Blood Ivory and Lomami Slave Wars : 1892-1894

ituri ivory
Ivory found in the Ituri Forest in the early 1990s. Paulin Tshikaya, over 6 feet tall, and warden of Garamba National Park is in the center.

All hell broke loose on the Lomami River during the 1890s.
It began east of the Lualaba in the 1860s, with the rise of the Arab ivory trade. Tippo Tib from Zanzibar (where he started life as Hamed bin Muhammed el Murjebi ) carved out a Congolese Sultanate. Slaves hauled his ivory to the markets of Zanzibar often hefting a single tusk at over a 100 pounds.
Tippo Tib
Tippo Tib, ivory merchant and slave trader, built a successful empire in eastern Congo. This picture first published in 1889, The Illustrated London News.

His favorite slave, Ngongo Luteta, came to him as a young boy. Luteta was from the Batetela tribe that lives where the Lomami plunges from high savannah plateau, to forest islands and into unbroken forest. Ngongo Luteta rose fast and became a leader of Tippo Tib’s wanguaana (Arabized Congolese) warriors and the strategist who brought the most ivory and slaves back to his master. Tippu Tib was so pleased with the dashing Luteta, that he freed him when he was only 25 and sent him home to the Lomami.

But Tippo Tib sent Ngongo Luteta with a clear mission: caravans of ivory must come east to him from the Lomami and the Tshuapa basins. Luteta was immensely successful. Great graves of elephant bone rotted in the forest duff, the ivory was carried east. The people of the Lomami who carried the ivory, were enslaved and their societies torn asunder by the firearms and cold determination of Ngongo Luteta.

Ashley, 120 years later, when his dugout was not more than two days south of Opala , wrote “Not many people here. This forest is empty” . He repeated it all the way to the savanna. Were the massive slave campaigns initiated by Ngongo Luteta partly to blame?
Lomami River
The Lomami River is depopulated here in the north and Ashley found fewer and fewer people as he moved up stream and deeper into the forest.

Ngongo Luteta is hero and nemesis.

I have no picture of him (send it if you find one), but here is a description written by a begrudgingly respectful European of the 19th century (The Fall of the Congo Arabs, Sydney Hinde, 1894)

He was a well-built, intelligent- looking man…with a brown skin, large brown eyes, very long lashes, …and a straight narrow nose. His hands were his most remarkable characteristic: curiously supple, with long narrow fingers. One or both hands were in constant movement, opening or shutting restlessly. His features meanwhile remained absolutely immovable.

The description of him in battle was even more suggestive:
[Ngongo Luteta] hissed out his orders one after another without a moment’s hesitation. He was capable of sustaining intense fatigue, and would lead his warriors through the country at a run for hours together.

Ivory was big money and the Europeans wanted it. Ngongo Luteta met the Belgians on the rivers of their new colony and realized he could make more profit trading his ivory to them. The Arab’s suzerainty was at stake. Tensions rose, a European ivory merchant who had set up two trading posts on the Lomami River, Arthur Hodister , was massacred with ten other whites and the Belgo-Arab wars began in earnest. Ngongo Luteta was fighting on the side of the Belgians and the Congo Free State.

Although carrying an anti-slavery banner, there was no doubt that control of resources (importantly elephants) was central to the Belgian King, Leopold II.
Francis Dhanis, main Belgian architect of the war, marched to Ngandu, Nongo Luteta’s post on the Lomami River in 1892. Hinde describes it thus:
N’Gandu was a fortified town by the river-bank, with four gates, each approached by a very handsome pavement of human skulls, the bregma being the only part showing above ground. I counted more than 2000 skulls in the pavement of one gate alone.
Hinde's map of campaign trail
The campaign trail followed by Commander Dhanis with Capt. Hinde. First stop, before engaging in battle, was for reinforcement at Ngongo Luteta’s village of N’Gandu

Francis Dhanis with his Belgian officers and fighting men were strengthened by Ngongo Luteta and 10,000 of his men. Together they marched on to meet the Arabs further east.
Fighting at the Arab stronghold, Nyangwe

Numerous times Ngongo Luteta’s courageous tactics pushed a battle to victory for the Belgians. In January 1894 the Belgians prevailed and central African trade routes no longer led to Zanzibar in the east but now the ivory and eventually the rubber, copper and gold all went out to the Atlantic on the west.
Commander Dhanis

Commander Dhanis led the campaign to drive the Arabs from the Lomami, Lualaba and all Maniema province, 1892-1894

Francis Dhanis was made a baron by King Leopold II of Belgium for his exemplary perseverance, foresight and skill throughout the campaign. But Baron Dhanis expressed a strong regret over what had occurred just four months before he received his honors in Belgium:

At N’gandu, Ngongo Luteta’s home on the Lomami, on the 15th of September 1893, a Belgian army officer named Jean Scheerlinck independently decided that Ngongo Luteta was a traitor. Without consulting his superior, Francis Dhanis, he court-martialed Luteta, had him condemned to death, and put before a firing squad.

Curious and sad what is excused by war.


  1. John
    Posted 2007-10-05 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    Great posting, Ter.
    While it is a cliche to say that history is key to understanding any landscape, it is rare that one can discover a natural landscape of this size where the human imprint of a century ago is still so clearly evident. History will also play its role in defining just how this vast forest, without a doubt the last unknown area of this size remaining in DRC, will come into the 21st century. The fact that military-linked elephant hunting has penetrated deep into the Lomami Forest clearly has a precedent of over 100 years. How can that be changed– while the landscape still has its elephants?

  2. Posted 2007-10-05 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    Fascinating stuff. I dimly recollect some of the details from (I think) the Scramble for Africa, Bury the Chains and King Leopold’s Ghost, but you’ve really brought this history to life.

    You’ve got me wondering what that area would look like today had the Arab traders fought off the Belgians.

  3. Terese Hart
    Posted 2007-10-06 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    Hard to imagine– would the market forces have been a lot different?? …. but if the trade monopoly was maintained by the East, by Zanzibar, and if the same basic resources were sought after : rubber,copper, gold, uranium, diamonds; It would have changed a lot. One important handicap though: there is a water route to the Atlantic but not to the Indian Ocean.

6 Trackbacks

  1. […] “own” and buy and “own” people? Arab captives sometimes became important warriors or, like Ngongo Luteta, entirely freed (read his story in my previous […]

  2. […] Strange how this recent history of TL2 is just as bloody and almost as obscure as the history of more than a century earlier. […]

  3. […] “own” and buy and “own” people? Arab captives sometimes became important warriors or, like Ngongo Luteta, entirely freed (read his story in my previous […]

  4. […] the ivory’s fate. I do so with a special appreciation for the forest and a special awe for its ivory seeking history: The slave caravans of Ngongo Luteta lugging loads of ivory to Zanzibar and, later, the ivory […]

  5. […] among the even older edifices of the Congo-Arab era. Just upstream from Kindu, in the 1870s, Tippo Tib reigned from Kasongo and Nyungwe over an undisputed Congolese sultanate, sending huge caravans of slaves […]

  6. […] among the even older edifices of the Congo-Arab era. Just upstream from Kindu, in the 1870s, Tippo Tib reigned from Kasongo and Nyungwe over an undisputed Congolese sultanate, sending huge caravans of slaves […]

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