Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Elisabethville 1910 – The Cape to Cairo railroad arrives

The photos below don’t have much to do with Kinshasa, but I’ve had them for a while and think the time-lapse series is too interesting not to share. They show the arrival of the railway from South Africa at the Etoile Mine in southern Katanga on October 1, 1910. The rails had reached Sakania, on the border with Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) and a Belgian company, the Chemin de Fer du Katanga (CFK) created in 1902 to link the Katangan copper mines to the Cape to Cairo line, completed the work. CFK was further charged to extend the railway to the Lualaba River at Bukama, which would connect Katanga to Leopoldville by a series of rail and river links operated by the Chemin de fer des Grands Lacs Africains (CFL), opening up much of the entire colony to mechanized transportation.
The rail bed (Photos, author coll.)
Workers begin delivering rail road ties. The work is all manual.
Flat cars bring up the ties.
The ties are laid under supervision of European foremen.
The train comes up the new line and the process continues.

The arrival of the rail line at Etoile prompted the Belgian authorities to create Elisabethville (now Lubumbashi) as the capital of Katanga. Construction of the line to Bukama continued, reaching Likasi in June 1913, and Tenke, 255 kilometers northwest of Elisabethville in July 1914. Shortages of materials delayed construction during World War I. Tracks and ties were seized by Belgian forces from the railway in German East Africa (Tanzania) (Aug. 3, 2014), and the line finally reached Bukama in May 1918. Ironically, the new transportation line helped spread the Influenza pandemic into eastern Congo from southern Africa later that year (July 13, 2020).
The RN "Mimi" at Fungurume, 20 kilometers from Tenke in late 1915. The Royal Navy shipped two patrol boats to Katanga via South Africa to support the Belgian campaign against the Germans on Lake Tanganika.  From Fungurume, the boats were hauled overland to Bukama, then under their own power down the Lualaba.  At Kabalo, the boats were once again loaded on rail cars and shipped to Albertville (National Geographic, Oct. 1922).

Fungurume railway station in 2012.  The rail was manufactured for CFK by
the Ougree steel mill 100 years previously (Ph. author coll.)
Another company created in 1906 was intended to extend the rail line from Bukama to Port Francqui (Ilebo) on the Kasai River, to provide a more direct route to Leopoldville with fewer transshipments. The grandiose-sounding Compagnie du chemin de fer du Bas-Congo au Katanga (BCK) began work on a bridge spanning the Lualaba at Bukama in 1923 and the railway reached Port Francqui in 1928. King Albert and Queen Elisabeth inaugurated the line during their visit to the colony (Aug. 22, 2018).

The BCK rail bridge at Bukama nearing completion (Ph. author coll.)

The port at Port Francqui (Ph. author coll.)

During World War Two, with Congo cut off from Belgium, many colonials took their holidays in South Africa. The shipping line, Otraco, added a second steamer to the bi-monthly trip to Port Francqui to accommodate the increased demand. On their return, Leopoldville was supplied with butter, cheese, cold cuts and fresh fruit from Katanga and South Africa, which were no longer available from Europe. These fresh items were marketed to retailers by Profrigo and the Maurice Michaux grocery on Ave. du Port. In January 1942, failure to load the contents of a refrigerated wagon on the SS “Luxembourg” at Port Francqui precipitated a butter crisis in Leopoldville.

The "Luxembourg", possibly at Port Francqui (Ph. author coll.)

The "Luxembourg", possibly at Banningville (Bandundu) en route to Port Francqui
(Ph. author coll.)
In 1956, a BCK branch line north from Kamina connected with the CFL rail line at Kabalo, circumventing the river section from Bukama. After Independence, some consideration was given to extending the line Ilebo or Kananga to Kinshasa or Matadi, providing an all rail route from the copperbelt to Congo’s Atlantic port. However, conflict between Mobutu and a British-Japanese consortium led by Lonrho and Nissho Iwai halted the proposed feasibility study. The nationalization of all Zairian rail lines under the Société Nationale des Chemins de fer du Zaire (SNCZ) in 1974 put paid to any further consideration of a unified railway system.

Friday, April 1, 2022

Leopoldville 1957 –Fish at the Zoo

 One day in March 1957, my dad showed me an advertisement from the Zoo (Feb. 6, 2011) in the “Courrier d’Afrique” newspaper in Leopoldville announcing it had completed construction of some new animal enclosures and invited the public to come out the following Monday to see the animals in their new surroundings. When we arrived, there were indeed new, more animal-friendly habitats than the cages that were norm in the original development of the Zoo. But the animals were plush toys with signs proclaiming “Poisson d’Avril” (April Fools) next to them.

