Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Belgian-Arab War

From 1892 until 1894 was fought the Belgian-Arab War in what was at the time it occurred the Congo Free State of SM King Leopold II. This was a conflict Belgium undertook to eradicate an ancient evil from central Africa. This was the heart of the human trafficking that had been enduring since hundreds of years in spite of being struggled against by the entire civilized world. In history the British had done away with the Arab slave trade on the African west coast (once known as the slave coast) and later by the French. This had been a major artery for slave trading by the Arab caravans across the Sahara. Over time the Portuguese abolished slave trading on the lower west coast but the Arab slave trade survived in central and eastern Africa. Africans from the Congo region were taken captive by the Arabs for shipment up the east coast or over land and rivers to Ethiopia, Sudan and on to the Middle East. Zanzibar had long been a major base for slave trading.

In 1892 the Arab slave trade based in Zanzibar was controlled by Sefu, son of Tippu Tip who had long worked for the sultans of Zanzibar providing slaves and ivory out of Central Africa. In 1886 there had been a confrontation between the agents of Tip and officials at a Belgian post on the Congo border when they claimed that a local woman was a slave who had been stolen from an Arab officer. They besieged the post and eventually captured it when the defenders ran out of ammunition and had to abandon their fort. His son Sefu then led attacks into Congo, fearing the growing presence in the area, mostly British and Belgian, who were opposed to their cartel. His force grew to some 10,000 Congolese warriors led by 500 Arab-Swahili captains of Zanzibar. It fell to the Force Publique, the military of the Congo Free State, to stop them but up to that time they were a newly formed force geared toward police and internal security duties.

Outnumbered and unprepared the Force Publique was made to retreat across the unhealthy and inhospitable terrain of the Congo which did more than they were able to in slowing the slaver army of Sefu. To save this situation came the new Belgian commander of the Force Publique, Commandant Francis Dhanis. He won the loyalty of his Congolese soldiers by not breaking up their families, allowing them many privileges and also won over the local populace by restraining his men from harming or harassing the peaceful people of the area. The slaver army, on the contrary, behaved with great savagery toward all they encountered. The turning point came at the epic six-week siege of Nyangwe on the river which was nearly destroyed as the slaver army tried to wipe out the Force Publique garrison. However, the Belgian-led Congolese heroically held off the attackers and prevailed in the end.

Forced to fall back, Dhanis pursued Sefu and his army and taking control of Kasongo which had long been a central hub of the Arab slave-trade network. Finally on 20 October 1893, west of Lake Tanganyika, the Force Publique fought the final battle in which Sefu was killed and his slave army was left without a leader and in small following engagements were totally defeated one at a time. The slave trade network was broken up and by January of 1894 the war was over with the Congo Free State Force Publique victorious and the slavers driven from the region. It was a great achievement for the Congolese soldiers and their Belgian officers (though many were not Belgians but professional hired soldiers from Scandinavian countries). Against a greater number of enemies in wild country with an unhealthy climate they had prevailed with courage to wipe out an ancient evil from central Africa.

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