Finding the River Niger, Part 4: The Big Steps

As at  1819,  questions still  lingered regarding the  Niger, which  quite  possibly earned this name  more  out of this  longing search  for it  than because it deserved it  (more  on that  later). According to  Taubman Goldie,  “only those  interested in  geographical research were familiar with  the name Niger, or  knew  that its  upper waters  down to  Bussa  had  been  charted fourteen  years before by  the Scotsman,  Mungo  Park.”  As with any other subject of inquiry, theses abounded and researchers advanced ideas on what they thought should be the river’s course. Its sudden bend  southerly  after Timbucktu  had aroused surprise  from  men of science  who, following ancient papers,  supposed  it  ran  a near  straight course  from  west  to  east.  Some thought it proceeded  on this course into  a lake in  Bornu; others  supposed it  went  on ahead  to  enter  the Nile as a  tributary  somewhere to the south.  Still others, including Park, felt the Niger and the Congo were one.  A German geographer, G. Reichard, proposed in  1803 (some  sources say 1802)  after  some interesting analysis  with numbers  that  the river  emptied its content into  the Gulf  of Guinea as a  delta between Rio  Formosa  and  Rio del  Rey, two  rivers  on the well-visited  coast  of  western  Africa.  Though this  was  the  correct deduction, it is  quite  easy  to  see  why doubts persisted among  learned  men  who  still knew next  to  nothing  in  terms  of hard  evidence  about  the interior lands and rivers in Africa.

After  Park’s  death  and  following increasing  belief that  the Niger, in  its  move  south, was  a  tributary  of  the Congo,  another explorer, Captain  James Tuckey  was  dispatched by  the government  in  1816  with a crew of about fifty persons  to ascend  the  Congo  into  the  Niger. This  expedition  met  with failure not because  they,  expectedly, didn’t find  themselves  in  the Niger, but  because  most  members  of  the crew,  including the Captain,  died and the  ship  had to be turned around. The trip collected little useful information, but necessitated multiple enquiries into West Africa.  Peddie  in December  1816, Campell after  him; Gray in  1818; Ritchie and  Lyon in 1819; all attempted the  trips inland  to  the Niger  sponsored  by the  British  government.  However, nothing of real significance came from these.

The  government  maintained  interest  in exploring  the  region and  over the  next several  years continued to  dispatch explorers  from  England.  The next  big  achievement  for  the British  was  Major  Laing’s  attempt to  find the source  of  the Niger  and  put out  of doubt  years  of  nagging  uncertainty. In 1825, he left England to begin his journey.  A decorated soldier  who  had made  an  initial effort  in 1821  to reach the Niger through Falaba  in  today’s Sierra Leone,  Laing  was now  going  to make his new attempt  via Tripoli. Unfortunately, he  never returned  to England and all that was learned about his  travel followed  from letters he dispatched  from  his various stops  while he  made his  way to  the river.  As revealed in the last ones he penned, Laing made it to Timbucktu despite intense suffering and fever.  Regarding the Niger, not  much  came  from  him  besides helping to  dispel  years of  misconception  that  the river was a  tributary of the  Nile  by  ascertaining  the  source  of  the  Quorra  (Niger)  to  be not more  than  1600  feet above  the  sea level  rendering it  impossible to  flow  into the Nile. It became  left  to  the  expedition  of  two  other brave English explorers to  deliver  a step  change in the understanding  of this  river’s course.

Major Laing was among some of the first explorers dispatched by the British government in search of the Niger once it took interest in the stirring subject. Source: Wikipedia

On the instructions  of  the  British  government  Hugh  Clapperton and  Dixon Denham,  two  English  soldiers, set  out  for Tripoli  with the  plan  to  explore areas  of Bornu and to  trace  the  course  of  the Niger.  With the river known only so far as Bussa, Park’s last stop, mounting curiosity necessitated closing the lid on this great river in western Africa.  Though  Clapperton and  Denham  may not  have  gotten along  one bit  after a series  of fallouts  (in one instance,  they  didn’t utter a  word to  each  other during a  133-day  trip!), they succeeded  in erasing certain doubts that  persisted regarding the course  of the Niger. Arriving in Tripoli on 19 November 1821, the team (which included Dr. Walter  Oudney)  beat  a winded  path  through  the vast  Libyan  Desert  which took them  east  of the  Niger  to  Bornu  after  more than  450 days.  In  Kanem,  the most northern  province  of  Bornu, they  encountered  the  Lake Chad  “glowing  with the golden rays  of  the sun”  and were able to  firmly establish that in  spite  of  the handful  of rivers  running  into the lake, the Niger  itself  did not  discharge into  Lake Chad.  This significant discovery put paid to the enduring belief that the Niger ran eastwards from the west through Timbucktu into the lake in Bornu, and confirmed it also wasn’t a tributary of the Nile to the east.  Clapperton’s  own solo effort  to  then  trace  the course  of the Niger  from  Bussa  after  crossing  into  the western half  of  the region  met  with  opposition from  Sultan  Bello,  then  Sultan  of Sokoto (Socatto),  who  had initially  offered  his assistance  for  the  trip. Clapperton  &  Denham returned  to  England in  June of  1825  where  they published an  account  of  their  travels  together  under  the title,  Narrative  of Travels  and Discoveries  in Northern and Central Africa  in the years  1822  –  1823 and  1824.

Besides Park, Clapperton, with his many travels, also made extensive contributions to the world’s knowledge on the Niger. Source: Wikipedia

Continue to Part 5

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