Marlborough College Summer School

Steaming Through Africa

One hundred years ago a French expedition struggled from the mouth of the Congo to southern Sudan, only to have their plans thwarted by the British. Sarah Searight revisits the Fashoda incident.

On the evening of July 10th, 1898 a small flotilla paddled to rest on the shore of the left bank of the White Nile, about latitude 10 degrees N. From the boats stepped five white men, haggard beneath their beards, and a group of black soldiery. They looked around wearily; after two years’ travel from the Atlantic to the Upper Nile they had reached their goal – a few palms and the collapsed walls of an Egyptian fort. This desolate spot was Fashoda. Pride at reaching their destination was helped that evening by champagne drunk from chipped goblets. Next morning they began rebuilding the fort and planting a vegetable plot. Clearly the party was there to stay. But no one actually knew they were there.

Communications were a vital aspect of the story of the French claim to the Upper Nile basin and the determination of the British to oust them from the focus at Fashoda, both governments being motivated by the British occupation of Egypt in 1882 in which the French had refused to participate. In the undignified ‘scramble’ for Africa in the last two decades of the nineteenth century he who had the better communications often had the upper hand. And British communications in this instance were superior to those of the French.

Until the Mahdist revolt of the 1880s, led by a Nile boat-builder, Muhammad Ahmad bin Abdullah who proclaimed himself Mahdi – herald of the end of the world – in 1881, the Upper Nile basin had been part of an Egyptian empire extended into Sudan first by Muhammad Ali and later by the Khedive Ismail: hence the Egyptian fort at Fashoda. The defeat of the Anglo-Egyptian force by the Mahdists in 1883, leading to General Gordon’s death at Khartoum in 1885 and the Egyptian evacuation of Sudan, left the field open to French and Belgian claims to the Upper Nile region known as Bahr al-Ghazal. French colonial enthusiasts advocated an approach from newly acquired interests in western Sudan. Leopold II of Belgium’s ambitions were directed via the Congo Free State, set up in 1885 under Belgian protection at the end of the Berlin Africa Conference which had sorted out rival European claims in Central Africa. Turmoil in Sudan prevented any establishment of claims to the Upper Nile basin from the north. The Congo was an obvious alternative route to the region.

Prior to the 1870s European settlement in Central Africa had been limited to the Atlantic coast. Terrain and disease discouraged all but the most intrepid; European traders were content to deal with African middlemen bringing the riches of the interior to the coast – ivory, slaves, copper and salt. By the 1870s this was ceasing to be the case; exploration whetted appetites for exploitation, with the steamboat and the locomotive viewed as vehicles for the development of the ‘3 C’s’ – Christianity, Civilisation and Commerce (not necessarily in that order) – in the Central African interior.

Belgian claims to the interior had been inspired by Leopold II’s desire for an overseas colony. In 1879 Leopold dispatched the British-American explorer Henry Morton Stanley to establish stations on the Upper Congo, above the 200-mile cataract region which effectively blocked river communications between the ocean and the swelling of the river – the thirteen mile wide ‘Pool’. To execute his orders Stanley had two tiny steamboats carried in sections past the cataracts between Boma and Matadi, thus laying the foundations of a Belgian river flotilla.

French ambitions on the Upper Congo were stirred by the young Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza who first entered the Congo region in 1877 from Gabon. In 1879 he was dispatched by the French government to the Upper Congo. Both Stanley and Brazza inspired visions of the navigable potential of the Congo basin, certainly by comparison with travel by land through often impenetrable bush and tribal upheavals. But Brazza’s funds were less secure than Stanley’s, a problem for French officials in the area as for Brazza himself. A modus vivendi was reached in 1887 between the two governments whereby the Congo Free State ceded to France all territory on the right bank of the Congo as far as, and along, a principal Congo tributary, the Oubangui, flowing south-west from the Nile-Congo watershed. That swelling of the Congo above the cataracts known as the ‘Pool’ was named after Leopold’s employee, Stanley, with the headquarters of the new Congo Free State named Leopoldville. The agreement was seen as opening up a French approach to the Nile from the west; a French occupation of the Upper Nile would force Britain to make concessions over Egypt.

