OF REDLANDS, CALIFORNIA  - Founded 24 January 1895

MEETING # 1615

4:00 P.M.

March 4, 1999


mersh99.gif (89129 bytes)

by Richard N. Moersch M.D.

Assembly Room, A. K. Smiley Public Library


The decision of a men's discussion society meeting in London in 1788 to promote the investigation and exploration of West Africa was principally one of intellectual curiosity on the part of the members. over the next forty years however, it led to the opening of this enormous and hidden area of the world as well as setting the foundation for the commercial and military domination of this part of Africa by the British and French empires. This was accomplished at little cost to the involved governments but at a terrible price paid by the ill-equipped vainglorious young men sent out by these armchair dilettantes.


Richard N. Moersch was born in Rochester, Minnesota of parents: Herman and Charline Moersch

Education: Dartmouth College BA 1948 Harvard Medical School MD 1952 Stanford University Hospital Internship 1952-1953 Mayo Foundation Fellowship 1953-1954, 1956-1960 University of Minnesota MS (Surgery) 1960 Military Service: United States Navy. Medical Officer USS Windham Bay CVE-92 1954-1956

Professional:     Cardiothoracic Surgeon, Inland Heart Center, St. Bernardine Medical Center, 1961-1988
                            Medical Director and Assistant Administrator, St. Bernardine Medical Center, 19X7-1993.
                            Assistant Professor, Loma Linda Medical School

Interests: History, Mountain Climbing, White-water Rafting, Scuba Diving, Opera, Sky Diving, Primitive Art.

Membership:         American College of Surgeons
                                American College of Chest Physicians
                                American College of Cardiology American Heart Association
                                Society of Thoracic Surgeons
                                Western Thoracic Surgical Association
                                Tri-County Surgical Society Explorer's Club (New York)

On August 15, 1953 he was married to May Lou Reid. His children are Margaret Culver and Peter Moersch, and he has five grandchildren.

Slightly over two hundred years ago a forerunner of The Fortnightly Club met regularly on Saturday evenings at St. Albans Tavern in the Pall Mall district of London. At the meeting of June 9th, 1788 the following resolution was passed:"That as no species of information is more ardently desired, or more generally useful, than that which improves the science of Geography, and as the vast continent of Africa, notwithstanding the efforts of the Ancients, and the wishes of the Moderns, is still in a great measure unexplored, the Members of this Club do form themselves into an Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Inland Parts of that Quarter of the World.".
Each member agreed to subscribe five guineas a year for three years, and a committee of five was elected to choose explorers to be sent into the interior of Africa. It was also decided that "Such intelligence as they shall, from time to time, receive from the persons who shall be sent out on the business of discovery" would not be disclosed except to members of the newly-named "Africa Association".To increase the available money supply the Association was increased in number and three years later, in 1791, there were 95 members, representing the upper class of British society. They included three dukes, twelve earls, seven other lords, two generals and two titled ladies. During the forty-three years of its existence - until it was incorporated into the Royal Geographic Society - there were a total of 212 members. Nearly half of the original "Saturday's Club" members were Scots, including three large landowners, the richest commoner in Britain, a lawyer and a doctor. The prime movers of the group at the outset were Sir Joseph Banks and Henry Beaufoy. The former, heir to a large Lincolnshire estate, was fascinated by botany and had been a participant in Captain Cook's first expedition, gathering plants throughout the tropics. Upon returning home he had been elected president of the Royal Society, a post he was to hold as successor to Christopher Wren and Isaac Newton for 42 years. The latter approached the subject of Africa from a different prospect. Beaufoy was a Quaker and an active member of the Society for the Abolition of Slavery - as was another African Association founder, the Bishop of Llandaff. Most of the group had no specific agenda but were possessed of an intense curiosity about the world, its history and its creatures - again quite like the Fortnightly Club. This spirit of investigative discovery led these armchair explorers to launch explorations that the British government, under the thrifty Mr. Pitt, was unwilling to undertake. Thus these wealthy dilettantes laid the groundwork for the expansion of the British Empire into Africa.

It may seem strange that so little was known about the great westward bulge of Africa, relatively close to Europe, at a time when the Western Hemisphere was mapped and colonized - and the United States had just realized its independence . English soldiers and traders were active in India and the Far East, and yet the source and even the direction of flow of the Niger, one of the great rivers of the world was unknown. No European of recent memory had stepped foot in fabled and wealthy Timbuktu. There was no sense of West Africa as a historical entity, although it was one of two major centers of population on the continent. The two paramount reasons for this were its geographic isolation and the penetration of Islam into Africa. The enormity of the Saharan Desert to the north and east and the pestilent and deadly jungle to the south and east effectively barred penetration from the outside. The Niger basin was basically a Moslem world with pockets of Animism, and the rulers were determined to keep outsiders away.

