Sailing the Coast from Zanzibar

Henry Stanley

New York Herald/December 2, 1874

Zanzibar, East Coast of Africa

October 19, 1874

As I sit down to the table and take up the writing implements to record my experiences of the last few weeks a wish darts to my mind that the art of writing was never invented. It is true. Writing to me is such a labor at this moment. I have but the day before yesterday returned from the exploration of the Rufiji River and its delta — returned only in time to be compelled to write to you of what I have seen, because if I do not take advantage of the four days of grace given me by the stay of the mail steamer in port you and your readers would have to wait another month before information could be received by you of the movements of your “Commissioner.” Yet would I gladly avail myself of some excuse — a reasonable excuse — to postpone writing to you for various reasons. One main reason is that it is exceedingly hot and the perspiration is unrestrainable, and a feeling of lassitude and ennui which has succeeded the return to Zanzibar from our exploration of the Rufiji is inimical to physical exertion or mental thought. Besides, every few moments I am troubled by the arrival of volunteers for the expedition into the interior, the rumor of its intended departure having stirred up an heroic desire in the minds of the able-bodied and poor people, residents of this town, to visit the distant regions of Africa, where the tribes are called pagans; where elephants — and consequently ivory — are numerous; where there are vast extents of level country “covered” with game of all kinds. These volunteers came to make “shauri” — to hold a palaver or talk — to question me respecting the amount of pay I can afford to give them, the probable duration of the journey I propose to make, the countries I propose to visit, and other things of like nature. These volunteers are not to be despised; they are not to be told to depart without words of a conciliatory and friendly kind, for out of this class the members of the expedition must be selected, without whom its objects could never be consummated. The palaver requires, therefore, time, tact and patience; and though I am inwardly fuming and storming at these several interruptions I endeavor to commend myself cheerfully to my fate, hoping that my apparent placable disposition will invite confidence on the part of the volunteers, and that my excuses, which I humbly tender, may conciliate the editors of the Daily Telegraph and the NEW YORK HERALD for the brevity of this letter or the sterility of its information. Ever since my march to Ujiji in search of Dr. Livingstone I have entertained a desire that I might be permitted to explore that most promising of all East African rivers — the Rufiji. Burton, my heroic predecessor in Africa, had, with his usual industry, collected much valuable information respecting this river; and when, subsequently, I heard from the natives that all the small streams to the south of that country were received by the Rwaha, or Rufiji — that the Kisigo, an important river in Urori, which is south of Ugogo, also emptied into the Rwaha — I mentally placed the Rufiji among the list of those rivers whose navigation benefits commerce and the world. I entertained the opinion that the Rufiji was a river worthy of exploration; that it was a river likely to benefit East and that portion of Central Africa contiguous to it; that by its means the Gospel might find readier and more feasible access into the interior than by any other route, not even excluding the Wami River, whose utmost limit of navigation I place at Mbumi-Usagara at the foot of the Usagara mountains; that by means of this noble stream the white merchants of Europe and America might exchange their cottons and beads for the valuable products of the interior. I say this was my opinion, until I saw in some geographical publication two several accounts of explorations of the Rufiji. The first purported to be an account of an exploration made by Dr. John Kirk and Captain Wharton, of the surveying ship Shearwater , in a steam launch; the second was made by Captain Elton, first assistant to the Political Agent at Zanzibar, who proceeded inland from Sumanga, on the north side of the Kikunia mouth of the Rufiji.

Messrs. Kirk and Wharton proceeded as far as Fuguha, which I presume to be the same as that which the natives call Agunia, or near it. Captain Elton reached Mpenbeno, ten miles higher up the river. All these gentlemen expressed themselves emphatically against the possibility of utilizing the Rufiji River. Of course, after such emphatic expressions of opinion I dared not hope that I would return from the Rufiji with any better opinion of it. The following letter will show what my impressions of the navigable utility of the Rufiji are, with which I venture to say that nine-tenths of American river steamboat captains would at once agree if they were called upon to examine and report upon the river.

At half-past three p.m. of the 30th September I sailed from Zanzibar in the Yarmouth yawl Wave, bound south. The yawl was purchased for the purpose of exploring the portion of East Africa which I considered to be of most interest to the philanthropic and commercial public of England and America. Through the courtesy and kindness of the gentlemen of the Peninsular and Oriental office, on Leadenhall street, and those of the British India Steam Navigation office — more especially Captain Bayley, of the former, and Messrs. Mackinnon and Dawes, of the latter — I was enabled to have her safely shipped and landed at Zanzibar without damage, though she was a large and heavy boat. Her dimensions were 41 feet length and 9 feet beam; with her deep rudder shipped she drew five feet, which we afterward found to be a disadvantage. Had I been wiser I should have ordered a second rudder, specially for river navigation, to be exchanged on entering the river for the sea rudder.

