Finding the River Niger, Part 1: The Early Years

The River Niger today

The early history of  Nigeria  is nearly  a chronicle  of  the  “discovery”  of the  river from which it took its name, even though it  only winds  partly  through the country. From the  creation  of Lagos  to  the formation  of the northern  and southern halves  of  Nigeria,  down to the subsequent amalgamation of  both,  the river played a  crucial role in policy decisions arrived at  by  colonial administrators.  Perhaps,  this  is  because the  second half  of exploration  of  the river’s  mouth following  the death  of  Mungo  Park  at  Bussa in  the early 19th  century took  place exclusively  in what became  modern-day  Nigeria, or  it could  be  because trade  with  the interior lands in Nigeria  started with the river as  the main conduit.  Whatever the case, the mid-nineteenth century ushered in a flurry of activities on the river and sooner a nation began to crystallize. Its course charted, brigs sailed from  one  end  to  the  other  trading in  cotton,  palm  oil and  ivory, as the first hints  of colonial interests  began  to emerge.  Only a  hundred  years earlier, however, knowledge about the  river  in  the Sudan was  as good as fairy  tale  among  white adventurers; scant was an  understatement.  And  even  earlier,  the  river sparked  no  more than  fleeting interest  in comparison to other  great rivers of  the  world, like  the Nile  on the east.

The first  records supposed  by some historians to  refer  to  the Niger  appeared  in  the writings  of no  less a person than  Herodotus,  an  early historian  from Greece, who  lived in  the  fifth  century and  wrote extensively  on a number  of  historical  subjects.  Writing in  his historical compilation, Herodotus  narrated a story  told to him by  the  Greeks  of Cyrene,  who  in  turn  got it  from  Etearchus, King  of the  Ammonians, regarding some  young  men on an  expedition who  travelled  in the  deserts and  came upon a city  by a river flowing  towards the rising sun.  The king “conjectured” it to be an extension of the Nile; Herodotus, on his part, felt the king’s position was not unreasonable.  Today, we know this is not the case. But such was  the influence of  the Nile in ancient times  that  one  can almost  forgive Herodotus and  “his”  king this  error, if the account is  true.  The Nile, eternal and endless, enjoyed innumerable mentions in ancient history and, without doubt, made a stout impression on those familiar with it.  Many years after, it would still be supposed by not a few historians that major rivers in the interior of Africa derived from the Nile.

Today, scholars have  quite  assuredly dismissed of  this  supposition  that  these  young  Nasamonian men came  upon this great  West  African  river. They have  maintained rather  that, in  correctly interpreting  Herodotus, the young  men, if  the historian’s  fourth  person  account is  to  be believed,  might have  come  upon areas around the Atlas housing rivers and cities, some  of which  conveniently  fit  the description  given by the  venturous  men.

A host of allusions  to rivers  in West Africa followed from a number  of  classical  writers from Vitruvius to Martianus  Capella, with many demonstrating pure confusion in  their  accounts  of the River Niger:  an excusable,  but pitiable  scenario, as  the interior  of  Africa itself  was  scarcely unknown to strangers from the west. Strabo  demonstrated  paucity  of  knowledge  and  unabashed inconsistency in  writing, having  no qualms about citing  conflicting  testimonies regarding the “interior” rivers.  Pliny referred  to  a river called Ger,  or in some  manuscripts Niger, but  which has been dismissed  as  one  of the streams flowing  from the southern side  of the  Atlas.  Ptolemy, writing later around A.D. 150, went into a bit more detail awash with longitudes and latitudes, and did mention the “Gir” and the “NiGir.”  Regarding  both, however,  he diverted  from  the  opinions  of  others  who  thought these rivers in  the interior  were  tributaries  of  the Nile, advancing the notion instead  that they  were  two  great rivers in  the  interior. Hence, Ptolemy’s is generally regarded as the most accurate of all the ancient geographers who took up this topic. Sometime afterwards, the  name  “Niger1”  came to  describe  a great river straddling some region of  West Africa, even if those who  took  up  this  subject  of investigation  had  no inkling exactly where the river took  its source and where it dumped its  water.

Continue to Part 2


1 In  a strange  twist, where language turns on itself,  the  name  “Niger” or  “Ger” may  have indeed denoted “river”  to  the  many natives  who  lived  around the rivers in Sub-Saharan  Africa.  Ptolemy’s use of   the words  “Gir”  and  “NiGir”  were by no means  original  names  for  any particular river; they  were  more adapted words from locals  who referred to  the  rivers in generic terms. In  Barth’s  Travels  in  Central Africa, for  instance, the  doctor noted that  east  of  Timbuktu the Niger  was  called  Eghirreu,  which  is merely a  term for  any river. It has also  been revealed that Gir, Niger  or Nigris  (another name  often used for the Niger  in ancient geography) are  all derived from the Berber  or Libyan  gerguir, and  djir, which means  “a  running stream.”  The Berber people live in the deserts of the Sudan and in areas through which the Niger finds its path.  C.K.  Meek  also  advanced  that  “the Buduma  word  for river is  njer  and that  gera  and  ngira  were  roots for river in  many African  languages.” The Budumas live in the areas of Lake Chad cutting across Chad, Cameroon and Nigeria.  So, while  the river  may now carry  the name  of  Niger, its  name could  have been derived from a root present in  any  of  the languages of  the peoples  living  around it. 

The Top YouTube Channels in Nigeria

YouTube, though less patronized ...

Learn more

1 Comment

  1. Carly

    May 8, 2017 at 1:01 pm

    Uneebilvable how well-written and informative this was.

Leave a Reply