There had been great kingdoms in the area, the three most important being that of Ghana in the eighth through the tenth centuries, the Mali Empire in the twelfth and thirteenth and that of the Songhai for the next two hundred years. All three were wealthy, powerful and sophisticated. An Arab merchant, visiting Ghana described its sovereign as the richest ruler in the world, while another, two hundred years later was astounded by the prevalent peace, order and racial tolerance. Learning also accompanied the Islamic penetration and important universities existed in Timbuktu and Gao well before the founding of Oxford and Cambridge. A combination of circumstances led to the deterioration of these stable empires: southward expansion of the Sahara, military encroachment from Morocco and the Portuguese coastal explorations, giving them access to the gold fields south of the Niger. By the time of the founding of the Africa Association little was known of this large blank area on European maps. Two incredible Arab scholar-travelers of the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, Ibn Batuta and Leo Africanus provided most of what was known and even they could not agree on whether the Niger flowed toward the east or westward. If more was to be learned, to satisfy the curiosity of that inquisitive age, someone was going to have to overcome considerable obstacles to reach these regions.

As for the Niger itself, it was a most unusual river, a joining of two distinct rivers which had originally flowed in opposite directions. The western or upper Niger, called the Joliba, arose near the Atlantic and went northeasterly 500 miles beyond Timbuktu, draining into the salt lake of Juf. The Quorra originated in the mid Sahara and ran south to empty into the Gulf of Guinea. The gradual drying of the Sahara over centuries produced a shifting of the rivers and the capture of the Joliba by the Quorra. The great bend of the Niger marks the site of the capture. As can be imagined, this served to contribute to the confusion regarding the river and its lands..

The renamed Saturday Club did not dawdle; within a month the first young explorer was on his way. The early explorers were sent out unprepared and ill-equipped, with vague instructions regarding their goal. The principal end was to establish the course and lands of the Niger, with attainment to Timbuktu in the background. The initial volunteer was John Ledyard, a 37 year old American adventurer. Born in Connecticut, he attended Dartmouth College to be groomed as a missionary to the Indians, by Eleazor Wheelock, founder of the college. He grew restless however, and after a few months chopped down one of the local pines , carved it into a rude dugout and paddled away to live with other Indian tribes in the Northwest, adopting their customs. The boathouse for the Dartmouth rowing crew bears his name. Four years later he showed up in England and talked himself into joining the last expedition of Captain Cook. On this voyage he saw Africa, India, the Antarctic and sailed through the Bering Strait; he was with Cook when the great navigator was killed on the island of Hawaii. Five years later he appeared in Paris where he was befriended by Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson and with their support headed across Russia and Siberia by horse-drawn sledge, investigating similarities between tribes there and the Indians of North America. A victim of changing political winds, he was arrested as a French spy, 100 miles from the Pacific coast, dragged back to the Polish border and banished from the country. He made his way back to London, visited Sir Joseph Banks and became the first volunteer. Six weeks after returning from Siberia he was on his way to Egypt, from where he proposed to strike thousands of miles west across the Sahara, searching for the Niger and its origins.The tragic anticlimax to this heroic beginning is that he contracted intestinal disease while on the Nile, and after taking a purgative died, vomiting blood.

While Ledyard was Alexandria-bound, a second recruit was found. Simon Lucas was the son of a wine merchant and an acquaintance of Beaufoy. As a youth, while traveling to Cadiz to learn the wine trade, he had been captured by Barbary pirates and sold as a slave in Morocco. While a royal slave he had learned much of the court and the language, and sixteen years later returned to London as "Oriental Interpreter" to the Court of St. James. As an alternative to the east-west approach of Ledyard, a north-south investigation was proposed and he sailed for Tripoli., arriving in mid-October, 1788.He met the Bashaw of Tripoli to seek his help and was told that the time was impropitious because of tribal warfare in the Fezzan. Turning elsewhere, he enlisted the aid of two sheriffs of Fezzan, who offered to guide him there. He set out in Arabic disguise, but when the first governor he met again warned him of danger ahead he stopped. His two guides finally became impatient and left without him. While Ledyard was precipitous, Lucas was overly cautious; he left Africa and next was heard from in Marseilles in June 1789, penniless and apologetic. He did tell the Association that he was bringing back much information and packets of seeds, but did not feel himself cut out for exploration. Civil service was more to his liking and two years later he was named to the post of consul in Tripoli.

The failure of the attempts to reach the Niger from the east and from the north did not deter the Association, and in July 1790 a third candidate was interviewed. Daniel Houghton was a sturdy and cheerful Irishman, a retired army major. During his career he had been posted on Goree Island, just off the coast of Senegal, where he had learned the native Mandingo language and had become friends with native princes. Bankrupt and desperate for employment, he asked only for 800 pounds for expenses. When he sailed he left behind his wife and three children; the Association sent her the sum of 10 pounds. Banks explained that "As an Association, they were not justified in appropriating money subscribed for the purposes of discovery to the maintenance of individuals, who happened to be connected to those whom they employ".