The lion enclosure circa 1957 with actual animals (photo author coll.)

A leopard in one of the older cages in 1945 (photo author coll.)

An elephant chained in its space (photo author coll.)
I visited the Zoo in April 2017. Management is trying to keep the Zoo going, promoting family visits on Sundays and rides on the horses it inherited from Mobutu’s cavalry detail.
The entrance to the Zoo (photo author coll.)

A school group visiting the Zoo (photo author coll.)

Horses grazing near the monkey cages (photo author coll.)

One of the older animal enclosures at the Kinshasa Zoo (photo author coll.)

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Leopoldville 1928 - Chanic founded on Ngaliema Bay

The Chanic shipyards by Guilherme Marques d'Oliveira (Ph:

Among my earliest memories of Kinshasa are the sounds emanating from the Chanic shipyards; the clanging of steel, the staccato of the rivet guns and the calls and swishing of bicycles at the end of the day as workers headed up Ave. de l'Avenir to their homes.

In December 1927, a syndicate of investors representing several Société Générale de Belgique (SGB) companies met in Brussels to plan the establishment of a naval shipyard in Leopoldville. These were later joined by the Crédit Générale du Congo (Bank of Brussels interests) and the Union des Transports Fluviaux (Unatra) a river shipping parastatal in which the colony owned 58% of the shares, though most of the private shares were controlled by SGB (Oct. 31, 2011). In September the following year, these investors created the Chantier Naval et Industriel du Congo (Chanic) to undertake industrial and metal fabrication work, including naval shipyards, concrete construction and general industrial activities. Unatra ceded its old shipyard at Leopoldville Ouest as its contribution, gaining a majority share of 50%, while the other investors put up the working capital, for a total of 60 million francs.
The Chanic installation shortly after taking over from Unatra (Ph. author coll.)
On the face of it, this appears to be a fairly typical colonial corporate transaction of the go-go years prior to the Depression. But it also involved some mutual problem solving between well-placed entities in the private sector and the colonial government. What was so attractive about the site above the rapids on Ngaliema Bay in Leopoldville Ouest? 

