It is a relief to turn from the icy north to the tropical climate of Central Africa, where Mungo Park had disappeared in 1805. The mystery of Timbuktu and the Niger remained unsolved, though more than one expedition had left the coast of Africa for the "mystic city" lying "deep in that lion-haunted inland." Notwithstanding disaster, death, and defeat, a new expedition set forth from Tripoli to cross the great Sahara Desert. It was under Major Denham, Lieutenant Clapperton, and Dr. Oudney. They left Tripoli in March 1822. "We were the first English travellers," says Denham, "who had determined to travel in our real character as Britons and Christians, and to wear our English dress: the buttons on our waistcoats and our watches caused the greatest astonishment." It was the end of November before they were ready to leave the frontier on their great desert journey. The long enforced stay in this unhealthy border town had undermined their health; fever had reduced Denham, Dr. Oudney was suffering from cough and pains in his chest, Clapperton was shivering with ague—a state of health "ill-calculated for undertaking a long and tedious journey." A long escort of men and camels accompanied them into the merciless desert, with its burning heat and drifting sands—"the Sea of Sahara" as the old cartographer calls it. December found them still slowly advancing over the billowy sand, deeply impressed and horrified at the number of slave skeletons that lay about the wind-swept desert. The new year brought little relief. "No wood, no water," occurs constantly in Denham's journal. "Desert as yesterday; high sandhills." Still they persevered, until, on 4th February 1823, they were rewarded by seeing a sheet of water, "the great Lake Tchad, glowing with the golden rays of the sun in its strength." Was this, after all, the source of the Niger? Its low shores were surrounded with reedy marshes and clumps of white water-lilies, there were flocks of wild ducks and geese, birds with beautiful plumage were feeding on the margin of the lake, pelicans, cranes, immense white spoonbills, yellow-legged plover—all were dwelling undisturbed in this peaceful spot. And this most remarkable lake lay eight hundred feet above the Atlantic, between the watersheds of Nile, Niger, and Congo.
But Lake Tchad was not their goal; they must push on over new country where no European had been before. A fortnight later they reached Kukawa, the capital of Bornu, once a great Mohammedan empire. "We were about to become acquainted with a people who had never seen or scarcely heard of a European," says Denham, "and to tread on ground, the knowledge and true situation of which had hitherto been wholly unknown. We advanced towards the town of Kuka in a most interesting state of uncertainty, whether we should find its chief at the head of thousands, or be received by him under a tree, surrounded by a few naked slaves."
Their doubts were soon set at rest by the sight of several thousand cavalry, drawn up in line. They were received by an Arab general, "a negro of noble aspect, dressed in a figured silk robe and mounted on a beautiful horse." They had passed from the region of hidden huts to one of great walled cities, from the naked pagan to the cultivated follower of Mohammed, from superstition To mosques and schools, from ignorance to knowledge. The Sheikh, who received the travellers in a small room with armed negroes on either side, asked the reason of their long and painful journey across the desert. "To see the country," answered the Englishmen, "and to give an account of its inhabitants, produce, and appearance, as our sultan was desirous of knowing every part of the globe."
Major Denham and his party received by the Sheikh of Bornu.
The Sheikh's hospitality was overwhelming; he had huts built for them, "which," says Denham, "were so crowded with visitors that we had not a moment's peace, and the heat was insufferable." He sent presents of bullocks, camel-loads of wheat and rice, leather skins of butter, jars, and honey. The market of Kuka was famous. It was attended by some fifteen thousand persons from all parts, and the produce sold there was astonishing. Here Clapperton and Dr. Oudney stayed all through the summer months, for both were ill, and Oudney was growing rapidly worse. Denham meanwhile went off on exploring expeditions in the neighbourhood.
On 14th December, Clapperton and Oudney left the friendly Sheikh and made their way to Kano. But the rough travelling proved too much for Oudney; each day found him weaker, but he valiantly journeyed on. On 12th January he ordered the camels to be loaded as usual, and he was dressed by Clapperton, but he was too ill to be lifted on to his camel, and a few hours later he died.
Clapperton was now alone "amid a strange people" in a land "hitherto never trodden by European foot," and very ill himself. But he reached Kano, the famous trading centre of the Haussas, containing some forty thousand inhabitants. Here again the market impressed him deeply, so full was it of cosmopolitan articles from far-distant lands. After a month's stay at Kano, now the capital of the northern province of Nigeria of that name, he set out for Sokoto, though very ill and weak at the time. He was assured of kind treatment by the Sultan. He arrived on 16th March, and "to impress them with my official importance I arrayed myself in my lieutenant's coat trimmed with gold lace, white trousers, and silk stockings, and, to complete my finery, I wore Turkish slippers and a turban." Crowds collected on his arrival, and he was conducted to the Sultan, who questioned him closely about Europe. "I laid before him a present in the name of His Majesty the King of England, consisting of two new blunderbusses, an embroidered jacket, some scarlet breeches, cloves and cinnamon, gunpowder, razors, looking-glasses, snuff-boxes, and compasses."
