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

Royal Navy1841 Niger expeditionBookChapter I ◄► Chapter III



The exploration of Africa desirable for nobler ends than the acquisition of wealth - Sir Fowell Buxton proposes "The Remedy" - Formation of the Society for the Suppression of the Slave Trade and the civilization of Africa - Lord John Russell's views on the Slave Trade - Proposes to send an Expedition to communicate with the interior of Africa, and to establish commercial treaties - Size and construction of the vessels - Arrangements for artificial ventilation suggested by Dr. Reid - Armament - Paddle-box boats - Officers appointed - Captain H. D. Trotter to command the expedition - The 'Wilberforce' touches at Kingston - Visit of the Viceroy - Proceedings at Kingston - Awkward mistake - The 'Wilberforce' arrives at Woolwich - H.R.H. Prince Albert visits the vessels - His interest in the expedition - Munificent present to the Commanders - Commissioners appointed - Scientific gentlemen attached to the mission - Detentions.

A thirst for discovery, and the spirit of commercial enterprise, had stimulated all these attempts to penetrate into the interior of Africa. But a new and a better motive now arose to produce a far greater effort. England had shown her sincerity in the cause which she had undertaken - the suppression of the Slave Trade - by devoting to it her treasures, the lives of her sons, and the unremitting efforts of her Government. Melancholy proofs, however, were there, that so far from succeeding, we had by the very attempt, dictated by the purest humanity, become in some degree accomplices in the cruelties of the trade, while it did not appear that the number of victims was lessened. It was ably shown in a work on the subject by Sir Fowell Buxton, not only that the steps hitherto taken had not removed this foul disease, but the very means which had been employed for this end had very much aggravated the horrors of it, as he clearly demonstrated by a variety of harrowing details.

"It has been proved, by documents which cannot be controverted, that for every village fired and every drove of human beings marched in former times, there are now double. For every cargo then at sea, two cargoes, or twice the number in one cargo, wedged together in a mass of living corruption, are now borne on the wave of the Atlantic. But whilst the numbers who suffer have increased, there is no reason to believe that the sufferings of each have been abated, on the contrary. The result is, that aggravated suffering reaches multiplied numbers.

"I am driven to the sorrowful conviction, that the year from September 1837 to September 1838, is distinguished beyond all other preceding years, for the extent of the trade, for the intensity of its miseries, and for the unusual havoc it makes on human life."{Buxton on the Slave Trade, p. 235, 257.}

Having thus shown the extent of the evil, this philanthropist proposed his Remedy, which had for its object the employment of her own resources for the deliverance of Africa.- By,
"Impeding the Slave Trade,
"Establishing legitimate commerce,
"Promoting and teaching agriculture, and
"Imparting religious and moral instruction."

For these purposes, he suggested. two distinct kinds of preparation, viz:.
"l. An augmentation of the naval force employed in the suppression of the Slave Trade, and the concentration of that force on the coast of Africa, thus forming a chain of vessels from Gambia to Angola.
"2. A chain of treaties with native powers in the interior, &c."

With the view of furthering these objects, a society was formed of noblemen and gentlemen - under the Presidency of His Royal Highness Prince Albert - of every shade of political opinion, which, indeed, was swallowed up by the absorbing sympathy which all felt in the holy cause of humanity. This was entitled, "A Society for the Extinction of the Slave Trade and for the Civilization of Africa." Having consulted on the best means to be adopted for carrying out their views, a deputation waited on Lord John Russell Her Majesty's principal Secretary of State for the Colonies, and recommended that an expedition should be sent by Government, with Commissioners empowered by her Majesty to form treaties of commerce and for the suppression of the external Slave Trade, with the most influential chiefs on the coast of Africa and on the banks of the principal rivers.