When Henry Stanley returned to the Congo in King Leopold’s employ in 1880, he reached Ngaliema Bay from the coast at the end of 1881 and founded his fourth station on Mount Khonzo Ikulu (now Mont Ngaliema) on December 1st. Two days later he launched a small steamer on Ngaliema Bay, the “En Avant”, which he brought in pre-fabricated sections along the caravan road. A secure mooring area for the steamer was completed February 1882. Stanley’s embryonic fleet was joined by the “AIA” and “Royal” later that year. Protestant missionaries were also setting up their bases at Leopoldville (as formally named by Stanley in April 1882) to support evangelization of the Congo Basin. George Grenfell of the British Baptists (BMS) brought the first 800 loads of the “Peace” in July 1883 (Jan. 14, 2017) and in November 1884, the Livingstone Inland Mission (LIM) launched the “Henry Reed” (May 4, 2016). There were now five steamers calling at the Ngaliema port.
L-R, the "En Avant", the "A.I.A", the "Roi des Belges" (Ph. author coll.)
The fleet became known as the Marine du Haut Congo, becoming a department of the colonial administration in 1886. By 1898, when the rail line from Matadi reached the port, the fleet comprised some twenty steamers and transported 10,000 tons of cargo. But the Leopoldville port was constrained by limited frontage along the water and the nearby rapids. By 1910, it was agreed that Kinshasa was a better location for the river port.
The port under the "Marine du Haut Congo" (Ph. author coll.)
The port as developed by the Marine du Haut Congo (Ph. author coll.)
By 1918 the Marine transported 28,971 tons of cargo, all on ships built in Europe and assembled at the yard. In 1920, seeking to upgrade the shipping operation, the government converted the Marine into the Société National des Transports Fluviaux au Congo (Sonatra), a wholly owned state corporation. But Sonatra faced stiff competition from the Compagnie Industrielle et de Transport au Stanley-Pool (Citas), created in 1907 by the SGB’s principal colonial holding, CCCI and based in Kinshasa, where the new port was being built (Mar. 13, 2011). Already in 1922, Sonatra relocated its offices to Kinshasa. In 1925 the government merged Sonatra and Citas to create Unatra, with the state as the majority shareholder. Although shipping on the upper river was the main priority for the new entity, the shipyards at Leopoldville Ouest remained under Sonatra management and later Unatra, until 1928 when the facility was transferred to Chanic.
The port as developed by Unatra (Ph. author coll.)
The agreement creating Chanic specified that Unatra would undertake routine maintenance of its fleet at its Ndolo yards, upstream from the new port at Kinshasa, but Chanic would assure major repairs and assembly of steamers manufactured in Belgium and shipped to the colony. When Otraco succeeded Unatra in 1936, a modification to the contract with Chanic was reached to allow Otraco to expand its yards at Ndolo, but otherwise maintained the same basic framework whereby major work was done by Chanic.
Aerial photo of Chanic in the 1930s by Sabena (Ph. author coll.)
In June 1929, Chanic obtained a five-year lease with option to buy on a 17-hectare parcel for a naval yard and other industrial operations. The site was on the road to Kinshasa upstream from the original shipyards where the Basoko River drains into Ngaliema Bay. Chanic agreed to compensate Congolese living on the site and cover the costs of relocating a government fuel depot established there. Considering that the original port was nearly fifty years old, the Basoko site would allow Chanic to develop a modern operation. Chanic built an oxygen and acetylene plant on the site and developed slips for assembling steamers and barges.
The Basoko site in 1954 with original shipyards in the distance (Ph. author coll.)
Chanic also purchased the former British Consulate building next to the American Baptist Mission, located between the shipyards and the Basoko site, as residence for the Director General (Oct. 22, 2016). The original two-story prefabricated building was enclosed behind a screen of windows and doors.
The Director General's residence in the 1960s (Ph.
The global Depression hit Congo hard, and Chanic’s primary client, Unatra, saw transport orders for both import and export cargo plummet. Chanic looked for other work consistent with the scope of its industrial vision. The challenge for diversification along these lines was that all departments needed investment to expand their operations.
Chanic's booth at the July 1931 Commercial Fair in Leopoldville. Aside from the ship’s anchor center, non-nautical products include oxygen bottles (L), bicycles and light fixtures (Ph: author coll.) 
The company did obtain other work, including construction of streets and storm drains in the new administrative district of Kalina (Jan. 17, 2012). Chanic also fabricated concrete pavers, which the city began installing in the downtown streets in 1931. Some of these can still be seen on Ave. Kalemie (Ave. Banning) where the asphalt applied later has eroded. Chanic also took over representation of Ford automobiles after the L.H. Gillespie firm went bankrupt in 1930 (Mar. 14, 2012). The dealership was located on Ave. Tombeur de Tabora, a block from the Gillespie property.
Original Chanic pavers on Ave. Kalemie (Ph. author)
Belgian Prime Minister Pierlot passes Chanic Ford on his visit to the colony in 1942
(Ph: News from Belgium, Sept. 5, 1942)
A fundamental conflict persisted between Chanic and Unatra, its largest shareholder. Unatra had anticipated that savings on repairs and a revenue stream from part ownership in the venture would accrue, while Chanic expected a dedicated market would fund its operations. On the eve of war, even the colonial government argued Unatra, now Otraco, should buy back the shipyards, signaling a consensus that the arrangement had failed. 

