The Congo River, one of the world’s mightiest waterways, is the only natural passage into the heart of Africa. While Europeans had a presence along the navigable lower stretch of the river since the late 15th century, above there existed a 300 km-long succession of rapids and cataracts, which prevented European exploration further up the river. In the 1870s, the legendary explorer Henry Morton Stanley entered the deep interior of the Congo Basin, and discovered that a stretch of the Upper Congo (Haut Congo) River, over 1,700 km-long, from what would become Léopoldville (Kinshasa) to Stanleyville, was navigable, and suitable for steamboats. As the Congo was extraordinarily rich in natural resources, the Upper Congo passage promised to serve as lifeline for an incredibly lucrative (if morally bankrupt) colonial empire.
The Belgian King Leopold II, after hiring Stanley to be his agent, established outposts in the Upper Congo, such as Léopoldville (1881), and in 1885 managed to convince the major European powers to grant him personal (as opposed to a Belgian national) possession of around half of the Congo River Basin, a land over 2 million square km in area! Leopold II established the Congo Free State, an infamously exploitative commercial empire built upon slavery and terror that was immortalized by Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness. The colony proved to be astoundingly profitable due to its outrageous bounty of rubber, tropical hardwoods and minerals, coming all with scarcely any labour costs.
The abuses of Leopold II’s rule were so egregious that in 1908 the Belgian government agreed to assume control of the colony, promising a more ethical and moderate regime. The resulting Belgian Congo proved to be scarcely a moral improvement, but at least it allowed some forum for discussion and accountability.
The Congo River, especially its navigable upper and lower stretches (the middle Congo was blocked by violent rapids, and needed to be bypassed by a railway), was utterly vital to the economic, political and military affairs of the Belgian Congo. Yet, for many years, the river was, except for a few limited sections, not properly charted. His was especially true nature of the Upper Congo, the 1,700 km plus navigable route from Léopoldville to Stanleyville. Steamboats often had to rely upon the practical knowledge of their captains, or that of river pilots, which given the extreme length of the route and the seasonal changes in water levels, created a situation that was inefficient, and often dangerous. An accurate, complete and large-scale charting of the entire navigable stretch of the Haut Congo would prove to be major boon to navigation and the commodious operation of the colony.
In response, the Belgian regime established the Service Special de l’Hydographie to map the Congo River, especially its navigable routes. The charting of the Upper Congo, from Léopoldville to Stanleyville, was charged to a special autonomous unit of the Service Special, the Service Hydrographique, Section du Haut Congo, which was comprised of an expert team of experienced hydrographers and river pilots.
The Atlas in Focus
The present atlas was the seminal achievement of the Service Hydrographique, Section du Haut Congo, being the first atlas, or accurate, complete and comprehensive large-scale map of the great navigable stretch of the Upper Congo. To the scale of 1:50,000 (or 1 mm = 50 metres), it charts the entire 1,724 km-long shipping route from Léopoldville (Kinshasa) to Stanleyville in exacting detail, based upon a careful synthesis of new scientific reconnaissance surveys and information taken for the best existing charts. These sources were carefully analyzed and edited by an expert team of hydrographers led by Monsieur J. Lauwers, the Chief of the Service Hydrographique, Section du Haut Congo, with the 75 plates (including 56 maps, 17 flood charts, 1 text leaf, and 1 distance table) hand-drafted by Monsieur L. Hendrix. The atlas was published in a charmingly crude ‘colonial’ technique of photolithography at the headquarters of the Service Special de l’Hydographie in Boma, a river port on the Lower Congo. It is likely the most impressive cartographic work to have been published in the Congo during colonial times.
The work is all the more impressive as it was made during the tense period of World War I (1914-8), which raged in East Africa and Cameroon (the latter theatre involving Belgian troops). There, the German colonial forces put up a much tougher fight than expected, and while they threatened the Belgian Congo, the fighting never entered the colony, although it served as major Entente base throughout the war.
The ‘Advertissement’, near the beginning of the atlas, written by Jules Hyppolyte Nisot (1975 – 1923), the Chief Hydrographer of the Service Special de l’Hydographie, explains the reason for the creation of the atlas and the sources and processes employed.
Nisot notes that until the publication of this atlas, steamer captains largely had to rely upon numerous ‘croquis’ (crude sketch maps) for navigating the Upper Congo. The objective of the atlas is to provide an accurate, detailed and “expeditious view” of this entire stretch of river, which will be “a great service to navigation”.
While the sources of the atlas included many different surveys from various hydrographers and pilots, the creators of the atlas successfully ensured that the finished charts conformed to high standards of “mathematical rigour” and “geodetic triangulation”, such that they were “sufficiently exact”. The atlas’s maps all chart the current recommended shipping route (in bold dashed lines), with sufficient room left for one to plot, in manuscript, any new routes that may be revealed over time due to changes in the river’s course. The charts were thus thus to be dynamic, living documents, like the river itself.