The Nile had a long history as communication route, offering access to the riches of the African interior as well as to the highly developed markets of the Mediterranean world. Nineteenth-century steamboat transportation, with its ability to overcome the flow of the river, was well developed in Egypt by the 1830s. Both Samuel Baker and Charles Gordon, hired by the Khedive Ismail in 1862 and 1874 respectively to suppress the slave trade along the Upper Nile, travelled upriver on steamboats. Campaigners against the Mahdi were ferried by steam as indeed were Mahdist leaders when the vessels fell into their hands with the fall of Khartoum.

Congo communications contrasted poorly with those up and down the Nile: quite apart from the cataract region, many of the north-east tributaries that flow from the same watershed as the south-west tributaries of the White Nile are cluttered with cataracts and dense rain forest. But the marine steam engine presented all sorts of exciting possibilities. River steamboats, including those brought by Stanley in 1879, were despatched to Africa in pieces, to be assembled on arrival; local labour could carry them over such obstacles as rocks and sandbanks, even the nearly impenetrable sudd marshes of southern Sudan.

However, Stanley’s expedition to Equatoria (a vast province of the Egyptian empire in Sudan, on the Upper White Nile) in 1887-89 to ‘rescue’ Emin Pasha from the Mahdists, again financed by Leopold and seen by many as a preliminary to his annexation of Bahr al-Ghazal, was a harsh warning of the physical difficulties on the Congo. Stanley’s flotilla consisted of two steamers owned by Congo Free State, as well as two much smaller steamers belonging to the English and American missions and a large number of dugouts. Before long the steamers had to be abandoned, too under-powered to counter the river, graphically described by one member, Mounteney Jephson: ‘one hates [the river] as if it were a living thing – it is so treacherous and crafty, so overpowering and relentless in its force’ – made worse by Stanley’s refusal to make allowances for its power. As an example of the greater navigability of the Nile Stanley eventually found Emin living (quite comfortably compared with what Stanley’s companions had endured) aboard the steamer Khedive, built on the Thames, and transported in sections to the Upper Nile where Gordon had launched it in 1876.

By the end of the 1880s the ‘scramble’ was hotting up. Lord Salisbury, British prime minister, and Lord Cromer, consul-general in Egypt, were resigned to the British prolonging their occupation of Egypt and thereby assuming the defence of the Nile waters on which the country was so dependent. The nineteenth-century expansion of the Egyptian agricultural economy and population had resulted in a greater reliance on the White Nile whose flood waters reached the cash crops of Egypt in those months when the faster-flowing Blue Nile flood waters had dissipated. The White Nile was also seen as an easier river for a rival power to control, worrying for the British whose occupation of Egypt in 1882 was intended to stabilise the country’s economy. A water-starved destabilised economy (and therefore country) might well threaten that vital link with British India – the Suez Canal. Egyptian title to the Upper Nile was now threatened by French and Belgian claims in Bahr al-Ghazal, Leopold aiming at enlarging Belgian possessions, the French aiming to threaten the British occupation of Egypt. Fashoda was an obvious target for the French because it controlled the junction with a major tributary flowing in from the Ethiopian highlands, the Sobat. At the back of French minds was the prospect of persuading the anti-British Emperor Menelik of Ethiopia to support from the east French Nile expeditions from the west. Menelik in fact had his own ideas regarding the Upper Nile, ambitions fuelled by his defeat of the Italians at Adowa in 1895.

In 1894 the French minister for the colonies Théophile Delcassé hired the explorer Pierre Monteil to place the French flag on the Upper Nile; his expedition was cancelled at the last minute but prompted Sir Edward Grey, British Under Secretary of Foreign Affairs, to declare in the House of Commons in 1895 that any French expedition to the Upper Nile would be viewed by the British as ‘an unfriendly act’. Not surprisingly the reaction of the French colonial party was vehement, although frequent upsets within French governments prevented any consistent policy to challenge the British.

To forestall French approaches to the Nile but also to prevent any possible alliance between Menelik and the Mahdists, the British began to contemplate a return to Sudan in the name of the Egyptian government. Early in 1896 the Sirdar of the Egyptian army, Herbert Kitchener, was finally authorised to head for Dongola. Kitchener could travel most of the way by train, and one of his first tasks was to extend the railway south from Wadi Halfa. Another was to assemble the steam-powered gunboats which had arrived at Wadi Halfa in crates. Alongside the railway ran the telegraph, sending news of Kitchener’s preparations to London.

