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ANGOLA / CONGO (DRC): SLAVERY / COMMERCIAL TRADE: Quatre Années au Congo par Charles Jeannest. 1874.


1 of only 2 known surviving examples – the original issue of the French merchant Charles Jeannest’s exciting and historically valuable account of his four years (1869-73) spent in the coastal Congo (today’s Banana, DRC and Zaire Province, Angola), where he served as a factor at several trading posts, featuring authentic and highly detailed eyewitness accounts and perceptive analysis of the volatile and complex diplomatic/political situation between Europeans and local powers; the constant state of danger due to violent altercations (between locals and Europeans and amongst the Africans themselves), disease, accidents and animal attacks; the nature of the economy and trade (ivory, caravans, etc.); the quasi-slavery system of black labour; the geography and extraordinary natural life; the cultures of various African peoples (ex. food, language, clothing, artwork, religion/spiritualism, rituals, dance, games, customs, justice system, etc.); as well as descriptions of daily life in the outposts; the present work published shortly after Jeannest’s return to France, in a rudimentary technique of photolithography directly from his original manuscript, it would have been made in only a handful of examples for private circulation to the author’s friends and family, made 9 years before the issue of his well-known, heavily edited public memoir.

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Charles JEANNEST (b. 1848/9).

Quatre Années au Congo par Charles Jeannest. 1874.

[France, likely Paris: Privately Published by the Author], 1874.

Large 4° (32.5 x 22.5 cm): 160 pp., all printed in a rudimentary technique of photolithography directly from the original manuscript, thick card covers with printed front cover [n.b. front cover acts as the title page], dark blue cloth spine, inscribed and signed by the author in mss. to front endpaper, “A mes chers, Cousins Albert & Alice, Leur Ami, Ch. Jeannest” (Very Good for a work of its kind, some light marginal staining and toning to some leaves, some moisture residue to upper outer corners of covers, binding holding firm but covers stained, toned and worn, some abrasions to lower part of spine).


In the 1860s and 1870s, Sub-Saharan Africa was in a febrile state, on the eve of transformative change.  European trading companies (mainly British, French, Dutch, Portuguese and German) and Christian missionaries established outposts at various points along the coasts, although their presence in, and knowledge of, the interior was often next to nil.  South Africa, Senegal and narrow coastal strips in Angola and Mozambique were the only regions truly colonized by European powers.

The fall of the Transatlantic slave trade during the first half of the 19th century had eliminated the principal raison d’être for traditional European imperialism in Sub-Saharan Africa, such that by mid-century the focus was on gaining access to the continent’s immense natural resources, and ‘saving the souls’ of Africans. 

The Congo was an immense and ill-defined land, with the Upper Congo (the deep interior) scarcely known to Europeans, while the Lower Congo and adjacent coasts had been frequented by European traders since the late 15th century.  What is today northern Angola and the western part of today’s Democratic Republic of Congo had, since around 1390, been dominated by the powerful and socially advanced Kingdom of Congo, based in the great city of São Salvador do Congo (today Mbanza-Kongo, the capital of Angola’s Zaire province).

Portugal founded Luanda as a permanent colony in 1576, which became a great entrepôt for the slave trade to the Americas (mainly Brazil), an immensely lucrative industry.  While Portugal, allied with the Kingdom of Congo, maintained a dominant trading presence in the greater region for centuries, its zone of direct control was limited to a narrow coastal strip running from Luanda down to Benguela.  The Congo River and the hinterland in all places remained under the control of indigenous powers.

Historically, the Congo was considered by Europeans to be a Portuguese zone of influence; however, this deference ended in the 1840s, when the British, followed by the French and Dutch, came to show an intense interest in the region’s natural resources.  Portugal, which had, for a time, lost its enthusiasm for Angola, due the loss of Brazil and the fall of the Transatlantic slave trade, was spurred to action by the operations of its rival European rivals.  Advancing an expansionist policy, to consolidate its claims over the south side of the Lower Congo, it established military outposts at Ambriz (1855), Bembe (1856) and São Salvador do Congo (1858).  Moreover, in 1844, Portugal opened Luanda to foreign trade, which allowed it to influence foreign operations in the Congo, as the port became a vital supply and security base for all Europeans in the region.

However, Portugal’s expansion in northern Angola broke the long-term understanding that had existed between Luanda and the Kingdom of Congo and its vassals.  The indigenous powers were content to allow the Portuguese to visit their domains, if they did not seek to colonize or militarily occupy their lands.  The establishment of the northern Portuguese outposts and presidios was seen as an aggressive move and from the 1860s onwards, they launched a series of brutal wars against Portugal, which compelled Luanda to withdraw to the Rio Loje, situated just to the north of Ambriz (the only new Portuguese base in the north that remained).

