Finding the River Niger, Part 3: British Interests
Led by Sir Joseph Banks, the Africa Association began sourcing for its first adventurer. After its initial efforts, it recruited John Ledyard and Simon Lucas, two explorers who had some significant travel under their belt in an age when exploration was common vocation. Planned to cross the continent from Senaar towards the west, Ledyard departed England on 30 June 1788 and got to Cairo 21 days after the formation of the club that sent him out. Unfortunately, he died there after unwittingly poisoning himself while attending to a sudden illness. Lucas, on his part, was to penetrate from Tripoli to Fezzan and from there to the Atlantic coast through the Gambia. Arriving in Tripoli in October 1788, Lucas managed to find guides to take him across the Libyan desert. Unfortunately he was unable to complete his task on account of internecine wars blocking his route. His guides abandoned him and he had to return to England. However, his trip was not a total disaster. The explorer, who spoke fluent Arabic, was able to collect valuable information from the locals about the routes into the inner countries, the customs of the empires of Bornu, details about the dream city of Timbucktu and, above all, notes about the rise and termination of the River Niger. All of this news elicited the society’s curiosity and sooner they had another explorer dispatched in search of the Niger.
An Irish major named Daniel Houghton was recruited to proceed in 1790 to the Niger by way of the Gambia River. The Association, still basking in the ancient knowledge that both rivers were connected and the Niger stretched the length of West Africa, hoped that the Major would end at the Niger after following this course. The enterprising Houghton penetrated deep and after making it as far as the highest navigable point on the Gambia continued on foot up to Simbing in northern Sahara. Sadly, the materials he carried with him elicited the greed of native traders who lured him into the desert, stripped him of everything and left him to die. It came to one man to completely redirect European 18th-century discourse on the River Niger and stir further interests in research on the region.
In 1794, Mungo Park, a Scottish doctor and an enthusiastic explorer, offered his services to the African Association which then was scouting for a successor to Major Houghton. He was commissioned to go to the Niger and in May 1795 departed Portsmouth on a vessel destined for the Gambia. Instructions delivered to him were to locate the Niger, ascertain its course, and if possible, its rise and termination, and to visit the famed cities of Timbucktu and Houssa in the interior. These were cities about which the Europeans had heard regal tales and to confirm them topped the mind of the curious. While his trip was replete with tough travails in its early days, he soon got to the “majestic” Niger, at Sego in 1796, and confirmed what he had managed to glean from the locals that the Joliba (the Niger) flowed eastward. He traced the direction as far as Bamako before heading back to England in 1797. This marked the end of his first trip into Africa. He recorded his experiences in the widely-read book, Travels in the Interior of Africa, which was published in 1799.
In 1805, Park made a second and by a good distance more productive trip into the interior of Africa. Departing from Portsmouth for the Gambia, he left as head of a government expedition and had with him his brother-in-law, a draughtsman, four or five artificers, a senior army officer, thirty-five privates and two seamen. His initial trip into the elusive continent had engendered enough public fascination in England to warrant substantial interest. But fate did not seem to be on his side this time. On arrival at the Niger, only eleven of those who set out remained. And on the trip down the river, the rest, including Mungo Park, perished at the Bussa rapids on the Niger south of Yauri, a locality in present-day Kebbi State, Nigeria, after an attack by the natives. Thus, Park died before he could make it to the river’s mouth. All that was known of Park’s adventure up to Sansandig, a little above Segou, was transmitted to England through letters he handed to one of his guides, Isaaco. After his departure from this point, nothing was ever heard from him again. The tales about his death and his perseverance until Bussa were not confirmed until 1810 when Isaaco was dispatched by the Governor of Senegal to go find answers regarding the Scottish explorer’s whereabouts.
In between Park’s two trips, the Africa Association commissioned Freiderich Hornemann, a native of Germany, to proceed on another trip to Africa. After “gratuitous” instructions at the University of Gottingen related to the trip, Hornemann left in the summer of 1797 but sadly, like many explorers before him, was never heard from again. Tales filtered in some 20 years later that he probably reached the Niger, but died of dysentery before he could send communication back to the waiting men in England. The Association also sent out Burckhardt and Nicholls, both of whom never made it as far as the instructions delivered to them. This marked the end of the Africa Association’s involvement in “discovering” the Niger and areas of central Africa.
Eventually, no explorer sent out by the ambitious Africa Association achieved as much as Park did. The initial information obtained by Park, however, was fiery fuel for a number of conjectures not only about the kingdoms around the Niger, but also about the course of the river itself. In his second trip on behalf of the Colonial Office, Park obtained even more valuable information for the Europeans and set such a huge bar that other explorers who would be taking up the task of navigating the Niger had their work cut out for them. No doubt, had Park made it through the delta of the river into the Atlantic, the European question regarding the Niger would have been at once settled. Instead, the course of the river was known only as far as Bussa in present-day Nigeria and it remained for several other explorers to assemble the tessellating pieces about this major artery of the Sudan.