Have a coffee in downtown Kinshasa, and you’ll be in the capital city of a country that has changed its name more times than most English people change their underwear.
Today, the country is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but it’s also been known as Congo-Kinshasa and DR Congo, sometimes the DROC or the DRC, and other times as Congo or The Congo, and, of course, formerly as Zaire.
If that isn’t confusing enough, it was, in 1886, the Belgium Congo, and Kinshasa was Léopoldville, because the country, the largest in sub-Saharan Africa, second only to Algeria in the whole of the African continent, and eleventh on the entire planet, was the private breadbasket of King Leopold II of Belgium, who exploited it’s natural resources, and didn’t give a waffle for anyone who might’ve lived there before he arrived.
In that same year, an expedition was underway to help the embattled and entrapped governor of the Anglo-Egyptian province of Equatoria, now a region of southern Sudan, and once including most of northern Uganda, who was having trouble with the irritable Mahdists.
The Mahdists, by the way, were uprising for reasons so convoluted we’d need another whole essay and a song from Danny Kaye to attempt to explain them, but generally, the Sudanese were angry at the Ottoman rulers, the Muslims were infuriated with a lack of religiosity among the Turkish, no-one was enamoured with the appointment of Christians in the region as leaders, the Sufi didn’t take to the Egyptian officials at all well, and everyone was annoyed that they couldn’t trade slaves anymore, which had been a staple of the region for centuries.
And so they uprose.
The forlorn governor trying to keep some semblance of peace was a Polish Jewish doctor called Isaak Eduard Schnitzer, though he soon became Mehmed Emin Pasha, and, eventually, just Emin Pasha.
Having been disqualified from medical practice in Germany, Schnitzer left Europe and went to ingratiate himself into the Ottoman Empire, but only reached Montenegro, where he found he liked the gravlax, and stayed, becoming the quarantine officer at the port and learning an additional three languages to add to those he already knew, Turkish, Albanian, and Greek. From here, he joined the court of Ismail Hakki Pasha, the governor of northern Albania, whose wife he appears to have annexed upon the Pasha's death in 1873.
His journey to governor was thus underway.
Much later on, of course, it would be his governorship, or lack thereof, that ignited the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition, led by Sir Henry Morton Stanley, the very same Stanley who searched for David Livingstone, the Scottish physician and Christian missionary, in an attempt to find Emin and relieve his position, after Muhammed Ahmad and then Karam Allah had led revolts to capture Equatoria, and had cut the region off from the rest of the world.
So now we have the American Stanley, who was actually Welsh, and really called John Rowlands, a name he changed to sound more expeditionary, looking for Mehmed Emin Pasha, who was actually Polish, and originally Schnitzer.
Before we get there though, Emin left the Pasha's wife and children somewhere near an oasis, and disappeared for several years, before miraculously returning to start a health practice, this time in Khartoum. He seems to have become Muslim by default rather than conversion, but that didn’t stop him coming to the attention of Major-General Charles George Gordon, the then governor of Equatoria, who employed the acculturated man as both chief medical officer and private emissary, and Emin traveled to wonderfully-named places like Bunyoro and Buganda to deliver and retrieve missives in the local Lugandan language.
Incidentally, Gordon was also known as Chinese Gordon, Gordon Pasha, and Gordon of Khartoum, just to add to this moniker-challenged narrative.
When Gordon determined he’d had enough of governing in 1876, the title and responsibility was bestowed upon Emin Pasha, who gained a ragtag army of a few thousand soldiers who patrolled, and now and again controlled, about one square mile of land. Emin was largely ignored as an influencer of any sort by all and sundry, and instead spent his time collecting samples of foliage, animals, birds, and artefacts, many of which ended up in European museums.
And there he sat, chewing the khat.
That is until he was surrounded by the Mahdist forces of Karam Allah and called for help by getting a message to his friend Wilhelm Junker, who called in the cavalry. Junker, incidentally, was actually Russian, but claimed to be German, and why not.
And so, down the Congo River and through the Ituri Forest came Stanley and his men. Stanley, the Welsh Rowlands, was searching for Emin, the Polish Schnitzer, after Junker, the Russian German, had been alerted, and all while Chinese Gordon was silently pushing up umbrella-thorn acacias.
Stanley finally managed to reach Emin in 1888, with only two-thirds of the party still alive, including one James Sligo Jameson.
Jameson, heir to the famous Irish whiskey dynasty founded in 1780 and now owned by the French distiller Pernod Ricard, also counted himself an explorer, and was keen to experience real life in the Belgian Congo, or Black Africa, as he called it, a precursor to Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski’s Heart of Darkness, published eleven years later, and set in this exact region.
The party arrived in a village called Riba Riba, which was burned to the ground five years after the expedition party’s visit, by the Belgian colonial official and, it seems, arsonist, Louis-Napoléon Chaltin, and is known today as Lokandu, and were greeted with the appropriate reverence of the time. And, Jameson, with the subtlety of the colonial moment, inquired as to the Congolese practice of cannibalism.
“In England,” said the Irishman, “we hear much about cannibals who eat people, but being myself in the place, I would like to see it in person.”
And so he did. For the price of six handkerchiefs.
Within moments, a ten-year-old slave girl was dragged to the clearing where the expeditionary party sat, quickly and silently stabbed to death, cut up, and shared equally between her executioner-butchers, who carried away the ‘meat’ to their respective pots.
Although Jameson later tried to amend the tale, and witnesses strangely recanted sworn statements, and his widow produced a deathbed confession that contrived to paint him as an innocent bystander who was too shocked to do anything but watch, Jameson still managed to sketch the scene for prosperity, using a nice sharp pencil.
In the end it took Stanley an entire year to convince Emin, who’d experienced a confluence of circumstances that led him to a rank in society he’d probably not have been able to achieve as Schnitzer the doctor in Germany, to leave the region under the protection of the party, which they eventually did, arriving in Bagamoyo in 1890, where Emin joined the German East Africa Company, many rungs down the ladder from Governor, Bey, and Pasha, and explored and recorded areas of natural and economic interest for the Company.
In 1890, Emin was awarded the Founder's Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society, mainly for his contribution to the understanding of the region’s zoological makeup, and was immortalised in the naming of two inhabitants, the Emin Pasha's worm snake, or Leptotyphlops emini, and the indigenous sparrow, the Chestnut sparrow Passer eminibey.
Two years later, while exploring the lakes of the interior along with his colleague
Franz Ludwig Stuhlmann, a German naturalist from Germany with a German name, Emin Pasha was killed by two Arab slave traders, during an argument at Kiena Station in the Congo Free State, yet another name for this misunderstood, maltreated, and misappropriated region.
And with that ended the odd journey of Isaak Eduard Schnitzer Mehmed Emin Pasha.
photo by Mhmd Sedky