Nisot reveals that the basis of the atlas were 2 reconnaissance missions conducted by the Service Hydrographique, Section du Haut Congo, in 1915 and 1917, aboard the ship General Staunch, whereupon careful scientific observations were taken with the use of a Thomson astrolabe.
Many parts of the river mapped on the atlas’s charts that lay off the main shipping route, and so were not surveyed by the Service, were taken from the chart, The River Congo (1902), executed to a scale of 1:250,000, by the Reverend Grenfell of the Baptist Missionary Society. The atlas’s depiction of the French passage through Stanley Pool is taken from Monsieur Roussiline of the Mission hydrographique française’s chart, Congo-Oubangui-Sanga (1910-11).
Additionally, Nisot notes that the atlas incorporates information from 6 specific named charts, by the surveyors of the Service Special de l’Hydographie, of key sections of the river, executed between 1910 and 1914.
All these sources were reconciled to a uniform high scientific standard, on a Mercator Projection, by an expert team led by Monsieur Lauwers, with the charts drafted by Monsieur Hendrix.
The ‘Légende’ (Plate 1), which is signed in print by Nisot, dated April 15, 1918, describes the symbols employed on the charts. These include signs for navigational hazards, such as sand banks, rocks, rapids, shipwrecks and snags. Importantly, the current recommended shipping route up the Haut Congo is shown by bold dotted lines, often accompanied by bathymetric soundings (the shipping routes were subject to change as the river shifted its course over time), along with the lines of former shipping routes. There are also symbols used to denote areas of vegetation; forests; logging camps; buoys of various types; navigation makers of various kinds; as well as numerous signs for advising the direction of steering vessels.
Focusing in on the contents, the atlas features are 55 plates of sectional maps of the river, done to a scale of 1:500,000, with some featuring two river sections per plate. The large-format, monochrome charts have a clean, clear and spacious (non-cluttered), and easy-to-digest appearance. The reader can immediately see how they would be an ideal aid to a steamer captain navigating his vessel in what were often difficult conditions. The atlas clearly succeeded in in providing an accurate and “expeditious view” of the Haut Congo.
In addition to the symbols represented in the legend, the maps clearly show all topographical features in and besides the river (islands, swamps, embankments, etc.), as well as all towns (with their streets grids); roads; the locations of mission stations; native villages; and homesteads, all which are named. Thus, in addition to their hydrographic content, the charts grant an incredibly detailed view of the nature and extent of human settlement in the Upper Congo, representing a precious academic resource.
The final chart in the atlas, Fleuve Congo: Leopoldville – Stanleyville / Carte d’Assemblage (Plate 75), shows the complete overview of the river from Léopoldville to Stanleyville, indicating how the charts could be assembled into a colossal complete ‘snake like’ map.
The 17 ‘Courbes des Crues’, or charts of Flood Curves, show the water levels per month at a given place along the river, with each line representing specific years. One will notice the great annual variations in river levels, while certain flood years saw torrential inundations. Correctly approximating the seasonal river level was essential to facilitating the proper use of the present atlas and navigating the Haut Congo.
The distance chart (Plate 74) shows the river navigation distances between dozens of key places along the Haut Congo, noting that the entire route between Léopoldville and Stanleyville to be 1,724 km.
A Note on Rarity
The present atlas is very rare. It would have been made in only a small print run for specialist use, while the survival rate of such large, fragile hydrographic works is incredibly low. We can trace 6 institutional examples, held by the Bibliothèque royale de Belgique; KU Leuven Bibliotheken; Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin; Northwestern University Library; Smithsonian Institution Library and the American Museum of Natural History. Beyond that, we are aware of a few examples offered over the years by relatively obscure sources in the Benelux countries.
The Congo River: The Belgian Congo’s Passage into The Heart of Darkness
The Congo River is the only natural gateway into the heart of Africa, and its immense natural resources wealth. It has a length of 4,370 km and drains a basin of over 4 million sq. km, or roughly 13% of the African landmass.
While navigable for about 160 km from the sea, the route further upstream for over 300 kms is barred by a succession of astoundingly violent rapids and cataracts. While the Portuguese were the first Europeans to explore the lower part of the river, in 1482, for almost three centuries thereafter, outsiders refrained from attempting to venture above the rapids. While Portugal and the Netherlands maintained small trading posts along the lower stretches of the river, the interior of the Congo was for the longest time never a priority for any colonial power.
All that radically changed in the context of the ‘Scramble for Africa’, following the legendary Welsh American explorer and tireless self-promoter Henry Morton Stanley’s epic expedition of 1876-7, during which he became the first Westerner to explore the upper reaches the Congo, proving that from ‘Stanley Pool’ (Pool Malebo, near Kinshasa-Brazzaville), the river was navigable for steamboats over 1,700 km further into the interior. This opened the possibility of the creation of a vast inland empire of limitless natural resources wealth. It also availed Christian missionaries with the possibility of ‘saving’ millions of souls in the heart of Africa, with the first of many missions established in the Congo in 1878.
