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The Niger, and Its Explorers

A century ago, the interior of Africa was a sealed book to the civilized world. Candace, Queen of the Ethiopians, had been noticed in Holy Writ; the Nile with Thebes and Memphis on its banks, and a ship-canal to the Red Sea with triremes on its surface, had not escaped the eye of Herodotus: but the countries which gave birth to Queen and River were alike unknown. The sunny fountains, the golden sands, the palmy plains of Africa were to be traced in the verses of the poet; but he dealt neither in latitude nor longitude. The maps presented a terra incognita, or sterile mountains, where modern travellers have found rivers, lakes, and alluvial basins,—or exhibited barren wastes, where recent discoveries find rich meadows annually flowed, studded with walled towns and cities, enlivened by herds of cattle, or cultivated in plantations of maize and cotton.

Although the northern coast of Africa had once been the granary of Carthage and Rome, cultivation had receded, and the corn-ship of antiquity had given place to the felucca of the corsair, preying upon the commerce of Europe. A few caravans, laden with a little ivory and gold-dust or a few packages of drugs and spices, crept across the Desert, and the slave-trade principally, if not alone, drew to Africa the attention of civilized nations. Egypt, Tripoli and Tunis, Turkey and the Spanish Provinces, the West India Isles and the Southern States, knew it as the mart where human beings were bought and sold; and Christians were reconciled to the traffic by the hope that it might contribute to the moral, if not physical, welfare of the captive, by his removal to a more civilized region.

During the last three centuries, millions of Africans have perished either on their way to slavery or in exhausting toil under a tropical sun; and the flag of England has been the most prominent in this demoralizing traffic. But it is due to England to say, that, since she withdrew from it, she has aimed to atone for the past by a noble and persevering devotion to the improvement of Africa. By repeated expeditions, by missions, treaties, colonies, and incentives to commerce, she has spread her light over the interior, and is now recognized both by the tribes of the Desert and by civilized nations as the great protector of Africa, and both geography and commerce owe to her most of their advances on the African continent.

So little was known of Africa, that, when Mungo Park made his report, in 1798, of the discovery of the Niger, and described large cities on its banks, and vessels of fifty tons burden navigating its waters, the world was incredulous; and his subsequent fate threw a cloud over the subject which was not entirely dispelled until his course was traced and his statements verified by modern travellers.

The route of Dr. Park was from the west coast, near Sierra Leone, to the upper branches of the Niger. On his second expedition he took with him a detachment of British soldiers, and a number of civilians, fresh from England, none of whom survived him. It appears from his journal that his men followed the foot-paths of the natives, slept in the open air, were exposed to the dews at night, and were overtaken by the rainy season before they embarked upon the Niger. Unacclimated, with no proper means of conveyance, no suitable clothing, and no precautions against the fever of the country, they nearly all became victims to their indiscretions. Park, however, at length launched his schooner on the Niger, passed the city of Timbuctoo, and, with two or three Englishmen, followed the river more than a thousand miles to Boussa. Reaching the rapids at this point in a low stage of the water, he was so indiscreet as to fire on the natives, and was drowned in his attempt to escape from them; but his fate remained in uncertainty for eighteen years.

The long struggle with Napoleon, the fearful loss of life which attended the journey of Park, and the doubts as to his fate, checked for many years the exploration of Africa. In 1821, a third attempt to explore the Niger was made by a Major Laing, who failed in his efforts to reach Timbuctoo, and fell a victim to Mahometan intolerance.

In 1822, a new effort was made by England to reach the interior, and Messrs. Denham and Clapperton joined the caravan from Tripoli, and crossed the Desert to the Soudan. They explored the country to the ninth degree of north latitude, found large Negro and Mahometan states in the interior, and visited Saccatoo, Kano, Murfeia, Tangalra, and other large towns, some of which contained twenty or thirty thousand people.

In their journal we find a vivid sketch of a Negro army marching from Bornou to the South, with horsemen in coats-of-mail, as in the days of chivalry, and armed, as in those days, with lances and bows and arrows. A glowing description is given of the ravages that attended their march. When they entered an enemy's country, desolation marked their path, houses and corn-fields were destroyed, all the full-grown males were put to death, and the women and children reduced to servitude.

It was obvious that an incessant struggle was in progress between the Mahometan and Negro states, and that the Mahometan faith and Arab blood were slowly gaining an ascendency over the Negro even down to the equator. The conquering tribes, by intermarriage with the females, were gradually changing the race, and introducing greater energy and intelligence; and the mixed races have exhibited great proficiency in various branches of manufacture. The invaders took with them large herds of cattle, and pursued a pastoral life, leaving the culture of the land principally to the Negro.

