en zh es ja ko pt

Volume 29, Number 6November/December 1978

In This Issue

Back to Table of Contents

The Expeditions of Chaille-Long

Written by David Icenogle
Illustrated by Michael Turner

In 1874, a former Civil War captain in America's Union Army set out to explore Lake Victoria in Central Africa. He was escorted by a fleet of 40 canoes, each manned by 30 warriors of the Baganda tribe in what is today's Uganda. He never did cross the great lake and he was not, as he believed, the first Westerner to explore Lake Victoria. But he was the second and his voyage was a high point in 19th-century Egypt's effort to extend its influence into Central Africa.

That campaign, launched by Ismail, Khedive of Egypt, in the early 1870's, was largely led by Ismail's extraordinary foreign legion of American Civil War officers: some 50 veterans from both the Union and Confederate armies.

Under the command of the khedive's chief of staff, Charles Pomeroy Stone, a disgraced Union general (see Aramco World, January-February 1972) those veterans enlarged, trained and modernized the khedive's army, established schools to educate the soldiers and their sons, and organized the construction of fortifications and coastal defenses. They also led their troops into the Sudan - restoring to the khedive's rule ancient territories once ruled by the pharaohs - and sent expeditions into Central Africa to map those unknown lands, establish outposts and negotiate treaties.

Several of the Civil War officers, in fact, did little but explore Africa. One was a Confederate captain, Alexander McComb Mason, (see Aramco World, March-April, 1974) and another, possibly the most adventurous, was Charles Chaillé-Long, the man who tried to cross Lake Victoria in canoes.

Born on a Maryland plantation in 1842, Charles Chaillé-Long enlisted as a private in the Union Army at 20, fought at Gettysburg and rose to the rank of captain. After the war he worked for a New York textile firm, dabbled in literary and thespian activities and then, bored and thirsting for adventure, wrote to the Khedive of Egypt when he learned of the ruler's effort to recruit an American officer corps. To his delight he was commissioned as a lieutenant-colonel in the Egyptian Army and in 1870, after taking an oath of allegiance to the khedive, set sail for Egypt on a steamer named the Aleppo.

In Egypt Chaillé-Long and two other officers were met by two American generals who escorted them, aboard the Minister of War's special train, to Cairo to meet Ismail. Enroute, Chaillé-Long later wrote, they got their first taste of Egypt's heat and saw the Pyramids through the yellow haze of a khamsin, the hot, dusty wind that sweeps periodically out of the desert.

At the Abdin Palace, where the khedive held their first audience, Chaillé-Long, because he spoke fluent French, served as interpreter while Ismail explained that he had chosen Americans to help him because the United States had no colonial interest in Egypt. The khedive also outlined his plans to establish Egypt as a country independent of the rapidly disintegrating Ottoman Empire.

During his first years in the khedive's service, Colonel Chaillé-Long helped plan the construction of defensive earthworks in the desert between the Nile Delta and the Suez Canal. He also taught French at the new military school at Abbassieh and served as aide-de-camp to a general. It was a position he found "more ornamental than useful," but it also provided him with a gold-embroidered uniform that he enjoyed wearing. Something of a dandy, Chaillé-Long frequently wore ornate uniforms and once won praise from the khecdive for his traveling costume: a silk top hat, a black cape with crimson lining and patent leather shoes.

In retrospect it seems odd that such a vain, almost foppish man came to follow in the footsteps of the remarkable men who had pioneered exploration of the then-unknown headwaters of the Nile: John Speke and Samuel Baker. But Chaillé-Long was also a born adventurer who hungered to become an intrepid military hero. He did not hesitate, therefore, when the khedive appointed the English soldier of fortune and religious mystic Charles Gordon to be governor of Egypt's Equatoria province in the southern Sudan; eager for action, Chaillé-Long applied for a position on Gordon's staff.

Gordon, remarking that Chaillé-Long was "a good American and a sharp fellow," decided to accept him and on February 19,1874, dispatched a messenger with a laconic note: "My dear Chaillé-Long: Will you come with me to Central Africa? Come and see me at once. Very truly, C.G. Gordon." Although he was entertaining guests, Chaillé-Long left at once for Gordon's headquarters where he received orders as laconic as the invitation: "You will command the soldiery," said Gordon. "I don't want the bother."

