Among the Hippopotami

Henry Stanley

New York Herald/October 12, 1875

Letter of the Gallant African Traveller from the Shores of Victoria Niyanza


Voyage of the Lady Alice on the Waters of an Unknown Sea


New Discoveries and Old Inaccuracies Corrected

The Map


One Thousand Miles of the Lake’s Shores Surveyed in Fifty-eight Days


Village of Kagehyi, District of Uchambi, Country of Usukuma

May 15, 1875

By the aid of the enclosed map you will be able to understand the positions and places of the countries mentioned in my last and of some I shall be obliged to describe in this letter. It is needless to go over the same ground I described in my letter from Uganda; but, since I send you a map, it will be but charity to again briefly sketch the characteristics of the countries lying east between Usukuma and Uganda.

Between the district of Uchambi, which is in Usukuma, and the Shimeeyu River, the principal affluent of the Niyanza, lie the pretty districts of Sima and Magu, governed by independent chiefs. On the eastern side of the Shimeeyu is Masanza, a rugged and hilly country, thinly populated and the resort of the elephant hunters. Beyond Masanza the coast is formed by Manasa and the country is similar in feature to Masanza, abounding in elephants. This extends to the eastern extremity of Speke Gulf, when we behold a complete change in the landscape. The land suddenly sinks down into a flat, marshy country, as if Speke Gulf formerly had extended many miles inland, as I have no doubt, but rather feel convinced, it did.

This country is called Wirigedi, peopled by savages, who have little or no intercourse with Usukuma, but are mostly exclusive and disposed to take advantage of their strength to rob strangers who visit them. Urrigedi is drained by the Ruana, which discharges itself into Speke Gulf by two mouths. It is a powerful stream, conveying a vast quantity of water to Speke Gulf, but in importance not to be mentioned in the same category as the Shimeeyu and the Kagera, the two principal affluents of Lake Victoria.

Speke Gulf at its eastern extremity is about twelve miles in width. Opposed to the hilly ranges of Manasa and Masanza are the sterile naked mountains and plains of Shashi, Uramba and Urirwi. The plains which separate each country from the other are as devoid of vegetation as the Isthmus of Suez. A thin line only, bordering the lake, is green with bush and cane. The gulf, as we proceed west from Urirwi, is shored by the great island of Ukerewe, a country blessed with verdure and plenty, and rich in herds of cattle and ivory. A narrow strait, called the Rugeshi, separates Ukerewe from Urirwi. The Wakereweh are an enterprising and commercial people, and the King, Lukongeh, is a most amiable man. The Wakereweh possess numerous islands — Nifuah, Wezi, Iraugara, Kamassi, &c., are all inhabited by them. Their canoes are seen in Ugeyeya, Usongora and Uzinza; and to the tribes in the far interior they have given, by their activity and commercial fellowship, their name to the Victoria Niyanza.

Rounding Ukerewe, we pass on our left the Island of Ukara, and, sailing past Shizu and Kiveru, come to the northern end of Rugeshi Strait, from where we see the towering table mountain of Majita a little to the northeast of us, the mountains of Urimi and Uramba in our front. I mentioned to you in one of my letters that Speke described Majita as an island, and that I, standing on the same spot, would do so likewise if I had no other proof than my own eyes. As we approach Majita we see the reason of this delusion. The table mountain of Majita is about 3,000 feet in altitude above the lake, while on all sides of it, except the lake side at its base, are low brown plains, which rise but a few feet above the lake. It is the same case with Urirwi, Uramba and Shashi. At a distance I thought them islands, until I arrived close to them.

