“A Trip Up the Congo or Zaire River”

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THE second number of the Geographical Magazine (May, 1874), contained a paper entitled "My Parentage and Early Career as a Slave," by my old factotum and companion, "Selim Agha." The public was somewhat startled by the style and tone—in fact, those who noticed the article generally declared that it had been written by a European, and not a few suspected that it was by myself. The editor, who had seen the manuscript, inserted a disclaimer in the June number (p. 120), and there the matter ended.

I here offer a second paper by my compagnon de voyage, with a few words of personal notice.

Selim Agha el Tegalli was born in Tegallat, about 1829; the date, of course, is vague, but he was certain that in 1836, when taken to Scotland by my venerable friend, the late Robert Thurburn, H.M's. Consul for Alexandria, he was a lad about ten years old. There he learnt to speak English, or rather Scotch, with the true Lowland accent; and he became strongly affected towards Presbyterianism. It has been his fate to wander far and wide over Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America, ever pining for a cottage in Scotland, where he would have accounted himself

"Passing rich on forty pounds a year."

In 1860 he returned to his natal continent, after volunteering personally to ascertain the facts concerning the murder, in Waday, of Dr. Vögel, attached to the Central African Expedition. The late Sir Roderick Murchison and others were favourable to the plan, but they at length determined that all measures should be left in the hands of the late Dr. Baikie. In 1861 "Selim" became my factotum, and he accompanied me in many expeditions to the Western Coast, especially to the summit of the unexplored volcano known as the Camarones or Cameroons Mountain, and, as the following paper proves, to the Cataracts of the Congo. When I left Fernando Po, in 1865, he resolved to travel towards the sources of the Niger, and the last letter which he wrote to me was from Liberia.

Selim Agha did not belong to the Guinea Coast, or the Congo people, most familiar to Europe and to the Southern States of North America; he boasted of the old semi-Semitic Abyssinian blood, in former times mixed, doubtless, with that of the half-Arab Bedawin, who still feed their flocks near the western shores of the Red Sea. He thus belonged to what I have called the noble tribes of Africa ranging between, and north of, the Mandengas (Mandingos) of Western, and the Somal of Eastern Ethiopia. The distinction is ignored by the many theorists who do not "approve" of a difference so striking to every traveller. Physically, he was a type of the mixed race. With short curly hair, and coal-black skin, his head and face as far as the nostrils were distinctly Arab; the rest was as clearly African. His thin and sinewy limbs were those of the Berber, whilst the feet and hands suggested the Msawahili. Such are the men who prove how much can be done for the African by good European training, and who, like the "Pundits" lately known to fame, can freely penetrate into the central parts of Nigerland, so dangerous, if not deadly, to white men. And these are the races who, extending southwards, with slow but regular advance, will, after many generations, mix their blood with the tribes typified by the Congo; will spread Islamism through the ''Heart of Africa," and will pave the way for a higher civilization. The process must take time, and mankind is impatient. But it will be effected by the normal method, familiar to all students of history, the higher race impressing its superiority upon the lower; its development will not depend upon the adventitious action of consuls and cruisers, and it will owe nothing to the irregular and spasmodic operation of enthusiasm and philanthropy. It has already cast a ray of light athwart the gloom of the Dark Continent, and the morning will presently dawn with promise of full and perfect day.

And now my factotum shall speak for himself. I leave his manuscript at the office of the Geographical Magazine, to prevent all suspicion of its being written by any one but "Selim Agha."


