William Allen's Narrative of the 1841 Niger expedition
William Allen's Narrative of the 1841 Niger expedition

Royal Navy1841 Niger expeditionBookContents ◄► Chapter II



Ancient Copts first acquainted with the interior of Africa - Herodotus, his account of the earliest African explorers - Ptolemy - Greeks and Romans - Imperfect knowledge of the interior of Africa - Arab travellers - Ibn Batuta and Leo Africanus - First Association formed in England for promoting discovery in Africa - Meesrs. Ledyard and Lucas - Major Houghton - Mungo Park, his discovery of the Niger - Horneman - Park's second expedition - Captain Tuckey's attempt to penetrate Africa by the Zaire - Ritchie and Lyon - Clapperton, Oudney and Denham's overland route - Clapperton's second attempt - Sultan Bellos' idea of the Nile and Kowara, or Niger - Major Laing reaches Timbuktùh - Richard and John Lander trace the Niger from Bussah to the coast - Commercial Expedition formed at Liverpool to ascend the Niger - Lieutenant W. Allen accompanies it - Mr. Macgregor Laird and Richard Lander take charge of the enterprise - Its failure as a commercial speculation - Mr. Becroft ascends the Niger.

[illustration: Map of Part of Africa]

The vast regions of central Africa, for inscrutable purposes, have been, as it were, a sealed book which has excited and eluded the curiosity of civilized nations of all ages. Although many attempts have been made to search into the contents of the mysterious volume, but a few scanty pages only, have with difficulty, and at long intervals been deciphered.

We have thought it desirable to put together the information thus sparingly gleaned; and therefore propose to give a succinct account of the discoveries of our precursors, in order that the reader may be able to connect them with the following Narrative of the late Government Expedition; confining our chain of introduction to such facts as relate to its peculiar object - the River Niger and the nations on its banks.

In commencing at the earliest possible period, we have good precedent in the case of the Venetian Senator; who, wishing to give a brief sketch of the revolutions of empires, began his oration with an investigation into the causes of the Fall of the Angels.

Among the representations of contemporaneous events, &c., on the walls of ancient temples and tombs in Upper Egypt, fettered groups of black figures, bearing apparently the peculiar characteristics of the Negro,* lead to the belief not only that the Copts, as far back as 3,400 years, had some acquaintance with the interior of their continent, but that this devoted race was even at that remote period victims of the oppression and rapine which - perpetuated through all intermediate periods - have in our own proud age produced "a sum of human misery - the most painful of any which, in the survey of the condition of mankind, it is possible to contemplate."

* Rossellini, vol. I. pl. 64, 85, 86, &c.
† The traffic in slaves was tolerated in Egypt; and it is reasonable to suppose that many persons were engaged, as at present, in bringing them to Egypt for public sale, independent of those who were sent as part of the tribute.- Sir G. Wilkinson, vol. I. p. 404.

Whether the geographical knowledge of the Copts was confined to the scenes of their predatory warfare in those parts of Ethiopia in their immediate neighbourhood, or was extended to the interesting field of modern research, there are no records left for our information earlier than 484 years before Christ; when, we learn from Herodotus, the "Father of Historians," that in his time there was a spirit of inquiry respecting the remote and almost inaccessible countries lying beyond the Desert.

"He was informed by some Cyrenians, that in a journey they took to the Oracle of Ammon, they had conferred with Etearchus, King of the Ammonians; and that, among other things, discoursing with him concerning the head of the Nile, as of a thing altogether unknown, Etearchus acquainted them that certain Nasamones, a nation of Lybia inhabiting the borders of the Syrtis to the eastward, coming into his country, and being asked by him if they had learned any thing new touching the Lybian Deserts, answered that some petulant young men, sons to divers persons of great power among them, had, after many extravagant actions, resolved to send five of their number to the Deserts of Lybia, to see if they could make any further discoveries than others had done.

