Jules Ferry and the Renaissance of French Imperialism

By Thomas F. Power Jr. | Go to book overview

Chapter Four
EQUATORIAL AFRICA: THE STRUGGLE
FOR THE CONGO

Discovery and Exploration

France's acquisition of a large part of Equatorial Africa in and near the Congo River basin was made possible in great measure through the work of Jules Ferry. Of all the colonies acquired or enlarged during his premierships, this was the one for which Ferry personally was most responsible from start to finish. He early gave the explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza subsidies to open up the area, and then with considerable skill he waged a diplomatic struggle with the Portuguese, English and Belgians to win, with Bismarck's aid, a great colony larger than France itself.

Until late in the nineteenth century, the heart of Africa, the great Congo basin, was completely unknown to Europeans. Closed by rapids in its lower course, this river with nearly two thousand miles of navigable waterway remained buried in mystery. After many men had tried unsuccessfully, to reach it, Darkest Africa was finally opened by the explorations of two men working from opposite coasts: Henry Stanley from the East and Savorgnan de Brazza from the Atlantic seaboard. Brazza was operating with the encouragement of the French Ministry of the Navy and from a base in the French colony of Gabun.

Brazza, 1 then a young ensign in the French navy, petitioned the Minister of the Navy in 1874 to be allowed to conduct an expedition to explore the Ogowé River in Gabun. Aided by his personal acquaintanceship with the Minister, Admiral de Montaignac, 2 he secured approval for his project. His first expedition was fitted out on a very modest scale. A private venture, some of the expense was born by the

____________________
1
Brazza was the younger son of an Italian noble family of Rome. Educated in Paris, he entered the French naval school in 1868. He served with the North Sea squadron in 1870 and in Algeria against the Kabyle tribe a year later. In 1872 he visited Gabun in the course of duty and sailed a short distance up the still-unexplored Ogowé. His curiosity was aroused and he determined to try to discover the river's nature. First, however, he became a French citizen which compelled him for a brief time to serve as a simple sailor before passing his ensign's examinations. Comte Jacques de Chambrun. Brazza ( Paris, 1930), pp. 1-37.
2
Ibid., p. 41.

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