Henry Stanley

New York Herald/August 9, 1876

The Great Explorer’s Survey of the Victoria Niyanza


Driven Away from Makongo by Unfriendly Natives


A Sail to the Island of Bumbireh


Shekka’s Treachery

A Running Fight

The Savages Discomfited


Adrift on the Lake in a Storm

Death on Every Hand



Mahyiga Island, Three Miles from Bumbireh Island,

Lake Victoria Niyanza

July 29, 1875

This expedition which you have intrusted to me seems destined to meet with adventures more than enough. When a boy I loved to read books of adventure and travel, especially of the Mayne Reid type, and followed their several heroes with breathless interest through all their varied fortunes; but since I have been compelled lately to act the hero of the adventure oftener than is consistent with peace of mind and a comfortable night’s rest, however glorious a thing it may appear on paper, you may take my word for it I would much rather read of the adventure than be an actor in it. As I compare my former trip to Ujiji with this journey I am forced to admit that the former was mere child’s play. The adventures we have gone through already, if faithfully related, would fill a good sized volume, while, I may say, we have but begun our journey as yet.

Continuing my narrative of our journey from Uganda to Usukuma by the western shore of Lake Niyanza, I resume it from the point I left off in my last letter — viz., the Kagera River or the Kitangule.

We had two canoes belonging to Mtesa accompanying our boat as an escort, until the dilatory Grand Admiral Magassa should overtake us with his fleet of thirty canoes, and the day we left the Kagera River we rested at night on a smooth, sandy beach at the foot of the Usongoro plateau, at a point called Kagya. The natives were friendly and disposed to be hospitable, so that we argued well for our reception during our travels along the coast of Usongora.

The next afternoon we camped at Makongo, and received an apparently friendly welcome by the natives, each of whom was engaged as we landed in the grave occupation of imbibing pombe or beer by means of long straw pipes, exactly as we take a “sherry cobbler” or a “mint julep” in the United States. The chief slightly reeled as he came forward to salute me, and his eyes had that un certain gaze which seemed to hint that he saw double, or two white men when there was only one. However, he and his people were good natured — and contented with our arrival.

About ten p.m. we were all awakened from sleep by a furious drumming, accompanied now and then by shrill yells. The Waganda said that this drumming and yelling was in welcome to the white stranger. I did not believe them, and therefore put my people on their guard, ordered them to load their guns and place them under their sleeping mats and arranged all my own in a handy and safe position. Except the continued drumming and yelling, nothing occurred during the night, but at daybreak we found ourselves in presence of about 500 warriors, armed with bow, shield and spear, who had crept quietly near the camp, and then had stood up in a semicircle, preventing all escape save by water. I was so astonished by this sudden apparition of such a large body of armed men that I could barely believe that we were still in Mtesa’s territory.

There was also something very curious in their demeanor. For there was no shouting, yelling or frantic behavior, as we had several times witnessed on the part of savages when about to commit themselves by a desperate deed. They all wore a composed though a stern and determined aspect. It was a terrible moment to us. We knew not what to make of these hundreds of armed savages, who persisted in being silent and gave no hint as to their intentions, unless the forest of spears might be taken as a clear, unmistakable and explicit hint that their object was a bloody one. We feared to make a movement lest it might precipitate a catastrophe which might possibly be averted; so we remained a few minutes silently surveying each other.

The silence was soon broken, however, by the appearance of the chief who had welcomed us (though he was then inebriated) the evening before. He had a long stick in his hand, which he flourished before the faces of the savages, and by this means drove them several paces backward. He then came forward, and, striking the boat, ordered us to get off, and he himself lent a hand to shove the boat into the lake.

As the boat glided into the water another chief came forward and asked us what we meant by drawing our boat up so far on their beach. We replied that we had done it to protect the boat from the surf, and were about to add more reasons when the first chief cut the matter short by ordering us to shove off and go and camp on Musira Island, distant four miles, whither he would follow us with food.

We were nothing loath to obey such good counsel, and soon put a distance of 100 yards between ourselves and the hostile beach. As the Waganda were not yet out of danger, we prepared our guns to sweep the beach. So dense was the crowd of armed men near the water line that we might have taken a fearful revenge had we been so vengefully disposed, or had the necessity of saving the Waganda compelled us to fire. Happily though, our friends, not without loud remonstrance and much wordy altercation, embarked in safety and followed us to Musira Island. Here the chief came, and, learning our wants and our objects, sent off three bunches of bananas which he presented to us, and then left us to our fate.