In 1825 Clapperton made his second expedition to the interior, accompanied by Richard Lander. In this journey the adventurous travellers landed at Badagry, and crossed through Yarriba to the Niger. On their way they spent several days at Katunga, the capital of Yarriba, a city so extensive that one of its streets is described as five miles in length. The town of Koofo, with twenty thousand inhabitants, as also large cotton-plantations, are mentioned by these travellers; and some idea of the territory they explored may be formed from the following extract from their narrative:—

"The further we penetrate into the country, the more dense we find the population to be, and civilization becomes at every step more strikingly apparent. Large towns, at a distance of only a few miles from each other, we were informed, lay on all sides of us, the inhabitants of which pay the greatest respect to the laws, and live under a regular form of government."

It is to this fertile, populous, and peaceful region of the interior that the most successful efforts of the English missionaries have been of late directed.

In this expedition, Captain Clapperton died of the fever of the country.
His faithful servant, Lander, after publishing his journal, returned to
Africa, in 1830, with his brother, landed at Badagry, and again crossed
the country to the Niger.

At Boussa, they obtained the first authentic information of the death of Park, and recovered his gun, robe, and other relics. Here, embarking in canoes, they ascended the river through its rapids to Yaouri, and thence traced it to the sea in the Bight of Benin. On their way, they discovered the Benue, which joins the Niger two hundred and seventy miles from the ocean, with a volume of water and a width nearly equal to its own. They encountered a large number of canoes, nearly fifty feet in length, armed in some cases with a brass six-pounder at the bow, and each manned by sixty or seventy men actively engaged in the slave-trade. Forty of these canoes were found together at Eboe, near the mouth of the Niger.

During the interval between the two expeditions of Lander to trace the course of this mysterious river, France was exploring its upper waters.

In 1827, René Caillié, a Frenchman, adopting the disguise of a Mahometan, left the western coast at Kakundy, a few miles north of Sierra Leone, and crossed the intervening highlands to the affluents of the Niger, which he struck within two hundred and fifty miles of the coast.

He first came to the Tankesso, a rapid stream flowing into the Niger just below its cascades, and noticed here a mountain of pale pink quartz in regular strata of eighteen inches in thickness, a few miles below which the river flows in a wide and tranquil stream through extensive plains, which it fertilizes by its inundations. One hundred miles below, at Boure, were rich gold mines within twenty miles of the Niger. In the dry season, he found its waters very cold and waist-deep.

Caillié travelled by narrow paths impervious to horses or carriages, and with a party of natives bearing merchandise on their heads. His route was through a country gradually ascending and occasionally mountainous, but fertile in the utmost degree, and watered by numerous streams and rivulets which kept the verdure constantly fresh, with delightful plains that required only the labor of the husbandman to produce everything necessary for human life.

Proceeding westward, he reached the main Niger, which he found, at the close of the dry season, and before it had received its principal tributaries, nine feet deep and nine hundred feet in width, with a velocity of two and a half miles an hour.

To this point, where the river becomes navigable for steamers, a common road or railway of three hundred miles in length might be easily constructed from Sierra Leone; and it is a little surprising that Great Britain, with her solicitude to reach the interior, should not have been tempted by the fertility, gold mines, and navigable waters in the rear of Sierra Leone, so well pictured by Caillié, to open at least a common highway to the Niger, an enterprise which might be effected for fifty thousand pounds. Although this may be so easily accomplished, the principal route to the interior of Africa is still the caravan track from Tripoli through the Desert, requiring three months by a hazardous and most fatiguing journey of fifteen hundred miles. The first movement for a road to the interior has been recently made in Yarriba, by T.J. Bowen, the American Baptist missionary, who pronounces it to be the prerequisite to civilization and Christianity.

Caillié readied the Niger in May, just as the rainy reason commenced, but, finding no facilities for descending the stream, he proceeded to the southwest, crossed many of its affluents, traversed a rich country, and, having exposed himself to the fever and met with many detentions, finally embarked in the succeeding March at Djenne, in a vessel of seventy tons burden, for Timbuctoo. He describes this vessel as one hundred feet in length, fourteen feet broad, and drawing seven feet of water. It was laden with rice, millet, and cotton, and manned by twenty-one men, who propelled the frail bark by poles and paddles. With a flotilla of sixty of these vessels he descended the Niger several hundred miles to Timbuctoo. He speaks of the river as varying from half to three-fourths of a mile in width, annually overflowing its banks and irrigating a large basin generally destitute of trees. After paying toll to the Tasaareks, a Moorish tribe, on the way, and losing one of the flotilla, he landed safely at Timbuctoo, and probably was the first European who visited that remote city, although Adams, an American sailor wrecked on the coast, claims to have been carried there before as a captive.

