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.”
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.
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.