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African paddlesteamers

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Roderick Smith:
This has been a frustrating continent to document.  There are lots of rivers, and lots of need for river exploration and commerce.  Little is documented: I suspect mainly for cultural reasons.  Even in Anglo-dominated South Africa, little is documented.  Most of my African work has been on railway history, again with patchy availability.  The two were interlinked: many railways were built to bypass unnavigable stretches of rivers.  The rivers had lots of water, but rocky rapids sections.

* Nile: the best documented, partly because of British influence and patronage.  Traditionally, it had the lower and upper navigable reaches.  One of the earliest African boat photos which I saw was of 'General Gordon' on the upper reach.  The fond hope of railway builders was to complete a 'Cape to Cairo' (why not Cairo to Cape?) railway.  Today, it is possible to complete most of the journey by rail and river; I have done 40%, and hope to fill the gap.  Upper Nile navigation is a bit vague during the long-standing civil war in Sudan.  The lower Nile was further split by Aswan Dam.  There were many paddlesteamers operating there, and navigation (tourist cruises and local small boats) is still important today.  Several Nile boats have been documented in many parts of Paddleducks, including QWPS Karim, and gunboats.

* Juba: Rising in Ethiopia, and heading through Somalia to the sea.  A fascinating insight appeared in the modelling forum recently: the exploration vessel PS 'Welf'.

* Zambesi: the river which forms Victoria Falls (Zambia - Zimbabwe border), and flows through northern Moçambique.  The lower 650 km were navigable.  It has been dammed to form Lake Kariba, which does have tourist boats.  I don't know aboat boats on the lake formed by Cabora Basso Dam.  It has its own post in this series.

* Limpopo: This was sufficiently important to appear in a Rudyard Kipling poem.  I am guessing that it was navigable.  I saw no evidence of boats while I was photographing trains crossing the river at Beitbrige, with hippos swimming underneath.

* Vaal: South Africa's second river, an Oranje tributary, serving an important region.  However, I have no hint that it was/is navigable.

*Oranje: South Africa's most important river.  Rising in Drakensberg Mountains, it crosses the dry Karoo region and forms the border with Namibia in its lower reach.  Along the way it has been dammed for irrigation schemes.  Navigation was blocked by Ausgrabie Falls.  I assumed that it would once have been the equivalent of Australia's Murray River, with a lot of navigation.  Apparently not so: it may have been too temperamental.  I was spurred into research on this one by seeing a photo of a sternwheeler in the museum at Upington.  I didn't photograph the photo.  I have chased up from a variety of sources, with no success.  Apparently it was a one-off exploration vessel, imported in pieces and assembled above the falls.

* Congo: Navigable and navigated.  However, this was one river where railways bypassed tricky bits.  In the modelling forum we have just been treated to a photo of the Congo sternwheeler 'Ville des Bruges'.  Most railway history in this region has been researched by French enthusiasts, and published in French.  I suspect that the same is true of river history.  It has its own post in this series.

* Niger: was and is navigable.  It has its own post in this series.

Africa has lots of other rivers, and many/most/all must have been navigable and navigated at least to local fishingboat and cross-river ferry level.  The problem is finding which ones were navigable by boats of the size on which Paddleducks concentrates: for exploration, and  upriver/downriver commercial traffic.  Then how many of these were paddle vessels?  If African rivers were temperamental and seasonal with tricky patches, surely a common solution (as in Australia) would have been to use paddle not screw.

There are extensive services on Lake Tanganyika (rail connection to Tanzania at Kigoma) and Lake Victoria (rail connection to Tanzania at Mwanza; rail connection to Kenya at Kisumu; rail connection to Uganda at Kampala).  I spent a day at Kigoma once, but the scheduled ferry did not arrive.  Some of the ferries on these lakes have featured in other forums for sinking when overloaded and undermaintained.  AFAIK all current ones are screw; I don't know if there were paddle vessels in the early days.

Attached: A train ferry at Kisumu (Kenya) in Sept.05, supplied to me by my railway-enthusiast friend Chris Lewis.

