In the age of West African exploration, the River Niger and the region around it devoured white men with unseemly relish. In the late 18th and early 19th century, the British sent out a number of expeditions to map the course of the mighty river, most of which ended predictably.

In 1825, when Royal Navy Captain Hugh Clapperton led one such expedition north of the Niger to Sokoto, capital of the Sokoto Caliphate, he was accompanied by Doctors Morrison, and Dickson, Navy Captain Pearce, a Mr. Houtson, and Richard Lander, Clapperton’s servant. All of these men perished, felled by one dread West African disease or another, with the notable exception of Richard Lander. He went on a later expedition, and successfully followed the River Niger to its Atlantic estuary in Southern Nigeria.

The intrepid Captain Clapperton—who had had a few earlier narrow escapes from death in places like Canada and the waters off India—was employed by Lord Bathurst, British secretary of state for the colonies, to “establish intercourse with the interior of Africa”. He was directed to open official relations with Sultan Bello, head of the Caliphate, one of the most powerful empires in the region. This move was expected to create “legitimate trade” between Britain and the Caliphate, while suppressing the slave trade.

The well-built and athletic Clapperton was chosen for this expedition because he had been there before and had made friends with the sultan. That he had returned seemed proof that he was one of those sturdy white men who could survive the “pestilential climate” of West Africa. Such was the faith in the indestructibility of his “constitution,” that one of his friends in Edinburgh, a medical man, refused to believe that Clapperton was dead when the news first arrived.

Captain Hugh Clapperton

Clapperton’s party was of course not the first group of European explorers to be almost wiped out by West African diseases. Scottish doctor Mungo Park left Goree Island in Senegal with two companions and 35 British soldiers during his expedition to map the course of the Niger in 1805. Along the route to the great river, at a place named Pisania, he hired two sailors and four carpenters, and left there with the entire party of about 42 Britons and an unknown number of Africans on May 4.  By 19 August, more than 30 of the men were dead, and they had not even seen the River Niger. When they finally launched a canoe on the river, only five very sick white men including Park were left. They all died at Bussa in today’s Northern Nigeria, some say by drowning in rapids, others say they were attacked by bandits, or by suspicious natives.

Mungo Park made two expeditions to the River Niger, in 1795 and 1805

Also in 1832-33-34, MacGregor Laird, scion of a shipbuilding family, accompanied two purpose-built armed iron steamships on an expedition up the Niger. The expedition was led by Richard Lander, mentioned earlier. There were 49 Brits on the ships and 39 of them perished from tropical diseases. Richard Lander made the number of dead an even 40 when he died from a gangrenous musket ball wound in his thigh received when attacked by natives while on a trip upstream with a canoe.

Well before these late 18th and 19th century explorers, in 1553, a large group of English sailors and merchants led by Captain Thomas Windham and a Portuguese pilot, Anthonie Anes Pinteado, traveled inland from the coast to the kingdom of Benin west of the River Niger. There, they were cordially received by the Oba or king of Benin, and they spent 30 days buying some 80 tons of pepper. But the sailors and merchants were dying rapidly, and so the ones at the coast decided to leave, abandoning the others in Benin. Windham and Pinteado died, as well as all of the English leaders of the trading party. Of the 140 people who left England, only 40 made it back.

In the book Disease and Empire: The health of European troops in the conquest of Africa, Philip D. Curtin says that “one historical problem is to discover why people were willing to go to a place where the probability of death was about 50 percent in the first year, and 25 percent a year thereafter. “

It is indeed a cause for wonder why Europeans kept coming to West Africa for centuries even as anecdotal and other evidence from slave ship sailors and others revealed that it was a hellish place for them due to such very high mortality rates. My view is that the culture of the Europeans of the time was, in simple terms, one which seems to have promoted a fearless and venturesome spirit which allied with the goals of commercial enterprise drew them to places that would have made other people hesitant. The explorers in particular were volunteers—most of them were not ordered to go, though pecuniary inducement could have played a part for some. For example, Dr. Park is thought to have been induced to overlook the protestations of his wife over his fatal second trip (he had made an earlier trip in 1795) to Africa by a financial offer that was hard to refuse—£5000 in expenses, £1000 to his wife for every year of his absence, and £5000 on the completion of his enterprise. The love for adventure, the desire to know, and the desire to be famous and have their names etched in history, seems to me to have been equal motivating factors for the explorers.

Curtin suggests that the answer lies with “a combination of ignorance, coercion, and conditions of life in Europe that seemed intolerable.” He says that the Europeans knew that West Africa was unhealthy, but not how unhealthy it was. This is hard to believe given the 350 years of interaction with West Africa.

Curtin’s explanation does not tell us why the slave ship captains kept coming, or the persistent missionaries who died by the dozen, or most importantly, the explorers, who kept coming even as they knew their predecessors had been felled by “the African pestilential climate”. The visitors who survived wrote about their experiences for people in England and for other explorers who might consider visiting. The word of mouth stories of death on the coast of Africa was also spread by sailors who made it back, so the “disease climate” cannot have been unknown to the ordinary people of England.