After Chaillé-Long recovered from his surprise, he asked Gordon when he was leaving. "Tomorrow night," was the reply. Chaillé-Long protested that this was impossible and, appealing directly to General Stone, managed to delay Gordon's departure for 24 hours. But then, still in a state of shock, he set out on what was to be the greatest adventure of an adventurous life: an expedition to Uganda where he would attempt to negotiate an alliance with Mutesa, king of the Baganda tribe in a territory bordering Lake Victoria.

The expedition got underway on February 21, 1874. Leaving a rear guard to bring their stores and baggage, Gordon and Chaillé-Long left Cairo for Suez by train and at Suez took a steamer to Suakin. From there they crossed 280 miles of desert on camelback to Berber on the Nile and from Berber went by steamer to Khartoum. On the final leg they took another steamer to Gondokoro, the headquarters of the Equatoria provincial administration. Enroute they had to force their way through the Sudd, the nearly impenetrable swamp bordering the Nile in the Sudan.

In Gondokoro, the restless Gordon almost immediately decided to return to Khartoum to await the rear column, leaving Chaillé-Long, completely new to the upper Nile, in command of a base with a garrison of 1,500 men. Chaillé-Long, with equal haste, set out for Uganda on April 24, leaving Raouf Bey, the Egyptian second-in-command, in charge of Gondokoro and taking with him "a gorgeous uniform," some gifts for Mutesa and a horse named "Uganda." No horse and only two Westerners - Speke and another British explorer, James Grant - had ever made it to Bagandan territory before.

The reasons for Chaillé-Long's haste are unclear. He said later that before he left Cairo he had been given instructions by Ismail to hurry, but whatever his reason, Chaillé-Long set off at once - even though the rainy season was already beginning - and 58 days later, June 20, 1874, arrived at Rubaga, Mutesa's capital, near today's Kampala

For Chaillé-Long this was an exciting moment. Having survived "pitiless rain, mud, misery, malaria and the dread fevers of the jungle," he now stood before Mutesa's "palace," a rustic affair surrounded by seven concentric palisades. And there was Mutesa and his court to greet him. Determined to impress the king he donned the "gorgeous uniform," mounted the horse and galloped forward in a wild charge. Mutesa, however, was unimpressed; although his attendants scattered he stood his ground, and calmly invited Chaillé-Long to an audience the next day.

The audience, Chaillé-Long wrote, was memorable and successful. He established friendly contact with Mutesa and claimed he had, with the help of an interpreter, gotten Mutesa's signature on a treaty of alliance. He also presented his gifts to the king - including a storage battery that gave the king and his courtiers shocks during a demonstration - and persuaded Mutesa to provide him with canoes to explore Lake Victoria.

Originally Chaillé-Long intended to cross the lake, not knowing that Victoria, some 200 miles long and approximately 150 miles wide, is the second largest freshwater lake in the world. Unfortunately, he didn't believe Mutesa when the king told him that it would take 30 days to cross it. He set out, with his 40-canoe escort, spotted the nearby islands of the Sese Archipelago and thought he had crossed the whole lake. It was a sad error; when he later published his conclusions he said Lake Victoria was only 10 to 12 miles wide - a statement which was ridiculed later by the Royal Geographical Society.

Chaillé-Long also decided to return to Gondokoro by following the Nile from Lake Victoria to Lake Albert, a trip neither Speke nor Samuel Baker had been able to make because hostile tribes had opposed them. That region, therefore, was still unexplored and Speke's belief that the Nile flowed from Lake Victoria to Lake Albert was unconfirmed.

Determined to dose that gap in Nile exploration, Chaillé-Long ordered part of his command to march overland - with his horse - and meet him at an Egyptian outpost at Foweira. Then, on July 20, with an escort of 500 Bagandan warriors, he marched to Urondogani - the point on the Nile that Speke had reached in 1862 - and on August 7, set off down the Nile.

That expedition, as it turned out, was even more eventful than his march to Mutesa's capital. In his haste, the colonel and his party set out with only five pounds of flour and five pounds of beans for provisions; and as a result they nearly starved when they got lost amid the lotus and papyrus in Lake Kioga. And on August 17 they were nearly annihilated when the Bunyoro tribe attacked them.