"The young men chosen by their companions to make this expedition, having furnished themselves with water and other necessary provisions, first passed through the inhabited country; and when they had likewise traversed that region which abounds in wild beasts, they entered the Deserts, making their way towards the south-west. After they had travelled many days through the sands, they at length saw some trees growing in a plain; and while they were eating the fruit they found on the branches, divers little men, less than those we account of a middling stature, came up to them, speaking a language which the Nasamones understood not; neither did they understand the speech of the Nasamonians. However, they conducted them over vast morasses to a city built on a great river; running from the west to the east and abounding in crocodiles, where the Nasamonians found all the inhabitants black, and of no larger size than their guides.

"The Nasamonians all returned safe, and said that the little men were all enchanters. But for the river which passes by their city, he thought it to be the Nile; and his opinion is not unreasonable."*

* Herodotus, Euterpe, p. 155, Littlebury's translation

No task could be more hopeless than the attempt to identify any geographical position by an account so vague and even so questionable. Nevertheless, the reviving curiosity of the middle and subsequent ages has given these early travellers credit for having reached the Niger. With regard to the "great city" on its banks, speculation can have no clue, since the lapse of ages may have witnessed the destruction of many mud-built cities on its banks, prior to the erection of Timbuktùh; which Leo Africanus says, was in the year 610 of the Hegira.

Thus, a single passage of the Greek historian has directed the researches of travellers in Africa to one principal object. As usual with all things difficult of attainment, this interest has increased in proportion to the physical obstacles which seemed to be almost insurmountable; and the failure of one adventurer has only had the effect of stimulating others; who flattered themselves that circumstances might be more favourable to their energy and perseverance.

Uncertain glimmerings of light on the subject have been handed down to us from the ancients, and through the middle ages; but until within a century of our own times, the knowledge of the interior of Africa has remained almost as vague as it was left by the "petulant Nasamonians." There is, however, even in their slight allusion, a degree of romance which has tinctured all subsequent enterprises; and that short passage of Herodotus may be said to shadow forth the difficulties which would attend those who should follow; and attempt to verify their discoveries.

The Greeks, in the time of Ptolemy, must have had extensive information respecting the countries south of the Desert, by means of itineraries of numerous travellers of his day. He has laid down the positions of many places, which from his imperfect means, are hardly to be identified, but he clearly shews that two large rivers traversed Sudàn; namely, the Gir and the Nigir; that the latter is the River Joliba, of Park, cannot admit of a doubt. Succeeding researches will also, perhaps, shew as clearly that the Gir is the Chadda [modern name: Benué River].

Although the Romans crossed the great Desert with their armies, and even reached the countries since discovered by Denham and Clapperton, they have left no information respecting our river; and for many centuries after them, the interior of Africa remained forgotten and unknown; until some Arabian geographers restored it to the speculations of the spoiler, of the explorer, and in our own better times, of the philanthropist.

Some of these Arabs, and especially Ibn Batuta* in 1353, and Leo Africanus in his work published 1556, speak of the great river of Africa as the Niger, and describe the cities and nations on its banks. The latter says that, Tombuttowas a rich and powerful city, built by a King called Mensi Suleiman in the year 610 of the Hegira, 1232, A.D.

* Professor Lee's translation.
† Viaggi da Ramusio, tom. I. p. 78.
‡ It is curious that one of our interpreters, Mohamed Lamina, said he knew two large cities, Timbaktu and Tombuttu, and the latter was very much larger than the other.

The Portuguese, in pursuit of discovery along the west coast of Africa, commenced the slave-trade there in 1443*; but the interest respecting the interior again remained dormant till towards the end of the eighteenth century, when the fearful extent to which the traffic in slaves had arrived in England, gave rise to a spirit of inquiry respecting the countries from which we drew yearly so many thousand victims.

* Mr. Bandinel on the Slave Trade, p. 15.

"In the year 1788, some noblemen and gentlemen, desirous of rescuing the age from a charge of ignorance, which in other respects so little belongs to it, and strongly impressed with a conviction of the practicability and utility of thus enlarging the fund of human knowledge, formed the plan of an association, for promoting the discovery of the interior parts of Africa."

