Azande and the Congo Free State

Map of the Lado Enclave with Rejaf visible along the Nile

With the disappearance of the Arabs and their Mahdist successors, the only remaining threat to Azande independence came from the encroaching European powers – the British from the north, the French from the west, and the Congo Free State from the south. The latter was an anomaly in colonial Africa, because it did not belong to any of the imperial powers. King Leopold’s colonial ambitions were not shared by the Belgian government, and he pursued them instead under the name of the International African Association, ostensibly a philanthropic enterprise dedicated to free trade and the abolition of slavery. The king had already spent much of his personal wealth in trying unsuccessfully to establish a presence east of Lake Tanganyika. Thwarted there, he transferred his ambitions to the west, and on H M Stanley’s return from his famous trans-Africa expedition in 1877 he hired him to break trails and set up stations on the Lower Congo. By 1884, when the Congress of Berlin met to apportion spheres of interest in Africa, the Congo was becoming a problem which none of the European powers were eager to take on. The Arabs were rapidly overrunning the region from the east, but the rapids at the mouth of the great river made access from the west much more difficult, and despite the prospect of vast wealth (principally in ivory), it seemed that bringing ‘civilization’ to the region would be an extremely costly undertaking. Leopold’s potential rivals were therefore happy to give him a free hand in the region. However, the king had no intention of spending his own money on developing infrastructure or introducing any benefits for the natives of his Free State: behind the facade of the antislavery movement was an operation designed simply to enrich him personally, and based on nothing more than violence and extortion.

The armed force of the Congo was the ‘Force Publique’ – a title just as misleading as that of the ‘Free State’, as it was in reality King Leopold’s private army. Mercenaries had been hired on an ad hoc basis since Leopold began to establish stations on the Congo in 1879, but the force was not officially established by royal decree until October 1885. It was placed under the command of a Captain Roget of the Belgian Carabineers – who arrived in Africa with a staff of only twelve – and the first infantry companies were formally raised in 1888. At first there were eight companies, which rose to sixteen by 1893 and eventually to twenty-two by 1897. The establishment of each company varied widely. Originally each comprised between 100 and 150 men, plus around 50 labourers and porters. By the mid-1890s, however, companies reinforced for specific campaigns or to provide garrisons were often 200 or even 300 strong. There was no permanent organization above company level, but for large-scale campaigns they could be grouped into ad hoc battalions: at Stanleyville in 1896, for example, Commandant Dhanis had three battalions each of three companies, the whole force totalling 3,000 fighting men. Initially the askaris were issued with a mixture of Winchester and Chassepot breech-loading rifles (the latter having been acquired from French troops interned in Belgium during the Franco-Prussian War). By the 1890s these were being replaced by a more modern breech-loading design, the Albini.

In the late 1880s the authority of the Free State was limited even on the Lower Congo, and it was necessary to rely on mercenaries recruited from elsewhere in Africa. Many of these were Zanzibaris, often veterans of various exploring expeditions, but recruiting officers were also sent to other parts of the continent. Hausas from British West Africa were recruited in large numbers, as they were believed to make particularly good soldiers. A number of Xhosa were also brought from South Africa, having allegedly been mistaken for Zulus. In 1896, however, Leopold’s agents were banned from operating in British territory following reports that men had been lured to the Congo under false pretences, and were being subjected to cruel treatment and even summary execution. White officers and NCOs were mostly seconded from the Belgian army, but others were hired directly by Leopold, mainly from Britain, Sweden and Italy.

