The Slave Trade in the Congo Basin
PART 2 (last)
By One of Stanley’s Pioneer Officers.
Illustrated After Sketches from Life by the Author
This article was originally published in
The Century Magazine — April, 1890.
THE EFFECT OF SLAVERY
THE VILLAGE CHIEFS
MODES OF TORTURE
HOW THE NATIVES ARE ENSLAVED
IN THE SLAVE SHED
IN THE FAR INTERIOR
SOME BARBAROUS CUSTOMS
SUPPRESSION OF SLAVERY
EFFECT OF LIBERATION
[Click to enlarge in a new window]
IN THE SLAVE SHED
The accompanying pictures, from sketches which I took at Masankusu, will give some idea of the suffering which is endured by captives in numberless slave-markets. (Note: These illustrations are reproduced in Kurt Saxon’s book ROOT ROT. See details at the end of this article.) They are hobbled with roughly hewn logs which chafe their limbs to open sores; sometimes a whole tree presses its weight on their bodies while their necks are penned into the natural prong formed by its branching limbs. Others sit from day to day with their legs and arms maintained in a fixed position by rudely constructed stocks, and each slave is secured to the roof-posts by a cord knotted to a cane ring which either encircles his neck or is intertwined with his woolly hair. Many die of pure starvation, as the owners give them barely enough food to exist upon, and even that they grudge them. These hungry creatures form indeed a truly pitiable sight. After suffering this captivity for a short time they become mere skeletons. All ages, of both sexes, are to be seen: mothers with their babes; young men and women; boys and girls; and even babies who cannot yet walk, and whose mothers have died of starvation, or perhaps been killed by the Lufembé. One seldom sees either old men or old women; they are all killed in the raids: their marketable value being very small, no trouble is taken with them.
Witnessing groups of these poor, helpless wretches, with their emaciated forms and sunken eyes, their faces a very picture of sadness, it is not difficult to perceive the intense grief that they are inwardly suffering; but they know too well it is of no use to appeal for sympathy to their merciless masters, who have been accustomed from childhood to witness acts of cruelty and brutality, so that to satisfy their insatiable greed they will commit themselves, or permit to be committed, any atrocity, however great. Even the pitiable sight of one of these slave-sheds does not half represent the misery caused by this traffic — homes broken up, mothers separated from their babies, husbands from wives, and brothers from sisters. When last at Masankusu I saw a slave woman who had with her one child, whose starved little body she was clutching to her shrunken breast. I was attracted by her sad face, which betokened great suffering. I asked her the cause of it, and she told me in a low, sobbing voice the following tale:
“I was living with my husband and three children in an inland village, a few miles from here. My husband was a hunter. Ten days ago the Lufembé attacked our settlement; my husband defended himself, but was overpowered and speared to death with several of the other villagers. I was brought here with my three children, two of whom have already been purchased by the traders. I shall never see them any more. Perhaps they will kill them on the death of some chief, or perhaps kill them for food. My remaining child, you see, is ill, dying from starvation; they give us nothing to eat. I expect even this one will be taken from me today, as the chief, fearing lest it should die and become a total loss, has offered it for a very small price. As for myself,” said she, “they will sell me to one of the neighboring tribes, to toil in the plantations, and when I become old and unfit for work I shall be killed.”
There were certainly five hundred slaves exposed for sale in this one village alone. Large canoes were constantly arriving from down river, with merchandise of all kinds with which they purchased these slaves. A large trade is carried on between the Ubangi and Lulungu rivers. The people inhabiting the mouth of the Ubangi buy the Balolo slaves at Masankusu and the other markets. They then take them up the Ubangi River and exchange them with the natives there for ivory. These natives buy their slaves solely for food. Having purchased slaves they feed them on ripe bananas, fish, and oil, and when they get them into good condition, they kill them. Hundreds of the Balolo slaves are taken into the river and disposed of in this way each month. A great many other slaves are sold to the large villages on the Congo, to supply victims for the execution ceremonies.
Much life is lost in the capturing of slaves, and during their captivity many succumb to starvation. Of the remainder, numbers are sold to become victims to cannibalism and human sacrifice ceremonies. There are few indeed who are allowed to live and prosper.
