Delcommune: Colonial Champion of the Lomami

Delcommune with hippos he killed on Lomami
In 1889, Delcommune killed these hippos on the Lomami just south of the rapids we call Badinga and he called Lissambo. Early European travelers on the Lomami fed their troops by killing hippos and elephants. 

The Lomami’s first advocate was the 19th century businessman, Alexandre Delcommune. He was more than an entrepreneur – he was also explorer and eventually military officer in Leopold II’s Force Publique.

Delcommune in Katanga in 1892
Delcommune (1892) is in the center with his hand at his distinctive sash.

You may never have heard of him. I only learned of him by chance when a street vendor of “antiques” came to our house in Kinshasa hoping to sell a yellowed copy of “Twenty Years of African Life” by A. Delcommune.

Even during his own time, he did not have the popular appeal of HM Stanley. Stanley’s first great exploit was to discover the course of the Congo River. Delcommune was in Boma, one of a handful of Europeans, to welcome Stanley in 1877 when he and his beleaguered column stumbled out to the estuary on the Atlantic after three years of harrowing adventure. At the time Delcommune was an ambitious young entrepreneur. Most of his life he worked in the vanguard of Congolese Company for Commerce and Industry (CCCI).

Large village on Lomami's bank
Delcommune found large villages only on the northern Lomami and south of Bene Kamba. Then as now the area that became park was unpopulated (photo 2017).

Delcommune’s first exploration had an important business component. Did a railroad make sense in Congo? – where was it needed? – would it pay for itself? On this trip, in 1889, he was the first to establish that the Lomami was the same river the German explorer, Hermann Wissmann had discovered far south in what became Katanga. The supposition at that time: Wissmann’s river flowed north-west into the Lubefu, a tributary of the Sankuru.

Roi des Belges
Steamboat, King of the Belgians, of Delcommune’s first explorations 1888-1889.

Delcommune explored up the Lubefu and realized it was too small and shallow to come from Wissmann’s river. Delcommune’s small steamboat later entered Lomami from the north. He was the first European after George Grenfell to do so, and he navigated the river more than 300 Km further south than Grenfell had done a few years earlier. Delcommune’s Lomami was the same as Wissmann’s north-flowing river of Katanga.

Delcommune was not as meticulous a scientist as Grenfell. Their respective maps show it.

TL2 carte 001
Delcommune's map of his explorations
Delcommune’s map (second) gives a generalized idea of where he went. Grenfell’s map (top) gives a detailed and accurate rendition of the rivers’ courses, bends and islands.

But Delcommune was a persistent explorer. He debunked mythical lakes and discovered the upper reaches of the Congo river in the Luapula River. He was also important to tracing the River Lukuga as flowing out of Lake Tanganyika and into the River Congo.

Despite the importance of his discoveries, Alexandre Delcommune was not a self-promoter or perhaps he just lacked the journalistic flare at which Stanley excelled. Less than a year after showing up in Boma, Stanley published “Through the Dark Continent” , 2 volumes, nearly 1000 pages about his just-ended exploits.

Delcommune’s story about his own explorations came out almost thirty years after the fact, at the insistence of others, with the help of others and less than a year before he died.

Lomami tributary
Delcommune was not indifferent to the beauty of the Lomami, but the short florid descriptions of vegetation and sunsets that punctuate the text were probably not his own, but added by “assistant” writers.  (photo C.Schenck, 2017)

Nevertheless, he opened the Lomami to the possibility of Belgian trade. The first Europeans to follow in Delcommune’s footsteps,however, were murdered by the Arabs and so began the Belgo-Arab War. Pierret, Hodister, among others, came up the Lomami to open posts and negotiate trade. They were all killed, some near the Lomami, and others as they approached RibaRiba, now Lokandu, an Arab post on the Congo River.

In Delcommune’s mind the Lomami was a part of the obvious route south and west through the Congo Free State. It was the obvious way to avoid the rapids above Stanley Falls (Kisangani).

