French Congo - Encyclopedia

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FRENCH CONGO, the general name of the French possessions in equatorial Africa. They have an area estimated at 700,000 sq. m., with a population, also estimated, of 6,000,000 to 10,000,000. The whites numbered (1906) 127 of whom 502 were officials. French Congo, officially renamed French Equatorial Africa in 1910, comprises - (1) the Gabun Colony, (2) the Middle Congo Colony, (3) the UbangiShari Circumscription, (4) the Chad Circumscription. The two last-named divisions form the Ubangi-Shari-Chad Colony.

The present article treats of French Congo as a unit. It is of highly irregular shape. It is bounded W. by the Atlantic, N. by the (Spanish) Muni River Settlements, the German colony of Cameroon and the Sahara, E. by the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, and S. by Belgian Congo and the Portuguese territory of Kabinda. In the greater part of its length the southern frontier is the middle course of the Congo and the Ubangi and Mbomu, the chief northern affluents of that stream, but in the south-west the frontier keeps north of the Congo river, whose navigable lower course is partitioned between Belgium and Portugal. The coast line, some 600 m. long, extends from 5° S. to 1° N. The northern frontier, starting inland from the Muni estuary, after skirting the Spanish settlements follows a line drawn a little north of 2° N. and extending east to 16° E. North of this line the country is part of Cameroon, German territory extending so far inland from the Gulf of Guinea as to approach within 130 m. of the Ubangi. From the intersection of the lines named, at which point French Congo is at its narrowest, the frontier runs north and then east until the Shari is reached in io 40' N. The Shari then forms the frontier up to Lake Chad, where French Congo joins the Saharan regions of French West Africa. The eastern frontier, separating the colony from the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, is the water-parting between the Nile and the Congo. The Mahommedan sultanates of Wadai and Bagirmi occupy much of the northern part of French Congo (see Wadai and Bagirmi).

Table of contents

Physical Features

The coast line, beginning in the north at Corisco Bay, is shortly afterwards somewhat deeply indented by the estuary of the Gabun, south of which the shore runs in a nearly straight line until the delta of the Ogowe is reached, where Cape Lopez projects N.W. From this point the coast trends uniformly S.E. without presenting any striking features, though the Bay of Mayumba, the roadstead of Loango, and the Pointe Noire may be mentioned. A large proportion of the coast region is occupied by primeval forest, with trees rising to a height of 150 and 200 ft., but there is a considerable variety of scenery - open lagoons, mangrove swamps, scattered clusters of trees, park-like reaches, dense walls of tangled underwood along the rivers, prairies of tall grass and patches of cultivation. Behind the coast region is a ridge which rises from 3000 to 4500 ft., called the Crystal Mountains, then a plateau with an elevation varying from 1500 to 2800 ft., cleft with deep river Scale. .:y,000,000 English Miles 0 50 too c ti a 16° B 24 0 of Greenwich valleys, the walls of which are friable, almost vertical, and in some places 760 ft. high.

The coast rivers flowing into the Atlantic cross four terraces. On the higher portion of the plateau their course is over bare sand; on the second terrace, from 1200 to 2000 ft. Sigh, it is over wide grassy tracts; then, for some Ioo m., the rivers pass through virgin forest, and, lastly, they cross the shore region, which is about io m. broad. The rivers which fall directly into the Atlantic are generally unnavigable. The most important, the Ogowe (q.v.), is, however, navigable from its mouth to N' Jole, a distance of 235 m. Rivers to the south of the Ogowe are the Nyanga, 120 m. long, and the Kwilu. The latter, 320 m. in length, is formed by the Kiasi and the Luke; it has a very winding course, flowing by turns from north to south, from east to west, from south to north-west and from north to southwest. It is encumbered with rocks and eddies, and is navigable only over 38 m., and for five months in the year. The mouth is 1100 ft. wide. The Muni river, the northernmost in the colony, is obstructed by cataracts in its passage through the escarpment to the coast.

