The Journal of a Mission to the Interior of Africa, in the Year 1805, by Mungo Park


The question regarding the termination of the Niger is one of the most doubtful and obscure in modern geography, and in the present defective state of our information with regard to the interior of Africa, seems hardly to admit of a clear and satisfactory solution. Of the difficulties with which the subject is attended, some judgment may be formed from the various and even opposite opinions which have been maintained relative to the course of the Niger, since Park’s discoveries have ascertained that it flows from west to east. As the enquiry is somewhat curious, a summary view of these different opinions, and of the principal arguments by which they are supported, may not be uninteresting to the readers of Park’s life. To investigate the question with the accuracy and minuteness which it deserves, would not only very far exceed the limits of a note, but would require much more information upon this subject than the editor possesses, united with some previous habits of geographical disquisition.

I. According to the oldest of these opinions, and that which is supported by the greatest authorities (being the opinion not only of some of the principal Geographers of antiquity, but of D’Anville and Rennell among the moderns), it is supposed, that the Niger has an inland termination somewhere in the eastern part of Africa, probably in Wangara or Ghana: and that it is partly discharged into inland lakes, which have no communication with the sea, and partly spread over a wide extent of level country, and lost in sands or evaporated by the heat of the sun.

[Footnote: Proceedings of the African Association, vol. i. p. 535.]

The principal ground of this supposition is, the opinion of some of the best informed writers of antiquity on the geography of Africa, and a sort of general persuasion prevalent among the ancients to the same effect; circumstances, it must be acknowledged, of considerable weight in determining this question: since there is good reason to believe, that the knowledge of the ancients concerning the interior of Africa was much more extensive and accurate than that of the moderns. It is justly observed by Dr. Robertson, that the geographical discoveries of the ancients were made chiefly by land, those of the moderns by sea; the progress of conquest having led to the former, that of commerce to the latter. (Hist. Of America, vol. ii. p. 3l6, 8vo.) Besides which, there are several distinct and peculiar causes which have essentially contributed to our present ignorance respecting the interior of Africa; namely, the great prevalence of the slave trade, which has confined the attention of European adventurers exclusively to the coast; the small temptation which the continent of Africa held out, during the continuance of that trade, to internal commerce; and the almost impenetrable barrier raised up against Europeans in modern times, by the savage intolerance of the Moors.

The ancient opinion, respecting the termination of the Niger which has just been alluded to, receives a certain degree of confirmation from the best and most authentic accounts concerning that part of Africa, in which the Niger is supposed to disappear. This is represented by various concurrent testimonies to be a great tract of alluvial country, having several permanent lakes, and being annually overflowed for three months during the rainy season.

Against the hypothesis of an inland termination of the Niger, several objections have been urged, which are well deserving of attention. They are principally founded on a consideration of the vast magnitude which the Niger must have attained after a course of more than 1600 geographical miles, and the difficulty of conceiving so prodigious a stream to be discharged into lakes, and evaporated even by an African sun. To account for such a phenomenon, a great inland sea, bearing some resemblance to the Caspian or the Aral, appears to be necessary. But, besides that the existence of so vast a body of water without any outlet into the ocean, is in itself an improbable circumstance, and not to be lightly admitted; such a sea, if it really existed, could hardly have remained a secret to the ancients, and entirely unknown at the present day.

It may just be observed, that D’Anville, following Ptolemy and other writers whom he considers as the best informed on the internal geography of Africa, is satisfied that there are two considerable rivers, the Niger and the Gir; both of which are said to terminate in the same quarter of Africa, and precisely in the same manner. The Gir, totally unknown at the present day, is familiarly mentioned by Claudian, who, however, it may be recollected, was a native of Africa:—

Gir, ditissimus amnis
‘Aethiopum, simili mentitus gurgite Nilum.’
Carm. 21. v. 252.

In some MSS. it is notissimus amnis; but the other reading is more probable.