Moreover, Portugal’s decision to phase out slavery in its African domains between 1869 and 1879 had a profound impact upon the regional economy, greatly affecting the European outposts and trade flows.

The Commercial Outposts on the Congo Coast

By 1870, Europeans had established a series of commercial outposts (‘comptoirs’ in French) along the coast of the Congo, from Ambriz to Pointe-Noire.  Individual private companies operated their own factories, often near the comptoirs of their competitors.  The Europeans scarcely ventured into the interior, and were totally reliant upon African powers to supply them with commodities, including, ivory (the most precious), “elastic gum” (Congo rubber), peanuts, metals, fine woods, etc.  Some of these products, such as ivory, came a long distance on caravans, and their arrival at the coast sparked fierce competition between the rival houses.  The comptoirs in the region existed at the grace of the of the King of Congo and his vassals and were required to pay regular tribute to ensure their prosperity and safety.

While lucrative, the comptoirs in Africa were involved in a rough business, as the factors had to strike hard bargains, warding off constant attempts at theft and trickery.  The Congo coast was also an incredibly dangerous place for Europeans, as a large percentage died from tropical diseases, the frequent violent altercations with Africans, accidents, or run-ins with wild creatures.

As often mentioned by Jeannest, the comptoirs were manned by only a skeletal staff of Europeans, to manage their operations, with most of the workforce being African.  Many of these workers were ‘captivos’, African tribesman from impoverished backgrounds, who had been sold by their chiefs to serve the Europeans for terms of some years.  While the captivos were essentially slaves who had no choice in their work assignments, they were generally given ample food, clothing, medical care, shelter and protection, things that they would have been hard-pressed to secure at home.  Many of the captivos were transported to the Congo from faraway lands, to ensure that they had no tribal connection with the local people, making them more inclined to be loyal to their masters.  Many European factors, including Jeannest, made a strong moral distinction between the captivo system and slave trafficking, which they found repugnant.

The Portuguese, who were generally unwelcome to venture north of the Rio Loje, held much of their manpower in the form of ‘degradados’, soldiers who had been convicted of crimes (often of a political nature) and exiled to serve in Angola.  These white troops, in turn, led corps of Africans.  Many of the commercial Portuguese traders were former degradados, who remained in Angola after serving their sentences.

The European presence in the Congo would be limited to commercial factories on the coast until the Upper Congo was explored and claimed by Europeans upon the expeditions of Henry Morton Stanley (1874-7), working for King Leopold II of Belgium, and Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza (1879-84), in the service of France.

The Berlin Conference (1884-5), whereby the Europeans powers divided Africa amongst themselves into colonial zones, ushered in a new age of formal imperialism, whereby Europeans sought to possess, control and develop their allotted territories as full-fledged colonies, subjugating the local civilizations.

In the Congo, King Leopold II and France divided the Upper Congo between themselves, creating the Congo Free State (later the Belgian Congo; today the DRC) and the French Congo (today Congo-Brazzaville), while Portugal gained title to the southern side of the Lower Congo and the adjacent coast, plus, the exclave of Cabinda.

Enter Charles Jeannest 

The French trading company of Lasnier, Daumas, Lartigue et Cie (later Daumas, Béraud et Cie) of Marseille, founded in 1866 by Marius-Célestin Daumas, was one of the great mercantile pioneers in Gabon and Dahomey, before rapidly establishing itself as one of the key players along the Congo coast.  Founding its Congo headquarters in Banana, at the mouth of the Congo River, it built a series of factories along the littoral to the north and south.

To run its empire in the field, Daumas recruited bright and ambitions young Frenchmen from the upper working classes to serve as factors.  It was hoped that these recruits would have the physical stamina and hunger for self-improvement to endure the extreme rigours of their assignements.

One of Daumas’s early recruits was Charles Jeannest (b. 1848/9), a 20-year-old Parisian, who agreed to serve for four years as a company factory in the Congo.  While not much is known of his biography, Jeannest was clearly well educated and highly literate, with good business instincts and leadership qualities.  He seems to have come from a good, if not well-off family, and would have been motivated to go the Congo by the promise of adventure and high wages.  Indeed, those who survived the ordeal, were usually finically set for life, due the contacts and skills they gained in Africa.

