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With Captain Stairs in Katanga

Chapter 1      

The Katanga project—First meeting with Captain Stairs—The Katanga Company—Its relations with the Congo Free State— Reports of gold in Katanga—The country’s healthiness and fertility—M. le Marinel’s expedition—Lieutenant Legat—The Delcommune expedition—Objects of the Stairs expedition—Mr. Sharpe and Mr. Joseph Thomson—The question of valid occupation—Choice of route—The Bia expedition—My companions: Captain Stairs, Captain Bodson, the Marquis de Bonchamps, and Mr. Robinson—Mixed staffs and international syndicates.

IN May, 1890, I returned to England from a tour in Morocco, undertaken chiefly for purposes of sport. Greatly to my delight, I heard a few months afterwards, that Captain Stairs, who had acquired fame as one of Mr. H. M. Stanley’s lieutenants, was organizing an expedition to Katangaland, and that he had not as yet, secured a medical officer. My application for the appointment was immediately despatched, and there came a reply, by return of post, asking me to call upon the Captain at his hotel.

I must confess that the tall, fair, and delicate-looking young man, whom I found seated in the coffee-room, appeared, at first sight, very unlike the typical African traveller; but his interrogatory showed, at any rate, that he did not waste time in beating about the bush. “Can you shoot?” he asked; and when the question had been answered in the affirmative, there came a second and apparently subsidiary query, “Have you brought your testimonials?” After a rapid glance at those documents, Captain Stairs informed me that my capacities for the undertaking seemed superior to those of his other correspondents—of whom the number was by no means small—and that, if no objection was raised from Brussels, ho would be happy to accept my services. Then he wrote out a list of my kit, and we parted after a talk that had taken up a bare twenty minutes. In due course the nomination was confirmed, and thus I found myself enrolled as medical officer to the Katangaland expedition.

The Katanga Company, whose employment I had entered, is an international syndicate, which was originally founded as an offshoot of the Commercial and Industrial Company of the Congo. British opulence was represented on the directorate, in the first instance, by Sir William Mackinnon, and Sir John Kirke; French, by the Parisian banker, M. Bunau-Varilla; and Belgian, by M Lambert de Rothschild, the Brussels Bank, and so forth. It were unnecessary to weary the reader with the financial aspects of the project or the negotiations for its formation. Enough, that the capital of the company amounted to three million francs, that Commander Cameron, the celebrated African traveller, effected the amalgamation of the British and Continental interests, and that the convention, with the Congo Free State, was signed the 12th of March, 1891.

Now that document, as published in the Mouvement Geographique, runs to portentous lengths; accordingly, the following brief summary of its terms seems sufficient for purposes of explanation. The Free State made over to the Katanga Company, for twenty years, certain preferential rights over the mines reputed to be situated in the countries of Katanga and Urua; or, in other words, in that portion of the State’s dominions which forms the basin of the Upper Congo above Riba-Riba. It also conceded, in full ownership, a third of the territory belonging to the public domain within those limits. In return the company undertook to establish within three years’ time two steamers, either on the confluents of the Upper Congo, or on the lakes adjacent to the Free State. Secondly, it promised to construct, within the same period, at least three stations within the conceded area. Thirdly, a pledge was given that the association would organize a police-force strong enough to protect its boats and forts; and this constabulary was to be liable, on demand, to service under the Free State. Lastly, the Katanga Company undertook to give every assistance towards the suppression of the slave trade, and to prevent the importation of spirits and weapons of war. These terms, it will be observed, do not differ greatly from the privileges conceded to our own chartered societies.

It would be futile to deny that the precious metals, and particularly gold, formed the main objects of the Company’s solicitude. I leave others to descant upon the considerations of abstract morality involved in the quest, and will confine myself to the inquiry how far the existence of the irritatementa malorum could be considered proven. To most minds the evidence will appear very fairly conclusive, though actual experiment was naturally wanting as to their discovery in workable quantities. Thus, in his well-known book, Across Africa, Commander Cameron describes how Haméd ibn Hamed, an Arab trader, whom he met at Nyangwé, had produced a calabash holding about a quartful of nuggets, varying in size from the top of the little finger to a swanshot.

“I asked him,” wrote the explorer, “whence they came, and he said that some of his slaves at Katanga found them while clearing out a water-hole, and brought them to him, thinking that they might do for shot. He said he had not looked for more, as he did not know such little bits were of any use. The natives, too, knew of the gold, but it is so soft that they do not value it, preferring ‘the red copper to the white.’ I heard, when at Benguela, that gold had been found in copper brought from Katanga, and that a company was buying all the Katanga copper it could obtain in order to extract the gold. From a man in Urua I bought a silver bracelet produced in or near this district. Cinnabar is found in large quantities in Urua, near the capital of Kasongo. Copper is also found in large quantities at Katanga, and for a considerable distance to the westward.”