‘Domitorque ferarum
‘Girrhaeus, qui vasta colit sub rupibus antra,
‘Qui ramos ebeni, qui dentes vellit eburnos.’
Carm. 47. v. 20.

II. The second opinion respecting the Niger is, that it terminates in the Nile. In other words, this hypothesis identifies the Niger with the great western branch of the Nile, called the White River, which D’Anville traces from a source very far SS.W. to its junction with the Nile near Sennaar. He likewise accurately distinguishes this stream from the eastern branch, which is much shorter and of inferior magnitude, and which takes its rise in the mountains of Abyssinia. This opinion is maintained by Mr. Horneman, Mr. Grey Jackson, and several other modern travellers; and it is slightly sanctioned by Strabo and Pliny, who speak of the sources of the Nile as being reported by some to be in the farther parts of Mauritania. But it may be affirmed with great confidence, that of all the hypotheses respecting the termination of the Niger, that which supposes it to be a branch of the Nile, is the most unfounded, and the least consistent with acknowledged facts. It is indeed rather a loose popular conjecture, than an opinion deduced from probable reasoning; since nothing appears to be alleged in its support, except the mere circumstance of the course of the river being in a direction towards the Nile; and a few vague notions of some of the African natives with regard to this subject, which are unworthy of the smallest attention.

Mr. Jackson, indeed, in his Travels (p. 310), states it to be a fact universally known among the rich African traders, that the Niger and the Nile are one and the same river, by means of which there is a practicable communication between Tombuctoo and Grand Cairo. Between these two cities caravans are continually passing, and a large trade is carried on; but Mr. Jackson observes, that the expense of land-carriage by means of camels is more moderate than that by water, and that the journey also is more agreeable! He gives an account of the voyage to Cairo down the Niger, having actually been performed in the year 1780 by a party of seventeen negroes, the particulars of which expedition, he says that he received from ‘a very intelligent man who has an establishment at Tombuctoo.’ These negroes proceeded down the Niger from Jinnie, on a commercial speculation, and reached Cairo after a voyage of fourteen months. They returned by the caravan, and arrived at Jinnie, after an absence of more than three years. Some of the facts which they reported are not a little extraordinary:— viz. that in several places they found the Nile so shallow, in consequence of channels cut for irrigating the lands, that they could not proceed in their boat, and were obliged to transport it some distance over-land; that they saw between Tombuctoo and Cairo twelve hundred cities and towns, adorned with mosques and towers, &c. It is needless to comment upon such hearsay statements, received from an African traveller or merchant more than twenty years after the transaction is said to have happened; nor would any allusion have been made to them in this place, if Mr. Jackson’s book had not been much commended by distinguished critics, and quoted as an authority respecting the interior of Africa by several geographical writers.

[Footnote: Edinburgh Review, vol. xiv. p. 306.]

The principal, and apparently decisive, objection against this supposed junction of the Niger and the Nile, is grounded upon a comparison of the great difference of level between the beds of the two rivers. From the authentic information we possess by means of Mr. Browne, respecting the countries west of the Nile, it is now clear, that if this junction takes place at all, it must be in the upper part of the Nile, before that river has quitted the higher regions of Africa, from whence it has still 1000 geographical miles to run before it reaches the sea, passing in its way through several cataracts. But it is utterly incredible that the Niger, which, in order to reach this part of the Nile, must have run at the least 2300 miles, should not in so long a course have descended to a level considerably lower than that which is here described. This objection is urged with great force by Major Rennell, who justly considers it as being entirely decisive of the question; but he has added several other arguments, which those who take an interest in this question, will do well to consult.

[Footnote: Proceedings of the African Association, vol. i. p. 537; and vol. ii. p. 268, 280.]

