"the stamp and shuffle of sixty pair of bare feet behind me, each pair under a 60-lb. load"
Caravan route through the Congo bush (1894)
Public Domain'Caravan route through the Congo bush' (1894) - Credit: Jacques de Crussol duc d' Uzès

Since the climate and terrain were unsuited to draft animals, there was a great demand in the early days of the Congo Free State for porters. Any official who ventured away from the river system and into the bush needed long columns of porters to carry everything from machine-gun ammunition to food and numerous everyday provisions. Local porters were most needed at points where the river system was blocked by rapids, particularly (until the railroad was built) for the three-week trek between Matadi and Stanley Pool. These tens of thousands of porters were usually conscripted, often receiving little more than the food necessary to keep them going as payment. Even children were put to work, with one observer noting 7-9 year-olds carrying loads of twenty-two pounds each.

A Congo state official describes in his memoirs the ‘file of poor devils, chained by the neck’ who carried his trunks and boxes to a dock, as well as those porters needed for an overland trip:

There were about a hundred of them, trembling and fearful before the overseer, who strolled by whirling a whip. For each stocky and broad-backed fellow, how many skeletons dried up like mummies, their skin worn out … seamed with deep scars, covered with suppurating wounds… No matter, they were all up to the job.