This movement was followed by Lord John Russell's letter of 26th of December, 1839, to the Lords Commissioners of the Treasury, in which his Lordship, with his usual perspicacity, gave a comprehensive view of the appalling increase of the Slave Trade; and showed that "the average number of slaves introduced into foreign states or colonies in America and the West Indies, from the western coast of Africa annually, exceeds 100,000." But, "the number of slaves actually landed in the importing countries, awards but a very imperfect indication of the real extent of the calamities which this traffic inflicts on its victims." "No fact can be more certain, than that such an importation presupposes and involves a waste of human life, and a sum of human misery, proceeding from year to year without respite or intermission, to such an extent, as to render the subject the most painful of any which, in the survey of the condition of mankind, it is possible to contemplate."

His Lordship, after observing that with the existing powerful stimuli to the prosecution of the Slave Trade, the whole British navy, employed as a marine guard, would scarcely be sufficient for its repression, then states that "Her Majesty's confidential advisers are compelled to admit the conviction, that it is indispensable to enter upon some new preventive system, calculated to arrest for detached service, to be much smaller and of lighter draught of water, but to have her stores of the same description as the other vessels."

They were accordingly built of the following dimensions:

  Albert and Wilberforce. Soudan.
Length on deck ... 139 ft. 4 in. 113 ft. 4 in.
Breadth of beam ... 27 " 22 "
Depth of hold ... 11 " 8 " 8 "
Tonnage, about ... 457 249
Draught of water when ready for the outward passage ... 6 " 4 " 6"

In preparing vessels for such a peculiar service, various considerations were necessary. They were built of iron in order to have a greater buoyancy, and still further to enable them to go into shallow water, they were perfectly flat-bottomed, and without the keel fore and aft, as in ordinary vessels. While to supply this deficiency at sea, where it would be of serious inconvenience, two thick boards, nearly seven feet long and five feet deep, were made to slide up and down in water-tight cases in the middle of the vessels: that is, in the line of the ordinary keel, and placed at a suitable distance from forwards and aft. These were called "sliding keels," and were intended to keep the vessels from being blown to leeward; which it is evident would be the case with flat-bottoms not provided with such a contrivance.

To aid this, there was another plan, by means of which the rudder could be elongated vertically in a "seaway," to assist in the steerage when the after part should be lifted by a sea, so that otherwise the rudder would be out of water; or, in navigating the river among shoals and sand-banks when the sliding keels were up, this "rudder tail," by being raised to a horizontal position, would add materially to the power of the rudder.

To secure the vessels as much as possible against the consequences of striking on a rock, they were divided into compartments by strong iron partitions. In the larger vessels there were four of these, making five water-tight divisions; any one of which might have been filled with water, without its communicating with the others; thereby very much lessening the chance of sinking.

These however, had the very great disadvantage of cutting off the free circulation of air throughout the vessels. To remedy this defect, Dr. Reid devised a system of ventilation by means of fanners, worked by the engine when in action, by the current when lying in the river, or by hand if necessary; air was thus to be diffused through tubes to every part of the vessels. As however, the atmosphere on the coast of Africa, and especially in the River Niger, was supposed to be charged with deleterious gases, the air before transmission to "between decks," was made to pass through a large iron chest, placed on deck, and capable of containing between two and three thousand cubic feet. The air in passing over chemical and other substances placed in this, was supposed to be deprived of its impurities, and in a great degree of its noxious properties.

In the 'Wilberforce,' however, it was found that a sufficient supply of air was not to be had by using the "plenum impulse," or sending in fresh air. The contrary or "vacuum," was therefore generally employed, to exhaust the foul air from all the remote recesses and stagnant corners of the ship. By these means whatever action took place, was certainly beneficial; whereas the "plenum" had no appreciable effect. Indeed the whole benefit - although the system was good in theory - bore no proportion to the disadvantage of occupying so much valuable space, or the still greater evil of detention in the preparation of the apparatus.

It is, however, easy to pronounce judgment after experience has been gained. The greatest praise and most grateful acknowledgements are due to the talented inventor, for the zeal and solicitude he displayed in trying to avert, by every means that science could devise, the baneful effects of the climate which too surely awaited us. The error was in proposing to dole out the "pabulum vitae" by two small apertures to so many gasping throats, for whom the hatchways are not large enough in a hot climate.

