No. 327.
Mr. Smyth to Mr. Seward.

Consular Series
No. 32.

Sir: I have the honor again to call your attention to Central Africa in the interest of our increasing commerce.

[Page 724]

By reference to my No. 27, dated August 7, 1879, consular series, you will observe that I expressed views favorable to this section of Africa, and forwarded an extract from a Paris letter to the London Times.

I now send you in extenso the extract from the West African Reporter of Sierra Leone, August 20, 1879; also, an editorial in which the English Home Government’s attention is invited to the subject, “European enterprise in Soudan.”

I am, &c.,

[Inclosure 1 in No. 32.—Extract.]

A Railway from Algeria to Senegal.

We are enabled to publish the following translation of a letter addressed by the minister of public works to the President of the French Republic, who has issued a decree for the appointment of the commission recommended:

Mr. President: During late years the discoveries of various travelers have shown that Central Africa is very different from what people imagined. Formerly we believed that there were only huge deserts and barren land, while now, on the contrary, it has been proved that large tribes of human beings exist there, who are more or less in a state of semi-civilization. Important towns, with many inhabitants, are built upon the shores of the lakes and the banks of the rivers. The Sahara itself is not all that has been described in unfinished and superficial observations. The movable sands, too, which were considered an impassable barrier, extending far and wide, are, in reality, only local, and, generally, the soil has a consistency and firmness which does not differ much from the soil of Europe.

Soudan appears to be the most important part of this huge continent. Some travelers reckon the population at over one hundred millions. There is a large river, the Niger, which spreads over half its extent. The inhabitants are industrious, and the elements of an international commerce seem to be in existence there to a very high degree.

Again, in surmounting difficulties, more or less considerable, this country can be approached from two sides, by Algeria and by Senegal. This problem has for the last twenty years filled the minds of many, and the time seems come to solve it practically. Two years since M. Dapouchel, one of our principal civil engineers, obtained permission from the government to go to Algeria to collect all possible information about the nature of Soudan as well as of Sahara. He was assisted by the wonderful narratives which had been published by several travelers, especially those of M. Daveyrier, by the accounts of chiefs of caravans, and by information he received from distinguished officers, who had frequently made expeditions in the south of Algeria; also, by undertaking himself an exploration on the borders of the Great Desert. M. Dapouchel has been able to publish a very interesting memoir which shows the possibility of uniting ourselves to the Niger by an unbroken line of railroad of 1,250 miles.

However bold such an idea appears, we must not treat it as an absurdity when we come to think of the wonderful results of man’s genius; above all of that grand railroad which joins San Francisco to New York, across obstacles of all kinds, over a space of nearly 3,750 miles. A railroad from Algeria to the Niger, if it be possible, will certainly cost less than cutting the Isthmus of Panama, in the way it was decided at the International Congress held lately at Paris. Struck by M. Dapouchel’s report, I felt we ought no longer to remain inactive. I have formed a provisional committee, consisting of several distinguished members of my department, and I have consulted with them on the value of these ideas of M. Dapouchel’s. After a long deliberation this committee drew up the following statement on the 12th of June:

The committee consider that there exists in Soudan a large population, a fertile soil, and natural riches which are uncultivated. It is very important to open outlets for commerce through the French possessions, which are the most favorably situated for this purpose. France ought to follow the example of England, and do her best to induce the caravans to cross French territory instead of only coming to its borders.
The opening of a railroad joining our possessions in Algeria with Soudan is necessary in order to obtain this double result.
It is also necessary to join Senegal with the Niger.
The explorations or surveys of the undertaking ought to be directed simultaneously from Senegal and from Algeria, and the plans ought to include both directions.
South of Algeria, the uncertainty which exists regarding the topography, the climate, the resources, and the inhabitants of certain parts of the Sahara, makes it necessary to proceed with care in order to avoid mistakes and military complications.
It will be advantageous to start immediately with a preliminary line between Biskra and Ouargla of about 200 miles. This line can be joined by the Hodua to the line from Algiers to Constantine. As far as Ouargla ordinary escorts appear sufficient to protect all operations.
A credit of 800 I will be demanded to meet the expense of the surveys and the needs of the explorers.

