1902 Encyclopedia > Congo


CONGO, a country of Western Africa, extending along the coast of the Atlantic for about 185 English miles, from the River Zaire, or Congo (see AFRICA, vol. i. p. 254), which separates it from Cacongo and Loango on the north, to the Dande, which marks the boundary of Angola on the south. No very definite limit can be assigned on the eastern side; but it is hardly to be regarded as Congo territory at more than 250 miles inland. At one time the name Congo was applied not only to the country thus defined, but also to Loango, Angola, and Benguela—in short, to all the territory claimed by the Portuguese in this part of the continent.

The coast of Congo presents for the most part a succession of low cliffs and bluffs of red sandstone, sinking at intervals almost to the level of the sea; and for about 30 to 60 miles inland the country remains comparatively flat. It then begins to rise in irregular terraces till it reaches a height of about 1500 or 1600 feet; and its surface is broken with an endless variety of hill and valley and undulating plateau. The prevailing rocks in the lower terraces are mica, schist, gneiss, and shale; further inland there are extensive limestone formations; and igneous rocks occur in several quarters. The whole country is abundantly watered, partly by tributaries of the Zaire, and partly by independent streams that flow westward to the Atlantic. Of the latter the more important are the Ambrizzette, the Loge, and the Lifune; but even these are only navigable for barges. The former, as far as Congo proper is concerned, are individually insignificant. During the rainy season the surplus water is carried down in a thousand torrents, but the beds are quite dry during most of the year.

The mineral wealth of Congo is only partially explored, and even the deposits that are known to exist are very sparingly utilized. Copper mines have been worked at intervals for a considerable period at Bembe; and, though now abandoned by the Portuguese, they appeared to Lieutenant Grandy to contain a good supply of ore. Very fine malachite is also found in other parts of the country. Iron is obtained in the northern districts along the Zaire, where the general diffusion of the metal is proved by the red ferruginous character of the soil, and the fact that most of the streams are more or less chalybeate. A lake of bitumen is reported at Kinsao, near Mangue Grande; the same substance occurs at Musserra, and another deposit has been worked by the natives at Libongo. Red gumcopal occurs in various places,—among others, near Mangue Grande and in the Mossulo country; but the superstition of the natives interferes with its excavation. That diamonds have ever been found there seems no reason to believe; but garnets and even rubies occur. Salt is manufactured by the natives along the coast.

The climate of Congo is, in comparison with that of most tropical countries, remarkably cool and agreeable. In the hot season the thermometer is seldom more than from 80° to 86° Fahr. in the shade, and in the "cacimbo," or cool season, it usually ranges from 60° during the night to 75° during the day. This low temperature is principally due to the westerly breeze which sets in from the Atlantic about nine or ten o’clock in the morning, and continues blowing, not unfrequently with considerable violence, till after sunset. As this breeze dies away towards the interior, the heat is perceptibly greater; but the increasing elevation of the country soon reduces the temperature to similar limits. The different seasons of the year occur at slightly different periods, according to the altitude and position of the several districts; but the hot or rainy season may be regarded as extending from October to May or June, and the "cacimbo" as occupying the rest of the year. In October there are usually light rains in the lower country; and these are succeeded by the Mould na Chintomba, or great rains, which are accompanied by violent storms and thunder. Next follows, from December to March, a period known as the "little dries," and then comes another spell of heavy rains and atmospheric disturbance. In the neighbourhood of Banza Umpata, about 200 miles inland, the natives, according to Lieutenant Grandy, divide the year into the following five seasons:—Sevoo, or summer, from the beginning of July to the middle of September; Bangala, or the dry season, to the end of November; Masanza, to the middle of February; Kundey, or the period of the heavy rains, to the middle of April; and Kintombo, or spring, to the end of June. In its effects on the human constitution, the climate of Congo is much less deleterious than that of the coast regions further to the north; and in the higher districts even the European can maintain himself with ease in a fair state of health. Fevers and agues are not uncommon, but do not last long; and the natives suffer from bronchitis, pleurisy, small-pox, and skin diseases. The curious sleep-disease appeared in 1870, but did not spread through the country.