Such news finally stirred the French government to show interest in the proposal of a thirty-one year-old soldier and patriot, Jean-Baptiste Marchand, a veteran of colonial wars in West Africa. An expedition would trek from the Atlantic, by water and land, up the Congo and its tributaries, across the Congo-Nile watershed ultimately to plant the tricolour on the banks of the Upper White Nile at Fashoda, 400 miles upriver from Khartoum, taking possession of Bahr al-Ghazal for France. It was an ambitious and extravagant project, the largest expedition mounted by the French in that part of Africa. Marchand argued persuasively; anti-British feeling was running high; the expedition, if successful, would put the British in their place, and revenge the insult of the exclusively British occupation of Egypt. There was a long gestation period while rival parties in French colonial politics debated the pros and cons. But the news from Egypt finally cleared the air and by mid-1896 the expedition was on its way, four weeks on the steamer from Marseille to the French Central African headquarters at Libreville (now in Gabon).

The team selected by Marchand was young (with an average age of thirty-three), but experienced. Marchand had himself had several years’ soldiering in West Africa as had at least four of his chosen officers. On the whole they got on well together and were well acclimatised to Africa’s health problems (neither being the case with Stanley’s expedition): among them was Charles Mangin, a fierce taskmaster of the Senegalese troops who were also part of the expedition; Albert Baratier, who had fought with Marchand in West Africa and who vividly described the expedition in Souvenirs de la Mission Marchand (Paris 1914-41); the delightful expedition doctor, Jules Emily, whose account, Mission Marchand; Journal de Route (Paris, 1913), captures the emotional as well as physical ups and downs of the expedition; Joseph Germain, another West African, and Moise Landeroin, official interpreter, chef and gardener. Another youngster but vital member of the expedition was the twenty-two year-old Alfred Dyé, initially in change of the barges of Marchand’s flotilla but in due course responsible for the minuscule Faidherbe steamer. Dyé’s notes are a valuable record of tribal life and customs of the period. The only real misfit was the artist Charles Castellani whom Marchand had to send home. Castellani wrote an entertaining account of his experiences, Vers le Nil Français avec la Mission Marchand published in Paris in 1899, as well as articles in L’Illustration for 1898.

The expedition rendezvoused at Loango in French Congo and was then faced with getting to the French post on the Pool, Brazzaville. Brazza was now governor of French Congo based at Libreville; he and Marchand immediately quarrelled, mainly because of Marchand’s insistence that Brazza’s priority should be to get the expedition and its 5,000 loads (or 45,000 kilogrammes) of equipment (including boats) to Brazzaville. Brazza proposed using existing Dutch steamers and the little that had been laid of the Belgian railway between Boma and Matadi, intended to bypass the cataracts (still a vital route today). Neither appealed to Marchand’s patriotism. The land route, a track known as the ‘route des caravanes’, posed considerable problems, however, with its narrow track, stifling forest and precipitous mountain – but still more troublesome was its state of tribal upheaval: porters, overworked, smitten by disease and ill-provisioned, had taken to raiding villages for food with inevitable results. Even telegraph poles along the route had been pulled up, effectively isolating upper Congo from lower. An alternative route further north via the Kouilou and Niari rivers was untroubled by tribes but physically even more demanding; over half the loads were eventually taken that way, however, while Mangin opened the other route for the rest with a swift, brutal and successful pacification of the region with his Senegalese troops.

By December 1896 some 14,000 loads had been carried to the Pool, 5,000 of the expedition’s and the rest a backlog of supplies for stations and missions upriver that had accumulated on the beach at Loango during the tribal troubles. Transportation had taken twice as long as anticipated by Marchand – a potentially disastrous delay. But in early January, 1897, Marchand was able to write from Brazzaville that he expected to be in Fashoda by November that year. He was being extremely optimistic.