Cannibalism exists among all the peoples on the Upper Congo east of 16 E. longitude, and is prevalent to an even greater extent among the people inhabiting the banks of the numerous affluents. During a two months’ voyage on the Ubangi River I was constantly brought into contact with cannibalism. The natives there pride themselves upon the number of skulls they possess, denoting the number of victims they have been able to obtain. I saw one native hut, around which was built a raised platform of clay a foot wide, on which were placed rows of human skulls , forming a ghastly picture, but one of which the chief was very proud, as he signified by the admiring way he drew my attention to the sight. Bunches of twenty and thirty skulls were hung about in prominent positions in the village. I asked one young chief, who was certainly not more than twenty-five years old, how many men he had eaten in his village, and he answered me thirty. He was greatly astonished at the horror I expressed at his answer. In one village again, as I had bought a tusk of ivory, the natives thought perhaps I might buy skulls, and several armfuls were brought down to my boat within a few minutes.
I found trading somewhat difficult on this river, as the standard of value on the Ubangi was human life — human flesh. I have been asked on several occasions to barter a man for a tusk of ivory, and I remember that at one village the natives urged me to leave one of my boat’s crew in exchange for a goat. “Meat for meat,” they said. I was repeatedly invited, too, to help them fight some of the neighboring tribes. They said,
“You can take the ivory, and we will take the meat”
— meaning, of course, the human beings who might be killed in the fight. The more unfriendly of them would frequently threaten that they would eat us, and I have no doubt they would have done so had we not been strong enough to take care of ourselves.
During my first visit to the upper waters of the Malinga River cannibalism was brought to my notice in a ghastly manner. One night I heard a woman’s piercing shriek, followed by a stifled, gurgling moan; then boisterous laughter, when all again became silent. In the morning I was horrified to see a native offering for sale to my men a piece of human flesh, the skin of which bore the tribal tattoo mark of the Balolo. I afterwards learned that the cry we had heard at night was from a female slave whose throat had been cut. I was absent from this village of Malinga for ten days. On my return I inquired if any further bloodshed had taken place, and was informed that five other women had been killed.
While in the Ruki River at the beginning of this year, I was furnished with another proof of the horrible fate of the slaves. At Esengé, a village near which I stopped to cut wood for my steamer, I heard ominous beating of drums and outbreaks of excited mirth. I was informed by one of the natives from the village that an execution was taking place. To my inquiry whether they were in the habit of eating human flesh, he replied,
“We eat the body entirely.”
I further asked what they did with the head.
“Eat it,” he replied; “but first we put it in the fire to singe the hair off.”
There is a small river situated between the Ruki and the Lulungu, called the Ikelemba. At its mouth it is not more than 140 yards wide. Its waters are navigable for 140 miles, and it flows through the land of the Balolo. In proportion to its size it supplies more slaves than any other river. By looking on the map it will be seen that the Ikelemba, Ruki, and Lulungu run parallel to one another. The large slave-raiding tribes inhabit the land between these rivers, and bring their slaves to the nearest market, whether on the Ikelemba, Ruki, or Lulungu.
There are clearings at intervals all along the banks of the Ikelemba, where on certain days are held small local markets for the exchange of slaves. As one travels up stream small settlements are passed more and more frequently, and fifty miles from the mouth all the country on the left side of the river is thickly populated. It is noticeable that the villages are all on the left side of the river, the opposite side being infested by marauding and roving tribes who would raid any settlement made on their banks. All the slaves from this river are Balolo, a tribe which is easily recognizable by the exaggerated tattoo marked on the forehead, side of the temples, and chin.
During my ten-days’ visit to this river I met dozens of canoes belonging to the country at the mouth of the Ruki River and the Bakuté district, whose owners had come up and bought slaves, and were returning with their purchases. When traveling from place to place on the river the slaves are, for convenience, relieved of the weight of the heavy shackles. The traders always carry, hanging from the sheaths of their knives, light handcuffs, formed of cord and cane.
The slave when purchased is packed on the floor of the canoe in a crouching posture with his hands bound in front of him by means of these handcuffs. During the voyage he is carefully guarded by the crew of standing paddlers; and when the canoe is tied to the bank at night the further precaution is taken of changing the position in which the hands are bound and pinioning them behind his back, to prevent him from endeavoring to free himself by gnawing through the strands. To make any attempt at escape quite impossible, his wrist is bound to that of one of his sleeping masters, who would be aroused at his slightest movement.
In one canoe which I noticed particularly there were five traders, and their freight of miserable humanity consisted of thirteen emaciated Balolo slaves, men, women, and little children, all showing unmistakably by their sunken eyes and meager bodies the starvation and the cruelty to which they had been subjected. These slaves are taken down to the large villages at the mouth of the Ruki, where they are sold in exchange for ivory to the people in the Ruki or the Ubangi district, the men to be used as warriors, and the women as wives; but compared with the numbers who suffer from the persecution of the slave-raiders, few indeed ever live to attain a secure position of even the humblest kind in a village.
