Congo river steamers

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The map of Democratic Republic of Congo from the CIA World Factbook

The Congo River is divided into three navigable parts, by seagoing ship to Matadi, where there is a wharf and port, a rail bypassing the mighty falls for 200 miles; and then a middle section of over 1000 miles from Leopoldville (Kinshasa) to Stanleyville (Kisangani) where the Stanley Falls breaks the river. The upper section of the river is partially navigable to Lubumbashi, a measure of 1000 miles[citation needed] . The large copper deposits of Katanga are conveyed from Elisabethville (Lumbumbashi). The Congo River was an open river in that it was free for all nations to use as per an 1885 international agreement, which was tested by an Oscar Chinn, a British national, in the International Court in 1931.[citation needed]

Congo Free State[edit]

The Roi des Belges, the riverboat Joseph Conrad commanded, 1889

The first river steamers on the Congo were two built in sections and hauled overland to the middle river by Henry Morton Stanley the explorer in 1879. Stanley was instrumental in making the area the personal territory of Leopold II[citation needed] .

The Oxford Baptist Missionary Society and its chief agent George Grenfell built the steamer Peace for evangelical work in the area in the 1884[citation needed] . Grenfell led both in contact with the natives and charting and exploring the river system. He would later built 2 larger steamers, one called Goodwill.

Author Joseph Conrad was the captain of the 'Roi des Belges' Congo steamer which inspired him when he was writing his fiction-novel Heart of Darkness.

Conrad was promised a job as a Congo River pilot through the influence of his distant cousin Marguerite Poradowska, who lived in Brussels and knew important officials of the Belgian company which exploited the Congo for its rubber[citation needed] . At this time the Congo, though nominally an independent state, the Congo Free State was the personal property of Leopold II, King of the Belgians, who made a fortune out of it. Later, the appalling abuses involved in the naked colonial exploitation that went on in the Congo Free State were exposed to public view, and international criticism compelled the setting up of a committee of inquiry in 1904[citation needed] . What Conrad saw in 1890 shocked him profoundly and shook his view of the moral basis of all exploring and trading in newly discovered countries and indeed of civilization in general.

Belgian Congo[edit]

As a result of Belgian outrage at the violence brought to the Congo by Leopold II, Belgium reluctantly annexed the Congo Free State as the Belgian Congo in 1908 (conditions quickly improved under fair government control). A portage railway, the Matadi–Kinshasa Railway was built from Matadi to Leopoldville. Other railways were built around Stanley Falls, and on the rocky sections of the upper Congo. A Congo to Nile Railway was planned to connect Stanleyville with the Nile at Uganda. Over 100 steamers on the river by 1900. British and American missionary societies were sent to spread the gospel and monitor governments[citation needed] .

Boat assembly, c. 1912-1915.
Transport of palm oil, The Bruges on the background, c. 1941.

Mining companies were set up in the copper belt of Katanga Province, and the Societe Maritime de Haut Congo was established. Railways radiated in a star pattern from Katanga, with lines to Angola, Zambia, and halfway to Leopoldville at Ilebo on the Kasai River. Later, ocean maritime empires Compagnie Maritime Belge and airlines, SABENA were formed to serve the colony.

Names of the riverboats included: Brugesville, Flandres, Milz, Deliverance, Henry Reed, Kigomi, Tadora, General Olsen, Brabant, and Kitambo. The steamer Bernaert was captured in a civil war of 1892.

OTRACO was the office of transport or Belgian government shipping agency on the Congo River after 1936.[citation needed]

Gaston Eve commented[citation needed] on traveling by boat during his time in Brazzaville during WWII with the Free French Forces.

"The voyage on the Fondère was very pleasant. That paddle steamer was very well run, the food excellent served in a fine refectory. We had cabins but in general slept on the deck. The nights were very beautiful. On the journey we were able to admire the forest lining the river and saw many types of monkey in the trees alongside it. Some were enormous and all this was new."

D'Lynn Waldron, who traveled through the Congo at the start of the crises in 1962, explained[citation needed] that:

"Most of the river boats were tiny Victorian relics, half rusted away and painted the color of rust so it wouldn’t show. Many of the larger riverboats had been towed across the Atlantic after outliving their usefulness on the Mississippi [(Sic), One boat on the Congo was a copy of the Mississippi type; U.S. boats would not have made the sea voyage nor the impassable lower falls.] These were big, old-fashioned, flat-bottomed, stern wheelers that drew only a few feet of water."

Large paddle steamers were built by the OTRACO agency and worked the river until the Civil War when boats were machine gunned and charges dropped into their boilers[citation needed] .

Bretonnet, Vivi in French Congo and Ubangi River. The north bank of the river was an entirely separate French colony with their own boats[citation needed] .

River steamers ran until the 1980s, when the kleptocracy of Mobutu crippled the country. They were replaced by diesel pushers[citation needed]

The early dispersal of the HIV virus was aided by river travel—an infected passenger unwittingly carried the virus downriver from the French Congo to Leopoldville in the first two decades of the twentieth century.[The disease originated as SIV in monkeys in Cameroon where a hunter was infected by blood to blood contact. He then travelled overland to French Congo. Either he or another person contracted then the disease and it subsequently travelled onto the Belgian Congo by steamer. From there the pandemic slowly grew.]

Up to 150 people drowned when ferries collided on the river in 2010[citation needed] .

Congo River Steamers[edit]




  • Le Peace (in service at Léopoldville, launched 27 July 1883)


  • Le Stanley (Léopoldville, launched 1887)


  • Le Ville de Bruxelles (Léopoldville, launched 5 July 1888)



After the completion of the chemin de fer Matadi-Léopoldville, the first large steamers were launched (150 tonnes or 150 long tons or 170 short tons).


Le Président Urban de la S.A.B. 1905

See also[edit]


  • "Steam Across Africa" New York Times, 1902.
  • Waldron, d'Lynn. “The Secret in the Heart of Darkness: the Sabotaged Independence of the Belgian Congo”

Further reading[edit]