In the afternoon we sighted our Grand Admiral Magassa, with a large fleet of canoes, paddling slowly to a neighboring island, where he camped for the night. Desirous of quickening his movements I sailed from Musira Island for Alice Island, distant thirty-five miles. The two chiefs of our escorting canoes accompanied us a mile or two, and then, alarmed by the aspect of the weather, turned back, shouting to us at the same time that as soon as the wind moderated they would follow us. It was near midnight when we arrived at Alice Island, and by steering for a light on shore we fortunately found a snug, well-sheltered cove. The light we discovered was that of a fire made by some Bumbireh fishermen curing fish. My men were so hungry that they resolved to seize this food to the great alarm and terror of its owners. I restrained my people and quieted the fears of the fishermen by paying a double price for a quantity of fish sufficient for a day’s provisions for the boat’s crew.

When daylight came we found ourselves at the foot of a huge beetling cliff, and discovered that we had taken shelter near a kind of penthouse formed by overhanging rocks, which were now blackened with the smoke of many fires. The natives of the island came down to visit us, holding out wisps of green grass as a sign of peace and friendliness. But though they were friendly enough they were so extortionate in their demands that we gained nothing by their friendship, and were compelled to depart at noon, with every prospect of starvation before us, unless Bumbireh Island (a large and populous island lying southwest of Alice Island about twenty-five miles), to which I determined to sail, furnished us with food.

Amid rain, thunder, lightning and a sounding surf on all sides, we dropped anchor under the lee of Pocock’s Island about midnight. It rained and thundered throughout the night, and we had much trouble to keep our boat afloat by constant bailing. At daybreak we hurried away from our dangerous anchorage before a steady strong breeze from the northeast, and within three hours drew near the comfortable little cove near the village of Kajuri, at the southeastern extremity of Bumbireh Island. As we looked on the plenty which green slopes, garnished with large groves of bananas and dotted with herds of fat cattle, promised, we anticipated an abundance of good food, ripe bananas, a fat goat, a large supply of milk and other things good for famishing men. But we were disappointed to hear the large number of people on the plateau above the village shouting their war cry.

Still we pressed nearer the beach; hunger gave us much confidence, and a rich tribute, we were sure, would pacify the most belligerent chief. Perceiving that we persisted in approaching their shore the people rushed down the slope of the plateau toward us. Prudence whispered to me to at least get ready our guns, which I accordingly did, and then rowed slowly toward the beach, certain that, if hostilities began, indications of such would appear in time to enable us to withdraw from the shore.

We halted at the distance of twenty yards from the shore, and I observed that the wild behavior of the natives changed, as they approached nearer, to affability and friendliness. We exchanged the usual friendly greetings, and were invited to come ashore in such tones as dissipated the least suspicion from our minds. No sooner, however, had the keel of the boat grounded than the apparently friendly natives rushed in a body and seized the boat and dragged her high and dry on land, with all on board. The reader may imagine the number of natives required to perform this feat when I state the boat, baggage and crew weighed nearly 4,000 pounds.

Twice I raised my revolvers to kill and be killed, but the crew restrained me, saying it was premature to fight, as these people were friends, and all would be right. Accordingly I sat down in the stern sheets and waited patiently for the decisive moment. The savages fast increased in numbers, and the hubbub grew greater. Violent language and more violent action we received without comment or word on our part. Spears were held in their hands as if on the launch, arrows were drawn to the head and pointed at each of us with frenzied looks and eyes almost bursting out of their sockets.

The apparently friendly savages seemed to be now personified furies. Throughout all the scenes of civilized and savage life which I have witnessed I never saw mad rage or wild fury painted so truly before on human features. It led them to the verge of absurdity even. They struck the ground and the boat, stamped, foamed at the mouth, gnashed their teeth, slashed the air with their spears, but they shed no blood. The chief Shekka prevented this, reserving that pleasure, I presume, for a more opportune time, when a new excitement would be required.

Our interpreters, in the meantime, were by no means idle; they employed to the utmost whatever gifts of persuasion nature had endowed them with and fear created in them, without, however, exhibiting any servility or meanness. Indeed, I was struck to admiration by the manly way in which they stated our objects and purposes in travelling on the Niyanza, and by the composure of their bearing. The savages themselves observed this, and commented on it with surprise. This calm behavior of the crew and interpreters acted as a sedative on the turbulence and ranting violence of the savages, though it broke out now and then, sputtering fitfully with the wildest of gestures and most murderous demonstrations.

For three hours I sat in the stem sheets of the boat observing all these preliminaries of a tragedy which I felt sure was about to be enacted, silent, except now and then communicating a suggestion to the interpreters, and seemingly an unconcerned spectator. But I was not idle. I wished to impose on the savages by my behavior. I was busily planning a resistance and an escape. As we were in their power it only remained for us to be quiet until they proceeded to acts of violence, and in the meantime endeavor to purchase peace, or at least postpone the strife.