The wretched state of these Balolo has always saddened me, as intellectually they are a grade higher than the tribes surrounding them; and it is really owing to the gentler fiber of their natures, and their peaceful, trusting disposition, that they easily fall a prey to the degraded and savage hordes in their district. They have artistic taste and mechanical ingenuity, and make exquisitely woven shields and curiously shaped and decorated spears and knives. They are exceedingly intelligent, faithful, and, when properly officered, brave.
IN THE FAR INTERIOR
For many months I traveled on the Upper Congo and its affluents and had on several occasions to defend myself against the hostility of the natives. My crew consisted of fifteen men, the greater part of whom were Balolo, and I was never deceived by them. When first I engaged them they came into my hands in the rough. They were savages, some of them cannibals; but they are of a very malleable nature, and with a policy of firmness and fair play I was able to convert them into devoted and faithful servants.
As evidence of what can be done by gaining the confidence of the natives, through a policy of firmness and fairness, I think I may safely quote my experience at the Equator Station. I remained there for nearly a year, with only one Zanzibari soldier; all the rest of my people were natives I had engaged from the neighboring villages. I was surrounded on all sides by powerful people, who, had they wished, could easily have overcome me and pillaged my post. But not the slightest act of hostility or of an unfriendly nature was ever attempted, and I felt just as secure among them as I do in the city of London or New York. It is true the natives had nothing to gain by molesting me, and they were intelligent enough to perceive that fact. In reality, my presence was, to a great extent, beneficial to their interests. I had cloth, beads, looking-glasses, spoons, cups, and trinkets, and these I exchanged with them; every now and then I would organize a little hunt after elephants or hippopotami; and as my part in the consumption of either of these animals was a very small one, most of the meat I gave away to the natives.
My life during my stay at the Equator Station was a pleasant one. The people were of a happy and gay disposition; all were friendly and talkative. They would sit for hours and listen most attentively to my tales of Europe, and their intelligent questions proved them to be possessed of keen understanding. There is no more attentive audience in the whole world than a group of African savages, if you can speak their language and make yourself understood. When I was tired of talking to them, I would ask them questions concerning their manners, customs, and traditions. As I was much impressed by their cruelty, I always made a point of expressing my abhorrence of it, and have even told them that one day I should strike a blow for the slave. My audience on such occasions consisted principally of slaves, and these poor wretches were always much gratified to hear my friendly opinions towards themselves. My arguments, I could see, often appealed strongly to the chiefs themselves, as I asked them:
“Why do you kill these people? Do you think they have no feeling because they are slaves? How would you like to see your own child torn away from you and sold into slavery, to satisfy the cravings of cannibalism, or to be executed?”
They even said, some of them, at the time, that they would not hold any more executions. These executions did take place, but in a secret manner, and all news of them was kept from my ears until some time afterwards, when I learned of them from my own men. But I would have been unable to prevent the carrying out of such a ceremony with the force I had at my disposal in a single Zanzibari soldier!
SOME BARBAROUS CUSTOMS
I remember one execution which took place, the details of which I learned afterwards. It was to celebrate the death of a chief who had been drowned while on a trading expedition. As soon as the news of his death was brought to the village, several of his slaves were tied hand and foot and lashed down into the bottom of a canoe. The canoe was then towed out to the middle of the river at night; holes were bored in it, and it was allowed to sink with its human freight. When we are able to prohibit the terrible loss of life which the children of today are compelled constantly to witness, more humane feelings may develop themselves, and surrounded by healthy influences they will, unspoiled by at least open exhibitions of cruelty, grow into a far nobler generation.
Natives suffering at the hands of the slave traders have repeatedly asked me to help them. At Malinga, where human flesh was offered me for sale, the assembled chiefs voted me several tusks of ivory if I would live among them and defend them against the Lufembé, and enable them to resist the persecutions they were exposed to from the neighboring tribes, who were continually making raids into their districts, capturing their people. They said:
“We are being starved to death. We can make no plantations, because when our women visit them they are caught, killed, and eaten by the crafty Lufembé, who are constantly prowling around and taking away any stragglers they may see.”
One old chief, Isekiaka, told me that already from time to time twelve of his women had been stolen from him, and several of his children. Indeed, so wretched is the condition of the people on the upper reaches of the Malinga that numbers of them have been driven by the Lufembé from their plantations on the mainland, and are actually compelled to live on the river in miserable huts, the floors of which are supported on piles. From these dwellings they suspend their nets, and as the river is full of fish, they subsist almost entirely on the produce of their hauls. This has given rise to a curious state of things; for, as the Lufembé grow only manioc, and have more roots than are sufficient for the tribe, they are only too glad to exchange these for fish caught by their victims. And so when a market is held an armed truce is declared, and Lufembé and Malinga mingle together and barter, with their products held in one hand and a drawn knife ready in the other.