BEFORE starting on an exploratory journey into any part of Africa, it is essential that the traveller should be properly equipped and provided with the necessary kit both for the inward and outward man; clothing, blankets, and waterproofs of every description; tea, coffee, and sugar if the latter is desirable; a few bottles of genuine cognac, or some ten-year old Jamaica rum. Well equipped with these necessaries, we started from Fernando Po on the 29th of July for the purpose of ascending the Congo. H.M.S. 'Torch' (Captain Smith) took us down to Loango Bay, and there we were transferred to the sloop-of-war 'Zebra' (Captain Hoskins), which took us to St. Paul's, where we boarded the 'Griffon' (Captain Perry). This latter vessel took us to the Congo, and forthwith we commenced a start up the river on the 31st of August. The usual mode of ascending the river as far as Embomma is by means of small fore-and-aft schooners, of about 40 tons burden, which are heavily sparred and well supplied with canvas. Our gear was taken by the 'Griffon's' boats to M. Parrat's factory, and there put on board the French schooner 'Esperance,' the native captain of which was a Cabenda man of the name of Frank. We had a fine breeze that afternoon, and the 'Esperance' sailed up the river most gallantly. The party on board consisted of Consul Burton, Captain Perry, Mr. Bigley, and M. Pisseaux; a boatswain, four assistant boatswains, captain's servant, the consul's steward Selim, four French native soldiers, and a crew of eight men and boys besides the captain. The following morning we breakfasted at a Portuguese factory, and soon after weighed anchor, and sailed up the river, arriving betimes at Porto da Lenha, and anchored opposite the fine commercial residence of Senhor Monteiro.

On the afternoon of Wednesday (2nd of September) we left Porto da Lenha, and proceeded on our journey, passing several villages. During the night we rounded Point Devil, a most dangerous place for navigation. The following day, about noon, we arrived at Embomma, which contains a French factory and several Portuguese establishments. No white man had been living at the French factory for the last fourteen months, as the emigration system had been abolished. Many of the Portuguese had also deserted their factories, allowing them to decay.

Saturday 5th.—The expedition paid a visit to the king of Embomma, and on Sunday we visited Senhor Pereira's gardens, which were very finely laid out, and contained almost every European vegetable. Leaving Senhor Pereira's, at 3.50 P.M., we came to a dangerous bend in the river, where the rocks were visible on the surface of the water, and the current so strong that we had great difficulty in pulling against it. In about two hours we reached the entrance to the creek, which leads to the king of Embomma' s village. The reach between this and the Lightning Rock, a little below the European factory, is about 8 miles. At 8.15 we arrived at King Nesalla's village, and having settled an altercation with the canoe-men, who wanted more pay, we made a fresh start.

Early next morning we stopped, and rested till dawn, starting again at 6.30 A.M. The country is hilly, and the river about three-quarters of a mile wide. After journeying for two hours we halted and breakfasted near the Alecto Rock, so-called from some of the 'Alecto's' men having painted a white trident on it. At 9.30 we again got under weigh, and soon entered a part of the river where it assumes the appearance of an inland lake, some parts being nearly 2 miles wide. Near the upper end are two islands, the lower of which is very small, and has a single large tree growing upon it, which makes it very picturesque. The scenery here is varied, but principally hilly, the highest of the hills being about 1500 feet above the level of the river. Opposite the tree island we met a native chief in his canoe. He came to levy contributions from us. His people, who were armed with guns and matchlocks, made various warlike gestures, and ordered us to stop. M. Pisseaux, being our guide and adviser, we were compelled to pay one bottle of rum, and a piece of cloth 12 fathoms in length. The grass was dry all over the hills, that close to the water's edge being an exception; and very little animal life was perceptible, consequently the country presented a very barren and desolate appearance. Most of the trees were stunted and leafless, the chief of them being the baobab or monkey-bread tree, the fan-palm or palmyra, a few palm-nut trees, and a species of large spreading tree well scattered over the shores, the leaves of which are of a dark green colour, about the size of the lime leaf, and its fruit a long reddish plum, said to be eaten by monkeys. In the afternoon we arrived at another opening in the river, which extended and widened some 3 or 4 miles to the left, and was apparently hemmed in by a very high range of hills. This was the limit of M. Pisseaux's knowledge of the river, and, to our future sorrow and vexation, we landed in the banza or district of Nokki.