His first problem was to find steamboats to take the expedition up river. The under-financed French Congo owned four tiny steamers only one of which, the 100 hp Faidherbe, named after a French general of West African fame, was in service; in contrast, Leopold’s Congo Free State had around thirty, several brought up by Stanley’s team in 1880. Among them was the thirty-five ton Ville de Bruges which along with two other vessels was loaned to Marchand (who this time swallowed his pride) for the next stage – 750 miles up the Congo and its tributary the Oubangui to Bangui. The Oubangui was unseasonably low and Marchand completed the last fifteen miles by land – more delay. From Bangui the Faidherbe was their only steamer, towing the barges; most of the expedition continued in twenty metre long dugout canoes. Marchand commandeered 175 of these, with over 2,000 local paddlers, a major logistical problem as well as delaying factor. They then travelled up the Oubangui to another tributary, the Mbomou, to its navigable limit at Zemio.

Faidherbe had to be dismantled here and taken to pieces, all except its two-ton boiler which was rolled along a three-metre wide path hacked through the bush, up rocky steps, finally over the relatively level but barren plain of the actual watershed. Four weeks and 120 miles later they reached Tamboura on the Sueh tributary of the Nile. But celebration was muted: thanks to those earlier delays, the season of low water had arrived, making navigation down the Sueh almost impossible and the expedition finally ground to a halt. ‘Le fleuve était un mince filet d’eau sinuant des bancs de sable ou cascadant par-dessus les innombrables rochers... chutes ou barrages,’ Marchand recorded sadly in his report. He established two posts, Poste des Rapides and Fort Desaix, on the Sueh to await next year’s flood.

A major problem for Marchand during the six months’ delay was the lack of any communication with the outside world. Couriers were vulnerable and there was no telegraph. What a contrast with Kitchener’s expedition, in constant touch with Cairo and London via the telegraph along the railway tracks being extended up the Nile. In May, eight-month-old Paris newspapers reached Marchand’s team reporting to their dismay the massacre of the expedition. As for the British, Marchand still had no idea what they might be up to, how their campaign against the Mahdists was faring or how far up the Nile they had reached. He also needed to know the whereabouts of a French expedition from Ethiopia, supposed to support him in Fashoda. No sign of it could be detected. In fact conflicting interests among the French in Ethiopia, Menelik’s own subterfuge vis-à-vis the French and the appalling physical difficulties met by the French in trying to navigate the Sobat tributary of the Nile had forced its withdrawal only weeks before Marchand reached Bahr al-Ghazal.

In April the rain arrived but it was not until June 4th that the Sueh was navigable and only then by the shallow draft barge, so-called whalers and canoes. Good progress was made to begin with, until they reached the notorious sudd – here towering, impenetrable houmsouf reeds and clouds of devouring mosquitoes made it impossible even to carry the boats. It took them nearly two weeks to clear the marsh. By June 24th they were in the main channel of the Nile. Finally on July 10th, Marchand’s flotilla (consisting of an aluminium boat, a whaler, a strange rectangular barge and several dugouts) reached Fashoda. Landeroin sowed his seeds and they celebrated with the champagne, carried all the way from the Atlantic. Over the next few days most of the rest of the expedition joined them. The Faidherbe, however, was much delayed, taking twenty-two days to get through the sudd.

A major factor in the Fashoda incident as it was about to develop was the superiority of British over French communications. Despite French manoeuvrings to extend to the Upper Nile basin their western Sudan territories and in doing so to put pressure on the British to withdraw from Egypt, French administration in Central Africa lacked the most basic facilities. The Faidherbe had been the only functioning postal vessel on the French side of Stanleypool; Marchand had taken her off for other duties as a result of which he was completely isolated from news from Europe, from lower down the Nile or from Ethiopia. He had no local news either, particularly of any Mahdist troops in his vicinity until a detachment arrived (on board two steamers captured from the earlier Anglo-Egyptian forces). The French had rebuilt the old Egyptian fort by this time, however, and the Sudanese were beaten off without much difficulty. But one of them reached Kitchener’s headquarters to report the presence of white men upriver.

