Mimi and Toutou arrive on the shores of Lake Tanganyika

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Naval Africa Expedition

The best source currently available for the journey of the Mimi and Toutou from Furungume to the Lake is the October 1922 National Geographic article written by Frank Magee. Spicer-Simpson himself submitted a series of notes and a lecture on the Expedition, but this has generally been agreed to be so filled with hyperbole and self aggrandizement that it probably offers little that is not covered better elsewhere. A number of diaries and notebooks also exist, and a comprehensive history, The Phantom Flotilla, written by Peter Shankland, but National Geographic, then as now, enjoys a fiercely protected reputaion for truth and accuracy, which Spicer-Simpson at the very least certainly did not. Recently the subject was covered by British author Giles Foden in his book Mimi and Toutou’s Big Adventure, a light and quite airy treatment, as the title implies, but nonetheless very readable….

Magee’s narrative can only perhaps be criticized for being a little understated. Being a National Geographic production, it carefully steers clear of any controversy, and since so much of the joy of reading about the expedition is in such themes as George Spicer-Simpson’s unbelievable caddishness, and the general triumph of absurd human foilability against geography and the forces of nature, this is a bit of a shame.

Refreshingly, though, the article lacks in every respect the kind of self-promotion that renders everything that George Spicer-Simpson said and did so suspect, and in a way that makes it almost a crime against Magee’s own contribution to what was undoubtedly a great enterprise. It also, perhaps, brings home to the casual reader the fact that great endeavours of times past were undertaken by human beings, with all the defects of social living that we all know and live with on a day to day basis. Ordinary men achieving extraordinary deeds…is this not the stuff of great adventure, and indeed great literature?

Anyway, before I get lost in in a tangent, I found Frank Magee, through his own writings, to be a very pleasant man indeed, and one who I would have liked to have travelled with myself. The few photographs of him available portray him as a large, jovial and friendly man, and likewise, the few written accounts. So little is known about his companion during the preliminary survey, John Lee, that it is hard to draw any comparisons between the two men, but since nothing was reported about any problems between them, it stands fairly to reason that that they must have got on together very well.

It is easy, therefore, to enviously imagine two men of compatible temper enjoying the mutual experience of a great African journey, spending hours by the fire over bottles of whiskey, exchanging yarns and generally making the most of life in a way that so many of the rest of us long to do. In those days all that really endangered a man’s life in wild Africa was the bush itself. Medical technology was sufficient to ensure that a prudent traveller would survive malaria, or any other tropical disease, and the indigenous people living in the region were not hostile, and were in fact still very cooperative. It was in many ways the best time in history to be a white man in Africa. The landscape was pure and unspoilt, political limitations few, and with the might of the Royal Navy meeting the expenses of the trip, there was little to do but enjoy it.

In the meanwhile, back to the Expedition itself. As the dust of the many feet disappeared over the north horizon, the local Belgian townspeople in Elizabethville laid down odds of 100 to 1 that the enterprise would fail. This, in hindsight, was not a bad thing. The Germans on the lake, having heard more-or less what was afoot, gave the Expedition similar odds of succeeding, and as a consequence did not take intelligence emerging from the hinterland particularly seriously. This helped the British a great deal. As they set about the earnest task of trying to achieve the impossible, they at least did not have the additional complication of hostile German attention.

Of course, as often was true for the great European expeditions in Africa, the burden of achieving the impossible fell more upon the shouldersof the blacks than it did the whites. Hundreds of carriers were employed to haul the mountain of supplies necessary to ensure that what comforts of home could be retained, were retained, and moreover that all the necessary provisions, supplies, spare parts, musketry and ammunition were available when needed. The customary human load at that time was 60 pounds, meticulously divided and packed in a way that it could be reasonably easily carried on a man’s head. Beyond that hundreds more were seconded at various points, often supplied by local Belgian labour contractors, to ease the way ahead and generally to provide much of the sheer brute force that was required.