Houghton was to move up the Gambia River, approaching the Nile from the west. Almost immediately he ran into trouble, having to swim across the river to escape traders who were trying to kill him. Many of his supplies were burned in a mysterious fire and much of what was left was stolen as he moved inland. His only communication - a letter to Beaufoy that slowly made its way back to London - suggested that he remained in good spirits and added that he had met a merchant who would guide him to Timbuktu. Beaufoy thought that he had good chances of success, adding that "such is the darkness of his complexion that he scarcely differs in appearance from the Moors, whose dress in traveling he intended to assume". A scribbled note to a local trader some months later was the last word from him, but it did say he had reached the village of Simbing, halfway to his goal. Nothing further was known until five years later when another British explorer was shown the site of his robbery and murder at that village. Houghton did report that the flow of the Niger was to the east, his principal achievement. His wife wound up in debtor's prison.

mungpark.gif (11175 bytes)The next candidate - and the one who would achieve the most renown - was again a protégé of Sir Joseph Banks. A nurseryman of London, James Dickson, had written several botanical monographs and was a friend of Banks. Dickson's Scottish wife had a younger brother who had just graduated from medical school in Edinburgh and was casting about for a position. Dickson introduced him to Banks, who arranged a position for him as ship's surgeon on an East India Company ship bound for Sumatra. The young Munro Park would return a year later with information on eight new species of fish and a great thirst for travel. In addition, young Munro was consumed with ambition. While on the way to Sumatra he wrote to Dr. Thomas Anderson, the Selkirk surgeon who had helped him get into medical school: "I have now got upon the first step of the stair of ambition....Macbeth's start when he beheld the dagger was a mere jest compared to mine".

A year after his return from the East Indies, Park offered his services to the African Association. The interviewing committee found him to be " a young man of no mean talents who has been regularly educated in the medical line.... and sufficiently instructed in the use of Hadley's quadrant to make the necessary observations; geographer enough to trace his path through the wilderness, and not unacquainted with natural history". His offer was accepted and it was decided to recruit 50 more men to act as his escort.

Impatient to depart however, Park sailed alone, telling his brother that there was no doubt that he would "acquire a greater name than any ever did". He bore a letter of credit for two hundred pounds and an introduction to a fellow Scot, Dr. John Laidley, who ran a slave trading post on the Gambia River and had seen Houghton off on his fatal journey. As did most Europeans arriving in West Africa , he contracted a febrile illness - grudgingly called "the seasoning" and remained four months at Dr. Laidley's entrepot recovering from this. He then set out with an English-speaking Mandingo guide, a slave called Demba, a horse and two asses, food, an umbrella, a sextant, a compass, a thermometer, two fowling pieces and two pistols.
Within a short time he was accosted by a native who told him that he was now in the Kingdom of Walli and would have to pay duty. This scenario was replayed many times as he moved inland, every petty monarch demanding some sort of bribe. One was pleased with the gift of the umbrella, repeatedly furling and unfurling it before his court, while another demanded his prized blue coat, dazzled by its silver buttons. That might call into question not only the tyrant's greed but also Park's judgment in choosing apparel for rainforest exploration. In the Kingdom of Bondou he was seized by horsemen and threatened with death or dismemberment. The king's concubines were fascinated by the color of his skin and the sharpness of his nose. When he responded in kind by praising the glossiness of their skin, the ladies replied that "honey-mouth" was not highly regarded. He was released however, thanks to their entreaties and trekked onward, but was seized once more at Ludamar, a squalid little village near the desert. Here he was held for two months and suffered the desertion of his interpreter. He was made to repeatedly dress and undress, as the villagers had never seen buttons in use. The ladies came to his rescue again, and after escaping involvement in a tribal war, he pushed on alone - only to be robbed again within a few days and left to die of thirst. A freak rainstorm saved him and on July 26, 1796 finally reached the banks if the Niger, in the company of some wandering nomads who had taken him in. . He described his feelings on reaching "the long-sought-for majestic Niger, glittering in the morning sun, as broad as the Thames at Westminster, and flowing slowly to the eastward. I hastened to the brink, and having drunk of the water, I lifted up my fervent thanks in prayer to the Great Ruler of all things, for having thus far crowned my endeavours with success".

The King of Segou, however was anxious to get rid of him and gave him 5000 cowrie shells and a guide as an inducement. The latter, hearing of his struggles to reach the river, asked him "are there no rivers in your own country, and is not one river much like another?". They left Segou, heading north toward Timbuktu. He had no money to hire a canoe and struggled by foot into the marshy and trackless area of the internal delta of the Niger. On August 25 he was robbed again, stripped of everything but a shirt and some ragged trousers. He straggled on another three weeks, depending upon the kindness of strangers for sustenance. At this point he surrendered and joined a passing slave train heading west for the coast, promising the trader a reward if he arrived. Eighteen months after leaving he returned to Dr. Laidley's post, having been long given up for dead. Here he signed on as ship's surgeon on an American slave ship; the ship was bound for Carolina with 130 slaves, but was diverted to Antigua by bad weather - eleven slaves died on the crossing. From there he caught a Chesterfield packet and arrived in Falmouth on December 22, 1797. Lionized by the English, he wrote his account of his travels - an instant best-seller. He was not well however, and returned to Scotland where he married the daughter of his original sponsor and settled down to the life of a country doctor

While Park was still missing and unheard of, the Africa Association had been busy, recruiting yet another young explorer. Frederick Hornemann was a German and the son of a Lutheran pastor. He was a student at the University of Gottingen, where one of his professors was J.F. Blumenbach, an ethnologist who was working on a classification of races based upon the shape of the human skull. Blumenbach was a friend of Banks (a large and eclectic group it seems) and referred his student to London, citing his good mind and robust constitution. Hornemann was offered 200 pounds a year and, in addition, his mother was promised an annuity in the event of the young man's death - a first for the armchair explorers.

