Travels in Africa - Park Denham, Clapperton, Lander, and Others

It was not till the fifteenth century that the career of modern European discovery in Africa commenced. The Portuguese, leading the van of the nations of Europe in that great movement of maritime enterprise which constitutes so signal an epoch in the history of modern society, selected the western course of Africa as the most promising track along which to prosecute discovery their intercourse with the Moors having made them aware that gold and other precious commodities were to be procured in that direction. In the year 1433, Cape Bojador was passed by a navigator called Gilianez; and others succeeding him, passed Cape Blanco, and, exploring the entire coast of the Desert, reached at length the fertile shores of Gambia and Guinea. The sudden bending inwards of the coast line at the Gulf of Guinea gave a new direction and a new impulse to the activity of the Portuguese. Having no definite ideas of the breadth of the African continent, they imagined that, by continuing their course eastward along the Gulf, they would arrive at the renowned country of the great Prester John, a fabulous personage, who was believed to reign with golden sway over an immense and rich territory, situated no one could tell where, but which some contended could be no other than Abyssinia. The Portuguese, while prosecuting their discoveries along the African coast, did not neglect means for establishing a commercial intercourse with those parts of the coast which they had already explored. Settlements or factories for the convenience of the trade in gold, ivory, gum, different kinds of timber, and eventually also in slaves, were founded at various points of the coast between Cape Verd and Biafra. Various missionary settlements were likewise founded for the dissemination of the Roman Catholic faith among the natives.

The chimera of Prester John was succeeded by the more rational hope of effecting a passage to India by the way of Southern Africa. This great feat, accordingly, was at length achieved by Vasco de Gama, who, in 1497, four years after the discovery of America by Columbus, persisted in his course to the south so far as to double the Cape of Good Hope, and point the way northward into the Indian Ocean. By his voyages and those of his successors, the eastern coast of Africa, from the Cape of Good Hope through the Mozambique Channel to the Red Sea, was soon defined as accurately as the western coast had been by the voyages of his predecessors; and thus the entire outline and shape of the African continent were at length made known. This great service to science and to the human race was rendered, it ought to be remarked, by the Portuguese, who may be said to have conducted the enterprise of the circumnavigation of Africa from its beginning to its end; and this is perhaps the greatest contribution which the Portuguese, as a nation, have made to the general fund of human knowledge.

The outline of Africa having thus been laid down on the maps, and the extent of its surface ascertained, the attention of discoverers was next turned to its interior. The efforts made by the Portuguese to explore Nigritia in search of Prester John have been already alluded to; but it was by the other nations of Europe, especially the English, the French, and the Dutch, who, on the decline of the Portuguese power, began to compete with each other in this field of enterprise, that the greatest advances were made in the knowledge of geography of the various parts of Africa, and of the races which inhabit it. For these last two hundred years, discoverers and travelers of various nations have been adding to our information respecting this vast continent; and in consequence of their joint labors, some in one part, some in another, we are now able to form an idea, very general, it must be admitted, but still tolerably distinct, of Africa and its inhabitants. In presenting a summary view of the progress of African discovery, from the period of the final circumnavigation of the continent, and its correct delineation in outline, down to the present time, it will be advantageous to take up its various divisions in the following order: - Western Africa, Southern Africa, Eastern Africa, Central Africa or Nigritia, and Northern Africa, including the Great Desert.

WESTERN AFRICA. The shores of Western Africa, especially those which border the Gulf of Guinea, have retained to the present time the distinction which they acquired at the period of their discovery by the Portuguese, of being the market which European ships visit for African commodities.

The Portuguese, as we have already mentioned, where the first to plant factories along this coast, from the southern termination of the Great Desert to Congo, and other maritime districts south of the equator. Allured by the profits of the slave trade, other European nations hastened to occupy stations on the same coast; and towards the end of the eighteenth century, the number of European forts and factories round the Gulf of Guinea were said to be forty in all; of which fifteen belonged to the Dutch, fourteen to the English, four to the Portuguese, four to the Danes, and three to the French. Deriving its principal commercial importance from the trade in negroes, which this chain of forts was intended to guard, Western Africa has, since the abolition of the slave trade, fallen consider ably out of view. According to the best information, however, that has been obtained, the territory is in the possession of a number of petty states, many of which compose aristocratic republics, turbulent, restless, licentious, and generally rendered more depraved by their intercourse with Europeans.'