One of Lomami's many bends
It is the rocky shallows and many bends, like this one, that ultimately make the Lomami a poor river for transportation (photo C. Schenck, 2017).

Observations he made show how in many ways the mid-Lomami basin has remained much the same over the last hundred and thirty years:

–South of Opala (then Yanga) there was almost no habitation until reaching BeneKamba (250 km as the crow flies). This is still true today and allowed for the creation of the Lomami National Park.

— After Delcommune specifically asked in 1887 if there were Pygmies (nains) at Bene Kamba, his hosts disappeared along a path and came back with a pygmy. This corroborates our observations that there are some Pygmies associated with the Balanga and Mbole, but they are scarce compared to the density of Pygmies in the Ituri Forest, further east.

Despite the importance of his discoveries along the Lomami, perhaps his greatest contribution to the Congo Free State, and eventually the Belgian Congo was made before he had started any of his explorations up the Congo:

In 1884 after almost 10 years in Boma, where he had married the daughter of an important chief, his local influence allowed him to sign treaties with traditional kings, much to the discomfiture of England and Portugal. As a result Belgium gained rights at the mouth of the Congo River that were recognized that same year at the Conference of Berlin where the colonial map of the continent was carved into existence by European powers.

Decommune at age of 21 in 1876
Delcommune, here 21 years old, first came to Boma at the Congo River’s estuary on the atlantic, as a young man.

But this event was not what Delcommune wrote about when he published the account of his commercial, military and exploratory successes in the Congo. Rather, he wrote in detail, how he rebuffed King Leopold II in 1895 after returning to Belgium from his Katanga exploration. When the king asked Delcommune to return as Inspecteur de l’État to the Congo Free State, Delcommune said he could not because of the atrocities committed for the forced collection of wild rubber in the name of the King. He ended the book with a plea for better health care and better education in the Belgian Congo.

Gochet Alexis-Marie. 1896. Soldats et missionnaires au Congo; de 1891 à 1894. Desclée de Brouwer & Cie. Gallica, France.
Delcommune, Alex. 1922. Vingt années de Vie africaine, récits de voyages, d’aventures et d’exploration au Congo Belge 1874-1893 Tome Premier et Tome Second. Vve Ferdinand Larcier, 26-28 rue des Minimes, Bruxelles


  1. John Sullivan
    Posted 2017-10-13 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    Fascinating account of an important, if lesser-known, colonial-era figure. The Delcommune’s, Alexandre and his brother Camille, are also indirectly responsible for bringing about one of the greatest works of English literature.

    Conrad Korzeniowski whose nom-de-plum was Joseph Conrad briefly worked for Camille Delcommune, assistant manager for the Société Belge du Haut Congo, who became the model for the the manager in Heart of Darkness, a most unsympathetic character in the story to say the least. The manager’s uncle, who makes a brief appearance in the story, is based on Alexandre. Conrad’s knowledge of Congo River steamboats derives from his having piloted the Roi des Belges for Camille Delcommune. He had hoped to pilot another steamboat, the Florida, for Alexandre’s Kantanga expedition, but was passed over for another.

  2. Terese Hart
    Posted 2017-10-13 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

    Alexandre hardly mentions his younger brother in his very long account of his explorations. When he does, it is mainly to register his death. One long sentence explains how he learned of it while returning from his Katanga expedition: « celui-ci m’apprit, sans aucun ménagement, le décès de mon frère Camille, mort presque subitement à Kinshasa, le mois dernier, par suite d’une imprudence, sortant d’un accès de fièvre, il s’était découvert un instant en plein soleil sur la tombe d’un de ses agents. »
    He was 33 years old.
    The French seems a bit convoluted…but I understand that he had a bad fever (probably malaria) and too soon afterwards he went out in the hot sun and was found dead on the grave of one of his workers. Really!! It looks to me like more material for Joseph Conrad.

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