III. The supposition, mentioned in the text (p. lxviii), that the Niger terminates in the River Congo, or, as it is sometimes called, the Zaire, is entirely a recent conjecture, adopted by Park in consequence of the information and suggestions of Mr. Maxwell, an experienced African trader, who appears from his letters to have been a man of observation and intelligence. The principal arguments in support of the opinion are shortly and clearly given in the memoir addressed by Park to Lord Camden; but the subject will receive additional elucidation from Mr. Maxwell’s own statement, and especially from his striking description of the river Congo, the vast magnitude of which is little known, and has not sufficiently attracted the attention of geographical writers. The following passage is extracted from a letter, dated Prior’s Lynn, near Longtown, July 20, 1804, addressed by Mr. Maxwell to William Keir, of Milnholm, Esq., a friend of Park, to whom the letter was communicated by Mr. Maxwell’s desire.

“Before ever the Niger came to be the topic of conversation, it struck me, that the Congo drew its source far to the northward, from the floods commencing long before any rains take place south of the equator; since it begins to swell perceptibly about the latter end of October, and no heavy rains set in before December: and about the end of January the river must be supposed at its highest. At no time, however, can the rains to the southward of the Line be compared with those in the Bight of Guinea, where ships are obliged to have a house erected over them during these months.

“But, whether the Congo be the outlet of the Niger or not, it certainly offers the best opening for exploring the interior of Africa of any scheme that has ever yet been attempted; and the ease and safety with which it might be conducted, needs no comment. However, if the Niger has a sensible outlet, I have no doubt of its proving the Congo, knowing all the rivers between Cape Palmas and Cape Lopes to be inadequate to the purpose; nor need the immense course of such a river surprise us, when we know that the river St. Lawrence, contemptible in size when compared with the Congo, encompasses the whole of North America, issuing through a chain of lakes. But instead of seven or eight lakes, the Congo may be supposed to pass through seventeen or eighteen; which will solve any difficulty as to the floods of the Niger not immediately affecting the Congo. I believe that our information of the Niger losing itself in the Desert rests wholly upon the authority of the Romans, a people whose pursuits never led them to trace the course of rivers with a view to traffic or civilization. If we may credit the accounts of travellers in crossing the deserts, we find that, where-ever they get water for refreshment, there are invariably verdure and palm trees; and these spots in the desert of Lybia were termed by the ancients Oases, or Islands. Now, if such small springs could produce such permanent effects, we may reasonably suppose, that the immense stream of the Niger increased to three times the size from where Mr. Park left it, would long before this have made the desert as green as any water meadow and found its way gradually to the ocean, or inundated the whole country.”

“I can with much truth say this of the river Congo, that by comparing it with other rivers, according to the best writers, it must rank as the third or fourth in magnitude. Considering the force of the current it produces in the sea, carrying out floating islands sixty or seventy leagues from the coast, the Amazon or Plata only can cope with it. Many traders, whom I met with at Embomma, (a settlement on the banks of the Congo distant thirty leagues from its mouth,) had come one month’s journey down the river, which, reckoned at twenty miles each day (and they count them by the moon, Gonda), would make six hundred miles; and they spoke of it as equally large where they came from, and that it went by the name of Enzaddi, as it does among all the natives upon the coast. Should the shallow water, as laid down opposite Saenda, detract from the assumed size of the Congo, let it be remembered, that the river there is spread out ten miles in width, the middle channel of which has never been accurately sounded. It has long been my opinion that Leyland’s or Molyneux Island at Embomma (either of which might be rendered as impregnable as Gibraltar at a very small expense) would be a choice station for establishing an extensive commerce with the interior of Africa. Indeed, if the idea of the Congo being the outlet of the Niger prove so upon trial, we may consider it as an opening designed by providence for exploring those vast regions, and civilizing the rude inhabitants.”

[Footnote: A chart of the Congo by Mr. Maxwell was published many years since by Laurie and Whittle, Fleet street.]