Nearly all the upper basin of the Shari (q.v.) as well as the right bank of the lower river is within French Congo. The greater part of the country belongs, however, to the drainage area of the Congo river. In addition to the northern banks of the Mbomu and Ubangi, 33 o m. of the north shore of the Congo itself are in the French protectorate as well as numerous subsidiary streams. For some Too m. however, the right bank of the Sanga, the most important of these subsidiary streams, is in German territory (see Congo).


Three main divisions are recognized in the French Congo: - (i) the littoral zone, covered with alluvium and superficial deposits and underlain by Tertiary and Cretaceous rocks; (2) the mountain zone of the Crystal Mountains, composed of granite, metamorphic and ancient sediments; (3) the plateau of the northern portion of the Congo basin, occupied by Karroo sandstones. The core of the Crystal Mountains consists of granite and schists.





FRENCH WEST AFRICAZ Infolded with them, and on the flanks, are three rock systems ascribed to the Silurian, Devonian and Carboniferous. These are unfossiliferous, but fossils of Devonian age occur on the Congo (see Congo Free State). Granite covers wide areas north-west of the Crystal Mountains. The plateau sandstones lie horizontally and consist of a lower red sandstone group and an upper white sandstone group. They have not yielded fossils. Limestones of Lower Cretaceous age, with Schloenbach'a inflata, occur north of the Gabun and in the Ogowe basin. Marls and limestones with fossils of an Eocene facies overlie the Cretaceous rocks on the Gabun. A superficial iron-cemented sand, erroneously termed laterite, covers large areas in the littoral zone, on the flanks of the mountains and on the high plateau.


The whole of the country being in the equatorial region, the climate is everywhere very hot and dangerous for Europeans. On the coast four seasons are distinguished: the dry season (15th of May to 15th of September), the rainy season (15th of September to 15th of January), then a second dry season (15th of January to 1st of March), and a second rainy season (1st of March to 15th of May). The rainfall at Libreville is about 96 in. a year.

Flora and Fauna

The elephant, the hippopotamus, the crocodile and several kinds of apes - including the chimpanzee and the rare gorilla - are the most noteworthy larger animals; the birds are various and beautiful - grey parrots, shrikes, fly-catchers, rhinoceros birds, weaver birds (often in large colonies on the palm-trees), icebirds, from the Cecyle Sharpii to the dwarfish Alcedo cristata, butterfly finches, and helmet-birds (Turacus giganteus), as well as more familiar types. Snakes are extremely common. The curious climbing-fish, which frequents the mangroves, the Protopterus or lung-fish, which lies in the mud in a state of lethargy during the dry season, the strange and poisonous Tetrodon guttifer, and the herringlike Pellona africana, often caught in great shoals - are the more remarkable of the fishes. Oysters are got in abundance from the lagoons, and the huge Cardisoma armatum or heart-crab is fattened for table. Fireflies, mosquitoes and sandflies are among the most familiar forms of insect life. A kind of ant builds very striking pent-house or umbrella-shaped nests rising on the tree trunks one above the other.

Among the more characteristic forms of vegetation are baobabs, silk-cotton trees, screw-pines and palms - especially Hyphaene guineensis (a fan-palm), Raphia (the wine-palm), and Elaeis guineensis (the oil-palm). Anonaceous plants (notably Anona senegalensis, and the pallabanda, an olive-myrtle-like tree, are common in the prairies; the papyrus shoots up to a height of 20 ft. along the rivers; the banks are fringed by the cottony Hibiscus tiliaceus, ipomaeas and fragrant jasmines; and the thickets are bound together in one inextricable mass by lianas of many kinds. In the upper Shari region and that of the Kotto tributary of the Ubangi, are species of the coffee tree, one species attaining a height of over 60 ft. Its bean resembles that of Abyssinian coffee of medium quality. Among the fruit trees are the mango and the papaw, the orange and the lemon. Negro-pepper (a variety of capsicum) and ginger grow wild.

