Between antiquity and the 18th century, aside from a couple of Portuguese priests in Abyssinia, we have no record of Europeans venturing into the heart of Africa; incredible but true. Following in the priests’ footsteps came James Bruce, the Scottish laird who returned home to be ridiculed by Dr Johnson for his tales of Ethiopians hacking steaks from living cattle. Anthony Sattin picks up his narrative after that in 1788, when at last Sir Joseph Banks, veteran of Cook’s voyages and a beacon of Enlightenment science, brought together a circle of learned friends in a London tavern to found the African Association.
Their challenge was daunting, yet simple. The Association would fill the empty spaces on Africa’s maps with towns, rivers and mountains. West Africa swiftly became the focus, and above all else Timbuktu on the Niger River. Members wanted to know if the Niger flowed west or eastwards, joined the Nile or the Congo or dissipated into the Sahara. Being fervently abolitionist (Wilberforce was a member), they aimed to prove that legitimate commerce could be more lucrative than the slave trade. They mused that they might even encounter descendants of the pharaohs and Carthaginians whose cultures had possibly survived intact in the continent’s centre. Colonialism couldn’t have been further from these men’s minds. ‘Much, undoubtedly, we shall have to communicate, and something we may have to learn,’ wrote Henry Beaufoy, a Quaker and anti-slavery MP.
The belief that Timbuktu was a Saharan Eldorado had its roots in reports that were already centuries old. One referred to the Emperor of Mali’s hadj to Mecca, when he transited Cairo and showered the city with so much gold it ‘ruined the value of money’ for a year — but that had been in 1324. The Association, blithely imagining nothing to have changed in the intervening 464 years, packed off its succession of ‘geographical missionaries’. Walking out in their frock coats, these were young men less prepared for African travel than a modern-day German grockle who’s forgotten his sunscreen on the beaches of Gambia. At first, Africans were puzzled. They theorised that whites journeyed as a penance for appalling sins. Very quickly, however, the market mammies and Moorish caravan traders came to suspect that these were the scouts for future conquering armies aiming to dominate trade.
Initially this was not the case. The African Association could claim the high moral ground in their crusade against slavery, for one thing. Yet Africa’s harsh realities have ways of making the most ardent foreign philanthropists into hypocrites, and explorers on the ground quickly found themselves seeking the help of slave traders and even buying and selling humans. Ultimately, rivalry with France dictated that Association expeditions became more overtly political and after the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 the British Admiralty took on more of the journeys themselves. Finally, in 1831, the Association transformed itself into the Royal Geographical Society, while Africa’s exploration began its slow crescendo towards the Victorian Scramble.
That the Association attracted any volunteers at all amazes me. Its travellers may have carried the first ‘modern’ geographers’ instruments, but most were swiftly looted by tribute-hungry sultans and so never used. If explorers landed along the coasts south of the Sahara, they tended to expire quickly of malaria. If they ventured south from the Mediterranean, they might survive fever in the desert climate but more often than not they were slaughtered at the hands of Moors and Tuaregs or starved to death. Over the years lessons were learned, namely that explorers should travel light in Muslim disguise, learn Arabic or tribal vernaculars, be young and of ‘rude health’. In a blueprint for the psychology of future travel writers it also seems to have helped if they were social outsiders; indeed the Association’s three greatest emissaries were a German, a Scotsman and a Swiss.
Hero of Sattin’s tale is the Swiss refugee Jean Louis Burckhardt, at whose graveside the author begins his narrative in Cairo’s City of the Dead. Burckhardt discovered the most among all Association travellers. In his methods, he provided inspiration to the men who followed him, notably Sir Richard Burton. The supreme irony is that today he is remembered best as an explorer of Arabia and Egypt, but not of West Africa. He was the first modern European to see Petra; he spent six months in Mecca and visited Medina. Heading up the Nile, he stumbled across the statues at Abu Simbel, saw the pyramids at Meroe and charted the river further south than any white man ever before. All this Burckhardt regarded as mere preparation for his expedition to Timbuktu. After eight years, being fluent in Arabic, having gone native in dress and manners, having even converted to Islam, Burckhardt was at last ready. Yet before he could set a foot outside the gates of Cairo he died of dysentery.
Not the greatest, but certainly the most famous of Sattin’s cast of characters is Mungo Park. In Sattin’s view, Park lacked the literary talent of Thesiger or Burton. I’ll agree on Thesiger, but surely not Burton, who was often overlong and slapdash. I concur with Park’s editor, Bryan Edwards, who said that when Park was good he was ‘equal to anything in the English language’. Park said he simply wrote the ‘truth’ and over the past 200 years few have been able to match his African descriptions.
Despatched to find the Niger in 1795, he ventured inland with no more weaponry than a fowling gun and a pair of pistols. As he went along he was robbed, insulted and threatened, yet perhaps only once did he nearly lose his temper. This was when the Moor Ali at Ludamar, finding that Park had nothing else to loot, enslaved his servant Demba. Park protested, but Ali warned that he could expect the same fate himself unless he shut up. ‘There is something in the frown of a tyrant which rouses the most secret emotions of the heart,’ Park later wrote. ‘I could not suppress my feelings; and for once entertained an indignant wish to rid the world of such a monster.’ Any Africa hand knows just what he meant.
By the same token Park was truly taken with ordinary Africans, who generally treated him well. They made him
fully convinced that whatever the difference there is between the Negro and European in the conformation of the nose and the colour of the skin, there is none in the genuine sympathies and characteristic feelings of our common nature …
Such decent reflections are a far cry from the attitudes of the Victorians, with their sense of cultural superiority and enthusiasm for eugenics.
Park finally made it back to the coast in rags and in London he was lionised. He returned to his native Scotland to practise as a doctor, but soon 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 cold and lonely heaths and gloomy hills’. He set off for the Niger once more, but something in him had changed. This time he took a contingent of soldiers who would provide ‘sufficient force to protect me from any insult’. He launched downriver in a boat and, acting in a way ‘not himself’, he refused ever to land, shot at inhabitants along the riverbanks, floated past Timbuktu without stopping and ended up dying in what is now Nigeria, not so far from the Bight of Benin. To me, there is something archetypal in Mungo Park’s story that applies even today among Western aid workers, diplomats and journalists who arrive in Africa fresh-faced, naive and convinced they will do great things. Within a short time many become disillusioned, exasperated by failures, and embittered towards the local people they came to help. Park should be
required reading for all do-gooders.
For all the lives lost and maps coloured in by the Association explorers, the gains to be had from opening up West Africa proved to be little more than a mirage. To be sure, inhabitants of Kano were not so poor as to turn their heads when Captain Hugh Clapperton donned his naval dress uniform, but there was little gold. When Captain Gordon Laing entered the fabled Timbuktu in 1826 he found only an inhospitable population lurking among a collection of mud hovels.
The Gates of Africa has plentiful maps and photographs. It was readable enough for me to consume at a single sitting, or rather a pleasant day in bed. Sattin has travelled extensively in Africa and it shows in his sympathy for his subject. He has been as intrepid on Sahara’s dusty roads as he was in digging up fusty tomes to prove to us that the British desire to open up Africa’s interior was rooted first of all in the principles of the Enlightenment rather than in the later ambitions for political and commercial domination. He has reclaimed the reputation of the Association that fathered the RGS and he has also tickled our interest with a string of astonishing yet forgotten explorers’ tales.
Aidan Hartley’s The Zanzibar Chest: A Memoir of Love and War is published by HarperCollins at £20.