New ferry for Lake Kyoga (Uganda):
Feb.07, Nakasongola to get ferry.  The government will next financial year acquire a ferry to operate on Lake Kyoga.  According to the Minister of Works, the vessel will link Nakasongola, Apac, Amuriat, Kayunga and Amolatar districts.  The ferry will improve communication between the districts.  'As soon as the ferry is purchased, we will build a landing site at Rwampanga', the minister said on Mon.19.2.  The Government would take over several key roads in the Nakasongola district and upgrade them.  (Tues.20.2.07 Uganda New Vision

Ghana: Ferry on Volta Lake operates on only one engine:
7.3.08.  The ferry plying between Yeji in the Brong Ahafo region and Makango in the Northern region has been operating on only one engine for over a year.  Volta Lake Transport Company Limited (VLTCL) operates the ferry.  On Thurs.28.2.08, the ferry developed a fault and could not dock at Makango.  It took the intervention of fishermen, who used ropes to draw it ashore.  The source ferry had never been overhauled since its acquisition in 1968; it was only painted in the early 1980s.  The ferry now plies once a day at a slow pace instead of the twice daily routine services from Makango to Yeji.  Two other ferries operating at Dambai in the Northern region and Adawso on the Afram Plains were also operating on single engines.  Purchasing of new engines had been covered in the 2008 Budget.  It was hoped that funds would be provided for refitting the ferries.  ( General News of Fri.7.3.08)

Roderick B Smith
Rail News Victoria Editor

Roderick Smith:
Illustrated with a painting: Paddle Steamer 'Ethiope' off the West Coast of Africa by Samuel Walters (1811-1882).  The painting probably dates from about 1840-45.  PS Ethiope is shown in starboard profile off the coast of West Africa, probably in Bight of Biafra, under full steam and with all sail set.
Ethiope was built by Thomas Wilson of Liverpool in 1839. She was schooner rigged with three masts and was fitted with a 30 hp condensing engine. She was built for Robert Jamieson for the express purpose of finding a route via Benin River to the main Niger River 'and at the same time to endeavour to establish a commercial intercourse with the interior'.  In Apr.1840 Ethiope began the ascent of Benin River under the command of John Beecroft, an experienced trader and government agent. Initially frustrated in their aim, a second attempt via Warree River, a tributary of the Benin, took them into the main Niger River and more than 400 miles [650 km] up the river. However, sickness and death amongst the European crew convinced Beecroft and Jamieson that 'commerce on the Niger can only be followed by means of steam-vessels manned entirely by native Africans, under the direction of European officers and engineers well inured to the climate'.   Clearly visible on the foredeck is the 'nine-pound swivel gun' and other unspecified guns can be seen from some of the gun ports. Such armament was a necessary precaution in areas where Europeans were viewed with suspicion and hostility.
Covers the Laird boats:
1833 PS Lady Lansdowne
1834 PS John Randolph (went to Savannah, USA)
c1832 PS Alburkah, used to explore Niger River to the Benue River confluence.  This is described in references as the first ocean-going iron ship (not just the first ocean-going iron paddlesteamer).
1830s (second half): one for the Euphrates, and another for the Nile.
mentions PS Alburkah (55 tons) and PS Ethiope, but adds little new.
Is also mentions Quorra (built in Liverpool), but doesn't state if paddle or screw, or if for the Niger trade.

Afraf citations require a paid subscription to view.  'Sternwheeler' is tempting (the same SWPS Empire quote as below).
THE RIVER NIGER; MACGREGOR LAIRD AND THOSE WHO INSPIRED HIMsteaming slowly up the river Niger on the stern-wheeler ..... the paddle-steamers made their way up the Niger to Lokoja, situated at the confluence of the ...
MEETINGSCaptain Shelford then took his audience for a trip up the. Niger River, showing native canoes, and a paddle steamer. " All up the River Niger," he said, ...

Here is another pay-for-use site.
It cites: The River Niger; Macgregor Laird and Those Who Inspired Him
H S Goldsmith
Journal of the Royal African Society, Vol. 31, No 125 (Oct.1932), p383-393   (article 11 pages)
Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of Royal African Society
With the tempting phrase 'While steaming up Niger River in SWPS Empire in 1899...'.

