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

The vast continent of Africa, measuring 5000 miles in length, and about 4700 in its greatest breadth, and the area of which is calculated at 12,000,000 square miles, or nearly one-fourth of the entire land area of the globe, has presented greater obstacles to human enterprise than any other equal portion of the earth's surface. The peculiar physical condition of Africa has operated as one cause of her isolation from the rest of the world. The other portions of our earth situated under the tropics consist generally either of sea, or of narrow peninsular tracts of land, the clusters of islands blown upon the sea-breeze. Africa, on the other hand, presents scarcely one gulf or sea-break in its vast outline. A consequence of this compact geographical shape of a continent, the greater part of which is within the torrid zone, is its subjection, throughout its entire extent, to the unmitigated influence of the sun's heat. All that is noxious in climate we are accustomed to associate with Africa. Here stretching out into a boundless desert, where for days the traveler toils amid burning sands under a stifling sky - there covered with dense and swampy jungle, breathing out pestilence, and teeming with all the repulsive forms of animal life, the African continent seems to defy the encroachments of European civilization. And although, probably, our ideas of these African horrors will be modified by more accurate knowledge, enough seems ascertained to prove that the lying open of interior Africa to the general flood of human influence will be among the last achievements of the exploring spirit of our race.

Notwithstanding the difficulties which lie in the way, Africa has at all times been an object of curiosity and interest to the inhabitants of the civilized parts of the earth; and scientific zeal, the desire of extending traffic, and even the mere thirst for adventure, have prompted many expeditions for the purpose of exploring its coast and making discoveries in its interior. The ancients appear to have acquired much knowledge of Africa, which was afterwards lost, and had to be reacquired by the moderns for themselves. The African coasts of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea were not only familiar to the ancient geographers, but were inhabited by populations which performed a conspicuous part in the general affairs of the world, and ranked high in the scale of civilization - the Egyptians, Carthaginians, etc. Nor, if we may believe the evidence which exists in favor of the accounts of the circumnavigation of Africa by ancient navigators, were the ether coasts of the continent - those, namely, which were washed by the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean - unvisited by northern ships. Regarding the interior of Africa, too, the knowledge possessed by the ancients, although very meagre in itself, was nearly as definite as that possessed by their modern descendants, until within a comparatively recent period. As far as the northern borders of the Great Desert, their own personal observation might be said to extend; and respecting the wandering tribes of black and savage people living farther to the south, they had received many vague notices. The Nile being one of the best known rivers of the ancient world, its origin and course were matters of great interest, and the African geography of the ancients, in general, may be said to consist of speculations respecting this extraordinary river. The first mention made of the other great African river, the Niger, is by Ptolemy, who lived seventy years after Christ. Ptolemy believed that this river discharged itself ultimately into the Nile; others, however, did not admit this conclusion, and acknowledged that the real course of the Niger was a mystery.

Such are some of the more prominent points in the ancient geography of Africa. How wild and inaccurate must have been the notion entertained respecting the shape and total extent of the African continent, may be judged from the fact, that one geographer describes it as an irregular figure of four sides, the south side running nearly parallel to the equator, but considerably to the north of it! Others, again, held forth the fearful picture of Central Africa as a vast burning plain, in which no green thing grew, and into which no living being could penetrate; and this hypothesis of an uninhabitable torrid zone became at length the generally received one.

The invasion of Africa by the Arab races in the seventh century, wrought a great change in the condition of the northern half of that continent. Founding powerful states along the Mediterranean coasts, these enterprising Mohammedans, or Moors, as they were called, were able, by means of the camel, to effect a passage across the Desert which had baffled the ancients, and to hold intercourse with the negroes who lived on its southern border along the banks of the Niger and the shores of Lake Tchad. In some of the negro states the Arabs obtained a preponderance, and with others they carried on an influential and lucrative commerce. The consequence was a mixture of Moorish and negro blood among the inhabitants of the countries of Central Africa bordering on the Great Desert, as well as a general diffusion of certain scraps of the Mohammedan religion among the negro tribes. Hence it is that, in the innermost recesses of interior Africa at the present day, we find the negroes partly professing Paganism, partly Mohammedanism, but all practicing ceremonies and superstitions in which we observe the Pagan spirit with a slight Mohammedan tincture.