For nearly four centuries (C.1450 – 1800) European activity and interest in West Africa was limited to the coast. During this period, no concerted efforts were made to penetrate the interior of West Africa. This attitude was not peculiar to West Africa. In fact, it was the same all over Africa South of the Sahara. Thus, to most people of Europe, Africa remained the land of mystery, the “Dark Continent”. Why was this so?
The reason usually given in some out-dated history books is that physical geographical barriers and climate factors prevented European penetration of the interior until the 19th century. Such books maintain that the unbroken coastline with its few harbors; the unsuitability of the rivers as means of thorough communication with the interior; the unhealthiness of the tropical climate with the deadly malaria-carrying mosquitoes – were collectively responsible for delaying European penetration of the West African hinterland.
The argument emanates of course from lack of proper understanding of the real factors of work and is therefore no longer acceptable. For, these geographical barriers and climate factors did not change in the 19th century when Europeans at last saw the need to penetrate and colonize the interior. Even the mosquito with its deadly malaria fever which earned for the West Africa the name “The White Man’s Grave” was not a barrier to penetration. The mosquito did not keep Europeans out of the West Indies. The real reasons for the delay must therefore be outside the geographical and climate factors.
The principal factor which delayed European penetration of the interior was the slave trade. The fact was that so long as Europe’s pre-occupation with West Africa was the traffic in slaves, all her traders’ energies were concentrated on that trade. The traders got all they needed on the coast. There was therefore practically no need for penetrating the interior so long as the slave trade lasted. When the Industrial Revolution undermined the slave trade and provided an economic need for penetration in the 19th Century, no geographical or climatic barriers held Europeans back.
Another major factor which prevented penetration was the opposition of African rulers and African middlemen traders. To quote Doctor K.O Dike, “the native chiefs on the Atlantic seaboard barred the European traders from the Hinterland” because they did not want any encroachment on their sovereignty or their land. This explains why Europeans traders built their trading forts on islands off the coast or on land leased to them by native rulers: “In Africa we were only tenants of the soil which we hold at the goodwill of the natives”.
The coastal middlemen resisted European penetration because they feared that it would result in the loss of their lucrative position of middlemen between the European traders on the coast and their fellow Africans in the interior. Writing about African opposition to penetration even as late as 1793, Archibald Dalzel, Governor of the Cape Coast said that the “principal impediment to the improvement of the geography of Africa” arose “rather from the jealousy of the inhabitants of the sea coasts, in permitting white men to travel through their country, than from the danger or difficulty attending the penetration”. This statement therefore lays to rest the ghost of the ‘geographical and climate factors’ argument.
Thirdly, European government were opposed to territorial acquisitions in the interior of West Africa until late in the 19th century. One reason for this was that they had no practical need for such acquisitions before the 19th century. Another reason was that they were not prepared to bear the expenses of maintaining such territories if acquired. This opposition to territorial acquisitions remained the official British attitude until the 1860s. Commenting on this, John Hargreaves says, “If mercantile opinion did not in general support territorial expansion, government officials were even less inclined to do so”.
Finally however, it would not be totally correct to dismiss altogether, the role of geographical and climatic impediments to penetration. For instance, the high mortality rate among European traders on the coast arising from malaria and other tropical diseases must be recognized as a factor that contributed to delaying penetration. So must the obstacles obstructing the use of the rivers as means of penetrating the interior be acknowledged. But the role played by these factors should not be exaggerated. For physical and climate impediments were secondary not primary factors that delayed European penetration of the interior of West Africa.
It has been pointed out that from the 15th century until the closing years of the 18th century, European activity was limited to the coast of West Africa. Indeed, Europeans maintained a strictly abstentionist attitude towards the interior. In the 19th century however, this attitude underwent a radical change. The peoples of Europe began to develop intense interest in the hinterland of West Africa. What brought about this change of attitude?
This revolutionary change resulting in a tremendous urge for the exploration of the interior of West Africa was brought about by a complex combination of economic, scientific, humanitarian and political factors.
The main economic factor was the Industrial Revolution and it played the most vital role in bringing about Europe’s new interest in the interior of West Africa. The fact was that from the middle of the 18th century, European nations were changing from a purely agricultural to an industrial economy. The new industrial order needed markets for the sale of goods mass-produced in factories, and also for the purchase of raw materials required for manufacturing goods. If the slave trade with its drain of African manpower was stopped, then the West African interior seemed to offer good prospects for such a market, hence the need to explore it. It is significant that Britain which led Europe in the revolution in industry also led in the exploration of the West African hinterland.
The industrial revolution was important in the matter of the exploration of the interior in other ways. It provided Europe “with technical instruments of effective action in Africa”. For example, it provided the steamships which made it possible to navigate the rivers and creeks of West Africa. It provided the medical and other scientific aids which enabled explorers to withstand the hazards of the tropical climate. And it made available the capital that financed the explorations.
