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Congo River

For other uses, see Congo River (disambiguation).
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Congo River
The ninth longest river in the world
Aerial view of the Congo River near Kisangani
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This page is a soft redirect.Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo-Kinshasa, Gabon, Congo-Brazzaville, Rwanda, Tanzania, Zambia

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Atlantic Ocean
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This page is a soft redirect.4,700 km (2,920 mi) [1]

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The Congo River (also known as the Zaire River; French: (le) fleuve Congo / Zaïre; Portuguese: rio Congo / Zaire) is a river in Africa and the world's deepest river with measured depths in excess of Script error: No such module "convert"..[2] It is the second largest river in the world by discharge (after the Amazon). The Congo-Chambeshi river has an overall length of Script error: No such module "convert"., which makes it the ninth longest river (in terms of discharge, the Chambeshi is a tributary of the Lualaba River, Lualaba being the name of the Congo River upstream of the Boyoma Falls, extending for 1,800 km). Measured along the Lualaba, the Congo River has a total length of Script error: No such module "convert"., The Congo Basin has a total area of about 4 million km2, or 13% of the entire African landmass.


The Congo river got its name from the Kingdom of Kongo which was situated on the left banks of the river estuary. The kingdom is in turn named for its Bantu population, in the 17th century reported as Esikongo. South of the Kongo kingdom proper lay the similarly named Kakongo kingdom, mentioned in 1535. Abraham Ortelius in his world map of 1564 labels as Manicongo the city at the mouth of the river.[3] The tribal names in kongo possibly derive from a word for a public gathering or tribal assembly.[4]

The name Zaire is from a Portuguese adaptation of a Kikongo word nzere ("river"), a truncation of nzadi o nzere ("river swallowing rivers"),[5] The river was known as Zaire during the 16th and 17th centuries; Congo seems to have replaced Zaire gradually in English usage during the 18th century, and Congo is the preferred English name in 19th-century literature, although references to Zahir or Zaire as the name used by the natives (i.e. derived from Portuguese usage) remained common.[6]

The Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of the Congo are named after it, as was the previous Republic of the Congo which had gained independence in 1960 from the Belgian Congo.

The state of Zaire during 1971–1997 was also named for the river, after its name in French and Portuguese.

Basin and course

Main article: Congo Basin

The Congo's drainage basin covers Script error: No such module "convert"..[1] The Congo's discharge at its mouth ranges from Script error: No such module "convert"., with an average of Script error: No such module "convert"..[1]

The river and its tributaries flow through the Congo rainforest, the second largest rain forest area in the world, second only to the Amazon Rainforest in South America. The river also has the second-largest flow in the world, behind the Amazon; the third-largest drainage basin of any river, behind the Amazon and Plate rivers; and is one of the deepest rivers in the world, at depths greater than Script error: No such module "convert"..[2][7] Because its drainage basin includes areas both north and south of the equator, its flow is stable, as there is always at least one part of the river experiencing a rainy season.[8]

The sources of the Congo are in the highlands and mountains of the East African Rift, as well as Lake Tanganyika and Lake Mweru, which feed the Lualaba River, which then becomes the Congo below Boyoma Falls. The Chambeshi River in Zambia is generally taken as the source of the Congo in line with the accepted practice worldwide of using the longest tributary, as with the Nile River.

The Congo flows generally northwards from Kisangani just below the Boyoma falls, then gradually bends southwestwards, passing by Mbandaka, joining with the Ubangi River, and running into the Pool Malebo (Stanley Pool). Kinshasa (formerly Léopoldville) and Brazzaville are on opposite sides of the river at the Pool, where the river narrows and falls through a number of cataracts in deep canyons (collectively known as the Livingstone Falls), running by Matadi and Boma, and into the sea at the small town of Muanda.

The Congo River Basin is one of the distinct physiographic sections of the larger Mid-African province, which in turn is part of the larger African massive physiographic division.


File:CongoLualaba watershed plain political.png
Course and Drainage basin of the Congo River with countries marked
File:CongoLualaba watershed topo.png
Course and Drainage basin of the Congo River with topography shading.

Sorted in order from the mouth heading upstream.

Lower Congo

Downstream of Kinshasa, there are no important tributaries.

Middle Congo
Upper Congo

Upstream of Boyoma Falls near Kisangani, the river Congo is known as the Lualaba River.

Economic importance

File:Oxfam East Africa - Mbandaka market.jpg
The town of Mbandaka is a busy port on the banks of the Congo River.
File:Congo maluku.jpg
The Congo River at Maluku.