JSTOR: The Design of Shallow-Draft Steamers for the British Empire ...Some installed compound engines in river steamers for tropical work.25 Some .... on the Niger was having "great success" with paddle wheelers of 2.5-foot ...
This leads to another pay-for-use: USD10 for the full article
The Design of Shallow-Draft Steamers for the British Empire, 1868-1906
Robert V Kubicek
Technology and Culture, Vol. 31, No 3 (July 1990), p427-450   (article 24 pages)
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press on behalf of the Society for the History of Technology
This repeats some familiar territory, but continues: In 1854 Laird sent out...a small steamer (Pleiad) which...made so successful a voyage that Laird induced the government to sign contracts for annual trading trips by steamers specially built for navigation of the Niger and Benue. Various stations were founded on the Niger...British traders continued to frequent the river which Laird had opened...
I have found nothing yet on Pleid, or on the early boats.  Given that the river was seasonal, and the era, paddle seems to be more likely than screw.
In late 1865, George...was given command of HMS Investigator, a steam-powered, flat-bottomed British navy gunship. He spent the next several months steaming up Niger River...
The article is illustrated with a drawing of a brass [grass?] canoe fitted with an awning and armed with cannons, used for local trade along the river.  There is no clue about the propulson of Investigator. has the best map so far, and covers a few river explorations: the Niger by paddlesteamer (covered elswhere), and Gambia River and upper Niger River by canoe.
Image pd1307622.jpg  is a photo for sale.  MALI , Niger River A tourist sits atop a pinasse (motorised riverboat) as it makes it way along the Niger River between Mopti and the port of Korioume at Timbuktu.  This shows what the river is like in that reach, but nothing paddlesteamer about it.  This catalog could well evolve, with the photo in a different place or removed.  As at Apr.08 it is one of 113 thumbnails on 3 pages, the 22nd on page 2.  Most of this page is devoted to Mississippi paddleboats.
This is an interesting article from an 1876 New York Times, referring to an attack on two trading boats:
Sultan and Pioneer.  Propulsion isn't mentioned, but I would suspect paddle.  The article was written aboard Steamship Victoria at Bonny River: river or ocean vessel? possibly paddle?  It was dated 23 June 1876, and refers to events over 14-18 inst.  This is sufficiently archaic style that I have no reference to check; my hazy memory is that inst is the current month; ult is the previous month, so the events were 14-18.6, and were written up within days.
Book review: WHITE DREAMS, BLACK AFRICA: THE ANTISLAVERY EXPEDITION TO THE NIGER, 1841-1842. By Howard Temperley. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991. Pp xv, 204, cloth, USD35, ISBN 0-300-05021-6. By CARLOS R. ACUÑA-DUNN, University of South Florida.
COPYRIGHT: Atlantic Millennium, Department of History Graduate Student Association, Florida International University, 1997.
The review mentions that three paddlesteamers were used, but does not mention the names.  One would have to consult the full book to find out more (possibly even an illustration).
This is a very journalistic and flowery 2005 account of river history and conditions, with some excellent colour photos of life on the river today, but virtually nothing on paddlesteamer navigation.  It has two interesting comments:
* Its rainy season high-water mark can be 11 m above its low, a range rivaled only by the Amazon.
* A flat-bottomed steamer operated by the Compagnie Malienne de Navigation tilts unsteadily on the mudflats, awaiting the summer’s rains to clear the Niger’s unpredictable shallows and make the 10-day run from Mopti to Gao navigable again.
I guess that the vessel isn't a steamer, and that this is a reference to navigation today.  It seems that small vessels (pinasses or pirogues) account for almost all river traffic, not only today, but probably right back to the 1830s.

River timetables in Thomas Cook Overseas timetable for Mali (upper Niger River):
* 385 km Bamako - Kankan
* 1308 km Koulikoro - Gao
Services are affected by river levels.
A travelog with some good photos of the cruise on MV Tomboctou from Timbuktu to Gao.
Operated by Compagnie Malienne de Navigation (CMN)...judging by the signs in's ex Europe [flat bottomed, Rhine?].  There's a large flat deck is open, airy and uncrowded, containing the first class and luxury cabins, as well as a bar selling cold beer, soft drinks and water...the second deck contains the second class cabins (four bunk beds in each room)...bottom deck engines the third class dorms and lots of cargo.  There is also fourth-class deck passage.
This is a 2006 report, and includes: The railway network links Bamako to Dakar. This network will be modernized following the privatisation of the 57 km Bamako-Koulikoro section and its takeover by the Canadian company Transrail and linked to the river transport on the Niger managed by Compagnie Malienne de Navigation (Comanav), from July to September with a total length of 1500 km. During the dry season, large motorised canoes [pirogues] take over from the boats.
Image:   pd1307629.jpg  Mali, Mopti: Pirogues (Niger River water taxis) jostle to meet an incoming passenger ferry near the port of Mopti . The slender wooden canoes are the traditional craft for fishing and transporting passengers and livestock on the Niger.  [This photo may not last forever, but it shows only small canoes, and not the motorised long-distance craft shown in other source.  It doesn't show the large ferry which is being met].
Research is becoming incestous: one of the references which Google brings up now is this thread in Paddleducks.

