Recall that last year I did a series on unforgettable historical figures and events. These were suspended, now and again, to enable me deal with more urgent emergent national issues. Nigeria is history in motion herself. Each day opens up new vistas, new events, some frighteningly gargantuan. But she survives it. God, how wonderous you are.
Today, we start with Mungo Park, the Scottish surgeon and explorer who was said to have “discovered” the River Niger at Kainji, New Bussa. I always wonder, till date, how an explorer can “discover” a river he met the natives drinking, taking their bath in and farming with. Anyway, so much for “oyinbo” man’s narrative that suits them. It is high time we interrogate history, question the answers and answer the questions.
Mungo Park was a Scottish surgeon and explorer born in 1771, in Foulshiels, Selkirk, Scotland. He died in 1806 in Bussa Rapids (now under the Kainji Reservoir, in Nigeria). He was sent out by the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior of Africa to discover the course of the River Niger. Having achieved a degree of fame from his first trip, carried out alone and on foot, he returned to Africa with a party of 40 Europeans, all of whom lost their lives in the adventure.
In 1795, the said association appointed Mungo Park to explore the course of the River Niger. Until Houghton had reported that the Niger flowed from West to East, it was believed that the Niger was a tributary of either the river Senegal or Gambia. The association wanted proof of the river’s course and to know where it finally emerged. Three current theories were: that it emptied into Lake Chad, that it curved round in a large arc to join the Zaire, or that it reached the coast at the Oil Rivers.
Mungo Park set off from the River Gambia, with the aid of the association’s West African ‘contact’, one Dr. Laidley, who provided equipment, a guide, and acted as a postal service. Park started his journey dressed in European clothes, with an umbrella and a tall hat (where he kept his notes safe throughout the journey). He was accompanied by an ex-slave called Johnson, who had returned from the West Indies, and a slave called Demba, who had been promised his freedom on completion of the journey.
Park knew a little Arabic. He had with him two books, Richardson’s Arabic Grammar and a copy of Houghton’s journal, which he had read on the voyage to Africa, served him well, and he was forewarned to hide his most valuable gear from the local tribesmen. At his first stop with the Bondou, Park was forced to give up his umbrella and his best blue coat. Shortly after, in his first encounter with the local Muslims, Park was taken prisoner.
Demba was taken away and sold, Johnson was considered too old to be of value. After four months, and with Johnson’s aid, Park finally managed to escape. He had a few belongings other than his hat and compass but refused to give up the expedition, even when Johnson refused to travel further. Relying on the kindness of African villagers, Park continued on his way to the Niger, reaching the river on July 20, 1796. Park travelled as far as Segu (Ségou) before returning to the coast and then to England.
Park described the river in a striking passage, a mixture of the dreamlike and the familiar, when he saw and drank the water. “Looking forwards, I saw with infinite pleasure the great object of my mission, the long sought for majestic Niger, glittering in the morning sun, as broad as the Thames at Westminster, and flowing to the eastward. I hastened to the brink, and having drunk of the water, lifted up my fervent thanks in prayer to the Great Ruler of all things, for having thus far crowned my endeavour with success.”
Mungo Park was an instant success, and the first edition of his book Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa sold out rapidly. His £1,000 royalties allowed him to settle in Selkirk and set up medical practice (marrying Alice Anderson, the daughter of the surgeon to whom he had been apprenticed). Settled life soon bored him, however, and he looked for a new adventure, but only under the right conditions. Banks was offended when Park demanded a large sum to explore Australia for the Royal Society.
Eventually, in 1805, Banks and Mungo Park came to an arrangement-Park was to lead an expedition to follow the Niger to its end. His part consisted of 30 soldiers from the Royal Africa Corps garrisoned at Goree (they were offered extra pay and the promise of a discharge on return), plus officers, including his brother-in-law Alexander Anderson, who agreed to join the trip) and four boat builders from Portsmouth who would construct a 40-foot boat when they reached the river.