† Proceedings of the African Association, "In this year, also, the Bill of Sir William Dolben for the regulation of the Slave Trade passed on the 10th of July, through the Upper House as through an ordeal, as it were of fire; the first bill that ever put fetters upon that barbarous and destructive monster, the Slave Trade." - Clarkson, vol I. p. 560.

Thc first efforts of the Association were to equip two volunteers for African discovery, Mr. Ledyard and Mr. Lucas. The former to endeavour to cross the continent from Senaar towards the west; the latter was to penetrate from Tripoli to Fezzàn, and thence to the Gambia and coast of Guinea. Mr. Ledyard unfortunately died at Cairo, and Mr. Lucas was unable, on account of intestine wars, to reach Fezzàn; but at Mesurata, he obtained from native travellers some valuable information concerning the routes across the Desert to Moursouk, the capital of that country; and of the manners and customs of the people, of the empires of Bornù and Kashna, of the city of Timbaktù and of the River Niger, the rise and termination of which, according to his informant, were unknown, but its course was from east to west.

An opinion had long obtained that the Niger flowed to the westward, instead of, as the great historian had asserted, to the eastward; and some of the rivers on the west coast, near Sierra Leone, were supposed to be its outlet. In the beginning of the seventeenth century, a Portuguese pilot, passing the Rio Grande on his way to St. Thomas' Island: says, "it is held for certain that this is the river which was called by the ancients the Niger, and that it is a branch of the Nile flowing to the westward.*

*"Si va per sirocco alla volta del Rio Grande sopra l'Ethiopia gradi 11 verso il nostro polo; qual rio over fiume, si tien certo che sia quello che dalli antichi fu chiamato Nigir, e ch'el sia un ramo del Nilo che corre verso ponente, percio che in detto fiume vi si trouan cocodrilli, caualli marini; cresce in li medesimi giorni che cresce il Nilo." - Viaggi da Ramusio, p. 115}

Some further information, obtained from an Arab trader, named Shabeni, respecting the city of Timbaktu, and the River Niger, induced the Association to send Major Houghton, with instructions to penetrate to the Niger by way of the Gambia. This enterprising officer did not, however, get beyond the kingdom of Bambouk, where the quantity of merchandise which he imprudently carried with him excited the cupidity of the native traders, whom he had engaged as guides, and who, after stripping him of everything, left him to perish. The melancholy end of Major Houghton's enterprise did not deter a new adventurer from offering his services to the African Association. Mungo Park's simple and touching narrative is so well known to all who read, that it will be only necessary to refer to the achievement which has placed him at the head of African travellers - namely, the discovery of a great river which we call the Niger. He ascended the River Gambia, and after having with incredible difficulty crossed several kingdoms, he arrived on the 21st of July, 1796, at Sego, the capital of Bambarra, where he had the gratification of seeing "the majestic Niger glittering in the morning sun, as broad as the Thames at Westminster, and flowing slowly to the eastward." He traced the direction of this noble river - which the natives called Joliba - a short distance to the eastward, and having obtained some information, though vague, of its further course, he returned to England.

Although much had been accomplished, yet the mysterious Niger remained almost in as great obscurity as ever. To endeavour to unveil this mystery, other travellers now entered the field, but without success. The principal of these was Horneman, a student of Gottingen, who, if he penetrated as far as Nufi or Nyffe, as was supposed, must have become acquainted with a great portion of the course of the Niger; but he probably fell a victim to the climate, as he never returned.

Park's adventurous spirit would not let him rest while the great problem remained unsolved; and, in the beginning of 1805, he again started, under the authority of the Colonial Office, to "pursue the River Niger to the utmost possible distance to which it can be traced." He again took the route from the west coast of Africa by the Gambia, but was not now in the forlorn and solitary condition of his former journey. He was accompanied by a party of three officers, and forty-two men; soldiers, seamen, and artificers.