The gallant voyager’s assertions with regard to gold had been confirmed since the establishment of the Congo Free State by the numerous presents of that metal made by Arab merchants to the Belgian officials. Besides Major Cambier, who was stationed on Lake Tanganyika from 1877 to 1880, had frequently heard both Arabs and natives declare that much gold was found in Katanga.

The fertility of the soil, and the salubrity of the climate, had been described in enthusiastic periods by the Portuguese Senhor Ivens, and his French Companion M. Capello, by the German Herr Reichard, and by the English missionary Mr. Arnot. The last witness gives a most spirited account in his book, Gazenganze, of his two years’ residence in the country (1886, 1887). According to him the temperature is capable of extreme heat without becoming oppressive; the atmosphere is always clear, and not befouled by fogs as in the Barotsé country. M. Capello, in a lecture delivered before the Paris Geographical Society, waxed eloquent upon the abundant water-supply of the Lualaba and the Luapula, and the wonderful heaviness of the crops. Clearly the Company was justified, even with allowance made for optimism and exaggeration, in believing that Katangaland would recoup a substantial outlay. It is true that such calculations fail to take the indigenous nigger into account, and the nigger, as these pages will show, can never be wholly omitted from the reckoning whether of profit or, more generally, of loss.

Several attempts had already been made to give validity to the paper-ownership of the Katanga district, as allotted to the Free State under the General Act of the Berlin Conference. On the 23rd of December, 1890, Lieutenant Paul le Marinel was despatched from Lusambo, a fort constructed by him on the Upper Sankuru (a tributary of the Kasai, which river flows into the Congo) to hoist the Belgian flag over Bunkeya, the capital of the country. Under him was a force some three hundred strong, with MM. Descamps, Legat, and Verdiekt, as its lieutenants. The expedition marched along the Lubi, through a region hitherto unknown to Europeans. It appeared densely populated, and its inhabitants are described in M. le Manuel’s report as affecting the most extraordinary method of dressing their hair, besides bedaubing their faces with various pigments. The Balungu tribe, dwelling upon the Kanioka, has reached an elementary civilization, and is addicted to commerce and the cultivation of the soil. Evading an effort on the part of the chief Muzembe to bar the way, the adventurers crossed the Sankuru and reached the source of the Lothimni, travelling over a plateau which, according to le Marinel, is well-watered and abounds in game. In March the passage of the Lualaba was affected by means of native canoes, and on the right bank they were met by a representative of Msiri the king of Katangaland. Pressing southward Lieutenant le Marinel traversed a mountainous tract, where dwell curious tribes of troglodytes, and crossing the plains arrived on the 18th of April, 1891, at Bunkeya. He was most courteously received by the aged potentate, and strengthened his cause by various gifts of clothing and ornaments. With great difficulty he extracted from the wily negro a letter, couched in the most ambiguous terms, which appeared to acknowledge King Leopold’s overlordship. Msiri, however, declined to make a definite act of submission or to hoist the Belgian flag. Finally, after a seven weeks’ stay at Bunkeya, M. le Marinel retraced his steps to Lusambo where he arrived safe and sound on the 11th of August. Lieutenant Legat with a garrison of Dahomeyan soldiers, was left behind in a fort built upon the Lifoi, some three marches from the capital, to watch the development of events.

