Friendly Encounter on the Rufiji River

Henry Stanley

New York Herald/December 3, 1874

Zanzibar, Coast of Africa

Oct. 21, 1874

The next day, delayed by calms and head wind, we cast anchor in the harbor of Kwale Island. The people are Wangwana, subjects of the Zanzibar Sultan, and may possibly number 300 souls, all told. The one village which it boasts is on the western side, close to the port. The island is situated in latitude 7 deg. 25 min., south. The mouth of the Dendeni River, on the mainland, is to be seen nearly northwest of Kwale.

The first thing that struck me as remarkable on this island was the large number of gigantic baobab trees. It seemed to me, when well screened from view of the sea by foliage, that I had suddenly stepped into a portion of Ugogo. The next things that caused me surprise were the very large and very small hens’ eggs that were proffered to me for sale. The large eggs were of the size of geese eggs, while the small eggs did not much exceed in size pheasant eggs. Goats were numerous and cheap; two were purchased by us at a dollar each. The people seemed not to have much occupation. Those who owned land possessed domestic slaves to cultivate it, while they themselves chat and sleep, sleep and chat from morning until night, and through the night till morning.

From Kwale we sailed, after a night’s anchorage in the port, past the islands of Pembagu and Koma, the latter of which is inhabited by a few people who obtain a precarious living by planting millet and holcus and by fishing, and steered south straight for a broad opening in the dense foliage which lined the mainland. Arriving before this opening, which we took to be one of the mouths of the Rufiji River, we were favored with a stiff nine-knot breeze from the southeast, and as the water appeared dark green, indicating considerable depth, we sailed boldly in with all sail set. When quite within this mouth we observed one broad avenue of water, leading south-southwest, and another south-southeast, equally wide, but, being ignorant of the exact course of the true river, we anchored at the distance of a mile and a half from the sea, close to that part of the land near which the two branches con-flowed. When we had communicated with this shore, which we ascertained to be the island of Saninga, we learned that, led by accident, we had halted but a few yards from the spot where the steam launch of the Shearwater had anchored in 1873 prior to her departure up stream in 1873.

We had not been at our anchorage ten minutes before a colored gentleman of stoutish build and cleanly, good-natured face was seen paddling alongside our vessel, who introduced himself as Moeni Bana-Kombo ben Ahad, which rendered into English, means Lord and Master Kombo, the son of Ahad, chief of Saninga Island. Probably according to a previous generous act, he had brought with him a weighty chicken and three fresh eggs, which we reciprocated with a gift of royal Dabwani cloth.

Kombo, the son of Ahad, chief of Saninga Island — who, though the Wangwana of his village styled him “Jimrie,” I prefer shall remain as he designated himself — was wise and learned respecting the geography of the Rufiji River, and volunteered, for the information of the curious white people of the white people’s country, “Ulyah,” 5 several interesting facts. The two white men of the “smoke boat,” Dr. Kirk and Captain Wharton, he remembered perfectly. They asked him endless questions, until he was quite tired — “choka sana” — and put down ever so many things in a little book that he, Kombo, the son of Ahad, had told them.

“Very good. Is there much water in the Rufiji River?”

“Plenty,” answered Kombo, confidently.

“What do you call plenty?”

“Deep water — very deep.”

“Good! How many pima?” (fathoms).

“Sometimes five pima, sometimes four, sometimes three; but always plenty.”

“Do you know this river from what you yourself have seen?”

“No; I have never been up.”

“Ah! then how do you know there is plenty of water in the river?”

“Huh! have I not my people who go up and come down?”

“Why do your people go up and come down?”

“To trade, of course.”

“What do they trade?”

“They take up salt and cloth and bring me msan-durusi (gum copal), which I send to Zanzibar to sell.”

“Very good. Perhaps you can lend me one of your men who know this river to show me the way and to talk for me to the people in the interior?”