Park's indomitable perseverance enabled him to reach the Niger, though with the loss of all his party except Lieutenant Martyn and three soldiers, all the others having fallen a sacrifice to the fevers consequent on the great fatigue and privations they had to undergo in travelling during the rainy season in that dangerous climate.

Here it may be necessary to notice an apparent anomaly, or incongruity of opinion, as to the most healthy or unhealthy time in Africa. Park always spoke with horror of the rainy season, as "being extremely fatal to Europeans." Whereas our opinion, backed by that of every experienced person on the coast, is quite the reverse. The different circumstances of the two expeditions, must, however, be borne in mind. Park and his party, in their long journey by land, were exposed to the alternate effects of the deluging rain of the tornado, and the scorching heat of a tropical sun. Whereas nautical expeditions, admitting of constant shelter from both, have the full benefit of the refreshing effects of the tornado upon the atmosphere. There can be no question, but that with means of shelter, the rainy season is comparatively healthy.

Having constructed a vessel out of three half-rotten canoes, which he called His Majesty's schooner, Joliba, Mungo Park and his remaining companions embarked on the 19th of November, 1805, and proceeded down the mysterious river, to seek its unknown termination. This they never accomplished: unfavourable rumours respecting them reached the coast in the course of the following year. But notwithstanding the great interest felt by the public for this enterprising traveller, it is unaccountable that no steps were taken to ascertain the truth until 1810, when Colonel Maxwell, then Governor of Senegal, dispatched Isaaco - Park's guide as far as Sansanding, and who had brought his last communications to the Gambia - with instructions to collect all the information he could. Isaaco having met the man who had accompanied the schooner as guide and pilot, learned from him the fatal truth. They had safely navigated the river as far as Bussah; but here, taking advantage of its being much obstructed by rocks and rapids, the natives - by command of the King - attacked the little band with bows and arrows. They defended themselves gallantly a long while, and at last perished, in an attempt to escape by swimming.*

* Mr. Duncan in his "Travels in Western Africa," vol. II. p. 181, gives another version of this tragical event, received from Terrasso-Weea; who was an eye-witness of it. By this it appears, that the pilot Amadi Fatuma, having appealed to the King of Yauri, on a false charge, that Park had not paid him his wages, the canoe was ordered to be stopped. Park resisted this, and a general attack was made on him, in which this unfortunate traveller having been mortally wounded, was brought into the presence of the King, where he died. Besides the disagreement of this account with that of Isaaco respecting Park having lost his life in the water, there is a discrepancy in the locality. Isaaco said, that the catastrophe took place at Bussah, which is confirmed by Lander, who sat on the rocks which overlook the place where the intrepid Park lost his life.

With this great sacrifice, a step was gained to the knowledge of the course of the Niger. Although the details of the voyage were unknown, the continuity of the river was ascertained as far as Bussah, also the unexpected change of its direction from an easterly course, which puzzled all geographers, to one nearly south. This led to the wild supposition, that the waters of the Niger might discharge themselves in the River Congo or Zaire, and an expedition was sent thither under Captain Tuckey, R.N. At the same time, another expedition was to follow the route of Mungo Park, in the hope of meeting at some point on the river.

The usual fate of African travellers attended them; they had to encounter hardship and fever, and both failed. Tuckey entered an embouchure of immense width and depth, discharging a volume of water with a rapidity of current sufficient to justify the expectation of finding a river of first-rate magnitude; but on ascending with great difficulty, not having the advantage of steam, they found it suddenly reduced to a narrow rocky channel terminated by a cataract. Beyond this, they traced a magnificent river one hundred miles, or two hundred and eighty miles from the coast. They were then obliged from exhaustion to return, and most of them died. Other attempts by Gray, from the west coast; Ritchie and Lyon by way of Fezzan, were equally unsuccessful.

