The Country of the Hippopotamus and the Crocodile

Henry Stanley

New York Herald/December 4, 1874

Zanzibar, Coast of Africa

Oct. 23, 1874

It is well known to travelers who have been in Central Africa that Urori is a large country situated south of Ugogo. Along the southerly frontier of Ugogo rise several streams, the principal of  which is the Kisigo, abounding with hippopotami and crocodiles. East of Urori commences Kasungu, through which the Kisigo and its sister streams flow into the Rwaha, which soon becomes known as the Rufiji.

After traversing Kasungu, along a distance which the Arabs designate an eight days’ journey, the Rufiji enters Katanga from the southwest, from which may be deduced the inference that the river makes a deep bend before reaching Katanga. From Katanga to Matumbi is ten days’ journey. From Jumbe to the Matumbi Mountains is a distance of thirty miles. On the other side of the Matumbi Mountains the Rufiji is joined by the Kienga River, which, as I said before, comes from the southwest.

According to Jumbe and two of his chiefs who had ascended the Rufiji as far as Matumbi the river is deep enough for a boat of the size of the Wave (they were not aware that she drew five feet), but there are several bars during low ebb which impede navigation, so that, though we might ascend far, we should find plenty of trouble and hard work. Our gig, they said, might easily ascend as far as Urori if the natives permitted us, but it would require talk and hongo cloth.

The resources of the country around us, of Jumbe and the neighboring tribes, were manifold, according to native report. Jumbe himself could sell me, if I required it, three times as much rice as would fill the Wave. The people round about possessed abundance of this grain. On the entire Rufiji plain, between Matumbi and the sea, I might collect as much rice, Indian corn, chickens and eggs as I needed or could take away cheap. Jumbe would sell me fifteen measures of rice for a cloth worth $1 at Zanzibar. Only six measures of rice sell for $1 at Zanzibar. In exchange for their products they were willing to receive silver money, dollars and rupees, umpice, crockery, glassware and cotton cloth, Merikani and Kaniki.

At the base of the mountains of Matumbi is to be found an abundance of gum copal, the fossil gum known here as msan-durusi, from which carriage varnish is made. It is sold by the frasilah, a weight of thirty-five pounds. At the base of the mountains, where there is an inexhaustible supply of it, it can be purchased at from $1.75 to $3 per frasilah, according to the talents and eloquence of the purchaser. At Zanzibar it ranges in price from $7 to $9 per weight of thirty-five pounds. This means, supposing a steam vessel drawing but thirty inches of water, especially constructed for river navigation, with a capacity of thirty tons, were to proceed up the Rufiji to the copal diggings, and purchase thirty tons of this gum at $3 per weight of thirty-five pounds, that at Zanzibar the enterprising merchant could sell his cargo to the first European or American merchant for $8 the frasilah at this very moment; in other words, obtain the handsome sum of $12,500 for an outlay during a few days or weeks of $5,700.

Beyond Matumbi all the countries north, south and west contain ivory in greater or lesser quantities. Urori is rich in this precious article of trade. The same enterprising merchant, having employed the late dry season in the collection of his gum copal cargo, could proceed safely any distance up the Rufiji as far as Urori, where he could have, of course, an agent in advance of him, and collect easily a cargo of thirty tons of ivory. This article is worth in Unyanyembe $1 per pound; in Urori it may be purchased at from sixty cents to ninety cents per pound.

If we make a tabular estimate of the cost and profit to be obtained in this trade your readers will perceive for themselves of what value painstaking geographical research is to the merchant:

To cost at Zanzibar of 30 tons ivory, at $65 the frasilah, free of all duty $124,800

To cost in Urori of 30 tons of ivory, at $31.50 the frasilah 60,480

Clear profit, £11, 016, 9s. 6d, or $64,320

Ugangeh is richer in ivory than Urori, according to the Arabs; but until my explorations of the Rufiji I admit that I never heard of this country before; but there is such a vast extent of country west of the Rufiji delta so little known that long years must elapse before the geography of Eastern Central Africa can become known. Ugogo at the present time contributes occasionally large supplies of ivory to the coast; but the labor to obtain it by land, the tribute to which the merchant is subjected, the annoyances of which he is the object, are so great and many that, once the river traffic was opened, the proud Wagogo would be compelled to carry their own ivory to the Rufiji for sale.