Inhabitants and Chief Towns

A census, necessarily imperfect, taken in 1906 showed a total population, exclusive of Wadai, of 3,652,000, divided in districts as follows: - Gabun, 376,000; Middle Congo, 259,000; Ubangi-Shari, 2,130,000; Chad, 885,000. The country is peopled by diverse negro races, and, in the regions bordering Lake Chad and in Wadai, by Fula, Hausa, Arabs and semiArab tribes. Among the best-known tribes living in French Congo are the Fang (Fans), the Bakalai, the Batekes and the Zandeh or Niam-Niam. Several of the tribes are cannibals and among many of them the fetish worship characteristic of the West African negroes prevails. Their civilization is of a low order. In the northern regions the majority of the inhabitants are Mahommedans, and it is only in those districts that organized and powerful states exist. Elsewhere the authority of a chief or "king" extends, ordinarily, little beyond the village in which he lives. (An account of the chief tribes is given under their names.) The European inhabitants are chiefly of French nationality, and are for the most part traders, officials and missionaries.

The chief towns are Libreville (capital of the Gabun colony) with 3000 inhabitants; Brazzaville, on the Congo on the north side of Stanley Pool (opposite the Belgian capital of Leopoldville), the seat of the governor-general; Franceville, on the upper Ogowe; Loango, an important seaport in 4' 39' S.; N'Jole, a busy trading centre on the lower Ogowe; Chekna, capital of Bagirmi, which forms part of the Chad territory; Abeshr, the capital of Wadai, Bangi on the Ubangi river, the administrative capital of the Ubangi-Shari-Chad colony. Kunde, Lame and Binder are native trading centres near the Cameroon frontier.


The rivers are the chief means of internal communication. Access to the greater part of the colony is obtained by ocean steamers to Matadi on the lower Congo, and thence round the falls by the Congo railway to Stanley Pool. From Brazzaville on Stanley Pool there is 680 m. of uninterrupted steam navigation N.E. into the heart of Africa, 330 m. being on the Congo and 350 m. on the Ubangi. The farthest point reached is Zongo, where rapids block the river, but beyond that port there are several navigable stretches of the Ubangi, and for small vessels access to the Nile is possible by means of the Bahr-el-Ghazal tributaries. The Sanga, which joins the Congo, 270 m. above Brazzaville, can be navigated by steamers for 350 m., i.e. up to and beyond the S.E. frontier of the German colony of Cameroon. The Shari is also navigable for a considerable distance and by means of its affluent, the Logone, connects with the Benue and Niger, affording a waterway between the Gulf of Guinea and Lake Chad. Stores for government posts in the Chad territory are forwarded by this route. There is, however, no connecting link between the coast rivers - Gabun, Ogowe and Kwilu and the Congo system. A railway, about 500 m. long, from the Gabun to the Sanga is projected and the surveys for the purpose made. Another route surveyed for a railway is that from Loango to Brazzaville. A narrow-gauge line, 75 m. long, from Brazzaville to Mindule in the cataracts region was begun in November 1908, the first railway to be built in French Congo. The district served by the line is rich in copper and other minerals. From Wadai a caravan route across the Sahara leads to Bengazi on the shores of the Mediterranean. Telegraph lines connect Loango with Brazzaville and Libreville, there is telegraphic communication with Europe by submarine cable, and steamship communication between Loango and Libreville and Marseilles, Bordeaux, Liverpool and Hamburg.

Trade and Agriculture

The chief wealth of the colony consists in the products of its forests and in ivory. The natives, in addition to manioc, their principal food, cultivate bananas, ground nuts and tobacco On plantations owned by Europeans coffee, cocoa and vanilla are grown. European vegetables are raised easily. Gold, iron and copper are found. Copper ores have been exported from Mindule since 1905. The chief exports are rubber and ivory, next in importance coming palm nuts and palm oil, ebony and other woods, coffee, cocoa and copal. The imports are mainly cotton and metal goods, spirits and foodstuffs. In the Gabun and in the basin of the Ogowe the French customs tariff, with some modifications, prevails, but in the Congo basin, that is, in the greater part of the country, by virtue of international agreements, no discrimination can be made between French and other merchandise, whilst customs duties must not exceed 10% ad valorem.' In the Shari basin and in Wadai the Anglo-French declaration of March 1899 accorded for thirty years equal treatment to British and French goods. The value of the trade rose in the ten years 1896-1905 from £360,000 to £850,000, imports and exports being nearly equal. The bulk of the export trade is with Great Britain, which takes most of the rubber, France coming second and Germany third. The imports are in about equal proportions from France and foreign countries.