Apart from economic considerations, another factor which generated interest in the interior of West Africa was the prevailing spirit of scientific inquiry of the age. This was the age when Europeans were acquiring knowledge of the geography of other parts of the world such as Southern Asia, Australia and the Amazon basin. The lack of accurate information of the interior of Africa therefore posed a challenge to Europe’s spirit of enquiry. The Africa Association formed in Britain in 1788 was meant to answer this challenge. Formed upon the initiative of Sir Joseph Banks, an eminent botanist, the Association was “to promote the cause of science and humanity, to explore the mysterious geography, ascertain the resources, to improve the condition of that ill-fated continent”. Its primary objective was the exploration of the River Niger which was to become, in its opinion, the gateway to the heart of West Africa.
The humanitarian movement also played its part in arousing this new interest in the interior of West Africa. The fact was that it was observed that in spite of its legal abolition by Britain in 1807, the slave trade had continued unbated. Humanitarians in Britain came to the conclusion that the surest way of killing the slave trade was to attack it at its roots, that is, in the interior of West African itself. In his book ‘the African slave trade and its Remedy’ published in 1840, Thomas Fowell Buxton, a leader of the Humanitarian movement asserted that only the introduction into the interior of ‘legitimate trade’ in the agricultural products of West Africa could finally kill the slave trade. He therefore urged missionaries, agriculturists and traders to go into the interior to teach the people new agricultural techniques and bring to them the benefits of western civilization by living among them. As a result, the humanitarian movement began to influence the exploration of the interior.
Finally, the political factor of national rivalry also helped to arouse European interest in the interior of West Africa. It should be noted however, that the question of national rivalry for the acquisition of territory in West Africa was a later development. There is no doubt that those explorers who came after Dr. Heinrich Barth’s time “were deliberately preparing the way for the European occupation of territory that began to be effective on a large scale at the end of the 1870s”. A notable example was the French official Captain L.G Binger. Between 1887-9, he explored the Mossi country and Ivory Coast hinterland for his country’s imperial interests.
The chief target of European exploration in West Africa at this time was the River Niger. This was because it was hoped that its discovery would turn it into a highway through which legitimate trade, Christianity and European civilization could penetrate the interior and so supplant the slave trade.
Moreover, the River Niger had, in fact, become a romantic attraction that excited the spirit of adventure of many Europeans. Accounts about this river handed down from medieval Arab sources were so conflicting in their views about its source, course and termination that to solve the riddle became a romantic ambition of many European explorers. The African association formed in Britain in 1788 had the exploration of the Niger as its primary goal. Thus between 1789 and 1793, the Association sent out three expeditions to unravel the fascinating mystery of the Niger but all failed. The fourth and first successful expedition was carried out by a young Scottish Doctor Mungo Park.
MUNGO PARK: He was sent out by the African association in 1795 to find out the truth about the Niger. He traveled eastwards from Gambia and after experiencing many difficulties especially from hostile Moors, reached the Niger at Segu (in modern Mali) in July 1796. Here he saw “the long sought for, majestic Niger, glittering to the morning sun, as broad as the Thames at Westminster and flowing slowly to the eastward”. From there, he returned to the coast and arrived back in England in 1797.
The discovery aroused great interest in Europe and the African Association which sponsored it began to urge European nations to tale advantage of it. “A gate”, said the Association, “is opened to every commercial nation to enter and trade from the west to eastern extremity of Africa”.
In 1805, Park undertook a second expedition, this time sponsored by the British Government, to determine the course and termination of the river. With a party of 43 European – sailors, carpenters and soldiers and an African guide, he traveled eastwards from the Gambia again reaching the Niger at Bamoko on August 19, with only ten of the party alive. Here he built a boat which he named the ‘Joliba’ and with it he sailed down the Niger with four surviving members of the expedition. In a letter to Lord Camden dated November 17, 1805, written before he started the voyage down the Niger, Park said, “…but though all the Europeans who are with me should die and though I were myself half dead, I would still persevere, and if could not succeed in the object of my journey, I would at last die on the Niger…” And he and his surviving companions died on the Niger. It is believed their boat struck a rock at the Bussa rapids and they got drowned.
HUGH CLAPPERTON: Though Park’s explorations had greatly increased European knowledge of the Niger, the mystery of its course and outlet still remained unknown. So, in 1822, the British Government sent out another expedition consisting of Lieutenant Hugh Clapperton, Major Denham, Dr Walter Oudney and a carpenter called Hillman. They traveled from Tripoli and crossed the Sahara desert into central Sudan. While Denham explored Bornu and Lake Chad Area, Clapperton and Oudney (the latter died before reaching kano) traveled westwards to Kano and Sokoto. He met Sultan Bello who received him kindly but refused him access to the Niger.