Next day (Tuesday, September 8th) we journeyed into the interior, and found the road excessively irksome and trying; nothing but hills and dales. Passing one or two fields of native beans, we arrived at the village of Kindemba, having crossed two places where water was procurable, the one a running stream, and the other a spring oozing out of the ground close to some rocks. After resting here for a short time we ascended a hill some 600 or 700 feet in height, and came to another village, where we saw something like a large baracoon for slaves, but which turned out to be a fetish house for circumcised boys. Not many minutes' walk from this is the village of Kayé, on entering which all our things were put down, and we were marched off to see his majesty the king of this part of the country. We found him seated in state, dressed up in motley garb of European manufacture, a white shirt with collar turned down, a crimson velvet loin cloth fringed with gold, tied round the waist by means of a belt; a beautifully mounted sheath-knife was stuck in his belt, the handle of which was made of nickel silver, being very showily ornamented with imitation emeralds and ruby garnets. Over all his dress was a beadle's red cloak, and on his head a helmet something resembling those worn by English Life Guardsmen; but it was evidently of French manufacture. The king was very young, apparently not more than twenty years of age, and very shy. When the strangers were seated, one on a chair, and the other two on a covered table, the rest of the courtiers sat down on the ground at a respectful distance both from the strangers and the throne. The king's old father was also there, on the ground before his son. The king's name was Sudikil, and that of his father, Mavonga. After the interview, Sudikil received his presents, with which he expressed dissatisfaction, and would give us nothing to eat, consequently Captain Perry, with Dean and M. Pisseaux, at once started for the river to return to Embomma. The consul engaged Nchama, a native who spoke African idiomatic Portuguese, to act as interpreter and go-between. Our party when it first started from the river, consisted of fifty-six persons, but as soon as we arrived at Kindemba it began to augment, and on our arrival at Kayé it had reached to 150. We were domiciled in the house of Chico Mpambo, a man who put himself up as a French interpreter, but who really knew nothing whatever of that language.

Early next morning we received a visit from Gidi Mavonga and his son Sudikil, who examined all our travelling gear. After half an hour's palaver everything was handed over to Gidi, who promised to start for the Congo in three days, and in consideration of receiving the said goods, bound himself to take us there, bring us back, and feed us by the way. This arrangement was very good, as it secured the friendship of the old chief, besides preventing him and his people from robbing or poisoning us. This day we received a visit from Tetu Mayella, king of an adjacent village, called Neprat. He was accompanied by about twenty followers, all of whom came to us for the express purpose of getting some rum. After a deal of wrangling, Tetu and party received a bottle of gin, for which he presented us with two fowls. This was a godsend, as the day before we had nothing to eat but a few pieces of dry bread. About the same time a pig was brought and slaughtered with great ceremony. Final arrangements were at last made with Gidi to proceed first to Yellalla, or the Congo cataracts, and afterwards to St. Salvador, or Great Congo City. The direction of the Yellalla cataracts from the village of Kayé is E.N.E., and that of St. Salvador, or Congo, E.S.E.

About noon next day (Thursday, September 10th,) we commenced packing in order to start for Gidi Mavonga's village. The natives of Congo are divided into two classes only, the Mfumo, or freeman, and the Muleque, or slave. The Mfumo marries amongst his own slaves, or, properly speaking, retainers, and the children born to him are in their turn Mfumos, or free men. The word slave is here quite improperly used, for the slave is, in reality, a freer man than the prince himself. Everything the prince possesses, except his wives, is literally at the disposal of the slave. Unquestionably, the slave is the body-guard of the Mfmno, but as regards work he does what he likes, sleeps when he chooses, attends to his own private affairs whenever he pleases, and if his master finds fault with his conduct, the chances are, if his own country is not too far away from the place of his thraldrom, he will leave him and make an effort to reach the place that gave him birth.