"Everything is wonderful!" exclaimed the Sultan; "but you are the greatest curiosity of all! What can I give that is acceptable to the King of England?"
"Co-operate with His Majesty in putting a stop to the slave trade," was Clapperton's answer.
"What, have you no slaves in England?" The Englishman replied, "No!" to which the Sultan answered: "God is great; you are a beautiful people." But when Clapperton asked for leave in order to solve the mystery of the Niger, the Sultan refused, and he was obliged to return to Kuka, where he arrived on 8th July. A week later he was joined by Denham. "It was nearly eight months since we had separated," says Denham, "and I went immediately to the hut where he was lodged; but so satisfied was I that the sunburnt, sickly person that lay extended on the floor, rolled in a dark-blue shirt, was not my companion, that I was about to leave the place, when he convinced me of my error by calling me by my name. Our meeting was a melancholy one, for he had buried his companion. Notwithstanding the state of weakness in which I found Captain Clapperton, he yet spoke of returning to Sudan after the rains." But this was not to be, and a month later we find the two explorers turning homewards to Tripoli, where they arrived at the end of January.
But, with all his long travelling in Africa, Clapperton had not seen the Niger, and, although the effects of his fever had not worn away, he spent but two months in England before he was off again. This time he sailed to the Gulf of Guinea, and from a place on the coast near the modern Lagos he started by a new and untried route to reach the interior of the great Dark Continent. It was September 1825 when he left the coast with his companions. Before the month was over, the other Europeans had died from the pestilential climate of Nigeria, and Clapperton, alone with his faithful servant, Richard Lander, pushed on. At last he saw the great Niger near the spot where Mungo Park and his companions had perished. At Bussa they made out the tragic story of his end. They had descended the river from Timbuktu to Bussa, when the boat struck upon some rocks. Natives from the banks shot at them with arrows; the white men then, seeing all was lost, jumped into the river and were drowned. The Niger claimed its explorer in the end, and the words of Mungo Park must have occurred to Clapperton as he stood and watched: "Though I myself were half-dead, I would still persevere; and if I could not succeed in the object of my journey, I would at least die on the Niger."
From Bussa, Clapperton made his way to Kano and Sokoto; but on 13th April 1827, broken down by fever, he died in the arms of his faithful servant. With his master's papers and journal, Lander made his way home, thus establishing for the first time a direct connection between Benin and Tripoli, the west coast and the north.
Still the mouth of the Niger had not been found. This discovery was reserved for this very Richard Lander and his brother John.
The first European picture of Timbuktu.
Just a year after the death of Clapperton a young Frenchman, Réné Cainé, tempted by the offer of ten thousand francs offered by the French Geographical Society for the first traveller who should reach that mysterious city, entered Timbuktu 20th April 1829, after a year's journey from Sierra Leone. And from his pen we get the first direct account of the once important city. "At length," he says, "we arrived safely at Timbuktu, just as the sun was touching the horizon. I now saw this capital of the Sudan, to reach which had so long been the object of my wishes. To God alone did I confide my joy. I looked around and found that the sight before me did not answer my expectations. I had formed a totally different idea of the grandeur and wealth of it. The city presented nothing but a mass of ill-looking houses, built of earth. Nothing was to be seen in all directions but immense plains of quicksand of a yellowish white colour. The sky was a pale red as far as the horizon, all nature wore a dreary aspect, and the most profound silence prevailed: not even the warbling of a bird was to be heard. The heat was oppressive; not a breath of air freshened the atmosphere. This mysterious city, which has been the object of curiosity for many ages, and of whose civilisation, population, and trade with the Sudan such exaggerated notions have prevailed, is situated in an immense plain of white sand, having no vegetation but stunted trees and shrubs, and has no other resources save its trade in salt."
It is curious to note what a burst of interest was aroused in England at this time with regard to Timbuktu. Thackeray wrote in 1829—
"In Africa (a quarter of the world)
Men's skins are black, their hair is crisp and curl'd;
And somewhere there, unknown to public view,
A mighty city lies, called Timbuktu."
while the same year Tennyson's poem on Timbuktu won for him the prize at Cambridge University for the best poem of the year.