English Literature

Great African Travellers by W.H.G. Kingston

Great African Travellers by W.H.G. Kingston

Chapter One.


Introduction—The African Association—Ledyard—Lucas—First information respecting the Niger, or Quorra, and the Gambia—Timbuctoo heard of—Thompson and Jobson’s voyage up the Gambia—Major Haughton’s expedition and death.

When the fathers of the present generation were young men, and George the Third ruled the land, they imagined that the whole interior of Africa was one howling wilderness of burning sand, roamed over by brown tribes in the north and south, and by black tribes—if human beings there were—on either side of the equator, and along the west coast.

The maps then existing afforded them no information. Of the Mountains of the Moon they knew about as much as of the mountains in the moon. The Nile was not explored—its sources unknown—the course of the Niger was a mystery. They were aware that the elephant, rhinoceros, cameleopard, zebra, lion and many other strange beasts ranged over its sandy deserts; but very little more about them than the fact of their existence was known. They knew that on the north coast dwelt the descendants of the Greek and Roman colonists, and of their Arab conquerors—that there were such places as Tangiers, Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers with its piratical cruisers who carried off white men into slavery; Morocco, with an emperor addicted to cutting off heads; Salee, which sent forth its rovers far over the ocean to plunder merchantmen; and a few other towns and forts, for the possession of which Europeans had occasionally knocked their heads together.

From the west coast they had heard that ivory and gold-dust was to be procured, as well as an abundant supply of negroes, whose happy lot it was to be carried off to cultivate the plantations of the West Indies and America; but, except that they worshipped fetishes, of their manners and customs, or at what distance from the coast they came, their ignorance was profound. They possibly were acquainted with the fact that the Portuguese had settlements at Loango, Angola, and Benguela; and that Hottentots and Kaffirs were to be found at the Cape, where a colony had been taken from the Dutch, but with that colony, except in the immediate neighbourhood of Cape Town, where ships to and from India touched, they were but slightly acquainted.

Eastward, if they troubled their heads about the matter, they had a notion that there was a terribly wild coast, inhabited by fierce savages, and northward, inside the big island of Madagascar, that the Portuguese had some settlements for slaving purposes; that further north again was Zanzibar, and that the mainland was without a town or spot where civilised man was to be found, till the Strait of Bab el Mandeb, at the mouth of the Red Sea, was reached. That there,  towards the interior, was the wonderful country of Abyssinia, in which the Queen of Sheba once ruled, and Nubia, the birthplace from time immemorial of black slaves, and that, flowing northward, the mysterious Nile made its way down numerous cataracts, fertilising the land of Egypt on its annual overflows, till, passing the great city of Cairo, it entered the Mediterranean by its numberless mouths.

About Egypt, to be sure, more was known than of all the rest of the continent together—that there were pyramids and ruined cities, colossal statues, temples and tombs, crocodiles and hippopotami in the waters of the sacred river, and Christian Copts and dark-skinned Mahommedans dwelling on its banks. But few had explored the mighty remains of its past glory, or made their way either to the summits or into the interiors of its mountain-like edifices.

Those who had read Herodotus believed in a good many wonders which that not incredulous historian narrates. The late discoveries of Livingstone, however, prove that Herodotus had obtained a more correct account of the sources of the Nile than has hitherto been supposed. Indeed, free range was allowed to the wildest imagination, and the most extravagant stories found ready believers, there being no one with authority to contradict them.

When, however, Bruce and other travellers made their way further than any civilised man had before penetrated into the interior of the continent, their accounts were discredited, and people were disappointed when they were told that many of their cherished notions had no foundation in truth; in fact, up to the commencement of the present century the greater part of Africa was a terra incognita, and only by slow and painful degrees, and during a comparatively late period, has a knowledge of some of its more important geographical features been obtained.

We will now set forth and accompany in succession the most noted of the various travellers who, pushing their way into that long unknown interior, bravely encountering its savage and treacherous tribes, its fever-giving climate, famine, hardships, dangers and difficulties of every description, have contributed to fill up some of the numerous blank places on the map. Although, by their showing, sand enough and to spare and vast rocky deserts are to be found, there are wide districts of the greatest fertility, possessed of many natural beauties—elevated and cool regions, where even the European can retain his health and strength and enjoy existence; lofty mountains, magnificent rivers and broad lakes, and many curious and interesting objects, not more wonderful, however, than those of other parts of the globe, while the inhabitants in everydirection, though often savage and debased, differ in no material degree from the other descendants of Ham.

Although our fathers knew very little about Africa, their interest had been excited by the wonders it was supposed to contain, and they were anxious to obtain all possible information respecting it. This was, however, no easy matter, as most of the travellers who endeavoured to make their way into the interior had died in the attempt.

A society called the African Association, to which the Marquis of Hastings and Sir John Banks belonged, was at length formed to open up the mighty continent to British commerce and civilisation.

The first explorer they despatched was Ledyard, who as a sergeant of marines had sailed round the world with Captain Cook, and after living among the American Indians had pushed his way to the remotest parts of Asiatic Russia. If any man could succeed, it was thought he would.

He proceeded to Egypt, intending to make his way to Sennaar, and thence to traverse the entire breadth of the African continent; but, seized with an illness at Cairo, he died just as he was about to start with a caravan.

The next traveller engaged by the society was Mr Lucas, who, having been captured by a Salee rover, had been several years a slave in Morocco. He started from Tripoli, but was compelled by the disturbed state of the country to the south of that place to put back.

It should have been said that it had been long known that two mighty rivers flowed through the interior of Africa, one called the Gambia and the other the Niger, or Quorra; but whereabouts they rose, or the direction they took, or the nature of the country they traversed in their course, no exact information was possessed.

From Arab traders, also, accounts had been received of a vast city, situated near the banks of the Niger, far away across the desert, called Timbuctoo, said to possess palaces, temples and numberless public buildings, to be surrounded by lofty walls and glittering everywhere with gold and precious stones, to rival the ancient cities of Mexico and Peru in splendour and those of Asia in the amount of its population.

A century and a half before, two sea captains, Thompson and Jobson, sent out by a company for the purpose, had made their way some distance up the Gambia in boats, and early in the eighteenth century Captain Stibbs had gallantly sailed up the same river to a considerable distance, but, his native crew refusing to proceed, he was compelled to return without having gained much information.

As a wide sandy desert intervened between the shores of the Mediterranean and the centre of Africa, it was naturally supposed that the unknown region could be more easily reached from the west coast than over that barren district, and, soon after the return of Lucas, Major Haughton, a high-spirited, gallant officer who had lived some time in Morocco,  volunteered to make his way along the bank of the Gambia eastward, under the belief that a journey by land was more likely to succeed than one by water. Some way up that river is the the town of Pisania, where an English factory had been established, and a few Europeans were settled, with a medical man, Dr Laidley. Leaving this place, he proceeded to Tisheet, a place in the Great Desert, hoping from thence to reach Timbuctoo; but, robbed by a Moorish chief, of everything he possessed, he wandered alone through the desert, till, exhausted by hunger and thirst, he sat down under a tree and died. The news of his fate was brought to Dr Laidley soon afterwards by some negroes.

These expeditions threw no light on the interior of the continent. A fresh volunteer, however, Mungo Park, then unknown to fame, was soon to commence those journeys which have immortalised his name, and which contributed so greatly to solve one of the chief African problems—the course of the Niger.


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