Magee notes that the carriers and labourers chanted as they ‘jogged’ along, suggesting that their pace was sharper than an amble, and moreover that a great deal was expected from and given by the blacks. He also lamented that this chanting was incessant. Christian hymns sung in English seemed to be the favourite, but whatever tune was chosen at any time to compliment the rhythm of movement, or the rhythm of rowing, digging or hewing, it went on….and on, and on, and on!

Among the blacks, incidentally, was also a contingent of Belgian Askari. These were the customary native troops of the colonial militia who were usually recruited from among the most warlike and unthinking tribes, and led by a white officer. Somalis tended to be favourites, but some particularly cut-throat Congolese tribes also found their way into the various colonial Askari Corps. With them they brought, according to popular myth anyway, habits of cannibalism that needed to be watched very carefully in the handling of prisoners of war, and even more so the bodies of the dead.

It is also worth noting that the Belgian Askari were not present on this occasion to protect the British from any outside threat, but to watch the British themselves, who had a reputation for stealing the colonies of other European nations; and indeed had done so on many occasions with far fewer men than were on this particular Expedition.

Needless to say, the arrival of two iron monsters in the form of our tractors, belching forth smoke, caused considerable consternation among the natives of this village.[1] There is no indication in Magee’s account of exactly what make these traction engines where, but the chances are good that they were agricultural traction engines manufactured by Burrels of Thetford, models of which were frequently imported into Africa, and which can still be seen in museums, archives and scrap-yards here and there. It is debatable, reading through the account of the journey, how much value these machines provided, but they certainly lent considerable prestige to the Expedition as it moved through various tribal dominions, and that must have been worth something.

The prevailing mode among these petty potentates seemed to be obsolete uniforms of all armies. This is what Magee noticed about the natives chiefs and headmen through whose territory the Expedition passed. The going was not difficult during the initial phases, so Magee had time for recording such observations. One particular old chief who he encountered was dressed in an old British military tunic, a pair of white spats worn over bare feet, an opera hat and a pink sunshade. The reasons for this eccentric attire are probably similar to the reasons that one might see a local person today walking down a country road in tropical Africa wearing a pink fur lined ski suit. Discarded clothing is an industry in Africa, now as it was then, except in those days such trade goods, with the added lustre of alcohol and glass beads, purchased empires.

Spicer-Simpson, meanwhile, suffers absolutely no bad press at the hands of Magee. John Lee is recorded as having departed from the expedition as a consequence of ‘sunstroke and fever‘, no mention being made anywhere of his unfair dismissal and the unpleasant scenes that had taken place in the shabby hotel in Elizabethsville. And during the more rough phases of the Expedition, the Commander is seen, according to Magee, ‘setting a fine example‘. He ‘…went around encouraging his officers and men with a kindly word…’ No mention is made of the uncontrolled fits of spleen and other irrational behaviour chronicled by less charitable accounts, nor other sundry examples of eccentric behaviour, too many to mention here. Still, it would be unfair to stigmatise Spicer-Simpson completely. He did display tremendous tenacity when progress seemed impossible, and an unexpected talent for creativity in dealing with situations that seemed to stupefy his officers did much to drive the project forward. Sadly he also had a damaging tendency to take direct credit of other people’s inspirations, which was apt to dilute the effect of his own, and in the long run did nothing to diminish his overall lack of popularity..