Comformably with these ideas the interpreters were instructed to offer cloths and beads to the chief Shekka, who appeared to have despotic authority over all, judging from the reverential and ready obedience paid to his commands. Shekka demanded four cloths and ten necklaces of large beads as his price for permitting us to depart in peace. They were paid to him. Having secured them, he ordered his people to seize our oars, which was done before we understood what they were about. This was the second time that Shekka had acted cunningly and treacherously, and a loud jeering laugh from his people showed him how much they appreciated his wit.

After seizing the oars Shekka and his people slowly went to their village to eat their noon meal, and to discuss what other measures should be adopted toward the strangers. A woman came near us, and told us to eat honey with Shekka, as it was the only way to save our lives, for Shekka and his people had determined to kill us and take everything we had. The coxswain of the boat was sent to proffer terms of brotherhood to Shekka. The coxswain was told to be at ease, no harm was intended us, and on the next day Shekka promised he and his people should eat honey and make lasting and sure brotherhood with us.

The coxswain returned to us with triumphant looks, and he speedily communicated his own assurances to the crew. But I checked this over-confidence and trustfulness in such cunning and treacherous people, and told them to trust in nothing save our own wit, and by no means to leave the neighborhood of the boat, for their next act would be to seize the guns in the same manner as they seized the oars. Immediately the crew saw the truth of this suggestion, and I had no reason to complain that they paid no heed to my words.

At three p.m. the natives began to assemble on the ridge of a low hill about a hundred yards from the boat, and presently drums were heard beating the call to war until within half an hour about 500 warriors had gathered around Shekka, who was sitting down addressing his people. When he had done about fifty rushed down and took our drum, and kindly told us to get our guns ready for fight, as they were coming presently to cut our throats.

As soon as I saw the savages had arrived in the presence of Shekka with our drum, I shouted to my men to push the boat into the water. With one desperate effort my crew of eleven men seized the boat as if she had been a mere toy and shot her into the water. The impetus they had given her caused her to drag them all into deep water. In the meantime the savages, uttering a furious howl of disappointment and baffled rage, came rushing like a whirlwind toward the water’s edge.

I discharged my elephant rifle, with its two large conical balls, into their midst; and then, assisting one of the crew into the boat, told him to help his fellows in while I continued to fight. My double-barrelled shotgun, loaded with buckshot, was next discharged with terrible effect; for, without drawing a single bow or launching a single spear, they retreated up the slope of the hill, leaving us to exert our wits to get the boat out of the cove before the enemy should decide to man their canoes.

The crew was composed of picked men, and in this dire emergency they did ample justice to my choice. Though we were without oars the men were at no loss for a substitute. As soon as they found themselves in the boat they tore up the seats and footboards and began to paddle the boat out as though she were a canoe, while I was left to single out with my rifles the most prominent and boldest of the enemy.

Twice in succession I succeeded in dropping men determined on launching the canoes, and seeing the sub-chief who had commanded the party that took the drum I took deliberate aim with my elephant rifle at him. That bullet, as I have since been told, killed the chief and his wife and infant, who happened to be standing a few paces behind him, and the extraordinary result had more effect on the superstitious minds of the natives than all previous or subsequent shots.

On getting out of the cove we saw two canoes loaded with men coming out in pursuit from another small cove. I permitted them to come within 100 yards of us, and this time I used the elephant rifle with explosive balls. Four shots killed five men and sank the canoes. This decisive affair disheartened the enemy, and we were left to pursue our way unmolested, not, however, without hearing a ringing voice shouting out to us, “Go and die in the Niyanza!”

When the savages counted their losses they found fourteen dead and eight wounded with buckshot, which I consider to be very dear payment for the robbery of eight ash oars and a drum, though barely equivalent, in our estimation, to the intended massacre of ourselves.

Favored by a slight breeze from the land we hoisted our sail, and by night were eight miles southeast of Bumbireh. A little after dusk the breeze died, and we continued on our course paddling. All night I kept the men hard at work, making, however, but little progress through the water. At sunrise we were about twenty miles southeast of Bumbireh, and by noon were about twenty-five miles off. At this time we had a strong breeze from the northwest, and we sped before it at the rate of five knots an hour. At sunset we were about twelve miles northeast of Sosua or Gosua Island, and if the breeze continued favorable we hoped to be able to make a haven some time before midnight. But the breeze, about eight p.m., rose to a fierce gale, and, owing to the loss of our oars, we could not keep the boat before the wind.

