Finding the River Niger, Part 5: Conclusion & Naming the Niger

Clapperton himself  returned to  Kano  in July  of 1826 to  resume his initial  effort  to  trace the Niger’s course,  but could  proceed  no further  on account  of  the war  between Sultan  Bello,  the leader  of Sokoto,  and El-Kanemi  who  managed  Bornu. Following several months’ of detainment by Bello, Clapperton died possibly of malaria and dysentery.  On  this trip, however, he  had  with him  a certain impressionable  man named Richard  Lander,  to  whom  it would  now fall  the task  of finally  tracing the Niger for  the Europeans.

By 1826, with all  the information thus collected  regarding the Niger, it  was  quite evidentiary that  the theories  of those  who  supposed  that the river discharged itself  into  the Altantic  Ocean  carried substantial weight.  Now, it  was known  that the great river did not  run a  course into the Lake  Chad, that it turned southwards  after  Gao farther north and that  it continued its southward  course  to  Bussa.  In addition, no positive results had emanated from the expedition sent to trace its course from the Congo. This dampened the claim that it ran a course to the Congo. Nevertheless, the one final trip was needed to quell curiosities.

Lander completed the list of explorers who delivered step-change knowledge of the Niger to the British and to the world

Richard  Lander,  who had  accompanied Clapperton as his  servant  on  his previous journey, was  elected by the government to  lead  the  latest  expedition  to  the Niger. Lander went with his brother, John. In  1830,  Richard  and  his brother landed at  Badagry and  marched inland through the Yoruba country  to  Bussa,  the  lower  end  of  River Niger. From Bussa they traced a  course in a boat  down the river,  and after several days and  a series  of  troubling  encounters  with the locals found  themselves  in the Atlantic, eventually answering years of questions regarding the Niger’s course. Lander released  an account  of his  travel in  the  oddly long-titled  book,  Journal of a  second  expedition  into  the interior  of Africa,  from the  Bight of  Benin  to  Soccatoo  by  the late  Commander  Clapperton of the Royal Navy to which is  added The  Journal of Richard  Lander  from  Kano to the Sea-Coast  Partly  by  a  More Easterly Route.

By 1895 the course of the river was known in finer details than ever. Many of its delta could be mapped from as far as Benin to Opobo. Source: Andree, Richard; The Times; 1895

The course  of  the river  was  now  known and  completely  mapped, and was  occasion for a lot  of  journal papers and articles.  Few years later Macgregor Laird & Richard Lander were leading a team on a trade expedition into modern-Nigeria via the Niger from the south, marking the first of so many British trips to follow. Determining how to Niger flowed took the modern Europeans nearly 50 years and several deaths of brave explorers. Such  was  the dread  at that  time that to  announce  oneself  as interested in  making  the trip inland into  Africa  was  as  good as announcing  one’s last wish.  Of all the explorers who died in their attempt to “find” the Niger, Park, undoubtedly, stands out.  His determination, spirit and unbounded attachment to the river he  called  after  its native name,  Joliba, no doubt  earned him a  defining  legacy in the histories  penned  after  Lander’s  exploit. Today, some have famously labelled  him  “the  Father or  discoverer  of  the  Niger,”  even though he  probably died  with the erroneous belief that  the river  maintained a course into the Congo.

The River Niger was conveniently known in the early times to the locals as the Kowara or the Joliba (these spelt in different variations). This 1874 map referred to it as the “ancient Niger”, specifically eliciting the idea that the “Niger” name is ancient. Source: Colton, G.W.; G. W & C. B. Colton & Co, 1874

Now, as we come to the river’s name itself, it should become obvious that this river did not entirely deserve its name of “Niger”. Park called it Joliba; Laing referred to it as the Quorra. None of the natives who lived around the Niger called it the Niger, except maybe on the prompting of the wandering Europeans. Sultan Bello, the then Sultan of Sokoto, continually referred to the “Kworra”. So who christened it the Niger? Investigations point to ancient references which discussed the great river in the Sudan and referred to it by a variation of the local name for “river”. The etymology of the word derives from several native words to the regions around the river which all meant “stream”, “river” or “Great River”. Ptolemy and other ancient writers evidently picked on these and in their histories elicited the curiosity of 18th/19th century geographers about a certain river called the Niger. Thus, while the locals continued to refer to the great river by the names they had given it (Kworra/Quorra/Joliba), Europeans were stuck with the Niger. Narratives after narratives of many an explorer later, “Niger” was forced on the river and the name seemed to fit. Can an argument be made that had the natives written their histories themselves, today’s River Niger could as well have been River Joliba? Arguably yes!



  1. Martin Leake; Is the Quorra, Which Has Lately Been Traced to Its Discharge into the Sea, the Same River as the Nigir of the Ancients?; The Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, Vol. 2 (1832), pp. 1-28; :
  2. Josiah Conder; The Modern Traveller, A Description of the Various Countries of the Globe, Vol 22.; James Ducan,
  3. Flora L. Shaw (Lady Lugard); A Tropical Dependency; James Nisbet & Co. Limited (1905)
  4. K. Meek; The Niger and the Classics: The History of a Name; Journal of African History, Vol 1. No 1.; 1960
  5. Park, Mungo; Travels in the Interior of Africa; 1858; A. and C. Black, Edinburgh
  6. D.W Jeffreys; Arab Knowledge of the Niger’s Course; Journal of the International African Institue;
  7. John M. Carland; The Colonial Office and Nigeria, 1898-1914; 1985
  8. William N. M. Geary; Nigeria Under British Rule; 1965
  9. Robert Jameson, James Wilson, Hugh Murray; Narrative of discovery and adventure in Africa; J & J Harper; 1832
  10. Denham, Clapperton & Oudney; Narrative of Travels and Discoveries in Northern and Central Africa in the Years 1822,1823 & 1824, Vol I & II;1828
  11. Leo Africanus; The History and Description of Africa, Vol I; 1600
  12. William Allen, T.R.H Thomson; A Narrative of the Expedition to the River Niger in 1841; Richard Bentley; 1848
  13. Richard Lander: Records of Clapperton’s last expedition to Africa. Cass, London 1967

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