Katanga and Kasungu are both new countries, now made known for the first time; so also are Korongo, Koni, Toleya, which lie on the north side of the Rufiji, between Kazunga and Matumbi. Descending the river from the Matumbi Mountains, the great plain which lies between them and its maritime delta extends before the eye, bounded to the northeast by the purple lines of the distant hills and ridges of Keecki and Wande; eastward, by the dark, gloomy forests of the delta; southward, by the countries of Muhoro and Kilonga, which, from a distance, present an appearance of unbroken forest.

This great plain of the Rufiji is the creation of the river. The rich deposit it has left during the ages is fathoms deep. On its surface, enriched every rainy season by the dark mould left by the inundations, lies inexhaustible wealth. Sugar, rice, grain of various kinds, thrive wonderfully on the fat soil. It is the most populous district I have seen during four journeys to Africa, and I should estimate that at least 50,000 people inhabit this great plain. The villages stand in knots and clusters along the banks of the river, and from the time we passed Kisimbea until we anchored opposite Jumbe each bank presented troops of curious sightseers, who stood in full view of us without the least fear or distrust, from which one may be pardoned if he concludes that they gained such courage from the knowledge of their numbers. Between Fugalleh and Nyambwa I must certainly have seen some thousands of natives, who, though they chaffed us considerably, showed the very best disposition — such a disposition as may always be looked for in a people with trading instincts.

Almost always the second question propounded to a native by me on this river was, “Do the slaves pass by this way?” They all answered me promptly, “No,” following it with the required information. The answer each time was the same, except at Jumbe, where I discovered that I was almost opposite the exact spot where the Arab slave-traders sometimes crossed. The route now mainly adopted by the slave-traders — commencing from Kilwa Kivinjia — crosses the Mgenga River, the Mto-Piani and, arriving at Perereh, passes through Sumanga, Ngumbu, Mamboro, Muhoro, to Mirongegi, which lies close to Jumbe, and, crossing the river at Kisu, sometimes follows the northern bank of the Rufiji to Kikunia, a three days’ journey to the slave driver. From Kikunia the main road is that which leads through Kisimeteh, Ngimpia, Sindaji, Kivinjia, Kiviniga, Kisigu, and arrives at Mbuamaji, on the sea; or the slave caravan pushes on to Dar Salaam.

The route adopted by the slave traders mainly in crossing the Rufiji is that which skirts the Matumbi mountains via Ruhingo, on the river. All the eastern villages along the line of travel through the Rufiji plain are interested in the slave trade. They keep the slave traders informed of every item of news concerning the approach of any foe, particularly the white men, and I discovered that long before we had arrived at Jumbe the natives knew of our coming. Messengers had been dispatched from Miehweh by river and by land to herald our advent in the river, and I noted also that as soon as our boat hove in sight of any village of a principal district a couple of canoes left well manned with paddlers to inform those above that the dreaded Wasungu had at last invaded the river with two boats. On the morrow I was informed by a servant of Jumbe I should experience different treatment if I persisted in my intention of ascending the river.

In the morning we prepared to extend our discoveries up stream. The dew had fallen heavily during the night. The tall reeds which fringed the river banks dripped huge raindrops, which the morning sun transformed into the appearance of diamonds. Large crowds of natives speedily made their appearance and were witnesses of the preliminary work of getting under way, but they made no demonstration of hostility.

Soon after starting our gig put to shore to convey a man aboard who expressed a wish to trade with the white men. As the gig rowed hard after us with him this native took fright at the sound of our bugle, which was blown to hasten the movements of the rowers, and took a somerset into the water to the intense merriment of all on board and the sightseers on shore. We at once dropped anchor to encourage him and to explain to him that it was a most foolish thing to be afraid of white men, who would never come up the Rufiji except as friends to the natives. We had the gratification to see him come on board again and depart with a profound respect for white people.

Continuing our journey a few snags made their appearance in the river for the first time; but they presented no obstacles — the river was broad and deep enough on either side. Shortly after rounding a sharp bend of the river, the Matumbi mountains came clear and distinct into view, from which I surmise that we were not twenty miles from them. While admiring the scene so suddenly presented to our view we were approaching the northern bank of the river, on which a large settlement was visible. The district was called Kisu, and the people were strong upholders of the slave-trade and hostile to white men, whom they have been taught to regard as enemies by the slave traders.