It was, Chaillé-Long wrote later, a near thing. As they emerged from Lake Kioga, after six days, some 700 Bunyaro warriors in canoes paddled toward them, their war drums pounding. As Chaillé-Long was armed with a powerful Reilly elephant rifle, and two companions with English Snider rifles, they were able to keep the warriors at bay at first. But at the height of the battle, Chaillé-Long was accidentally shot in the face by a companion. Unnoticed in the smoke and confusion, a canoe had closed in on them and a warrior was about to spear Chaillé-Long in the back when his Sudanese cook grabbed a revolver and fired, killing the warrior. The cook's shot, however, also grazed Chaillé-Long's cheek and nose, blackened his face with powder burns and temporarily knocked him unconscious. Fortunately, at nightfall, the tribesmen withdrew.

Two days later the expedition ran out of food and Chaillé-Long decided to seek help at Kissembois, a friendly village. They arrived at the village in a deluge of rain at dawn on the 20th of August and Chaillé-Long, famished, barged into the first hut he came to. The two occupants, terrified at his disheveled appearance, fled leavingtheir breakfast of roasting fish behind and the ravenous Chaillé-Long grabbed it. As he later wrote, "Never before or since have I enjoyed a repast as on that morning."

That afternoon, more dead than alive, they reached an Egyptian outpost set up at Foweira and settled in to await the arrival of the overland party marching from Mutesa's capital at Rubaga. During his stay at Foweira, Chaillé-Long recovered slowly and then, some weeks later, after the overland party arrived, headed for Gondokoro.

"Through pestilential jungles and across swollen streams, with only doura [millet] for food, attacked daily with fever, we finally arrived at Gondokoro on October 18, 1874," was how Chaillé-Long described the last leg of the trip. When he arrived, he said, "My hair hung in great damp locks around my shoulders; my beard seemed to render more cadaverous my emaciated face; while the painful wound upon my nose, and one eye closed and blackened, caused him [Gordon] to doubt my identity."

In one sense, Chaillé-Long's expedition was a failure; the treaty he had risked so much to obtain was later disavowed and his attempt to explore Lake Victoria was ridiculed. Nevertheless, Chaillé-Long, during his navigation of the Nile between Urondogani and Foweira, had explored over 100 miles of unknown Nile channel and had proven conclusively that the river that Speke had seen flowing out of Lake Victoria in 1862 was the same stream Baker had seen flowing into Lake Albert in 1864. He had also discovered Lake Kioga. And if the Geographical Society chuckled at his error concerning Lake Victoria, its president also remarked that Chaillé-Long's account of the expedition was one of "the most romantic and extraordinary stories of African travel" that he had ever heard.

It was not, however, the last such story. After recovering from a seriousbout of fever in Khartoum, Chaillé-Long returned to Gondokoro and then went on to Lado, slightly downstream and on the west bank of the Nile; because of Gondokoro's unhealthy climate, Gordon had relocated his headquarters.

At Lado Gordon assigned Chaillé-Long to the command of 700 Egyptian and Sudanese soldiers and ordered him to open a route southwest from Lado towards the country of the "Makraka Niam-Niam" - now called the Azande tribe. It was not an undertaking comparable in importance with the Mutesa expedition, but it did, nevertheless, extend Egypt's presence still further. By marching 150 miles southwest, negotiating with local chiefs and building a fort, this second expedition extended Ismail's influence into the Nile-Congo watershed.

It also won him a promotion to full colonel and a medal from the khedive.

By then, unhappily, tension between Chaillé-Long and Gordon had reached the breaking point. As both were arrogant and egotistical men, relations had begun to disintegrate shortly after Gordon sent his terse invitation to Chaillé-Long to come to Central Africa. Now, on March 17, 1875, the final break occurred and Chaillé-Long returned to Cairo.

In Cairo Chaillé-Long discovered that he was a hero and that the khedive was entranced by his explorations. But he was also still weak from malaria and so, although reveling in the long awaited glory, decided to return to Maryland to visit his father. He started out, but in Paris received a curt telegram from General Stone ordering him to return for still another assignment.

This expedition, he quickly learned, was shrouded in mystery. On September 9, 1875, he was told by Ismail to go to Suez, take command of 1,300 Egyptian troops and sail south into the Red Sea for 500 miles before opening sealed orders. Until then he would have no idea of his ultimate destination.

At sea, as instructed, Chaillé-Long opened his orders. He was instructed to sail to Berbera, in today's Somalia, on the coast of the Gulf of Aden. There he was to pick up Admiral Henry E McKillop, a British officer in Egyptian service, and place himself under the Admiral's command. From there he was to go to the mouth of the Juba river in Somaliland and march into the interior to meet Gordon.

