Through the Dark Continent

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"Ikutu Ya Kongo"!


February 3. — General course of river from morning until noon, northwest. At noon ascertained our latitude to be north of the equator 1°29′1″.

We endeavored to do our best to avoid conflict with the savages, and this required great judgment and constant watching of the channels. We happily succeeded, though a little after noon it became extremely doubtful, for it seems that we edged a little too much to the left bank in our eagerness to avoid all channels that might take us to the right. The Barundu, of whom we heard yesterday, sighted us, as we passed a gap between the islands, and instantly manned eighteen large warcanoes. But as we had obtained a start of them we pulled desperately down river among the islands, leading them a chase of eight miles or so, when they returned.

Livingstone called floating down the Lualaba a foolhardy feat. So it has proved, indeed, and I pen these lines with half a feeling that they will never be read by any man; still, as we persist in floating down according to our destiny, I persist in writing, leaving events to an all-gracious Providence. Day and night we are stunned with the dreadful drumming which announces our arrival and presence on their waters. Either bank is equally powerful. To go from the right bank to the left bank is like jumping from the frying-pan into the fire. As we row down amongst these islands, between the savage countries on either side of us, it may well be said that we are "running the gauntlet.". . .

February 6. — A little before we sought our camp amid the islands, the river for the first time deflected west. All this morning its course was from west half south to west by north. Our observations at noon showed we had not made quite a mile of northing, for our north latitude was 1°51′59.″ The Livingstone1 is now from four to seven miles across from bank to bank. So far as we can see through a glass, the banks are very low, from six to ten feet high, capped with woods. The islands are also densely wooded. We have had in this extraordinary journey by river all the terrors as well as pleasures of river life. We now glide down narrow streams, between palmy and spicy islands, whose sweet fragrance and vernal color causes us to forget at moments our dangerous life. . . . Some other pleasures we have are in watching a sunny bank, where we may rest assured the crocodile lies dreaming of fish banquets, and whence he will rise and plunge with a startling splash; or in watching the tricks of some suspicious and watchful behemoth, whose roar has its volume redoubled as it is reverberated from shore to shore in these eerie wilds.

Our terrors are numerous. First, the rocks and rapids, the plunging cataract and whirling pool, which fortunately are past, and which we pray we shall not have to encounter again. Then the sudden storm, which now blows each day up river, and, first wrinkling the face of the river, soon raises heavy brown waves, like those of a lake, which, having already suffered from, we are careful to avoid; but the greatest danger, an ever-recurring one, is that which we have to encounter each time the wild howling cannibal aborigines observe us. Indeed, the sense of security is short-lived, our pleasure evanescent; but the sense of danger is always present and pervades our minds whether in our sleeping or our waking hours.

February 7. — Obtained no latitude. It has been a tempestuous day. Great heavy swells rolled up river in our front, and the wind howled and shrieked so through the dismal glades that we became quite gloomy. To add to our troubles, our food is finished; we have no more, and to attempt to obtain it will cost human life. Empty stomachs serve to render the prospects in unknown and wild regions still darker. We have three asses with us; but then my people have grown to look at them as fellow-members of the Expedition. They say they will die first, but the faithful asses which have accompanied us so far the people say shall not be touched. So far so good; but what are we to do? Late at night the chiefs came to me and declared they must have food to-morrow. I told them they should have it, that from the first village we saw we should go and demand it.

February 8. — Our course yesterday was west by south, and to-day west-south-west. We embarked at 7 A.M., and rowed past a very long wooded island, which lay on our left. At 8 A.M. we began to observe on the right bank a long hilly ridge, with cultivated slopes, and a dense population, which we later learned was called Upoto — or Mbapoto, as one man called it. I solemnly addressed my people, and, while telling them to prepare every weapon, gun, spear, axe, and knife, reminded them that it was an awful thing to commence hostilities, whether for food or anything else. They groaned in spirit, and asked me what they should do when their bowels yearned for something to satisfy their hunger; and though there was an abundance of copper, brass, iron, shells, beads, and cloth, nobody would sell even a small piece of cassava to them, or even look at them without manifesting a thirst for their blood.