From the narratives of Park, Clapperton, Lander, and Caillié, confirmed by Bairkie and Barth, the latter of whom explored the banks of the Niger from Timbuctoo to Boussa, it has been ascertained to be a noble stream, navigable for nearly twenty-five hundred miles, with an average width of more than half a mile, and an average depth of three fathoms, —comparing favorably with our own Mississippi. There appears to be but one portion of the stream difficult for navigation, and that is the portion from Yaouri to Lagaba, a distance of eighty miles. In this space are several reefs and ledges, mostly bare at low water, and the river is narrowed in width by mountains on either side; but in the wet season it overflows its banks at this point, and is then navigated by the larger class of canoes. There can be little doubt that it is susceptible of navigation above and below by the largest class of river steamers, and that the rapids themselves may in the higher stages of water be ascended by the American high-pressure steamers which navigate our Western rivers, drawing, as they do in low stages of the Ohio and Missouri, but sixteen to eighteen inches.

As soon as it was ascertained that the Niger reached the ocean in the Bight of Benin, and that its upper waters had been navigated by Caillié and Park, a private association, aided by the British government, fitted out a brig and several steamers, with a large party of scientific men, who, in 1833, entered the Niger from the sea.

Great Britain, though enterprising and persevering, is slow in adapting means to ends, and made a series of mistakes in her successive expeditions, which might have been avoided, if she would have condescended to profit by the experience of her children on this side of the Atlantic.

The expedition of 1833 was deficient in many things. The power and speed of the steamers were insufficient, their draught of water too great, and they were so long delayed in their outfit and in their sea-voyage that they found the river falling, and were detained by shoals and sand-bars. The accommodations were unsuitable; and the men, exposed to a bad atmosphere among the mangroves at the mouth of the river, and confined in the holds of the vessels, were attacked by fever, and but ten of them survived. The expedition, however, succeeded in reaching Rabba, on the Niger, five hundred miles from the sea, ascended the Benue, eighty miles above the confluence, and charts were made and soundings taken for the distance explored.

In 1842 the British government made a new effort to explore the Niger, and built for that purpose three iron steamers, the Wilberforce, Albert, and Soudan, vessels of one hundred to one hundred and thirty-nine feet in length. The error committed in the first expedition, of too great draught, was avoided; but the steamers had so little power and keel that their voyage to the Niger was both tedious and hazardous, and their speed was found insufficient to make more than three knots per hour against the current of the river. Arriving on the coast late in the season, they were unable to ascend above the points already explored, and the officers and men, suffering from the tedious navigation, close cabins, and effluvia from the falling river, lost one-fourth of their number by fever, while the African Kroomen, accustomed to the climate and sleeping on the open deck, enjoyed perfect health. It was the intention of government to establish a model farm and mission at the confluence of the Niger and Benue; but the officers, discouraged by sickness, abandoned their original purpose, and the expedition proved another failure, involving a loss of at least sixty thousand pounds.

After the lapse of twelve years, it was ascertained that private steamers and sailing vessels were resorting to the Niger, and that an active trade was springing up in palm-oil, the trees producing which fringe the banks of the river for some hundreds of miles from the sea; and in 1853, a Liverpool merchant, McGregor Laird, who had accompanied the former expedition, fitted out, with the aid of government, the Pleiad steamer for a voyage up the Niger.

One would imagine that by this time the British government would have corrected their former errors; and a part were corrected. The speed of this steamer surpassed that of her predecessors, and her draught did not exceed five feet. She was well provided with officers, and a crew of native Kroomen from the coast; and she was supplied with ample stores of quinine. But, singular as it may appear, this steamer, destined, to ascend the great rivers up which the former expedition found a strong breeze flowing daily, was not furnished with a sail; and although the banks of the Niger were lined with forest-trees, and the supply of coal was sufficient for a few days only, not a single axe or saw was provided for cutting wood, and the Kroomen hired from the coast were compelled to trim off with shingle-hatchets nearly all the fuel used in ascending the river,—and in descending, the steamer was obliged to drift down with the current. Moreover, she was but one hundred feet in length, with an engine and boiler occupying thirty feet of her bold,—thus leaving but thirty-five feet at each end for officers, men, and stores. Neither state-room, cabin, nor awning was provided on deck to shelter the crew from an African sun.