Land Tenure. The Concessions Regime

Land held by the natives is governed by tribal law, but the state only recognizes native ownership in land actually occupied by the aborigines. The greater part of the country is considered a state domain. Land held by Europeans is subject to the Civil Code of France except such estates as have been registered under the terms of a decree of the 28th of March 1899, when, registration having been effected, the title to the land is guaranteed by the state. Nearly the whole of the colony has been divided since 1899 into large estates held by limited liability companies to whom has been granted the sole right of exploiting the land leased to them. The companies holding concessions numbered in 1904 about forty, with a combined capital of over £2,000,000, whilst the concessions varied in size from 425 sq. m. to 54,000 sq. m. One effect of the granting of concessions was the rapid decline in the business of non-concessionaire traders, of whom the most important were Liverpool merchants established in the Gabun before the advent of the French. As by the Act of Berlin of 1885, to which all the European powers were signatories, equality of treatment in commercial affairs was guaranteed to all nations in the Congo basin, protests were raised against the terms of the concessions. The reply was that the critics confused the exercise of the right of proprietorship with the act of commerce, and that in no country was the landowner who farmed his land and sold the produce regarded as a merchant. Various decisions by the judges of the colony during 1902 and 1903 aryl by the French cour de cessation in 1905 confirmed that contention. The action of the companies was, however, in most cases, neither beneficial to the country nor financially successful, whilst the native cultivators resented the prohibition of their trading direct with their former customers. The case of the Liverpool traders was taken up by the British government and it was agreed that the dispute should be settled by arbitration. In September 1908 the French government issued a decree reorganizing and rendering more stringent the control exercised by the local authorities over the concession companies, especially in matters concerning the rights of natives and the liberty of commerce.


The Gabun was visited in the i 5th century by the Portuguese explorers, and it became one of the chief seats of the slave trade. It was not, however, till well on in the 19th century that Europeans made any more permanent settlement than was absolutely necessary for the maintenance of their commerce. In 1839 Captain (afterwards Admiral) BouetWillaumez obtained for France the right of residence on the left bank, and in 1842 he secured better positions on the right bank. The primary object of the French settlement was to secure a 1 Berlin Act of 1885; Brussels conference of 1890 (see Africa: History). port wherein men-of-war could revictual. The chief establishment, Libreville, was founded in 1849, with negroes taken from a slave ship. The settlement in time acquired importance as a trading port. In 1867 the troops numbered about 1000, and the civil population about 5000, while the official reports about the same date claimed for the whole colony an area of 8000 sq. m. and a population of 186,000. Cape Lopez had been ceded to France in 1862, and the colony's coast-line extended, nominally, to a length of 200 m. In consequence of the war with Germany the colony was practically abandoned in 1871, the establishment at Libreville being maintained as a coaling depot merely. In 1875, however, France again turned her attention to the Gabun estuary, the hinterland of which had already been partly explored. Paul du Chaillu penetrated (28J5-2859 and 1863-1865) to the south of the Ogowe; Walker, an English merchant, explored the Ngunye, an affluent of the Ogowe, in 1866. In 1872-1873 Alfred Marche, a French naturalist, and the marquis de Compiegne' explored a portion of the Ogowe basin, but it was not until the expedition of 1875-1878 that the country east of the Ogowe was reached. This expedition was led by Savorgnan de Brazza (q.v.), who was accompanied by Dr Noel Eugene Ballay, and, for part of the time, by Marche. De Brazza's expedition, which was compelled to remain for many months at several places, ascended the Ogowe over 400 m., and beyond the basin of that stream discovered the Alima, which was, though the explorers were ignorant of the fact, a tributary of the Congo. From the Alima, de Brazza and Ballay turned north and finally reached the Gabun in November 1878, the journey being less fruitful in results than the time it occupied would indicate. Returning to Europe, de Brazza learned that H. M. Stanley had revealed the mystery of the Congo, and in his next journey, begun December 1879, the French traveller undertook to find a way to the Congo above the rapids via the Ogowe. In this he was successful, and in September 1880 reached Stanley Pool, on the north side of which Brazzaville was subsequently founded. Returning to the Gabun by the lower Congo, de Brazza met Stanley. Both explorers were nominally in the service of the ,International African Association (see Congo Free State), but de Brazza in reality acted solely in the interests of France and concluded treaties with Makoko, "king of the B atekes," and other chieftains, placing very large areas under the protection of that country. The conflicting claims of the Association (which became the Congo Free State) and France were adjusted by a convention signed in February 2885.2 In the meantime de Brazza and Ballay had more fully explored the country behind the coast regions of Gabun and Loango, the last-named seaport being occupied by France in 2883. The conclusion of agreements with Germany (December 1885 and February-March 1894) and with Portugal (May 1886) secured France in the possession of the western portion of the colony as it now exists, whilst an arrangement with the Congo Free State in 1887 settled difficulties which had arisen in the Ubangi district.

