Exploration of West Africa Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After the British abolition of the Atlantic slave trade, British and French explorers began pushing into West Africa in earnest, seeking geographical knowledge, commercial possibilities, and individual glory. Their explorations had no immediate important consequences, but the areas they traversed anticipated the later imperial division of West Africa.

Summary of Event

After centuries of trading—mainly West Africa;and slave trade[Slave trade] for slaves—along the west and equatorial coasts of Africa, Europeans knew almost nothing about the interior of Africa. That situation began to change during the early nineteenth century. On May 4, 1805, the Scottish explorer Mungo Park started inland from the Senegal Senegal coast leading an expedition of forty-five, most of whom were British soldiers. A decade earlier, Park had become the first European to see the Upper Niger River Niger River;exploration of during an exploratory mission up the Gambia River Gambia River that he had undertaken on his own under the auspices of a private organization, the African Association African Association . During the interval the British government had become concerned that the French might establish a protectorate stretching from their coastal colony in Senegal Senegal French Empire;and West Africa[West Africa] to the Niger. In fact, the French had no such intention. Nevertheless, Park Park, Mungo was sent back with instructions to explore the entire course of West Africa’s longest river. West Africa;exploration of Africa;exploration of Exploration;West Africa British Empire;and West Africa[West Africa] [kw]Exploration of West Africa (May 4, 1805-1830) [kw]West Africa, Exploration of (May 4, 1805-1830) [kw]Africa, Exploration of West (May 4, 1805-1830) West Africa;exploration of Africa;exploration of Exploration;West Africa British Empire;and West Africa[West Africa] [g]British Empire;May 4, 1805-1830: Exploration of West Africa[0290] [g]Africa;May 4, 1805-1830: Exploration of West Africa[0290] [c]Exploration and discovery;May 4, 1805-1830: Exploration of West Africa[0290] [c]Geography;May 4, 1805-1830: Exploration of West Africa[0290] Park, Mungo Clapperton, Hugh Laing, Alexander Gordon Caillié, René-Auguste

Explorers’ Routes in North and West Africa





Park’s second mission was a disaster. Most of the soldiers serving under him died of fever before they even reached the Niger River Niger River;exploration of . After reaching the river in late November, 1805, the survivors built a boat and sailed downstream. During an approximately one-thousand-mile journey, as they passed through various territories, Park and his men often fired on anyone they suspected of having hostile intentions toward them. The result was a running series of engagements that finally culminated at the village of Bussa Bussa, Nigeria in what became Nigeria, where Park and his men were killed in early 1806.

Park’s Park, Mungo tragedy did little to dampen British public enthusiasm for West African exploration. After Britain declared the slave trade to be illegal in 1807, business and government leaders saw a new need to penetrate the interior of West Africa and seek out new products. West Africa was thought to be a good place to do business although there was little tangible evidence to support such an assumption. Others, the so-called humanitarian lobby, proclaimed that Great Britain had a moral obligation to bring Christianity and Western civilization to the Africans. Several exploratory attempts from the west and south ended in disaster with most of the men dying of disease Diseases;tropical . Officials in London decided to turn to North Africa in the hope of finding a better way into the interior.

In February, 1822, two British army officers, Dixon Denham Denham, Dixon and Hugh Clapperton, Clapperton, Hugh set out from the Mediterranean port of Tripoli Tripoli, Libya Libya for Lake Chad on what became known as the Bornu Mission Bornu . They were instructed to check out information the British had received that the Niger River Niger River;exploration of flowed into Lake Chad Chad, Lake . When they arrived, the men split up. Denham vainly sought a connection between the Niger River and Lake Chad, while Clapperton traveled on to Sokoto, Sokoto, Nigeria the capital of the Fulani Empire Fulani Empire of Hausaland, Hausaland where he established relations with the local government. The two men subsequently joined together again and returned to Tripoli in January, 1825.

After Clapperton and Denham’s explorations, it was logical to follow the trip south to Lake Chad with a trip southwest to the Niger Bend. The choice fell to another British soldier, Alexander Gordon Laing Laing, Alexander Gordon , who was instructed to head for Timbuktu, Timbuktu a town on the Upper Niger, then follow the river down to the coast. Laing led a small expedition in which he was the only European; he later admitted to preferring that arrangement, so he would not have to share the glory of any discoveries he made. Britain regarded the expedition as urgent after collecting information about two French French Empire;and West Africa[West Africa] agents headed for Timbuktu in native disguise. This information was inaccurate, but it heightened British fears that the French were out to claim the interior of Africa for themselves. On July 18, 1825, Laing and a small party rode out of Tripoli and into the Sahara. Sahara Desert

Laing harbored an envy of Clapperton Clapperton, Hugh that became an obsession as his journey proceeded. He wrote letters to his wife and others in which he sneered at Clapperton’s accomplishments and claimed that the Niger River Niger River;exploration of and Timbuktu Timbuktu were destined for himself alone. However, Laing Laing, Alexander Gordon did not know that five months after he had left Tripoli, Clapperton was sent on a new expedition inland from the Guinea coast with the intention of visiting Sokoto Sokoto, Nigeria and Timbuktu and discovering the Niger’s outlet. Clapperton himself died from a fever in Sokoto in April, 1827, but his servant, Richard Lander Lander, Richard , eventually did accomplish the last of his mission’s goals.

