Henry Morton Stanley Circumnavigates Africa's Lake Victoria and Explores the Entire Length of the Congo River

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Henry Morton Stanley Circumnavigates Africa's Lake Victoria and Explores the Entire Length of the Congo River


The nineteenth century introduced a period of European-led African exploration unlike any other in history. Most significant were the travels of Henry Morton Stanley (1841-1904), a British-born American journalist who was the first person to travel and record the entire length of the Congo River. Stanley was also the first European to circumnavigate Lake Victoria and the man responsible for opening parts of central Africa to transportation. Stanley's discoveries answered some of the main questions about the geography of Africa's interior waterways. His observations became the foundation for Belgian King Leopold's violent Congo Free State and inspired a period of imperialism whose effects continue today.


One of the first European sightings of the Congo River occurred in the late fifteenth century, when Portuguese slave traders glimpsed the river's outlet at the Atlantic Ocean. By the late eighteenth century interest in Africa and its navigable waterways intensified as slave trading reached a terrible high, and a transportation route through the continent was much sought after.

In 1795 Scottish physician Mungo Park (1771-1806) explored the Niger River and first spoke of the immensity of the Congo, which he assumed originated from a large lake in the center of Africa. Other geographers theorized that the Congo was actually a smaller waterway feeding a larger, as yet unnamed, river. In 1816 James Kingston Tuckey (1776-1816) attempted to navigate the Congo from the Atlantic Ocean but moved no farther than Cooloo, 200 miles (320 km) upriver, because of disease, attacks from tribes, and enormous waterfalls.

By 1836, when more than 10 million Africans had already been shipped out of their homeland as slaves, the major European powers declared slave trading illegal and thus removed a large commercial interest in African exploration. This shifted the focus of exploration to geographical science and Christian missionary work. Several European explorers were already underway by the early-to-mid-nineteenth century, led mainly by the desire to find the source of the Nile River, which was the most used river in Africa at the time. Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890) and John Hanning Speke (1827-1864) explored part of Lake Victoria and a section of the Nile, and theorized that either Victoria or Lake Tanganyika, southwest of Victoria, was the river's source. Sam and Florence Baker (1821-1893 and 1841-1916, respectively), who discovered Lake Albert, guessed that it was the source of the Nile.

By 1872 there was still no factual evidence supporting which body of water was the true source of the Nile River. British missionary David Livingstone (1813-1873), while partly on a quest to seek the elusive source of the Nile, discovered the Zambezi River and Victoria Falls. Livingstone's expedition went on to discover parts of the main network of Africa's largest rivers, including the Congo, but his work remained unfinished, leaving many questions that Stanley would soon answer.

Henry Morton Stanley's first African expedition was in 1871, on assignment for The New York Herald to find Livingstone, who was assumed dead. Stanley's famous question upon finding him, "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" made Stanley a household name in the explorer frenzy that followed Livingstone's journeys. Although not a scientist, Stanley was sent back out to answer the geographic questions left following Livingstone's death in 1873. Among these, Stanley set out in 1874 to circumnavigate the enormous Lake Victoria to see if it was a single body of water, and—more importantly—to see if it was the much-sought-after source of the Nile River. Stanley also planned to circumnavigate Lake Tanganyika, to see if it was the source of the Nile, as Burton had suggested. Finally, Stanley planned to finish Livingstone's work of mapping the Lualaba River. Livingstone had theorized that the Lualaba, which flowed from Lake Bangweolo, was quite possibly the Nile itself. (Others thought that the Lualaba was the same as the Congo River, not the Nile.)

Considering the obstacles faced by explorers of the age, which included deadly disease, bloody tribal attacks, and starvation, Stanley's expedition around Lake Victoria was relatively uneventful. He was well funded, had designed his own boat that could be disassembled into four sections, had a crew nearly 200-men strong, and encountered few hostile tribes. He finished the circumnavigation in under two months and continued on to Lake Tanganyika.

It took four months for Stanley to meet the banks of Tanganyika, but he circumnavigated it successfully in 51 days. His trip concluded that Lake Tanganyika had no outlet river, so it could not be the source of the Nile, disproving Burton's theory. On his way to look for the Lualaba, loosely following Livingstone's last route, he spotted the confluence of the Lualaba and Luama Rivers, adding to the theory that if the Lualaba were actually the Congo, it was fed periodically by smaller streams. On October 17, 1876, he departed on the Lualaba toward Nyangwe.

While Stanley was traveling toward Nyangwe, British explorer Verney Lovett Cameron (1844-1894) had already arrived. He, too, had planned to uncover the Lualaba/Congo mystery; he suspected that the Lualaba was a river that fed the Congo. Cameron wrote his theory in his journal: "...for where else could that giant among rivers, second only to the Amazon in its volume, obtain the two million cubic feet of water which it unceasingly pours into the Atlantic?" Stanley would soon discover that Cameron's theory was right. Unfortunately for Cameron, he never left Nyangwe to see for himself. He tried for several weeks to secure men and canoes for the journey, but stories from Arab traders of the dreadful cannibals who lined the thick jungle, and the dangerous rapids along the route, prevented his departure.