The Present Work in Focus

Charles Jeannest was sent by Daumas to serve as a factor at several established comptoirs along the Congo coast, with his mission lasting from February 1869 to February 1873, of which 3.5 years was spent in the Congo.  He was variously stationed at Banana (today in the DRC), and in what is today the Zaire Province of Angola, at Ambrizette, Kinzao, Kinsembo, and Ambriz, plus, establishing his own post at Kintiniangulo (just north of Ambrizette).

Jeannest’s time in the Congo could be described as dangerous, action-packed and fascinating, experiences that he recorded in a diary.

Shortly after Jeannest’s return to France, he carefully selected highlights from his diary and created a memoir of his trip, being the present work, Quatre Années au Congo par Charles Jeannest. 1874.  A very small quantity of examples were printed directly from his original manuscript in a rudimentary technique of photolithography, exclusively for private circulation to his friends and family.  The present example, per the manuscript inscription on the front endpaper, reads that it was given by Jeannest to his cousins, “A mes chers, Cousins Albert & Alice, Leur Ami, Ch. Jeannest”. 

This engagingly written memoir is rich in content and detail, and captures the essence of the febrile, deadly, yet amazing world that was the Congo before the consolidation of European colonization, so imbuing it with significant academic value.  Jeannest, who comes across as unusually intelligent and perceptive, shrewdly analyses the volatile and complex diplomatic/political situation between Europeans and local powers.  He also vividly describes the constant state of danger due to frequent violence at the hands of the locals (including full-on sieges of trading posts), civil war between African factions, disease, accidents and animal attacks (ex. by caimans and panthers).  He provides an insider’s account of the nature of the economy and commerce in the Lower Congo, including the process of negotiating for commodities, the system of caravans the brought goods to the coast, and the quasi-slavery system of black labour.  He details the geography and natural life (extraordinary plants, animals, reptiles, fish) and the ethnography/anthropology of the Africans he encountered (their food, clothing, artwork, religions/spiritualism, rituals, dance, games, customs, justice systems, etc.).  He also chronicles scenes from the normal daily life of a European factor in the Congo, describing his emotions, physical living conditions, food, hobbies, health, etc., as well as his relationships with named individuals (both European and African).

The present work was issued nine years before Jeannest converted it into a formally published, illustrated account of his time in the Congo, Quatre Annees Au Congo / Edition ornée d’une carte inédite et de neuf dessins par Desmoulin d’après les photographies de l’auteur (Paris: G. Charpentier et Cie, 1883), created for popular consumption on the eve of the Berlin Conference.  Please see a link to this work, courtesy of Google Books:


The present 1874 original edition largely features the same content as the 1883 issue; however, there are notable differences.  The original has a far more authentic feel, being infiltered and truer to Jeannest’s original recollections and journal entries, while the latter edition was heavily edited.  Of a different format and ordering, the original incudes some anecdotes and details not captured in the latter, and vice versa.  The present work features the names of Jeannest’s French colleagues, whereas the latter version has these details redacted.  The 1883 edition contains political/moralizing passages (i.e., on the ‘white man’s burden’) that are not present in Jeannest’s original, likely added at the behest of the editor to make it appeal to public sentiment.

Importantly, the present offering is 1 of only 2 known surviving examples of the original private 1874 edition of Jeannest’s memoir; the other being held by a private collection.  It seems to be unrecorded in literature, although the title of the 1883 issue, which describes itself as an “Edition ornée”, suggests the existence of a previous edition.

Jeannest commences his narrative with his description of his voyage from France to the Congo (pp. 1-16).  He recalls that he departed Le Havre, on February 7, 1869, aboard the 300-ton ship Sylvanus, in the company of his Daumas company colleague, Martin.  He encountered phosphorescent fish and a tornado at sea and passed time by fishing for sharks.  He also recounts the ‘Baptism of the Line’, the traditional ritual performed by sailors who cross the Equator for the first time.

Upon his arrival at the Mouth of Congo River, on April 13, 1869, he vividly describes the extreme force of the river’s currents and the treacherous navigation of its waters (pp. 16-19).

Jeannest’s first posting in the Congo was at Banana, the town at the northern side of the mouth of the river that was home to British, Dutch and French factories (including the DaumasBéraud & Cie. HQ in the Congo-Angola region).  The Daumas factory had only 3 European employees, supervising 60 African workers.  Of these, 40 were “Kroomen” (properly the Kru people), who were brought in from the Cape Palmas area of Liberia.  The Kru were very hardworking and industrious and were highly valued by the Europeans but were widely disliked by the other Africans around the comptoirs, which meant that they were more likely to support the Europeans in the event of civil unrest (a perfect example of the imperialist strategy of divide and conquer).  The French also imported “Cabyndes” (natives of Cabinda), who they employed as skilled labour.  An account of named remarkable native workers at the comptoir is given, with some being described as muleks, domestic servants to the Europeans.  It is noted that the factories at Banana were served by their own small steamers, while a French warship visited the town once every three months to maintain Gallic authority (pp. 19-24).