Laing would soon have more important matters to deal with than the specter of Clapperton. In the middle of the Sahara Desert Sahara Desert , at a place called Wadi Ahennet, he was attacked by Tuaregs. Tuaregs Several of his men were killed and others were wounded, including Laing himself, who suffered a total of twenty-four wounds. Later, while visiting the camp of a friendly Kunta marabout, the rest of his men died of yellow fever. Yellow fever;in West Africa[West Africa] Nevertheless, Laing finally reached Timbuktu on August 13, 1826. He was the first European in the modern era to visit that fabled city. He stayed in Timbuktu for five weeks, but during his return home, his African guide murdered him about thirty miles north of Timbuktu.

Laing was the first European known to reach Timbuktu, but a Frenchman, René-Auguste Caillié Caillié, René-Auguste , was the first to visit that city and return safely. Of humble origins, Caillié had some previous experience traveling in the interior of Senegal Senegal and was determined to win a gold medal and money offered by the Paris Geographical Society Paris Geographical Society to the first person to return from Timbuktu. Timbuktu After his proposals for an expedition were turned down by both the French and British governments, he set out from the west coast on his own on April 19, 1827. He disguised himself as an Egyptian who had been carried to France as a slave and was now trying to return home and to embrace Islam again.

Caillié traveled with various merchant caravans on a circuitous route since he had no real idea as to where he was going. Along the way he suffered from scurvy and an infection that almost cost him a foot. In March, 1828, he visited Jenne, Jenne becoming the first European to visit that major Niger River city. A month later, he arrived in Timbuktu, where he remained for two weeks. During that time he collected much information on the city and its commerce, finally dispelling the myth of Timbuktu the Golden that had originated with Leo Africanus Leo Africanus in the sixteenth century. Still in disguise, he joined a caravan to Morocco and in Tangier was able to sneak aboard a French ship. After returning home, he published an account of his travels.


Laing’s Laing, Alexander Gordon death, which became known through various avenues, had immediate repercussions. The British consul in Tripoli Tripoli, Libya Libya , who also happened to be Laing’s father-in-law, accused the French consul and the vizier of the Bashaw, the local ruler, of stealing Laing’s journal and ultimately of complicity in his death. Although the latter charge was unfounded, what happened to Laing’s journal has never been satisfactorily resolved. Ultimately the British withdrew their support of the Bashaw, which weakened his government and allowed the Turks to reassert their control over Tripoli.

Caillié Caillié, René-Auguste returned to Europe as the Laing affair was reaching its climax. In Britain, sorrow over Laing’s death was easily misdirected into public animosity against Caillié, who, it was charged, was a fraud. Meanwhile, Caillié’s trip failed to stimulate French French Empire;and West Africa[West Africa] interest in West Africa. In 1830, the year in which Caillié’s account of his journey was published, French armies invaded Algiers for reasons that had nothing to do with Caillié or West African exploration. Over the next half century, the French focused their imperial designs on expanding into the Algerian hinterland.

The British continued to be more interested than the French in sub-Saharan Africa but focused most of their attention on the continent’s eastern and central regions. The midcentury mission of Heinrich Barth Barth, Heinrich , a German who traveled under the sponsorship of the British government, remained the one great achievement of exploration left for West Africa. Barth was able to show conclusively that Caillié’s claims were valid. Perhaps ironically, when virtually all of West Africa fell victim to European imperialism during the late nineteenth century, the British ended up controlling some of the territory first explored by Clapperton Clapperton, Hugh and Lander, while most of the lands traversed by Park, Laing, and Caillié went to France.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bovill, E. W. The Niger Explored. London: Oxford University Press, 1968. Thorough account covering West African explorations from Park’s second trip through Laing, including the political and diplomatic setting for West African exploration.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Duffill, Mark. Mungo Park. Edinburgh: National Museums of Scotland, 1999. Park’s memoir of his first expedition is still in print, but this short biography provides a more general look at this complicated man.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gramont, Sanche de. The Strong Brown God: The Story of the Niger River. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976. Written in a journalistic style but satisfactorily researched, this book covers the whole nineteenth century and is especially useful for Park, Clapperton, and Lander.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">La Gueriviere, Jean de. The Exploration of Africa. Translated by Florence Brutton. Woodstock, N.Y.: Duckworth, 2003. General overview of nineteenth century exploration and its impact on the European popular imagination.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Welch, Galbraith. The Unveiling of Timbuctoo: The Astounding Adventures of Caillié. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1991. Voluminous work on Caillié’s explorations that is still useful although it was written in 1939 in what may today appear a somewhat turgid style.

Burckhardt Discovers Egypt’s Abu Simbel

Exploration of North Africa

Exploration of East Africa

Livingstone Sees the Victoria Falls

Exploration of Africa’s Congo Basin

Berlin Conference Lays Groundwork for the Partition of Africa

Dahomey-French Wars

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i>

Samuel Ajayi Crowther; Mary Kingsley. West Africa;exploration of Africa;exploration of Exploration;West Africa British Empire;and West Africa[West Africa]

Categories: History