The crew of the Wave mustered, beside myself, two efficient, industrious and willing young Englishmen, Francis and Edward Pocock, twenty-four Wangwana or freemen of Zanzibar, armed with Snider rifles, two black cabin boys and a cabin passenger in the shape of a thoroughbred English bull terrier, Jack, who for his fare and passage was to make himself useful at night while on the Rufiji to warn off midnight plunderers. If you add as stores two casks of water, a thousand pounds of rice and some cabin provisions for the whites, it will be seen that she was a boat of some capacity. Several officers of the cruising fleet at Zanzibar who had seen her at anchor in port had spoken highly of her, and some had said that she was just the kind of boat Her Majesty’s cruisers on the East Coast of Africa ought to be supplied with for slave dhow catching in shallow waters. After a three weeks’ trial of this kind of boat I am inclined to the same opinion. With a moderate monsoon breeze she travels faster than any steam launch that ever came to Zanzibar could. As an instance of her sailing qualities it is worth mention that on a run from Bagamoyo to Zanzibar, a distance of about twenty-five miles, the Wave beat a large dhow by two hours.

After rounding Shangani Point we were favored with a stiff breeze from the southeast and steered for Mbwenni, on the mainland. The natives yelled their approbation of the speed at which the Wave dashed past the dhows bound for the coast of the mainland. Owing to the head wind we were compelled to pay close attention to our course and keep a good lookout to avoid the numerous reefs and sand patches which make the navigation of the sea in the vicinity a difficult and perplexing task to a novice. No sooner had we passed by the pale green waters of the South Lackbrey bank than the Northern Harps indicated their presence by their gleaming tops of sand and a thousand short snow-crested waves, which tumbled tumultuously over their low sloping shores; while on our starboard side the Hamisa bank and its dangerous neighbors showed current enough by many an angry looking wave. A short half hour of swift sailing brought us in the neighborhood of the ugly dark coral reefs, strangely called the “Cow Reefs,” which cover an area of about three square miles. The helm was pressed hard down, and the Wave was forced almost in the very teeth of the rising gale. Not until the last white crest over the reefs had disappeared were we relieved from the anxiety and able to share in the general enthusiasm of the crew at the perfect behavior of the tiny vessel.

Shortly after dark we anchored at a point a few miles north of Mbwenni and disposed ourselves to sleep as best we could, the surf sounding drearily monotonous in our ears, and a faint rumor of the noises of the night which are caused by the myriad insects of tropical Africa reaching us only during the pauses of the heavy surf-beats.

At dawn we were wakened, thoroughly damp and cold from the night dew, and one of the young Englishmen was soon obliged to lie down again from his first attack of fever. It struck me at this moment that we were engaged in rather a foolish trip if we intended to tramp into the interior, and that to brave the malaria of the Rufiji delta just as we ought to be sparing of the health and energy we brought from Europe was not a wise proceeding. This thought, however, was but the consequence of the misery in which we had passed the night and the damp cold we then experienced. It was soon stilled, however, by the genial warmth of the rising sun and by the bright green appearance of the palms and patches of forest which lined the shore.

With a favorable land breeze we sailed southward, clinging to the shore as closely as possible that we might lose nothing of the riant beauty of the varied and interesting bits of land scenery.

Some people may, perhaps, object to the term “interesting,” applied to East African scenery, but I maintain that a cluster of palms, overtopping an humble little fishing village, with a background of dense jungle, swathed in deep dark green, and a foreground of a white, sandy beach, laved with ocean waves, deserved to be termed interesting. The palms and sea contribute that which makes the picture one of interest. Without the palms the background would become a mere jungle; without the sea before it the sandy beach would represent nothing but sterility.

Taken in this sense, then, in coasting southward numbers of such scenes are revealed, becoming only more interesting when a more important town comes to view, with numbers of square white houses, like so many white painted blocks of wood under the ever beautiful palm groves. Such a town is Mbwenni, near Cape Thomas.