On the northern side of Majita the brown plain extends far inland, and I do believe a great plain or a series of plains bounds the lake countries east, for we have views distant or near everywhere. In endeavoring to measure the extent of this plain I am compelled to think of Ugogo, for, as we traversed its northern frontier we saw each day stretching north the barren, thorn-covered plain of Uhumba. On leaving Iramba we came again in view of a portion of it, more recently covered with water, under the name of the Luwamberri Plain. As we journey through Usmaow we saw from many a ridge the plain extending north. That part of the plain lying between Urimi and the lake is, of course, drained by the Luwamberri, the Mwaru and the Duma rivers, and discharged into the Niyanza under the name of the Shimeeyu. But northeast of the Shimeeyu’s mouth imagine the land heaved into a low, broad and lengthy ridge, forming another basin drained by the Ruana, and still another drained by the Mara, and again another by the Mori, etc. If we ask the natives what lies beyond the immediate lake lands we are assured briefly, “Mbuiga tu,” “Only a plain.”

From Majita north we sail along the coast of Ururi, a country remarkable for its wealth of cattle and fine pastoral lands. It is divided into several districts whose names you will find marked on the map. Mohuru and Shirati, low, flat and wooded districts of Ururi separate this country from Ugeyeya, the land of so many fables and wonders, the El Dorado of ivory seekers and the source of wealth for slave hunters.

Our first view of it while we cross the Bay of Kavirondo is of a series of tall mountains, and of a mountainous projection, which latter from a distance we take to be a promontory, but which on a nearer view turns out to be an island, bearing a tall mountain on its back. At the northeastern extremity of this bay is Gori River, which rises northeast near Kavi — no important stream, but one that grows duruing the rainy season to large breadth and depth. Far east beyond the Niyanza for twenty-five days’ march the country is one continuous plain, low hills rising here and there dotting the surface, a scrubby land, though well adapted for pasture and cattle, of which the natives have vast herds. About fifteen days’ march east the people report a land wherein low hills spout smoke, and sometimes fire. This wonderful district is called Susa, and is situated in the Masai Land. All combine in saying that no stream runs north, but that all waters come into the Niyanza — for at least twenty days’ march. Beyond this distance the natives report a small lake, from which issues a stream flowing toward the Pangani.

Continuing on our way north we pass between the Island Ugingo and the gigantic mountains of Ugeyeya, at whose base the Lady Alice seems to crawl like a mite in a huge cheese, while we on board admire the stupendous height and wonder at the deathly silence which prevails in this solitude, where the boisterous winds are hushed and the turbulent waves are as tranquil as a summer’s dream. The natives as they pass regard this spot with superstition, as well they might, for the silent majesty of these dumb tall mounts awe the very storms to peace. Let the tempests bluster as they may on the spacious main beyond this cape, in this nook, sheltered by tall Ugingo isle and lofty Goshi on the mainland, they inspire no fear. It is this refuge which Goshi promises the distressed canoe men that causes them to sing praises of Goshi, and to cheer one another when wearied and benighted that Goshi is near to protect them.

Sailing between and out from among the clustering islands, we leave Wategi behind, and sail towards two low isolated islands not far from the mainland, for a quiet night’s rest, and under the overspreading branches of a mangrove tree we dream of unquiet waters and angry surfs and threatening rocks, to find ourselves next morning tied to an island which, from its peculiarity, I have named Bridge Island, though its native name is Kihwa. While seeking a road to ascend the island to take bearings, I discovered a natural bridge of basalt, about twenty feet in length by twelve in breadth, under which one might repose comfortably, and from one side see the waves lashed to fury and spend their strength on the stubborn rocks which form the foundation of the arch, while from the other he could see his boat, secure under the lee of the island, resting on a serene and placid surface, and shaded by mangrove branches from the hot sun of the Equator. Its neighborhood is remarkable only for a small cave, the haunt of fishermen.

From the summit of Bridge Island the view eastward takes in all Masari as far as Nakidimo, and discovers only a flat and slightly wooded district, varied at intervals by isolated cones, and northward, at the distance of twenty miles or so, finds the land makes a bold and long stretch eastward. Knowing, however, by experience that the appearance of the land is deceptive, we hoist our sail and scud merrily before a freshening breeze, hugging the coast, lest it should rob us of some rarity or wonder.