After this full statement, if I had felt any hesitation it would all have vanished before the general opinion which was simultaneously manifested in the two chambers in favor of this same question. In the Chambre des Députés, the budget committee having to decide on the amendment of Mr. Paul Bert expressed themselves in these terms through their secretary, M. Rouvier:

“Your commission, gentlemen, is very sympathetic with the object of the amendment. Africa is attracting the attention of the civilized world more and more. France, situated nearer this continent than most other nations, more directly interested in its future by her possessions in Algeria, in Senegal, in Gaboon, and by her numerous factories established on the west coast, France cannot but take her part in this movement, which is drawing Europe towards those regions in Africa, the wealth of which we are just beginning to see. Do not the greatness and the interests of our country command us to place ourselves at the head of this movement?”

In the Senate, the commission on the railroads of Algeria has not been less explicit. Their report concluded thus on the subject of an amendment of M. Caillaux:

“The majority of the committee, for these motives, has not thought it necessary to adopt the amendment of M. Caillaux. The committee, however, unanimously agree to the surveys which are necessary for the execution of the railroad across the Sahara; they are certainly convinced that it is greatly to the interests and to the advantage of our country for us to solve this problem of the basin of the Niger, and to be in advance regarding the civilization of those countries which our colony of Algeria opens to us.”

The committee had even fancied that they ought to settle in general terms a line from Algeria to Soudan. If they have given up this, it is in consequence of the engagement made in the tribune” on July 5, by the minister of public works, that we should commence with more reliable surveys. “Under these conditions the government ought to enter resolutely, but still with prudence, on the path which is marked out.

Consequently, I have the honor of proposing to you, Mr. President, to name a general commission, in which different and special interests should be represented, and to which should be appointed members of Parliament. This commission would have in its power the definite plan of the surveys to be undertaken. They would extend the programme indicated by the preparatory commission. They would draw up instructions for exploring expeditions. They would decide how these expeditions are to be undertaken in order to be sufficiently extensive without compromising France or endangering life. They would gather together all the results obtained, and they would draw up such reports as will enable us to come to a conclusion upon the possibility of uniting Algeria and Senegal to Soudan by railroad.

Whatever be the issue of such an enterprise, it will always be an honor to France to have tried it, and she will have something beneficial to bequeath to the future. If you accept this view, Mr. President, I beg you to give your approbation to the present report as well as the decree which accompanies it.

I have the honor to be, &c., &c., &c.,

[Inclosure 2 in No 32.—Extract from the West African Reporter, August 20, 1879]

European enterprise in Soudan.

The leading nations of Europe have their eyes upon Africa, and a very few years will doubtless bring about the most important changes at least in the physical aspects of certain portions of interior Negroland. We take the following from the Times of July 15, 1879, as to efforts making by the French:

“A commisssion has been appointed by M. de Freycinet to report on the feasibility of a railway between Algeria, the Soudan, and Senegal. The population is estimated, remarks M. de Freycinet, at one hundred millions. The Niger traverses half of it. The inhabitants are industrious. The moving sands, formerly considered universal, are only a local accident, and the soil is everywhere similar to that of European soils. A railway from Algeria to the Niger would not exceed 2,000 kilometers, and would be much less costly than the projected Panama Canal.

“A preliminary commission has already recommended the scheme, one ground being that it would repress the internal slave trade; but it enjoins circumspection, on account of the imperfect knowledge of certain parts of Sahara. It, therefore, suggests a survey for a line of 300 kilometers between Biskra and Ouargla, to be connected [Page 726] with the Algiers and Constantine line, and that explorations should he made beyond Ouargla towards the Niger. The budget committee and a senatorial committee on Algerian railways have also pronounced in favor of France taking an active part in the opening up of Central Africa.

“The commission now appointed is headed by General d’Andigné and Mendes, and includes M. de Lesseps, various senators and deputies and a number of engineers.”

According to the speech of M. Victor Hugo, to which we have before referred in these columns, Africa is the common property of the European nations, to be appropriated for European purposes with or without the consent of its inhabitants, who, according to another authority, are only “lazy, palavering savages.” In making their allotments of this big farm, of course not the slightest regard will be paid to such insignificant obstacles as Ashantees and Zulus, notwithstanding the reminder which a recent magnificent funeral should furnish to the French nation.

Fifty years ago there was prevalent with reference to Africa and her people a spirit of conventional depreciation. This is now giving way to a spirit of conventional admiration for the country, if not for its inhabitants. The former spirit was the off-spring of ignorance; more accurate information is causing it to yield to the latter spirit.

