Saturday, February 8, 2014

Lander in West Africa

Richard Lander, a low born lad from Cornwall who started his working life at 13 as a servant but progressed to lead expeditions in West Africa, was born 210 years ago today. He became a darling of the newly-established Royal Geographic Society for showing, in 1830, that the Niger River flowed into the Atlantic; but on a subsequent expedition he died, not yet 30 years old. Both he and his better educated brother, who accompanied him on the 1830 journey, kept travel diaries. These were lost in a raid by pirates, and the brothers re-wrote a joint diary from memory, which was published on their return to Britain. Subsequently, two of the journal books were found, and archived, and only recently have been transcribed and used to analyse differences between the originals and the published version.

Lander was born on 8 February 1804, in Truro, Cornwall, the son of an innkeeper. Aged but 13, he accompanied a merchant to the West Indies; and on returning home he worked as a servant for wealthy families, travelling to Europe, and, in 1823, to Cape Colony. Subsequently, he went to work for the Scottish explorer Hugh Clapperton, accompanying him on an expedition to West Africa. After crossing the Niger they went as far as Sokoto (northwest Nigeria) where Clapperton died in 1827. Despite being ill himself, Lander made his way back to the coast, and managed to return to Britain with Clapperton’s papers in April 1828. Later that year he married Anne Hughes, daughter of a London merchant. They had a daughter, and a son who died in infancy.

Lander returned to West Africa in 1830, accompanied by his brother John, to explore the River Niger upstream, the River Benue and the Niger Delta, returning - after many adventures - to Britain in 1831. The expedition settled a disputed question over the course and outlet of the Niger (that it flowed into the Atlantic), and Lander was awarded the first gold medal by the just-established Royal Geographical Society. In 1832, he led a new expedition to Africa organised by Liverpudlian merchants, with the intention of founding a trading settlement. However, the expedition ran into difficulties, many of the crew died from fever, and Lander himself was wounded during an attack by tribesmen. He managed to return to the coast but died in February 1834, two days before his 30th birthday. Further biographical information is available from the Richard Lander Society website, or Wikipedia.

Among Clapperton’s papers that Lander brought back to Britain in 1828 was his journal, which Lander helped edit for a publication by John Murray, in 1829, which also included a journal Lander had written: Journal of a Second Expedition into the Interior of Africa, from the Bight of Benin to Soccatoo by the late Commander Clapperton of the Royal Navy, to which is added, the Journal of Richard Lander from Kano to the sea-coast, partly by a more Eastern route. This is freely available to read online at Internet Archive. Here are the first few entries of Lander’s diary.

20 November 1826
‘The sultan sent a messenger for me this morning, and after waiting in a coozie an hour, I was introduced to him. He informed me of his having received a letter from my father (after the death of Dr. Morrison I always passed for my master’s son), desiring him to send me to Soccatoo, with the whole of the property intrusted to my care. I had myself received a letter from my master only two days previously, in which he expressed no such intention; but, on the contrary, said he should be with me shortly. In that letter he complained of a violent pain in his side, to which he had been for some time subject; and I fancied, by his not writing me to-day, he had died; and that, from motives of delicacy, the king had withheld the news from me.’

22 November 1826
‘The sultan again sent for me, and said he would make my father a present of five pack bullocks to convey the goods to Soccatoo, and send four men to take charge of them on the road; at the same time wished me to leave on the 25th.’

24 November 1826
‘Paid my respects to the sultan in the morning; remained with him upwards of an hour; and on leaving, he said in a feeling tone, shaking hands with me at the same time, “Good bye, little Christian; God take you safe to Soccatoo.” He sent a letter by me to my master, and desired me to give his compliments to the king of the Mussulmans (sultan Bello, who was invariably designated by that appellation). On returning to my house, found Hadji Hat Sallah waiting for me. He told me it was necessary I should take the whole of my master’s money, which consisted of 212,000 cowries, to him. As this could not be done conveniently without a camel, I purchased one for 62,000 cowries.’

25 November 1826
‘At half-past seven in the morning, left my house, accompanied by old Pascoe, a messenger from sultan Bello, and one from the king of Kano. Could not, however, get without the gates of the city till ten, the bullocks being very restive, and throwing off their burdens repeatedly. At one o’clock halted at Zungugwa: the camel, in endeavouring to enter the gate, unfortunately broke two boxes in which was stationery, &c. This accident detained us an hour outside the walls, and the men were ultimately obliged to carry the goods on their heads to the residence of the chief, which was a quarter of a mile’s distance. I waited on him, and gave him a pair of scissors, fifty needles, and a small paper of cloves, which pleased him highly. The chief showed me into one of his best huts, where, he told me, I might remain till I thought proper to leave the place; and shortly afterwards sent me butter, sour milk, a couple of fine fowls, and tuah and corn.’