At noon I found myself under the Equator, and four miles north I came to discolored water and a slight current flowing to the southwest. Seeing a small bay of sufficient breadth to make a good river, and no land at its eastern extremity, I made sure I had discovered a river, which would rival the Shimeeyu; but within an hour land all round revealed the limit and extent of the Bay of Nakidimo. We anchored close to a village and began to court the attention of some wild looking fishermen, but the nude barbarians merely stared at us from under penthouses of hair, and hastily stole away to tell their wives and relatives of how an apparition in the shape of a boat with white wings to it had suddenly come before them, bearing strange men with red caps on their heads, except one — a red man, clad in white, whose face was as red as blood, who, jabbering something unintelligible, so frightened them that they ran away. This will become a pleasant tradition, one added to the many wonders now told in Ugeyeya, which, with the art of embellishment inherent in the tongue of the wondering, awe-struck savage, may become in time the most wonderful of all wonders.

Perceiving that our proffered courtesies were thus rudely rejected, we also stole out of the snug bay and passed round to another much larger and more important. At its extremity a river issued into the bay, which, by long and patient talk with the timid natives, we ascertained to be the Ugoweh. In this the hippos were as bold as the human savages were timid, and to a couple of the amphibious monsters we had to induce the Lady Alice to show a swifter pace in retreat than the savages of Nakidimo had shown to us. These hippopotami would afford rare sport in a boat specially built for killing them; then they might splinter her sides with their tusks, and bellow and kick to their utmost; but the Lady Alice, if I can help it, with her delicate skin of cedar and ribs of slender hickory, shall never come in close contact with the iron-hard ivory of the hippopotamus, for she would be splintered into matches and crushed like an egg before one could say “Jack Robinson,” and then the hungry crocodiles would leisurely digest us. The explorer’s task, to my mind, is a far nobler one than hunting hippos, and our gallant cedar boat has many a thousand miles to travel yet before she has performed her task.

The yet unknown expanse of the Victoria Niyanza, northward and westward and southwestward, invites us to view it delights and wonders of nature. The stormy Lake Albert and the stormier Tanganyika, though yet distant, woo us to ride on their waves; and far Bangweolo, Moero and Kamolondo and the Lincoln Lakes promise us fair prospects and as rich rewards if we can only bide the buffets of the tempests, and the brunt of savage hostility and ignorance till then. Shall we forego the vantage of all this ripe harvest and acquisition of knowledge for an hour’s fierce pleasure with the simple but full-muscled hippopotamus? Not by my election or consent. Let the admirers of the Field, Bell’s Life and the Spirit of the Times call it faintheartedness, or even a harsher name, if they will. I call it prudence. But I have an adventure with a hippo — a cowardly, dull-witted, fat-brained hippo — (I can abuse him savagely in your columns, for his brothers in Europe, thank fortune, do not read the Telegraph or the HERALD without fear of a civil or criminal suit for libel) — to tell someday, when I have no higher things to write of, which will warm all your young bloods; and I have had another with a lion, or I should say a herd of lions, just as exciting. But these must remain until I camp under the palms of Ujiji again, with half my work done, and my other half still undone. Let us pass on, however, to our subject, and the place where I left off — namely, coward-like, running away from a pair of bull hippos. I am not sure they were bulls either, though they were hippopotami, sure enough.