Even in timber-built ships, there is always a considerable amount of deviation in the steering compasses, caused by the attraction of the large quantity of iron used in the construction, and especially in the guns of a ship of war; now as the vessels of the Niger expedition were wholly of iron, the amount of attraction was so great as to render the compasses useless without the application of some corrective. This was done on the plan of Professor Airey, the Astronomer Royal, by placing two powerful bar-magnets in such positions, with respect to the compass, as to counteract the effect of the mass of iron, and to coerce it into the correct magnetic direction. To ascertain the proper positions in which these magnets should be placed, the vessel was swung to all the points, in still water, comparing at the same time a compass on board with one on shore, and altering the position of the magnets till the compasses agreed on all the bearings.

Each of the larger vessels had two engines, of thirty-five horse power; that is, an aggregate power of seventy horses, and bunkers to contain coals for fifteen days of twelve hours' steaming. The small vessel, one engine, of thirty-five horse power, and coals for ten days of twelve hours. The fire-places were adapted for burning wood. The engines being precisely similar in all these vessels, much space in stowage and expense were saved, as a smaller number of duplicate parts was required.

It was not deemed advisable to have engines of great power; because, in the first place, speed was not necessary in navigating an almost unknown river, where the numerous sand-banks and rocks required the utmost circumspection and caution. Larger engines would also have reduced the space for coals, while they would have consumed a much greater quantity. It must, however, be confessed, that the speed of the three vessels was less than it ought to have been. This was very apparent on our leaving England, when heavily laden; and little improvement was observable when they became light, causing our voyage out to be unusually long. There were, however, so many desiderata in such an undertaking, that it was difficult to adapt the vessels to every circumstance.

Although the mission was essentially one of peace, it was necessary it should have an imposing appearance. The armament of the two larger vessels was in each, one long brass twelve-pounder, two brass twelve-pounder howitzers, and four brass one-pounder swivels, besides musketoons and small arms. The 'Soudan' had one howitzer, and two swivels of similar calibre.

Instead of the ordinary covering to the paddle-boxes, Captain Smith's boats were adopted, which lying bottom upwards, served as a covering to the paddle-wheels, and being large and buoyant boats, easily turned over and lowered into the water, they proved of very great service, especially in the operation of bringing wood for fuel, &c.

There were several other ingenious contrivances, but their questionable utility did not compensate for the expense and sacrifice of time in preparing them.

They were square-rigged foreward and schooner aft, with lofty masts, but from the peculiar form of the bottom, they could not be good sailers; and the want of the regular keel made them excessively leewardly. They were all, however, admirable sea-boats, as was proved by the little 'Soudan,' in a heavy gale of wind, when much larger vessels suffered severely.

There was little or no danger to be apprehended from lightning, even in the tornadoes, since, being of iron, the vessels presented so large a surface to the electric fluid, as to neutralize its effects by diffusion. They were, however, supplied with wire-rope conductors.

The vessels were launched at different periods in 1840; first the 'Soudan,' then the 'Albert,' and lastly, the 'Wilberforce,' on the l0th of October. They were taken into Trafalgar Dock Liverpool, for the purpose of fitting the rigging, engines, &c.

By November, most of the officers appointed to the expedition had joined their respective ships, and the greater part of the crews had entered. We proceeded with our operations undisturbed and unnoticed.

As it was important that Captain Trotter should be as early as possible at Woolwich, for the purpose of completing the arrangements or the armament, &c., all hands were occasionally employed to expedite the preparations of the 'Albert' and 'Soudan,' considerable delay, however, arose from the novelty of the apparatus for ventilation.

The 'Soudan' sailed for the Thames on the 28th of December; the 'Albert' followed, 11th of January, 1841; and on Wednesday, the 17th of February, the 'Wilberforce' sailed from Liverpool for Kingsto[w]n Harbour [modern Dun Laoghaire]; Commander W. Allen having permission to visit Dublin for the purpose of consulting Professor Lloyd on the use of a newly-invented magnetical instrument. The weather was unusually beautiful for the time of the year, a brilliant sun shone on our first step in a good cause, and cheered all hands with bright anticipations for the future. If omens were to be taken, our little voyage to Kingsto[w]n was an epitome of our after proceedings.

