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William Stamps Cherry: Forgotten American Explorer of the Heart of Africa

I touched down on a small dirt airstrip in remote eastern Central African Republic, known today as the crossroads between Muslem rebels from the north battling with the Christian south and French troops, bands of the Lord’s Resistance Army of Joseph Kony and Sudanese poachers, not the most Christmasy of places. In fact this place, before and after William Stamps Cherry, is one of the few places on Earth that has never been really mastered by a state. It is wonderful no man’s land in the center of Africa, so far and so unruly that no nation, not even the Europeans at the height of their colonial power, has ever managed to dominate this place. There is no cultivation, no villages, no roads–just herders, poachers, bandits and those claiming divine empowerment.

image001image003We taxied past the camp of the Ugandan People’s Defense Force and a large store of fuel used by the American chopper crews contracted by the DOD to supply these outposts in the little known war that President Obama launched against Lord’s Resistance. I was greeted by David Simpson, the CEO of what is called the Chinko Project, an effort to create a refuge for the very last of the few tens of elephants and other wildlife left in this vast, untamed land largely void of human habitation. The air was cool, the morning wind just coming up, smoke from grass fires obscured the view. It was good to be back in this beautiful country.

I wasn’t here to find Kony or fight poachers, but on a mission of discovery. In late 2008, I had just completed my 333-day walk of the redwood forest in coastal California and came back to my office at the National Geographic to find a large pile of mail, most of it junk. However, there in the stack was a curious hand-addressed envelope from Nevada that I opened. My eyes were drawn to a picture of script :

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“There is no possible way of estimating the no. of elephants on the interior, it may be five hundred thousand it may be a million, I think more likely millions.”

I read on and I realized that I had been delivered what was like finding the Holy Grail, answers to questions that I have been asking for decades. The writing was that penciled in 1890 by a young man from Chicago named William Stamps Cherry, who was the first white man to explore the heart of Africa.

The letter was from a certain Mr. Casey, on behalf of the grandson of this Mr. Cherry. They contacted me because of an article I had written about a park in Chad called Zakouma where I described elephant killing and violence that had been going on for over a century. They said my text harked of that written by Mr. Cherry.

William Stamps Cherry
William Stamps Cherry

I panicked, the letter was dated from almost a year past. What if Mr. Casey was impossible to find, deceased? I wrote and soon had a copy of what was a compiled autobiography of William Cherry’s adventures. I stayed up all night; it was a lost, century-old story written by this man who traveled alone into a land of slavery, cannibalism and wildlife beyond imagination. He survived only by his wits and a double-barreled .50 caliber rifle.

The dusty airstrip on which I landed lay very close to the starting point of Mr. Cherry’s last expedition into the unknown region of the upper Kotto River, where no white man had ever ventured. I grabbed my bags and David showed me to a simple room in the only building, constructed of mud bricks, in what was to become the headquarters of the Chinko Project.

We sat and drank karakandji tea made from the petals of local hibiscus flowers and I told him of this man Cherry who had read the adventures of Stanley as a boy in Chicago, and who after he paddled the Missouri River solo for two years, just after his twentieth birthday, bought boat passage to the Congo Free State without a plan, very little money and no support.

After reaching the lower Congo he walked to Leopoldville, now Kinshasa, on Stanley Pool and was hired by the Belgians to build a metal boat, as he was a boilermaker and quite ingenious. Once finished, he was hired to run the boat and ended up in Bangui, high on the Oubangui River, the new capital of the French colony Oubangui-Chari. After some years, and a trip to the United States to sell his wares, he returned to Bangui to go as far as the waters upstream would take him, into the great beyond.

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Although at least one book was written about him, and he penned several articles, such as this one for the October 1901 issue of McClure's Magazine, little has been recorded about William Stamps Cherry.
Although at least one book was written about him, and he penned several articles, such as this one for the October 1901 issue of McClure’s Magazine, little has been recorded about William Stamps Cherry.

My reason for coming here was to follow Cherry’s path to the furthest he ever ventured, from the Mbari River to the Kotto River to a place he called “hunters paradise”. Like Cherry, I first came to this country in my twenties, and, like him, I can speak the locals’ language and get around on my own.

Cherry chose this path because the lower Kotto is obstructed by waterfalls and rapids. He traveled up the Mbari, which was navigable, and then by foot to the Kotto. and from there upstream to the confluence of the Ndjé River and beyond. I would attempt to find the village of Ratto, on the east side of the Mbari that Cherry used,  where he began his voyage into the unknown. He set off on Christmas day, as I have, 115 years later.

Follow Mike Fay as he retraces William Cherry’s footsteps, sharing the experience in words, photos, video, maps, and social media: Expedition Through the Heart of Africa.