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.
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.