Pleasant breezes, and a sea as smooth as glass enabled the 'Wilberforce,' on leaving Liverpool - being very light - to slip through the water at such a rate, that our crew began already to flatter themselves that their ship was a "clipper."

But we had hardly cleared Holyhead, when a south-wester came on, with a short chopping head sea, causing the vessel to tumble about in such an extraordinary way, and each sea that struck her, gave such a rude shock, that frequently during the night, the crew rushed on deck supposing she was thumping on a sand-bank. The quick uneasy motion, owing to the peculiar build and light draught of water, made many old seamen feel sensations they had long forgotten. To add to our difficulties, a part of the engine was discovered to be out of order in the night: and while we were obliged to "lie to" for it to be replaced, the strong wind and heavy sea drove our flat-bottomed vessel to leeward at a very rapid rate; so that in the morning we found ourselves in Drogheda Bay, and had sight of the low land through the fog just in time to haul off shore, and steam against a strong head wind and sea. Seeing, however, some vessels of much greater draft of water than ourselves steering into Skerries Harbour, we followed, and soon anchored in a perfectly smooth basin. The sudden relief was such as we thought only a landsman could have appreciated. On the following day, we coasted along by Rock Bill, Ireland's eye, &c., and passing the beautiful Bay of Dublin, arrived in Kingsto[w]n Harbour.

The number of visitors who daily crowded on board, brought from Dublin by the newly constructed railroad, testified the interest taken in the expedition; forming a contrast to the monotonous time passed in Trafalgar Dock at Liverpool, where our existence seemed to be unknown; and certainly if the good wishes and benedictions of the fair daughters of Erin could have ensured our success, they were not wanting.

During our stay, we were honoured with a visit of inspection by His Excellency Lord Ebrington, the Lord Lieutenant, and suite, who examined every part of the vessel, and were much interested by the novelty of the arrangements.

A ludicrous circumstance took place, which was afterwards a subject of frequent joking - among his messmates - with the innocent cause of it. The marine placed as entry on the gangway, had orders to keep the "finest pisantry" from crowding on board, while we were lying alongside the pier, preparing for the Viceroy. Just as a high dignitary of the church, attended by a party of clergymen, was going to step on board, the sentry stopped him, saying: "You cannot pass, Sir." In vain some of the clergy whispered to him: "It is His Grace," &c., &c. The stupid sentinel having never heard of such a person, nor was he acquainted with any official cocked hat of such a shape, said: "I can't help it, Sir; none but respectable people can come on board." One of the officers perceiving it, quickly rectified the mistake. His Grace expressed himself much gratified by the inspection of the various contrivances.

We sailed from Kingsto[w]n harbour on the 27th of February, and arrived at Woolwich on the 4th of March; having touched on our way at Plymouth and Portsmouth. Found here the 'Albert' and 'Soudan,' getting ready for sea.

The near departure of the expedition excited such general and increasing interest, that great numbers of visitors came daily on board the 'Albert' principally, as she was in order. On the 23rd of March, H.R.H. Prince Albert did us the honour of inspecting the expedition. The 'Wilberforce' was not in such a state of forwardness as the other two vessels; having arrived later, we were in the confusion of preparation, with caulkers and other artificers on board, which was explained to His Royal Highness, who, however, with his usual gracious condescension, expressed his intention of visiting all the vessels.

The officers had the honour of being presented to His Royal Highness, by Captain Trotter, on the quarter-deck of his ship. As another proof of the generous sympathy of this truly amiable Prince, we may here mention that he presented a handsome gold chronometer, by the best maker, to each of the three Captains.

We were here unremittingly occupied in completing the fittings, stores, &c., from the dockyard; and the armament from the arsenal. The apparatus for ventilation being still a source of considerable delay.

On a trial in the Thames, with a draught of 5 ft. 9 in. aft, and 4 ft. 11 in. forward, the 'Wilberforce' was found to have a speed, on an average, of seven knots; which was considered as much as could safely be used in an unknown river. Such a rate was not, however, to be expected with a greater draught of water, as it unfortunately proved.

