Exploration of Africa

Exploration of Africa
Exploration of Africa

Systematic exploration of Africa by Europeans began with James Bruce, who was born at Kinnaird in Scotland in 1730. After a century of bloody internal war, Scottish energy turned to intellectual and scientific studies, including exploration.

Bruce arrived in Algiers in 1762 as the British consul, and in 1768 he was in Cairo, where he conceived the great dream of his life: to find the source of the Nile River. Unlike others, Bruce believed the source of the Nile was in Ethiopia.

Bruce had the misconception that the Blue Nile was the main point of origin of the great river, not the White, as later explorers would determine. Indeed, the White and Blue Niles are two distinct rivers, as explorers would later learn.

Bruce, with self-confidence and determination, was the prototype of the African explorer. In November 1770 he reached Ethiopia’s Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile. After months of adventure and war, he returned to Cairo in January 1773 before going on to London and then to his native Scotland.

In 1790 he published the record of his journeys, Travels to Discover the Sources of the Nile. Four years later, Bruce, who had survived disasters and dangers, died at home from a fall on a flight of steps.

The next great explorer of Africa was another Scotsman, Mungo Park, born in Selkirkshire in 1771. In 1789 he went to Edinburgh to study to become a surgeon. Park’s extraordinary abilities caught the attention of Joseph Banks, perhaps the greatest botanist of his day.

After Park completed his studies, Banks helped him secure the position of surgeon on the British East India Company’s merchant ship Worcester. When he returned, he brought descriptions of eight new species of fish. Meanwhile, French and British colonial rivalry was beginning to engulf Africa.

Impressed by Park’s presentation of the new species, Banks recommended Park as a scientist for the Association for the Promotion and Discovery through the Interior of Africa—an expedition-sponsoring association.

He got the position, and the expedition set sail on May 22, 1795. The party located the Niger River on July 22, 1796, and Park’s record of the journey was published in 1799 as Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa.

In January 1805 Park set sail in the troopship HMS Crescent and landed at the port of Gorée on the Gambia two months later. Disregarding sickness and bandits, which took a steady toll of his party, Park reached the Niger on August 19. Park wrote his last letter to his wife, Allison, on November 20, 1805. It appears the Scotsman was killed in a skirmish with tribesmen at Bussa Falls in 1805 on the Niger.

The Napoleonic conquest of Egypt guaranteed continued British interest in Africa because it brought the continent into the heart of the conflict. One of Napoleon’s generals, Louis-Charles-Antoine Desaix, unwittingly became one of the first European explorers of the Nile as he pursued the defeated Mamluks into Upper Egypt. The British used the Napoleonic Wars to stake their claim on South Africa as well.

In 1806 at the southern extremity of the continent, the British seized the Dutch colony at what would become Cape Town, since the Netherlands were then allied with the French. The great anchorage of Table Bay made the site vital to communications with the crown jewel of the growing British Empire, India.

It became the southern British gateway to the interior of Africa, then undergoing the imperial conquests of the Zulu king Shaka Zulu. From Cape Town came the British penetration of the southern half of Africa that continued to the end of the 19th century.

Cape Town

In November 1810 the new British colony of Cape Town led to the first British journey into the unknown Bantu lands to the north. William Burchell was born in 1782, the son of a professional nurseryman. Like Joseph Banks and Mungo Park before him, an interest in botany led to his interest in exploration.

It took Burchell several months to gather together an expedition. His goal was the Kalahari Desert and Angola, which the Portuguese had first visited in the 15th century in their long trek down the west coast of Africa.

Discovering the desert, the terrible heat and lack of water finally forced Burchell to abandon his quest for Angola, and in August he turned back. It would take him and his party two and a half years to return to Cape Town, having traversed some of the most forbidding terrain in Africa.

In April 1815 he returned to Cape Town with an immense scientific treasure from his years of exploration. He returned to England, and from 1822 to 1824 Burchell devoted himself to writing his two-volume Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa.

Thus, by the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, much of the coastal area of Africa had been explored, and intrepid adventurers had begun to enter the uncharted heart of the continent. For the rest of the century, the lure of the African interior would be irresistible.

While governments may have had their own agendas, for the great majority of explorers, they traveled neither for imperial glory or monetary gain, but for the sheer adventure of finding out what lay beyond the next river or mountain range.

Still, as in the era of Mungo Park, one of the greatest challenges to exploration was the ancient city of Timbuktu; this and the source of the Nile formed two of the Holy Grails for generations of explorers.

In May 1825 Alexander Gordon Laing landed in Tripoli, determined to find his way to Timbuktu. Finally, after a year of incredible hardship in the desert, on August 13, 1826, he arrived at Timbuktu.

Although the city disappointed him, Laing was impressed by the Mosque of Sankore, built by the great Muslim West African ruler Mansa Musa. Although Laing had achieved his goal, his exploration ended in tragedy.

On September 21, 1826, Laing was told he was not safe and left the city to walk into a trap set by Sheikh Ahmadu El Abeyd, who had promised him protection. On September 22 El Abeyd demanded Laing accept Islam, but the Scotsman refused. He was killed and his head cut off.


The chapter in the history of African exploration concerning Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke is the most tragic of all. In 1856 Richard Burton, perhaps the greatest British adventurer of his generation, was commissioned by the Royal Geographic Society to find the source of the Nile.

He decided to take with him a companion from an earlier expedition, John Hanning Speke. Burton was already an accomplished traveler, proficient in Arabic, and able to carry off pretending to be a Muslim.