Hornemann's route was to be the previously unsuccessful one from Cairo across the Sahara, and he left London for the Mediterranean and Alexandria just as Napoleon was moving the Grand Armée on Egypt, in the Summer of 1797. Arriving ahead of the French, he met a fellow German, Joseph Frendenburgh, who was living life as a converted Moslem. Hornemann hired him as an assistant and began learning Arabic in preparation for his trip. Delayed by an outbreak of the plague, his source of funds was cut off when the French defeated the Mamelukes at the Battle of the Pyramids. Determined and resourceful however, he made friends with some of the many scientists Napoleon had brought to Egypt with his army, and , through them, made the acquaintance of Bonaparte himself. The little general was taken with the young man and provided him with visa and moneys to start his trek; he even offered to forward any communications to the Africa Association in London, despite the state of war existing.

In September, 1798, Hornemann and Frendenburgh headed west in a caravan heading for the Fezzan. For all his preparation the young explorer was a poor mock-Moslem and was soon discovered when he was seen making sketches of some ancient ruins they passed. When finally confronted they pled on the basis of Moslem laws of hospitality and read from the Koran so convincingly that they were accepted as infidels striving to learn. The caravan reached Murzuk - in the Fezzan - and Hornemann remained there seven months. Frendenburgh died there and with no caravans heading south, Hornemann turned north to Tripoli, where he was taken in by Simon Lucas, who we met earlier in our story. From there he wrote to Banks, telling him " pray sir, do not look upon me as a European but as a real African and a Moslem."

He was back in Murzuk in the spring of 1800 and from there joined a caravan heading south, hopefully to the Niger and Timbuktu. He was never heard from again. The African Association published his journals, as relayed from Tripoli, and presented a copy to Napoleon - while still at war. Almost twenty years later, other explorers tracking the area spoke with people who had accompanied him. He did reach the Niger and died there of dysentery. He had fully transformed himself into a Moslem and shown such compassion and caring for others that he was regarded as a Marabout - a holy man. There is a real nobility to this young man's life, cut off before the age of thirty. a beloved stranger.

About the time that Hornemann was dying, Munro Park was suffering from severe restlessness and wanderlust in Peebles. He wrote to Banks of his lack of satisfaction in the life of a country doctor and a wish for a more adventurous career. Banks replied that he would certainly recommend him, but that the British government was now taking an interest in such explorations, slowing down the process. Quite typically for governmental initiative, administrative wranglings led to a four year delay as parties rose and fell and the war with France proceeded apace. In the autumn of 1802, Park was summoned to London and offered command of a military party, to explore that part of the Niger beyond where he had gone before and determine where it finally emptied - whether into Saharan sand or the ocean. Ambition was a stronger pull than a growing practice, a wife and three children. He told his friend , Sir Walter Scott, that "he would rather brave Africa and all its horrors than wear out his life in long and toilsome rides over the hills of Scotland".

More delays ensued and he finally left England in January 1803, sailing from Portsmouth to Goree, the slave-trading island just off-shore from present-day Dakar. The small British post there was staffed in large part with condemned criminals living under appalling conditions: of a garrison of 332 men, 78 had died in the year preceding Park's arrival. It is no small wonder then that Park had little difficulty recruiting the authorized 33 men to accompany him inland from the coast. Ragtag they were as they headed into the rainforest just as the rainy season was about to start. Struggling through the endless swamps, the woebegone little party did not reach the Niger until late August, two months behind schedule, by which time three-quarters of the party were dead and all the pack animals either dead or stolen.

He purchased canoes for the ten remaining men and headed downriver, heroic and foolishly optimistic. A month later he was in Segue with King Mansong, who had bribed him with cowrie shells to turn back to the west nine years before. He announced that he was now going down the river till it met salt water, so that the English traders might, in time to come, trade directly with the people of the Niger, cutting out the Moorish middlemen and their caravans across the Sahara through Timbuktu. The chief effect of this was to alert the Moors, who would understandably do all they could to block him. The king, anxious as ever to be rid of him, let him pass and even traded him two half-rotten canoes for some English muskets. Further trading down-river , infuriated the Arabs, and Park, now aware of the danger, consolidated his shrinking force into one boat, lining its sides with bullock hides for protection. His pathetic force was now down to four soldiers and three natives to paddle the boat., itself a makeshift craft assembled from parts of the two leaky canoes.A local guide, Ahmadi Fatouma, claimed to know the river and was hired to lead the way. On November 20, 1805 the remnant party took off down the river; like Hornemann from Murzuk, they were never heard from again.