Roderick B Smith
Rail News Victoria Editor

Roderick Smith:
An excellent source of information on SWPS Stanley, another Yarrow vessel.  There are specifications, dates and a photo.
It is worth reading the whole item.  I have extracted the river bits in case the online archive doesn't last for ever.
...On a slow boat through 'Heart of Darkness' country, a Congolese ship's captain waxes nostalgic for colonial rule...into our 500th kilometre "We should just give it all back to the whites...Even if you go 1000 km down this river, you won't see a single sign of development. When the whites left, we didn't just stay where we were. We went backwards."...earns his keep sailing the tributaries of the Congo River...his job on the river, piloting three dugouts lashed together with twine and mounted with outboards  "The river is the artery of Congo's economy," he says. "When the Belgians and the Portuguese were here, there were farms and plantations - cashews, peanuts, rubber, palm oil. There was industry and factories employing 3000-5000 people. But since independence, no Congolese has succeeded. The plantations are abandoned."...our journey through 643 km of rainforest to where the Maringa River joins the Congo at Mbandaka, has been an exploration of decline. An abandoned tug boat here; there, a beached paddle steamer stripped of its metal sides to a rusted skeleton; several abandoned palm oil factories, their roofs caved in, their walls disappearing into the engulfing forest, their giant storage tanks empty and rusted out. The palms now grow wild and untended on the riverbanks and in the villages we pass, the people dress in rags, hawk smoked black fish and bushmeat, and besiege us with requests for salt or soap. There are no schools here, no clinics, no electricity, no roads. It can take a year for basic necessities ordered from the capital, Kinshasa, nearly 2000 km downstream, to make it here - if they make it at all. At one point we pass a cargo barge that has taken 3 months to travel the same distance we will cover in two days. We stop in the hope of buying some gasoline, but all we get from the vessel are rats.

Roderick B Smith
Rail News Victoria Editor

Roderick Smith:
In the 1850s, Dr Livingstone voyaged the Zambesi to the falls which he named 'Victoria Falls', also Shire River (a Zambesi tributary) into Lake Nyasa.
1861 PS Pioneer arrived from England with missionaries to build a mission on the Shire .

Livingstone explored several other rivers, but it is unclear if this was done by boat or by land.

This site describes one of Livingstone's books, republished by Narrative Press c2005.
The Zambesi Expedition
To the Zambesi River and Its Tributaries
Series: Adventure & Exploration - 58
ISBN: 1-58976-122-7
Pages: 304
It refers to an exploration paddlesteamer before 1861: 'this time he had...a paddle steamer (it gave out rather quickly)....' appears before 'In August 1861 he...sailed the Upper Shire in a light, four-oared gig'.
This will have been PS 'Ma Robert'.
Enclosed: the cover of the book.

Various rapids above Victoria Falls.
The river is frequently interrupted by rapids and so has never been an important long-distance transport route.
Cahora Bassa dam, 1974, formerly the site of dangerous rapids.
The lower Zambezi, 650 km from there to Indian Ocean, is navigable.
David Livingstone's expedition...was defeated by the Cahora Bassa rapids.
Many small villages along the banks of the river are accessible only by [small?] boat.
In the 1930s and 40s a paddle barge service operated on the stretch between Katombora Rapids, about 50 km upstream from Livingstone, and the rapids just upstream from Katima Mulilo. Depending on the water level, boats could be paddled through by a dozen or more men.  Teams of oxen pulled barges 5 km overland around Ngonye Falls.  See is not open access, but includes the tempting words: 'The expedition’s first paddle steamer, Ma Robert...'.
'The expedition explored the Zambesi in an eighty foot [24 m] paddle steamer and was beset with difficulties. The boat was not the best for the task...'.  This is sandwiched between 1856 and 1862 events.

