This website uses cookies to provide a rich user experience. Please consult our Cookie Policy to learn about what cookies this website uses, or to control the cookies you receive. You need do nothing if you are happy to receive cookies.
Look and Learn History Picture Library Image from the history picture library

Subject: ‘Rivers’

All of these articles and images are available for licensing: click on an image to see further details and licensing options; contact us about licensing textual content.

A Niger Trading company paid a deadly ransom to kidnappers

Posted in Africa, Historical articles, History, Rivers, Trade on Friday, 14 March 2014

This edited article about Africa first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 589 published on 28 April 1973.

Captain Stott,  picture, image, illustration
Captain Stott laid out casks of rum on the beach as a ransom for the safe return of Charles Osborne and Richard Cliff

In May, 1875, Richard Cliff, trader, with Charles Osborne, his assistant, and a crew of seven natives took his small steam launch from the village of Onitsha down the River Niger to the Bight of Biafra. A few days later, the launch ran aground and damaged one of her twin propellers. The next day she ran foul of a rock off Stirling Island and bent her shaft. She drifted helplessly until Cliff regained control of her and hauled her alongside the island to repair the damage.

Cliff sat in the shade, noting the extent of the damage in his log. It had been a disastrous trip so far. Surely nothing else could go wrong. At that very moment, however, a fleet of canoes landed on the far side of the island, disgorging a band of men from a nearby village, who stole through the bush towards the hapless launch. They had seen its plight and intended to take advantage of it. Richard Cliff’s troubles were only just beginning.

By the 1870s trade in the west coast of Africa had become highly organised. The rough adventurers who had first established trading-posts had been succeeded by sophisticated business-men and liberated slaves, too, were making their way in trade. The steamship had extended the range of trading journeys and traders were venturing from the narrow strip of the Grain, Ivory, Slave and Gold Coasts to travel into the interior. Cliff had established posts for his London-based company along the Niger Valley but he was about to learn that trade in this part of Africa was not just a matter of buying and selling.

The attackers announced their arrival with a burst of fire from the bush. One of Cliff’s crew spun round and fell, his arm dangling uselessly, his eyes wide in surprise. Bullets ploughed across the beach and ricocheted off the launch’s iron hull. Ducking and twisting, Cliff raced for the ship, tumbled into it with the rest of the crew and ordered them to shove off the bank. The vessel drifted out into mid-stream where the current caught it and carried it out of range of the guns.

Safe thought Cliff. But were they? Osborne started the launch’s engine; immediately the bent shaft drove the remaining propeller blade into the hull. Water rushed in and in three minutes the launch sank. Cliff and his men had barely time to jump into the boat and cut her adrift lest she be dragged down with the launch. The crew bent to their oars but the natives from the island, who had gone back to their canoes, drove after them in swift pursuit and soon began to gain on the laden boat.

Read the rest of this article »

Tuaregs decided that Mungo Park would not leave Africa alive

Posted in Africa, Discoveries, Exploration, Historical articles, History, Rivers on Thursday, 6 March 2014

This edited article about Mungo Park first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 580 published on 24 February 1973.

Mungo Park,  picture, image, illustration
Mungo Park was exhibited in a market place as a sideshow and forced to dress and undress many times a day to show the tribesmen his strange white skin and odd-buttoned clothes, by Angus McBride

“Nothing can be more beautiful than the views of the immense river; sometimes as smooth as a mirror, at other times ruffled with a gentle breeze, but at all times sweeping us along at the rate of six or seven miles an hour.”

So wrote Mungo Park about Africa’s mystery river, called by the inhabitants the “Joliba” – the “Great Water.” In 1805, when Park went to Africa, no one knew where the Niger rose nor where it terminated. Geographers believed it ran to waste in the burning deserts. Park himself believed it to be a tributary of the Congo. But he was in Africa determined to trace it, and wherever it went – he was going.

Mungo Park was the son of a Lowland Scots farmer. As a boy he was known for “the gravity and decorum of his manner.” Apprenticed to a surgeon, Thomas Anderson, whose daughter Alison he was to marry, and whose son Alexander he was to whisk away to his death in Africa, Mungo was “passed at Surgeons’ Hall” in 1791.

He was twenty-three when he received an offer to explore the Niger for the African Association, which had already sent three unsuccessful expeditions. In June, 1795, he landed at Jonkakonda on the Gambia River, dressed in cotton breeches, a blue coat and a waistcoat with brass buttons. The last of these buttons was to save his life in the wild interior of Africa.