The biggest killer of Europeans was not the river of course, or as the Europeans thought, the “miasma” from swamps.  There were three main killers of Europeans: malaria, yellow fever, and gastrointestinal diseases. Malaria was the biggest killer by far, particularly the strain caused by the various species of the parasite Plasmodium Falciparum the deadliest malaria parasite in the world, found primarily in West Africa.

Plasmodium falciparum parasite a macro and microgametocyte
Macro and micro gametocytes of the Plasmodium falciparum, the deadliest form of malaria

In the beginning, the Europeans did not distinguish between malarial and yellow fever—they were all described as “the fevers”. Chinchona bark from which quinine was made was initially found to be effective against malaria, but when it was used to treat a yellow fever outbreak in the Caribbean in the 1890s without any results, Europeans reverted to old treatments that were worse than the disease such as blood-letting. Blood-letting was a particularly stupid idea in treating malaria, a disease that causes anemia in victims, and depriving them of blood hastens death.

The earliest visitors to Africa believed that Africans had natural immunity to malaria, because from their observations, the Africans seemed very resistant to it. But later science challenged that view, suggesting that Africans acquired a partial immunity to malaria in infancy after suffering mild attacks. Up until the early 2000s that was the prevailing view. But more recently, science says there is evidence that sickle cell carriers, or partial sicklers (people with one sickle gene and one normal hemoglobin gene) are resistant to malaria. The acquired resistance view is not entirely thrown out, and it is believed that surviving successive attacks of malaria confers some immunity. Furthermore, it is believed that mothers transmit resistance to their offspring. Many Africans are partial sicklers, so the original view of African immunity was correct.

the river niger
The 2600 mile long River Niger, the main river of West Africa

The European explorers set the stage for the colonial takeover. They were the reconnaissance party that mapped the territory, and studied the natives. Some academics suggest reading the writings of the explorers with care; some educated Africans, on the other hand, reject their writings outright, claiming that it’s all biased. A comprehensive rejection of their writings is obviously unwise. While it is useful to read them with care, many of their writings can give an insight into the attitudes and behaviors of precolonial Africans.  In future posts, we will consider how African rulers and elites reacted to these explorers.

To be continued


Hearts of Darkness: the European exploration of Africa by Frank McLynn

Documents Illustrative of the Slave Trade to America, Vol I by Elizabeth Donnan

Journal of a Second Expedition into the Interior of Africa from the Bight of Benin to Soccatoo by Hugh Clapperton

Slave Ship Sailors and their Captive Cargoes, 1730-1807 by Emma Christopher

A History of Nigeria by Sir Alan Burns

Disease and Empire: The health of European troops in the conquest of Africa, by Philip D. Curtin

Narrative of an expedition into the Interior of Africa by the steam vessels Quorra and Alburkah in 1832, 1833 and 1834 by Macgregor Laird.

2 thoughts on “THE HUNGRY RIVER

Add yours

  1. I don’t think “rejecting” their writings means not reading it at all, but not accepting it as the truth of “attitudes and behaviors of precolonial Africans.” Hundreds of thousands of pages have been written on the biases inherent when cultures meet. These writings say as much about the authors and the societies they visited.

    Three questions that might contribute to this series:

    1. What do you make of K.O. Dike’s view that local resistance was the main barrier to European penetration, and not diseases? This was the dominant theme in “Trade and politics in the Niger Delta, 1830-1885,” and James S. Coleman repeats this in “Nigeria: Background to Nationalism.”

    2. Why are the number of Africans always “unknown?”

    3. Are we supposed to believe that Africans did not explore unknown/dangerous lands? More evidence is needed for that claim. We have to explain the population of many parts of Africa, how did this happen if people did not venture out? How about survivor bias (many who ventured out probably did not survive so you do not have them).


    1. Thank you Dozie for your thoughtful response and well thought out questions. Here are some answers to the questions.
      1) K.O. Dike’s view is a minority one. While indeed during the slave trade, the Africans discouraged European penetration, the astonishing numbers at which Europeans died while parked off the coast is more likely to have been a more serious discouragement to inland penetration. Furthermore, the inland Africans welcomed the explorers for the most part. Of course, some of the more remote tribes may have been hostile, and were–eg, the killers of Mungo Park and Richard Lander, and those who traded gunfire with Laird’s armed iron steamships. But the majority seemed happy that Europeans were visiting according to the reports of these explorers.

      2) The Europeans only kept accurate records of their dead. I wish the Africans kept such accurate records; if they exist, we have not seen them yet. Where Africans kept records of the dead, such as in the Tarikhs, the general belief is that they are estimates along the lines of “thousands died.”

      3) I cannot provide evidence for what cannot be found. If you can provide such evidence, I’d be happy to write about it. Most traditional people around the world tend to avoid dangerous territories where they believe their heads can be chopped off and kept as trophies. However, you are right that a sweeping statement that absolutely no Africans traveled to dangerous lands is not sustainable. For example, in Igboland, the Aros traveled freely around the region. It was safe for them to do so because of the general belief that anyone who harmed them would be destroyed by their god, a deity that eventually became the god of all the Igbos. In traditional situations, there are usually people like the Aros who are permitted to travel around under protected status. And yes, people do migrate for many reasons including drought, which often leads to conflict and ethnic cleansing.


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