As we were swept by the island we made frantic efforts to get to leeward, but it was to no purpose; we therefore resigned ourselves to the wind and waves, the furious rain and the horror of the tempest. Most of your readers, no doubt, have experienced a gale of wind at sea; few, however, can have witnessed it in a small boat. But our situation was more dangerous even than the latter. We had rocks and unknown islands in our neighborhood, and a few miles further a mainland peopled by savages, who would have no scruple in putting us all to death or making slaves of us. If our boat capsized the crocodiles of the lake would make short work of us; if we were driven on an uninhabited island death by starvation awaited us. Yet with all these terrors we were so worn out with hunger, fatigue and anxiety that, excepting the watchman, we all fell asleep, though awakened now and then by his voice calling the men to bale the boat out.

At daybreak the tempest and high waves subsided, and we perceived we had drifted eight miles westward of Sosua and to within six miles of the large island of Mysomeh. We had not a morsel of food in the boat; I had but a little ground coffee, and we had tasted nothing else for forty-eight hours; yet the crew, when called to resume their rough paddles, cheerfully responded and did their duty manfully. A gentle breeze set in from the westward, which bore us quickly east of Sosua, and carried us by two p.m. to an island which I have distinguished by the name of Refuge Island.

On exploring this island we found it to be about two miles in circumference, to have been formerly inhabited and cultivated, and, to our great joy, we found an abundance of green bananas, and of a small ripe fruit resembling cherries in appearance and size, but having the taste of dates. To add to this bounty I succeeded in shooting two brace of large fat ducks, and when night closed in on us, in our snug and secure camp close by a strip of sandy beach, few people that night blessed God more fervently than we did.

We rested a day on Refuge Island, during which time we made amends for the scarcity we had suffered, then, feeling on the second day somewhat recovered, we set sail for Singo Island. We imagined we were near enough to Usukuma to venture to visit Ito Island, situated a mile south of Singo, whose slopes were verdant with the frondage of banana and plantain, but, on attempting to land, were met by a force of natives who rudely repulsed us with stones shot from slings. Our cartridges being all spoiled by the late rainy weather we were unable to do more than hoist sail and speed away to more kindly shores.

Two days afterward our boat rounded the southwestern extremity of Wiro, a peninsula of Ukerewe, and rode on the gray waters of Speke Gulf, the distant shore line of Usukuma bounding the view south about twenty-two miles off. A strong head wind rising we turned into a small bay in Wiro Peninsula, where we purchased meat, potatoes, milk, honey, ripe and green bananas, eggs and poultry; and, while our boat was at anchor, cooked these delicacies on board and ate with such relish and appetite as only starving men can properly appreciate, grateful to Providence and kindly disposed to all men.

At midnight, taking advantage of a favorable wind, we set sail for Usukuma. About three a.m. we were nearly in mid-gulf, and here the fickle wind failed us; and then, as if resolved we should taste to the utmost all its power, it met us with a tempest of hailstones as large as filberts from the north-north-east. The sky was robed in inky blackness, not a star was visible, vivid lightnings, accompanied by loud thunder crashes, and waves which tossed us up and down as though we were imprisoned in a gourd, lent their terrors to this fearful night. Again we let the boat drift whither it might, as all our efforts to keep on our course were useless and vain. Indeed, we began to think that the curse of the people of Bumbireh, “Go and die in the Niyanza,” might be realized after all, though I had much faith in the staunch boat which Messenger, of Teddington, so conscientiously built.

A gray, cheerless raw morning dawned at last, and we discovered ourselves to be ten miles north of Ruwoma, and twenty miles northwest of Kagehyi, at which latter place my camp was situated. We put forth our best efforts, hoisted sail, and though the wind was but little in our favor at first it soon rewarded our perseverance, and merrily rushing tall waves came booming astern of us, so that we sailed in triumph along the well known shores of Usukuma straight to camp. Shouts of welcome greeted us from shore, when even many miles away; but as we drew near the shouts changed to volleys of musketry and waving of flags, and the land seemed alive with leaping forms of glad-hearted men, for we had been fifty-seven days absent from our people, and many a false rumor of our death, strengthened each day as our absence grew longer, was now dissipated by the appearance of the Lady Alice, sailing joyously to the port of Kagehyi.

As the keel grounded over fifty men bounded to the water, dragged me from the boat and danced me round camp on their shoulders, amid much laughter, clapping of hands, grotesque wriggling of human forms and Saxon Hurrahing. Having vented their joy they set me down and all formed a circle, many men deep, to hear the news, which was given with less detail than I have the honor to write to you. So ended our exploration of Lake Victoria Niyanza.

(Source: “Stanley’s Despatches to the New York Herald,” Archive.org)