We were compelled by the channel to approach within a few feet of the bank, and had they been able to decide rapidly upon hostilities we all should have been exposed to great danger. The friendly breeze, however, came on strong and fresh at this moment, and we swept by them in an instant. But we had no sooner passed this than another large cluster of villages came into view, and a body of about 200 natives were seen at the landing place. As we drew near the chief stepped out and hailed us, demanding to know what business we had on the Rufiji. He was answered by one of our armed escort, a tall, robust, young fellow, black as ink in features, but with an eye like a hawk and shoulders that in breadth would not have disgraced the best man in her Majesty’s Life Guards.

“We are white men. What do you want with us?”

“I want you to stop for a talk.”

‘We don’t want to talk just yet. We have not gone far enough.”

“I want you to stop first before you go up further.”

“Cannot do it, master,” answered he boldly, and making a certain sign, which all understand who know East Africans, that he was wearied.

“I tell you to stop.”

“We are sick of stopping, master; cannot do it, master.”

“Why have you come up the river?”

“To see.”

“To see what?”

“The river.”

“What about the river?”

“To know how far it goes and how deep the water is.”

“How far do you intend going?”

“As far as we can.” “There are bars (fungo) on the river. You cannot cross those in that big boat.”

“We will try to.”

“Well, now, take my advice; stop here, or it will be worse for you.”

“Impossible, master.”

“I’ll make you stop.”

“Do so, then, and farewell to you, master.”

The chief of Kisu was left fuming on the landing place, and men were seen running hither and thither in alarm, and the groups were seen to become small knots of men, violently gesticulating and stamping their feet, and all this time the Wave was plunging up river before a spanking breeze.

We were sailing gloriously along, and the Kisu chief and his violent people were left far behind. Bend after bend had been safely rounded, the mountains were seen more distinctly, when we suddenly stopped and half keeled over. Our deep helm was furrowing the sand at the stern, and the bow, though drawing but two feet, was fast. Extricating her from her position, we sought another spot, and, after great difficulty, managed to cross the bar. The sun was fearfully hot, and seemed to burn into our brains. The wind died away, and came only in cats’-paws. The current was not very rapid, as the river was broad at this place; but it was such laborious work with the oars that we had simply become subjects of derision to the jeering and hostile natives. However, we persevered, and, with one sail hoisted, we managed to creep along and make progress, though slow.

Soon we were requested to halt a second time by the shore people, but we paid no heed to them except to answer an occasional question. The excitement was evidently growing along the shore, and our continued progress, despite all threats and commands, seemed to have plunged them into a stupor of rage. At one village, a few miles above the larger settlements of Kisu, a friendly voice shouted out, “You cannot go further with that big boat; there is no water ahead;” to which we answered cheerily that was precisely what we came to know, and we would try, and if not able to go ahead we would return.

About a mile above the village the river widened to about 300 yards. The low shores seemed to be but dried sandbanks, and right across from side to side the water rippled uneasily, with every indication of a stubborn bar. The guides, as they looked at it, said at once that we had come as far as we could go in the large boat. We pushed on, however, and went aground. We unshipped the rudder, hauled down the sail and manned fourteen oars, and, with vociferous chorus to the exhilarating boat song, we plunged forward, one of the young Englishmen sounding ahead. Again and again we tried it, but of no avail; over and over again we ploughed the sands, and stuck fast. Above this sand bar, which is about 200 yards in breadth, the river resumes its usual depth, but the navigation is impeded by sand bars.

After deliberating as to what had best be done I concluded to return and explore the two other principal exits from the delta, the Magambu and the Kikunia, and then visit Mafia Island, opposite the Rufiji delta, after which I should have expended all the time I could spare before commencing my march into the interior.

On descending the river the natives shouted out to us, “We know why the Wasunga have come up the Rufiji. You came here to find out about the slave trade — to catch the slave traders. Return, and tell the other white people that we will not have the slave traders troubled nor their road crossed.”

One chief was so furious that he followed us for half a mile with his men, cursing us and using the most violent language and gesture; but, fortunately for him, he confined himself to this verbal demonstration of hostility.

On the second day we entered the magnificent Magambu, and, eight hours after commencing the descent, arrived at the sea. Then, setting sail, we sailed north again, and two hours later we entered the noble estuary of the Kikunia branch of the delta, and, before a vigorous breeze and an incoming tide, sailed up the river once more, and at night anchored at the mouth of Pemba Creek. At noon the next day we had entered the Simbooranga, and descended that stream to Sanninga, where we were greeted with kindness by the people of that island.

