Over two millennia of exploration in ‘Darkest Africa’

Posted in Africa, Ancient History, Discoveries, Exploration, Historical articles, History, Missionaries on Friday, 23 March 2012

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This edited article about Africa originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 674 published on 14 December 1974.

Livingstone at Victoria Falls, picture, image, illustration

Dr Livingstone seeing the Victoria Falls by Alberto Salinas

Nowhere else could there have been such harsh and almost impossible conditions as those the early explorers of the African continent had to contend with. They encountered dense forests, tropical heat, vast deserts, diseases, wild animals, reptiles, man-killing insects, hostile tribes and cannibals.

The Egyptians were the first of the African explorers, but they were not the only ancient people to found civilised states in Northern Africa. The Phoenicians, famous as navigators and traders, along with the Carthaginians and Greeks, all played a part in the history of North Africa. In Roman times, an expedition was sent out by the Emperor Nero into the Sudan with orders to trace the source of the Nile.

The Arabs have always been noted for their interest in travel and geography and, in about 1324, Ibn Battua, who was born in Tangier, and is probably the most celebrated Arab traveller, not only visited Palestine, Egypt and Mecca, but, starting from Fez in Morocco, crossed the Sahara Desert to Timbuktu.

Later much of Africa was opened up by missionaries and traders. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to explore the possibilities of Africa below the Sahara, and started by buying ivory, pepper and gold dust from the West African coastal tribes.

Prince Henry, known as The Navigator, the son of the King of Portugal, inspired and encouraged his sailors to learn the sciences of navigation and geography so that Portugal could extend her empire. Portuguese ships reached Cape Verde and the Senegal River by 1445. In 1448, Diego Cam discovered the mouth of the River Congo (now the River Zaire) and explored fourteen hundred miles of coastline. Then, in 1487, another Portuguese explorer, Bartholomew Dias, went up the estuary of the Congo River, and later he rounded the Cape of Good Hope. In 1498, Vasco da Gama opened up a new route to India by way of the west coast of Africa, where a number of trading posts were established.

When Portuguese power began to wane, French, Dutch and English sailors started trading with the natives, and before long the notorious slave trade was in operation. As the hunt for slaves continued on a vast scale, the Europeans at the same time began to explore the interior of this part of Africa. They soon found that as most of Africa’s rivers were unnavigable because of rapids, cataracts and swamps, the only way to reach the interior was on foot. Their pack animals died from the tse-tse fly and other disease-bearing insects. The men died from the terrible heat or malaria, or were killed by hostile natives. It is, therefore, not surprising that for many years most of Africa remained an unknown part of the world.

Many British explorers were lured to this “Dark Continent”, and it was through them that much of Africa became part of the old British Empire.

The most spectacular and, in some ways, the greatest of Africa’s explorers was Henry Morton Stanley who was born in 1841 in Wales, was brought up in a workhouse, emigrated to America, and later led a most heroic and hazardous trek in search of David Livingstone.

Livingstone, the famous Scottish explorer and missionary, started his last expedition in 1865 when he set out to explore the watersheds of the Nile, Zambesi and Congo. He was a sick man and was dogged by bad luck. Rumours began to reach Britain that he had died and, in America, the “New York Herald”, which was looking for a scoop, decided to send their star reporter, Henry Stanley, to Central Africa to find out if these rumours were true.

After some incredible adventures, Stanley found Livingstone in 1871 at Ujiji, and their immortal meeting took place. Stanley walked towards him took off his hat and said, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.” “Yes,” replied Livingstone. “Thank God I have been permitted to see you.”

Stanley spent four months with Livingstone and became engrossed with this remarkable man’s tales of the thirty years he had spent exploring Africa and trying to convert African tribes to Christianity. He so inspired Stanley that he eventually became one of the greatest explorers that Africa has known.

In 1876, Stanley embarked on his most epic adventure to prove beyond doubt that the Nile rose in Lake Victoria to flow northwards on its way to the Mediterranean, and that the Congo (now the Zaire) flowed across Africa to the Atlantic. David Livingstone had in fact explored the upper reaches of the Congo believing them to be the Nile, and this had caused confusion.

Stanley started his journey with 356 men, some of whom had brought their wives along. They came to a river which was blocked by impassable cataracts, and for fourteen terrible days they hacked their way through a forest so thick and dark that Stanley could not see to write his notes for a book he was compiling.

As they got deeper into the forest they came across several native villages, and realised from the skulls and bones lying around the camp fires that they had stumbled into cannibal country.

Eventually, more dead than alive, they reached another stretch of water. They camped alongside it to regain their strength, and then began to assemble the boats they had brought with them. Many of the men died from smallpox, typhoid fever and dysentery. Stanley lashed canoes together and made a platform from branches of trees and used this as a hospital ship.

They floated down the river until they once again came to another impassable stretch. Later they were to find that this was one of many, and each time the boats were taken to pieces and hauled through the thick brush and forest.

Often they were attacked by cannibal tribes, but still they struggled on and, after having managed to take their boats through seven cataracts, they came to calmer water right on the edge of the equator. These seven cataracts were later to be called Stanley Falls, and one day the town of Stanleyville (now Kisangani) would be built near them. By now Stanley was almost sure they were not on the Nile, but the Congo. More of his party died and they ran out of food. It was decided that even at the risk of being killed and eaten they must barter with one of the tribes. They swopped beads, cloth and wire for some provisions. Stanley asked the chief what was the name of the great river, and he was told it was the Kongo.

Eventually, Stanley and the remnants of his party reached a little settlement. Exactly one thousand days had passed since the beginning of this expedition and Stanley, although only thirty-six years old, was white-haired and haggard. More than two-thirds of the people he had set out with had died. Before he left on board a ship for the Cape he wrote, “I felt my heart suffused with purest gratitude to Him whose hand had protected us, and who had enabled us to pierce the Dark Continent from east to west, and to trace its mightiest river to its ocean bourne.”

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