“Yes; I can let you have two, one of whom showed the way to the white men of the ‘smoke-boat.’ ”

We had entered the Simbooranga mouth of the Rufiji River, and we were told this was not the largest debouchure of the river. Its noble breadth of surface, its depth of clear green water promised well to us. In the center of the stream an ocean steamer might float in perfect security, though there is a fall of ten feet at lowest ebb in the water.

Saninga Island possesses one village and its position before the mouth of the river is indicated by the presence of a few tall palm trees, which rear their graceful leafage above the surrounding vegetation. Looking westward, southward and northward we note that the two branches of the broad stream which conflow near the Simbooranga mouth are bounded by “league beyond league of gigantic foliage, by lofty summits of resounding mangrove woods, which grasp the depths and grapple with the floods.”

Dingoti Island forms the southern boundary and Simbooranga Island the northern boundary of this noble entrance to the Rufiji delta. Near the shore of Saninga there were two small dhows, which are employed in conveying wood for building purposes to Zanzibar. Sometimes they also convey rice and gum copal to that Arabian port.

A few Banians live on Dingoti Island, who keep cows and cultivate the ground, and sometimes trade with the villages up the Rufiji for rice, which is of a most superior quality.

Early next morning after our arrival in the Simbooranga, we sailed up the right branch, which came from the southwest. Our two promised guides accompanied us. That the reader may understand our experience of the navigable utility of the stream we were about to ascend, to save needless repetition it must be borne in mind that our deep rudder, common to Yarmouth yawls, caused our vessel to draw five feet of water. It being the southeast monsoon, we were fortunately favored with a strong breeze from that direction. The Wave fairly flew against the ebb upstream. Contrary to what we had anticipated, the scenes which each bend and curve of the river, as we ascended, disclosed were of exceeding beauty. Both banks of the river were clothed with dense foliage of varied green of a uniform height, which gave it an appearance of a broad canal, with a tall, green hedge on each side. We had ascended some five or six miles before the water, despite the ebb tide, began to be discolored. Then it gradually changed from its clear pale green to a muddy gray, and became rather sweet to the taste.

A large number of creeks were seen on each side of the river. Some of considerable size on the right side, we were informed, connected the Simbooranga with the Kikunia mouth of the Rufiji. Others on the left side joined the Simbooranga with the more southern and larger mouth of the Rufiji, the Magambu, each of which I promised myself I should explore. As I noted these internal channels of this great maritime delta, I became more and more interested, as its exploration promised to disclose something different from the reports sent to England by my predecessors. Every few moments when doubtful of the depth of the river, I caused one of the young Englishmen to sound with a long boathook, over nine feet in length, and eight times out of ten I heard the cheery cry of “No bottom.” Sometimes I felt anxiety, going at the rate we did up an unknown river, when the cry was “Just touched, sir,” or “Getting shoalier;” but a movement of the tiller after consultation with the guide was almost invariably followed by the cry of “No bottom” again. In this manner we proceeded for two hours, until we came abreast of a large creek which separates Salati Island from Surveni Island, when, through inattention and a feeling of oversecurity, we missed the channel and in a short time were aground, which sprung the iron pintles. The halliards were let fall, the rudder unshipped, and we proceeded to straighten matters by straightening the pintles and cutting out a portion of the rudder. A few moments later damage was repaired and sail was hoisted again, and the center of the stream was tried, only, however, to run aground again. We labored with sail and oars to find a feasible channel for some time, but failed, and I began to think that my predecessors must be correct in their estimate of the commercial utility of the Rufiji until, hugging closely the northern bank, we heard the cry of “No bottom,” and proceeded on our way as smoothly as though the Rufiji River was many fathoms deep.

Five miles from this place we came to where the Kikunia mouth of the Rufiji branched from the Simbooranga in a northeasterly direction, apparently a much more insignificant stream than the latter; but the guide said that, though the Kikunia was narrow, it was deep.