Soon the expense of hiring mercenaries became prohibitive, and by the 1890s local Congolese – mainly Bangala, and later Tetela and Azande – were providing the bulk of the rank and file. Most of these were conscripts, and the few volunteers joined mainly in order to escape the intolerable forced-labour requirements which were imposed on civilians in order to meet Leopold’s demands for ivory and rubber. In fact many so-called volunteers were delivered against their will by their own chiefs, often in chains. Secret instructions set out bonuses to be paid to officers who press-ganged men for military service, under the innocuous heading of ‘reduction in recruiting expenses’ (Morel). The death rate among these men en route to their posts was high enough to cause officials serious concern, and in 1892 one report claimed that 75 per cent of the recruits died in transit (Hochschild). Inevitably desertion was another problem, and in the same year another officer, apparently without conscious irony, mentioned ‘volunteers’ who had drowned while trying to escape. At first each company was recruited from a single tribe, but not surprisingly this encouraged the men to conspire against their officers, and after a mutiny at Luluabourg in 1895 companies usually comprised a mixture of ethnic groups. It also became the usual practice to post men to units stationed at a distance from their own homelands. The term of service was normally five years, but in 1887 several thousand slaves ‘liberated’ from the Arabs were obliged to enlist for seven years in return for their freedom, and the seven-year term was later standardized.

Discipline was a widespread problem in the Force Publique, reflecting the violent and exploitative nature of the State as a whole. In order to keep down costs, pay and rations were both set at inadequate levels. It was reported by several scandalized European observers that some units were allowed or even encouraged to eat their dead enemies in order to solve the supply problem. The officers were very often of bad character, and Europeans were so few in the Congo that they were quickly promoted beyond their abilities. Leon Rom, for example, had been rejected as an officer candidate in the Belgian army, but soon after arriving in Africa he was given the rank of captain and placed in charge of training recruits for the entire Force Publique. He was feted as a hero of the war against the Arabs, but turned out to be a psychopath who gained notoriety for the collection of severed human heads with which he decorated his garden. He is said to have been the inspiration for Mr Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Other station commanders were placed in remote outposts where they were inadequately supervised, were seldom if ever punished for excessive brutality, and often lived in fear of their own men. Few of them ever learned to speak Bangala, which was the lingua franca of the rank and file, and they gave orders only in French, which few Congolese understood. They were also distracted from their military duties by the pursuit of ivory or rubber – either on their own accounts or on behalf of the State. The result was that normal methods of training and disciplining the troops were neglected, and order was routinely kept by brutal flogging; even Dhanis, another hero of the war against the Congo Arabs (see Chapter 6), and a diplomatic commander by Force Publique standards, was known to his Tetela troops as ‘Fimbo Nyingi’, or ‘many lashes’. Courage in battle was stimulated in medieval style by bounties paid on severed heads or hands, and as early as 1887 one officer, Guillaume van Kerckhoven, admitted to paying his men five brass rods for every enemy head brought in.

The eventual result of this treatment was a series of mutinies which began in 1895 and threw the Congo into confusion for several years. Nevertheless many of the Force Publique’s African troops were not only surprisingly loyal, but performed far better in battle than their masters had any right to expect. This may have been largely due to the fact that most were recruited from traditionally martial tribes such as the Hausa and the Tetela, to whom military service offered social status which outweighed the lack of material rewards. Another factor was that however bad life in the Force Publique may have been, civilian life in the Free State was far worse. Soldiers were at least spared forced labour as porters or rubber collectors, or the hostage taking, shooting and mutilation which they themselves inflicted on those who failed to meet production quotas. The fate of the civilian porters employed by the Force Publique was especially grim. They were conscripted for the work, often at gunpoint, and although they were theoretically paid – in beads or brass wire – corrupt officials or their own chiefs generally kept their wages for themselves. They were driven on long marches with inadequate rations, with discipline enforced, as usual, by flogging. In 1896 a Belgian observer, Edmond Picard, described most of the porters he saw as ‘sickly, drooping under a burden increased by tiredness and insufficient food – a handful of rice and some stinking dried fish’ (Hochschild). A few years later an Italian officer saw the caravan route between Kasongo and Lake Tanganyika ‘strewn with corpses of carriers, exactly as in the time of the Arab slave trade. The carriers, weakened, ill, insufficiently fed, fall literally by hundreds’ (Morel). Mortality on some expeditions could be comparable to the worst of the Japanese ‘death marches’ of the Second World War. In 1891 District Commissioner Paul Lemarinel rounded up 300 porters to carry supplies to a new outpost, a journey of around 600 miles. Not one of these unfortunate men survived the round trip.