Gidi Mavonga came next morning to take us to his village, which we reached in half an hour. The only object of interest passed on the way was a palm-tree which the lightning had struck, killing it and tearing up several feet of ground. This was the first time we remember seeing any mischief done by lightning in West Africa. Gidi appeared to be a great worshipper of the native fetish. Mavunga is a consecrated country pot, and is placed in a small hut at the entrance to the town, and is supposed to be the presiding genius or patron saint of the place in which it is worshipped. Ibamba or Mzamba is a representation of Diabolus. The natives call him Masjinga, and is a house god, usually keeping guard at the bedside. The one in Gidi's house was a peculiarly droll looking object, about 3 feet in height, with mouth wide open, his under lip hanging down, the upper lip drawn up as if by some strong convulsion, nose flat, and the nostrils very much inflated. His eyes were composed of pieces of looking glass, and a piece was also inserted in his belly, but for what purpose we could not find out. On his head was an English billy-cock hat, and round about his shoulders hung different kinds of medicines, a calabash, and a kind of knife. The face of this wonderful figure was black, red, and white.

About mid-day we were visited by some neighbouring chiefs, all gaily attired as usual. They wore common red night caps on their heads, and this was the only head-dress we ever saw adopted by the men on great occasions, Sudikil's military helmet excepted. The women always go bareheaded. We have often wondered where in the wide universe the whole of our old clothes go to after they are purchased by the Jews in the streets of London. The mystery is solved without much difficulty, for we found kings wearing old second-hand livery vests, with the coronet and crest of a marquis on the button; and princes sporting their figures dressed in old livery coats and marines' jackets of the last century; besides a variety of heterogeneous habiliments, such as old superfine black coats which had been worn threadbare, and pantaloons the seats of which had become quite glazed from long service. All these had been cleaned and turned inside out by the Jews; and although some of the textures would scarcely bear the tug of a common needle and thread, they are all sent out to the West Coast of Africa as bran new garments, love of dress entirely blinding the natives from observing the various defects. After regaling our visitors with palm-wine and a bottle of gin, they went away.

The chief Furano, who was expected from Embomma, arrived next morning (Saturday, September 12th), and we at once started for the Cataracts. After marching for a short time, and passing two or three small villages, we commenced a rapid descent in a N.N.E. direction, and journeying at a rapid pace for about 3 miles we entered the village of Chinsawu, the residence of Prince Nelongo. On arriving at Nelongo's we had to wait half an hour in the verandah of an empty house before we were honoured by the presence of his highness, who intimated his pleasure of seeing us by asserting that unless the same presents were given to him as we gave to Sudikil, it would be impossible for us to pass his place. This was too preposterous, for we only stopped here to breakfast, whereas we were four or five days in the territory of Sudikil. At 11.15 my master arranged some botanical specimens which he had collected on the road, and I cut the letter B. and 1863 on the trunk of a large Adansonia or baobab-tree in this village.

We got comfortably housed at Nelongo's village, where we noticed, as we did in other places on the banks and neighbourhood of the Congo, that the children were all afraid of the white man; for when anyone attempted to bring them close to the Consul, the little brats howled as if Ajax from the infernal regions had got hold of them.

The whole of the next morning (Sunday) was taken up satisfying Nelongo, the native idea of the quantity of goods possessed by the white man being quite fabulous. At noon we again made a start, the sun being very hot, the thermometer standing at 90º in the shade. We made a slight descent into a valley, and then ascended a peculiarly formed hill, from the summit of which we obtained a glorious view of the river, which was seen some 800 feet below us, flowing down rapidly and majestically to the sea; but the utter barrenness of the country in the vicinity of its banks carried away every association of fertility from the mind of the lover of a commixture of all the elements which constitute the four seasons. This view of the country, however, is given at the end of the dry season, when almost every tree is leafless, and the grass is withered.

