The biggest cause of death was malaria. They knew about cinchona bark, they had made quinine, but few realised that it could be effective against malaria. They never understood that malaria was carried by mosquitoes (they believed the miasmatic theory, that diseases came from decaying atmosphere, hence mal aria) so they never protected themselves against them. Then there was dysentery and all of the other diseases endemic to the area including bilharzia, guinea worm and yellow fever. If they survived disease they were likely to fall prey to the militant Muslim slave traders who preyed on the Negroes, destabilising the sub-Saharan region so that it was a patchwork of warring tribes where lawlessness and anarchy meant banditry and death. The mortality of Europeans on the West African coast at the end of the 1700s was estimated at 70% per year! That's about 30 times worse than the trenches in the First World War. Those who returned often found the financial promises that had been made to them were worthless; only those who published best-selling books prospered (usually until they went back and died). Why did they do it?
Mostly because they were either mad or desperate and so driven that inevitably joint expeditions fell apart!
From the government's point of view the aim was to encourage trade (mostly in palm oil, essential for lubricating the new steam engines) and to discourage the newly illegal slave trade. They did not want the hassle and expense of colonies.
In the end they discovered that the Niger travels north-east past Timbuktu (a fabled city, tremendously disappointing when it was found to be a largish town of single storey mud huts), to to edge of the Sahara. It then makes a sudden turn south east and eventually flows south into the Bight of Biafra which is on the underhang bit of Africa. It does not meet the Nile (this was proved when someone pointed out that its source wasn't high enough to provide the potential energy needed for the river to cross Africa). It does not drain into Lake Chad (an incredibly shallow freshwater lake with no river draining it) not evaporate in the Sahara. It skirts the mountains of Kong which were thought to be much bigger than they are and an impenetrable barrier.
This is an old-fashioned history. We learn about the greats of West African exploration: Mungo Park, Hugh Clapperton, Richard and John Lander, Macgregor Laird, Dr Barth and Dr Baikie. I'd only ever even heard of Mungo Park and even then I didn't know what he did. These are, of course, all Europeans (and predominantly Scots). The black people, often called negroes, are depicted in traditional stereotypes of ignorance, in thrall to "ju-ju" and "witchdoctors". The Muslims are mostly fanatical, blood thirsty, slave traders. There is an awful sentence on page 149 which refers to "the psychological antipathy of the African male towards manual labour". It was published in 1973; one would have hoped that publishers and their editors at that stage would have been able to avoid such relentlessly negative categorical depictions of human beings.
Questions that it left in my mind:
- Why did they do it? Why did they do it? Why did they do it? Why did they do it?
- How lucky were they to be able to hang on to the notes for their journals through attack, captivity, illness, walking miles through deserts, near starvation, shipwreck ...?
- How did they send letters (which they did regularly) to the coast? How did the postmen get through when they often couldn't? (Presumably this is evidence, as if it were needed, that the servants were better travellers than the masters.)
I did discover that the name Niger is not linked to the Latin word for black, as I had assumed, but to the African word n'ger-n-gereo which simply means Great River.
Readable although somewhat episodic; it does little more than describe the tribulations of explorer after explorer without asking the big questions about this important part of the world.
September 2015; 208 pages