The flora of Congo is rich and various; and the country may be divided with remarkable precision into different zones, distinguished by the prevailing character of the vegetation. According to Mr Monteiro, the traveller, as he advances inland from Ambriz, finds during the first 25 miles baobabs, euphorbias, aloes, "muxixes" or "mukazo" (Sterculia tomentosa), and a great abundance of Sanseviera angolensis; he passes next into a region of larger, shadier trees, which continue for the next 35 miles, when the scene again changes, and the whole forest becomes one tangled maze of the most luxuriant and beautiful creepers. Near Bembe the country opens up and the oil-palm becomes the prevailing tree. In the first zone the grasses are short and delicate, in the second they are stronger and taller; in the third they develop into gigantic species with sharp knife-like blades, from 5 to 16 feet in height, which cover vast open stretches, and for several months in the year render communication through the country almost impossible. The cashew tree is exceedingly abundant along the coast from Congo to Ambrizzette. The principal objects of native cultivation are manioc or cassava, yams, ground-nuts (Arachis hypogoea), and maize. Sesamum and sweet potatoes are sparingly grown. Coffee of good quality is found wild in various parts, especially in the neighbourhood of Encoge. Chili pepper is abundant, and forms the principal condiment in use among the natives, who not unfrequently eat it to their own injury. The plantain, the papaw, the orange, and the pineapple are the principal fruits, but many others thrive well. Beans, cabbages, pumpkins, cucumbers, melons, spinach, and other European vegetables can be successfully cultivated, and the first two are used by the natives. Of the beans, indeed, there are two species, the ordinary haricot and the tree-bean; the latter is sometimes left to grow for two years. The principal beverage of the inhabitants is the palm wine, but they also manufacture a beer called "garapa," from the Indian corn. According to Selim Agha, who accompanied Burton in 1863, cotton and rice come to perfection in four months, the cassava takes six or nine, and three or four are sufficient for cabbages, lettuce, endive, and carrots.

The domestic animals of Congo consist chiefly of goats, swine, dogs, and cats; and there are also a few sheep with coats of hair instead of wool. The goats are beautiful creatures, but the swine and dogs are poor and half-starved. No beasts of burden are employed by the natives; and the mules, asses, and camels introduced by the Portuguese died out. Horned cattle there are none, though they thrive well enough on the coast under the white man’s care.

The larger wild animals are similar to those of the neighbouring countries on the south; but the River Zaire seems to be a natural limit for many species on the north. The variety of birds is remarkable. Flamingoes, spoon-bills, herons, ducks, and various other aquatic species abound in the rivers and marshes. The common African crow, bright-coloured starlings, rollers, and doves are very common in the lower country; and sun-birds and other insectivora frequent the palm-trees. The white ant is the most abundant of the insect tribes; and mosquitoes of a most virulent sort are very common. The chigoe (Pulex penetrans), introduced in 1870, spread through the country, but seems to be dying out again. Bees abound, but are not domesticated.

Animal food is not in very general use, although the natives will eat the flesh of almost any beast or bird. The Mussurongos consider the cat a great dainty; field rats are regularly captured for the kitchen, by the various tribes; the king-cricket, and some species of caterpillars, are sought after for the same purpose; and the white ant is greedily devoured in the winged state.

Congo is as destitute as the other countries of tropical Africa of what a European would call a city. The native banzas, or townships, consist of a few hundred huts clustered together; and the Portuguese settlements are merely commercial factories or military posts. The places of most importance along the coast are Mangue Pequeño, Mangue Grande, Quinzao, Moculla, Ambrizzette, Musserra, Quicimbo, Ambriz, and Libongo. On the River Zaire may be mentioned King Antonio’s Town, Boma (anciently Lambi), and Vinda la Nzadi, or Congo Town; but the last two are on the north side of the river, and therefore are hardly to be included within our limits. The principal inland town is São Salvador, or Congo Grande, with a population at one time extravagantly estimated at 50,000; and Banza Noki to the north and Bembe and Encoge to the south are worthy of mention. The number of villages is very considerable, and together they must make up a fair population; but it is evident from the condition of the country, as well as from the reports of the older travelers, that formerly the inhabitants must have been much more numerous.