In Banana, where Jeannest spent two months, he had an audience with the local ruler, King Nemlão, to whom the Europeans had to pay regular tribute as rent for their comptoirs.  He soon departed for Ambrizette (in today’s Zaire Province, Angola), which he describes in detail, and which was home to 6 trading houses (1 American, 1 Dutch, 1 Portuguese, 1 French (including the Daumas post), and 2 British).  There the local currency was in the form of black pearls and the main goods traded by the French were arms, for which in return they acquired ivory, sorel, sesame, and peanuts, which were carried into the town by a “long column” of African traders.


Much of the local labour used in the Congo by the Europeans consisted of “redeemed blacks” (captivos), who Jeannest cautioned had to be watched closely due to their propensity to steal or cheat when weighing goods.  Marfoucks were native Africans who acted as chief interpreters and had an elevated status in the local community.


Jeannest soon departed for Kinsembo, traveling 18 hours carried by hammock.  He had to pay tribute in each village he passed, and, at one point, he was mistaken for being Portuguese, creating an incident that had to be diffused, as the locals despised the Portuguese with whom they were at war (pp. 24-33).


In Kinsembo, Jeannest observed the death of a 22-year-old European, due to fever, a sadly common occurrence, which led him to wonder if the bells would next toll for him!  Kinsembo was home to 2 British and 1 French factory, the latter of which had recently been attacked by locals and was only narrowly saved by the arrival of a French warship.  Specie was the local currency, instead of pearls, and the Europeans traded for ivory, peanuts, coffee, elastic gum (Congo rubber) and baobab bark (which was used to make paper).


The locals of Kinsembo were notorious as the “most intractable on the coast”.  Jeannest received a letter from the “Le Grand Mani-Congo”, being King Antonio of Congo, who based in São Salvador, faraway in the interior, was the ultimate power in the greater region, and who assured the French of his friendship.  Kinsembo was founded in the 1850s by the British who sought to open trade with King Antonio, and since there had developed an intense Anglo-French rivalry.  Since Portugal established their outpost at Ambriz (1855), the Kingdom of Congo and Portugal had been at war (on and off), with the Rio Loje (just to the north of Ambriz) being the de facto northern frontier of Portuguese Angola.


Jeannest visited Kinkoll (Kincollo), a village on the Rio Loje that was home to a large, fortified estate owned by a former degradado.  There he also met ‘Father Frédéric, a 70-year-old Frenchman who had been exiled from his homeland in 1848.  He describes how a group of Cabyndes revolted against their European masters in Kinsembo, and how the uprising was brutally suppressed (pp. 33-40).


Jeannest next travelled to Ambriz, the Portuguese base that was garrisoned by 50 degradados and 200 Africans, and which was a mart for a great trade in coffee and Congo rubber.  While only a relatively short distance from Luanda, the Angolan capital, it is noted that there was no landward contact between the two centres, as the region amidst was controlled by the Mossulos, a class of traders that had never been enslaved and who resisted European encroachment.  Ambriz once received large shipments of copper ore for the mines at Bembe, in the interior, but recently production had fallen due to the Portuguese decision to phase out slavery.  The Portuguese earned a great deal of money in Ambirz from import duties.  There was recently a degradado revolt in Ambriz which was put down by the intervention of a Portuguese warship (pp. 40-46).


Jeannest then gives a very detailed account of various aspects of the lives and customs of

the indigenous peoples, including their religion, homes, legends, etc.  He then goes on to discuss salt harvesting, fishing, caiman hunting and the native justice system.  There is a report on the massacre of the Kru people in the vicinity and on Jeannest’s successful battle against a six-day-fever, as well as an account of a Cabyndan wedding (pp. 46-62).


The author visited the trading centre of Kinzao, of which he provides a detailed description.  He also gives an account of the funeral of a prince and the ongoing disputes between the people of coast and the interior.  Jeannest also witnesses a Kru dance and the process of iron forging (pp. 62-77).


Jeannest rails against the “superstition” of the locals which he finds to be most disagreeable.  There is also a description of the new British packet boat service that stopped at Banana, Ambrizette, Kinsembo, Ambriz and Luanda, which provided the first regular connection to the outside world for many of these places (pp. 78-83).