The extension of French influence northward towards Lake Chad and eastward to the verge of the basin of the Nile followed, though not without involving the country in serious disputes The advance with the other European powers possessing rights in towards those regions. By creating the posts of Bangi (1890), the Nile: Wesso and Abiras (1891), France strengthened her Fashoda. hold over the Ubangi and the Sanga. But at the same time the Congo Free State passed the parallel of 4° N. - which, after the compromise of 1887, France had regarded as the southern boundary of her possessions - and, occupying the sultanate of Bangasso (north of the Ubangi river), pushed on as far as 9° N. The dispute which ensued was only settled in 1894 and after 1 Louis Eugene Henri Dupont, marquis de Compiegne (1846-1877), on his return from the West coast replaced Georg Schweinfurth at Cairo as president of the geographical commission. Arising out of this circumstance de Compiegne was killed in a duel by a German named Mayer.

A Franco-Belgian agreement of the 23rd of Dec. 1908 defined precisely the frontier in the lower Congo. Bamu Island in Stanley Pool was recognized as French.

the signature of the convention between Great Britain and the Congo State of the 12th of May of that year, against which both the German and the French governments protested, the last named because it erected a barrier against the extension of French territory to the Nile valley. By a compromise of the 14th of August the boundary was definitely drawn and, in accordance with this pact, which put the frontier back to about 4° N., France from 1895 to 1897 took possession of the upper Ubangi, with Bangasso, Rafai and Zemio. Then began the French encroachment on the Bahr-el-Ghazal; the Marchand expedition, despatched to the support of Victor Liotard, the lieutenant governor of the upper Ubangi, reached Tambura in July 1897 and Fashoda in July 1898. A dispute with Great Britain arose, and it was decided that the expedition should evacuate Fashoda.. The declaration of the 21st of March 1899 finally terminated the dispute, fixing the eastern frontier of the French colony as already stated. Thus, after the Franco-Spanish treaty of June 1900 settling the limits of the Spanish territory on the coast, the boundaries of the French Congo on all its frontiers were determined in broad outline. The Congo-Cameroon frontier was precisely defined by another Franco-German agreement in April 2908, following a detailed survey made by joint commissioners in 1905 and 1906. For a comprehensive description of these international rivalries see Africa, § 5, and for the conquest of the Chad regions see Bagirmi and Rabah Zobeir. In the other portions of the colony French rule was accepted by the natives, for the most part, peaceably. For the relations of France with Wadai see that article.