Although the Livingstone Falls prevent access from the sea, nearly the entire Congo is readily navigable in sections, especially between Kinshasa and Kisangani. Large river steamers worked the river until quite recently. The Congo River still is a lifeline in a land with few roads or railways.[9]

Railways now bypass the three major falls, and much of the trade of Central Africa passes along the river, including copper, palm oil (as kernels), sugar, coffee, and cotton.[citation needed] The river is also potentially valuable for hydroelectric power, and the Inga Dams below Pool Malebo are first to exploit the Congo river.

Hydro-electric power

See also: Inga dams

The Congo River is the most powerful river in Africa. During the rainy season over Script error: No such module "convert". of water per second flow into the Atlantic Ocean. Opportunities for the Congo River and its tributaries to generate hydropower are therefore enormous. Scientists have calculated that the entire Congo Basin accounts for thirteen percent of global hydropower potential. This would provide sufficient power for all of sub-Saharan Africa's electricity needs.[10]

Currently there are about forty hydropower plants in the Congo Basin. The largest is the Inga Falls dam, about Script error: No such module "convert". southwest of Kinshasa. The prestigious Inga Project was launched in the early 1970s and at that time the first dam was completed. The plan as originally conceived called for the construction of five dams that would have had a total generating capacity of 34,500 megawatts. To date only two dams have been built, which are the Inga I and Inga II, with a total of fourteen turbines.[10]

In February 2005, South Africa's state-owned power company, Eskom, announced a proposal to increase the capacity of the Inga dramatically through improvements and the construction of a new hydroelectric dam. The project would bring the maximum output of the facility to Script error: No such module "convert"., twice that of China's Three Gorges Dam.[11]

It is feared that these new hydroelectric dams could lead to the extinction of many of the fish species that are endemic to the river.[12]

Natural history

File:Chutes Livingstone.jpg
The beginning of the Livingstone Falls (Lower Congo Rapids) near Kinshasa

The current course of the Congo River formed 1.5-2 million years BP, during the Pleistocene.[13]

The Congo's formation may have led to the allopatric speciation of the bonobo and the common chimpanzee from their most recent common ancestor.[14] The bonobo is endemic to the humid forests in the region, as are other iconic species like the Allen's swamp monkey, dryas monkey, aquatic genet, okapi and Congo peafowl.[15][16]

In terms of aquatic life, the Congo River Basin has a very high species richness, and among the highest known concentrations of endemics.[17] Until now, almost 700 fish species have been recorded from the Congo River Basin, and large sections remain virtually unstudied.[18] Due to this and the great ecological differences between the regions in the basin, it is often divided into multiple ecoregions (instead of treating it as a single ecoregion). Among these ecoregions, the Lower Congo Rapids alone has more than 300 fish species, including approximately 80 endemics[12] while the southwestern part (Kasai Basin) alone has more than 200 fish species, of which about a quarter are endemic.[19] The dominant fish families–at least in parts of the river–are Cyprinidae (carp/cyprinids, such as Labeo simpsoni), Mormyridae (elephantfishes), Alestidae (African tetras), Mochokidae (squeaker catfishes), and Cichlidae (cichlids).[20] Among the natives in the river is the huge, highly carnivorous giant tigerfish. Two of the more unusual endemic cichlids are the whitish (non-pigmented) and blind Lamprologus lethops, which is believed to live as deep as Script error: No such module "convert". below the surface,[12] and Heterochromis multidens, which appears to be more closely related to cichlids of the Americas than other Africa cichlid.[21] There are also numerous endemic frogs and snails.[20][22] Several hydroelectric dams are planned on the river, and these may lead to the extinction of many of the endemics.[12]

Several species of turtles, and the slender-snouted, Nile and dwarf crocodile are native to the Congo River Basin. African manatees inhabit the lower parts of the river.[23]


File:Mercator Congo map.jpg
17th-century map of the Congo estuary
File:Routes of European explorers in Africa, to 1853.jpg
In this 1853 map of Africa, the remaining Unexplored Region essentially corresponds to the Congo basin

The entire Congo basin is populated by Bantu peoples, divided into several hundred ethnic or tribal groups (see ethnic groups of the Democratic Republic of the Congo). Bantu expansion is estimated to have reached the Middle Congo by about 500 BC, and the Upper Congo by the beginning of the Common Era. Remnants of the aboriginal population displaced by the Bantu migration, Pygmies/Abatwa of the Ubangian phylum, remain in the remote forest areas of the Congo basin.