Importantly, Jeannest founded his own factory at Kintiniangulo, located “about a 2-hour hammock ride” north of Ambrizette.  The factory building was 5 metres long by 12 metres wide, and was divided into residential and store areas, with theft prevention being integral to its organization.  A detailed account of the staff is given.  As the sole European there, Jeannest referred to himself as the “New Robinson”.  The locals seemed initially to be happy and impressed by his arrival, as he was the first European resident in the area since the end of the slave trade.  Jeannest records that he began to feel very lonely, to the point where he felt as if he was almost going crazy.  The Kintiniangulo post suffered from many thefts at the hands of the locals, such that Jeannest visited the area’s chief for redress.  The chief wanted him to remain, as his community had financially benefitted greatly from French trade.  Jeannest agreed to pay him a regular tribute to ensure the good behaviour of the locals (pp. 78-83).


Jeannest then closed up Kintiniangulo for the rainy season.  It is noted that the locals frequently played a game called “knucklebones”.  Jeannest next travelled to Ambrizette, where he witnessed the horrid spectacle of a young woman being executed by poisoning, having been unfairly charged with having herself poisoned a man.


Indicative of the febrile atmosphere that constantly prevailed in the region, Jeannest was present during the so-called “Ambrizette War”, which began with a dispute concerning the theft of some pearls, and whereupon the locals revolted and besieged the French factory.  Jeannest, with great difficulty, went to Kinsembo, and returned with the British packet boat, the presence of which succeeded in intimidating the locals.  After a “Palavra” (talk) with the local ruler, he negotiated the lifting of the siege, yet the environment remained tense (pp. 91-110).


Jeannest recalls a fascinating excursion to the ‘Pilar’, a giant rock formation off the coast between Kinsembo and Mussera.  He notes that the Kru are frequently inebriated on tafia (a rum-like drink) and gin, and that violent altercations between groups of Africans occur very often.

Kinsembo was the main coastal entrepôt for the ivory trade, with the product arriving from deep in the interior by caravans (chimbouks); elephants were already very rare near the coast.  The caravan routes travelled for between 1-4 months, along one of three routes that all converged at Kimbala, about 50 leagues inland, where there was a great market.  Jeannest notes that he had bought a total of 28,000 kgs of ivory, with the tusks weighting between 20 and 65 kilos each!  There is also a treatise on the baobab tree (a source material for fine paper) and a discussion of cannibalism which occured in the interior (pp. 110-27).

That the Congo was a theatre of ever-present violence, is supported by reports that local pirates attacked a Portuguese boat near the Mouth of the Congo, whereupon they were fought off.  The Portuguese returned with a warship and sought revenge by burning the perpetrators’ villages.  Furthermore, around the same time, the DaumasBéraud HQ at Banana was burnt to the ground, by an act of arson committed by a local chief, in revenge over a financial slight (pp. 127-36).


Jeannest provides an important and detailed account of the interior trade.  He notes that Portugal maintained a comptoir at Cassanje (Malanje), deep in the interior, southeast of Luanda.  From there, caravans of “subjected tribes” travelled to Luanda, although they were often attacked, with their goods pillaged by enemy tribes.  He continues by describing the “Cabyndes” (natives of Cabinda) as having an industrious aptitude, serving the Europeans as sailors, cooks and carpenters.  Jeannest provides a short Kikongo-French lexicon, with includes seminal terms in what was the main local language (pp. 136-42).


After 3 ½ years, Jeannest left the Congo, departing from Kinsembo, on December 27, 1872, aboard a British packet boat.  En route, he stopped at Banana, which he observed to be more secure than it did previously.  Sadly, of the 7 Europeans he worked with there, he was the only one still alive!


He continued on to stop in Landana (Cabinda, Angola); Pointe Noire (Congo-Brazzaville); Gabon; Fernando Po; Cameroon; Boni (Bonny, Nigeria, where he met the explorers Victor de Compiègne and Antoine-Alfred Marche, who had recently charted the course of the Ogooué River, Gabon); Lagos; Dahomey; Gold Coast; Cape Palmas, Liberia (home of the Kru people); Sierra Leone; Tenerife; Madeira; and Liverpool; before finally arriving home in Paris on February 12, 1873.  There he looked forward to “long winter evenings” with his family, recounting the present tales of the Congo (pp. 142 – 160).


References: Present Work Seemingly Unrecorded.  Cf. [re: 1883 public edition:] Journal des économistes: Revue de la science économique et de la statistique, 4e série, 6e année (1883), pp. 286-290.