Following the acquisitions for France of de Brazza, the ancient Gabun colony was joined to the Congo territories. From 1886 to 1889 Gabun was, however, separately administered. By decree of the 11th of December 1888 the whole of the French possessions were created one "colony" under the style of Congo fran9ais, with various subdivisions; they were placed underacommissioner-general (de Brazza) having his residence at Brazzaville. This arrangement proved detrimental to the economic development of the Gabun settlements, which being outside the limits of the free trade conventional basin of the Congo (see Africa, § 5) enjoyed a separate tariff. By decree of the 29th of December 1903 (which became operative in July 1904) Congo frangais was divided into four parts as named in the opening paragraph. The first commissioner-general under the new scheme was Emile Gentil, the explorer of the Shari and Chad. In 1905 de Brazza was sent out from France to investigate charges of cruelty and maladministration brought against officials of the colony, several of which proved well founded. De Brazza died at Dakar when on his way home. The French government, after considering the report he had drawn up, decided to retain Gentil as commissioner-general, making however (decree of 15th of February 1906) various changes in administration with a view to protect. the natives and control the concession companies. Gentil, who devoted the next two years to the reorganization of the finances of the country and the development of its commerce, resigned his post in February 1908. He was succeeded by M. Merlin, whose title was changed (June 1908) to that of governor-general.

Administration and Revenue

The governor-general has control over the whole of French Congo, but does not directly administer any part of it, the separate colonies being under lieutenant-governors. The Gabun colony includes the Gabun estuary and the whole of the coast-line of French Congo, together with the basin of the Ogowe river. The inland frontier is so drawn as to include all the hinterland not within the Congo free-trade zone (the Chad district excepted). The Middle Congo has for its western frontier the Gabun colony and Cameroon, and extends inland to the easterly bend of the Ubangi river; the two circumscriptions extend east and north of the Middle Congo. There is a general budget for the whole of French Congo; each colony has also a separate budget and administrative autonomy. As in other French colonies the legislative power is in the French chambers only, but in the absence of specific legislation presidential decrees have the force of law. A judicial service independent of the executive exists, but the district administrators also exercise judicial functions. Education is in the hands of the missionaries, upwards of 50 schools being established by 1909. The military force maintained consists of natives officered by Europeans.

De Brazza's treaties. Revenue is derived from taxes on land, rent paid by concession companies, a capitation or hut tax on natives, and customs receipts, supplemented by a subvention from France. In addition to defraying the military expenses, about £Ioo,000 a year, a grant of £28,000 yearly was made up to 1906 by the French chambers towards the civil expenses. In 1907 the budget of the Congo balanced at about £250,000 without the aid of this subvention. In 1909 the chambers sanctioned a loan for the colony of £840,000, guaranteed by France and to be applied to the establishment of administrative stations and public works.


Fernand Rouget, L'Expansion coloniale au Congo francais (Paris, 1906), a valuable monograph, with bibliography and maps; A. Chevalier, L'Afrique centrale francaise (Paris, 1907). For special studies see Lacroix, Resultats mineralogiques et zoologiques des recentes explorations de l'Afrique occidentale francaise et de la region du Tchad (Paris, 1905); M. Barrat, Sur la geologie du Congo francais (Paris, 1895), and Ann. des mines, ser. q. t. vii. (1895); J. Cornet, "Les Formations post-primaires du bassin du Congo," Ann. soc, geol. belg. vol. xxi. (1895). The Paris Bulletin du Museum for 1903 and 1904 contains papers on the zoology of the country. For flora see numerous papers by A. Chevalier in Comptes rendus de l'academie des sciences (1902-1904), and the Journal d'agriculture pratique des pays chattels (1901, &c.). For history, besides Rouget's book, see J. Ancel, "Etude historique. La formation de la colonic du Congo francais, 1843-1882," containing an annotated bibliography, in Bull. Corn. l'Afrique francaise, vol. xii. (1902); the works cited under BRAllA; and E. Gentil, La Chute de l'empire de Rabah (Paris, 1902). Of earlier books of travels the most valuable are: - Paul du Chaillu, Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa (London, 1861); A Journey to Ashonga Land (London, 1867); and Sir R. Burton, Two Trips to Gorilla Land (London, 1876). Of later works see Mary H. Kingsley, Travels in West Africa (London, 1897); A. B. de Mezieres, Rapport de mission sur le Haut Oubangui, le M`Bomou et le Bahr-el-Ghazal (Paris, 1903); and C. Maistre, A travers l'Afrique centrale du Congo au Niger, 1892-1893 (Paris, 1895). For the story of the concession companies see E. D. Morel, The British Case in French Congo (London, 1903). (F. R. C.)

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