Secondly, the Commercial and Industrial Company of the Congo had equipped an expedition under M. Alexandre Delcommune which, on the formation of the Katanga syndicate, passed into its service. The objects of the enterprise were partly to effect a settlement of the country, but chiefly to discover gold. M. Delcommune’s instructions were that he should repair to Bunkeya, and, if possible, persuade Msiri to accept the flag; and then advance, without loss of time, to the south, where the gold-fields were reported to lie. His acquaintance with Africa dated from 1873, and he was accompanied by a competent staff, of whom Lieutenant Hakanson, a Swede, served as second in command, M. Diderich as engineer and M. Briart as doctor. But the route selected, that of the Lualaba, with Bena-Kamba as its starting-point, proved extremely unfortunate. The caravan, which left that post on the 30th of January, 1891, encountered rapid after rapid. Six canoes were lost, and subsequently the steel boat foundered and had to be abandoned. The commander of the caravan had some hairbreadth escapes, now from an infuriated hippo, and again from sunken rocks and treacherous currents. Still, certain stretches of the river proved navigable, and M. Delcommune, as he advanced, made the acquaintance of some interesting tribes, particularly the Wacheni, a warlike race that has never submitted to the Arab yoke. On the 3rd of May the expedition arrived at N’Gongo-Lutita, where it was fortunate enough to encounter Rachid, Tippoo-Tib’s nephew and successor. This friendly Arab provided some welcome supplies of porters, bringing Delcommune’s strength up to 350 all told. After a fortnight’s rest, he started for Katanga overland. No detailed report of his proceedings has since been published, but his progress appears to have been fairly uneventful, and numerous treaties were concluded with the chiefs on the road. Travelling by way of Niambo, Lake Kassali and probably Lake Upamba, he attained Bunkeya in October. We subsequently gathered from M. Legat that Msiri had received the strangers with his customary courtesy, but equally, according to his wont, had declined to accept the Belgian flag. M. Delcommune accordingly pushed southwards in search of the auriferous drifts. I shall deal later on with our efforts to open communications with him, and with his subsequent adventures.

The Stairs expedition may be considered in some respects supplementary to that of Delcommune. Our objects, however, were essentially political; that to say, we proposed to secure the country, either with or without Msiri’s leave, for the Congo Free State. Nor could we allow time to run to waste, otherwise the claim stood in considerable danger of being “jumped”. For other eyes besides Belgian had been turned towards this desirable and derelict territory, those, namely, of Mr. Cecil Rhodes, the guiding spirit of the British South Africa Company Already one of its agents, Mr. Alfred Sharpe, now H.M. vice-consul in Nyasaland, had reached Msiri’s capital and had attempted to elicit information as to the gold deposits, also, if rumour does not err, to exact a treaty. Certain it is that he spent a week in negotiating with the crafty king; and Captain Stairs was subsequently informed by the English missionaries at Bunkeya that, on his departure in November, 1890, re infecta, Mr. Sharpe had left with Mr. Swan, one of their number, an act of submission to be signed by Msiri, in case the royal mind should change. Further there were stories abroad that a second effort to attain the same goal would shortly be made by Mr. Joseph Thomson the well-known explorer of Masailand and the Upper Niger. As a matter of fact, the latter’s mission, if really undertaken, never emerged from the state of conception and preparation. I have been informed, however, that he was compelled to suspend his preparations by the orders of the Foreign Office, and in any case there was presumption that Mr. Rhodes’s ambition would not recoil from a repetition against the Belgians of the tactics that had served him so admirably with the Portuguese, in Manicaland. Accordingly the Stairs expedition resolved itself, as we imagined, into a race for Bunkeya against such formidable competitors as the officers of the British South Africa Company.

Upon this delicate topic I may remark that, in my humble judgment, Mr. Cecil Rhodes, even if his reputed purpose had been carried to completeness, would have been acting within the letter of the law. For the General Act of the Brussels Conference distinctly stipulates that all occupation by European powers in Africa must be valid; that is to say, it must possess the outward signs of treaties, the national flag, and a sufficient police to ensure the preservation of order. Now, it would be futile to deny that though the Free State had been possessed for several years of the paper ownership of the Upper Congo basin, yet a poverty of resources had prevented more than the feeblest efforts to make good the title. I remember that, shortly before we started, several English newspapers, notably the Morning Post, urged with considerable cogency that, in consequence of this proved incapacity, Msiri’s kingdom should be regarded as a no-man’s-land, liable to seizure by the first corner. And no doubt the argument is cogent enough so far as it goes. At the same time, the civilized States would obviously be pursuing a short-sighted policy did they forget the duty of standing firmly together against the Negro, and, more particularly, the Arab. If outlying strips are to be freely snapped up, where is the process to end? May it not happen that while the British South Africa Company gains by the scramble, the East Africa and Niger find their boundaries rigidly circumscribed? Think again of the international complications that would attend a collision between British and, say, Germans, or—as in our somewhat abnormal instance—between Englishmen serving under their own flag and Englishmen enlisted by a foreign sovereign. Surely patience should be exercised by all concerned, until Africa passes from its present artificial partition to the Powers that can both colonize and administer. At the risk of wrecking my argument, I may say that Belgium is hardly likely to be reckoned in that category.