Kitchener, meanwhile, had lived up to his reputation as a meticulous planner. ‘Victory is the beautiful, bright-coloured flower, transport is the stem without which it could never have blossomed’, wrote an ardent young journalist, Winston Churchill, in his River War. ‘Fighting the Dervishes was primarily a matter of transport’, a comment which might easily have been applied to the removal of the French from Fashoda. Thanks to steam power on rail and river – and Kitchener’s effective use of it – the Mahdists were finally defeated at Omdurman on September 2nd, 1898.

This was only part of Kitchener’s task. Immediately after the battle he opened a letter from Salisbury which he had been instructed to leave until that moment. It ordered him to continue immediately up the Nile to ward off a threatened French occupation which was already widely rumoured in Paris and London. He did as he was told, steaming up river on the Dal accompanied by five gunboats (all flying Egyptian flags), 2,500 local troops and 100 Highlanders. He reached Fashoda on September 18th, immediately claiming possession in the name of the Egyptian government.

Having entertained each other with whiskey and champagne Kitchener ‘generously’ allowed Marchand to stay put until he received instructions from Paris. These could only reach Fashoda via British communication lines. He refused Marchand permission to send telegrams himself. Kitchener then steamed off down river, leaving a small British detachment to keep an eye on the French. He also left a pile of newspapers revealing to the French the scandals and divisions of the Dreyfus affair which was then tearing their country apart. This was so major a preoccupation for the French government that it was a month before Marchand had any news from Paris, in the form of a brief congratulatory telegram from the Foreign Minister Delcassé in Paris. With the telegram came a message from Kitchener permitting one of Marchand’s officers to travel down the Nile to discuss ‘withdrawal’ with Cairo and eventually Paris. Marchand chose Baratier as his emissary.

When the news reached France that not only had Marchand’s expedition reached Fashoda, but that the British, speaking on behalf of the Egyptian government, were demanding its withdrawal there was outcry. Baratier arrived to find the country in turmoil. The government was relieved to distract attention from the Dreyfus affair to the plight of the French at Fashoda; Delcassé was determined the government should appear resolute. Incident became crisis with remarkable belligerence expressed on both sides. In fact, Delcassé knew Marchand’s position was – as Kitchener had already described it to his government – as ‘impossible as it is absurd.’ On the French side the belligerence could only be bluff: France was in no way equipped to wage war either in Europe or in Central Africa. Britain’s resources were superior in both cases. Baratier reached Paris at the end of October but his pleas had little effect and eventually he returned to Africa with orders for Marchand to abandon Fashoda. In Cairo he met Marchand, who had been too restless to stay in Fashoda. So great was the emotion of both men that Marchand embraced Baratier and with great solemnity asked to be addressed as ‘tu’.

On December 4th they reached Fashoda with the evacuation orders but with permission to do so eastwards via the Sobat tributary, Addis Ababa and the French colony of Djibouti on the Red Sea. On December 11th, the French headed back upriver aboard Faidherbe and their canoes. Sadly, on January 10th, they were forced to abandon their old friend: ‘notre vaillant Faidherbe est dans son trou dans sa fosse, blessé à mort, les flancs crevés! Qu’ily y repose en paix!’ wrote Dr Emily. Continuing mainly on foot, they reached Djibouti on May 10th.

A major factor behind the notions of Christianity, Commerce and Civilisation allegedly inspiring Europe’s scramble for African territory was the establishment of a fourth ‘C’ – Communications. Logistical expertise, engineering experience, perhaps above all vision were essential to that development. Their absence was one reason among several for Marchand’s failure. Communications came eventually to be developed along colonial lines; it is still extremely difficult in Central Africa to cross from one ex-imperial zone to another, let alone from Congo to Nile watersheds. That, at least, Marchand did achieve.

For Further Reading:

C. Andrew, Delcassé and the making of the Entente Cordiale (Macmillan, 1968); H. Brunschwig. French Colonialisation 1871-1914 (Pall Mall, 1966); M. Michel, La Mission Marchand 1895-1899 (Mouton, 1972); G. N. Sanderson, England, Europe and the Upper Nile, 1882-1899 (Edinburgh University Press, 1965).

Sarah Searight is a historian specialising in nineteenth-century European involvement in the Middle East and North Africa; she also lectures on Islamic art. She is the author of Steaming East, the Story of how Steam Power Galvanised Ancient Routes between Europe and India (Bodley Head, 1991).