The Niger River

World maps display the surface of a sphere on a flat surface, necessarily introducing distortion. In the Mercator projection, named for 16th century Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator, the lines of longitude are represented as parallel vertical lines, even though on the surface of the earth, the lines of longitude approach each other, until they meet at the poles. Objects near the poles are expanded relative to objects near the equator. Greenland appears as large as, or larger than, Africa; Africa, which straddles the equator, appears deceptively small.

The Niger River, with a drainage basin about two-thirds that of the Mississippi, is tucked into the bulge of Africa, arising in the Guinea Highlands, only about 150 miles (240 km) from the Atlantic— quite close to an ocean for a river that is over 2,500 miles (about 4,000km) long. From its source, the Niger flows east-northeast, away from the ocean, towards the Sahara, before turning southeast and then south, to flow into the Gulf of Benin.

As the 19th century dawned, even though European ships had been sailing down the west coast of Africa for centuries, the Niger’s actual course was unknown to Europeans. Europeans had knowledge of the river from ancient times — its existence had been reported by the Greeks, Phoenicians, and others — but its route was a mystery. Some Europeans speculated that it was linked to the Nile, others to the Congo, and others offered other alternatives.

This lack of European knowledge was at least partly due to the many who did know the Niger: it passed through lands populated by a variety of peoples, many of whom were hostile to outsiders. In 1795, the explorer Mungo Park found the Niger, but did not follow it. He returned in 1805, leading an expedition that included a troop of 44 redcoats. They never returned, reportedly killed by locals. Disease, too, preyed upon explorers.

Portrait of Mungo Park.

Portrait of Mungo Park.

In the early decades of the 19th century, the British Lords of the Admiralty sent several expeditions to map the Niger. Most failed, with many casualties, but by 1831, the last portions of the river were mapped by an Englishman named Richard Lander, setting the stage for the expansion of European imperial control in the 1870s and 1880s.

Richard and John Lander traveling down the Niger.

Richard and John Lander traveling down the Niger.

Finding Timbuktu

In 1324, Musa Keita I, the mansa (king or sultan) of the Malian empire, set out upon the Hajj—the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. Along the way, he gave gold to the poor—so much gold, in fact, that he devalued the metal, as prices for all things increased. This display of wealth contributed to the legend of his capital, Timbuktu.

Mansa Musa depicted holding a gold coin from the 1375 Catalan Atlas.

Mansa Musa depicted holding a gold coin from the 1375 Catalan Atlas.

Word of Timbuktu filtered slowly to Europeans through Islamic sources, and by the time European explorers were mapping the world and dividing it up for their colonial empires, the city had, in the European imagination, become a byword for the distant and fantastic. In truth, its power and wealth had declined. Located in the heart of Sub-Saharan Africa, near the Niger River (which had itself never been mapped by Europeans), Timbuktu was accessible either across the Sahara, through lands controlled by Muslims hostile to Christian Europeans, or through the tropical jungles of West Africa. Starting in the 17th century, European expeditions had set out in search of the fabled city, but expedition after expedition failed, and many or most did not return.

In this map by William Berry published in London in 1680, we see only a generalized Kingdome of Tombut with a stylized representation of the city of Tombut situated on the Niger River.

In the early 19th century, an American sailor claimed to have been to Timbuktu after being shipwrecked and enslaved, but his account of a poor, dull, and dirty city was not believed.

In August of 1826, a British explorer, Alexander Gordon Laing, sent a letter from Timbuktu, having become the first European to cross the Sahara from north to south. Laing’s journey had taken 13 months of great hardship—including the loss of his right hand to Tuareg raiders. In September, shortly after setting out north to recross the Sahara, Laing was killed, and his papers never recovered.

Two years later, a Frenchman, René Caillé, arrived in Timbuktu, having made the journey in disguise as an Egyptian Muslim who had been raised in France. On his return, Caillé was able to claim the prize offered by Geographical Society of Paris for the first person to reach the city. Like the American sailor, Caillé reported that Timbuktu was small and poor. The myth of the city of vast wealth was dispelled, and it would be a quarter century before another European would set foot there.

René Caillié, "Vue d'une partie de la ville de Temboctou, prise du sommet d'une colline, à l'Est-Nord-Est."  Timbuktu looking west. Three mosques are depicted. In the foreground is the Sidi Yahia Mosque. On the right hand side is the Sankoré Mosque. In the middle distance is the Grand Mosque (Djingareyber Mosque).

René Caillié, "Vue d'une partie de la ville de Temboctou, prise du sommet d'une colline, à l'Est-Nord-Est."

Timbuktu looking west. Three mosques are depicted. In the foreground is the Sidi Yahia Mosque. On the right hand side is the Sankoré Mosque. In the middle distance is the Grand Mosque (Djingareyber Mosque).