In February 1895 this extraordinary army was about to pit itself against the Azande, a people who had so far defeated every invader sent against them. A column of Force Publique troops left N’Yangara on the Upper Uele on an expedition against the small independent Azande principalities along the river. Its fighting strength was ten white officers and 670 African askaris in five companies, armed with Albini rifles. Three of these companies consisted of new recruits from Sierra Leone, one of Hausas from Nigeria and one of local Mobangi tribesmen. One of the officers, the Englishman Guy Burrows, left an account of the ensuing battle. After marching for nine days through uninhabited country the Free State force, which was advancing in three columns in close contact with each other, was attacked without warning by an Azande army. The askaris managed to form into a single square, which soon found itself enveloped on three sides. The two flank faces of the square were apparently occupied with a diversionary attack, while the front face bore the brunt of the main assault by three lines of spearmen, who charged yelling across open ground. Such a reckless attack on riflemen formed in square would normally have been a recipe for disaster, but the raw Sierra Leonean troops broke before contact, and the Azande rushed into the square. One officer and around sixty askaris were killed in the mêlée, and about the same number wounded; the Hausas stood their ground but were overwhelmed, suffering more than 70 per cent casualties in a few minutes. Only the Mobangi company forming the rear face of the square remained intact, and fortunately for its comrades it stood firm, allowing the officers to rally the Sierra Leonean companies around it. The Azande, whose losses are unrecorded, withdrew and allowed the survivors to escape, but the expedition had been decisively defeated. With the Hausa company almost destroyed and the Sierra Leoneans demoralized, the invaders had no choice but to withdraw to their fort at Dongu and abandon the campaign.

The most famous victory which the Azande ever won over a European-led force took place in the same year, also against the Force Publique. In 1894 Leopold, who had long cherished an ambition to conquer the Sudan, persuaded Britain to recognize his claim to the Lado Enclave, a small strip of territory along the Upper Nile including the strategically important river-port of Lado. The following year the first of several expeditions intended to occupy this territory was dispatched under a Lieutenant Franqui. Bafuka, an Azande ruler who had until then been friendly to the Belgians, decided to refuse it permission to pass through his territory. The reason for his change of policy is unclear, but the Force Publique’s indiscipline was already notorious, and inadequate supply arrangements usually obliged its expeditionary forces to live off the land. So Bafuka may well have feared with justification that his territory would be plundered or subjected to excessive requisitions. Franqui advanced regardless, and set up a camp inside the borders of Bafuka’s country. His force consisted of 700 regular askaris and an unknown number of Azande auxiliaries supplied by a rival king, Zemio. Bafuka refused Franqui’s offer to negotiate, and ordered his people to keep watch over the invaders and alert him as soon as they resumed their march. When they finally did so, advancing towards Bafuka’s capital in a single long column, the king mustered his army. Its numbers are not known, but according to EvansPritchard’s informants, when fully deployed it ‘stretched to a great distance’. A chief called Tombo commanded the advance guard, Malingindo led the right wing and Kana the left. The reserve was under the command of Bafuka himself and his deputy, Kipa.

The Azande scouts had provided detailed information on the movements of the enemy, so Bafuka was able to prepare an ambush on both sides of the path which they were following. ‘A scout hastened to tell Bafuka: “Ai! Be very much on guard today. It will be today. Ai! Bafuka, it will be today”’ (Evans-Pritchard). Lieutenant Franqui, on the other hand, seems to have been confident that the Azande would not dare to attack his powerful force. He failed to reconnoitre the route ahead of him, and it was later alleged that the Hausa platoon at the head of the column had not even loaded their rifles. When they reached the spot where Bafuka’s senior abakumba companies were hidden in the tall grass, the Azande attacked from both sides. ‘That began the fight,’ an Azande veteran recalled, ‘and it went on for a long time. The subjects of Bafuka were killed like grass in number, and the Belgians were killed like grass also.’ The Hausa platoon was effectively wiped out, having lost thirty-seven dead, including their officer, and another eighteen men wounded. The rest of the column rallied and fought on until dusk, but then the survivors finally broke and fled back the way they had come, pursued by the victorious Azande.