Clapperton rejoined Denham in Bornu from where the two returned to England through Tripoli in 1825.
The information gained from the above exploration encouraged the British government to send out another expedition in 1825 soon after the return of Clapperton and Denham. The party consisting of Clapperton and his servant Richard Lander and two others arrived at Badagry and traveled northwards through Yorubaland. Clapperton and Lander – the only survivors now crossed the Niger at Bussa and moved on via Kano to Sokoto. Here in April 1826, Clapperton died, a victim of disappointment at the failure of his mission. Lander managed to return to England in 1827 after many difficulties.
RICHARD LANDER: It was Richard Lander and his brother John who finally solved the mystery about the mouth of the Niger. In 1830, the British Government sent them out to complete Clapperton’s work. They arrived at Badagry and proceeded to Bussa. Here they got canoes with which they sailed down the Niger to Brass in the Bight of Biafra. The Mystery of the Niger was over and the heart of West Africa now lay open to European enterprise.
Later explorations of the Niger
Soon after the discovery of the mouths of the Niger by the Lander brothers, attempts were made to put the river into practical use as a highway of trade into the interior. The first of such attempts was made by a Liverpool merchant and shipowner – MacGregor Laird.
MacGregor Laird’s Expedition (1832 – 1834) : in 1832, he sponsored an expedition with Richard Lander as guide to trade up the Niger with the peoples of the interior. Though the primary goal of the expedition was trade, it explored a great deal of the Niger Delta between 1832 and 1834 and traveled up the river to Raba on the Niger and about 100 miles up the River Benue. The expedition was a failure from the point of view of trade, and proved disastrous, for only nine out of the 48 Europeans in it survived. The rest died of tropical fevers while Richard Lander died of a wound received during an attack by hostile creek people.
John Beecroft’s Explorations: Between 1832 and 1845, Beecroft from his base at Fernando Po made several useful explorations of the Niger territories. He sailed up the Niger with an all-african crew as far as Lokoja and Bussa, and explored the creeks, the Cross River, the Benin river and the Old Calabar river. These explorations added much to European Geographical knowledge of the Niger Area.
The Niger Expedition of 1841: This Ambitious expedition was sent out by the British Government and supported by missionaries and humanitarians led by Sir Fowell Buxton. Its objectives were to make treaties with the chiefs of the interior against the slave trade; to obtain scientific information about the country’s geography, minerals, fauna and flora; and to establish a model farm at the Niger-Benue confluence (now Lokoja) which was to become a centre for missionary and educational activities for liberated African slaves. The expedition was a disastrous failure. Although treaties were made with the chiefs of Aboh and Idah, and a model farm was started at Lokoja, disease took a heavy toll of lives of the members of the expedition. In less than two months, 48 out of 145 men died. The farm was abandoned and the expedition withdrew. The effect of the disaster was to delay for many years further attempts at opening up the Niger.
Dr Barth’s Expedition (1850 – 1855): After several years’ delay, the British Government decided to send out another expedition this time through North Africa. Dr Heinrich Barth, a German carried out the detailed explorations alone after the death of his colleagues – James Richardson and Dr. Adolf Overweg.
Barth started from Tripoli in 1850 and traveled through Agades and Zinder to Katsina, Kano, and Kukawa (in Bornu) where he met Shehu Umar (son of El Kanemi). From here he visited Yola on the Benue. He traveled back to Bornu and went on to Sokoto and Say and Timbuktu on the Niger. He then returned to Kukawa and traveled back to Tripoli where he arrived back in England in 1855.
Barth remains one of the greatest explorers of west Africa. The account of his travel published in five volumes remains a mine of geographical knowledge of the Sudan.
Dr. Baikie’s Expedition (1854): Following Dr. Barth’ report that he reached the upper Benue at Yola. The British Government and MacGregor Laird jointly sent out another expedition in 1854, this time from the sea. It was to explore the Benue, assist Dr. Barth and establish peaceful trading along the Niger and Benue. Led by Dr. William Balfour Baikie the expedition comprised four other Europeans and an African crew of 54 men. It sailed up the Niger and covered nearly 300 miles of the Benue.
This expedition was unique in that it spent four months in the Niger districts without a single loss of life. The party made use of quinine to protect its members against the malaria fever that had proved so deadly to earlier expeditions. Baikie thus proved that Europeans could thence-forth live for long periods in the interior of west Africa by the regular use of quinine.
French Explorers: Some French explorers also helped in filling the gaps in the growing European knowledge of the geography of west Africa.
GASPARD MOLLIEN: In 1818, he discovered the sources of the Senegal river.
RENE CAILLIE: Between 1827 and 1829, Caillie, disguised as a Moor visited Timbuktu and traveled back to France through Tangier. He thus became the first European to visit Timbuktu which had acquired great romantic attraction for Europeans at the time. He compiled an informative account of Timbuktu and the territories through which he passed.


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