Dixon Denham: Pioneering British Explorer Of Central Africa

We have previously described in these pages the exploits of Heinrich Barth, one of the titans of African exploration.  Before him was Dixon Denham, a British explorer whose name is also hardly known today.  He covered some of the same ground as did Barth, but he had a different style; where Barth was a scientist and ethnographer at heart, Denham was a soldier with an eye for people, relationships, terrain, and–it must be said–trouble.

He was born in London in 1786 and, needing an outlet for his prodigious energies, joined the army in 1811.  He would find no shortage of action, for Europe was still ablaze with the fires set by Napoleon.  He served with distinction in the Peninsular Wars in Spain and Portugal, but was party demobilized in 1818.  He enrolled in Sandhurst in 1819 as a student, and was able to make important connections there that would serve him well later.  When he learned that the British government was outfitting an expedition to West Africa to establish commercial links with the regional leaders there, he maneuvered to get himself included.  In November 1821 the expedition arrived at Tripoli and used it as a staging ground for further penetration into the continent.

Denham departed from Tripoli in March 1822 with a large number of Arab locals to assist him.  Unfortunately, disputes with his British companions (Walter Oudney and Hugh Clapperton) were a serious impediment to progress; it seems that personality conflicts dogged the expedition as soon as it arrived in North Africa.  The stresses and pressures of exploration in those days was immense.  A thousand details needed to be arranged and planned, and even minor personality differences could become magnified in the unrelenting hostility of the environment.

Despite these problems, and the omnipresence of disease and deprivation, progress was made:  they reached Murzuk (what is now southern Libya), Bornu (today’s northeastern Nigeria), as well as Lake Chad and what is now Niger.  Denham also was able to explore the regions around the rivers Waube, Logone, and Shari.  In December 1823 Oudney and Clapperton separated from Denham to explore the Hausa regions to the west (Oudney would die in January 1824).  In September Clapperton and Denham set out to return to Tripoli; by this time they were not even on speaking terms.  The pair returned to England in June 1825, and a year later published an account of their travels, Narrative of Travels and Discoveries in Northern and Central Africa.

Denham tells us in his preface:

It will, perhaps, be thought by some, that I have been more minute than necessary in the account of our journey across that tremendous desert which lies between Mourzuk and Bornou, and which, generally speaking, is made up of dark frowning hills of naked rock, or interminable plains, strewed in some places with fragments of stone and pebbles, in others of one vast level surface of sand, and, in others again, the same material rising into immense mounds, altering their form and position according to the strength and direction of the winds.

But, even in the midst of this dreary waste, towns, villages, wandering tribes, and kafilas, or caravans, sometimes occur to break the solitude of this dismal belt, which seems to stretch across Northern Africa, and, on many parts of which, not a living creature, even an insect, enlivens the scene. Still, however, the halting places at the wells, and the wadeys or valleys, afford an endless source of amusement to the traveler, in witnessing the manners, and listening to the conversation, of the various tribes of natives, who, by their singing and dancing, their story telling, their quarreling and fighting, make him forget, for a time, the ennui and fatigue of the day’s journey.

Denham on the whole is not as thorough and meticulous as Heinrich Barth, whom we have discussed previously in these pages.  But his account has a racy flow to it; he is a soldier with a keen sense of terrain and personalities, and manages to dodge trouble as often as it seems to find its way to him.  He also has an eye for detail, as when he describes a wedding ceremony on Sokna (in modern Libya):

During our stay at Sockna, the marriage of the son of one of the richest inhabitants, Hadgi Mohammed-el-Hair-Trigge, was celebrated in the true Arab style. There is something so rudely chivalric in their ceremonies (so very superior to the dull monotony of a Tripolitan wedding), where from one to five hundred guests, all males, assemble, covered with gold lace, and look at one another, from the evening of one day until daylight the next, that I cannot help describing them.

The morning of the marriage-day (for the ceremony is always performed in the evening, that is, the final ceremony; for they are generally betrothed, and the fatah read, a year before) is ushered in by the music of the town or tribe, consisting of a bagpipe and two small drums, serenading the bride first and then the bridegroom, who generally walks through the streets very finely dressed, with all the town at his heels; during which time, the women all assemble at the bride’s house, dressed in their finest clothes, and place them selves at the different holes in the wall which serve as windows, and look into the court-yard.

When they are so placed, and the bride is in front of one of the windows with her face entirely covered with her barracan, the bridal clothes, consisting of silk shifts, shawls, silk trowsers, and fine barracans, to show her riches, are hung from the top of the house, quite reaching to the ground: the young Arab chiefs are permitted to pay their respects; they are preceded from the skiffa, or entrance, by their music, and a dancing woman or two advances with great form, and with slow steps, to the centre of the court, under the bride’s window: here the ladies salute their visitors, with “loo! loo! loo!” which they return by laying their right hand on their breasts, as they are conducted quite round the circle.

Ample time is afforded them to survey the surrounding beauties; and there are but few, who, on these occasions, are so cruel as to keep the veil quite closed. Such an assemblage of bright black eyes, large ear-rings, and white teeth, are but rarely seen in any country, I should suppose. After having made the circuit, the largess is given, and exposed to view by the chief danseuse, and, according to its amount, is the donor hailed and greeted by the spectators. Previous to their departure, all visitors discharge their pistols, and then again the ladies salute with the “loo! loo!” So far from being displeased at my asking permission to pay my respects, they considered it as a favour conferred; and the bridegroom, although he could not himself be admitted, attended me to and from the house of his mistress.

This ceremony being ended, a little before sunset, the bride prepares to leave her father’s house: a camel is sent for her with a jaafa”, or sedan chair of basket-work, on its back, covered with skins of animals, shawls from Soudan, Cairo, and Timbuctoo: she steps into this, and so places herself as to see what is going forward, and yet to be entirely hid from the view of others. She is now conducted outside the town, where all the horsemen and footmen who have arms are assembled.

The following incident (while traveling from Murmur to Kano) reminds us again of the universality of human attraction and kindness in dealings with others:

I had an attack of ague, the disease that chiefly prevails in these parts, and was obliged to rest all day under the shade of a tree. A pretty Felatah girl, going to market with milk and butter, neat and spruce in her attire as a Cheshire dairy-maid, here accosted me with infinite archness and grace. She said I was of her own nation; and, after much amusing small talk, I pressed her, in jest, to accompany me on my journey, while she parried my solicitations with roguish glee, by referring me to her father and mother. I don’t know how it happened, but her presence seemed to dispel the effects of the ague.

To this trifling and innocent memorial of a face and form, seen that day for the first and last time, but which I shall not readily forget, I may add…that the making of butter such as ours is confined to the nation of the Felatahs, and that it is both clean and excellent. So much is this domestic art cultivated, that from a useful prejudice or superstition, it is deemed unlucky to sell new milk; it may, however, be bestowed as a gift. Butter is also made in other parts of central Africa, but sold in an oily fluid state something like honey.

Soon after returning to London, Denham left for another African expedition, this time to Sierra Leone.  However, he would die in Freetown in 1828 at the age of 42, probably due to malaria.  The toll that exploration took on the human body was significant; worn down by mileage and malnutrition, it was all the more susceptible to disease.  He may not have been the greatest of explorers, but his name does have a significant place in the rolls of the Age of Discovery.  He would pave the way for the giants like Barth, Burton, and Speke who would soon follow him.



Read more about discovery and exploration in Thirty-Seven: