Finding the River Niger, Part 1: The Early Years
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.
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 ger, guir, 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.