European explorers shared some of the reasons
for travelling round Africa with Muslim fellow travelers, but had others
peculiar to the time. They went in search of:
• scientific & geographical knowledge
• fame and celebrity, and
• people to convert to Christianity
POWER AND KNOWLEDGE
European travelers hugely increased a general understanding of geography,
climate and resources. Some accounts of the people were objective (as
far as an outsider can be objective), others were willfully misleading.
All the information these travelers brought back - wrong and right - contributed
to devising an imperial strategy for controlling Africa.
SOURCES OF RIVERS
For Europeans the golden age of travelling was the early 19th century.
The first half of the century was dominated by a desire to establish the
sources of two of African's great trading arteries, the Niger and the
The sort of men who undertook journeys across regions which were unknown
to Europe were in the main strong willed, eccentric, sometimes cruel and
African Association was founded in 1788 with the aim of finding Timbuktu
and the origin of the Niger. The popular opinion for hundreds of years
had been that the Niger was somewhere along the line, linked to the Nile.
The Scots explorer Mungo Park died in 1805 trying to establish the truth,
taking over 40 people with him. He relied on two African guides, Isaaco
(described as "an African trader") and Amadi Fatouma. Other
British travelers continued to look for the Niger including the Lander
The Englishman Denham and Scotsman Clapperton set off in 1822 in search
of Central Africa. They argued the entire length of their journey from
Kano to Lake Chad. Denham alone reached Mabah on the northern side of
Lake Chad, but failed in his goal to get to the eastern side of the lake.
He was accompanied by Arab merchant Bhoo Khaloom and Maramy, a slave of
the king of Kouka.
German, Heinrich Barth, explored the major trade routes of Sahara and
Sahel, in particular Sokoto and Borno, writing a detailed five volume
work. Rene Caillie, one of the few French explorers in West Africa, was
the first European to have entered Timbuktu in the late 1820's. He nearly
died crossing the Sahara disguised as a Muslim. Caillie was accused of
making up the accounts of his trip, until Heinrich Barth verified it thirty
In East Africa it was the sources of the Nile which exercised the European
imagination. Commissioned by the Royal Geographical Society and the Foreign
Office, Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke set off to find the origins
of the Nile.
Richard Burton determined to fulfill an ambition to go where no man (i.e.
European) had been before. A brilliant linguist, Burton combined great
scholarship with a sexually obsessive, sadistic turn of mind and sweeping
prejudice. He teamed up with the energetic, boyish, but less bookish John
After enduring great illness and hardship travelling from Zanzibar to
Tanganikya, they parted company and then fell out publicly over the source
of the Nile, with Speke dying mysteriously the day before a debate appointed
to bring the two men and their theories together.
ACROSS THE CONTINENT
Perhaps the most famous British traveler of all was David
was the first European, although not first African, to cross the continent
from the Zambezi to Luanda on the West Coast. His experiences in Africa
were described in sensational terms by the newspaper reporter turned traveler
Henry Morton Stanley.
Livingstone believed that imperialism would ultimately benefit people
in Africa, but he could be an observant man with a sense of relative values;
he could see the point of view of
those who did not want to be converted:
only avowed cause of dislike was expressed by a very influential and sensible
man, the uncle of Sechele.
'We like you as well as if you had been born among us; you are the only
white man we can become familiar with; but we wish you to give up that
everlasting preaching and praying; we cannot become familiar with that
at all. You see we never get rain, while those tribes who never pray as
we do obtain abundance.'
This was a fact; and we often saw it raining on the hills ten miles off,
while it would not look at us 'even with one eye.'"
Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa, by Dr. David Livingstone.
In another instance, he gave a detailed account of the prejudices of the
Afrikaners. His fellow explorer and devoted friend was Chuma. When Livingstone
died at Lake Bangweulu, it was Chuma who organised the embalming of his
body and made the ten month journey with his body back to Bagamoyo on
the coast and on to Britain.
WOMEN ON THE MOVE
Mary Kingsley was one of the few women travelers of the 19th century.
She moved around West Africa, finding out more about animals and plant
life. She wrote with an unusual degree of detachment, wit and observance
for her generation of Europeans. In the 1890's she visited Liberia, Sierra
Leone, Angola and Cameroun. She died while nursing soldiers during the
Boer war in 1900.