With all these deficiencies, however, they achieved a partial triumph. Entering the river in July, they ascended the southern branch, now known as the Benue, for a distance of seven hundred miles from the sea, reaching Adamawa, a Mahometan state of the Soudan. On the fifteenth of August they encountered the rise of waters, and found the Benue nearly a mile in width and from one to three fathoms in depth. They observed it overflowing its banks for miles and irrigatin extensive and fertile plains to the depth of several feet, and saw reason to believe that this river, which flows westerly from the interior, may be navigated at least one thousand miles from the sea. As Dr. Barth visited it at a city several hundred miles above the point reached by the Pleiad, and found it flowing with a wide and deep current, it may be regarded as the gateway into the interior of Africa.

One of our light Western steamers, manned by our Western boatmen and axemen, with its three decks, lofty staterooms, superior speed, and light draught, would have been most admirably fitted for this exploration.

But the expedition, with all its deficiencies, achieved a further triumph. Dr. Bairkie, by using quinine freely, and by removing the beds of the officers from the stifling cabins to the deck, escaped the loss of a single man, although four months on the river,—thus demonstrating that the white man can reach the interior of Africa in safety, a problem quite as important to be solved as the course and capacity of the Niger and its branches.

Thus have been opened to navigation the waters of the Mysterious River.

When the Landers first floated down the stream in their canoe, thirty years since, they found vast forests and little cultivation, and the natives seemed to have no commerce except in slaves and yams for their support. But an officer who accompanied the several steam expeditions was astonished in his last visit to see the change which a few years had produced. New and populous towns had sprung up, extensive groves of palm-trees and gardens lined the banks, and vessels laden with oil, yams, ground-nuts, and ivory indicated the progress of legitimate commerce.

The narrative of Dr. Bairkie, a distinguished German scholar, who has written an account of the voyage of the Pleiad, will be found both interesting and instructive; and we may some day expect another volume, for he has returned to the scene of his adventures.

Another German in the service of Great Britain has given us a vivid picture of Central Africa north of the equator. Dr. Henry Barth has recently published, in four octavo volumes, a narrative of his travels in Africa for five years preceding 1857. During this period, he accompanied the Sheik of Bornou, one of the chief Negro states of Africa, on his march as far south as the Benue, explored the borders of Lake Tsadda, crossed the Niger at Sai, and visited the far-famed city of Timbuctoo. Here he incurred some danger from the fanaticism of the Moslems; but his command of Arabic, his tact and adroitness in distinguishing the Protestant worship of the Deity from the homage paid by Roman Catholics to images of the Virgin and Saints, and in illustrating the points in which his Protestant faith agreed with the Koran, extricated him from his embarrassment.

Dr. Barth found various Negro cities with a population ranging from fifteen to twenty thousand, and observed large fields of rice, cotton, tobacco, and millet. On his way to Timbuctoo, he saw a field of this last-named grain in which the stalks stood twenty-four feet high. Our Patent Office should secure some of the seed which he has doubtless conveyed to Europe. The following prices, which he names, give us an idea of the cheapness of products in Central Africa:—An ox two dollars, a sheep fifty cents, tobacco one to two cents per pound.

From the sketch we have given of the Niger and its branches, and of the countries bordering upon them, it would appear to be the proper policy of Great Britain and other commercial nations to open a way from Sierra Leone to the Niger, and to establish a colony near the confluence of this river with the Benue. From this point, which is easily accessible from the sea and the ports of the British colonies on the western coast of Africa, light steamers may probably ascend to Sego and Djenne, encountering no difficulties except at the rapids near Boussa, and may penetrate into the heart of the Soudan. In this region are mines of lead, copper, gold, and iron, a rich soil, adapted to cotton, rice, indigo, sugar, coffee, and vegetable butter, with very cheap labor. With steamers controlling the rivers, a check could here be given to the slave-trade, and to the conflicts between the Moors and Negroes, and Christianity have a fair prospect of diffusion. Such a colony is strongly recommended by Lieutenant Allen, who accompanied the expeditions of 1833 and 1842; and there can be no doubt that it would attract the caravans from the remote interior, and put an end to the perilous and tedious expeditions across the Desert.