From this point commenced a decline down hill which baffles description. We had walked on and lost sight of the river, and the second time we sighted it we had not journeyed above a quarter of a mile before we arrived at a part of our road where, without exaggeration, the path, if such it could be called, was only two degrees from the perpendicular, and as slippery as ice, owing to the quantity of loose stones and dry grass that lay everywhere.

The distance from Nelongo to the banks of the river is about 5 miles, and on reaching the waterside we found ourselves exactly at the junction of the Nomposo with the Congo River. The Nomposo, we were informed, extends all the way to St. Salvador, but is not navigable even for canoes. There were some fishermen following their vocation at the mouth of this small river, whose services we brought into requisition to take us across and land us a little above its mouth, but on the banks of the great river. There are two rocky islands in the river, on both of which are some tall green shrubs. On the opposite bank is the Banza Vivi, the best place on the river for any one to land wishing to see the Cataracts of the Banza Nculu. This is generally about the period when the light or dry season rains commence, and which usually last about six weeks or two months, and are a great boon to the natives, who depend on corn for subsistence. Maize or Indian corn can be grown in about forty days. An intelligent farmer, who can command sufficient water, will easily grow three crops a year. Cotton comes to perfection in four months, rice ditto, and cabbages between three and four months; casada—good for starch or arrowroot—from six to nine months; plantains and bananas, once a year; radishes, three weeks to a month; turnips in two months, and lettuces, endive, and carrots, from three to four months. The cultivation of peas is not only a loss of time, but a waste of ground, for they never bear enough in two rows, 12 feet by 4, to make a good plateful.

It is always advisable, in travelling through Africa, to keep guides and interpreters from knowing what you are really possessed of, for they are sure to make some excuse or other to fleece you. This morning (Monday, Sept. 14th,) we had evidence of the foregoing. We had paid our guide everything that was requisite for the road, yet, notwithstanding this, he sent the interpreter to ask us for a piece of fancy cloth, which they knew we had in our possession. You must grant their request, otherwise you may have to give up your journey, for, ten chances to one, they will leave you. Having crossed the river we waited for Gidi and a few hands that had been left behind. On their arrival we started for Vivi, and reached the village after half-an-hour's march.

The king of Vivi, Nesalla by name, spoke Portuguese, and sent us three bunches of plantains and seven fowls for the expedition. In the afternoon Nesalla came with upwards of one hundred armed men, and commenced a long palaver about our going on to Yellalla. Five or six persons spoke, and the conference lasted an hour. The result was that the cloth we had with us was not enough, and that the princes at Yellalla must get a different piece from that which was before the conference, and no division into two pieces was to be made of it under any consideration whatever. As the whole affair was conducted in a good-humoured manner my master agreed to the terms. In the evening the inhabitants of the village had a dance, which ended in drunkenness and uproar.

Banza Vivi, like all other parts of the country, is entirely free from bush. The inference to be drawn from this fact is that the whole country, at no very remote period, must have been under cultivation. In trade the natives always give full measure; and in filling a jug with palm wine it is always done to overflowing. A circumstance illustrative of this took place whilst we were staying at Senhor Pereira's at Embomma. A bag of ground-nuts was being measured, and the vendor finding that the measure did not overflow, at once ran to the market, and returned with the requisite quantity to make up the quantum.

Early next morning (Tuesday, September the 15th) we started for the Banza Nculu. The scenery along the road was varied and picturesque. The first view we had of the river was from an eminence about a mile from Vivi. Here we had a view of the Congo as it was flowing onwards, and round about in all directions were hills and dales of various sizes, adding a panoramic beauty to the scene, far beyond the conception of an artist's pencil. We had to descend from the summit of this hill, and ascend a second one much higher, from which we again obtained views of the Congo. One, the lower view, appeared like a lake apparently shut in on all sides by hills, the lofty summits of which, stretching far and wide on every side, and some of them peering to the height of above 1000 feet into the heavens, gave the place the appearance of Dr. Johnson's ideal Happy Valley of Rasselas. Proceeding onwards, we ascended a third eminence, but by this time we had entirely lost sight of the river, and our path became more level for a short distance. Stopping to gather some flowers, I lost sight of the last of the carriers, and it was some time before I found them. On entering a small village I espied them surrounded by natives—men, women, and children, all of whom appeared to be highly delighted at the sight of the white men.

We now commenced a gradual descent, but before doing so we obtained an open and extensive view of the valley that lay between us and the Banza Nculu. On descending into the valley, we found the soil a dark clay mould, with fewer stones than that of the country through which we had hitherto passed. It was certainly a fine sight to behold, and the best addition to the scene was the caravan forming the expedition, now disappearing down a valley, now rising to the top of one of the many hillocks with which the valley abounds. The fertility of the soil may be observed here from the fact of the grass growing to the height of 10 or 12 feet. And here, also, the native beans grow to a greater height than those met with in other parts of the country. In the valley we crossed three streams—all feeders of the big river—and, considering it was the close of the dry season, these streams had a fair supply of water.

We now arrived at the summit of the Banza Nculu Hill, where we had to wait the pleasure of the three kings, who with their interpreters were settling some business. So we had to bivouac under a large tree until their highnesses condescended to grant us an audience. Bearing due south from this tree, and on the left bank of the river, is Palabala, one of the many ways by which a traveller may reach Sundi, above the Congo Rapids, where the river is said to become deep, broad, and navigable.

About two o'clock one of the interpreters was sent to put us into a house. In an hour and a half's time we heard the beating of drum and cone (an instrument similar to the triangle), and on looking out a procession was seen wending its way to our new lodgings. The three ministers of the kings were the principal personages, and had come as ambassadors from their master. After three conferences the moderate sum of 300l., in cloth, beads, and liquor, was demanded, in order to continue our journey to Sundi, a distance of only three days' march.

Our object was to reach Sundi, and from thence try to ascertain the course of the river, and to find out whether its source could be reached by canoes or carriers, but finding the demands of the chiefs beyond our power of compliance, we at once resolved to return. Before doing so, however, we proceeded next day to view the Yellala Rapids, which run E.N.E. and W.S.W., and may be said to be about a mile in length. They are assuredly very grand, although the natives led us to expect something even grander. Some fishermen were busy catching fish up and down the quieter parts of the rapids, while the eagles and cranes were satisfying their hunger in the vicinity of the island of Sanga-Cha-Malemba in the middle of the stream.

All day Gidi Mavonga was very stubborn and irritable, wishing to start at once for Vivi, and return home; but my master having to arrange some botanical specimens, to finish two sketches of this part of the country, and being foot-sore, would not hear of starting.

September the 19th found us again at Gidi's village, paying off all the extra hands who had accompanied us to the rapids; and on the 24th we were once more at Embomma, arriving at Porto da Lenha on the 26th. Next day at 4.15 A.M., we arrived at Point Banana, and at 6 o'clock all our things were landed and comfortably housed in M. Parrat's factory.


Digital Publication Details

Title: “A Trip Up the Congo or Zaire River”

Creator(s): Richard F. Burton; Selim Aga

Publication date: (1875) 2022

Digital publishers: One More Voice, COVE

Critical encoding: Thomas Coughlin, Kenneth C. Crowell, Adrian S. Wisnicki

One More Voice identifier: liv_025999

Cite (Chicago Author-Date): Richard F. Burton, and Selim Aga. (1875) 2022. “A Trip Up the Congo or Zaire River.” Edited by Thomas Coughlin and Kenneth C. Crowell. In “BIPOC Voices,” One More Voice, solidarity edition; Collaborative Organization for Virtual Education (COVE). https://onemorevoice.org/html/bipoc-voices/additional-texts/liv_025999_HTML.html.

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