On December 19, 1856, Burton and Speke arrived at Zanzibar from Bombay, where Burton held a commission in the army of the East India Company. Both men took ample time in Zanzibar preparing for their expedition.

They set off on their quest after years of travels and squabbles. Burton was convinced that Lake Tanganyika was the source of the White Nile, whereas Speke believed it was Lake Ukewere, which he renamed Lake Victoria.

The rivalry that began in their prior expedition came to a head, and when Burton stopped to rest in Aden, Speke went on to England, promising to wait for his return to reveal the results of their journeys. He broke that promise, and by the time Burton arrived in England on May 21, 1858, Speke had convinced the Royal Geographic Society that Lake Victoria was the source.

This accomplishment earned him another commission by the society, and he did not invite Burton to join him on his return to Africa to verify the claim. Instead, Speke chose an army companion, James Augustus Grant. They arrived in Zanzibar from England in August 1860. They retraced the route that Speke had taken with Burton.

After several months in Uganda, Speke and Grant continued their trip. Because Grant had a severely infected leg, Speke tended to forge ahead on his own. On July 21, 1862, Speke found himself on the Nile and on July 28 came to Rippon Falls, where the White Nile flows out of Lake Victoria.

It was during Speke’s second trip that he and Grant met two of the period’s most colorful explorers, Samuel Baker and his redoubtable wife, Florence. They met Speke at Gondokoro on the White Nile, whose source the Bakers were pursuing. A question remained about another lake, known as the Luta N’zige.

Speke believed that the White Nile flowed into it from Lake Victoria and then out of Luta N’zige. Speke suggested to Baker that he take up the investigation, and Baker was pleased to do so. On February 26, Speke and Grant resumed their journey down the Nile to Khartoum, and from there to Cairo and England.

Lake Albert

The Bakers continued with their exploration and on January 31, 1864, they struck out on the final march toward Luta N’zige. On March 15, 1864, they found the lake, which they renamed Lake Albert.

Samuel explored the surrounding area and saw that the Nile flowed through it. He and Florence returned to England in October, and Samuel was given a gold medal by the Royal Geographic Society. The following August he was knighted.

Meanwhile Speke returned to England without any convincing evidence that his theory was correct. The British Association for the Advancement of Science set up a meeting between Burton and Speke to make their cases.

At a preliminary meeting Burton triumphed over Speke. On September 15, one day before the final confrontation, Speke was shot dead while hunting. Many claimed he had shot himself by accident, but others felt he had taken his own life.

Throughout this entire period the name David Livingstone seemed to dominate. Livingstone was a Scotsman born on May 1, 1813. He first visited Africa as a missionary, having gained a degree in medicine at the age of 25 at the University of Glasgow.

Livingstone soon realized that the exploration of this virtually unknown continent was more to his heart than laboring at a missionary station and devoted himself to exploration, often with his wife.

On June 1, 1849, with two companions, Orwell and Murray, he traveled to find Lake Ngami, and on August 1 Livingstone and his party sailed down the entire lake. Then began Livingstone’s exploration of the Zambezi River.

A national hero back home, Livingstone recounted his travels in his best-selling Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa. From 1858 to 1864 he was in Africa on a second expedition to explore eastern and central Africa. He returned to Africa in 1864 to look for the sources of the Nile.

Striking out from Mikindani on the east coast, the expedition was forced south, and some of his followers deserted him, concocting the story that he had been killed and making headline news. Livingstone, however, pressed on, reaching Lakes Mweru, Bangweulu, and Tanganyika. Moving on to the Congo River, he went farther than any European before him.

It was on this exploration that rumors reached England and North America that the great explorer was near death. In 1869 the New York Herald hired Henry Morton Stanley to find Dr. Livingstone.

On November 10, 1871, Stanley found Livingstone at his camp at Ujji on Lake Tanganyika. Upon Livingstone’s death in 1873, his body was returned to England for burial in Westminster Abbey. Stanley decided to pick up where Livingstone, Burton, and Speke had left off, and he set off on his own expedition.

The most important result of the journey was the realization that Speke’s theory had been right—Lake Victoria was the source for the White Nile. He followed the Congo River and caught the attention of King Leopold II of Belgium, who wished to develop the Congo River basin. In 1879 Stanley set off for Africa in the service of Leopold.

The exploration of Africa led to a rivalry among the countries that had sponsored the explorers. At the same time that Stanley had been exploring the Congo for Belgium, so had Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza for France.

To prevent an African rivalry from endangering the peace of Europe, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck of Germany chaired a Conference of Berlin from November 1884 to February 1885 to gain the Great Powers’ agreement to a peaceful partition of Africa.

The map of Africa was filling in as the end of the century approached. The areas not yet mapped quickened the heartbeats of explorers from all over the world. Kenya was the next area of interest. On January 2, 1887, the Hungarian explorer Count Teleki von Szek arrived in Zanzibar with Ludwig von Hohnel.

Their goal was to explore for their patron, Crown Prince Rudolph of Austria-Hungary, another of the lakes that still tantalized African explorers, known in the local language as Basso Narok, or Black Water. Teleki was the first to climb Mount Kenya before discovering two more lakes, today known as Turkana and Stefanie.

On October 26, 1888, after close to two years, they returned to Mombasa and the voyage home. Sixteen years later, in 1914, World War I changed the map of Africa forever. Still, in honor of the explorer who had the purest heart, in spite of the era of decolonization after World War II and the years of unrest that followed, the statue of Dr. David Livingstone still stands overlooking Victoria Falls today.