The Kingdom of Kongo was formed around 1400 on the left banks of the lower Congo River. Its territorial control along the river remained limited to what corresponds to the modern Bas-Congo province. European exploration of the Congo begins in 1482, when Portuguese explorer Diogo Cão discovered the river estuary (likely in August 1482), which he marked by a Padrão, or stone pillar (still existing, but only in fragments) erected on Shark Point. Cão also sailed up the river for a short distance, establishing contact with the Kingdom of Congo. The course of the river remained unknown throughout the early modern period.[24]

The upper Congo basin runs west of the Albertine Rift. Its connection to the Congo was unknown until 1877. The extreme northeast of the Congo basin was reached by the Nilotic expansion at some point between the 15th and 18th centuries, by the ancestors of the Southern Luo speaking Alur people. Francisco de Lacerda following the Zambezi reached the uppermost part of the Congo basin (the Kazembe in the upper Luapula basin) in 1796.

The upper Congo River, known as the Lualaba was first reached by the Arab slave trade by the 19th century. Nyangwe was founded as a slavers' outpost around 1860. David Livingstone was the first European to reach Nyangwe in 1871. Livingstone proposed to prove that the Lualaba connected to the Nile, but on 15 July, he witnessed a massacre of about 400 Africans by Arab slavers in Nyangwe, which experience left him too horrified and shattered to continue his mission to find the sources of the Nile, so he turned back to Lake Tanganyika.[25][26]

File:Advance Column of the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition 1890.jpg
Henry M Stanley with the officers of the Advance Column, Cairo, 1890. From the left: Dr. Thomas Heazle Parke, Robert H. Nelson, Henry M. Stanley, William G. Stairs, and Arthur J. M. Jephson

The middle reaches of the Congo remained unexplored from either the east or west, until Henry Morton Stanley's expedition of 1876/7. At the time one of the last open questions of the exploration of Africa (or indeed of the world) whether the Lualaba river fed the Nile (Livingstone's theory), the Congo[27] or even the Niger. Financed in 1874, Stanley's first trans-Africa exploration started in Zanzibar, and reached the Lualaba on 17 October 1876. Overland he reached Nyangwe, the centre of a lawless area containing cannibal tribes at which Tippu Tip based his trade in slaves. Stanley managed to hire a force from Tippu Tip, to guard him for the next Script error: No such module "convert". or so, for 90 days. The party left Nyangwe overland through the dense Matimba forest. On 19 November they reached the Lualaba again. Since the going through the forest was so heavy, Tippu Tip turned around with his party on December 28, leaving Stanley on his own, with 143 people, including 8 children and 16 women. They had 23 canoes. His first encounter with a local tribe was with the cannibal Wenya. In total Stanley would report 32 unfriendly meetings on the river, some violent, even though he attempted to negotiate a peaceful thoroughfare. But the tribes were wary as their only experience of outsiders was of slave traders, and they could not understand his motive of exploration.

On 6 January 1877, after Script error: No such module "convert"., they reached Boyoma Falls (called Stanley Falls for some time after), consisting of seven cataracts spanning Script error: No such module "convert". which they had to pass overland. It took them to 7 February to reach the end of the Falls. Here Stanley learned that the river was called Ikuta Yacongo,[28] proving to him that he had reached the Congo, and that the Lualaba did not feed the Nile.

From this point, the tribes were no longer cannibals, but possessed firearms, apparently as a result of Portuguese influence. Some four weeks and Script error: No such module "convert". later he reached Stanley Pool (now Pool Malebo), the site of the present day cities Kinshasa and Brazzaville. Further downstream were the Livingstone Falls, misnamed as Livingstone had never been on the Congo: a series of 32 falls and rapids with a fall of Script error: No such module "convert". over Script error: No such module "convert".. On 15 March they started the descent of the falls, which took five months and cost numerous lives. From the Isangile Falls, five falls from the foot, they beached the canoes and Lady Alice and left the river, aiming for the Portuguese outpost of Boma via land. On 3 August they reached the hamlet Nsada. From there Stanley sent four men with letters forward to Boma, asking for food for his starving people. On 7 August relief came, being sent by representatives from the Liverpool trading firm Hatton & Cookson. On 9 August they reached Boma, 1,001 days since leaving Zanzibar on November 12, 1874. The party then consisted of 108 people, including three children born during the trip. Most probably (Stanley's own publications give inconsistent figures), he lost 132 people through disease, hunger, drowning, killing and desertion.[29]

Kinshasa was founded as a trading post by Henry Morton Stanley in 1881 and named Léopoldville in honor of Leopold II of Belgium. The Congo basin was claimed by Belgium as Congo Free State in 1885.