Mafia Island we ascertained to be a most fertile island, abounding in palm groves and shambas, or gardens. It is the third island in size within the Sultan’s dominions. Situated opposite the delta of the Rufiji, it seems as if placed by nature at this position as the entrepot of the main land, which is but ten miles distant. Ships of large tonnage could ride securely at anchor within 500 yards of Kismia Mafia, a place which the Admiralty charts absurdly call Kissomang Point. Were not my letter already of such great length I could easily point out the advantages of securing a portion of Mafia — say the district in the neighborhood of Kismia Mafia — as a place to plant a colony of freed slaves, from which locality, after instruction and preparation, they might emerge as enterprising traders with the interior, via the Rufiji River. But I must leave these remarks for some future letter, for I must now hasten to give an unprejudiced opinion upon the value of our exploration of the Rufiji.

Readers interested in African exploration in new commercial avenues may see for themselves what the Rufiji is after reading this letter. It has lost but little in my estimation because I failed to ascend higher than Kisu in a boat built for ocean sailing. Had I possessed the Lady Alice , which Mr. Messenger, of Teddington, was building for me — and which has only arrived by this mail — I could have ascended, I believe, a couple of hundred miles, if not more, with my entire escort of armed men. For exploration, prudence requires that we shall be prepared for all contingencies; that there shall be men sufficient accompanying the explorer to enable him with a few men to make a proper defence if attacked. Our gig would have conveyed eight men and a week’s provisions, but she would not have made us independent of the land, nor strong enough to resist attack, which would have endangered the success of our great journey. As I look at the Lady Alice I find her a boat of sufficient capacity to convey up any river a force of twenty-five men, with a month’s provisions; yet she draws but twelve inches loaded. She is 40 feet in length, 6 feet beam, built of best Spanish cedar, in water-tight compartments. A duplicate of this boat would enable any traveller to proceed up the Rufiji as far as any native canoe, after which the report of such man, on his return, of the navigability of the Rufiji would settle the question for ever.

In the meantime, so far as we ascended, the Rufiji must be classed as a navigable river. Such a steamer as Sir John Glover possessed on the Volta, or one built after the model of an American river steamer, may proceed up the Rufiji with ease, whenever any merchant shall be found bold enough to enter on a promising African venture.

Our work of exploration also clears up the difficulties of annihilating the overland route of the slave trader. Steam launches, properly built for river navigation, commanded by officers familiar with river navigation, assisted by guides procured at Samuga Island, may proceed either up the Magambu or Simbooranga mouth of the Rufiji, and, towing up with them a few light flatboats loaded with coal, could anchor them at Jumbe; and, proceeding lightly loaded, could capture a few slave caravans and bring down their proprietors to be punished at Zanzibar. Any naval officer, acting discreetly and energetically, could strike within four days a most effective and deadly blow at the land slave trade. Such a system of action, at intervals of a few weeks, could not fail to be followed by results which would gratify and astonish everyone in England. Mafia Island, off Kismia Mafia, offers a capital rendezvous for the man-of-war during the absence of her launches; but if I may suggest anything from my experience of this river, I would advise that those officers charged with this duty should consist of those who have experience and who have volunteered for this important duty; that one man-of-war should be appointed specially for this river work, properly equipped with capacious steam vessel, which might navigate this stream without detriment to the good cause. A small stern-wheeler, which any English Thames shipbuilder could construct, drawing but eighteen inches of water, armed with one mountain steel seven-pounder and a couple of rocket tubes, with a crew of forty men, could forever solve the problem of how to stop the East African slave trade.

Captain Elton, in his official report to Captain Prideaux, acting political agent at Zanzibar, publishes the fact that a grand total of 4,096 slaves were marched by the overland route from Kilwa to Dar Salaam. I know nothing whatever of the accuracy of these figures, but I have already disclosed to you the whereabouts of the slave traders’ tracks and have informed you what my exploration of the Rufiji suggests should be done to crush the now established land slave traffic.

I should not have been at such pains to find out what I have given you above if I did not feel from my soul that the government of Great Britain, which has expended such vast sums for the suppression of this slave trade, might, for the small sum of £5,000, begin to hope that her great mission in East Africa was approaching its successful accomplishment, and so enable all men to cry “Laus Deo!”

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