With the outbreak of war in May 1940, Chanic’s Secretary General, Adolphe Ruwet, under prior contingency planning for war time separation of the colony from Belgium, left Bordeaux for the Congo to take over management of the company. The situation in Leopoldville was challenging. The firm had staffed up in anticipation of large contracts for assembling ships and barges for Otraco, but now found its materiel blocked in occupied Belgium. Finding productive employment for its European workforce was problematic, as it was not feasible to terminate their contracts and return them to Belgium.
The Chanic yards during World War II (Ph. author coll.)
Ruwet learned there was a dearth of imported agricultural tools on the market because of the conflict in Europe. The metal fabrication workshop began making shovels, hoes and machetes. The company also proposed to open a canning line for foodstuffs, primarily palm oil. As the workshop’s small furnace was not adequate for this increase in production, Ruwet ordered a large electric furnace from the United states, which came on line in 1942. So as not to impede work at the shipyards, which he was certain would see an uptake in naval orders as the war effort developed, the foundry was installed at the Basoko site, where the oxygen and acetylene plant was located. The crowning achievement of this effort was the launching, in October 1943, of the first 800-ton barge entirely constructed in Congo. By the end of the war, the shipyards had built 18 barges, 36 smaller craft, produced 4000 tons of steel, while also fabricating 681,000 agricultural tools and 580,000 tin cans.
(Ph. News from Belgium and the Belgian Congo, May 6, 1944)
The barge is launched (Ph. author coll.)
Chanic came out of the war as a significant commercial representative of US industrial equipment, including Hyster forklifts, Laplant Choate scrapers and Athey Truss Wheel trailers. Caterpillar tractors imported by Chanic were used to prepare Ndolo airfield to accommodate U.S. bombers in July 1942 (Apr. 27, 2013). The firm procured Fruehauf trailers and fitted them with metal bodies to transport workers to the cité. In 1941, Chanic imported three Rearwin Cloudster single-engine aircraft from Wichita, Kansas, which it assembled for local customers. In 1946, Chanic founded the Compagnie General d’Automobiles et d’Aviation Au Congo (CEGEAC). Rearwin Aircraft had gone out of business, but the new company picked up De Havilland and later Sikorski helicopters. Chanic ceded the Chanic Ford property on Ave. Tombeur to the new firm.
An advertisement for CEGEAC (Ph. author coll.)
The end of the war in Europe allowed Chanic to resume supply chain links with the metropole. In January 1947, the shipyard began assembling a steamer to be named, “Le Katanga”, which would be the largest “courrier” passenger boat on the river. May 1948, Chanic launched the renamed MB “General Olsen” (named for Otraco’s retiring Director) on a test run prior to handover to Otraco. The boat had been ordered in December 1939, but the engines remained in Belgium at the outbreak of war. Originally designed as a steamer, the boat was now equipped two 500 HP diesel engines and radar which cut the time between Leopoldville and Stanleyville to six days instead of ten.
The General Olsen in 1948 (Ph. author coll.)

Like most colonial companies, Chanic was compelled to recognize the contribution of its African workforce to the war effort, in particular those assuming skilled positions previously held by Europeans. The number of Congolese working in “artisan” jobs had nearly doubled, from 61 before the war to 112 in 1945. The company allocated five million francs to creating a social welfare fund for its workers.
A skilled riveter in the Chanic yards 1950s (Ph.
The Chanic Football Club - 1947 (Ph. author coll.)

During the 1950s, Chanic expanded its production of river craft in rhythm with the growing post-war economy, in particular Otraco’s capital investment program. A new design of Integrated Tow Boats (ITB) which maximized streamlined units of power boats and barges to increase passenger and cargo carriage on the river. In 1953, Chanic delivered the MB “Moulaert”, which became the “Tshatshi” after Independence. 

The Industrial Representation Department, created during the war, responded to demand for industrial machinery. The Caterpillar account in 1955 alone sold 680 dozers and scrapers, 442 engines and 767 other Caterpillar products. The tin can production line was terminated, but Chanic found a new outlet in constructing steel tanks for the industrial sector, including fuel tanks for the cement factory of Cico at Lukala and Petro Congo in Leopoldville. 

The number of Congolese employees, which reached 3,700 in 1949, declined to 2,500 following a meccanization program launched in 1951 which resulted in more Congolese filling high-skill professions. From 112 Artisans in 1945, this classification increased to 238 in 1952.
Chanic workers at the end of the day (Ph.
Chanic installations in the 1950s (Ph. author coll.)

A new headquarters building at Basoko was completed in 1953, the company’s 25th anniversary. The shipyard and slips at Basoko were closed in 1958, consolidating all ship building and repairs at the original yard.
Chanic headquarters on Ave. Mondjiba during the widening of the street in 2011 (Ph. author)