The Commanders eccentricities and furious outburst of energy and anger, however, did deeply impress the natives, who no doubt responded better to despotism than the Commanders peers, and tended to respect his more autocratic style of authority. Giles Foden makes the point very well in his book Mimi and Toutou’s Big Adventure: ‘ The story of Spicer’s mission went through ever more fantastic permutations, mile after mile, beat after beat, until, by the time it reached the Holo-holo living on the lakeshore, Spicer had been elevated to something like a god.’[2]

Perhaps the signature difficulty in the early stages of the journey was in the procurement of water to keep the steam engines running. Often men were denied their own ration in order that the thirsty steel beasts might be watered. On one particular occasion, when scouting parties were sent out in different direction to try and source water, an officer by the name of Wainwright returned with several hundred local women, each carrying a pot of water on their heads. A number of journeys back and forth were required to fill the engines, but the job was eventually done. The army of women, however, dispersed soon afterwards with apparently no reward offered at all. Unsurprisingly Spicer-Simpson took personal credit for organising this impromptu relief part, which infuriated Wainwright, while Magee made some sheepish comment in the Commanders defence to the effect that women in rural Africa were accustomed to unpaid work, which is in fact not in any way untrue.

The portage of water that saved the day

Meanwhile the real difficulties of the journey began when the expedition approached the mountains, then still bathed in a beautiful and clear tropical sunlight, but with the definite threat of rain being felt in steamy afternoons, and the bleached banks of cloud building on the north horizon that grew thicker every day. Even a single rainstorm would have stopped the expedition in its tracks. It was difficult enough to drag the two gunboats on their trolleys and cradles up the steep ravines and deep gullies of the escarpment, but to add mud and rain to the catalogue of difficulties would have made an almost impossible enterprise utterly hopeless.

The practicalities of achieving any forward movement at all, and in actual fact it was rare that five or six miles were not achieved in a day, was laborious hauling by the traction engines, occasionally two engines to one boat, and once or twice even an elaborate system of winches and cross-winches to get the awkward vehicles up and around a tight bend. There did come a point, however, where the versatility of steam reached its limit, and into the picture, on September 2, 1915, appeared the unlikely sight of a tall and taciturn Afrikaner , wearing a wide brimmed hat and wielding a long cattle whip, and walking ahead of a column of three wagons, each drawn by a team of 16 oxen. These animals had been driven up all the way from South Africa to assist the Expedition, and indeed had been expected for some time.

The combination of trek oxen and a series of blocks and tackle helped, notwithstanding a few heart stopping moments, to drag the two gun boats over the escarpment and on to the relatively easy terrain above 6000ft, arriving on level ground on September 8, 1915.

For a short while, thereafter, the going was easier. However in due course the northern edge of the escarpment was reached, and the difficulties were reversed as the two boats were now gingerly cable down the other side in what Frank Magee describes as hard work with many thrills! One of these thrills was a traction engine running out of control down a steep hill before it was halted by a head-on collision with a tree moments before it flew over the edge of a precipice. Another was a bushfire, started apparently by Doctor Hanschell zealously burning down a grass constructed guest house that was infested by fleas and ticks, and which might easily have reduced the two boats to a pile of embers.

One gets the sense from Magee’s description of these incidents that the expedition was either incredibly fortunate to have survived so many close calls, or that some of the calls were not quite as close as suggested. Either way, the two gunboats were safely lowered to the far side of the Mitumba Mountains, after which a short stretch of relatively easy country was traversed before the Mimi and Toutou could dip their bows in actual water.

I will not go into any more details of that memorable bush trek.’ Writes Frank Magee. ‘After long days of toil and many qualms as to whether our destination would ever be attained, we eventually reached Sankisia, a railway depot about 18 miles from the River Lualaba.’[3]

It has been said that the journey of the Mimi and Toutou was the inspiration for the C.S. Forester Novel, The African Queen, later a film production of the same name by John Huston, and starring Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. The inspiration must have been extremely loose, however, with the common theme being nothing more an African river journey against a wartime setting. But what a journey it must have been!

The Lualaba is the headwater of the Congo River, one of the greatest inland waterways in the world, and to this day a wild, unpredictable and dangerous quarter of the African continent. Today there is a reasonably dense human population in the region, with much of the tangled forest and impenetrable swamp and grassland, if not tamed, then probably ruined to various degrees as so much of Africa has been. In those days, however, the river, wide but shallow, would have slowly slid between arches of dense riverine forest, and a proliferation of primates would have populated the riverside; among them chimpanzees in large numbers, but definitely a variety of colobus and other monkeys. as well. It is scarcely possible to imagine the volume and variety of birdlife that must have decorated the landscape in those days. And the river itself – wild, primal and deeply elemental. These are images of an Africa that no longer exists, and that lives on only in the accounts of men such as those who travelled in a century past.

