When studying the history of the exploration of the African continent, one is struck by the relative recentness of our acquisition of its geographic details. Ancient man undoubtedly mounted expeditions here and there, but none of them has left a lasting modern mark. Egyptians, Carthaginians, Greeks, and Romans eventually contented themselves with an awareness of the continent’s general contours. Its interior they count not penetrate; deserts, mountains, rain forests, disease, heat, and hostile native peoples proved too forbidding.
The medieval period added religion to the list of obstacles. Islamic northern Africa jealously guarded its knowledge of trade routes into the interior, and prevented Christian foreigners from participating in this commerce. But as the Age of Discovery dawned in the sixteenth century, the European powers sought knowledge of every corner of the globe. By the eighteenth century, a general knowledge of most of the continents could be said to exist in rudimentary form. Yet the interior of Africa remained mostly a blank map. Sidney Hall’s famous 1829 map of the continent shows an excellent knowledge of the coastline, but portrays the interior as little more than blank space.
Such a situation was considered embarrassing to the major commercial nations of Europe. The British looked with pride on their empire, and found it intolerable that a continent so close to Europe should be shrouded in such obscurity. The French, Portuguese, and Dutch attempted expeditions to widen the scope of available knowledge, but these efforts were neither sustained nor systematic. Credit for the commencement of the modern era of African exploration must go to a small but dedicated group of British enthusiasts who, on June 9, 1788, founded what came to be called the African Association.
It is very easy today to look back on this period of history and attribute sinister motives to those who promoted African exploration. Modern parlance too often paints the individuals involved as “colonialists” or “exploiters” actuated only by greed. Undoubtedly there was some degree of commercial interest behind the impulse to explore, but this has been true of every enterprising nation since the dawn of time. It is an impulse that is easy to overstate. The Age of Enlightenment did, in fact, promote a sincere interest in the expansion of geographical knowledge for its own sake; and to ignore this fact is to commit an injustice to the historical record.
It was a pleasant custom of London in that era for men of letters and learning to form clubs that met regularly. Members might discuss literature, current events, science, or the latest geographical knowledge. One of these clubs was the Saturday’s Club. It was comprised of a small group of twelve notables drawn from Britain’s learned elites, and it met weekly for dinner at the St. Albans Tavern near Pall Mall. Sir Joseph Banks, the long-serving president of the Royal Society, was the group’s de facto leader. The dearth of knowledge of the interior of Africa had troubled Banks for some time. He had accompanied Captain Cook on his expedition around the globe; and it must have rankled with him that little of substance had been added to the geographic knowledge of Africa in his lifetime.
He was an organized and disciplined man, and it seemed clear to him that only an organized and disciplined effort could remedy the situation. Before the assembled members concluded their dinner on June 9, 1788, Banks had convinced them to commit to forming a society explicitly for the purpose of sponsoring expeditions into Africa’s interior. Western Africa was to be their focus, especially the Niger River and the city of Timbuktu which was near it. Incredibly, neither of these places had ever been reached by any European traveler. Their society—the “Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior of Africa”—came at once to be called the African Association.
Banks was a demanding and imperious man, but it was probably only because of these qualities that his Association carried through on its stated objectives. He had the ear of George III, which certainly helped smooth out bureaucratic and logistical ruffles. The Association’s first project was the expedition of John Ledyard, an American adventurer whom we have discussed in these pages before. Ledyard had already won a name for himself by sailing around the world with Captain Cook, by living with a native American tribe, and by traveling across Russia from west to east. He had no experience in Africa, but his resourcefulness and industry were believed to be adequate counterweights to ignorance. Things ended badly for Ledyard, however. Dispatched to Alexandria, Egypt, he became sick; attempting to treat himself, he accidentally consumed medicines in dosages that killed him.
The Association had better luck with its next explorer, a fascinating figure named Simon Lucas. He had been captured by Muslim pirates as a young man, and served as a slave in Morocco for three years. Once rescued, he was appointed British vice-consul in Morocco. His sixteen years of work and residence in Arabic-speaking domains had given him perfect command of that language. Commissioned to lead a caravan into the African interior from Tripoli, he found that the turbulence caused by warring tribes impeded progress beyond what is now southern Libya.
His expedition was a failure, as was Ledyard’s, but it did record some useful knowledge of the region. Further expeditions followed, each one building on the experience of its predecessors. Geographic knowledge would prove to be aggregative: it would progress bit by bit, over many decades, with each daring explorer adding something to the collective pool of information. Through such incremental means does man’s knowledge accumulate, and fructify into wisdom.
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