A year later, reports reached the British consul in Morocco that Park had been seen in Timbuktu, and four years after that a Bombay newspaper stated that he had perished, this based upon gossip heard by a pilgrim to Mecca. The outcry at home lead to the hiring of the Mandingo guide Isaaco, who had been with the party between Goree and the Niger, and who had forwarded all of Park's journals back to London . Isaaco headed out in 1810 and on arriving at the Niger two months later found the one man who could answer the questions; Ahmadi Fatouma. The latter said that Park had realized that he was in unfriendly and potentially hostile territory and had elected to make a run for it, staying in the middle of the river on the armed boat for however long it might take them. This, of course, flaunted the custom of the river calling for repeated stops asking permission to go on and paying tolls at every juncture. By ignoring tradition and by firing at anyone trying to stop him he ensured the enmity of all who lived by the river. Despite the tenuous situation they found themselves in, Park remained confident and in his last letter to his wife, carried out by the Mandingo guide Isaaco, he wrote: "You may be led to consider my situation as a great deal worse than it really is ..... the healthy season has commenced, so there is no danger of sickness .... I think it is not unlikely but I shall be in England before you receive this .... the sails are now hoisting for our departure to the coast".

parkrout.gif (6578 bytes)Muno Park's route

The pathetic little boat, dubbed the "Schooner Joliba" came under almost constant attack. Park and his party responded in kind and gained a reputation as "Tanakast" or wild beasts, a tale retold for decades by the natives of the area. They did break free of the Moorish-controlled region - the great bend of the Niger as it reverses its direction - and headed south into what is present-day northern Nigeria. Successfully negotiating the high rapids and avoiding the aggressive massed hippos, they reached the Kingdom of the Yauris, just six hundred miles from the sea. Here he believed himself to be in friendly country and went ashore, presenting gifts to the king. This worthy was displeased with the quality of the presents as well as the word that Park and the English would be returning, placed Fatouma in irons and ordered his troops to attack the little boat at Bussa Rapids, where the river narrowed markedly. The following day the Yauri struck at the Joliba as she attempted the rapids, hurling spears, pikes, arrows and stones. The paddlers were soon killed, while Park and the soldiers attempted to escape by jumping into the roiling water, where they soon drowned.

In death, Park was celebrated as one of England's great heroes and compared to such luminaries as Captain Cook and Sir Walter Raleigh. Tennyson's words about Ulysses could apply to him:

Yet all experience is an arch where thro'
Gleams that untravel'd world, whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.

For all that, however, Park added very little to the knowledge of the geography of West Africa, nor did he discover any new trade routes, so desired by the British. All of his journals and belongings disappeared and were never recovered.

The still energetic African Association took a deep breath, sending out yet another explorer, Henry Nicholls. Having failed in attempts from the north (Libya), the east (Cairo) and the west (Gambia), it was proposed that a try should be made from the south. The site chosen from which to strike inland was from British trading posts on the Gulf of Guinea. It was not known at this time that the Niger River actually emptied into the Gulf of Guinea, and as a consequence the starting point was in truth the destination. In the event, Nicholls sailed from Liverpool on November 1, 1804, bound for Calabar - Park was still alive and planning his final, fatal descent of the Niger. By February he had sent a message to the Africa Association describing his health and spirits as both good and no obstacles apparent. Two months later he was dead of "the African Fever".

By this time, there was a gradual transition in the direction provided to West African exploration. The driving force of the Africa Association, Sir Joseph Banks was seriously ill and confined to a wheelchair, although still involved with many governmental and private committees. At the same time the British Foreign Office and Admiralty chose to take an increasingly active role. The torch was being passed although the Africa Association continued to play a role until it was absorbed into the Royal Geographic Society in 1831. The planning, direction and results of the ongoing exploration remained largely unchanged.

In 1815, the Colonial Office sent off Major John Peddie of the 12th Foot to further map the course of the Niger, recruiting volunteers from the Royal Africa Corps. He arrived in Senegal in November and promptly died of "fever". He was replaced by Captain Thomas Campbell but the attempt to move inland was hampered by bee attacks and they made little progress before turning back. Then Campbell died and in turn was replaced by William Gray and John Dochard, the military surgeon with the group. With a hundred men and two hundred pack animals they headed inland again. The journey was the usual awful experience, most of the men dying, Gray captured (and later released) and Dochard and seven men barely reaching the Niger before being turned back.

The following year Captain James Kingston Tuckey was sent up the Congo to learn whether the Congo and the Niger entered the ocean together - the later-discovered truth was that their mouths were nearly nine hundred miles apart. His selection was rather interesting in that his prior experience consisted of having written four books on Maritime geography and having surveyed Sidney harbor. His team of fifty-four included a Norwegian botanist and a gardener from Kew. Their two boats could not enter the mouth of the Congo because of the currents; changing to small boats, they made it to Yallala Falls and then overland for two hundred miles until the weakened carriers refused to go further, at which point they turned back. When they reached the coast and their boats, thirty-five of the men, including Tuckey, were dead. Little of significance was learned.