Possibly the men of the Expedition, however, would have thought more about the mosquitoes and other discomforts than the fact that theirs was the last generation to touch the wild in quite this way. Most were common soldiers, and besides which, how would they have even known that Eden was being despoiled so quickly, and that a mere century later those primates that seemed to be everywhere would disappear completely, driven into pockets of endangered survival, with perhaps not even one more generation remaining to traverse before arriving at complete extinction?

At that time there was some limited commercial traffic on the river. The Congo River, and its various headwaters, had been for some time, as it remains today, a vital transport artery that in many ways defined what economic viability the region enjoyed. Reference once again to Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, which is framed against a river journey such as this, and which describes very well the primordial mists that at times seemed to dim the wider perspective, and cultivate the eccentricities that were probably necessary under such strained circumstances.

An interesting feature of the river journey was the unwilling assistance given to the expedition by a drunken and emotionally tortured Belgian riverboat captain, and a young shipping pilot who lived on a floating barge on one of the lakes. His home was set in a comfortable abode that he visited occasionally. Therein lived his blond wife who had adapted to life on the placid lake surface, playing a piano to the vast emptiness, and celebrating the desolate beauty of the African lakes with alcohol from a vantage of civility and relative comfort.

Meanwhile, the 350 mile journey down the Lualaba River to meet with the last short stretch of rail line to the shores of Lake Tanganyika at Albertville involved languid hours and days in fluid motion, smoking cigarettes and watching the unbroken forest pass. This was interspersed with journeys across expanses of wetland, entertained by prolific tableau of tropical birdlife. This apparent idyll was punctuated only occasionally by mishaps on sand shoals that required the ubiquitous natives, this time boatmen, to manhandle the craft forward, somewhat in the way that Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogard did in the African Queen. This was until a dismembered body floated by one day, reminding all that this was crocodile territory, after which it was mechanical assistance that took over from human muscle power.

Here Magee vignettes an average day:

This ‘pleasant voyage’ was a gruelling business. We were baked alive during the day, and tormented at night by all the flying pests of the Congo…we camped ashore every night and always made an effort to get our evening meal over before darkness set in… [otherwise] a plate of soup, a few minutes after being placed on the table, became a seething mass of floundering insect life.[4]

The 17-day river journey concluded at the settlement of Kabalo, a river port on the Lualaba that was linked by rail to the lake entrepôt of Albertville, currently Kalemie. The Mimi and Toutou were now on the home straight. All that remained was a 200 mile railway journey that was completed with out mishap. As providence would have it, the two gunboats arrived at their destination just as the first rains of the season began to fall.

Thus ended one of the most daring and unusual expeditions at the twilight at the age of discovery. Whatever might have been his defects, and they were many, and more would be revealed soon, Commander George Spicer Simpson had achieved the most difficult part of his commission…or so he thought. What remained now was to establish naval dominance on the lake, and indeed much had happened in the months since the Expedition had left London. By then the Germans were significantly more battle ready on the lake than had been previously thought, and the stalwart little craft, poised in their cradles on the lapping edge of Lake Tanganyika, had their most challenging work still ahead of them.


[1] Frank Magee, National Geographic, October 1922

[2] Foden, Giles. Mimi and Toutous Big Adventure. (Vintage Press, New York, 2004) p78

[3] Frank Magee, National Geographic October 1922.

[4] Frank Magee, National Geographic October 1922.

Battle of Lake Tanganyika 1

Battle of Lake Tanganyika 2

Battle of Lake Tanganyika 3

Battle of Lake Tanganyika 4

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