Two miles higher up we arrived at a broad, lake-like expanse of water, out of which branched to the southeast a much mightier stream than the Simbooranga. This was the Magambu, the principal mouth of the Rufiji River. It was studded with beautiful islands. Its lengthy, straight, broad reaches of water were banked by enormous and lofty globes of foliage; its islands and banks were the homes of vast numbers of aquatic birds; hippopotami sported in its depths; and on the gray spits of sand numbers of crocodiles basked in the hot glowing sunshine. Altogether it was a grand picture, and most alluring to the explorer. Over the mighty expanse of water blew the freshening breeze of the monsoon, urging our good little vessel at a quickened speed, and waving the topmost boughs of the forest, exposing the sheen and glister of their leaves, besides cooling our bodies and renewing vigor within us, until we laughed in mockery of the malaria of the extensive delta, and our healthy appetite began to rage for food.

An hour later the thick, tall forest, which had hitherto covered every space save that occupied by the watery channels of the delta, began to thin sensibly, and vestiges of former cultivation appeared. Now and then a tall, dark cluster of trees, overgrown with convolvuli, was seen, at the dark shadow and gloom of which one or two of my men, new to such tropical density of vegetation, shuddered.

By noon we had passed the most easterly feeder of the Rufiji — the Mbumi River — and were opposite Miehweh. The Mbumi issues from the northwest, and is about sixty yards wide at its mouth. Canoes ascend even this tributary a considerable distance.

Miehweh is the name of a small colony of villages and a district which may extend about four miles along the northern banks of the Rufiji. The inhabitants cultivate rice fields, the products of which they exchange with the Banians of Kikunia and Pemba, Bagamoyo, &c., for cotton, cloth and pice.

In order to illustrate the disposition of the natives, I will describe an incident which occurred near an island called Surveni, opposite Miehweh. A large flock of birds, kingfishers and whydahs, were shot at with a rifle ball, which, piercing the flock, was seen to ricochet a considerable distance beyond along the surface of the river. After we had proceeded a mile, we detected several canoes close to the Miehweh bank, trying to outstrip us. Four continued their way, while one canoe separated from the others, which, taking advantage of the dead water along the lee of some islets, was soon able to overtake us.

One of our guides hailed the solitary canoeman and asked him what he wanted. He answered that he had come to inquire who we were, and for what purpose we came to the Rufiji, and why we fired bullets, to the imminent risk of people fishing in the river. His reply and questions were given with that force, volubility and rasping harshness I remembered so well were the characteristics of the voices of the Wagogo when angered.

The guide replied mildly that we had come to “see, that’s all” — Tembea tou.

“To see? See what?”

“To see the river?”

“What for?”

“To see. Why? God knows! The white men do such strange things. They put it down in a book, and that is all I know that ever comes of it.”

“Huh! How far do they intend to go?”

“As far as there is plenty of water for the boat in the Rufiji.”


“Yes, inside.” “Huh! The Rufiji extends far — many days’ journey — and there is always water in the Rufiji.”

“The white men intend to go and see for themselves how far there is plenty of water.”

“How much do they intend to give me for shooting on the river?”


The breeze came down over the tops of the trees, bellied the sails out full and large, and the Wave passed by the prurient native irresistibly.

Half an hour later the Pamloumeh district west of Miehweh was reached, with the tide and wind now strong in our favor, and soon after we came to Bumba, the remaining mouth of the Rufiji, which relieves the channel of the river proper of its volume of water. Bumba, accordingly, is also an insignificant stream compared to either the Magambu, Simbooranga, or the Kikunia. Its appearance and breadth corroborated the guides’ report. Lower down the Bumba divides its waters among the Nguruweh, Otikiti, Simaya, Mtote, Njemjia, and Mdwana mouths.