Besides this account given by Mr. Maxwell, there are other testimonies to the magnitude of the Congo, shewing it to be a river of the first class, and larger probably than the Nile. In a journal (which the editor has seen) of an intelligent and respectable naval officer, Captain Scobell, who visited the coast of Africa in the year 1813, in H.M. sloop of war the Thais, the Congo is described as “an immense river from which issues a continued stream at the rate of four or five knots in the dry, and six or seven in the rainy season.” In a subsequent passage he says, “In crossing this stream, I met several floating islands, or broken masses from the banks of that noble river, which, with the trees still erect, and the whole wafting to the motion of the sea, rushed far into the ocean, and formed a novel prospect even to persons accustomed to the phenomena of the waters.” He adds, that there are soundings to the distance of from thirty or forty miles from the coast, arising probably from the vast quantity of alluvial matter brought down by the force of the stream.

Other accounts state, that the waters of the Congo may be distinguished at sea more than thirty leagues from the coast, and that the water is fresh at the distance of thirty miles.

[Footnote: Lopez, Merulla, and Dapper, referred to in Phillips’s Voyages, vol. iii. p. 236.]

These, perhaps, are exaggerations; but they may be received, in confirmation of the preceding testimonies, as sufficient proofs of a general opinion among navigators with regard to the size and force of this prodigious river. It is mentioned by Major Rennell in his very interesting account of the Ganges, that the sea in the bay of Bengal ceases to be affected by the waters of that river, and recovers its transparency, only at the distance of about twenty leagues from the coast. (Phil. Transactions, vol. lxxi.) But the Ganges being obstructed by its Delta, and passing through eight channels into the sea, is probably much less rapid and impetuous than the Congo.

To this it must be added, that all the accounts concur in representing, that the stream of the Congo is of a more uniform height, and subject to much less variation from the dry and rainy seasons, than any tropical river which is known; and that on a comparison with such rivers, it may be considered to be in a perpetual state of flood. The average rising of the Ganges in the rainy season is stated by Major Rennell to be 31 feet, being about the same with that of the Nile; whereas, the difference between the highest point of the Congo about February, and the lowest in September, is only about nine feet; and the river, at the latter period, has all the appearance to a stranger of being in full flood.

[Footnote: MS. Letter of Mr. Maxwell to Mr. Park, Oct. 12, 1804.]

It is this remarkable peculiarity, which distinguishes the Congo from other great rivers of a similar description, and which leads to important conclusions with regard to its origin and course.

In support, then, of the hypothesis which identifies the Congo with the Niger, the following arguments, deduced from the preceding facts and observations, may be alleged:— 1. The great magnitude of the Congo. 2. The probability that this river is derived from very remote sources, perhaps considerably north of the equator. 3. The fact, that there exists a great river north of the equator, (the Niger,) of which the termination is unknown, and which may, perhaps, form the principal branch of the Congo. These, in truth, are the only grounds upon which the present supposition can be fairly said to rest. Arguments founded upon etymological conjectures, supposed resemblances of names, or affinity of languages, &c. &c., are, for the most part, too arbitrary and fanciful, and liable to too much uncertainty to be entitled to any place in disquisitions of this nature. The same remark is applicable to the narratives and descriptions given by native travellers and merchants, and, in general, to all African evidence whatever, except when supported by collateral proof from other less exceptionable sources.