We flew away with a bellying sail along the coast of Maheta, where we saw such a dense population and clusters of large villages as we had not seen elsewhere. We thought we would make one more effort to learn of the natives the names of some of these villages, and for that purpose steered for a cove on the western shore of Maheta. We anchored within fifty yards of the shore, and so lengthened our cable that but a few feet of deep water separated us from the shore. Some half-a-dozen men wearing small land shells above their elbows and a circle round their heads, came to the beach. With these we opened a friendly conversation, during which they disclosed the name of the country as Maheta in Ugeyeya; more they would not communicate until we should land. We prepared to do this, but the numbers on the shore increased so fast that we were compelled to pull off again until they should moderate their excitement and talk. They seemed to think that we were about to pull off altogether, for suddenly appeared out of the bush on each side of the spot we had intended to land such a host of spears that we hoisted our sail and left them to whet their treachery on some other boat or canoe more imprudent than ours. The discomfited people were seen to consult together on a small ridge behind the bush lining the lake, and, no doubt, they thought we were about to pass close to a small point at the north end of the cone, shouting gleefully at the prospect of a prize; but, lowering the sail, we pulled to windward, far out of the reach of bow or sling, and at dusk made for a small island, to which we tied our boat, and where we camped in security.

Next day we continued on our course, and coasted along Nduru and Wangano, and sailed into the bay which forms the northeastern extremity of Lake Victoria Niyanza. Manyara, on the eastern side of the bay, is a land of bold hills and ridges, while the very northeastern end, through which issues the Yagama River into the Niyanza, is flat. The opposite coast to Manyara is that of Muwanda and the promontory of Chaga, while the great slug-like island of Usuguru, standing from west to east across the mouth of the bay, shuts the bay almost entirely in.

At Muwanda we again trusted our fortunes with the natives, and were this time not deceived, so that we were enabled to lay in quite a stock of vegetables and provisions at a cheap rate. They gave us all the information we desired. Baringo, they said, is the name applied by the people of Ugana to Nduru, a district of Ugeyeya, and the bay on which our boat rode the extreme end of the lake, nor did they know or had they heard of any lake, large or small, other than the Niyanza.

I described the coast from Muwanda to Uganda, and my visit to Mtesa, with my happy encounter with Colonel Linant de Bellefonds, of Gordon’s staff, at some length, so I need not go over the same ground. The day after my last letter was written I made arrangements with the King of Uganda, by which he agreed to lend me thirty canoes and some 500 men, to convey the expedition from Usukuma to the Katonga River. With this promise, and ten large canoes as an earnest of it, I started from Murchison Bay on April 17. We kept company as far as the Katonga River, but here the chief captain of the Waganda said that he should have to cross over to Sesse, distant twelve miles from the mainland, and the largest island in the Lake Niyanza, to procure the remaining twenty canoes promised by Mtesa. The chief gave me two canoes to accompany me, promising that I should be overtaken by the entire fleet before many days. I was impatient to continue my survey of the lake and to reach Usukuma, having been so long absent from the expedition, during which time many things contrary to my success and peace of mind might have occurred.

I took my observations twice a day with a sea horizon — one at noon for latitude, and one in the afternoon for longitude — and I am sorry to say that, if I am right, Speke is about fourteen miles wrong in his latitude along the whole coast of Uganda. The mouth of the Katonga River, for instance, according to his map, is a little south of the Equator. I have made it by meridian altitude, observed April 20, to be in latitude 0 deg. 16 min. 0 secs, north. Thus it is nearly with all his latitudes. His longitudes and mine vary but little; but this is easily accounted for. The longitude of any position can be taken with a chronometer, sextant, and artificial horizon with the same accuracy on land as on sea. If there is any difference it is very likely to exist in the error of the chronometers. What instruments Speke possessed to obtain his latitudes I know not, but if he found the altitude of the sun ascending about 65 deg. he could never obtain it with an ordinary sextant except by double altitude, and that method is not so exact as taking a simple meridian on a quiet lake, with an ample horizon of water. But there are various methods of determining one’s latitude, and Speke was familiar with many. My positions all round the lake have been determined with a sea horizon. When near noon my plan was, if the lake was rough to seek the nearest island or a quiet cape at the extremity of a bay, and there take my observations as deliberately as though my life depended on their accuracy.

But this task was, indeed, a work of pleasure for me, and I have found a rich reward for most of my pains and stormy life on this lake in looking at the fair extent of white on my map, with all its bends, curves, inlets, creeks, bays, capes, debouchures of rivers, &c., known by the name of Victoria Niyanza. Any errors which may have crept into my calculations will be determined by competent authorities on my return from Africa, or on the arrival of my papers in Europe. Meantime I send my map as I have made it.