All that Mungo wrote about that first journey showed him to have been a humane, kindly man who looked upon the Africans as equal human beings with whom he made many friendships. He was young and inexperienced, so that often he was robbed and cheated unmercifully, but he took it in good part, until he came to the “Moors.” These were people of mixed descent, Arab and African, who lived on the southern fringes of the Great Desert. According to him, they were a vicious people who terrorised and robbed the Africans, considering them only good for slavery. Fanatical Moslems, they viewed Christians as devils in human form whose destruction would be rewarded in Paradise.

Into their hands, Mungo naively delivered himself, penniless, alone except for a servant boy and unarmed. They seized him and enslaved his “boy.” Mungo, they subjected to insult and indignity. He was exhibited in the market place as a side show, and forced to undress and dress forty times a day to display his strange white skin and odd-buttoned clothes. For three months, he was the prisoner of King Ali, dragged out to amuse the tribesmen, otherwise kept in a hut with barely enough food or water to sustain life. Had it not been for Queen Fatima, who looked favourably upon the handsome young Scot and interceded with Ali on his behalf, he knew he would have been murdered out of hand.

In the confusion of a tribal war, Mungo finally escaped. A fugitive, followed by Ali’s men, he still pressed on, using his last brass button to buy a few days’ food. Reaching the Niger at Sego, he fell on his knees, to drink the water and give thanks to God. Only then did he turn back, joining a slave trader’s caravan which at last brought him safely to Gambia and a ship to Britain.

Read the rest of this article »

Lord Nelson was cruelly killed in the hour of Britain’s victory

Posted in Famous battles, Heroes and Heroines, Historical articles, History, London, Rivers, Ships on Wednesday, 5 March 2014

This edited article about Lord Nelson first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 580 published on 24 February 1973.

Funeral procession of Nelson,  picture, image, illustration
An accurate view from the house of W Tunnard on the Bankside, adjoining the site of Shakespeare Theatre, on 8 January 1806, when the remains of the great Admiral Lord Nelson was (sic) brought from Greenwich to Whitehall, by J T Smith

It was the thickest fog that London had endured for many years, but some carriages on that November night in 1805 crawled slowly towards their destinations, carrying passengers with urgent business to attend to. Two of them went through the gates of the Admiralty at around 1 am, each containing a Naval officer who by sheer coincidence, was bearing the same news.

The news was at once triumphant and tragic. On October 21, the British fleet had smashed the combined fleets of France and Spain, but Lord Nelson, Britain’s greatest sailor had been killed in the hour of victory.

The newspapers carried the story on November 7, but by then most people had heard the news. People meeting in the streets first spoke of Nelson, then of his victory. Even the London mob, which normally celebrated victories riotously was stunned and still.

It was to be two full months before the funeral, the most grief-stricken public funeral in British history. Horatio Nelson was no saint. He was not much to look at; a small, one-armed, one-eyed man, not a good husband, sometimes loathful, a man who could lose his temper. But he was brave and lovable, a kindly man adored not only by the ordinary people of Britain, but, more significantly, by his crews.

The Navy of 1805 was no place for weaklings. Many sailors had been “press-ganged” into service, where they found the food as bad as the discipline. The lash was freely administered. Yet, given a fine captain, most British tars were as proud and happy as they were adored by their countrymen.

Nelson was not just a fine captain; he was a perfect one, whose men would do more than their very best for him. When he was killed, the heart went out of the Fleet. One letter will suffice to show the general feeling. It was from a sailor called Sam, who simply and memorably wrote to his father: “I never set eyes on him (Nelson) for which I am both sorry and glad; for to be sure I should like to have seen him, but then, all the men in our ship who have seen him are such soft toads, they have done nothing but Blast their Eyes and cry ever since he was killed. God bless you chaps, that fought like the Devil, sit down and cry like a wench.”

Read the rest of this article »

Washington crossed the Delaware to save the Revolution

Posted in America, Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Revolution, Rivers, War on Wednesday, 26 February 2014

This edited article about the American War of Independence first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 571 published on 23 December 1972.

Washington crossing the Delaware,  picture, image, illustration
Washington led his men across the Delaware on Christmas night by James E McConnell

The American army was on the run. It could only be a matter of time before its leader, George Washington, would be forced to surrender to the British, and that would be the end of the war. It seemed that the infant United States was destined to be strangled at birth.

