JOURNEY into the Heart of DARKNESS

Essay by abdellatif April 2008

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U.S. Navy lieutenant found exotic adventures exploring the Congo River in the late 19th century. He also battled alcoholism and hostile natives and confronted equally exotic diseases.

On Saturday, 2 May 1885, the propeller steamer USS Lancaster, flagship of the U.S. Navy's European Squadron, was in the eastern Atlantic anchored at the mouth of the Congo River. The sleek second-rater ("second-rate" meaning a combatant ship displacing between 2,000 and 4,000 tons) was off west-central Africa under orders from former Secretary of the Navy William Chandler, who in December had ordered the ship there. Not far away from Lancaster lay her squadron mate, the steam sloop-of-war USS Kearsarge, also moored in six or so fathoms of water above a sandy bottom. Lancaster had arrived off French Point several days earlier, steaming cautiously into the dark anchorage just before midnight on Monday, but her renowned partner (the victor over CSS Alabama in the last war) had been there since mid-December.

The Congo River, six miles across between Banana Point to the north and French Point to the south, flowed dark as Chocolate into the open ocean. Beyond the mouth lay one of the world's great rivers, nearly 3,000 miles long with its headwaters in the heart of equatorial Africa and draining a basin of many more than a million square miles. Up the river lay a seemingly endless-succession of swamps, cataracts, sandbars, and confusing estuaries; the narrow canyon and impassable rapids of the "Gates of Hell," the churning waters at the "Devil's Cauldron," and infrequent open-water "pools" that mimicked takes. Upriver, too, lurked fevers so lethal that more than a century after Lancaster sailed away, they are still untreatable and incurable.

Europeans found Africa's great rivers — the Congo, the Nile, the Niger — irresistible. They were seen as...