Monday, January 10, 2011

Captain William Stairs

Captain William Grant Stairs is someone, I think, who should be given a moment of memory because after all of his adventures in his life many of his own people did not view him with admiration because of his service in the employ of the King of the Belgians. He was a Canadian, born in Halifax and went to school there, in Scotland and in Ontario province. He became an engineer and worked in New Zealand and in 1885 was commissioned as an officer in the British Royal Engineers (army) and trained in England. In 1891 he joined the famous Welch Regiment. In the time between these two positions he went on a great adventure to central Africa. He joined, in 1887, the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition led by the great explorer Henry Morton Stanley, still one of the most famous explorers in the world, especially African explorers. The purpose of the expedition was to relieve the besieged forces of Emin Pasha, governor of Equatoria for the British General Charles Gordon who was Governor-General of the Sudan and engaged in a war against Muslim fanatics.

Stairs left London on 20 January 1887 and met Stanley in Suez on 6 February. Starting at the mouth of the Congo on 19 March they reached Tanzania on 5 December after a very long and arduous journey through wild and unknown country. Stairs became deputy commander of the expedition when the previous man to hold that post, Captain Barttelot, was shot in a skirmish on 19 July 1888. These daring men crossed 500 kilometers of jungle rainforest, swamps and all of the most difficult terrain possible to imagine and all the time suffered from every possible tropical disease, usually malaria and dysentery. In those days, the days of the last great adventurers, men were more tough and determined than now. Stairs endured all of this, discovered one of the sources of the Nile, the Semliki River and became the first man to climb in the Ruwenzoris (Mountains of the Moon). Along the way he was attacked by natives, shot in the chest with a poisoned arrow. There were many bloody battles, some because of simple aggressiveness and some because many of the natives thought the party were slave traders and their extreme fear of such a fate was not unfounded because kidnapping slaves for trading was still a major problem in central Africa at that time.

The expedition was still a success, Emin Pasha was reached and with difficulty persuaded to abandon the district and leave with Stanley. Back in England Captain Stairs was highly praised for his courage and determination on this wilderness trek. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in 1890. The very next year, SM King Leopold II of the Belgians commissioned Stairs to command an expedition to Katanga in the Congo after Stanley had recommended him to the King. The goal was to come to terms with or defeat the native chief Msiri who ruled the region before the area was taken by the British South Africa Company of Cecil Rhodes which was expanding north very quickly. Even though Stairs and the doctor of the party, Joseph Moloney, were subjects of the British Empire, they agreed that, regardless of who they might come in conflict with, they would carry out their obligations to King Leopold II and the Congo Free State. With only a relatively small party, Stairs set out to claim this vital region and deal with the chief Msiri.

Stairs and his force reached Katanga and began trying to come to terms with Msiri but he was obstinate. Plagued with sickness and surrounded by hostiles, Stairs decided finally to make Msiri an offer he could not refuse. After three days of diplomacy Stairs sent word to Msiri that if he did not sign the treaty he proposed the next day, 20 December 1891, there would be severe consequences. When the chief did not appear, Stairs sent Belgian Captain Omer Bodson (his second in command and only brother officer) to arrest Msiri. When the chief resisted and drew his sword on the captain, Captain Bodson shot him and this provoked a short but intense battle between the subject natives and the native Free State soldiers of Stairs in which Bodson was killed by Msiri‘s favorite slave. Stairs then put a new chief in charge (an adopted son of Msiri) and he signed the treaty recognizing Leopold II as king-sovereign and that Katanga was part of the Congo Free State.

The mission accomplished, Stairs and his remaining men began the overland march to the coast to Zanzibar, by the time they arrived a year of skirmishes and tropical diseases had reduced their number from 400 to 189. Stairs was not among them though, he had suffered long with malaria and finally died on a steamer on the Zambezi River on 9 June 1892 and he was buried in Mozambique (then Portuguese East Africa). He had done his job and secured probably the most important and mineral rich region of central Africa for the Congo Free State. However, the British in Northern Rhodesia (who wanted the territory for themselves) declared Stairs a traitor for working for the Belgians rather than the British and they joined in the chorus condemning Stairs, his expedition and the death of Msiri (though of course it was not Stairs who killed him). Everyone knows that some self-interest and desire for profiteering was part of the whole colonial game at that time. However, Stairs cannot be a villain because Msiri was no hero. He had no better claim to rule that area that King Leopold II did. Msiri was not the son of a prior chief or anything of the sort, he was a slave trader who became wealthy and powerful, bought European weapons and conquered the people, imposing his rule by force and remained a major figure in the brutal slave trade business. He was certainly not a peaceful, innocent victim and when Captain Bodson died his last words were, “I don’t mind dying now that I’ve killed Msiri. Thank God my death will not be in vain. I’ve delivered Africa from one of her most detestable tyrants”.

I can well imagine that if the event had ended peacefully with the chief signing the treaty, Commander Stairs and King Leopold would have been criticized anyway for making friends with such a brutal local warlord. In so many words, they would have been condemned no matter what happened, mostly because they beat the other colonial powers to the prize. Also, we should not forget that Stairs was one of only two officers in an armed expedition made up entirely of African natives and they trusted and were totally loyal to him because of his solid leadership and fair treatment of them. If he had been a cruel or vicious man he could never have accomplished what he did, almost by himself. That is why I think Captain Stairs should be remembered and that it will not be that the only voices speaking of him are those who attack and criticize him. He had great courage, did things most today would regard as impossible, he had determination to always see the job through and his expedition had a great impact on the history of Belgium and central Africa.


  1. Msiri may have been the first king of that area but he was certainly not the last. His family line still occupies the (ceremonial obviously) throne of Garanganze (I think is the name). I have a picture of the current King with Crown Prince Philippe, so they have met at least once.

  2. I was not known that but my point is not changed. If Leopold II's control of Katanga was by aggression then he still has as much right as Msiri whose rule was also done by aggression.