Against logic and advice, Mungo Park set off from the Gambia in the rainy season – within 10 days his men were falling to dysentery. After five weeks one man was dead, seven mules lost and the expedition’s baggage mostly destroyed by fire. Park’s letters back to London made no mention of his problems. By the time the expedition reached Sand sanding on the Niger, only 11 of the original 40 Europeans were still alive. The party rested for two months but the deaths continued. By November 19, only five of them remained alive (even Alexander Anderson was dead). Sending the native guide, Isaaco, back to Laidley with his journals, Park was determined to continue. Park, Lieutenant Martyn (who had become an alcoholic on native beer) and three soldiers set off downstream from Segu in a converted canoe, christened the HMS Joliba. Each man had 15 muskets but little in the way of other supplies.
When Isaaco reached Laidley in the Gambia, news had already reached the coast of Mungo Park’s death. Coming under fire at the Bussa Rapids, after a journey of over 1,000 miles on the river, Mungo Park and his small party were drowned. Isaaco was sent back to discover the truth, but the only remains to be discovered was Park’s munitions belt. The irony was that, having avoided contact with local Muslims by keeping to the centre of the river, they were in turn mistaken for Muslim raiders and shot at.
Clapperton was born in Annan, Dumfriesshire, where his father, George Clapperton, was a surgeon. He gained some knowledge of practical mathematics and navigation, and at 13 years was apprenticed on board a vessel that traded between Liverpool and North America. After having made several voyages across the Atlantic Ocean, he was impressed for the navy, in which he soon rose to the rank of midshipman. During the Napoleonic Wars, Clapperton saw a good deal of active service, and at the storming of Port Louis, Mauritius, in November 1810, he was first in the breach and hauled down the French flag.
In 1814, Clapperton went to Canada, was promoted to the rank of lieutenant, and to the command of a schooner on the Canadian lakes. In 1817, when the flotilla on the lakes was dismantled, he returned home on half-pay. In 1820, Clapperton removed to Edinburgh, where he made the acquaintance of Walter Oudney, who aroused his interest in African travel. Lieutenant G.F. Lyon, having returned from an unsuccessful attempt to reach Bornu from Tripoli, the British government determined on a second expedition to that country. Walter Oudney was appointed by Lord Bathurst, then colonial secretary, to proceed to Bornu as consul, accompanied by Hugh Clapperton. From Tripoli, early in 1822, they set out southward to Murzuk, where they were later joined by Major Dixon Denham, who found both men in a wretched condition. They eventually proceeded south from Murzuk on November 29, 1822. By this time, a deep antipathy had developed between Clapperton and Denham. Denham secretly sending home malicious reports about Clapperton having homosexual relations with one of the Arab servants. The accusation, based on a rumour spread by a disgruntled servant dismissed by Clapperton for theft, was almost certainly unfounded, and Denham later withdrew it but without telling Clapperton he had done so, leading the historian Bovill to observe that “it remains difficult to recall in all the checkered history of geographic discovery.”
On February 17, 1823, the party eventually reached Kuka (now Kukawa in Nigeria), capital of the Bornu Empire, where they were well received by the Sultan Sheikh Al-Kaneimi, having earlier become the first white men to see Lake Chad. While at Kuka, Clapperton and Oudney parted company on December 14, to explore the course of the Niger River. Denham remained behind to explore and survey the western, south and south-eastern shores of Lake Chad, and the lower courses of the Rivers Waube, Logone and Shari. However, only a few weeks later, Oudney died at the village of Murmur, located near the town of Katagum on the road to Kano. Undeterred, Clapperton continued his journey alone through Kano to Sokoto, the capital of the Fulani Empire, where by order of Sultan Muhammed Bello he was obliged to stop, though the Niger was only a five-day journey to the West. Exhausted by his travels, he returned by way of Zaria and Katsina to Kuka, where Denham found him barely recognizable after his privations. Clapperton and Denham departed Kuka for Tripoli in August 1824, reaching Tripoli on January 26, 1825. Their mutual antipathy unabated, they exchanged not a word during the 133-day journey. The pair continued their journey to England, arriving home to a heroes’ welcome on June 1, 1825. An account of their travels was published in 1826 under the title Narrative of Travels and Discoveries in Northern and Central Africa in the years 1822–1823 and 1824.
(To be continued)
Thought for the week
“There are still many causes worth sacrificing for, so much history yet to be made.” (Michelle Obama)