Exploring Africa

Introduction | Island 1 | Island 2 | Island 3 | Island 4 | Island 5 | References

Island 4: West Africa, the Niger, and the Quest for Timbuktu

Mungo Park, 1771-1806; James Rennell, 1742-1830 
Travels in the interior districts of Africa : performed under the direction and patronage of the African Association, in the years 1795, 1796, and 1797. By Mungo Park, surgeon. With an appendix containing geographical illustrations of Africa. By Major Rennell 
3rd ed. London: W. Bulmer, 1799. 
Bookplate of Louis D. Tiemann.

Park, a farmer's son from the Scottish borders who studied medicine at Edinburgh, set out from the Gambia in late 1795, on foot, with one servant, to trace the coourse of the fabled river Niger. Ill-prepared and evetually destitute, he suffered hair-raising hardships and persecution as well as receiving great kindness from some Africans, but he was able to establish the eastward flow of the Niger, and this became an immediate bestseller, with three editions within a year: it has never been out of print since. On his second expedition in 1805, a larger-scale government-sponsored effort, Park planned with substantial military support to take boat-building supplies overland from the west coast, build boats and sail down the Niger to its source; disease decimated his companions, and Park himself drowned trying to evade capture after a fight with the inhabitants at Bussa, hundreds of miles downstream. His journal for the first part of the trip was later published, with a postscript from his African servant Isaaco. Park's silver-mounted walking-stick survives in Nigeria, as the staff of office of the Emirs of Yauri. 
Donated from the library of Alfred Chapin Rogers by Mrs. Elizabeth F. Pyne.

Mungo Park, 1771-1806; James Rennell, 1742-1830 
Travels in the interior districts of Africa: performed under the direction and patronage of the African association, in the years 1795, 1796, and 1797; by Mungo Park, surgeon: with an appendix, containing geographical illustrations of Africa: by Major Rennell 
Philadelphia: from the London quarto edition by James Humphreys: And Sold by him, at No. 106, South Side of Market-Street, 1800. 
Signature of Thomas McGehee, 1810.

It is noteworthy that this first American edition of Mungo Park's Travels was printed in Philadelphia, perhaps because of links to the English Quaker involvement in the anti-slavery movement. 
Donated by Dr. D. Strother Pope.

Robert Adams 
The narrative of Robert Adams, a sailor who was wrecked on the western coast of Africa, in the year 1810, was detained three years in slavery by the Arabs of the Great Desert, and resided several months in the City of Tombuctoo. With a map, notes and an appendix 
London, J. Murray, 1816.

This narrative is representative of several volumes in the Thomas Cooper collection, written by shipwrecked sailors who had been taken captive in Moslem areas of West Africa. Adams, an American sailor picked up destitute in London using an assumed name to evade reimpressment in the British navy, at first excited considerable scepticism from Sir Joseph Banks and other Africanists, perhaps in part because he was less enthusiastic about Timbuktu than al-Shabeni had been, but the consensus soon came to be that the core of his tale was genuine, and that the story taken down and edited here, by Samuel Cock of the African Committee, does indeed give the a firsthand account from the first European to return from Timbuktu.

Ibn Batuta, 1304-1377; Samuel Lee, 1783-1852, tr. 
The travels of Ibn Batuta / translated from the abridged Arabic manuscript copies, preserved in the Public Library of Cambridge. With notes, illustrative of the history, geography, botany, antiquities, &c. occuring throughout the work, by the Rev. Samuel Lee 
Oriental Translation Fund Publications ; 1. 
London : Printed for the Oriental translation committee, and sold by J. Murray <etc.>, 1829.

The early 19th-century quest for Timbuktu renewed European interest in older Arabic travel accounts. Ibn Batuta's narrative, starting as a pilgrimage from Morocco to Mecca, records an amazing series of travels onwards through Central Asia, to India and possibly China. In separate trips, he also visited Spain and West Africa, before dictating this account on his return home in 1357. The polyglot orientalist Samuel Lee, a former carpenter's apprentice from Shropshire who taught himself Latin, Greek and Hebrew from secondhand bookstalls, entered Cambridge University at age thirty, and within six years became professor of Arabic en route to the more prestigious regius chair in Hebrew.

Map of Africa 
from John McQueen, 1778-1870, A Geographical and Commercial View of North Central Africa 
Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1821.

This map, which was published after Park's second expedition, but well before the explorations of Clapperton or Lander, postulates the outflow of the Niger into the Bight of Benin. McQueen had first proposed his theory some five years earlier, but it would not be conclusively demonstrated until the report of Richard and John Lander nearly ten years later.

Dixon Denham; Hugh Clapperton, 1788-1827; and Walter Oudney 
Narrative of travels and discoveries in Northern and Central Africa, in the years 1822, 1823, and 1824, . . . extending across the Great Desert to the tenth degree of northern latitude, and from Kouka in Bornou, to Sackatoo, the capital of the Felatah empire 
2nd ed. 2 vols. London: John Murray, 1826.