The year after that a letter from a young naval officer, W.H. Smyth, to Admiral Penrose was passed on to John Barrow, Second Secretary of the Admiralty. Barrow, who served in that post for forty years is best remembered as the man responsible for sending many naval ships to the high Arctic in search of the Northwest Passage. The letter suggested that the northern route across the Sahara was still a better approach to the heart of West Africa than the recent fetid and pestilent ones of recent years. Barrow agreed and was seconded in this by Hanmer Warrington, a Falstaffian character who was British consul in Tripoli for thirty-two years. Once again, an unusual team was chosen for the endeavour; The leader was an introverted and careless young surgeon by the name of Joseph Ritchie. He was accompanied by a twenty-three year old naval officer, George Lyon and John Belford, a shipwright who was to build a boat if they ever reached the Niger. The Colonial Office gave them two thousand pounds for supplies and most of this went for such articles as a load of corks to preserve insects on, two chests of arsenic and six hundred pounds of lead.

On March 18, 1818, they were received by the Bashaw of Tripoli and told they could head south with the Bey of Fezzan as part of a slave-raiding caravan. Ritchie's instructions from Lord Bathhurst were to "proceed under proper protection to Timbuktoo .... and collect all possible information as to the further course of the Niger ....". Already there was a subtle shift from the river itself to the important trading post at its northern bend. Increasingly, the raison d'etre for sending young men to an inhospitable and dangerous locale was the possibility of commercial exploitation rather than the accumulation of knowledge, as originally proposed by the prototype "Fortnightly Club". Interestingly, Ritchie, who was a good friend of John Keats, did take a copy of the poet's Endymion with him to cast into the middle of the Sahara as a romantic gesture.

Their first destination was the Fezzan capital of Murzuk, which Hornemann had visited twenty years before. It was reputed for its unhealthy climate and soon after arriving there Lyon had dysentery, Bedford was stone-deaf and Ritchie had a biliary fever with delirium. Without funds, they were reduced to beggary and discovered that the local inhabitants were forbidden to trade with them. Within six months Ritchie was dead, Bedford was able to utilize his carpentry skills in making a coffin for his leader, and the two survivors beat a retreat back to Tripoli. The only information brought back by Lyons in return for their suffering was wrong; he reported that the Niger flowed into Lake Chad and from there on to the Nile.

Acting on this misinformation, Barrow recruited an even more dysfunctional team in 1820 and sent them southward with the government's blessing. Walter Oudney was yet another Scottish surgeon, small, self-effacing and already tubercular. He, in turn, recruited his neighbor, Lieutenant Hugh Clapperton, a naval hero and a fine figure of a man. The third member of the team was Lieutenant Dixon Denham, an army hero and instructor at Sandhurst. He was also priggish and small-minded while Clapperton was over-proud and stubborn and Oudney overmatched by both. Ill will was apparent before they were well into the desert, with the English Denham in constant conflict with the two Scots. Soon Denham and Clapperton were not speaking and both were sending long and scurrilous messages back to London regarding the other. These reports were carried slowly back across the Sahara by messengers always sent in pairs as it was assumed one would perish on the way. The most damaging of these was the report by Denham that he suspected Clapperton of homosexuality, a career-ending innuendo in those days.

Despite this virulent enmity, they remained in the interior for nearly four years during which time they did reach Lake Chad - the first Europeans to do so. For over two years they ranged widely around the great inland lake and to the south and west of there in an attempt to define the course of the Niger and where it emptied, an ultimately futile quest. During the course of these peregrinations Oudney died, Clapperton was rebuffed by the Sultan of Sokoto and Denham captured by Hausa warriors, escaping only after being stripped naked and losing all his equipment and notes. The two antagonistic, surviving explorers continued to live apart, communicating only by letter. They did agree, however, that it was time to return across the Sahara to Tripoli, and in September, 1824 they headed north. After an agonizing five month trek they reached Tripoli, where both presented their version of the facts of the expedition. Denham was a public idol for a short time after which he was honored with the post of governor of Sierra Leone, where he died of "fever" at the age of forty-three. Clapperton recovered from his malaria and was anxious to resume the search for the course of the Niger, but in the meantime another rival for African glory appeared on the scene.

Yet another Scotsman, Major Alexander Gordon Laing, presented himself as a candidate for Nigerian heroism. Precocious and clever, he was aide-de-camp to General Charles Macarthy in West Africa. Consumed with ambition, he pulled strings and was given permission to attempt to reach the Niger from Sierra Leone. In 1822, while Denham and Clapperton were fulminating against each other by the shores of Lake Chad, he made his attempt. This try was unsuccessful, but he was so caught up in the excitement of the chase that he overleaped his senior commander to seek permission for another exploration. The bypassed General Turner fired off a spiteful letter to Lord Bathhurst in response: "I would not fulfill my duty either to your Lordship or to the Service, were I not to characterize as unwise, unofficerlike and unmanly, the conduct of Captain Gordon Laing in this country ...... I humbly beg yor Lordship, in the name of the Regiment, that he may be removed from it - and that we may not be subject to the mortification of his calling us Brother Officers."