American independence had been declared on July 4, 1776, five months before the present desperate crisis. Now the British, after suffering humiliating defeats against their rebellious Colonies, had gone over to the offensive. The rebels had been driven off Long Island and out of New York by British Redcoats, loyal Americans and hired German mercenaries from Hesse, the dreaded Hessians, who earned a grim reputation for their military ferocity.

Now Christmas was coming, and the main American army, ragged, starving and miserable, was down to less than 3,000 men. Many of them, being amateur soldiers, were due to go home at the end of the year, having served their time as volunteers.

By December 15, Washington was encamped on the south bank of the Delaware River with less than 1,000 fit men that he could trust. He had many enemies in Congress (the American Parliament), and the 13 Colonies kept squabbling amongst themselves when they should have been united and sending him aid. To make matters worse, he had no money left to pay his men, men he was now begging to stay on for another six weeks after their time had expired. He had decided to pay them out of his own pocket. The American Revolution had – from the Rebel point of view – reached its lowest ebb.

All the British commander, Sir William Howe, had to do was continue advancing and mop up the remaining American forces, but, as there were so few of them left, it hardly seemed worth it, so he put his troops into winter quarters. Howe enjoyed good living, and he was not anxious to destroy his enemies, just to show them who was master, then get them to give in. Like many Britons, his heart was not really in the war, which involved Britons fighting Americans who were Britons as well, but who objected to being ordered around by a British Parliament in which they were not represented.

On December 18, Washington wrote to his brother: “I think the game is pretty near up . . . You can form no idea of the perplexity of my situation.” But two days later, two of his generals arrived with more troops, and some Pennsylvania militia appeared, giving him a total of 7,600 men. True, in a fortnight his little army might dissolve, but its hard core of men to whom the words “Liberty” and “Freedom from Tyranny” really meant something, would stay because they shared his belief that something could be done.

Read the rest of this article »

The golden age of the Mississippi paddle-steamer

Posted in America, Historical articles, History, Leisure, Rivers, Transport, Travel on Monday, 3 February 2014

This edited article about paddle-steamers first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 538 published on 6 May 1972.

Boat race on Mississippi,  picture, image, illustration
Who was king of the river? Two Mississippi steamboat captains raced to claim this title

By the 30th June the news had spread far beyond New Orleans that the race was on. After years of mutual criticism, thinly veiled hostility and the occasional blow, the captains of the river steamers Robert E. Lee and Natchez were going to fight it out over the 1,218 miles of the Mississippi River that lay between Louisiana’s biggest city and distant St Louis.

It would be, everyone agreed, the race of the century.

Beyond question, it had all the makings of an epic contest, because both men and vessels were well matched. The surprising fact was that it hadn’t taken place 30 years earlier. For the year was 1870 and the great days of the paddle wheelers of the Mississippi were already numbered.

Because it is a comparatively new country, many of the most colourful chapters of North American history are surprisingly brief. Even the legendary frontier days of the Wild West lasted little more than ten short years, and the riverboats had been a feature of the Southern States of Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee and Alabama for nearly half a century. Nevertheless while they existed they had a magic that was all their own.

That there were such steamers at all was due to the special character of the great river they served. The Mississippi rises in Lake Itaska, one of the 10,000 lakes in the State of Minnesota. Wide, winding and 2,350 miles long, it is mud coloured south of St Louis because of the vast quantities of silt which pour into it from its tributary, the Missouri. From America’s earliest days it formed a ready made highway by which cotton and sugar from the Southern plantations could reach the markets of the north.

The very first river steamer was the New Orleans, built in 1811 at Pittsburgh, but it was not until five years later that a Captain Henry Shreve realised that the huge, shallow river with its thousands of treacherous sandbanks needed a very special type of craft. To be safe on the Mississippi a boat had to have little draught and skim over the surface instead of ploughing through the depths. Shreve decided that he could best achieve this by building a steamer that was broad, paddle driven, and carried its heavy boilers on deck. The resultant Washington set the pattern for the scores of steam boats that were to follow.

Traffic on the Mississippi had virtually stopped during the years of the Civil War, when both Union and Confederate troops had fought for control of the river. But with the coming of peace, river steamers began trading once again. Their captains became legendary figures, enormously well paid, and often entrusted with business transactions by the rich plantation owners. Indeed, many a cargo of cotton was handed over to the captain with full permission to sell it at St Louis for whatever price he considered fair. From this race of giants came the two men whose mastery of their craft was only equalled by their dislike of each other.

