Exploration of North Africa

European interest in advancing geographical and scientific knowledge, expanding trade, spreading Christianity, and abolishing the slave trade prompted European explorers to examine the interior of northern Africa closely during the nineteenth century.

Summary of Event

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, much of the coast of North Africa remained under the nominal control of Turkey’s Ottoman Empire Ottoman Empire;and North Africa[North Africa]
North Africa;and Ottoman Empire[Ottoman Empire] , but piracy, European imperialism, and the Ottomans’ own inefficiency were weakening the empire’s grasp. The interior regions of North Africa—across which stretched the vast and forbidding Sahara Desert Sahara Desert—remained a mystery to Europeans and Ottomans alike. During the early 1820’s, a handful of adventurous Europeans, supported by their governments and private organizations, set out to investigate the Sahara’s secrets. Africa;exploration of
North Africa;exploration of
Exploration;North Africa
British Empire;and North Africa[North Africa]
[kw]Exploration of North Africa (1822-1874)
[kw]North Africa, Exploration of (1822-1874)
[kw]Africa, Exploration of North (1822-1874)
Africa;exploration of
North Africa;exploration of
Exploration;North Africa
British Empire;and North Africa[North Africa]
[g]Morocco;1822-1874: Exploration of North Africa[1180]
[g]Algeria;1822-1874: Exploration of North Africa[1180]
[g]Mali;1822-1874: Exploration of North Africa[1180]
[g]Nigeria;1822-1874: Exploration of North Africa[1180]
[g]Africa;1822-1874: Exploration of North Africa[1180]
[g]Mediterranean;1822-1874: Exploration of North Africa[1180]
[g]British Empire;1822-1874: Exploration of North Africa[1180]
[c]Exploration and discovery;1822-1874: Exploration of North Africa[1180]
[c]Geography;1822-1874: Exploration of North Africa[1180]
Oudney, Walter
Clapperton, Hugh
Caillié, René-Auguste
Richardson, James
Barth, Heinrich
Overweg, Adolf
Nachtigal, Gustav
Rohlfs, Friedrich Gerhard

In 1822, the Scottish doctor and botanist Walter Oudney Oudney, Walter , British naval lieutenant Hugh Clapperton Clapperton, Hugh , and British army officer Dixon Denham Denham, Dixon went south from the Mediterranean port of Tripoli Tripoli, Libya , which is now in Libya, hoping to chart the course of the largest river in West Africa West Africa;exploration of
Niger River;exploration of , the Niger. After a delay of several months in the oasis of Marzuq, they reached Lake Chad Chad, Lake on February 4, 1823. Immense but shallow, Lake Chad now connects the corners of modern Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Chad. The expedition was to disprove the theory that waters of the Niger flowed into Lake Chad and from there connected to the Nile, but not before the death of Oudney Oudney, Walter in January, 1824.

Located on the upper Niger River in what is now Mali, Timbuktu Timbuktu was a lure for numerous explorers. Believed to be a fabulously wealthy center of commerce and culture, the city had excited the imagination of Europeans for centuries. Like most sites in and near the Sahara Sahara Desert , however, it was accessible only by camel Camels;in Sahara Desert[Sahara Desert] caravans, whose leaders guarded the secrets of their routes closely. The shipwrecked American sailor Robert Adams Adams, Robert had apparently been taken to the city as a captive in 1811, but his account of his adventures was dismissed at the time. The Scottish explorer Gordon Laing Laing, Alexander Gordon reached Timbuktu in 1826 but was killed soon after leaving the city—an early example of the hostility that strangers, especially Christians, would arouse among the predominantly Muslim peoples of the Sahara.

Hoping to resolve the mystery of the city, the Geographical Society of Paris announced a prize in 1825 to be awarded to the first person to bring back an authentic firsthand account of Timbuktu. The offer was to spur Frenchman René-Auguste Caillié Caillié, René-Auguste to greater efforts. Although Caillié’s first two attempts at exploration had been ended by illnesses, he returned to West Africa West Africa;exploration of in 1824 planning to disguise himself as an Arab traveler. The French government of Senegal Senegal refused its support, however, and Caillié went to work instead in the adjacent British colony of Sierra Leone Sierra Leone . It was there that he learned of the society’s prize.

In mid-1827, Caillié set out with a caravan, pretending to be an Egyptian. After enduring nearly a year of illness and physical privation, he reached the fabled city in late April, 1828. After remaining for only two weeks, he joined another caravan, but his companions’ suspicions of his true identity led him to desert the group. Caillié Caillié, René-Auguste eventually reached Tangier, Morocco, Morocco;exploration of in August and returned to France, where he duly collected the Geographical Society’s award. However, his description of Timbuktu Timbuktu —which contained little more than a collection of mud dwellings—was disappointing to geographers and the general public alike.

The next man to explore the region was a member of Britain’s Anti-Slavery Society. The British Protestant minister James Richardson Richardson, James intended to spread Christianity and to help abolish the slave trade Slave trade;and exploration[Exploration]
Exploration;and slave trade[Slave trade] . His first important expedition, in 1845, took him across what is today Libya, Libya from Tripoli, southwest to the oases of Ghudamis and Ghat. After compiling copious notes on the societies of the region and its caravan routes, Richardson returned to Tripoli two years later.

Richardson’s next venture was the sonorously titled English Mixed Scientific and Commercial Expedition, an ambitious expedition undertaken to encourage commerce, extend scientific knowledge, and combat slavery. Richardson was accompanied by the German scholar Heinrich Barth Barth, Heinrich , who had already traveled throughout the Middle East, and the German scientist Adolf Overweg Overweg, Adolf . Their expedition set out from Tripoli Tripoli, Libya in early 1850, stopping at Marzuq and Agadez (now in Niger). Near the latter the three men separated, with Richardson, Richardson, James whose relations with his German companions had soured, setting out to the southeast for Lake Chad.