Such being the evidence in favour of the hypothesis respecting the Congo, the objections against this theory must be admitted to be weighty and formidable. The principal of these are, 1. That it supposes the course of the Niger to lie through the vast chain of the Kong Mountains (anciently Montes Lunæ), the great central belt of Africa. Of the existence of these mountains there appears to be no doubt; and from their situation in the midst of a great continent, they may reasonably be supposed to be of vast size and extent; in which case it is difficult to understand, how the Niger could penetrate this barrier, and force a passage southwards. 2. The course of the Niger, estimated from its source in the mountains of Senegal (supposing it to be the same river with the Congo, and to flow by Wangara and Cashna through the centre of Africa into the Atlantic), would be considerably more than 4000 miles. But the course of the Amazon, the greatest river in the old or new world with which we are acquainted, is only about 3500 miles; and, although the existence of a river considerably greater than any yet known, may be within the limits of physical possibility; yet, so improbable a supposition ought not to be adopted upon slight or conjectural reasoning, or upon any thing much short of distinct and positive proof. To give such a vast extension to the Congo upon the grounds stated by Mr. Maxwell, might justly be considered as one of those exaggerations, to which, according to a remark of D’Anville, geographical writers upon Africa have always been remarkably prone, ‘en abusant, pour ainsi dire, du vaste carrière que l’intérieur de l’Afrique y laissoit prendre.’ (Mém. de l’Academie des Inscriptions, Tom. xxvi p. 61.)

[Footnote: The following scale (taken from Major Rennell’s Memoir of a Map of Hindostan, p. 337,) shewing the proportional length of some of the most considerable rivers already known, may be useful to the reader on the present occasion.

Thames 1
Rhine 5-1/4
Danube 7
Wolga 9-1/2
Indus 6-3/4
Euphrates 8-1/2
Ganges 9-1/2
Burrampooter 9-1/2
Ava 9-1/2
Jennisca 10
Oby 10-1/2
Amoor 11
Lena 11-1/2
Hoanho (China) 13-1/2
Kian Keu 15-1/2
Nile l2-1/2
Mississipi 8
Amazon 15-3/4

It must be observed, however, that the magnitude of a river depends much less upon the length of its course than upon the number of auxiliary streams which fall into it. It is this latter circumstance, which occasions the vast size of the Ganges, compared, for example, with the Nile; although the course of the latter is so much longer. Rivers not fed by auxiliary streams, may even become smaller in consequence of the length of their course. The editor is indebted for these observations to Major Rennell.]

Before the editor finally dismisses the subject of the Congo, he may be allowed to express a hope that this distinguished river, which hitherto has been only known as one of the greatest marts of the Slave Trade, may at length be rendered conducive to objects of civilization and science; and that some use will now be made of this great inlet into Africa, for the purpose of exploring a part of that continent which as yet is entirely unknown; or, at least, of obtaining more complete and authentic information relative to the Congo itself, which must unquestionably be considered as a very curious and interesting subject of enquiry. Such an enterprise, according to the opinion of Mr. Maxwell, would not be attended with much difficulty. In a letter to Mr. Park, dated Oct. 12, 1804, alluding to the subject of the Congo, he speaks of an intention which he had formed some time prior to Park’s discoveries, of exploring that river. His scheme was to carry out with him from England six supernumerary boats, well adapted for rowing and sailing; each being of such a size as to be easily carried by thirty people, and transported across several cataracts, with which the course of the river is known to be impeded. On his arrival at the coast, he meant to hire about thirty or forty black rowers, and to sail up the Congo with proper arms, provisions, and merchandize, in the month of May (the dry season south of the equator) calculating upon an absence from the coast of about ten weeks. Mr. Maxwell considered this scheme as perfectly practicable, and likely to be attended with no very great expense; but he was prevented from executing his intention by the war of 1793, which made it inconvenient and unsafe for him to encumber the deck of his vessel with supernumerary boats.

IV. The fourth and last opinion respecting the termination of the Niger, is that of a German geographer, M. Reichard, which was published in the ‘Ephemerides Géographiques,’ at Weimar, in August, 1808, and is referred to in a respectable French work, entitled, ‘Précis de la Géographie Universelle, par M. Malte-brun.’ The fourth volume of this work, which appeared at Paris in the year 1813, (p. 635) represents M. Reichard’s hypothesis to be, that the Niger, after reaching Wangara, takes a direction towards the south, and being joined by other rivers from that part of Africa, makes a great turn from thence towards the south-west, and pursues its course till it approaches the north eastern extremity of the gulph of Guinea, when it divides and discharges itself by different channels into the Atlantic; after having formed a great Delta, of which the Rio del Rey constitutes the eastern, and the Rio Formoso, or Benin River, the western branch.