What is nearly always known as "Clapperton's first expedition," after the Scottish half-pay naval captain who accomplished most of what got done, had in fact started as a government commission to Dr. Walter Oudney, an Edinburgh M.D. recently appointed to the rather imaginative post of "consul at Bornu." Traveling across the Sahara from Tripoli to Lake Chad, then still seriously proposed as the outflow of the Niger, they split off from their prickly army colleague Major Denham (who nonetheless got first title-page credit for their report). After Oudney's death, Clapperton traveled on alone to the great Hausa cities of Kano and Sokoto, seat of Sultan Bello's Fulani empire. On his return to London, Clapperton was immediately asked to set out again, this time to go northwards from the coast, but on this second expedition, the Sultan was less accommodating, and Clapperton died in Sokoto without gaining the trade treaty for which he had hoped, and it was left to his servant Richard Lander to prepare an account of the second journey.


Portraits of Captain Clapperton and Major Denham 
from John Frost, The Book of Travels in Africa from the Earliest Times 
New York: Appleton, 1847.

Sultan Bello's Map of Sokoto and Central Africa 
from Denham, Clapperton, and Lander,Narrative of discoveries in Northern and Central Africa 
London: John Murray, 1826.

In 1817, the scholarly Sultan Bello had succeeded his father as Sultan of Sokoto, the centre of the huge Fulani empire established over the previous decade in the Jihad led by Usman dan Fodio.

Alexander Gordon Laing, 1793-1826 
Travels in the Timannee, Kooranko, and Soolima countries in Western Africa 
London: John Murray, 1825.

In the 1820s, an intense rivalry developed between the French and British over the West African interior, symbolized by the substantial cash prize of 2000 francs offered in 1824 by the French Geographical Society for the first expedition to return from Timbuktu. Perhaps the saddest episode of the subsequent international race was the story of Major Gordon Laing. Laing, yet another Scottish-born explorer, an army officer with the Royal African Corps in Sierra Leone, had actually succeeded in reaching the city, though no one in Europe knew it till much later; setting out in 1825 from Tripoli across the Sahara, he had entered Timbuktu on August 18th, 1826, but had been killed shortly after leaving the city, in late September. Shown here is Laing's first book, recording his earlier explorations inland from Freetown in 1822 into the Mandingo interior, the manuscript of which he had, when setting out for Timbuktu, left behind in London to be prepared for publication by a friend.

Alfred Tennyson, 1809-1892 
Timbuctoo, a poem which obtained the Chancellor's Medal . . . in Prolusiones Academicae praemiis annuis dignatae 
Cambridge: John Smith, 1829.

In 1828-29, interest in West Africa was such that even the set topic of the Cambridge University poetry prize was Timbuctoo. The winner was the future poet laureate Tennyson, then an undergraduate at Trinity College, and, as this conclusion to his poem shows, he was not sure that he really wanted accurate knowledge of Timbuctoo, because then the mystery and glamour would be dispersed. 
Click on the image for an excerpt of Tennyson's "Timbuctoo".

Rene Caillie, 1799-1838 
Travels through Central Africa to Timbuctoo; and across the Great Desert, to Morocco, performed in the years 1824-1828 
2 vols. London: Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley, 1830.

It was a young Frenchman, Rene Caillie, living in French Senegal, who, disguised as a pilgrim returning from Mecca who had escaped from capture by Europeans, traded and begged his way inland, armed only with an umbrella, till on April 20th 1828 he reached the fabled city, "of whose population, civilization and trade with the Soudan such exaggerated notions have prevailed." He found "nothing but a mass of ill-looking houses, built of earth," situated "in an immense plain of white sand." Ironically, he was able to obtain full details of Gordon Laing's murder two years earlier, before travelling home in caravan across the Sahara to Morocco and a triumphant welcome in Paris. Significantly, this English translation of Caillie's account appeared with the imprint of two publishers better known for issuing fashionable novels.

Timbuktu in 1827 
reproduced from Rene Caillie, Travels through Central Africa to Timbuctoo 
London: Colburn and Bentley, 1830.

This is the picture, impressive though it may seem, that finally disillusioned Europeans about the long-fabled wonders of the West African city.

Friedrick Konrad Hornemann 
The journal of Frederick Horneman's travels . . . in Africa in the years 1797-8 
London: G. and W. Nicol, 1802.

Hornemann, a German theological student from Gottingen, was another of the African Association's proteges in the late 1790s, last heard of in January 1800, as he set out in disguise across the Sahara, aiming for Bornu. This wonderful map is valuable for showing, not only the clustering of previous European exploration around the two rivers, the Nile and the Niger, but also the then-current theory about the Niger's course, that it terminated inland in lake Chad.

Richard Lander, 1804-1834; John Lander, 1807-1839 
Journal of an expedition to explore the course and termination of the Niger, with a narrative of a voyage down that river to its termination 
2 vols. New York, J. & J. Harper, 1832-37.

The Cornishman Richard Lander, Clapperton's sole surviving companion from his second expedition, had returned to West Africa with his brother John, to prove finally the lower course of the river Niger, as it turned south to flow down into the delta region in the bight of Benin. This hideously-rebound little volume, an early American reprint, is displayed for its frontispiece map, at last depicting the Niger's course correctly


Introduction | Island 1 | Island 2 | Island 3 | Island 4 | Island 5 | References

Columbia Departments Campus Libraries
Columbia Libraries and Collections