As the vessels could not carry fuel for so long a voyage, coals were sent to the Cape de Verd Islands, Sierra Leone, and Cape Coast Castle. A fast sailing transport was also hired to take further supplies of provisions, stores, and coals, to enable them to fill up at the mouth of the Niger, and also relieve them there of such things as would not be required in the river, but which were to be deposited at Fernando Po, to await our return.

In sending vessels to a climate known to be fraught with so much danger to the European constitution, it was necessary to limit the white crews to the smallest possible number, consistent with efficiency. The regulation for the usual complements for ships of war of their class was, therefore, departed from; and the crews of all the vessels were composed of officers, petty officers, and artificers, with a very few able seamen and marines, and a small party of sappers and miners. All were volunteers; and double pay was granted from the time of sailing.

Many of these enterprising men having become eventually victims to the destroying fever, we have subjoined, in the Appendix, a list of all the persons who were employed in the Niger; and it may afford even at this distance of time, a melancholy interest to numerous relatives, to know the circumstances connected with the termination of their earthly career.

The three naval Commanders, together with Mr. William Cook,{this gentleman was honourably known to the public for his humane exertions in saving the lives of the crew of the 'Kent' India-man, burnt at sea} were appointed by Her Majesty as her Commissioners, empowered to make Treaties with the native chiefs on the coast of Africa, and principally on the banks of the Niger, for the suppression of the external Slave Trade. and for the establishment of lawful commerce.

Besides the complement of officers appointed by the Government, several men of science, sent out by the African Civilization Society, accompanied the expedition, for the purpose of obtaining information respecting the countries we might visit.

These were: Dr. Vogel, botanist; Dr. Stanger, geologist and explorer; Mr. Roscher, miner and mineralogist; Mr. Frazer, from the Zoological Society, London; and Mr. John Ansell, collector of plants.

The African Civilization Society, besides contributing largely to furnish extra surgical and scientific instruments and medicines, so as to increase the resources of the medical men for the benefit of the natives of Africa, placed at the disposal of the senior officer £1000, to be employed in aid of exploring parties, or in any other way that might advance the objects of the expedition. The Society in fact, shewed the greatest willingness to co-operate with the Commanders in forwarding the preparations, for which purpose a sub-committee was expressly formed.

As auxiliary to the benevolent purposes proposed by the African Society - but not officially connected with it, nor with the expedition to be sent out by H.M. Government; an Agricultural Society was formed, with the intention of establishing a model farm in such a locality as might be selected by the Commissioners. The Admiralty granted a passage to Mr. Alfred Carr, a West Indian gentleman of colour, who was engaged by the Agricultural Society as superintendent of the farm, and also permitted the stores, implements, &c., to be taken on board the vessels. Moreover, the Government sanctioned the Commissioners giving their attention to the interests of the Agricultural Society, in selecting and purchasing a spot suitable for the experiment.

Thursday, April 22.- H.M. steam-vessels, 'Albert and Wilberforce,' left Woolwich, the latter drawing 6 feet aft, and 5 ft. 8 inch. forward. After touching at Portsmouth, to fill up with coals, they arrived at Devonport. H.M. steam-vessel 'Soudan,' Commander Bird Allen, had preceded us on the 30th of March for Devonport, and finally from England - in company with our transport, the 'Harriot' - on the 17th of April; having orders to make the best of their way to Porto Grande, in the Island of St. Vincent, one of the Cape de Verds, our first rendezvous.

It was originally intended, that we should have sailed from England, so as to have entered the River Niger in March, which month was considered to be comparatively healthy; it was also believed, that although the river was then at the lowest, a sufficient channel would have been found for us to ascend. Subsequent information, shewed that the beginning of July, was the earliest time that the river could be entered, without risking the health of the crews by detention in the Delta. {Commander W. Allen, although he had previously been in the Niger, had no personal knowledge of its channels in the dry season.} This conclusion was arrived at from intelligence having been received, that the 'Ethiope' merchant steamer, drawing about the same as the vessels of the expedition, had not been able to get beyond the Delta, for want of water until the beginning of July.

Now, that we were ready however, contrary winds caused a still further delay.

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