Despite this, Laing's persistence was rewarded, he was given leave-of-absence and directed to head for Tripoli with the goal of reaching Timbuktu and discovering the drainage of the Niger. When he arrived, the comic-opera consul Warrington was engaged in a diplomatic war with the newly appointed French consul Joseph-Louis Rousseau, made worse by the fact that Rousseau's son was courting Warrington's daughter, a Libyan Romeo and Juliet. Laing's appearance was a godsend, Warrington pushed his compliant daughter in the Scot's direction and two months later they were married. The day after the unconsummated marriage, Laing left for his trans-Saharan trip to immortality.

Rather than the route used by Clapperton and Denham, his, in the company of Sheikh Babani, headed more westerly, two thousand miles across the heart of the great desert occupied chiefly by lawless Tuaregs living off plundered caravans. It took Laing more than a year to reach Timbuktu and a more difficult land voyage would be hard to imagine. His spirits were high though and he hoped to reach the fabled city before Clapperton could "snatch the cup from my lips".He later said that " if the termination of the Niger is Clapperton's object, "he might as well have stayed home, for it is destined for me". Six months after leaving his virgin bride, he reached In Salah, in present-day Algeria, and there found merchants who had been waiting as long as ten months to go south, for fear of the marauding Tuaregs. For Laing, racing against Clapperton in his mind, this delay was intolerable, and he announced that he would proceed across the rocky Tanezrouft alone. The merchants were shamed by the driven young man, agreed to go and on January 9, 1826 the caravan left, with three hundred camels and one hundred fifty armed men. In addition to the fame he so desperately coveted, a 10,000 franc prize was announced , earlier in the year, by the Geographical Society of Paris for the first person to reach Timbuktu and return to Europe alive. Laing knew of this and was also aware that Clapperton was on the march again, attempting to reach Timbuktu from the south. The race was on!

The Tripoli Route  

On January 26 Laing sent an optimistic letter to London, saying that the caravan had met with friendly Tuaregs and that "... my prospects are bright and expectations sanguine." Unfortunately, at just this time they were joined by twenty heavily-armed Ahaggar Tuaregs, who were accepted into the caravan. Three days later, at Wadi Ahnet where they had stopped overnight, the new arrivals attacked Laing and his party in their tents at night. Two were killed and Laing was dragged from his tent and hacked at with swords, being left for dead. Amazingly, he survived and joined by three companions who had escaped into the desert in the confusion, continued on another four hundred miles across the desert till reaching the camp of a friendly Arab chieftain. He remained here for three months, while recuperating. During this time he sent a report to Warrington which did not reach Tripoli for two years; in it he detailed his wounds. There were twenty-four in all including a musket ball wound that had fractured his hip and grazed his spine, a broken jaw and partial amputation of his left ear, five cuts on his right hand to the level of the bone, broken forearm bones, long lacerations of both legs and his left arm and a broken wrist. In addition, he began to act in a somewhat irrational manner, adding in a note that " I shall do more than has ever been done before and shall show myself to be what I have ever considered myself, a man of enterprise and genius ".

While recovering a mysterious epidemic swept through the camp, killing all his remaining companions and the friendly chief with half of his village. Despite this, Laing was more determined than ever to push on and with a party of the disease survivors headed south in July and finally reached Timbuktu on August thirteenth, a little over a year after leaving his virgin bride. The timing was poor, as a Fulani zealot Seku Hamadu was in the process of wresting control of the city from the Tuaregs in a holy war. The remaining merchants however greeted him warmly and he remained for five weeks, talking with scholars and examining records. The two story mud house where he lived is still standing to this day. More bad news arose however, as Hamadu's overlord, Sultan Bello of Sokoto sent word that Europeans were not to be allowed in the Sudan.

Laing was told that he must leave at once and he sent one final message to Warrington on September 26, stating that he was heading southwest toward Segou but saying almost nothing about Timbuktu, preferring to bring his observations with him in his journal. No word was heard from him again. His small party made it no further than Sahab, thirty miles to the north where Sheikh Labeida, his guide, turned on him and killed him. Nothing was known of his death or the manner of it, beyond rumor, for eighty-five years. In 1910 a French team headed by Bonnel de Meziere was sent to the area acting on information provided by an elderly nephew of the Sheikh; skeletal remains were dug up and reported by examining doctors as consistent with those of a European adult.

There was one final surpassing consequence of Laing's epic trip. His journal was never recovered but in 1828 the Paris newspaper l'Etoile reported that Laing was dead, based upon a letter unsigned but sent from Sukhara, Tripoli, the name of the country home of Consul Rousseau, Warrington's foe and the father of the young man who had courted Emma before Laing's arrival. The source of his information was never disclosed but Warrington was convinced that Rousseau had obtained the journal and that furthermore the French had connived in the assassination. Warrington blamed the Bashaw as well, along with his French-educated minister, Hassan D'Ghies, and lowered the British flag and boycotted the Bashaw. The Royal Navy's Major James Frazer was sent to investigate and was confronted by the news that D'Ghies had confessed and then fled Tripoli with the help of the American consulate. The Bashaw read the so-called confession to the assembled diplomatic corps, Warrington re-hoisted the flag and Rousseau escaped to France. In Paris it became a matter of national honor and a French naval squadron was dispatched in 1830, under the command of Admiral Rosamel, to force a retraction of the charges. This he accomplished , following which the English formally withdrew their support of the Bashaw. Without the support of the competing powers and their navies, the Bashaw was fatally weakened and overthrown in 1835, Tripoli returning to Turkish rule. One final consequence was that the suspicious Turks would permit no further exploration of Africa from this area.