From Mbwenni southward to Dar Salaam the coast retains the characteristics already spoken of. Small dark brown huts, clustered under the shade of a tree of ample foliage and enormous girth, are frequent, separated by jungle, through which a narrow footpath runs, serving as the commercial highway along the seaboard.

Soon after passing Konduchi, at a distance of forty-one miles south of Zanzibar, we come to Dar Salaam. This town possesses some interest as the creation of the late Seyyid Majid, Sultan of Zanzibar. As we round Condogo Point a group of islands make their appearance, consisting of Sind a and its neighboring islets, and westward of these a ridge of tall trees is seen. The tall trees are cocoa palms, and the presence of such a large plantation indicates in East Africa a town of some importance and magnitude. This is precisely what Dar Salaam was intended to be by Seyyid Majid. He found a fishing village of a few humble huts the possessor of an ample harbor where three times the number of his naval and mercantile fleet might lie at anchor secure from the dangers of wind and a boisterous sea, and he at once conceived the project of making this fishing village a seaport and the depot for his Central African trade. He sent his laborers and slaves to clear the neighborhood of the jungle, which had voraciously swallowed every portion of cultivable ground close to the water’s edge. He then caused 200,000 cocoa palms to be planted, which in time, if carefully looked after and nourished, would bring him in a revenue of from $150,000 to $200,000. A palace was built as a residence for him, and a fort or barracks for his officers and soldiers. Influential Arabs engaged in commerce were also invited to follow his example, and take lots for building purposes. Several chose to do so, and about a dozen imposing edifices, compared to the former humble fishing huts, gleamed white and large in contrast to the green fronds of the palms. To those of sanguine disposition such a scene must have assured them that commercial progress was begun in earnest in East Africa, and that Seyyid Majid was a wise and energetic prince.

In reality, the Sultan of Zanzibar had inaugurated a work which all Europeans who look beyond home could heartily commend. The trade with Central Africa was being rapidly developed; large consignments of ivory from new regions were constantly arriving at Zanzibar. New copal diggings were discovered near Dar Salaam, and to the westward and southward. What the Sultan’s dominions lacked was a proper port for trade, and in the harbor of Dar Salaam he had found deep water and roomy anchorage, easy of access from Zanzibar and centrally located for the southern and northern towns. The seacoast towns whence the caravans departed for the interior in search of ivory labored under various disadvantages. Mombasa, to the north, though possessing a moderately good harbor, was limited to the west by the vast hunting and marauding grounds of the Masai; to the north by the intractable Gallas, while to the south other towns claimed to be as good starting-points for Africa as Mombasa. Saadani, Whindi, and Bagamoyo were dangerous ports for vessels, the approaches to each infested with reefs and sand banks. Mboamaji, to the south of Dar Salaam, had a similar disadvantage, while Kilwa was too far removed from Zanzibar.

Everything promised fairly well for the success of Dar Salaam as a future rival to Zanzibar until Seyyid Majid died. Then all the fine schemes relating to its prosperity perished as it became known that Seyyid Burghash, his successor, did not share in the views of his predecessor. The palace, the barracks, the houses, the palm grove, the fine harbor, with its deep, still, green water are here to this day as Seyyid Majids last effort left them, silent and comparatively deserted. Not one house has been built here since his death. The Arabs who did build houses preferred to remain in Zanzibar.

A few months ago the question was agitated in England as to what could be done with the freed slaves, and I remember that some suggested Dar Salaam as the most eligible place where they might be settled and instructed in useful arts of industry, with which, after a visit to the port, I agree. Here are good, roomy houses already built, but uninhabited. A large area of ground already cleared of jungle, but comparatively uncultivated, a capacious and deep harbor, likely to suffice for the harboring of all vessels which may engage in East African commerce for the next hundred years, above which at present not a single flag waves.

I am informed that about 600 slaves have been captured within the last six months in the Mozambique Channel by British cruisers. Now the question may be asked, What has been done with those slaves? Have they been, as usual, leased out to Mauritius sugar planters at so many dollars a head to remunerate the government for the expense it undertook to fit their men-of-war for these slavehunting expeditions? Let us hope not, but we may as well be told what becomes of the freed slaves.

From the silent harbor of Dar Salaam we sailed next day, with the same stubborn headwind against us. We tacked and retacked for twelve mortal hours, sometimes dashing the spray over our bows with long lines of reefs close to our lee, and sometimes plunging in the deep blue of the ocean; and at night we anchored under the shadows which the palms of Kimbigi Head threw across the sea.

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