File:Monument aux pionniers belges au Congo 001.jpg
Congo River Allegory by Thomas Vinçotte.[30]
  • 1837: Silence – A Fable is a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, written in 1837 (see: bibliography). "The region of which I speak is a dreary region in Libya, by the borders of the river Zaire."
  • 1878: Henry Morton Stanley documented his journey down the Congo River in Through the Dark Continent, first published in 1878.[31]
  • 1899: Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is a short novel about Charles Marlow's life as an ivory transporter down the Congo River in Central Africa. The river is "a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land".
  • 1914: American poet Vachel Lindsay portrays a dark and savage society around the Congo River in his 1914 poem The Congo: A Study of the Negro Race.
  • 1921: The Congo is mentioned in Langston Hughes's poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers".
  • 1930: Both Congo River and basin form the setting of Hoity Toity, the Soviet science fiction novel by Alexander Belyayev.
  • 1980: The Congo River is featured in a chapter of Michael Crichton's novel Congo (published in 1980), as well as in the 1995 film based on the book.
  • 1995: The Congo River is featured in the action film Congo, by director Frank Marshall, although it is not mentioned by name in the film. The film is based on the 1980 novel of the same name by Michael Crichton.
  • 1996: British author Redmond O'Hanlon has a travelogue published by Penguin Books under the title of Congo Journey (1996).
  • 1998: The river's history is discussed in the 1998 book King Leopold's Ghost (by Adam Hochschild).
  • 2006: The river's history is discussed in the book Brazza, A Life for Africa (by Maria Petringa, Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2006).
  • 2007: The Congo River and the Democratic Republic of Congo are the scenario for the 2007 book Blood River by journalist Tim Butcher,[32] based on his intrepid travels up and down Africa's second longest river. Blood River was an attempt to retrace Henry Morton Stanley's trip down the Congo River, documented in Through the Dark Continent (first published, 1878), and was shortlisted for the 2008 British Book Awards.
  • 2010: The Congo River is a central element in the 2010 novel by Mario Vargas Llosa, El sueño del celta (The Dream of the Celt), a fictionalisation of episodes in the life of the Irishman Roger Casement. The book is to be published in English in 2012.
  • 2012: Phil Harwood's book "Canoeing the Congo" [33] and amateur film "Mazungu Canoeing the Congo" document his five month solo journey by Canadian canoe.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Bossche, J.P. vanden; G. M. Bernacsek (1990). Source Book for the Inland Fishery Resources of Africa, Volume 1. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. pp. 338–339. ISBN 978-92-5-102983-1. 
  2. ^ a b Oberg, Kevin (July 2008). "Discharge and Other Hydraulic Measurements for Characterizing the Hydraulics of Lower Congo River, July 2008" (PDF). U.S. Geological Survey. 
  3. ^ Manikongo is properly the title of the kings of Kongo; their capital was at the site of modern M'banza-Kongo, capital of Orteilus had no knowledge of the orography of Africa and draws fictitious courses for its rivers; his Congo upstream of its estuary turns sharply south, flowing through what would correspond to Angola and Botswana.
  4. ^ "It is probable that the word 'Kongo' itself implies a public gathering and that it is based on the root konga, 'to gather' (trans[itive]). The usual inerpretations, admittedly unsatisfactory (Laman, 1953, p. 10), make the mistake of being too concrete; for example, they may claim that "Kongo" comes from n'kongo ('hunter')". Wyatt MacGaffey, Custom and government in the Lower Congo, University of California Press, 1970, p. 112. The modern name of the Kongo people or Bakongo was introduced in the early 20th century.
  5. ^ Forbath, Peter. The River Congo (1977), p. 19.
  6. ^ James Barbot, An Abstract of a Voyage to Congo River, Or the Zair, and to Cabinde in the Year 1700 (1746). James Hingston Tuckey, Narrative of an Expedition to Explore the River Zaire, Usually Called the Congo, in South Africa, in 1816 (1818). "Congo River, called Zahir, or Zaire by the natives" John Purdy, Memoir, Descriptive and Explanatory, to Accompany the New Chart of the Ethiopic Or Southern Atlantic Ocean, 1822, p. 112.
