During the course of the 19th century merchants from Zanzibar, commonly referred to as Swahili-Arabs, penetrated into Central Africa in their search of slaves and ivory. They settled in what is now the Maniema Province of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a combination of trading, raiding and intimidation began. Their major objectives were to accumulate large stocks of ivory to satisfy global demand and to supply porters for transporting the ivory back to the coast. Kasongo on the Lualaba River (the headstream of the Congo River) became one of their principal trading posts. In the mid-1870s the most famous of these traders, Hamed bin Muhammed el Murjebi, better known as Tippu Tip, moved into the region. He established his headquarters in Kasongo, which soon boosted a population of around 20 000. Due to their possession of firearms and their use of force in mobilizing labour on a large scale, the Swahili-Arabs soon succeeded in dominating vast stretches of the eastern Congo. The Zanzibari domination of the eastern Congo was ultimately crushed in 1894 by the troops of King Leopold II’s Congo Free State. Their socio-cultural legacies however, which involve the adoption of Swahili as lingua franca, the spread of Islam, the introduction of new agricultural crops and influences in architecture and clothing persist to this day.
Sidney Langford Hinde, who participated in the Arab Campaign, wrote the following on the fall of Kasongo (184-6): “Kasongo was a much finer town than even the grand old slave capital Nyangwe…. The room I took possession of was eighty feet long and fifteen feet wide, with a door leading into an orange garden, beyond which was a view extending over five miles. It was hard, on waking, to realise that I was in Central Africa, … The granaries throughout the town were stocked with enormous quantities of rice, coffee, maize, and other food; the gardens were luxurious and well planted; and oranges, both sweet and bitter, guava, pomegranates, pineapples, and bananas abounded at every turn.”
The principal sources that have so far been used in examining this chapter in history are the accounts of 19th century explorers - including David Livingstone, Verney Lovett Cameron and Henry Morton Stanley - of colonial agents and the Zanzibarite merchants. Our knowledge has thus been shaped by the views of outsiders, who were agents of the civilizing mission and/or in competition for the global trade in ivory and slaves.
In contrast, no examination of the Arab site, known as Vieux Kasongo/Kabondo or Tongoni has ever been undertaken. Although most of it was demolished as a result of the Arab Campaign, colonial administrators decided to ‘protect’ a handful of key locations within the site by putting up concrete panels. Other commemorative monuments were built in the new town of Kasongo and its surrounding territory. Since its abandonment the site has suffered from considerable natural and human induced impacts. The relative isolation of the Maniema Province, as well as underdeveloped and dilapidated infrastructure and political instability, also explain why the area has so far stayed off limits for archaeological research or any other efforts in heritage preservation. However, the cultural and historical significance of the Swahili-Arab heritage in the Congo is widely recognized, not only by local authorities but also by national decision-makers and international scholars.
In 2018, Dr. Noemie Arazi was awarded funding by the Gerda Henkel Foundation’s Patrimonies Programme to lead a comprehensive research project on the study and preservation of Vieux Kasongo. Through Groundworks, her non-for profit organization based in Brussels, she assembled a team of Congolese and Belgian archaeologists and historians to carry out systematic surveys and excavations at Vieux Kasongo and its surrounding territory. These investigations are complemented with the collection of oral histories and memories. By focusing on the region’s physical cultural resources and oral histories the project attempts to shed new light on the Swahili-Arabs in the Congo in order to produce new and more nuanced data sets. The investigations also include the use of maps, photographs and the aformentioned textual sources. Noemie Arazi also invited Georges Senga, a photographer from Lubumbashi into the project. Their objective is to co-author a book, which takes Kasongo’s cultural landscape as a point of departure through which they will explore the divergent and entangled meanings of history, decay, memory and identity. Their collaboration will lay the foundation for diffusing Kasongo’s history and cultural heritage into a wider network of public circulation.
The project’s first field season took place during July and August 2018. Archaeological surveys and excavations were focused on Vieux Kasongo in order to identify visible surface remains. Despite the site’s abundant vegetation cover the team succeeded in identifying the concrete panels erected during the Belgian Congo period. They designate specific landmarks such as the Piste des Caravanes (the caravan track), the Place du Marché (the market place) and the structures that once belonged to the Arab merchants. The latter include those of Tippo Tip and Sefu, Mwenyi Katomba, Musongela Puya, Adamu Makongo and Lippens and De Bruyne (two colonial agents stationed at Kasongo during the Congo Free State). Lots of effort went into the clearance and burning of the site’s abundant vegetation in order to get a better understanding of its topography and to figure out where to place the test trenches.
At numerous occasions surveys were carried out with the farmers who work in and around the site and who might have stumbled across archaeological features during ploughing. On other occasions the team was accompanied for locating specific remains such as the bomas as marked on colonial era military maps. These bomas were either used as palisades around houses and/or as defensive structures during the Arab Campaign. One such boma, testified by an imposing circular earthen rampart, might have been identified but time constrains did not permit to fully clear the entire feature.
Interviews were mainly held with village and grouping chiefs (Chefs de Village and Chefs de Groupement). They represent the traditional authority and act as sort of advocates of village interests within a collective or vis-à-vis other authorities/collectives. They are usually instructed in the founding history of their village(s) and territories and on a more personal level on family genealogies. Women, who live in Kasongo's Quartier 18 and identify themselves as Arabisé were also interviewed. They share a history as descendants of the Swahili-Arabs or as freed slaves, who became Muslim. These testimonies provide significant narratives on individual family histories, clan histories and the role of women among the Arabisés.
For the 2019 field season it is planned to carry out systematic surveys along the Lualaba and Lulindi Rivers for the identification of defensive structures and refuge sites used during the slave raids. The team will also continue excavations at Vieux Kasongo and carry out a photogrammetric investigation with the use of a drone. The relative isolation of the Maniema Province and the country’s on-going political and economic instability do not provide favourable circumstances for physical on-site conservation activities. However drone images and a 3D model of Vieux Kasongo will allow to record and render a visual illustration of the site and its topography, which can be kept for future generations.
Team: Olivier M. Luna (University of Lubumbashi), Clément Mambu (Institut des Musées Nationaux du Congo) Dr. Igor Matonda (University of Kinshasa), Dr. Alexandre Smith (Africa Museum, Tervuren), Georges Senga (Picha, Lubumbashi)