Meanwhile, Barth continued going south into what is now Nigeria, while Overweg made for the town of Maradi (now in Niger). The three explorers had agreed to join up again on the southwestern shore of Lake Chad, but Richardson contracted a tropical disease Diseases;tropical and died on March 4, 1851. Overweg rejoined Barth as planned, and the two made extensive surveys of the lake region. Overweg became the first known European to circumnavigate the lake, but he, too, died on September 27, 1852.

Barth Barth, Heinrich was meanwhile reconnoitering the Benue and Shari Rivers, determining that the former emptied into the Niger River Niger River;exploration of and the latter into Lake Chad. Intending next to head east, Barth instead received instructions from the expedition’s sponsors to proceed west to Timbuktu. Timbuktu The trip was a dangerous one, but Barth disguised himself as a Muslim holy man and reached the city on September 7, 1853. He appears to have been in danger the entire time that he was in Timbuktu, and he managed to leave only in May, 1854. In August, 1855, he reached Tripoli by returning past Lake Chad.

Two other Germans, Friedrich Gerhard Rohlfs Rohlfs, Friedrich Gerhard and Gustav Nachtigal, Nachtigal, Gustav built on Barth’s achievements, carrying out extensive explorations of North Africa during the latter part of the nineteenth century. Rohlfs had already made two abortive attempts to reach Timbuktu in 1862, and became the first European to visit the oasis of Touat and the first since Caillié Caillié, René-Auguste to visit Tafilet—both places that are now in Algeria. In 1865, he undertook a far more ambitious expedition. Departing from Tripoli Tripoli, Libya , he crossed the Sahara Sahara Desert to Lake Chad. He then followed the Benue and Niger Rivers downstream. In the process, he became the first European to cross the African continent from the Mediterranean to the Gulf of Guinea, the arm of the Atlantic Ocean lying south of the bulge of West Africa.

During the following decades, Rohlfs’s Rohlfs, Friedrich Gerhard interests shifted to the eastern Sahara. When the German colonial office asked him to visit the Kingdom of Bornu Bornu , on the southwest side of Lake Chad, on a diplomatic mission, he urged his government to send fellow countryman Gustav Nachtigal Nachtigal, Gustav in his place. A doctor whose lung problems had led him to seek the dry climate of North Africa, Nachtigal gladly undertook the mission. He departed from the Mediterranean coast in February, 1869, passed through Marzuq, and paid a perilous visit to the oasis of Tibesti (now in Chad). Nachtigal eventually reached Bornu, which his diplomatic skills allowed him to use as a base for further exploration over the next few years. On the final leg of these journeys, he traveled eastward to Khartoum Khartoum on the Nile River, which he reached in 1874.


North Africa’s European explorers displayed a keen desire to share their discoveries with the rest of the world by recording their experiences and observations in often encyclopedic detail. Barth’s Barth, Heinrich account of his ten-thousand-mile, six-year journey, Reisen und entdeckungen in Nord- und Central-Afrika in den jahren 1849 bi 1855 (1857-1858; Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa, 1859), describes his identification of prehistoric and Roman habitations, the sophisticated customs and occasional hostility of the native peoples, and the nearly unbearable heat of the desert. Nachtigal Nachtigal, Gustav produced an equally extensive record in Saharâ und Sûdân (1879-1881; Sahara and Sudan, 1971-1975).

By the time Nachtigal’s work was published, the broad outlines of North African geography had been established, paving the way for European imperial ambitions. Nachtigal’s later career illustrates this shift clearly, as he joined the Kolonialverein, an organization devoted to the encouragement of German colonization. He was also later involved in the sometimes forceful establishment of colonies in western and southwestern Africa.

Although Caillié Caillié, René-Auguste and Barth Barth, Heinrich confirmed the fabled Timbuktu’s Timbuktu squalor, its name has remained a byword for remoteness and romance. It is a reminder of the powerful attraction of the unknown in human history and affairs.

Further Reading

  • Gardner, Brian. The Quest for Timbuctoo. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968. Brief and easily readable survey of American, British, and European attempts to reach the city. Map, black-and-white illustrations, chronology, brief bibliography.
  • La Gueriviere, Jean de. The Exploration of Africa. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Duckworth, 2003. Attractively illustrated volume that emphasizes French explorers, some of whom are little known to English readers. Map, bibliography, numerous illustrations.
  • McLynn, Frank. Hearts of Darkness: The European Exploration of Africa. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1992. Continent-wide survey emphasizing the mechanics of exploration and the darker aspects of the explorers’ personalities. Illustrations, maps, bibliographical essay.
  • Porch, Douglas. The Conquest of the Sahara. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984. Popular history of French exploration and conquest in North Africa, including an account of Caillié’s journey. Map, bibliography.
  • Sattin, Anthony. The Gates of Africa: Death, Discovery, and the Search for Timbuktu. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005. History of the African Association and the expeditions it sponsored in the northern half of the continent. Illustrations, maps, chronology, bibliography.

Tripolitan War

Exploration of West Africa

Burckhardt Discovers Egypt’s Abu Simbel

Exploration of Arabia

France Conquers Algeria

Abdelkader Leads Algeria Against France

Exploration of East Africa

Battle of Tel el Kebir

Siege of Khartoum

Berlin Conference Lays Groundwork for the Partition of Africa

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