The ordinary huts of the natives are formed of mats woven from a reedy grass, or the fibres of plants. That of the chief is constructed more skilfully of palm leaves, and is encompassed with a fence of reeds. In the coast towns the huts, though each is built separate, are comparatively close to each other; while further inland much more space is allowed to intervene, and hedges are frequently grown round small groups. The Mushicongos build on a larger scale than their Ambriz neighbours, and not unfrequently have two compartments. The household furniture and utensils, in simplicity and rudeness, are on a par with the domestic inclosures. Baskets are made of the fibres of the palm tree, and bowls and bottles of gourds and other vegetables; earthen vessels are used for boiling the victuals, and wooden spoons to eat them; while a mat of grass thrown on a raised platform constitutes the only bedding.

There is no political or ethnographical unity in the country. No one tribe is predominant, and the king of Congo, whatever may have formerly been his authority, is now no more than a local chieftain, like a dozen others. The tribes numerically important are the Mussurongos, who extend from the Zaire as far south as Mangue Grande; the Mushicongos, who lie inland to the north of Bembe; the Ambrizians along the coast, and inland as far as Quiballa; and the Mossulos to the north of the Dande. Besides the king of Congo, the king of North Bamba, or of the district between the Ambrizzette and the Loge, and the king of Encoge, with the title of "Dembo Ambuilla," possess a certain amount of prestige. Every "town" has its own headman and assembly of "Macotas," or councillors; and these in company manage its affairs. The office of headman confers no despotic power; and it descends by inheritance not from father to son, but from uncle to nephew or niece. The languages of the Mussurongo, Mushicongo, and Ambriz tribes are radically one; and indeed the natives of the whole of this part of the coast, for a distance of 450 miles, can understand one another’s speech. Under the name of Fiote, this common tongue has been the object of some little attention. Barbot gives a list of 33 words, Douville a more extended vocabulary of what he calls la langue Magialoua, and the authors of the Congo Expedition a third and much better collection. Vowels and liquids are numerous, and gutturals altogether absent, so that the language has a soft and harmonious sound. In number of words it is remarkably rich. According to Captain Burton, its likeness to the Kisawahili of Zanzibar is so great that he was frequently able to understand whole sentences from this resemblance alone. Along the coast a considerable number of the natives can speak Portuguese or even English; but their pronunciation is extremely faulty, and they transfer the idiom of their own speech to the foreign tongue.

The religion, if such it can be called, of the Congoese is a gross fetishism, and almost the only trace of their a former superficial Christianization is the superstitious value attached to some stray crucifix now employed as a charm, a little more potent, it may be, than a string of beads or a land-shell filled full of birds’ dung and feathers. Belief in witchcraft is very general, and develops itself in the most trivial and irrational style. Circumcision is practised by all the tribes; and the rite is usually performed on boys of from eight to twelve years of age, who have to undergo a preparatory discipline, and live apart from the rest of the community for a month in a special hut. Polygamy prevails,— every man having wives according to his wealth and rank. There is no nuptial ceremony; but the bridegroom makes a present to the father-in-law, provides the bride with her marriage outfit, and bears the cost of a family feast. The costume of both men and women varies considerably with rank and the degree of European influence; but in general it is very slight. The bodies of the dead are not unfrequently desiccated by roasting, and then buried in the huts which they formerly occupied. The interment is often delayed for a year or more, that all the relatives may be present at the "wake."

Since the stoppage of the slave trade, a very considerable traffic has been developed in the natural products of the country, and were it not for the inherent indolence of the natives it might be increased almost to any extent. The principal exports are the fibre of the baobab, first utilized as a paper material by Mr Monteiro in 1858; ground nuts, which find a ready market, especially in France, as an oil seed; ivory brought down from the interior; palm oil, sesamum, coffee, and an inferior kind of Indian-rubber obtained from a species of Landolfia. The commercial prosperity of the Congo Fiver has been frequently interrupted by the attacks of the Mussurongo pirates, but this annoyance has been somewhat checked by the vigorous measures of the English cruisers. The last expedition of repression was that of Commodore Sir W. Hewett in 1875.