On the eve of Independence in June 1960, Chanic transferred its legal entity to Belgium to protect its assets from potential adverse fiscal and tax policies the new country might apply. The following year, Chanic registered two new Congolese companies, Chanimetal (comprising the shipyards and foundry) and Chanico (industrial representation). The economic dislocation that followed the events of Independence had a significant impact on ship building. This was mainly due to problems of its primary client, Otraco. By 1962, the number of ships constructed had declined to 18 from 34, output of the foundry had dropped by half, with similar declines in the oxygen and acetylene units. Consequently, the number of Congolese employees was reduced to 500 and European workers declined to 16. A 1963 mission by the European Economic Commission recommended privatizing Otraco’s naval yard at Ndolo, noting Chanic had appropriate experience. Chanic rented space in the Basoko complex to the United Nations Tunisian and Malay peace-keeping troops and some of its residences along Ave. de l’Avenir to the newly-established American School of Leopoldville, which at that time was located on the American Baptist Mission next to the shipyards (Jan. 13, 2011).
Chanic shipyards in 1961 (Ph. University of Wisconsin Milwaukee)
After Mobutu’s coup in 1965, the economy recovered somewhat, and with it, Chanic’s fortunes. Ahead of the Organization of African Unity meetings in September 1967, the shipyards refurbished Otraco’s “General Olsen” as the Presidential “yacht”, renamed the “Kamanyola”, equipped with a helicopter pad on the stern. Chanimetal built 27 ships in 1968, an almost three-fold increase over 1964. In 1972 Chanic launched a new subsidiary, Chanitec, to supply, install and maintain systems in high rise buildings, including Westinghouse air conditioners and elevators.
Barges under construction for Otraco - 1967 (Ph. Eliot Elisofon Archives, Smithsonian Institution)
The "Kamanyola" (Ph. gettyimages, downloaded from twitter)
The “Zairianisation” of the economy announced in late 1973, made all foreign-owned subject to take over by nationals, in practice Mobutu’s cronies and other well-connected individuals. In 1967, Chanic had restructured its capital to give the Congolese state a 29% share in the company, based on the Unatra holdings which were the property of the colonial government. But this did not exempt it from the ”Zairianisation” measures. An “aquereur” sought to hive of the Westinghouse account, even though they had no experience in air conditioning. A Zairian General Director was named to the Administrative Council. As the economy cratered due to the negative effects of “Zairianization”, the Government “radicalized” the nationalization and reached an agreement with Chanic in May 1976 in which all Chanic subsidiaries in Zaire were folded into Groupe Chanimetal, with the GOZ holding 60% of the shares and 3 of 5 seats on the Conseil. The 1980s did see a reduced, though fairly stable output of 15 ships built per year and 65-75 repaired, mostly linked to investments by Onatra to upgrade its fleet.
Chanimetal in the 1970s (Ph. author coll.)
Chanimetal 1974 - newly constructed ships and barges (Ph. Chanimetal in author coll.)
The “pillage” of September 1991 dealt a severe blow to the Zairian economy. Although Chanimetal itself was not looted, the impact on its clients had nearly the same effect on the firm’s balance sheet. Orders dropped by 90%, and the company released 1000 of its 1500 employees, claiming “force majeur”. The prospects for improvement did not appear promising in the war that followed Laurent Kabila’s takeover in 1997. In 1999, Groupe Suez, which had taken over SGB, sent a young financial manager with no experience in Congo to liquidate the company. Vincent Bribosia, however, was charmed by the installations along the banks of the Congo River and believed there remained potential in the property and a future in river transport. In 2000, he bought the company. By the time he hosted a visit by King Albert II of Belgium during the 50th Anniversary of Independence celebrations in June 2010, the company was slowly gaining orders.
King Albert (white cap) visits the Chanimetal yards, June 2010 (Ph.
Chanimetal in 2011 (Ph. author coll.)
In 2013, government signed a contract to rehabilitate the Otraco towboat “MB Gungu”, first built by Chanimetal in 1976 and out of commission since 2001 and its service during the war with Rwanda and Uganda. Other orders were received from SEP Congo for towboats and barges to carry fuel upriver and with Majestic River to rehabilitate two of its river boats as cruise ships.
A worker in the Chanimetal yards - 2020 (Ph.
Chanimetal yards - 2020 (Ph.
An item of curiosity for Kinois was the fate and whereabouts of Chanimetal’s emblematic elephant which stood outside its vacated headquarters building at the Basoko site on Ave. Mondjiba and disappeared after completion of the reconstruction of Ave. Mondjiba in the 2010s. Mwana Mboka located it on the grounds of the Director General’s residence on Ave. de l’Avenir in October 2016.
(Ph. author coll.)
(Ph. author coll.)

  • Revue Coloniale Belge, Brussels, 1945-59. (multiple years) 
  • Stalins, Louis, 2020. Le Chantier Naval et Industriel du Congo. Étude de la société Chanic en tant qu’acteur et témoins de l’histoire du capitalisme belge au Congo, Mémoire, U. C. Louvain. 
  • VanderLinden, Jacques, 1983. “Une Société Coloniale et un Enfant d’Afrique Face a la Guerre”, in Le Congo Belge Durant la Seconde Guerre Mondiale, Recueil d’études, Academie Royale des Sciences d’Outremer. 
  • VanderLinden, R. 1953. Le Chantier Naval de Léopoldville, Institut Royal Colonial Belge. 
  • “Vincent au Congo”, La Libre Belgique, Sep. 9, 2010.