Franqui was wounded but escaped, though more than fifty dead askaris were left behind. The contrast between this Azande victory and the failure of the Banyoro in very similar tactical situations (see Chapter 4) could scarcely be greater, but the reasons are difficult to quantify. The Force Publique hardly maintained the highest professional standards, but its troops were well armed and had easily defeated Arabs and other opponents in the region. We do not know the proportions of firearms, spears and throwing knives in Bafuka’s army, though he certainly did possess guns in significant numbers. Schweinfurth’s comment on the Azande’s ‘thorough mastery’ of warfare simply describes the situation without explaining it; clearly they were exceptionally skilled fighters, but why? They may have learned to shoot more accurately with firearms than the majority of African warriors, but they are unlikely to have learned the technique from the Arabs, whose own marksmanship was notoriously poor. Perhaps the likeliest explanation is that generations of internal warfare in their remote homeland had enabled the Azande to develop their skills to a high level, and that the individual skirmishing tactics which their home terrain encouraged were, fortuitously, already suited to the use of guns when these became available.

According to the account given to Evans-Pritchard, Bafuka’s men captured a ‘great number’ of Albini rifles. The news of the engagement quickly spread throughout Azandeland, greatly enhancing Bafuka’s reputation. A second Belgian expedition was sent against him a few months later, but this time he avoided contact with it and there was no further fighting. In 1897 Bafuka came to terms with the Free State, and together with other Azande princes he agreed to supply troops for another campaign in the Sudan, then still under Mahdist control. This expedition, led by a Belgian officer named Chaltin, was ostensibly intended to complete Franqui’s mission by occupying the Lado Enclave, but in fact its commander had orders to pre-empt the British invasion which was under way from the north, and press on to Khartoum. Leopold had actually informed the British government of his intention to take over the Sudan, and then by way of compensation to lend his troops to the British for a hypothetical campaign in Armenia. This caused Queen Victoria to remark that ‘It really seems as if he had taken leave of his senses’ (Langer), and there is no doubt that the plan was utterly impractical. Chaltin’s army comprised 700 askaris and a single 75mm Krupp mountain gun, reinforced by 580 Azande allies. It was supposed to link up with another force of 3,000 men under Baron Dhanis, but Dhanis’s force mutinied before it even reached the rendezvous. Chaltin, after waiting in vain for news, decided to continue the advance unsupported. This was a rash decision which should have led to disaster. That it did not was due mainly to the loyalty and courage of the friendly Azande.

Azande Chief Bafuka

Troops of the Congo Free State engage with the Mahdists at Rejaf along the Nile.

The Battles of Bedden and Rejaf, 17 February 1897

The Force Publique column reached the Nile near Bedden unopposed, but as dawn was breaking on 17 February a Mahdist army under Ali Badi Muhammad could be seen approaching. The strength of the Mahdist force is not known, but it occupied a frontage of about 2 miles along a low ridge, with its left flank resting on the river. As Chaltin began to deploy in front of him, Ali Badi transferred troops from his centre to strengthen his right wing, which he sent on a flank march round the Belgian left. Chaltin immediately attacked the weakened enemy centre, and Ali Badi’s force fell back in confusion. The askari companies continued the advance, and four hours later they again made contact with the enemy. This time the Mahdists were supported by two modern quick-firing Krupp guns and deployed in strength around the small town of Rejaf, which was fortified with a thorn-bush fence or ‘zeriba’. The Belgians again beat off an outflanking move and attacked in the centre, but after three hours of fighting they had made little progress and the battle was becoming a stalemate. Then the Azande contingent, which had made a long detour round the Mahdists’ right flank, appeared in their rear. Thrown into confusion by their sudden attack, the defenders took refuge inside Rejaf and were quickly followed up by the askaris, who gradually fought their way inside the town. Despite this success, however, the loss of Dhanis’s column meant that the advance on Khartoum had to be abandoned (though of course even their combined strength would have been utterly inadequate for such a task). The Lado Enclave was occupied, and the approach of Kitchener’s army from the north prevented the Mahdists from making any serious attempt to recapture it, but ultimately Chaltin’s victory was futile. Lado proved to be too remote to be a useful base, and in 1906 Leopold agreed to return it to Britain.