Stanley, however would not be dissuaded. Like Cameron, he negotiated with Tippoo Tib, a wealthy, ruthless Arab slave trader who had a strong and relentless troop of men who could provide a safe escort for Stanley through the Congo's wilds. While Tippoo Tib never agreed to Cameron's negotiations, he made a deal with Stanley to accompany him through the first 90 days of the expedition. Tib's escort provided another 400 men, of which many died from smallpox, pleurisy, malaria, and typhoid. In the first 50 days the expedition encountered several suspected cannibal tribes that flocked toward the slow-moving Stanley caravan in fast canoes, shooting poisoned arrows and sounding war cries. After more than 15 of these encounters, Tib retreated, leaving Stanley to fend for himself.

The tribal attacks grew more ferocious and frequent. At each attack, however, Stanley acquired more canoes, until he had a flotilla large enough to keep his entire party on the river. Soon they came to a series of dangerous falls, unsure of how long or treacherous each rapid was. They portaged the boats, carrying them through dark rainforests filled with well-camouflaged attackers who frequently pounced on the anxious expedition. The Stanley Falls, as it was named, took three weeks to descend, contained seven cataracts, and proved the team's first geographic obstacle. At the sixth cataract, Stanley determined that they had crossed the equator. He also found that their altitude had dropped considerably below that of the Nile at its lowest measured point, so in order for the Lualaba to be the Nile, as Livingstone thought, it would have to flow uphill from the Stanley Falls. This flow was an improbable feat, making it impossible for the Lualaba to be the Nile River.

Soon after the Falls, the river swelled to immense widths, sometimes nearly nine miles across, and provided the longest stretch of navigable waters on the river. The expedition reached a pool, which Stanley named the Stanley Pool, during this period of continued tumultuous travel. At this point the team counted a total of 32 battles with hostile, allegedly cannibalistic, tribes. The remaining tribes that the expedition encountered from the Stanley Pool until the end of the journey were peaceful, but the river was not. The Congo, as Stanley had now surmised that the Lualaba and the Congo were the same river, would have nearly 200 miles (320 km) of the most severe rapids he would encounter. These were the same cataracts that had defeated Tuckey, only Stanley faced them at their onset, not their end. He lost several men to the falls, moving as little as 500 yards a day while carrying the boats and confiscated canoes along a steep river bank. He finally stopped at Embomma, only a day's journey from the end of the river, satisfied that he had completed his goal to explore the unknown sections of the Congo.


Stanley's success was received with wild admiration. He had proven that the Lualaba was indeed the Congo River, that the Nile did not originate from Lake Victoria or Lake Tanganyika as previously thought, and that a European could survive the wilds of the Congo—albeit with some luck—by navigating the enormous Congo River from the heart of the continent. Stanley's journey also concluded what we know about the character of the Congo River: from its source, just south of Lake Tanganyika, the river begins as the Lualaba, heads southwestward to Lake Bangweolo, then turns north to the Zambia/Zaire border to Lake Mweru, where it becomes the Congo. The mighty river crosses the equator twice, placing it in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres. After 3,000 miles (4,800 km) of a wild path through extreme landscapes, it reaches the Atlantic Ocean.

Beyond solving one of the nineteenth century's geographical unknowns, Stanley's expedition created—and widely publicized—the sentiment that the interior of Africa was open and accessible to all of Europe. For almost ten years following his famous journey, a period referred to as "the Scramble" took effect. In short, it was a mad race between European nations to colonize Africa and introduce so-called "civilized" European ways into the continent's peoples. This infiltration included money-seeking traders and missionaries, who convinced hundred of tribes to convert to Christianity and adopt its social code.

Stanley was soon recruited by King Leopold of Belgium to build stations along the Congo and bypass the unnavigable rapids with roadways and railroads. With these structures in place, Leopold soon turned the Congo into the Congo Free State. This era under Leopold's covert control proved to be a period of the worst abuse and exploitation of Africans in history. His reign of terror, which included routine executions and punishment by amputation, was finally discovered by the rest of Europe by 1907. Leopold was removed from power, and the Congo Free State became the Belgian Congo in 1908. The introduction of European influence, however, changed Africa forever. Commerce thrived, but tensions grew and oppression of native Africans was commonplace. Gold and diamond mining changed the landscape, big game hunting became a common vacation pursuit, and the railroads and road systems removed the geographic boundaries that once defined the various tribes throughout the continent. In 1960 the Belgian Congo was given its independence and became the country known as Zaire. Today, renamed the Congo, it continues to have periodic bouts of politically motivated violence.


Further Reading


Anstruther, Ian. Dr. Livingstone, I Presume? New York: Dutton, 1957.

Bennett, Norman R. Stanley's Dispatches to "The New YorkHerald." Boston: Boston University Press, 1970.

Bierman, John. Dark Safari: The Life Behind the Legend ofHenry Morton Stanley. New York: Knopf, 1990.

Forbath, Peter. The River Congo. New York: Harper and Row, 1977.

Stanley, Henry M. Through the Dark Continent. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1878.


The Journal of African Travel Writing. http://www.unc.edu/~ottotwo

Stanley and Livingstone (film). Directed by Henry King, starring Spencer Tracy, Cedric Hardwicke and Richard Greene, 1939.

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Henry Morton Stanley Circumnavigates Africa's Lake Victoria and Explores the Entire Length of the Congo River

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