In 1822, Clapperton, Oudney, and Denham crossed the Great Desert from Tripoli, and discovered the powerful kingdom of Bornù, situated on the borders of the large lake, Tshad. Respecting this noble sheet of water, however, very little information was obtained, except that it was "clear and remarkably sweet," which fact alone would justify the supposition that it is but the widening of a large river; probably the "Gir" of Ptolemy, and may prove to be identical with the great tributary of the Niger - the so-called Chadda.

The principal feature, however, of this expedition, which bears on our present purpose, is the journey of Clapperton through a large part of Sudàn westward to Sakatùh, the chief city of the new empire of the Filatahs; where he ascertained that he was in the vicinity of the river traced by the unfortunate Mungo Park; perhaps flowing to the S.E. within one hundred miles of him. This knowledge, derived from Sultan Bello, led to the second expedition of that enterprising officer in the year 1825, in which were associated with him the amiable and accomplished Captain Pearce, and two other gentlemen, who all however died soon after the commencement of their journey from Badagry, in the Bight of Benìn, from whence they proposed to travel overland to Sakatùh. Clapperton was thus left to pursue his route, accompanied only by his faithful servant, Richard Lander; to whose name, and to that of Mungo Park, will be ascribed the glory of having discovered the course and termination of the hitherto mysterious Niger. The travellers arrived at Bussah, where the accounts previously received of the melancholy fate of Park were confirmed through the King and the natives, who adverted to the subject with great reluctance; they regretted the circumstance, and declared that they took the party for Filatahs, from whom they feared a predatory incursion, or they would not have attacked them. Clapperton crossed the Niger at Comi, the first ferry below the rocks and rapids, which extend a good way from Bussah.

Clapperton having died at Sakatùh, with some appearance of having been poisoned, Richard Lander traversed alone unknown countries, bringing with him the papers and valuables of his beloved master. He very nearly discovered the course of the Chadda, having been within a short distance of Jakoba, which is on its banks; but was forced to return by a native Prince, who sent some horsemen after him. He subsequently returned to the coast by the same route that he had taken from it. Among Clapperton's papers was a chart drawn by Sultan Bello's orders, tracing the course of the Niger in Sudàn; on which was written: "This is the sea (river) of Kowara, which reaches Egypt, and is called the Nile." But Bello and his principal men declared that the Kowara entered "the sea" at Fandah, by which it is evident that they alluded to the continuity of that river with the Chadda or "bekki'n rua," "dark water," and that they knew nothing of their joint course to the sea, or "rua'n gìsheri," "salt water."*

* Bello, the Sultan of the Fulahs, Filatahs or Fellahs, told Clapperton that in the eastern part of Sudan there were ninety-nine mountains, the names of which all began with F; but of these only three were known, viz: Fazuglu, Fanduflu and Fàffaklu; which we may imagine also to be the names of the rivers descending from them into the lakes Fittré and Chad. To these we may now add the Nufi names of the Chadda and the Niger, Fùrogi and Fùrodo.

It is funny that these Fellahs are so fond of the letter F; but unfortunate for Folly, that they could not furnish fuller facts for the following frivolous flight of fancy.
Fish, flesh, and fowl, and fruitful fields,
For fortune's fav'rite friend or foe
Fazuglu finds, Fanduflu yields -
Fur'ji, Fur'do Faff'klu flow,
They fecundate to furnish food
For far-famed Fellahs; first who fought,
For fierce Dan Fodio* free of thought:
fill full fast from foamy flood.
Foul feral Fittre; - fever-fraught.

* Sultan Bello's predecessor, who excited the Fellahs of Haussa to throw off the yoke of the Negro Princes, who grievously oppressed them about seventy years ago, according to Lander.

About the time of Clapperton's second journey, Major Laing succeeded in reaching Timbaktùh, by way of the Desert, from Tripoli. He had been attacked and wounded by the Arabs; but persevered until he had attained the object of his mission, and gained for England the honour of having first discovered this long sought-for city; as Park had already done with regard to the Niger. It was, however, an equally dear-bought and empty honour, for he was murdered by the ferocious Arabs in re-crossing the Desert. His papers have never been recovered, though they were reported to have been taken to Tripoli.