  7. ^ "Monster Fish of the Congo". National Geographic Channel. 2009. 
  8. ^ The Congo River. Retrieved on 2011-11-29.
  9. ^ See, for instance, Thierry Michel's film Congo River
  10. ^ a b Alain Nubourgh, Belgian Technical Cooperation (BTC). (2010-04-27). Retrieved on 2011-11-29.
  11. ^ Vasagar, Jeevan (2005-02-25). "Could a $50bn plan to tame this mighty river bring electricity to all of Africa?". World news (London: The Guardian). Retrieved 2010-04-30. 
  12. ^ a b c d Norlander, Britt (20 April 2009). "Rough waters: one of the world's most turbulent rivers is home to a wide array of fish species. Now, large dams are threatening their future". Science World. 
  13. ^ Leonard C. Beadle (1981). The inland waters of tropical Africa: an introduction to tropical limnology. Longman. p. 475. ISBN 978-0-582-46341-7. Retrieved 2 April 2011.  "It is hypothesized that in the late Pliocene or early Pleistocene, a coastal Lower Guinean river captured Malebo Pool, connecting the previously interior Congo Basin to the ocean." Thieme et al., Freshwater Ecoregions of Africa and Madagascar: A Conservation Assessment Ecoregions Assessments, Island Press, 2005, p. 297.
  14. ^ Caswell JL, Mallick S, Richter DJ et al. (2008). "Analysis of chimpanzee history based on genome sequence alignments". PLoS Genet. 4 (4): e1000057. PMC 2278377. PMID 18421364. doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.1000057. 
  15. ^ Kingdon, Jonathan (1997). The Kingdon Guide to African Mammals. London: Academic Press Limited. ISBN 0-1240-8355-2. 
  16. ^ BirdLife International (2008). "Afropavo congensis". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2010.4. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 2 May 2011. 
  17. ^ Dickman, Kyle (2009-11-03). "Evolution in the Deepest River in the World". Science & Nature. Smithsonian Magazine. 
  18. ^ Freshwater Ecoregions of the World (2008). Sudanic Congo – Oubangi. Accessed 2 May 2011.
  19. ^ Freshwater Ecoregions of the World (2008). Kasai. Accessed 2 May 2011.
  20. ^ a b Freshwater Ecoregions of the World (2008). Upper Lualaba. Accessed 2 May 2011.
  21. ^ Kullander, S.O. (1998). A phylogeny and classification of the South American Cichlidae (Teleostei: Perciformes). pp. 461–498 in Malabarba, L., et al. (eds.), Phylogeny and Classification of Neotropical Fishes, Porto Alegre.
  22. ^ Freshwater Ecoregions of the World (2008). Lower Congo Rapids. Accessed 2 May 2011.
  23. ^ Powell, J. & Kouadio, A. (2008). "Trichechus senegalensis". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2014.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 22 September 2014. 
  24. ^ The Dieppe maps of the mid 16th century show the Congo only as a minor river, while having the Nile run throughout the continent, rising in Southern Africa. The same interpretation is in essence still found in Jan Blaeu's Atlas Maior of 1660. Jacques Bellin's map of the Congo in Histoire Generale Des Voyages by Antoine François Prévost (1754) shows awareness of the river reaching further inland, to the inclusion of the provinces of Sundi and Pango, but has no detailed knowledge of its course.
  25. ^ Livingstone, David (2012). Livingstone's 1871 Field Diary. A Multispectral Critical Edition. UCLA Digital Library: Los Angeles, CA. Available <>
  26. ^ See also Jeal, Tim (1973). Livingstone. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. Pp. 331-335.
  27. ^ Jeal, 2007 p. 188-219.
  28. ^ Jeal, 2007 p. 199; February 7, 1877
  29. ^ Jeal, 2007 p. 217. Stanley, Henry M. (1988). Through the Dark Continent. Dover Publications. pp. 432 pages. ISBN 0-486-25667-7. 
  30. ^ Brussels, Monument to Congo pionniers, 50th Jubileum Park.
  31. ^ Through the Dark continent. Open Library. Retrieved on 2011-11-29.
  32. ^ Paul Theroux (27 May 2011). "The places in between". Financial Times. Retrieved 26 June 2011. 
  33. ^ Harwood, P. (2012). Canoeing the Congo: First Source to Sea Descent of the Congo River. Matador. ISBN 978-1780880075.

External links

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