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.

Though he did not find the mouth of the River Niger, Mungo Park achieved by far the most among the explorers sent out by the Africa Association. Source: Wikipedia

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.

This 1829 map showed how much of the Niger cartographers knew following Park’s death. They knew harder farther than Bussa where Park met his end. Source: Hall, S. (Sidney), Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown and Green; 1829

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.

Continue to Part 4

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1 Comment

  1. Sauer

    April 3, 2017 at 6:50 pm

    […] Continue to Part 3 […]

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