Without entering into the details of M. Reichard’s reasoning in support of this hypothesis, which is often somewhat hazardous and uncertain, it may be sufficient for the present purpose to observe, that his principal argument is founded on a consideration of the peculiar character belonging to the tract of country situated between the two rivers, which consists of a vast tract of low, level land, projecting considerably into the sea, and intersected by an infinity of small branches from the principal rivers. In these and other respects, it appears to bear a considerable resemblance, according to the best descriptions of that coast which we possess, to the Deltas at the mouths of the Nile, the Ganges, and such other great rivers, as by depositing large quantities of alluvial matter previous to their discharge into the sea, form gradual additions to the coast. For it may be proper in this place to remark, that the formation of Deltas, even by rivers of the first magnitude, is by no means universal; some of the greatest that are known being without them. Of this the Amazon, Plata, and Oronoko are mentioned by Major Rennell as distinguished instances; to which may now be added, the Congo. The difference appears to be owing to the depth of the sea at the mouth of the rivers, and perhaps to other circumstances, which are not quite understood.

[Footnote: See Reunell’s Geogr. System of Herodotus, 4to. p. 483.]

Both of the two rivers, enclosing the great alluvial tract which has been described (the Rio del Rey and the Formoso), are stated to be of considerable size, being each of them seven or eight miles broad at the mouth; and the supposed Delta, estimated by the line of coast, is much larger than that of the Ganges: consequently, the two streams, if united, must form a river of prodigious magnitude. But neither of the rivers has ever yet been explored; nor has the interior of the country, to any distance from the coast, been accurately described by any European traveller. Hence, the question whether the two rivers are ever really united, and whether the tract in question is a complete Delta or not, still remains to be ascertained. With regard also to the course, or even the existence, of the great river to which this Delta is said to belong, and which M. Reichard supposes to come from the northeast of Africa, there is no tradition nor any vestige among travellers or geographical writers; the whole is purely conjectural. But the supposition, so far at least as relates to the alluvial origin of the tract in question and the junction of the two rivers, has great appearance of probability.

On comparing Mr. Maxwell’s hypothesis respecting the Niger with that of M. Reichard, which we are now considering, the latter may be said to have gained something in point of probability, by diminishing the distance which the Niger has to flow in order to reach the Atlantic. But the length of its course, even when thus reduced, is still a considerable difficulty, and a great incumbrance on the hypothesis. The objection arising from the Niger’s being conceived to penetrate the Kong Mountains, seems to be nearly of equal weight in both cases, on the supposition that this vast chain of mountains is of the extent generally imagined; which there appears to be no reason to doubt.

It may be mentioned as an objection to both of these hypotheses, that no traces whatever of the Mahometan doctrines or institutions are now to be found on either of the coasts where the Niger is supposed to terminate. In no part of the world has the spirit of enterprise and proselytism, which properly belongs to the Mahometan character, been more strikingly displayed than in the extensive regions of North Africa. Its effects are every where conspicuous, not only in the religious belief of the greater part of the inhabitants; but even where Mahometism is not actually established, in their manners, and customs, and in the predominance of the Arabic language, which is almost every where grafted upon the native African dialects. These circumstances, however, are peculiar to North Africa; nothing of a similar kind having been remarked on the coast of Guinea, and still less on that of Congo and Angola. Mr. Maxwell also states in a letter to Mr. Park, that he had made enquiries of a great number of negroes who had come down the Congo from great distances; but that he could never hear of any Mahometan priests having visited the countries on the banks of that river. Supposing the Niger really to flow through the centre of Africa, and to discharge itself any where into the Atlantic, it is reasonable to believe that some of the Mahometan colonists must long since have established themselves on the banks of that river, and penetrated to the shores of the ocean.

Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 16:24