Meanwhile, Belgium was a new nation (its independence recognized in 1839) and a small country (30,688 km2 / 11,849 sq mi), yet these realities seemed irrelevant to its ruler, King Leopold II (reigned 1865 – 1909). After failing in his bid to convince Spain to sell him the Philippines, Leopold II set his sights upon the Congo, a vast land of inestimably great agrarian and mineral wealth, but also one of the least developed and accessible parts of Africa.
With the assistance of the newly formed Société Royale Belge de Géographie, Leopold II convened the Brussels Geographic Conference in 1876, whereby many of the world’s greatest explorers and academics were invited to discuss overseas schemes, and particularly those that would burnish Belgium’s prestige and wealth.
In 1881, Leopold II hired Stanley to be his agent with the mandate of establishing the Congo Basin as an empire owned by his person, as opposed to the Belgian state (the kingdom’s parliamentary government rejected any involvement in the scheme). With remarkable skill and speed, over the next four years Stanley founded many trading posts along and near the Congo River, including Léopoldville (Kinshasa), later in 1881, ideally located at the base of the Congo’s vast inland navigation. The French, led by Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza (the founder of Brazzaville), were also setting up outposts in the right bank of the Congo.
Extraordinarily, Leopold II, riding on Stanley’s gravitas, promised to ‘civilize’ the Congolese people, bringing Christianity, modernity as well as higher living standards. He would develop the economy and make the country a free trade and investment zone by which all European powers could profit.
At the Berlin Conference of 1884-5, whereby the European powers divided most of Africa between themselves, the Big Powers were content to accede to Leopold II’s request. They were pleased that the Belgian king was willing to undertake the awesome responsibility of civilizing and developing such a vast land, while opening the county to all; while the fact that Belgium was a small power ensured that Leopold II’s regime was unthreatening (i.e., the British preferred that Belgium held the heart of Africa, as opposed to France or Germany).
Leopold II founded the Congo Free State (État indépendant du Congo / Kongo-Vrijstaat), a corporate entity wholly owned by the king, that at 2,344,000 km2 (905,000 sq mi), was 76-times the size of Belgium! The name for the colony was ironic, as it was an absolute terror state, whereby millions of Congolese people were enslaved to create and operate roads, railways, plantations and mines. In only a short time, a vast system of industrial and agrarian production was developed, connected by an ever-growing network of infrastructure (as evident on the present maps). While the Free State soon became the world’s largest producer of rubber and ivory, the colonial police service, the Force Publique, meted out sadistic punishments upon the people. The breakdown in the traditional tribal systems, the introduction of foreign diseases and the reallocation of resources to support European objectives resulted in the death of almost half of the Congolese population of 30 million.
The Congo River was the lifeblood of the colony’s economy, and the principal means by which the Belgians could maintain control over such a vast land. A watershed moment occurred in 1898, when a railway was completed from Matadi, a port on the Lower Congo that could handle ocean-going vessels, to Léopoldville, that bypassed the rapids, so allowing expeditious transportation, by steamship and train, from the Atlantic all the way to Stanleyville.
While the Free State’s economic production was impressive, the terror that gripped the country horrified many of even the most hardened European imperialists, in a dreadful realization best captured by Joseph Conrad novella, Heart of Darkness (1899) (Conrad had worked steamboat captain in the Congo some year earlier). Innumerable reports of atrocities conveyed Christian mercenaries, plus the Casement Report (1904), a shocking exposé on the brutality of the Leopold II’s regime penned by an esteemed British-Irish diplomat, finally convinced the Big Powers that the Free State was too severe and unethical to be tolerated – even by their low ethical standards!
In 1908, the Belgian government reluctantly agreed to pay off Leopold II and his associates and assume control of the Congo as a crown colony. While Belgian civil servants lessened the abuses, the Belgian Congo was still perhaps the harshest place in the world (slavery remained legal until 1923)!
The present atlas was made during World War I (1914-8), when the Belgian Congo was on a war-footing. While Belgian African territory was never invaded by German colonial troops, the ferocity of the fighting between the Entente coalition (of which Belgium was a part) and the Kaiser’s men in East Africa and Cameroon was surprisingly intense, while the Belgian Congo served as critical Entente base.
The Belgian Congo would not attain its independence until 1960, when it became the Republic of the Congo (later the Democratic Republic of the Congo), and since then it has followed a rocky road haunted by ‘Leopold’s Ghost’ (Recommended: an excellent book, Adam HOCHSCHILD, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa (New York, 1998)).
References: Bibliothèque royale de Belgique: IV 15.766 B; KU Leuven Bibliotheken: 3D313; Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin: 2″ Kart. C 17645; Northwestern University Library: 967.5A S492f; Smithsonian Institution Library: G2602 .C6F618 1918 folio; American Museum of Natural History: 55.1,48(67.5); OCLC: 1159220132, 19882314; French-speaking Central Africa: A Guide to Official Publications in American Libraries (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1973), p. 12; La Géographie bulletin de la Société de géographie, vol. 32 (Brussels, 1918), 532.