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

From these few particulars, which include nearly all that is known of this part of Africa, it will appear that, with the exception of the infusion of the Mohammedan and Arabic element, which is here very strong, it bears a close resemblance to the corresponding portion of the western coasts. There are at the same impediments, arising from climate, to the acquisition of much knowledge of the country by Europeans, who, at best, are unable to penetrate farther than a few miles into the interior. It appears probable, indeed, that the last portion of the coast of Africa to be thoroughly explored will be these sites of the declining Portuguese colonies.

CENTRAL AFRICA. Under the general name of Central Africa may be included the whole of the interior of the continent south of the Great Desert. This immense extent of country may be divided into two parts Southern Central Africa, lying between the tropic of Capricorn and the equator; and Northern Central Africa, called also Souden, or Nigritia, lying between the equator and the Great Desert. The former is as yet totally unknown and unexplored; and before our information respecting it can be at all authentic and accurate, two most difficult expeditions must have been made, which have not yet been so much as proposed one from the Cape of Good Hope northwards as far as the Mountains of the Moon, the other transversely across the continent from Congo to Zanguebar or Mozambique. At what future period the spirit of enterprise may achieve these two journeys it is impossible to tell.

Northern Central Africa, or Nigritia, has, on the other hand, been penetrated by travelers, who have advanced into it from all directions. From the earliest times this part of Africa attracted attention, as being the country through which the famous Niger flowed, on whose banks the great city of Timbuctoo, of the wealth of which vague accounts had reached the shores of the Mediterranean, was reputed to be situated. To ascertain the course of this river, and to reach this celebrated negro city, were the leading objects of all who engaged in the enterprise of African discovery. In the year 1618, an English company was formed for the purpose of opening up a communication with Timbuctoo, and not long afterwards a similar company was formed in France. For a century and a half the two nations continued to compete with each other in the enterprise: the English trying to make their way up the river Gambia, which they imagined to be the outlet of the Niger; the French, on the other hand, persevering along the Senegal, which seemed to them more likely to be identical with the Niger. Much useful information was acquired in these successive voyages respecting Western Africa; but no intelligence was obtained of the site of the great city of the negroes. It was clearly ascertained, however, that neither the Senegal nor the Gambia could be identical with the Niger, supposing the traditionary accounts of that river to be true. Three distinct opinions respecting this river began to be entertained. Some said that there was no Niger at all, such as the ancients had described it, but that some river, branching off into the Senegal and Gambia, was alluded to. Others believed that the ancient accounts of the Niger as a river flowing towards the east was correct, and that it was to be considered one of the upper branches of the Nile. A third party maintained that the supposition of the Niger being identical with the Nile was untenable, considering the immense breadth of the continent, and that the true Niger was some stream rising in the interior of Africa, and flowing into the sea at some point of the western coast farther south than the Senegal and the Gambia. A subsequent modification of this opinion was, that the Niger did not flow into the sea at all, but terminated in some great marsh or lake in the interior of Africa, resembling the Caspian Sea.

Such was the state of information, or rather of doubt, with respect to the course of the Niger, when, in the year 1788, a number of spirited men of science, including Lord Rawdon, Sir Joseph Banks, the bishop of Landaff, Mr. Beaufoy, and Mr. Stuart, formed themselves into an association for the purpose of prosecuting this and other questions of African geography to an issue. No sooner had the society been formed, than it commenced its labors. The first travelers, however, whom it sent out were cut off by death. One of them, Major Houghton, ascended the Gambia, and never returned; it was afterwards ascertained that he had been killed by the Moors in the interior. It was at this juncture that the celebrated Mungo Park presented himself to the society. Born in the county of Selkirk, in Scotland, in the year 1771, and having been educated for the medical profession, Park had just returned from a voyage to the East Indies in the capacity of assistant-surgeon on board one of the East India Company's vessels, when he offered his services to the association through Sir Joseph Banks. After due inquiry into Mr. Park's character and qualifications, they were accepted. This was in 1793; but he did not depart on his expedition till the summer of 1795. His instructions were, on his arrival in Africa, to pass on to the river Niger either by the way of Bambouk, or by such other route as should be found most convenient - that he should ascertain the course, and, if possible, the rise and termination of that river that he should use his utmost exertions to visit the principal towns or cities in its neighborhood, particularly Timbuctoo and Houssa - and that he should be afterwards at liberty to return to Europe either by the way of the Gambia, or by such other route as, under all the then existing circumstances of his situation and prospects, should appear to him to be most advisable.'