It can be readily imagined that the incessant persecution which the natives are suffering renders them cruel and remorseless. Throughout the regions of the Malinga they become so brutalized by hunger that they eat their own dead, and the appearance of one of their villages always denotes abject misery and starvation. I have repeatedly seen young children eating the root of the banana tree, vainly endeavoring to obtain some kind of nourishment from its succulence. That they are able to exist at all is a mystery. Every living object they are able to obtain is accepted as food; different kinds of flies, caterpillars, and crickets are all eaten by these people.
When one has lived for some time in Central Africa, one comes to understand the little impression that acts of the most atrocious and wanton cruelty make on the savage mind. Surrounded from childhood by scenes of bloodshed and torture, their holidays and great ceremonies marked by massacres of slaves, the mildest and most sensitive nature becomes brutalized and callous; and if this is so with the free, what must be the effect upon the slave, torn when a child from its mother, perhaps at the age of two years, and even in its infancy compelled to suffer privation. If indeed the child runs the gauntlet of cannibalism and execution ceremonies, it can hardly be expected that he will sympathize with any suffering.
The people on the lower art of the Upper Congo seldom practice slave-raiding. It is only when we come to the Bakuté district that we are brought much in contact with it. The large villages around Stanley Pool, — Chumbiri, Bolobo, Lukolela, Butunu, Ngombé, Busindi, Irebu, — Lake Mantumba, and the Ubangi River all rely principally upon the Balolo tribes for their slaves. All these villages except Stanley Pool are daily making human sacrifices, either in connection with the death of some chief or for some other ceremonial reason. Any kind of commerce transacted in this part of Africa only increases the bloodshed, because the native’s ambition is to get as many slaves as possible around him; and when he sells a tusk of ivory or any other article he devotes nearly all of the cloth, brass wire, and beads which he obtains in exchange to the purchase of fresh slaves. So that he is surrounded by numerous women and warriors during his lifetime, and has his importance signalized at his death by the execution of about half the number of his people.
SUPPRESSION OF SLAVERY
I frequently talked with these people, and explained to them the iniquity of slavery; but they argued:
“We have a great deal of hard work in our trading expeditions to obtain these slaves; why should we leave them all behind us for others who have not worked? We have bought them, they are our slaves, and we have a right to do what we like with them.”
The ceremony of execution, with its attendant brutality, ought to be, and can be, stopped. The bloodshed is even greater today than when Stanley first saw these people in 1877; the reason being, as I have before mentioned, that contact with white men has made them richer, and has enabled them to obtain more slaves. The great powers of the civilized world are not discussing the antislavery movement, and if such discussions should result in some united action directed towards the suppression of the trade in the interior, there are a few peculiar features which might be turned to advantage.
First, and most important, this traffic is not complicated by religious fanaticism of any kind.
Second. These people are disunited; every village of fifty or sixty houses is independent of its neighbor, and small family wars are continually taking place.
Third. There is nothing so convincing to the African savage as physical superiority.
Now all these points are in favor of the antislavery movement.
The absence of religious fanaticism, the disunited condition of the natives, and their acknowledgment of physical superiority ought to be taken advantage of, and always borne in mind when plans for the suppression of the slave-trade and its attendant barbarism are projected. In my opinion, it will be some years before the slave-trade carried on by the Arabs can be successfully grappled with, but there is no reason why any delay should occur in striking a blow at the intertribal trade.
The Congo Free State has moved a step in the right direction by establishing near Stanley Falls an entrenched camp, with the object of forming a barrier to keep the Arabs, with their Manyema banditti, east of that position. Every country in the world should support the State to effect this object,as it will play a most important part in the history of Central Africa. When Stanley left Wadelai the Mahdists were already there. If these hordes join with those at Stanley Falls, it will require most strenuous efforts to save the whole Congo Basin from their devastations. While we are still able to keep the Arabs east of the Falls, no time should be lost in eradicating the existing bloodshed west of that point. It is a big work, but it is a duty which the civilized world owes to the helpless slave. Although black, and a savage, still he is a human being. It should always be remembered that the suppression of slavery in Africa does not mean merely striking the fetters from the limbs of the slave; its end is not only the substitution of paid for forced labor, but also the relief of enslaved humanity throughout all these regions from a life of unspeakable horror, from tortures that only the savage African can invent, and from a certain and violent death.
