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Explorers of Africa

Find out who was who, where they went, and when

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Africa on antique looking globe
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Even in the 18th century, much of the interior of Africa was unfamiliar to Europeans. Rather they limited themselves to trade along the coast, first in gold, ivory, spices, and later slaves. In 1788 Joseph Banks, the botanist who'd sailed across the Pacific Ocean with Cook, went as far as to found the African Association to promote the exploration of the interior of the continent. What follows is a list of those explorers whose names went down in history.

Ibn Battuta (1304-1377) traveled over 100,000 kilometres from his home in Morocco. According to the book he dictated, he traveled as far as Beijing and the Volga River; scholars say it's unlikely he traveled everywhere he claims to have.

James Bruce (1730-94) was a Scottish explorer who set off from Cairo in 1768 to find the source of the River Nile. He arrived at Lake Tana in 1770, confirming that this lake was the origin of the Blue Nile, one of the tributaries of the Nile.

Mungo Park (1771-1806) was hired by the African Association in 1795 to explore the River Niger. When the Scotsman returned to Britain having reached the Niger, he was disappointed by the lack of public recognition of his achievement and that he was not acknowledged as a great explorer. In 1805 he set out to follow the Niger to its source. His canoe was ambushed by tribesmen at the Bussa Falls and he drowned.

René-Auguste Caillié (1799-1838), a Frenchman, was the first European to visit Timbuktu and survive to tell the tale. He'd disguised himself as an Arab to make the trip. Imagine his disappointment when he discovered that the city wasn't made of gold, as legend said, but of mud. His journey started in West Africa in March 1827, headed towards Timbuktu where he stayed for two weeks. He then crossed the Sahara (the first European to do so) in a caravan of 1,200 animals, then the Atlas Mountains to reach Tangier in 1828, from where he sailed home to France.

Heinrich Barth (1821-1865) was a German working for the British government. His first expedition (1844-1845)was from Rabat (Morocco) across the coast of North Africa to Alexandria (Egypt). His second expedition (1850-1855) took him from Tripoli (Tunisia) across the Sahara to Lake Chad, the River Benue, and Timbuktu, and back across the Sahara again.

Samuel Baker (1821-1893) was the first European to see the Murchison Falls and Lake Albert, in 1864. He was actually hunting for the source of the Nile.

Richard Burton (1821-1890) was not only a great explorer but also a great scholar (he produced the first unabridged translation of The Thousand Nights and a Night). His most famous exploit is probably his dressing as an Arab and visiting the holy city of Mecca (in 1853) which non-Muslims are forbidden to enter. In 1857 he and Speke set off from the east coast of Africa (Tanzania) to find the source of the Nile. At Lake Tanganyika Burton fell seriously ill, leaving Speke to travel on alone.

John Hanning Speke (1827-1864) spent 10 years with the Indian Army before starting his travels with Burton in Africa. Speke discovered Lake Victoria in August 1858 which he initially believed to be the source of the Nile. Burton didn't believe him and in 1860 Speke set out again, this time with James Grant. In July 1862 he found the source of the Nile, the Ripon Falls north of Lake Victoria.

David Livingstone (1813-1873) arrived in Southern Africa as a missionary with the aim of improving the life of Africans through European knowledge and trade. A qualified doctor and minister, he had worked in a cotton mill near Glasgow, Scotland, as a boy. Between 1853 and 1856 he crossed Africa from west to east, from Luanda (in Angola) to Quelimane (in Mozambique), following the Zambezi River to the sea. Between 1858 and 1864 he explored the Shire and Ruvuma river valleys and Lake Nyasa (Lake Malawi). In 1865 he set off to find the source of the River Nile.

Henry Morton Stanley (1841-1904) was a journalist sent by the New York Herald to find Livingstone who had been presumed dead for four years as no-one in Europe had heard from him. Stanley found him at Uiji on the edge of Lake Tanganyika in Central Africa on 13 November 1871. Stanley's words "Dr Livingstone, I presume?" have gone down in the history as one of the greatest understatements ever. Dr Livingstone is said to have replied, "You have brought me new life." Livingstone had missed the Franco-Prussian War, the opening of the Suez Canal, and the inauguration of the transatlantic telegraph. Livingstone refused to return to Europe with Stanley and continued on his journey to find the source of the Nile. He died in May 1873 in the swamps around Lake Bangweulu. His heart and viscera were buried, then his body was carried to Zanzibar, from where it was shipped to Britain. He was buried at Westminster Abbey in London.

Unlike Livingstone, Stanley was motivated by fame and fortune. He traveled in large, well-armed expeditions -- he had 200 porters on his expedition to find Livingstone, who often traveled with only a few bearers. Stanley's second expedition set off from Zanzibar towards Lake Victoria (which he sailed around in his boat, the Lady Alice), then headed into Central Africa towards Nyangwe and the Congo (Zaire) River, which he followed for some 3,220 kilometres from its tributaries to the sea, reaching Boma in August 1877. He then set off back into Central Africa to find Emin Pasha, a German explorer believed to be in danger from warring cannibals.

The German explorer, philosopher, and journalist Carl Peters (1856-1918) played a significant role in the creation of Deutsch-Ostafrika (German East Africa) A leading figure in the 'Scramble for Africa' Peters was ultimately vilified for his cruelty to Africans and removed from office. He was, however, considered a hero by the German emperor Wilhelm II and Adolf Hitler..

Mary Kingsley's (1862-1900) father spent most of his life accompanying noblemen around the world, keeping diaries and notes which he hoped to publish. Educated at home, she learnt the rudiments of natural history from him and his library. He employed a tutor to teach his daughter German so she could help him translate scientific papers. His comparative study of sacrificial rites around the world was his major passion and it was Mary's desire to complete this which took her to West Africa after her parents' deaths in 1892 (within six weeks of each other). Her two journeys weren't remarkable for their geological exploration, but were remarkable for being undertaken, alone, by a sheltered, middle-class, Victorian spinster in her thirties without any knowledge of African languages or French, or much money (she arrived in West Africa with only £300). Kingsley did collect specimens for science, including a new fish which was named after her. She died nursing prisoners of war in Simon's Town (Cape Town) during the Anglo-Boer War.

The article is a revised and expanded version of that first published on 25 June 2001.

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