly lapses into barbarism, and affairs are worse than if the station had never been organized.

What chance is there that the several centres of civilization in this new free state will thus be officered? Stanley himself acknowledges freely that with all his familiarity with Africa, he made serious blunders in selecting sites for stations. It must be only after repeated experiments that new stations will be well established. He made some mistakes in his selection of chiefs — that any one might do, but then he spends pages of sarcasm, irony, and as bitter invective as so thoroughly generous and optimistic a man can bring himself to utter in cold blood, upon the miserable European material of which his expedition was composed. Of course any such expedition draws to itself mere adventurers or restless seekers after novelty, but it also attracts the enthusiastic and spirited. What likelihood is there that, after the first flush of enterprise, this new state will call into service the men who are qualified to fill the very critical positions so essential to the well-being of the great scheme?

On the other hand, it must not be forgotten that the enterprise suffered from the disadvantage of beginnings. A pioneer movement is pretty sure to meet with just such difficulties as Stanley’s expedition encountered, and the hopeful element is to be found in the courageous attack on these difficulties which the pioneers made. Make what deductions we may from the somewhat florid statements of our sanguine author — and who has a better right to be sanguine than one who has overcome such gigantic obstacles ?— there yet remains such a solid achievement in the equitable conventions with the savages, the peaceful foundation of stations, and now the amicable agreement among European powers as to the rights and duties of the association which has organized the free state, that we have a right to hope for success in the second stage of the work.

Indeed, the conception of this enterprise is so magnificent and so generous, that he must be a churl who does not feel his pulse beat quicker as he contemplates the meaning of the movement. We have seen in our day more than one attempt at supplanting force by reason ; we have watched with pride the reference of international differences to the arbitration of philosophers instead of to the decision of the sword; we have seen this principle of arbitration working its way into law and business, until it looks to some hopeful minds as if Christianity were to do among its members what the church was bidden to do in the beginning, and attempted on a large scale under ecclesiastical régime, but without ultimate success. But here is a fair beginning of an even nobler work. If it fail, as it may fail, it will yet have given a dream so substantial a realization as to make it one of the most stimulating facts of this century.

For as to construct is higher than to adjust, so an international compact which looks to the orderly establishment of a new force in civilization means more than an international agreement to avoid a quarrel. The experiments made by a voluntary society have so far succeeded that this society has received the sanction of the great powers, and may be regarded as the first considerable attempt at coöperation as applied to government. The common sense of men looks with distrust upon any coöperation of governments which aims at a protectorate of a weak power, although the present condition of Greece is a faint argument in favor of such action. Still, such a protectorate is a choice of evils. In the case of the Congo Free State, the conditions are wholly different. A vast territory, occupied by a number of isolated tribes and clans having no natural bond of union, unless it be a common danger from a common foe, comes under the guardianship of an association which holds representatives from the several great powers. It is to be conquered, not by war, but by peace. The powers agree upon the boundaries of the state; by mutual concessions they remove beforehand occasions for dispute. This vast territory is to be entered and occupied, but only with due consideration for the rights of those already on its soil.

Mr. Stanley in his brave enthusiasm perceives in this movement the redemption of Central Africa, and it is this thought which stirs our generous hope. He welcomes the missionary to the region thus laid open, and he recognizes, as who could more justly? the important work which this agent of Christendom has to accomplish in the lives of the men occupying the Congo basin. But, though he nowhere makes the assertion in so many words, he evidently counts trade and the merchant as implicit Christian forces. Canon Fremantle, whose eloquent Bampton lectures so emphatically present this view, would welcome with acclamation the splendid reinforcement which the foundation of the Congo Free State brings to his argument. There is a most interesting illustration offered by Mr. Stanley in the conversion of a treacherous African chief from a state of masked hostility into one of open, even if still slightly suspicious friendship, which tells volumes. If the facts with regard to Ngalyema are correct, we have in his case an admirable example of what honesty, justice, and friendliness can do, mingled with some clever diplomacy, and of the staff out of which good Africans can be made. Mr. Stanley’s estimate of Congo native ability is high, but it has reference mainly to ability in trade.

“ In the management of a bargain,” he says, “ I should back the Congoese native against Jew or Christian, Parsee or Banyan, in all the round world. Unthinking men may perhaps say cleverness at barter and shrewdness in trade consort not with their unsophisticated condition and degraded customs. Unsophisticated is the very last term I should ever apply to an African child or man in connection with the knowledge of how to trade. Apply the term if you please to yourself or to a Red Indian, but it is utterly inapplicable to an African, and this is my seventeenth year of acquaintance with him. I have seen a child of eight do more tricks of trade in an hour than the cleverest European trader on the Congo could do in a month. There is a little boy at Bolobo, aged six, named Lingenji, who would make more profit out of a pound’s worth of cloth than an English boy of fifteen would make out of ten pounds’ worth. Therefore when I write of a Congo native, whether he is of the Bakongo, Byyanzi, or Bateke tribes, remember to associate him with an almost inconceivable amount of natural shrewdness, and power of indomitable and untiring chaffer.”