Gbudwe and the End of Azande Independence

Meanwhile in 1899 the triumphant Gbudwe faced yet another threat, this time from a rival Azande prince called Renzi, who had fought alongside Bafuka against the Franqui column. Renzi had since changed sides, acquired an additional supply of rifles from the Belgians, and was anxious to make a name for himself as a war leader. In their first engagement, on the River Yubo, Renzi’s men forced a crossing of the river with the aid of the riflemen, but were repulsed when they ran out of ammunition. They then built a wooden stockade on their own side of the river, apparently inspired by those constructed by the Arabs, and Gbudwe besieged it without success for several days. Then Renzi, who had presumably been resupplied, sent a group of riflemen to occupy a hill on Gbudwe’s side of the river, from where they gave covering fire as his spearmen attacked. Gbudwe’s camp was some distance from the river and his companies were committed in succession as the enemy advanced, but after a fight lasting all day Renzi was again driven back to his fort. Gbudwe took two days to concentrate all his strength and then counter-attacked, this time capturing the fort and forcing Renzi to abandon the campaign. Again Gbudwe had been victorious despite his enemy’s great superiority in guns, many of which were breech-loading Albini rifles.

In 1904 the hated white men finally began to close in on Gbudwe. A Force Publique column under Capitaine Colin, reinforced by a contingent supplied by Renzi, marched into his territory and built a fort at Mayawa. The king once again mustered his forces to attack, but the Belgian fort was a very different proposition from those built by the Arabs. It was based around a similar wooden stockade, but a deep ditch had been dug around the outside and the earth piled up against the walls to reinforce them. Concealed firing ports were constructed at different heights to allow the defenders to shoot prone, kneeling or standing, and additional wooden poles were attached to the inside of the stockade to provide overhead cover. The exact size of the garrison is uncertain, but it appears to have comprised two companies, or about 250 men altogether, all trained shots armed with Albinis. The resulting battle was a disaster for the Azande. Following their usual practice each contingent advanced in succession to throw their spears over the stockade, only to be shot down by unseen marksmen within. Azande survivors later admitted that as far as they could tell they inflicted no casualties on the askaris, but their own losses mounted until, after three days, Gbudwe ordered his demoralized troops to retreat

For the next year Gbudwe licked his wounds at his old capital of Birikiwe. The Belgians did not follow up their victory, as Birikiwe was in territory now allocated to the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, but they did plunder the villages in their own sphere of influence. One day in 1905 a column of Sudanese askaris led by a British officer entered Gbudwe’s country. The king believed the British to be friendly and gave orders that they were not to be opposed, but when they arrived at Birikiwe they were found to be leading one of his sons as a prisoner. A disturbance ensued, in the course of which two Azande were shot and the prisoner escaped. Gbudwe no doubt learned of this and realized that the column was hostile. There was no time to organize resistance, but he had no desire to be a prisoner again, so when the soldiers approached him he opened fire with a rifle and a revolver. In the ensuing gunfight Gbudwe shot four of the askaris, but was wounded and captured. A few days later he was dead, either by suicide or poisoned by a rival while in British custody. With his demise the day of the independent Azande kings was over, though sporadic guerrilla warfare continued in some areas until 1915.