Congo was discovered by Diego Cam, probably in 1484. He erected a stone pillar at the mouth of the river, which accordingly took the title of Rio de Padr_o, and established friendly relations with the natives, who reported that the country was subject to a great monarch, Mwani Congo, or Lord of Congo, resident at Ambasse Congo. The Portuguese were not long in making themselves influential in the country. Gonçalo de Sousa was despatched on a formal embassy in 1490; and the first missionaries entered the country in his train. The king was soon afterwards baptized, and Christianity was nominally established as the national religion. In 1534 a cathedral was founded, and in 1560 the Jesuits arrived with Paulo Dias de Movaes. Of the prosperity of the country at this time the Portuguese have left the most glowing and indeed incredible accounts. The attention of the Portuguese was, however, turned more particularly to the southern districts of Angola and Benguela, and their hold on Congo loosened. In 1627 their cathedral was removed to Sao Paul de Loanda, and São Salvador declined in importance. In the 18th century, again, in spite of the invasions of the Dutch and French, some steps were taken towards re-establishing their authority; in 1758 they formed a settlement at Encoge; from 1784 to 1789 they carried on a war against the natives of Mussolo; in 1791 they built a fort at Quincollo on the Loge, the ruins of which are still existent, and for a time they worked the mines of Bembe. At present, however, they possess no fort or settlement to the north of Ambriz, which was first occupied in 1855. The connection of other European nations with Congo has hitherto been either exploratory or commercial, and nothing more powerful has been established than a "factory" or "comptoir." In 1816 an expedition was despatched from England under the command of J. K. Tuckey, R.N., for the examination of the Zaire. It reached the river on July 6th, and managed to push up stream as far as Sangala, the highest rapid; but sickness broke out, the commander and several others died, and the expedition had to return. A survey of the first twenty-five miles of the river was effected in 1826 by the "Levin" and the "Barracouta," belonging to Captain Owen’s expedition , and in 1827-29 the Frenchman Douville spent some time in various parts of the country. In 1857 the German explorer, Dr Bastian, passed from Ambriz inland as far as São Salvador; and in the same year Captain Hunt, in the "Alecto," made an attempt to ascend the river, but only reached the cataracts. Captain Burton attained the same limit in 1863, and also proceeded inland as far as Banza Noki. In 1872 an expedition under Lieutenant Grandy was despatched from England for the purpose of advancing from the west coast to the relief of Livingstone. Ambriz was chosen as the starting point, and Bembe was reached in 11 days, on the 23d of March 1873. The 15th of May found the party at Congo, but they were detained there till June 20th. Passing through Kilembella, Moila, and Tungwa (a place of about 1600 inhabitants), they arrived at Banza Umpala, on a tributary of the Zaire, about 200 miles inland, but were then obliged to retrace their steps to Congo, whence they proceeded to Banza Noki and the main river, intending to push their way up the stream. The death of Livingstone was soon after reported; and a recall shortly reached them, which brought the expedition to a close. They found the natives "exceedingly timid, superstitious, and suspicious, evidently believing that the foreigners had come to interfere with their trade and country." In 1875 a German expedition, under Captain von Homeyer, commenced exploratory operations along the Congo for the purpose of preparing the way for German colonization.

See the older travellers in the collections of Astley, Pinkerton, Churchill, Purchas, and Philipp; Pellicer de Tovar, Mission Evangelica al Reyno de Congo, Madrid, 1649; Tuckey, Narrative of an Expedition to explore the Congo, 1818 ; Douville, Voyage au Congo, 1832; Owen, Voyages to Africa, Arabia, &c., 1833; Hunt, "Ascent of the Congo," in the Proceedings of the Roy. Geo. Soc. for 1858 ; Bastian, Ein Besuch in San Salvador, Bremen, 1859, and Die Deutsche Expedition an die Loango Kustc, Jena, 1874 ; Behm, "Die Congo Fluss," in Petermann’s Mittheilungen, 1872 ; Lieut. Grandy’s report in the Proceedings of Roy. Geo. Soc., 1874, and also in the Geograph. Mag., 1875 ; J. J. Monteiro, Angola and the River Congo, London, 1875; Barton, Two Trips to Gorilla Land and the Cataracts of the Congo, 1876; P. Duparquet, "Voyage au Zaire," and Codine, ‘Decouverte de la côte d’Afrique . . . pendant les années 1484-1488," in Bull. de la Soc. de Géogr., 1876.

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