rumba on the river


Second only to Stanley in the order of importance for Congo music was an Italian turned Frenchman named Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza. Brazza covered less territory and spent far more time at it than Stanley. His methods were more tactful too—Brazza was of the gentle Livingstone school—but the effects of their efforts were the same. They opened the continent for adventurers and profiteers with fewer scruples.

In August of 1875, as Stanley completed his survey of Lake Victoria, Brazza embarked on his first expedition to the interior of Gabon. He traveled up the Ogowé River thinking it might lead him across the continent to the Great Lakes. The Ogowé petered out, however, so Brazza contented himself with getting to know the surrounding territory. In the words of biographer Richard West, "For Brazza, as for Livingstone, it was sufficient pleasure simply to be in the wilds of Africa, to study her life, to befriend her people, and try to relieve some of her suffering."23

In comparison to Stanley, Brazza traveled light. It made him appear less menacing as he sought "to establish trust and friendship along the Ogowé so that its tribes would learn to welcome the white man's trade and government."24 By August of 1877, while Stanley stumbled into Boma, Brazza, without realizing it, came within a hundred or so miles of the Congo River before he was driven back by the local people. A year after Stanley's celebrated return from Africa, Brazza arrived in Europe to receive his share of acclaim.

The exploits of Stanley, Brazza, and the others put the word Africa on everybody's lips. French politician Léon Gambetta was reported to have told Stanley, "Not only, sir, have you opened up a new continent to our view, but you have given an impulse to scientific and philanthropic enterprise which will have a material effect on the progress of the world."25 But what was European responsibility toward the supposed lost souls who inhabited that strange and faraway place? And more to the point, how could Africa benefit Europe?

Stanley spoke to the British of 40 million naked Africans, "and the cotton-spinners of Manchester are waiting to clothe them...and the ministers of Christ are zealous to bring them, the poor benighted heathen, into the Christian fold."26 But the British, preoccupied with economic recession and struggling with France for influence in Egypt, seemed uninterested. Besides they already had colonies in the Gambia, Sierra Leone, the Gold Coast, and the southern cape. Brazza found little more enthusiasm for such ideas in France. It was King Leopold II of the Belgians who dreamed the dreams of Brazza and Stanley.

Leopold II, of German descent and cousin to Queen Victoria, presided over a country of quarreling peoples, the Flemings and Walloons, that had won independence from its Dutch neighbors only a scant thirty-four years before his accession to the throne in 1865. Restricted by a constitution that gave power to the politicians, Leopold was relegated to the nineteenth-century equivalent of cutting ribbons at shopping mall openings. That failed to stop the ambitious king. He wanted an overseas colony for his tiny country, or perhaps for his own personal profit, and central Africa looked like a good prospect.

The king had been an avid follower of Cameron's travels. He kept track of the Stanley and Brazza expeditions with no less enthusiasm. A master manipulator, he had organized, in 1876, the International African Association, a grouping of eminent European scientists and explorers, ostensibly for the purpose of opening Africa to further exploration and study. He summoned both Stanley and Brazza to the royal palace at different times in an effort to engage them in his enterprise. Brazza, still holding out hope that his adopted country would take up the challenge in central Africa, refused. Stanley, smarting from Britain's rejection, signed on. He polished off his two-volume, soon-to-be-best-seller, Through the Dark Continent, and set out again for Africa, this time in the service of the Belgian king.

Unbeknown to Stanley, he was in a race. While he recruited assistants in Zanzibar, Brazza was drumming up support in France for a new expedition of his own. Meanwhile, Leopold's high-minded International Africa Association quietly became the Comité d'Etudes du Haut Congo (Committee for the Study of the Upper Congo) supported by a group of prominent businessmen whose involvement made it look suspiciously like a commercial venture. And, in fact, that is what it was. By August of 1879, Stanley and his Zanzibaris worked feverishly to set up trading stations along the Congo estuary and to blast a rocky road around the cataracts guarding Stanley Pool. The locals called Stanley bula matadi (corrupted to bula matari), breaker of rocks, a term that would later become synonymous with white men and the Belgian Congolese state. Five months after Stanley started, Brazza, underwritten anew by hard-won French support, paddled his way back up the Ogowé.

While Stanley struggled with the tasks of construction, Brazza wasted little time. In August of 1880, he tramped out of the bush in sight of the Congo River. Down at Stanley Pool the makoko (king) of the Téké people around the north shore granted Brazza an audience. After more than a month of comradeship and negotiation, the makoko put his mark on a treaty placing him and his people under French protection. Stanley reached the pool in July of 1881 to find the French flag fluttering over a hastily built station in the village of N'tamo, soon to become known as Brazzaville.

Shaken and angry that a portion of his pool had been stolen almost from under his nose, Stanley set about securing the south shore for Leopold's CEHC. Ngaliema, another Téké king whom Stanley had met on his previous journey, required intensive persuasion. He agreed to put his mark on a treaty only after many days of haggling and theatrics. Formalities thus disposed of, a large new station called Léopoldville was built near the village of Kinshasa (a Europeanization of the original, Nshasha). Stanley would later find he had been bilked by Ngaliema and be forced to renegotiate with Kinshasa's genuine ruler. Such was the beginning of what would become two Congos, one controlled by the French, the other Belgian.

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