England has always taken the lead in legislative and philanthropic measures in behalf of Africa and her people; and therefore Africans so readily condone what may be at times objectionable to them in the conduct of isolated Englishmen abroad.

The portion of the continent to which French enterprise is about to be directed was opened to the world by English sagacity and energy. It has been extensively explored and reported upon only by Barth and Richardson, who made their celebrated journeys under the auspices of the British Government a quarter of a century ago.

In 1855 Dr. Barth reached Tripoli, having twice crossed the Sahara, and traversed and retraversed twenty degrees of longitude in that portion of the continent. One of his native assistants, who accompanied him from Tripoli to Timbuctoo, is now a resident of this settlement.

When thirty years ago it was felt that the labors of Mungo Park, of Denham and Clapperton, needed completion in the thorough exploration of the countries south of the Great Desert, England, as the first of commercial nations, could not rest without more accurate knowledge of the natural capacities of a region known to be populous, and without endeavoring to open new and easier routes of communication with it. Richardson and Barth were in trusted with the task of carrying out the explorations.

Richardson lost his life amid his arduous and hazardous labors. Barth barely lived to publish the results of his observations, giving a full account of the geography, ethnology, history, industry, and commerce of Negroland; and the world was for the first time apprised of its industrial activity and wealth. We learned of the existence of towns whose history dated as far back as 1200 A. D., which was considered a respectable antiquity for negro towns; large cities like Kano, of 30,000 inhabitants, were described to us, and the surprising information was imparted of centers of activity in the heart of Soudan, of a complex and widely ramified commerce, busy hives of manufacturing industry, and extensive specimens of skillful agricluture. And all these places are within a few weeks’ journey of Sierra Leone. Visitors come to the settlement from Kankan, Sego, Katsena, Sokoto, Kano. Barth says:

“The principal commerce of Kano consists in native produce, namely, the cotton cloth woven and dyed here or in the neighboring towns, in the form of tobes, or the oblong piece of dress of dark blue color worn by women, the plaid of various colors, &c. In taking a general view of the subject, I think myself justified in estimating the whole produce of this manufacture, as far as it is sold abroad, at the very least, at about three hundred millions (cowries), and how great this national wealth is will be understood by my readers when they know that with from fifty to sixty thousand cowries or from four to five pounds sterling a year a whole family may live in that country with ease, including every expense, even that of their clothing; and we must remember that the province is one of the most fertile spots on the earth, and is able to produce not only the supply of corn necessary for its population but can also export, and that it possesses besides the finest pasture-grounds.”—(Vol. ii, pp. 125–127.)

These products are purchased by Arab traders and taken to Egypt and the Mediterranean. Such is the constant intercourse between that region of country and Europe, through Tripoli and Tunis, that it is said bills of exchange on Europe have been negotiated at Sokoto. Bishop Crowther informed us that a letter from Europe reached him at Lagos, through Tunis, via Sokoto and Ashantee.

Notwithstanding the efforts being put forth by the French to monopolize the valuable products of that country, England may yet so utilize Gambia and Sierra Leone as to control a much greater portion of Nigritia and Soudan than France can ever influence.

During the last trading season, a few months ago, we had caravans from Timbuctoo, from Sego, and from the gold diggings at Bouré These “strangers” who had not [Page 727] been among ns in such large numbers for several years expressed themselves as highly gratified at the results of their visit, and especially at the kind treatment they received from the authorities.

The governor-in-chief, we believe, sent a messenger to accompany them on their return as far as Sego. This was a very important move on the part of Governor Rowe, and if such generous treatment of our interior tribes by the officials is followed up by-energetic efforts on the part of English capitalists, the English would easily secure that commercial ascendency in Soudan which, in view of the large expenditure and sacrifices they have made to open up that country, they richly deserve. Sir Michael Hicks-Beach has already declared it to be the policy of the British Government to push forward civilization in Africa; and they will certainly support any intelligent and well directed commercial effort in the interior of Sierra Leone and the Gambia.

Considering the present demand by European manufacturers for commercial openings in Africa, the governor-in-chief of these settlements occupies one of the most important positions in the civil service of the empire. He has before him a field for high achievements not only for his own reputation, but in the interest of commerce, civilization, and humanity.