Finding the River Niger, Part 2: The Middle Years

European interest in the Niger down the centuries after Christ was of rather little significance. The Romans, for instance,  marched  into Africa  getting  as far as the  River Niger  on possibly several  fronts, including  into modern-day  Nigeria,  but  no  detail  of  valuable import has  come down from  their adventure  as contribution  to our ancient  knowledge  of  the river.  However,  during  this  period  (and  even before), the  locals living  along  the  coast  of the river  demonstrated confident,  even if unreliable, information about  the river  they  could  see  and  about its course.

The natives knew the river at different parts of its travel by different names.  At  varying points  it  was referred  to  as the Kwora  ,  Quorra,  Guilba, Joliba,  Koara, Ghulby,  etc.,  by  different  tribes. It  is  also  quite likely  that, in  the  very early  centuries,  each coastal  tribe only knew the river as  far  as their own settlement and  perhaps  only  a little  more,  for  when  adventurers  collected  oral accounts  from the locals,  there  was hardly enough  to  form a  consistent  picture  of the river’s trajectory. Intermittent tribal wars  would  have prevented encroachments  into  the areas of hostile neighbours  and this would  certainly  have limited  the knowledge any  tribe  on its  own  could  assemble  on the  course  of the  river.  Similarly, its  great  span  from its source  in  the Guinea  Highlands  through the  roiling  rapids at Bussa  and into the  pouring delta at the Gulf of Guinea  might have  proved  too great  a challenging  sail for any  one  king to  muster.  In  any  case,  we will never know  if  any  daring  project  was  undertaken  to  chart the course  of  the river by any  of  the numerous  old  kingdoms striding  its breadth  as no written records  exist.

Additional ancient  writings  about the  Niger  came from the pen  of Arab  traders  and explorers  who by the eleventh  century  were  visiting Africa  in droves  to market  both  their goods  and religion.  Many  of  them were indeed  familiar  with  the river, even if  they demonstrated  incomplete  knowledge  about its  course and origin.  In  his historical account published in  1556,  Leo  Africanus, a Berber  originally named al-Hasan  ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi, discussing  the  fourth  part in the  division  of  Africa,    presented the “Negros’  mighty river” called the Niger  as derived  from the Nile, arising from  the  east  out  of  a desert  or a lake and running westward  into the  ocean.  Showing  good  knowledge  of the areas around  the river,  he went  on the  mention a number  of  Kingdoms which  “for the  most part [are] situated upon  the river.”  Ibn Batuta, another Arab traveler, travelling in 1352, reached the Niger and erroneously supposed it was the Nile. He journeyed along its course for only a few towns and unlike Leo, accurately described that the great river flowed eastward.  Scholars have  also  revealed that  while  Idrisi, another Arab geographer, confounded the Niger with a western branch of the Nile which parted from the original Nile at some point and flowed across West Africa from the east to the utmost bounds of the west, his counterpart, El  Bekri, writing  around 1051, gave  a somewhat more accurate2 account of  the  course  of the  Niger  through its  travel in  the  lower  half  of  today’s Mali. Lady Lugard, writing in her book, A Tropical Dependency, about El  Bekri’s observation  noted:

“El Bekri gives,  however, a  very accurate account  of  the course  of the Niger  throughout the  northern portion  of  the bend, describing  some principal towns,…on  the part of  the  river…where,  near to the present position of  Timbuctoo, the river,…”leaves the  land of the  Blacks,”  and  runs  eastwards for six days to  a place [called]  Tirca before turning south by  the famous  city  of  Kagho  or  Kaougho….[which] has generally been identified as occupying the position  of  the present town  of  Gao.”

This 1736 maps shows that the theory that the Niger flowed from a lake in the east to the extremes of the west was a common one among early cartographers. Source: Moll, Herman, d. 1732; David Rumsey Historical Map Collection, 1736

Given  this  fount  of  details  differing  in facts, it was no  surprise that no confirmable knowledge  of  the Niger’s  complete  course existed down into  the 1700s.  Scholars  often  went on  endless analyses  on the strength  of information provided  by ancient travelers and geographers, tracing routes  and making deductions  on  what  is supposed the course  of the river  or  on the towns and  cities along  its bank.  But  while the Arabs  and  the locals  were rather  well-acquainted with the river,  the Europeans knew  close to  nothing.  Unable to tolerate this  any  further, some  group  of  English  gentlemen came together  on 9  June  1788  to  establish  the Association for  Promoting  the  Discovery  of  the Interior  Parts  of Africa, otherwise known  as  the Africa  Association. Aware that  the  modern  world  at that  time knew incredibly little about Africa than did  the ancients,  these  men took  it upon  themselves  to  fund  an exploration  of  the interior  of West  & Central  Africa. Needless  to say, this  was not  an entirely charitable venture; these noblemen harboured  some  measure,  even if little,  of  commercial interests, as  they sought to  learn  more about Africa through expeditions to be conducted  by  willing  adventurers desirous of gold  or  glory.

Continue to Part 3

Footnotes:

2 It should  be  noted that  this  is not  as  “accurate”;  the river  turns  south well before  Gao,  but only some forgivable  distance  from it.

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