A few years later, in 1832, John Murray publish the Landers’ journal (written jointly by Richard and John) of the Niger expedition. Elizabeth Baigent, in her biography of Richard Lander for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (login required) says this: ‘John Murray, the publisher, gave them £1,000 for their journals. Lacking formal education, the brothers were not thought capable of editing the journals themselves, and they were instead (badly) edited by A. B. Becher and published as Journal of an Expedition to … the Niger (3 vols., 1832); a good later edition is that by Hallet (1965). The work was immediately popular and editions appeared in Dutch, French, German, Italian, and Swedish.’ All three volumes (and later two volume editions) are available at Internet Archive. The following extract is from near the beginning of volume 3.

21 October 1830
‘Though the venerable chief of Egga has to all outward appearances lived at least a hundred years, he is still active ; and, instead of the peevishness and discontent too often the accompaniment of lengthened days, possesses all the ease and gayety of youth. He professes the Mohammedan religion; and it is his custom to rise every morning long before daybreak, and, having assembled all his priests round him, performs his devotions, such as they are, repeating his prayers in a loud, shrill tone, so that we can hear him in his pious employment; and as our hut is directly opposite to his, and but a few paces from it, he is determined to give us no rest as long as we remain with closed doors. As soon as these devotional exercises have been gone through, several of his companions, with a disposition as thoughtless as childish, and as happy as his own, get together in his hut, and, squatting on the ground with the old chief, they form a circle, and beguile the time by smoking and conversing till long after sunset, and separate only for a few minutes at a time in the course of the day for the purpose of taking their meals. This company of gray-beards, for they are all old, laugh so heartily at the sprightliness of their own wit, that it is an invariable practice, when any one passes by, to stop and listen outside; and they join their noisy merriment with so much good-will that we hear nothing from the hut in which the aged group are revelling during the day but loud peals of laughter and shouts of applause. Much of this gayety, however, must be affected, in order to gratify the ruling passion of the old chief for joke and frolic. Examples of this nature are uncommonly rare. Professors of Mohammedanism affect, generally speaking, the solemnity of the owl; and though they understand no more of their faith than of the doctrines of Christianity, they regard all natives of a different persuasion with haughtiness and disdain.

The old chief longed to-day to give us a specimen of his activity and the vigour which he yet possessed; and for this purpose, when the sun was going down, his singers, dancers, and musicians assembled round our hut with a great concourse of people, who could not boast a proficiency in those refined attainments, but who came to witness the accomplishments of their aged leader. The old man advanced proudly into the ring, with a firm step and a smiling countenance, and casting upon us a glance full of meaning, as if he would have said, “Now, white men, look at me, and you will be filled with admiration and wonder” [. . .] and shaking his hoary locks, capered over the ground to the manifest delight of the bystanders, whose applauses, though confined, as they always are, to laughter, yet tickled the old man’s fancy to that degree, that he was unable to keep up his dance any longer without the aid of a crutch. With its assistance he hobbled on a little while, but his strength failed him, and he was constrained for the time to give over, and he sat himself down at our side on the threshold of the hut. He would not acknowledge his weakness to us for the world, but endeavoured to pant silently, and suppress loud breathings that we might not hear him. How ridiculous yet how natural is this vanity! He made other unavailing attempts to dance, and also made an attempt to sing, but nature would not second his efforts, and his weak piping voice was scarcely audible. The singers, dancers, and musicians continued their noisy mirth till we were weary of looking at and listening to them, and as bedtime was drawing near, we desired them to depart, to the infinite regret of the frivolous but merry old chief.

It is our intention to continue our journey tomorrow, though the elders of the town have been remonstrating with us that it will be highly dangerous to go by ourselves, and endeavouring to persuade us with many words to alter this arrangement for our own sakes. They have promised to procure us a convoy of traders, if we would consent to wait three days longer, which would leave Egga at the end of that time to attend a famous market, called Bocqua. But the attentions of our venerable friend already begin to slacken, being too intently engaged in his favourite pursuits to think much of us or of our wants, more especially since he has received his present; and we cannot easily maintain a quiet, equable temper, or keep up a flow of spirits for any length of time together, when we can get little or nothing to eat. We are therefore determined to go tomorrow at all risks, though we shall have no guide to accompany us; we have confidence in ourselves, and the mountains of the natives generally prove to be no bigger than mole-hills. The chief has been soliciting a charm of us, to prevent the Falatahs from ever again invading his territory. The old man’s allegiance to the King of Nouffie appears to us to be merely nominal. When we sent word to the chief that we intended going to-morrow morning, he begged us to remain at Egga a few days longer, and declared the banks of the river to be inhabited by people who were little better than savages, and plundered every one that came near them. He assured us that they were governed by no king and obeyed no laws, and that each town was at war with the others. I asked him if he would send a messenger with us, but he refused, saying, that the Falatah power and his own extended no farther down the river; that Egga is the last town of Nouffie, and that none of his people traded below it. “If that is the case,” I said, “it will be as safe for us to go to-morrow as any other day;” and with this determination I left him.