The Katonga is not a large river, and has but one mouth. The Amionzi River empties itself into the Niaynza about eight miles W.S.W. of the Katonga. Uganda stretches to the Kagerah, situated in S. lat. 0 deg. 40 min. On the south side of the river begins Usongora, extending to S. lat. 1 deg. South of 1 deg. is Kamiru, extending to S. lat. 1 deg. 15 min.

Thence is Uwya, a country similar in enterprise to Ukerewe’s people. Beyond Uwya is Uzinja or Uzinza, called by the Wanyamwezi Mweri. Uzinja continues as far south as Jordan’s Nullah, and east of it is Usukuma again, and one day’s sail from Jordan’s Nullah we pass Muanza, which Speke reached in 1858, and brings us home to Kagehyi, and to our camp, where we are greeted joyfully by such as live to mourn the poor fellows who, in my absence, have been hurried by disease to untimely graves.

I must be brief in what I have to say now. I did think to make this a long letter, but Sungoro’s slave, who carries this, is in a hurry to go, as his caravan has already started. My next letter must continue this from the Kagera River, called in Karagwe the Kitangule, and it shall describe some foul adventures that we went through, which caused us to appear in a wretched condition to our expedition. Though our condition was so wretched, it was not half so bad as it would have been had we returned two days later, for I doubt much whether I should have had an expedition at all. I had been absent too long, and our fight with the Wavuma had been magnified and enlarged by native rumor to such a pitch that Wolseley’s victory at Ardahsu was as nothing to ours, for it had been said that we had destroyed a whole fleet of canoes, not one of which had escaped, and that some other tribe or tribes had collected a force, overtaken us, and destroyed us in like manner — an incredible story, which had so won upon a faction of the soldiers that they had determined to return to Unyanyembe, and thence to Zanzibar. But God has been with us here, and on the lake, and, though we have suffered some misfortune, He has protected us from greater ones. We had been absent from camp fifty-eight days, during which we had surveyed in our brave little boat over 1,000 miles of lake shores; but a part of the south-west coast has yet to be explored. We shall not leave the Niyanza, however, until we have thoroughly done our work.

I returned to find also that one of the white men, Frederick Barker, of the Langham Hotel, London, had died on the 23d of April, twelve days before I reappeared at Kagehyi. His disease was, as near as I can make it out from Frank Pocock’s description, a congestive chill — that is the term applied to it in the States. Pocock calls it “cold fits,” a term every whit, I believe, as appropriate. I have known several die of these “cold fits,” or aguish attacks — the preliminary symptoms of severe attacks of the intermittent fever. These aguish attacks, however, sometimes end the patient before the fever arrives which generally follows the ague. The lips become blue, the face bears the appearance of one who is frozen, the blood becomes, as it were, congealed, the pulse stops and death ensues. There are various methods of quickening the blood and reviving the patient. However, a common one is to plunge him into a vapor or hot water and mustard bath and apply restoratives — brandy, hot tea, &c., but Pocock was not experienced in this case, though he gave Barker some brandy after he lay down, from feeling a slight nausea and chill. It appears by his companion’s report that he did not live an hour. Frederick Barker suffered from one of these severe aguish attacks in Urimi, but brandy and hot tea quickly given to him soon brought him to that state which promises recovery.

Thus two out of four white men are dead. I wonder who next? Death cries, Who next? and perhaps our several friends ask Who next? No matter who it is. We could not better ourselves by attempting to fly from the fatal land; for between us and the sea are seven hundred miles of as sickly a country as any in Africa. The prospect is fairer in front, though there are some three thousand miles more to march. We have new and wonderful lands before us, whose wonders and mysteries shall be a medicine which shall make us laugh at fever and death.

(Source: “Stanley’s Despatches to the New York Herald,”