Read the rest of this article »

Ancient architects built for the living and the dead

Posted in Ancient History, Architecture, Famous landmarks, Historical articles, History, Religion, Rivers, Royalty on Saturday, 1 February 2014

This edited article about architecture first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 536 published on 22 April 1972.

Building the Pyramids,  picture, image, illustration
Building the Pyramids by Neville Dear

All living creatures are home-lovers. Birds build nests; rabbits dig warrens; snakes find warm holes; hares curl up in the long grass. The crocodile sinks into the warm, smelly darkness of the river mud, and the horse stands under the shade and shelter of a tree. Home is where you find it. Home is where the heart is.

Men, with their characteristic one-upmanship over the rest of the animal kingdom go one better than all this – they create architecture.

Architecture began in Egypt. This bald statement covers our ignorance of everything that happened before that. It may be that our very primitive ancestors practised quite sophisticated forms of architecture but it is unlikely. Like the lower animals, their home-loving almost certainly had a practical basis on the need for warmth (or coolness) and shelter. The type of home was dictated by the job. Hunters and fishermen sheltered in caves, because they were ready-made. Tillers of the soil, staying close to their crops, made lean-to arrangements among the trees. Shepherds and other nomads devised a portable arrangement of stick and skins and called it a tent.

All that was mere home-making. With the coming of the Ancient Egyptians, home-making left off and architecture began.

With a little thought, it is not difficult to understand why the Ancient Egyptians were the first to make this tremendous stride nor, indeed, why they were so far superior, in so many ways, to everybody else who was around at that time.

European civilisation started in the Mediterranean, and of all the Mediterranean countries, Egypt is the only one with a back door to Arabia and the other lands beyond. The Egyptians became wealthy through trade.

The Nile is a very peculiar river. Every year, it floods and deposits a rich mud across the land. With the help of 365 sunny days a year, farming in Egypt is simply a matter of putting the seed in this rich mud and sitting back to watch it grow. You don’t need green fingers to be an Egyptian farmer!

Rich, then, and well-fed, the Ancient Egyptians, or at least the leaders among them, had the leisure to relax and think about other things than grubbing for a livelihood. And they thought about religion and architecture.

Read the rest of this article »

10,000 people died in the Johnstown Flood disaster

Posted in America, Disasters, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Rivers on Wednesday, 22 January 2014

This edited article about American disasters first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 522 published on 15 January 1972.

Johnstown flood, picture, image, illustration
The Recent Fatal Floods at Johnstown, Pennsylvania, USA by J Nash

In its way, Johnstown was a rather special place. In 1832 there had been no more than 1,300 people living in this little town nestling quietly on the western slope of the Alleghenies. Then the Cambria Iron Company had arrived to establish a great ugly expanse of blast furnaces, steel mills and rolling mills. Their coming despoiled the landscape, but it was in these factories that many of the important inventions which were to revolutionise the iron and steel industries were first tested.

Moreover, its community, by 1889, had grown to 30,000 people, who mostly lived in the 800 model homes which had been built for them by the Cambria Iron Company. These houses were well designed, decently furnished and provided with both gas lighting and bathrooms, both an unaccustomed luxury for the industrial classes of those days.

The Cambria Iron Company may have scarred the landscape, but it had provided work for many, and unlike so many of the great industrial concerns of those days, it had gone to a great deal of expense and trouble in order that its workers could live as fully integrated human beings.

Only a few miles away, at the small town of South Fork, was the largest reservoir in the United States, which formed an enormous lake of about four square miles. Retained by a dam that was 700 foot wide and a hundred foot high, it seemed in no way ever likely to be a menace to those who lived beneath the shadow of its walls. This, however, was an assumption that was to be proved tragically wrong.

During the last few days of the May of 1889, a steady and violent downpour of rain began to swell all the rivers that drained the Alleghenies. Unable to cope with this tremendous influx of water, the rivers overflowed, causing great floods which began to move rapidly towards South Fork, leaving in their wake a terrible trail of shattered buildings, uprooted trees and dead bodies.

By May 31st., the waters of the man-made lake at South Fork had swollen to such an extent that the people who lived immediately below the dam began to make preparations to flee from the district. But they had already left it too late. At 5 p.m. the walls of the dam exploded with a mighty roar, and a great mass of water came thundering down on the town with such devastating force that it was wiped out in seconds.