Behind these strange maneuverings was a plan, proposed by Gordon earlier, to establish a new communications route between Cairo and the Lake Victoria region. If feasible the new route - via the Juba River on the Indian Ocean coast and inland to Victoria - would be much shorter than the 2,700-mile steamer-overland route between Cairo and Gondokoro. But it would also intrude on parts of today's Somalia and Kenya. Gordon's plan, as it turned out, was impractical. Chaillé-Long took a steam launch 150 miles up the Juba River and found that the river curved north rather than west. This meant that the proposed new route to Lake Victoria was not feasible.

In the meantime, Admiral McKillop had sent a ship to neutral Zanzibar, an ally of Great Britain, to find coal for his steamships. There he received a surprise. Instead of encountering resistance, as he had expected, his ship returned filled with coal - and carrying a memorable note from Sa'id Burghash, Sultan of Zanzibar:

"To the Commander of the Egyptians at Kismayu: I send you the coal you desire, also fruit. The latter may serve to keep you in good health, the former to take you away from my country. Go, and peace be with you."

Shortly afterwards Chaillé-Long and the Admiral received another message. It was from the khedive and it read: "Withdraw your command and return at once to Egypt."

Back in Cairo, Chaillé-Long learned that the khedive was in trouble; he was beginning to feel the financial pinch that subsequently enabled Great Britain to expand its influence in Egypt, and eventually demand Ismail's abdication. As a result, when Chaillé-Long returned from six months of leave in Europe, Great Britain and the United States, he found that the American officer corps was not being paid and was gradually being disbanded. Ismail asked Chaillé-Long to stay but he declined and in September, 1877 resigned, leaving General Stone as almost the only member of the American Military Mission in Egypt.

After resigning his commission, Chaillé-Long drifted restlessly around Europe - visiting Richard Burton in Trieste and wandering through Vienna and Paris - and then studied law at Columbia University. But in 1881 he returned to Egypt and opened a law practice in Alexandria.

He found many changes. General Stone was still there but Ismail was not; the British Foreign Office had replaced him with the Khedive Tewfik. In the Sudan a leader called the Mahdi was drawing adherents at an ominous pace and in Egypt Colonel Arabi - sometimes called Urabi Pasha - was protesting the pro-British policies of the khedives.

In May, 1882, Chaillé-Long after a hunting trip in Luxor, returned to Cairo to find that Arabi's movement had exploded in violence and that many Westerners were fleeing Egypt - including the American consul in Alexandria. Because of Chaillé-Long's fame, the Americans remaining in Alexandria requested that he take over as acting consul there, and on June 15, he did so. Two weeks later Egypt was in turmoil, and when British warships opened fire on Alexandria's coastal defenses - built by General Stone's mission - Chaillé-Long and hundreds of Western refugees in the Consulate took refuge on four American warships waiting offshore. But he later returned, with a detachment of U.S. Marines, reopened the Consulate and stayed on as consul until August 17. By then the upheaval was over, Great Britain had occupied the country, and Ismail's plan to extend Egyptian influence into Central Africa was over.

But Chaillé-Long's career was not. In 1883 he represented western clients demanding indemnities for losses incurred during the troubles in Alexandria. And for the next 34 years he wandered the world, practicing law in Paris, serving as Consul-General in Korea, traveling to China and Ceylon and, from 1890 to 1892, living in Egypt. In his later years he also wrote extensively: more than 100 magazine and newspaper articles and six books, including My Life In Four Continents, his major work.

In those writings - and innumerable lectures - Chaillé-Long frantically sought the recognition and fame that he thought he had earned, but that had somehow eluded him. He did receive some honors and awards - and he was surely the most literate and glamorous figure of those colorful Civil War veterans who formed the khedive's foreign legion. He was also, as the khedive's chief explorer, the most important American in Africa and his explorations of the Nile and Lake Kioga were certainly significant. But today he is, perhaps unfairly, a neglected figure, forgotten by history and obscured by time.

David W. Icenogle earned his Ph.D at Louisiana State University and now teaches urban, physical and cultural geography at Auburn University in Alabama. A member of several geographical societies, he is presently finishing a biography of Chaillé-Long.

This article appeared on pages 2-7 of the November/December 1978 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1978 images.