Rivers of the World the Zaire River

About the Zaire river in Africa, history and geography of the fourth longest river in the world.



The Zaire (formerly the Congo) is the world's fourth-longest river.

Its source is the nation of Zaire's Shaba (or Katanga) Plateau, 4,650 ft. above sea level, where several headwaters join to form the Lualaba. After flowing several hundred miles north, the Lualaba becomes the Zaire River and swings west to cross central Africa, close to the equator. About 2,900 mi. downriver from its source, the Zaire empties into the Atlantic Ocean at Banana Point. The river and its tributaries drain an area of 1,450,000 sq. mi. Only the drainage basin of the Amazon is larger.

At one point the Zaire River is 10 mi. wide; further downriver it shrinks to 1 or 2 mi. wide between rock cliffs. Perhaps the Zaire's oddest feature is the huge Malebo Pool, formerly Stanley Pool, a lake upon whose shores two nations built their capital cities: Zaire's Kinshasa (formerly Leopoldville) on the south, and the People's Republic of the Congo's Brazzaville on the north. From the Malebo Pool the river drops 852 ft. over 32 cataracts and through narrow gorges to near sea level; then the rushing waters are abruptly turned aside by a mountain wall. This sudden change in direction creates a whirlpool--the Caldron of Hell--that once made navigation of the river impossible.

The lower Zaire gradually spreads into an estuary so wide that the Atlantic's tide overpowers its sluggish flow and affects the river's level as far as 60 mi. inland. A submarine canyon runs into the sea from the Zaire and extends 100 mi. into the ocean, at depths up to 4,000 ft. below sea level.

Portuguese navigator Diogo Cam entered Zaire's mouth in 1482 while looking for a route to the Indies. He gave the river its name, a mispronunciation of Nzadi, or Nzere, an ancient Kongo word meaning "river to swallow all rivers." In 1816 the first British expedition went upriver about 70 mi. Sixty years later Henry Morton Stanley, an American explorer, spent 999 days leading a 350-man expedition from the river's source to its mouth. On the basis of Stanley's later explorations, King Leopold II of Belgium laid personal claim to the river and its region, both now called Congo, derived from the old Kongo Empire that once thrived at the river's mouth. In 1971 the names of both the Republic of Congo and the Congo River were changed back to Zaire.

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