Summary so far: two paddlesteamers for the Livingstone era (Ma Roberts, then Pioneer); no paddlesteamer above Cahora Bassa; 'paddle' above Livingstone refers to manual paddling.  There could well be an era of paddlesteamers on the lower 650 km which I have yet to reach. The resort is at Siavonga, on the Zambian side of Lake Kariba.  On the website, there is a page on the river, with a good description.  The activities page covers the boats which the resort runs for dinner cruises, a houseboat, and pedal boats.  The photos are small.
MV (fake PV) Southern Belle, operating on Lake Kariba.   54 m long, five decks, 44 berths, airconditioned.  It is the largest vessel on the lake.
The links on this page to deckplans and to the vessel don't work.
The main page for this boat is
Lots more photos, and some hint of layout.

From National Maritime Museum (UK):
Dr Livingstone's Steam Launch Ma Robert Built for Exploring the River Zambesi, by John Laird Esq, Birkenhead
Artist: Samuel Walters (artist & publisher), Thomas Picken (engraver), April 1858
Item No: PAH0259; Neg No: PY0259
In the 1840s Dr David Livingstone joined a growing band of missionaries who took Christianity to Africa. Sent by the London Missionary Society, he tried to promote trade as well as religion in an attempt to end African slavery. Livingstone became famous not only for exploring the Zambesi but also for his epic three-year crossing of the continent from west to east.  [The thumbnail is too small to show the detail] (a pay-for-use site)
The Sinking of the "Ma Robert": An Excursion into Mid-19th-Century Steelmaking
J. Gordon Parr
Technology and Culture, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Apr., 1972), pp. 209-225   (article consists of 17 pages)
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press on behalf of the Society for the History of Technology
This dates the Ma Robert venture as 1858: 'In early 1858, just before he set off...'
'It was named the Ma Robert, after Livingstone's wife who, follow- ing an African custom, was given the name of her oldest son.  7 Picken's lithograph8 of the...'.
'the Ma-Robert failed in every particular, and was so slow that ... Thence the Ma-Robert returned to Tete for the repairs which she constantly needed...'.
[This is a must-register, pay-for-use site]

Roderick B Smith
Rail News Victoria Editor


very numerous fascinating informations - I would like to start a journey to Africa just today!

In 1990/ 91 made a journey throught Africa by car. I also was in Zaire (now again Congo). In Lisala I first reach  Congo river, then we  drive througt jungle to Bumba and  Kisangani (very difficult and dangerous).

I didn't see any running paddle vessel on the Congo river, but some wrecks of sternwheelers. In Bumba obviously former sternwheelers which had engines and paddlewheels removed, were in use of barges for passengers and cargo, pushed by strong diesel towboats. The condition of the barges were rather poor, on one journey the crew tried to seal a leak in the hull with cement!
I recomment the little book: "Mailboat Steamers on Congo Rivers and Lakes" by Abbe Gudenkauf, Cockrill Booklet, Brüssel 1985.
It may be availiable on second hand.

On Lake Tanganika still the famous "MV Liemba" ex "Graf von Goetzen" mades her voyages from Kigoma to Mpulungu. She was built in 1914-1916, the parts from the Mayer shipyard in Papenburg were transportet by ship and railway to Kogoma and assemblet there in the beginning of WWI. There was a intention, to build 3 vessels of the same type by Mayer, Papenburg.
The steam engines of "Liemba" were removed in 1970 and replaced by diesels.

It is probable, that on the lower Zambesi in Mozambique some sternwheelers can be found, I got photos of 3 sterwheelers, photographed in 1975, one was diesel, 2 were steam driven. I will look after the pictures, when I find it will put in paddle ducks.

On river Niger 2 big motor vessels for passengers and cargo are running, but only for 3 to 4 months a year when the water has enougt dept. May be, some wrecks of paddle steamers would be found.

On river Nile in 1995 I saw the big sidewheeler "Sudan" of 1923, driven by steam, the ship in the 1990s got also a diesel driven screw. Also running is still the quarter wheeler "Karim". The superstructure was newly build in the 1980s, but it's still steam driven.
In Cairo I saw also the sternwheeler "Ibis", obviouisly out of use for years, but still complete with a coal fired boiler of locomotive type.




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