Read the rest of this article »

Disaster on the Thames: burial of the unknown dead at the Woolwich Cemetery, near London

Posted in Disasters, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, London, Religion, Rivers, Ships on Friday, 17 January 2014

Woolwich mass funeral 1878, picture, image, illustration
The great disaster on the Thames: burial of the unknown dead at the Woolwich Cemetery, East Wickham

On September 3, 1878, the pleasure paddle-steamer SS Princess Alice collided with the collier Bywell Castle and sank within just four minutes after breaking in two. The Bywell Castle was a large ship which had just been repainted in dry dock and was heading for Newcastle, whence she customarily sailed with her large cargo of coal for Africa. Her river course was unexceptional and at half-speed with the tide, but Captain Grinstead of the paddle-steamer, sailing against the tide, changed course and took the Princess Alice into the path of the collier with unavoidably fatal results. Over 650 lives were lost, many drownings hastened by the recently discharged sewage from nearby Barking. 120 victims were buried in a mass grave at Woolwich Old Cemetery in the deanery of Plumstead, where a large memorial was erected by public subscription. The accident caused the greatest loss of life in any shipping disaster on the River Thames.

Many more pictures of London cemeteries can be found at the Look and Learn picture library.

Speke always suspected Victoria Nyanza would prove to be the source of the Nile

Posted in Adventure, Africa, Discoveries, Exploration, Historical articles, History, Rivers on Monday, 16 December 2013

This edited article about African exploration first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 495 published on 10 July 1971.

John Speke and Catain Grant, picture, image, illustration
John Hanning Speke and James Grant, the Scottish explorer who accompanied the English explorer on his 1860 expedition to prove Lake Victoria was the source of the Nile

Somerset-Born explorer John Speke sat under the awning on the deck of the little boat that slipped smoothly down the River Nile towards Khartoum and gazed contentedly down at the muddy waters of the great river.

Contentedly, too, Speke thought back to the day nearly three years ago when the Royal Geographical Society in London had asked him to lead an expedition to discover the source of the Nile. Now, with thirteen hundred miles of trekking through scorching, steaming jungle behind him, Speke was going home, his mission completed.

Africa and its perils were no novelty to John Hanning Speke when the London geographers sent him off on his path of discovery in 1860. In one of his earlier excursions into the continent natives had attacked his party and tied him up. As he lay on the ground with his hands bound one of the natives had coolly attempted to spear him to death. Speke jumped up, knocked the weapon from the native’s hand, sent him sprawling and escaped to a waiting boat.

Another time, on a Royal Geographical Society expedition, fever inflamed his eyes and practically blinded him. But nothing daunted, Speke pushed on into the continent and discovered a huge lake, which he named Victoria Nyanza. From what the local natives told him he was sure that the lake was the clue to one of the great geographical mysteries of the 19th century – the whereabouts of the source of the Nile. But when all attempts to get boats for an exploratory voyage failed he had to return to London.

Speke’s report and his discovery of Victoria Nyanza caused earnest discussion in London and when the new expedition was mounted in 1860 Speke was named as its commander with Captain J. A. Grant as his deputy.

Read the rest of this article »

The Demolition of Old London Bridge, 26 January 1832

Posted in Architecture, Famous landmarks, Historical articles, History, London, Rivers on Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Old London Bridge demolished, picture, image, illustration
The Demolition of Old London Bridge, 26 January 1832

Old London Bridge was one of London’s most famous landmarks, as well known to travellers from home and abroad as St Paul’s Cathedral. Henry II gave it a spiritual heart when he oversaw the building of a grand chapel dedicated to the memory of St Thomas a Becket the Martyr, which became a special place for pilgrims on their way to Canterbury. The buildings on the bridge were myriad and colourful, grand and modest, while the southern gatehouse sported the impaled heads of traitors and criminals. As a thoroughfare, however, it was too congested and inefficient for the growing influx of animals, people and goods. By the end of the Eighteenth century a decision was taken to hold a competition to replace it, which was won by John Rennie. The new bridge was built some way upstream of the original, which remained in use until the opening of its replacement. The houses on Old London Bridge had been demolished between 1758 and 1762, and so, too, was the bridge itself in 1831, a monumental task as our picture shows.

Many more pictures relating to London’s bridges can be found at the Look and Learn picture library.