I had prepared the brightest and most showy wares close by me, and resolved to be as cunning and patient as a serpent in this intercourse. At 11 A.M. we sighted the village of Rubunga, and, giving instructions to Frank not to approach nearer to me than a quarter of a mile with the canoes, we rowed steadily down until within a few hundred yards of it, when we lay-to on our oars. Presently three canoes advanced to meet us without the usual savage demonstrations. Not even a drum was beaten, a horn blown, or a cry uttered. This was promising. We tried the words "Sen-nen-neh"! "Cha-re-reh"! in soft, mild, melodious strains. They ran away. Things appeared gloomy again. However, patience!

We had reserved one banana and a piece of cassava. We had our mouths and our stomachs with us. An appropriate gesture with the banana to the mouth, and a gentle fondling with a puckered stomach, would, we thought, be a manner of expressing extreme want, eloquent enough to penetrate the armored body of a crocodile. We came opposite the village at thirty yards’ distance, and dropped our stone anchor, and I stood up with my ragged old helmet pushed back far, that they might scrutinize my face, and the lines of suasion be properly seen. With the banana in one hand, and a gleaming armlet of copper and beads of various colors in the other, I began the pantomime. . . . I clashed the copper bracelets together, lovingly handled the bright gold-brown of the shining armlet, exposed with all my best grace of manner long necklaces of bright and clean Cyprœa moneta, and allured their attention with beads of the brightest colors. Nor were the polished folds of yellow brass wire omitted; and again the banana was lifted to my open mouth. Then what suspense, what patience, what a saint-like air of resignation! Ah, yes! but I think I may be pardoned for all that degrading pantomime. I had a number of hungry, half-wild children; and through a cannibal world we had ploughed to reach these unsophisticated children of nature.

We waited, and at length an old chief came down the high bank to the lower landing near some rocks. Other elders of the people in headdresses of leopard and civet skin joined him soon, and then all sat down. The old chief nodded with his head. We raised our anchor, and with two strokes of the oars had run our boat ashore, and, snatching a string or two of cowries, I sprang on land, followed by the coxswain Uledi, and in a second I had seized the skinny hand of the old chief, and was pressing it hard for joy. Warm-hearted Uledi, who the moment before was breathing furious hate of all savages, and of the procrastinating old chief in particular, embraced him with a filial warmth. Young Saywa, and Murabo, and Shumari, prompt as tinder upon all occasions, grasped the lesser chiefs’ hands, and devoted themselves with smiles and jovial frank bearing to conquer the last remnants of savage sullenness, and succeeded so well that in an incredibly short time the blood-brotherhood ceremony1 between the suddenly formed friends was solemnly entered into, and the irrevocable pact of peace and goodwill had been accomplished! . . . We distributed presents to each native, and in return we received great bunches of mellow, ripe, and green bananas, as well as of fish. It was agreed between us that we should encamp on this little islet, on which we find ourselves to-night, with a feeling as though we were approaching home.

Before leaving the chief of Rubunga’s presence, I asked him the name of the river, in a mongrel mixture of Ki-swahili, Kinyamwezi, Kijiji, Kiregga, and Ki-Kusu. He understood after awhile, and replied it was "Ibari." But after he had quite comprehended the drift of the question, he replied in a sonorous voice, "Ikutu Ya Kongo"!

There had really been no doubt in my mind since we had left the Stanley Falls that the terrible river would prove eventually to be the river of Congo-land, but it was very agreeable to be told so.

1 Stanley, , vol. ii, pp. 279–283.

1 As Stanley then called the great river.

1 An African ceremony whereby persons enter into firm bonds of friendship by exchanging a few drops of their blood, which is then swallowed by the parties to the compact or sprinkled over their bodies.

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Chicago: Through the Dark Continent in Readings in Modern European History, ed. Webster, Hutton (Boston: D.C. Heath, 1926), 411–415. Original Sources, accessed February 21, 2024,

MLA: . Through the Dark Continent, Vol. ii, in Readings in Modern European History, edited by Webster, Hutton, Boston, D.C. Heath, 1926, pp. 411–415. Original Sources. 21 Feb. 2024.

Harvard: , Through the Dark Continent. cited in 1926, Readings in Modern European History, ed. , D.C. Heath, Boston, pp.411–415. Original Sources, retrieved 21 February 2024, from