Captain George Francis Lyon’s Explorations In Africa

There is a certain type of Englishman who is not content with confinement in any one locale.  He seeks new vistas, new challenges, and the chance to test his mettle against geography, climate, and the decrees of Fortune.  We have chronicled a number of such men in these pages.  To this list we must add the name of British naval officer George Francis Lyon (1795–1832), who enjoys perhaps the unique distinction of being known for exploratory achievement in two very different climatic conditions:  the polar regions of the Arctic and the desert expanses of northern Africa.

Not much of significance is recorded of his early life; his memoirs of his African travels omit extensive biographical details.  In 1818, he was tasked by Second Secretary of the Admiralty Sir John Barrow to discover the source of the Niger River in central Africa.  He was to be accompanied by the surgeon Joseph Ritchie.  The expedition was able to take advantage of the good relations that the British Consulate enjoyed with the Arab authorities in Tripoli.  On March 25, 1819, Ritchie and Captain Lyon departed from Tripoli with Mohammad al-Mukni, the Bey of Fezzan.  Lyon was fluent in Arabic, and the expedition was not disorganized; but they underestimated the difficulties involved in crossing the Sahara from north to south.  Lyon interestingly describes the articles of clothing taken on the expedition:

Sidrea.—A waistcoat fitting tight to the body, without any opening in front, having only holes for the neck and arms. It is pulled on in the same manner as the Guernsey frock used by seamen.  Farmela is a second waistcoat, open in front, and having broad gold lace and buttons, but no button-holes. It hangs over the sidrea.

A Tuareg warrior

Zibboon.—A jacket, the sleeves of which are embroidered. These first three dresses are confined round the waist by the band of the trowsers, which come outside them. A broad belt of silk or gold is then passed round the body. Over the jacket is an embroidered waistcoat without sleeves, called Bidfiah.  All these dresses may be of different colours, the most brilliant and gaudy being chiefly in request. On walking out, a hooded cloak of very finely spun white wool is thrown over all, and on great occasions a cloth one of the same form, bordered with rich gold lace, is used. This cloak is called Bornouse.  The trowsers are immense, and of silk or cloth, according to the pleasure of the wearer…

Having thus given a sketch of the costume of the Tripoli men, I conceive it necessary to mention that we fully adopted the dress and appearance of Moslems, using all our endeavours to become acquainted with their manners.

The expedition got as far as Murzuq, located in the Fezzan region of what is now southern Libya.  There Ritchie died on November 2nd, worn out by the harsh desert conditions.  Lyon himself also had fallen ill from the privations of the journey.  The sultan who was with them, Mohammad al-Mukni, began to confiscate the expedition’s supplies, believing both men to be as good as dead.  Captain Lyon recovered, however; although he was unable to continue into the interior of Africa, he spent his time wisely in southern Libya, observing the customs and practices of the Tuareg people, who at that time were nearly unknown to Europeans.  Lyon seems to have been the first European to document in detail the customs, language, and culture of the Tuareg.  Thus the expedition proved to be a successful one, even if it failed in the design for which it was originally contemplated.  Consider these morsels of information:

A great article of commerce is the fat which the shepherds procure from the sheep they kill. They cut it from every part of the body, salt it, and lay it by until a large quantity is collected, when, whether putrid or not, they boil it, until it bear some resemblance to the grease used by tallow-chandlers; it is then poured into skins, and is fit for use. In the interior it sells at about a shilling a pound; but at Tripoli it is much cheaper. It is put into almost every article of food by the Arabs, and though not very savoury, we soon became accustomed to its taste. It is called shahm [?شحام]…

There is great variety in the manner of dressing meat, which is stewed, boiled, or baked; but for journeys the Arabs have a very good way of preserving it, by cutting it into thin slices, drying it in the sun, and afterwards stewing it in fat. I have often observed them eating small grasses, which they found as they pursued their journey; and to my inquiries how they knew them to be innoxious, the general reply was, that whatever an animal which chewed its cud could eat with safety, must be food for man.  There is a species of dandelion, very bitter, and exuding a white juice, which is much liked by the sheep as well as their masters.  The taste at first is very unpleasant; but I soon became accustomed to it.

Lyon’s account of his travels is an impressive document.  It is precise, lucid, and free of the type of fanciful depictions that mar so many other travel records of the nineteenth century.  He did not explore the Sudan, but he did collect a great deal of valuable anecdotal information about the region.  Physical danger was a very real issue; Lyon frequently remarks that it was an absolute necessity for him and his party to adopt local dress and speak Arabic at all times, for had they been detected as foreigners, they would immediately have fallen under suspicion.  On his journey back to Tripoli, he observed raging flash floods that had the power to sweep a man away in an instant:

Our tents were no sooner pitched than very heavy rain came on, in a tremendous storm (called Gherra [?غرة] by the Arabs): thunder and lightning close to us. The noise was tremendous, and the wadey before us was quickly filled with a roaring torrent, sweeping all before it: happily, the tents were on a rising ground, which prevented them from being washed away. The mountain torrent continued all night. I had often heard these storms spoken of, but always imagined that the accounts given of them were much exaggerated; I now found that the description did not at all come up to this night’s tempest.

He almost died of thirst in the return trek across the desert; he seems also to have been suffering from some unspecified illness, perhaps malaria.  “Weak and exhausted as I was, and with no alternative but to drink, or, as I thought, to expire, I was about to catch and swallow the nauseous draught, when, at that moment, I perceived my trusty Arab ascending a hill, and advancing towards me. Those only who have experienced the agonies of suspense, or the torments of parching thirst, can conceive my sensations when he joined me, bringing the wished-for beverage.”  But he reached Tripoli.  He finally left the city in May 1820, bringing with him a camel intended as a gift for King George IV.  Upon reaching England, he was quarantined, he tells us, for twenty-five days.  He finally arrived in London on July 25, 1820.  He would later suffer from bouts of ophthalmia–a legacy of his arduous desert travels–and feared he might lose his eyesight.  His travel memoirs, A Narrative of Travels in Northern Africa in the Years 1818, 1819, and 1820, was published in London in 1821.

Lyons lived a full and eventful life.  He would later go on to command an Arctic expedition in the vicinity of Hudson Bay, and collected valuable information about the Inuit peoples residing there.  He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1827, and died in 1832.  Man is mortal; but his achievements endure forever.


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