rumba on the river


As it turned out, Tippu Tib reneged on the agreement after only about half the negotiated time, yet he and his warriors had served their purpose. The remaining members of the expedition needed each other like they never had before. Abandoning the rugged shoreline, they launched themselves on the river in a flotilla of bartered and stolen canoes with Stanley's forty-foot "Lady Alice" in the lead. It was Christmas time, late December of 1876.
To villagers along the river banks they must have resembled a raiding party. Often they were exactly that. Met with fear and hostility at nearly every bend, Stanley and his followers used the slightest provocation as a pretense to plunder. Spears and arrows were no match for repeating rifles and six-shooters.

Far downstream they made an exhausting portage around a series of violent cataracts, what would become known as Stanley Falls near modern day Kisangani. They were deep in the heart of the rain forest now and had just crossed the equator. Frightened villagers hid with the sun behind the dense jungle growth. The river was smooth, no more cataracts, and as it turned more noticeably westward, Stanley knew for sure he was on the Congo.

A few weeks later the river dipped southward back across the equator to the forest's edge. Stanley was in more friendly territory for the people here carried on trade with the Portuguese farther down stream. Now he and his men could barter for food; they could relax their trigger fingers. In March the flotilla glided through an especially broad expanse of water, which Stanley humbly named Stanley Pool, the future cradle of colonial rule and Congo music. All that was left between them and the Atlantic was a treacherous two hundred miles of cataracts, the same barrier Captain Tuckey had encountered on his ill-fated voyage up the Congo in 1816.

Perhaps drunk with euphoria, Stanley decided to take his fleet through the rocky, swirling waters. It was a blunder that many did not survive. By sheer brute force the expedition's exhausted, emaciated remnants pushed and pulled each other and their vessels over the rocks and through the rapids. It was, wrote Stanley, "horrible and slow work."21 Canoes capsized, and men drowned, but goaded by Stanley the living struggled onward for five long months.

At last, well short of the end of the cataracts, Stanley abandoned his boats. It had been a tragic mistake not to do so sooner. "There is no fear that any other explorer will attempt what we have done," Stanley acknowledged. "Nor would we have ventured on this terrible task, had we the slightest idea that such fearful impediments were before us."22 The hundred-odd survivors made the final trek to a trading town called Boma, near the Congo's mouth, on foot. The seven-thousand-mile journey had taken three years, countless lives, including Stanley's three white companions, but he had done it. Stanley had accomplished what no other white man had ever done. In Europe and America the public hailed him. Along the Congo River banks Africans mourned their dead.

Stanley was far from the only explorer to gain inspiration from Livingstone. Besides the expeditions of Speke, Grant, Burton, and Cameron on the eastern side of central Africa, others probed in less spectacular fashion along the western edge. Among them came the same Richard Burton, an inveterate carouser and "notorious negrophobe;" a more serious Paul Du Challu, drawn to the interior from his father's trading post in Gabon; youthful Winwood Reade, in pursuit of a reputation; and the redoubtable Mary Kingsley, searching for redemption. Many, like Stanley, were journalists. Others fancied themselves so. Most wrote books with varying degrees of accuracy and success. Lurid accounts of human sacrifice and cannibalism won an avid readership in the salons of Europe and America. Victorian society tittered over lascivious tales of African sexual practices touted as anthropology.

Such sensational—often fictional or wildly embellished—stories reinforced prejudices that had grown out of the slave trade. For many, the idea of bringing civilization to Africa became an obsession. Livingstone and Stanley thought it to be the work of Christian missionaries. Mary Kingsley believed trade was the answer. Burton and Reade both said it was a job better suited to Muslims—although Burton in an uncharacteristic flash of wisdom once wrote that Africa should be left to Africans (to paraphrase politely). No one of note stopped to think that Africans might already have developed their own civilizations and would continue happily along were it not for the interference of outsiders. But interfere they did, with increasing sanctimony and arrogance.

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