Speed being an essential to our undertaking, the choice of route was of necessity a matter for anxious consideration. The easiest and best approach lay via the Zambesi and Shire, Lake Nyasa and the Stevenson road, to the south end of Tanganyika. Mr. H. H. Johnston, however, the Imperial Commissioner for Nyasaland, reported that, owing to Arab disturbances, the way could not be considered practicable for the time being; and that no transport was available. Accordingly, the directors decided that we should proceed across German territory to Karema, cross Lake Tanganyika, and then descend upon Bunkeya from the north-east. The company also determined on sending yet another caravan to reinforce Captain Stairs in case of hostilities, and to take over the permanent administration of the country. Captain Bia, formerly of the Belgian army, was placed in command, with Lieutenant Franqui as his second. They embarked at Antwerp on the 18th of May, with instructions to make for Katanga by le Marinel’s route, namely, that of the Upper Sankuru. We shall meet them again in the neighbourhood of Bunkeya.

A word in conclusion of these preliminary remarks as to my commander and companions. Captain William Grant Stairs had, as the most cursory observer of current events must be aware, already won for himself an illustrious name in the annals of African exploration. He was born on the 1st of July, 1863, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and educated partly at Murchiston College, Edinburgh, and partly at the Military College of Kingston, Canada. Having passed with distinction through the engineering department, he accepted employment on a New Zealand railway. Coming to England, he availed himself of a regulation whereby commissions in the Royal Engineers were thrown open to certain colonial academies, and was gazetted in 1885. He was serving with his regiment when, in the autumn of 1886, Mr. Stanley’s expedition was organized for the relief of Emin Pasha. Lieutenant Stairs sent in the first application for an engagement on the staff; his offer was promptly accepted, and he obtained leave of absence from Lord Wolseley. Upon his exploits during that memorable enterprise I feel exempt from dilating, since they are a matter of common knowledge. Every one will remember his tactfulness and resource at Fort Bodo, his rescue of Parke and Nelson from starvation, his ascent of Mount Rwenzori and discovery of the true sources of the Nile. His was, wrote Mr. Stanley, “one of those rare personalities, oftener visible among military men than among civilians, who could obey orders without argument, who could accept a command, and without ado or fuss execute it religiously; courageous, careful, watchful, diligent and faithful.” Shortly after his return, Lieutenant Stairs exchanged from the Engineers into the Royal Welsh Regiment, with the rank of captain. But he soon grew weary of life at Aldershot, and gladly accepted the Katanga Company’s offer to lead one of its expeditions. He was fully conscious of the rashness of the experiment, since his constitution had been severely tried by malaria and exertion, nor was its tone entirely restored. Indeed, before leaving England, he told more than one of his friends that they might never see him again. Wedded to action, and burning to excel, Captain Stairs felt that the trophies of Mr. Stanley would not suffer him to sleep.

As second in command went Captain Bodson, an officer of the Belgian Carbineers. He was born at Antwerp on the 5th of January, 1856, and after a spell of military service, accepted an appointment under the Congo Free State, in 1887. Upon that river he displayed remarkable dash and competency to meet emergencies. At first attached to the topographical brigade at Mateba, he was stationed for three years at the Stanley Falls. There he gave considerable assistance to the Emin Relief Expedition during its march up-country, and presided over the court-martial which tried the murderer of the unfortunate Major Barttelot. Captain Bodson was next transferred to Léopoldville, and then to Basoko. Recalled to Belgium about 1889, he distinguished himself in the suppression of the Liege riots, and received the personal thanks of the king.

Of the other Europeans, the Marquis de Bonchamps was some thirty-two years of age, and had served in a French cavalry regiment. He had been a great traveller and sportsman, notably among the Rocky Mountains, where he spent several seasons in pursuit of big game. Concerning myself, I may say that I had practised for several years as a doctor in the south of London, and, as has been mentioned already, an expedition to Morocco had given me some slight experience of African travel. Lastly, we took with us Mr. Robinson, formerly a private in the Grenadier Guards, as carpenter and general factotum. His testimonials gave promise of pluck and steadiness, nor, as the sequel will show, did they at all belie his character.

The reader will observe that we were a mixed staff acting under an international syndicate. On the whole I am inclined to pronounce that such enterprises are less likely to succeed than those conducted on more homogeneous lines. Political considerations naturally cause a company thus constituted to adopt a somewhat flabby and vacillating policy. Still more certain is it that differences of race are accentuated by the worries and fatigue of a long march overland, and that the small band splits into yet smaller cliques—Britons on the one side and Continentals on the other. The world, however, has grown rather tired of the quarrels and jealousies that are the inevitable concomitants of hazardous endeavours. Accordingly, I do not propose to recur again to this unpleasant topic; still, the existence of some unnecessary friction on the Stairs expedition cannot be wholly ignored.