A Frenchman, M. Caillié, also reached Timbaktùh; but his narrative is very meagre.

The termination of the Niger, still remained a subject for speculation, and many were the theories formed respecting it. Some held with the old opinions of the Arabs, that it joined the Nile of Egypt. Others that its waters were lost in the sands of the Desert, or being discharged into a large lake, in central Africa, were there evaporated, While its supposed southerly course, after passing Timbaktùh, inclined many to the belief that its outlet was to be found in the Atlantic. It is surprising that this, the most rational theory, did not obtain more favour. Reichard supposed its outlet to be there; and Mr. McQueen, in 1821, traced its course by itineraries with tolerable accuracy.

The period, however, had now arrived when this "vexata questio" should be set at rest.

Richard Lander, whose fidelity and perseverance had gained the approbation of the Government, offered his services to discover the termination of the Niger, by the obvious though hazardous alternative of embarking at Bussah, and following the stream in a canoe whithersoever it might lead him.

His brother John volunteered to accompany him, and having been furnished by Government with means, they commenced their arduous enterprise from Badagry, where they engaged some native attendants, who had served on the former occasion with Captain Clapperton.* Following nearly the same route taken by that officer from Badagry, the Landers came to the banks of the Niger at Bussah; where embarking with their four Negroes, in a small open canoe, protected only by umbrellas from the scorching rays of the sun and the torrents of the tornado, they fearlessly descended the unknown stream. In passing the confluence of the Chadda, they ascertained, by paddling for some time against the strong current of that river, that their course could not be in that direction. On arriving near the commencement of the Delta, where the numerous diverging branches would have offered a choice of route to the sea, they were captured by the Ibu traders at the Kiri market; and taken to the chief, Obi; who delivered them for a ransom to "King Boy" of Brass-town, near the mouth of the principal branch of the Niger. This may be considered as a Providential circumstance; since, if they had passed unmolested, they might have selected a channel more promising in appearance than the Rio Nun; which would have led them by an unfrequented outlet, to the wide Atlantic Ocean; where they must inevitably have been lost, and their glorious achievement would have perished with them.

* They subsequently were also hired by Lander on the Liverpool Expedition. Pasco, the chief of them, was treacherously poisoned by order of the then King of Iddah, for having "shewn the white men the way up the river," which he believed they could not have found but for him.- W. A.

Thus the solution of the problem which has excited the interest of so many ages, has been accomplished by the most modest of means, while many costly and more imposing undertakings have failed. A solitary pedestrian discovered the long hidden Niger in its course through hitherto almost unheard of countries; and two unpretending young men, committing themselves in a frail barque to its mysterious bosom, were borne by it through unknown regions, a distance of more than six hundred miles, to its termination in the vast and "multitudinous" ocean.

On the return of the Landers, from their remarkable and successful discovery of the outlet of the Niger; they gave such a flourishing account of the quantity of ivory to be found on its banks, that some enterprising merchants of Liverpool - actuated by the spirit of legitimate trade, which had assumed in that city, the excitement of the former traffic in human beings - fitted out an expedition for the purpose of ascertaining and opening out the resources of the country. In its commercial objects, this undertaking unfortunately proved a failure; since the quantity of ivory obtained, did not at all justify the reports which had been given by Lander. It must, however, be considered - in forming an estimate of what might be obtained, by what he saw - that in passing through the country the quantities he found were doubtless, to a certain extent, accumulations from the want of demand, and the difficulty of exportation.

This mercantile expedition - which Captain, then Lieutenant W. Allen, accompanied by order of the Admiralty, for the purpose of surveying the river - was composed of one small brig, to be stationed at the mouth of the river, to receive the expected cargo of ivory, and two steamers; the smaller of which - the first iron vessel that had crossed the Atlantic - was built by Mr. McGregor Laird, whose family were large subscribers to the expedition, and who himself bore a considerable share in the conduct of it, though the nominal command was held by Mr. Richard Lander.

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