III. THE CAPITAL OF THE CONGO
Leopold's "shop" has its front door at Banana. Its house flag is a golden star on a blue background. Banana is the port of entry to the Congo. You have, no doubt, seen many ports of Europe - Antwerp, Hamburg, Boulogne, Lisbon, Genoa, Marseilles. Banana is the port of entry to a country as large as Western Europe, and while the imports and exports of Europe trickle through all these cities, the commerce of the Congo enters and departs entirely at Banana. You can then picture the busy harbor, the jungle of masts, the white bridges and awnings of the steamers. By the fat funnels and the flags you can distinguish the English tramps, the German merchantmen, the French, Dutch, Italian, Portuguese traders, the smart "liners" from Liverpool, even the Arab dhows with bird-wing sails, even the steel, four-masted schooners out of Boston, U.S.A. You can imagine the toiling lighters, the slap-dash tenders, the launches with shrieking whistles.
Of course, you suspect it is not a bit like that. But were it for fourteen countries the "open door" to twenty millions of people, that is how it might look.
Instead, it is the private entrance to the preserves of a private individual. So what you really see is, on the one hand, islands of mangrove bushes, with their roots in the muddy water; on the other, Banana, a strip of sand and palm trees without a wharf, quay, landing stage, without a pier to which you could make fast anything larger than a rowboat.
In a canoe naked natives paddle alongside to sell fish; a peevish little man in a sun hat, who, in order to save Leopold three salaries, holds four port offices, is being rowed to the gangway; on shore the only other visible inhabitant of Banana, a man with no nerves, is disturbing the brooding, sweating silence by knocking the rust off the plates of a stranded mud-scow. Welcome to our city! Welcome to busy, bustling Banana, the port of entry of the Congo Free State.
In a canoe we were paddled to the back yard of the cafe of Madame Samuel, and from that bower of warm beer and sardine tins trudged through the sun up one side of Banana and down the other. In between the two paths were the bungalows and gardens of forty white men and two white women. Many of the gardens, as was most of Banana, were neglected, untidy, littered with condensed-milk tins. Others, more carefully tended, were laid out in rigid lines. With all tropical nature to draw upon, nothing had been imagined. The most ambitious efforts were designs in whitewashed shells and protruding beer bottles. We could not help remembering the gardens in Japan, of the poorest and the most ignorant coolies. Do I seem to find fault with Banana out of all proportion to its importance? It is because Banana, the Congo's most advanced post of civilization, is typical of all that lies beyond.
From what I had read of the Congo I expected a broad sweep of muddy, malaria-breeding water, lined by low-lying swamp lands, gloomy, monotonous, depressing.
But on the way to Boma and, later, when I travelled on the Upper Congo, I thought the river more beautiful than any great river I had ever seen. It was full of wonderful surprises. Sometimes it ran between palm-covered banks of yellow sand as low as those of the Mississippi or the Nile; and again, in half an hour, the banks were rock and as heavily wooded as the mountains of Montana, or as white and bold as the cliffs of Dover, or we passed between great hills, covered with what looked like giant oaks, and with their peaks hidden in the clouds. I found it like no other river, because in some one particular it was like them all. Between Banana and Boma the banks first screened us in with the tangled jungle of the tropics, and then opened up great wind-swept plateaux, leading to hills that suggested - of all places - England, and, at that, cultivated England. The contour of the hills, the shape of the trees, the shade of their green contrasted with the green of the grass, were like only the cliffs above Plymouth. One did not look for native kraals and the wild antelope, but for the square, ivy-topped tower of the village church, the loaf-shaped hayricks, slow-moving masses of sheep. But this that looks like a pasture land is only coarse limestone covered with bitter, unnutritious grass, which benefits neither beast nor man.
At sunset we anchored in the current three miles from Boma, and at daybreak we tied up to the iron wharf. As the capital of the government Boma contains the residence and gardens of the governor, who is the personal representative of Leopold, both as a shopkeeper and as a king by divine right. He is a figurehead. The real administrator is M. Vandamme, the Secretaire-General, the ubiquitous, the mysterious, whose name before you leave Southampton is in the air, of whom all men, whether they speak in French or English, speak well. It is from Boma that M. Vandamme sends collectors of rubber, politely labeled inspecteurs, directeurs, judges, capitaines, and sous-lieutenants to their posts, and distributes them over one million square miles.
Boma is the capital of a country which is as large as six nations of the European continent. For twenty-five years it has been the capital. Therefore, the reader already guesses that Boma has only one wharf, and at that wharf there is no custom-house, no warehouse, not even a canvas awning under which, during the six months of rainy season, one might seek shelter for himself and his baggage.