From Banana Point to Stanley Pool slavery does exist, but of such a mild character that when operations are actually begun Stanley Pool should be the starting point. If half a dozen fast boats were placed on the river at Stanley Pool, each armed with twenty black soldiers, officered by two or three Europeans who had proved by their past services that they were capable of dealing with the question, and if such a force had the recognition of the civilized powers and was allowed to strike a blow at the evil, thousands of human lives would be saved.
These boats would be continually moving about the river, and those in command would begin by making a careful study of local politics. They would have to convince the natives of their determination to stop these diabolical ceremonies of bloodshed. The natives should be warned that any villages which in the future were guilty of carrying out such ceremonies would be most severely punished. Some of the better disposed native chiefs would have to be brought over to the side of the white man. Spies should be engaged all over the district, so that a boat on arriving would immediately hear of any execution that was about to take place or that had taken place; and I would suggest that any village which still continued these acts of cruelty, after having been fairly and fully warned, should be attacked, and a severe example made of the principal offenders. A few such punishments would soon have a most salutary effect.
These operations I should recommend to be carried on between Stanley Pool and the Falls. Posts should also be established in commanding positions to control the mouths of the slave-raiding rivers. Each point should be supplied with a boat such as I have recommended for the lower river. Other stations should be established in the center of the slave-raiding district. Slaves at the time in the markets might be redeemed and placed in some settlement, where they could be trained as soldiers or learn some useful craft. I have, whenever it was possible, purchased the redemption of slaves, and on the completion of such purchase have always taken the precaution to place in the freedman’s hand a paper to the effect that he had been redeemed by me from slavery, and that the expedition I represented would make a specified payment per month while he remained in its service.
EFFECT OF LIBERATION
It was curious to observe the different effects that the announcement of such a redemption had on slaves freed so unexpectedly. As a rule, the bewildered man would go from one to another of my boat’s crew, asking all sorts of questions as to the meaning of the ceremony. What was to be his fate? Was he to be exchanged for ivory? or was he to be eaten? And it would take some time and patience to explain to him, after his first surprise was over, the full import of the paper I had placed in his possession. Others, more intelligent, would immediately understand the good fortune that had befallen them; and it was strange to see the startling change in the expression of their countenances, which a moment before betokened nothing but unresisting acquiescence in their miserable destiny, and to note their inert and weary bodies, which seemed at once to become erect and vigorous when released from the degrading fetters.
After having bought all the slaves which were exposed for sale, warning should be given that any attempt to purchase human beings for slavery would be the signal for war, and that the purchasers would be severely punished.
The most important part of the movement is to convince the slaves of our earnestness and sincerity. I feel confident that should operations be carried on in the way thus suggested most satisfactory results would ensue.
The reason for the native villages being disunited is, that there seldom exists a chief strong enough to form a combination. This weakness should be taken advantage of, and capable white men might, through their personal influence, unite the tribes under their leadership. Sooner or later the Arabs at Stanley Falls will have to be battled with. At present they remain there, not because the white men will not allow them to come lower down, but because they are in the center of such a rich field, and they know that by coming down the river they must rely entirely on their canoes, as roads in the interior are few and far between, owing to the swampy nature of the land. They would also have the populous and warlike districts of Upoto, Mobeka, and Bangala to fight against, which would not be so easily overcome as the small scattered hamlets around Stanley Falls, which at present they are continually persecuting.
All the natives on the Upper Congo, quite up to the limits at present reached by the Arabs, should be controlled as much a possible by Europeans. They should be combined together under Europeans, so that when the time arrives that the Arabs decide to move west they would be met at their frontiers by a barrier of well-armed and resolute natives.
The slave-trade of today is almost entirely confined to Africa. The slaves are caught and disposed of in that continent, and the number of those who are shipped to Turkey and other parts are indeed few compared with the enormous traffic carried on in the interior. We have the authority of Stanley and Livingstone and other explorers concerning the iniquity existing in the eastern portion of Equatorial Africa.
In India we have an example of what determination and resolution can accomplish; as the inhuman ceremonies of the suttee, car of Juggernaut, infanticide, and the secret society of the Thugs have all been suppressed by the British Government. The opportunities for reaching the center of Africa are yearly improving. Since Stanley first exposed to the world’s gaze, in 1877, the blood-stained history of the Dark Continent, rapid strides have been made in opening up that country. The work for Africa’s welfare so determinedly pursued by Livingstone has been most nobly carried on by Stanley, and the rapid progress which is at present taking place is due entirely to Stanley’s efforts. A great obstacle has always existed between the outside world and Central Africa, in the stretch of unnavigable water between Matadi and Stanley Pool. The railway now being constructed will overcome this difficulty.
E. J. Glave.
* Cover image of Morton Stanley with native boy not in the original magazine article.
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