Here then is the foundation of character upon which to build, and inasmuch as the plans of the new state have been formed more with reference to trading than to settlement, it is reasonable to demand that trade should serve as a redemptive agency. If it be not so, if the association has been organized only to facilitate selfishness and greed, then we look for a speedy collapse of the entire fabric. The experience of Stanley at Bolobo would be repeated in the whole province, and with no such satisfactory conclusion. Under honorable and wise management, the growth of the country in stability and prosperity can hardly be doubted. Stanley pictures the possible future when he writes of his own experience in a portion of his trip up the Congo : —

“ The natives all along both banks have been easily won to friendly intercourse, and every camp is a scene of marketing. Nothing has transpired to mar the mutual good feeling that prevails. Our advance being necessarily slow, the country becomes, as we may say, civilized. The steamers passing up and down continually speak for us in a clearer manner than we could ever hope to employ. They seem to be taken as harbingers of trade ; of barter, not of trouble. ‘ A’kumbi, kumbi! ’ — boat, boat — is no sooner seen ascending than it is immediately welcomed with shouts from people who have come from the hill summits, and have gathered on the banks to view the novel phenomenon of a boat self-impelled against a current which has oftentimes tired their muscles. But by the time that the tenth voyage is made, it has become a commonplace sight, meaning barter and profit. No wonder that every step we take is made amid welcoming cries and friendly greetings.”

It is true that no real redemption of Central Africa can be effected through the agency of trade alone ; and a government by committee for the purpose of securing free trade is hardly the ultimate instrument of social development. But the growth of trade implies the further cultivation of the resources contained in Africa, and these are not limited to elephant tusks. Mr. Stanley seems a little apt to run riot when computing the riches of his favorite country, and some of his vaticinations remind one of the tales which the early explorers of America carried back to Europe ; but after all, the conditions of wealth are there, and as America has disclosed something greater than, though different from, what Europe dreamed, so Africa has a fair chance to dwarf the stature of the International African Association.

The case of the Congo Free State certainly is different from that of any historical venture with which it may be likened. It can scarcely be a repetition in any way of the history of modern India. The association which is helping it into life is weak in material resources from the very fact that it represents not one powerful European nation, but all Europe; that which makes it strong morally makes it feeble as a mere brute power. It has to deal also with barbaric peoples, and it must be long before it can educate these into the semblance of political union. Nor is there much more in common between the association and the Hudson Bay Company. The latter dealt indeed with savages, but it was a close corporation, carefully sealing its vast territory from access to any but its own servants. its policy was to keep that country a wilderness, a vast preserve for fur-bearing animals, with dusky Indians, guiltless of trade instincts, for hunters and trappers. The life of the Congo Free State is in the openness of its transactions and the freedom with which its destiny is wrought out in the eyes of Europe.

We can scarcely look for any such migration to the basin of the Congo as has for the past three centuries been binding Europe and America together. Hence the problems of the country will be worked out on different lines. This may safely be predicted, that no development of Africa politically from exterior sources can be other than provisional. Yet it may be that the seeds of civilization will be planted in numbers of local, self-governing communities, like the Roman coloniœ in their attitude toward the barbaric tribes among which they are placed, and it is to this colonization of savage Europe by the Romans that we must go back for the most instructive parallel. The difference is largely in the kind of political power lying behind the two orders of settlements. Behind the coloniæ was the Roman imperium; behind the stations is the moral and commercial rather than the political support of the modern association. Yet in general lines of policy there is much in common. It is significant that the first act of this Congo expedition was to build roads ; its second or companion one to found stations. These stations are unmilitary ; they are trading-posts, but they contain the germs of foreign civilization which may yet fructify in the midst of the wild human nature. It is significant also that the vanguard of this peaceful army of civilization was a body of Africans from the east coast, officered by Europeans. It is a good omen. The world of Christendom may indeed be raising Africa out of its dark morass, but it can do so finally and firmly only through the aid of Africans themselves.

We have only one contribution to make to the solution of this problem of African civilization, which Mr. Stanley and his associates so nobly propound. It is this, that these stations should also present the spectacle of orderly, permanent homes. It is not unnatural that the pioneer movement should be represented by young unmarried men. It agrees with most trading-house traditions that such men should constitute the working force, occupying the field for a term of years and supplanted or reinforced by other youug men. The golden opportunity of the International Association of the Congo lies in its breaking away absolutely from all these traditions and insisting upon the transplantation to its stations of the family life. This is the salt which will preserve the high purposes with which it has set out. Without it, or with this salt losing its savor, there can scarcely fail to be a degeneracy of purpose and achievement. The history of all colonial enterprises has this truth written across it in imperishable lines.

  1. 2The Congo, and the Founding of its Free State: a Story of Work and Exploration. By HENRY M. STANLEY. In two volumes. New York : Harper & Brothers. 1885.