The River Congo

In the 1960’s there appeared Alan Moorehead’s books on the White Nile and the Blue Nile. More recently came Sanche de Gramont’s The Strong Brown God: The Story of the Niger River. And now Peter Forbath has completed the story of the three great African rivers with his history of the Congo.

Three thousand miles long, the Congo River is the fifth largest river in the world. No other river stirs the imagination as much as the Congo; “the river that swallows all rivers” is the name given to it by the natives who lived along its banks. Fifteen miles across where it exits into the Atlantic Ocean, its force is so great that it has gouged a path into the sea one hundred miles long and four thousand feet deep. Forbath’s story of the Congo is a tale of great courage and dark horror.

The quest for the legendary kingdom of Prester John was the motivating force behind the discovery of the Congo. Forbath writes that “no one could dream of setting out to find it because no one could dream that it was even there. Its discovery was an accident. . . .” Prester John was believed to be a direct descendant of the Magi and to rule over a splendid Christian kingdom of jewels and gold. In the fifteenth century Prince Henry the Navigator began Portugal’s search for this fabulous kingdom. Establishing a school of navigation at Sagres, he sent out expedition after expedition sailing down the west coast of Africa searching for the legendary site. The expeditions continued after Henry’s death in 1460, and in 1482, ten years before Columbus discovered America, Diogo Cão discovered the mouth of the Congo. The native people called the river nzere, which Cão translated as Zaïre. The name was used until the eighteenth century, when it was renamed after the Bakongo people who inhabited its estuary.

More than three hundred years after Cão’s discovery, the river was still uncharted. Before Europeans began to explore the Congo, James Bruce had discovered the source of the Blue Nile, and Mungo Park had made important discoveries along the Niger. Finally, in 1816, Captain James Tuckey was sent by the British Admiralty on a Congo expedition; but illness and lack of supplies stopped the explorers after only three hundred miles. In the fruitless attempt, Tuckey and many of his men died.

The decades of the 1850’s and 1860’s were the great years of African exploration. This was the period of the discovery of the source of the White Nile by John H. Speke and of David Livingstone’s great discoveries of the Zambezi River, Victoria Falls, and Lake Nyasa. In 1856 Livingstone was the first European to traverse the African continent from coast to coast, and a decade later he discovered the Chambezi, which flowed southwest into Lake Bangweolo and was the source of the Congo. Because he was ill and had spent years looking for the beginnings of the Nile, Livingstone believed that this river flowed into Lake Tanganyika and was the source of the Nile.

It was left to Verney Cameron and Henry Morton Stanley to correct Livingstone’s miscalculations and make the great discoveries of the Congo. Sent out by the Royal Geographical Society in 1873 to search for Livingstone, Cameron was in Tabora in east Africa when he was told that the great missionary-explorer had died. Instead of returning to England, however, Cameron pressed onward to Ujiji on Lake Tanganyika, where natives and Arab traders told him that the Lualaba River flowed into the Congo and not, as Livingstone had believed, into the Nile. At Nyangwe on the Lualaba Cameron calculated that it was eight hundred miles to the Yellala Cataract, which was as far as Tuckey had gotten. Cameron also believed that the Congo’s course took it across the equator and that, therefore, part of the Congo was always in rain and continuously supplied with water. But, like Livingstone, Cameron could not get native canoes to take him down the Lualaba.

Finally the great Arab trader, Tippoo Tib, who had earlier assisted Livingstone and would later assist Stanley, took Cameron away from the Lualaba to the Lomami River in 1874, and by 1875 Cameron had arrived at Benguelo, Angola, on the Atlantic coast, becoming the second European (after Livingstone) to traverse the African continent from coast to coast. He had not used the Congo route, but he had succeeded in filling in a large portion of the map of Africa. His observations would have a great influence upon the course of European exploration into the Congo. He was the first explorer to suggest the probable course of the great river, and the first to recognize the potential of Katanga. Cameron was a realistic viewer of Africa’s potential and an enlightened explorer of central Africa.


(The entire section is 1937 words.)


Atlantic. CCXLI, January, 1978, p. 94.

Library Journal. CII, October 1, 1977, p. 2063.

New York Times Book Review. December 11, 1977, p. 14.

New Yorker. LIII, December 19, 1977, p. 150.

Time. CX, October 24, 1977, p. 117.