At Kisembea, situated at the head of a long reach of the Rufiji, whose course here came from the southeast, large numbers of people flocked to the banks of the river to observe the strange phenomenon of a large boat towing another one and going fast up stream by means of sails. They had heard of a “smoke boat” having ascended as far as Agunia, lower down, but they had not seen it, though they marveled much that such things should be. They were exceedingly inquisitive, and wondered that white men should come so far to “see” only water. Long after we had passed them we noted that the strange incident was being discussed by the interested groups, who had greedily fastened their eyes upon the boats and their belongings as they glided by them.

Beyond Kisembea, the Rufiji’s course has a straight three-mile reach from the south-southwest. It has a breadth varying from 400 to 250 yards, and the channel is deep and easily found by observing the banks of the river. At no place could we find soundings with the boat-hook. Any river steamboat man in America could, so far, have found no fault with the stream. It was marked by every characteristic of a navigable river. From the sea up to Kisembea, a distance of twenty-two miles as I made it, the largest steamer that floats on the Mississippi River — which I believe has a tonnage of over 5,000 tons — might ascend and descend without impediment. The Wave ran aground twice in that distance, but it was our own fault — we had missed the proper channel. When we had ascertained it we found plenty of water, and no difficulty.

Marenda district, which succeeds Kisembea as we ascend, is very populous, and small villages are found in clusters. The plain is exceedingly fertile, and produces rice, holcus sorghum, Indian corn, sweet potatoes, vegetables in abundance; cocoanut trees are frequently seen, while the plaintain is most prolific.

At sunset we anchored in midstream opposite Jumbe, at a distance of forty miles by river from Sininga Island, congratulating ourselves that we had done a good day’s work and at having ascended at least twenty miles higher up the Rufiji than any other white man, and with a conviction strong in our minds that my predecessors had libeled the noble river without sufficient cause.

I despatched men on shore as soon as we anchored to convey my most respectful salaams to the chief Jumbe, and to inform him that I should be delighted to make friends with him, which message was cordially received by him, at the same time that he took occasion to send tokens of his regard in the shape of five cocoanuts and one chicken.

Had I not done the diplomatic thing, our guides informed us that we would very likely have been visited by “river thieves” during the night.

Next morning Jumbe came, bringing with him more substantial tokens of friendship, and quite a retinue of chiefs, until our boat, already well loaded, had her gunwales but a foot above water.

After reciprocating Jumbe’s acts of friendship, the first questions I naturally asked were relative to the length, breadth and depth of the Rufiji River; the countries round about him and the slave trade; its land route, and what the prospects of opening legitimate commerce between him, his people and neighbors with white people. What information may be embodied in the following remarks have been gleaned from him, the Chief of Saninga, the guides and Hasson bin Salim el Shaksi, whom I met next day on the Rufiji River.

First as regards the Rufiji River, its length and value to European merchants.

All parties united in informing us that the Rufiji River rises in Gangeh-Ugangeh according to Arabic and Swahili traders, which, as near as I can make out, with a desire to be as accurate as possible, is south by west of Unyanyembe. The main branch, known in the far interior as the Rwaha, comes from south of west from Jumbe; the lesser branch, but an important one, is called Kienga, and comes from the southwest, from possibly the same range of mountains as the northwestern branch of the Rovuma takes its rise. On traversing Ugangeh, the Rufiji, as yet an insignificant stream, flows eastward through Northern Ubena, then the country of Sango or Usango, when, arriving in Urori it gains power and volume by an accession of many small streams which drain the pastoral lands of Urori.

The Warori, or people of Urori, use this stream greatly. They fish in its waters; they hunt hippopotamus for the sake of its teeth, and hides to make their shields; they convey butter and fat long distances up and down in canoes to trade for salt; they voyage on it for important hunting excursions; from all of which I gather that at a distance of 240 geographical miles from the sea the Rufiji is of magnitude sufficient to be utilized by the natives; and from Hasson bin Salim el Shaksi, who has crossed it several times in Urori, I believe that it is about forty or fifty yards wide, with numerous fords in it, where the water only comes up to the hips — say about three feet deep.


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