As Laing was struggling south across the Sahara to Timbuktu and his death, Clapperton and his assistant and manservant John Lander were ascending the Niger north from the Gulf of Guinea. Many of the party were already dying of malaria but like all the intrepid and doomed explorers before him, Clapperton pushed on, finally reaching Bussa, where Park was ambushed. Their course beyond was slowed by the constant demands of petty village chieftains and occasional romantic dalliances. In Wawa Clapperton was pursued by a rich widow who he described in his journal as a "walking water-butt". Lander was even more explicit, calling her a "moving world of flesh, puffing and blowing like a blacksmith's bellows".

By mid-August, as Laing was entering Timbuktu, Clapperton was in Kano but by now sick again and unable to travel. After five weeks of recovery, it was decided that he would push on alone, leaving Lander to guard their by-now meager possessions. The trek was the usual nightmare of misdirection, fatigue and illness culminating in the hostile reception he received from Sultan Bello, the same despot who had ordered Laing out of Timbuktu a month earlier. He was not permitted to go further, although for a while the situation seemed better: his health improved, the Sultan seemed friendlier and Lander rejoined him. Warfare intervened however, and as the Sultan fled Kano he took the two Englishmen with him. Clapperton once again sickened, deteriorated and weakened and finally died in Lander's arms on April 13, 1827.

Lander, the erstwhile servant and now quite alone, managed to make his way back to their starting point in six months of illness, delay and trickery, reaching the gulf in November, 1827 and London three months later. A modest hero, he retired to Cornwall and quiet, but as so many before him, was lured back to Africa three years later and with his brother finally made the ascent of the Niger from its mouth, completing the mapping of its course, started nearly forty years earlier.

Timbuktu remained a mystery to Europe however, but the man who would achieve success was already preparing himself. Rene Caillie was the orphaned son of a baker apprenticed to the local cobbler. At the age of sixteen however, impassioned by his reading of Robinson Crusoe, he walked away with fifty francs in his pocket and a new pair of shoes. His wanderings took him to West Africa and then the West Indies, where he read Mungo Park's Travels and realized what he would do with his life. He returned to France, learned Arabic and then pestered the directors of a French team that was sent in relief of a British group missing east of Dakar. He was allowed to join them and returned two years later, with malaria but alive and with renewed determination. He next spent a year living as a Muslim ascetic in the Sahara, returning to France to earn a little more money and then heading back to Africa. For another year he hardened himself, learned native languages, accumulated a small nest-egg and then believed himself ready. He would travel alone and inconspicuously, unknown to the world. He became Abd Allahi and joined a caravan heading east from Sierra Leone. It was March, 1827; Laing had been beheaded six months before and Clapperton would die in a month.

Three months later he had reached the Niger, by this time barefoot and devastated by malaria and dysentery. Scurvy was to follow, but he was fortunately nursed back to health by an old crone who befriended him. After six weeks of a red-wood extract he improved and slowly made his way to Djenne, a picturesque trading city south of Timbuktu, where he first heard rumors of Laing's death. At Djenne he sold what he had left and boarded a boat heading five hundred miles down river to Timbuktu's port of Kabara. Twice stopped by river pirates, the boatmen hid Caillie beneath mats, paid tribute and sailed on. On April 25, 1828, they reached Kabara and Caillee walked the few remaining miles to Timbuktu.; he had been traveling, alone and light, for exactly one year.

What he found did not meet his expectations; he described it as a "mass of ill-looking houses built of mud". Nonetheless, he did remain there ten days, taking notes and being shown the site where Laing was executed. His dwelling place, like Laing's is still present today, marked by a small plaque. He seized the first opportunity to leave though and headed north with a slave and gold caravan into the Sahara. It was the hottest time of the year and two thousand miles with little water and fewer friends, but three months later arrived in Tangier where the French consul slipped him on a boat bound for Toulon.

His return lead to little interest, and it was only when the British questioned the truth of his reports that national pride led the French to award him a gold medal and a pension of three thousand francs a year. This pension was discontinued in 1833, amid continuing doubts and he died in 1838 at the age of thirty-nine, penniless and depressed. Years later, other explorers were shown the house where he had lived in Timbuktu and the unmourned hero was vindicated.

The succeeding years of the nineteenth century saw much warfare and jockeying by the British and French for control of West Africa, the English because of its trade importance and the French as a military exercise. The explorers lived on, if faintly, in the history books. Yet the story is a fascinating mixture of incredible bravery, egocentric drive, unbelievable foolhardiness and imperial folly. All initiated by an eighteenth century Fortnightly Club.

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