I then proceeded to give directions for our people to prepare themselves for starting, when, to my astonishment, Pascoe and the mulatto so often alluded to were the only two who agreed to go; the rest of them refused to a man. I then found out that the people of the town had been telling them stories about the danger of the river, and that they would all certainly either be murdered or taken and sold as slaves. Nor could all I said to them change their determination. I talked to them half an hour, telling them they were cowards, and that my brother’s life and mine were as good as theirs; till at length, tired of them, and seeing that I made no impression on them, I told them to go away from our sight, and that we could do without them. But now they demanded their wages, or a book to enable them to receive them at Cape Coast Castle, to which they said they would return by the way they had come here. This I refused instantly to comply with, and added, that if they chose to leave us here, they should not receive a farthing; but if they would go on with us down the river, they should be paid. They were indignant at this, and went directly to the chief to lay their case before him, and to induce him to detain us. The old man, however, would not listen to them, but sent them about their business; and it is not unlikely, rather than lose all their wages, that they will proceed with us.

My brother and I determined to satisfy the curiosity of the people to-day, and we accordingly walked about outside our hut for two hours. The natives were much pleased at this, and much order and regularity were preserved by two old Mallams, to whom the duty had been assigned of removing those away who had seen us when any fresh ones arrived. It was the old chief’s particular wish that all his people should see us, and they all conducted themselves in a very becoming manner. We had presented the chief with a pair of silver bracelets on our arrival, on which the arms of our gracious sovereign were engraved, and he wore them to-day with evident satisfaction. These were no less objects of curiosity to the people than they had been to the king, and hundreds of them came to look at them on his wrists, overjoyed at seeing their chief so smart. They even came and thanked us for our kindness to the old man.

The people of this town appear all very neatly dressed; the population is one-half of the Mohammedan religion, and the other the original pagan. The town is about four miles in length and two in breadth: the morass which surrounds it is full of crocodiles. The streets are very narrow, and, like most places where there are large markets, are exceedingly filthy. The reason for building their houses so close together is, that the Falatahs may not be able to ride through them so easily and destroy the people; it is said that they have been expecting an attack from these people a long time. The Portuguese cloth which we observed here on our arrival is brought up the river from a place called Cuttumcurrafee, which has a celebrated market for Nouffie cloths, trona, slaves, Nouffie knives, bridles, stirrups, brass ornaments, stained leather, and other things. The cloth is of a very indifferent manufacture. The large canoes lying here bring all the above articles from the Rabba market.’

Lost journals (Editorial note: the notes and quotes for the following paragraphs were all gathered in February 2014. However, on being checked in February 2024, none of the links were found to work, and the original sources, at the Harriet Tubman Institute, no longer seem to be available. Nevertheless, I have left the article as written, but without the source links.)

It appears, however, that much of the three volumes published by John Murray was written after the fact: the brothers, Richard and John, had lost their papers when their canoes were attacked by pirates and so they had jointly reproduced a single journal from memory. Two years after publication of the Landers’ journal, two of the lost diary books reappeared. These were, apparently, perused by Becher, who decided they did not materially add to the published account, and were set aside. One of these is today in the John Murray Archive, National Library of Scotland, and the other is in the Wellcome Library, London.

Photographs of the original (and quite severely damaged) journals along with transcriptions can be found on the website of The Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on the Global Migrations of African Peoples, at York University, Toronto, thanks to Jamie Bruce Lockhart, an ex-British diplomat in West Africa, and a keen student of Clapperton’s travels. Here is Lockhart’s transcription of Richard Lander’s original journal book for the same day as above (and see also Lockhart’s transcription of John Lander’s original journal book which provides a much fuller account):

21 October 1830
‘We have [h]ad nothing to day but dancing and singing enough to drive one mad ~ beating away on 10 old drums with all their might ~ the King first danced and then [h]is sons ~ but we did not like it a tall [sic] ~ it whas the worse dancing I we ever sow ~ the[y] threw themselves about like mad fellows ~ the old chief say he shall die happy now he [h]as seen a wite man ~ we have [h]ad all the princable ladys of the Town to see us [to]day most of them bringing some little thing with them as a present ~ this Town is the end of the Naffe country ~ the river seen coming from the N the day we arrived here is the Cudonia crossed by me on the former mission near Cutup.’

In addition to these files detailing the content of the Landers’ ‘lost’ journals, Lockhart has also written a very interesting - to students of historical diaries - analysis which can be read freely on The Harriet Tubman Institute website.

Lockhart concludes: ‘Perhaps the main question for us today is whether or not the end product [i.e. the published three volumes] suffers from having been constructed with a fair degree of hindsight. And other questions naturally arise. Readers will make up their own mind, but the following points seem relevant
- there is no new information of substance in the brothers’ primary journals. They form the preliminary record.
- the raw journals themselves are remarkably fluent and innocent of alterations. Deletions and insertions can be comfortably accounted for, although John Lander occasionally, no doubt by habit, sought to improve his word choice.
- the diaries give a rather different, and more lively, feel to the journey than the finished product, and would appear to reflect better than the latter what the brothers thought and felt at the time - unencumbered by the tortuous prose of the period. Small personal details emerge – such as worry over the health of the other, the minor irritations and discomforts of the road, as well as the major frustrations of accidents and delays, uncomfortable enclosed huts – which are the real stuff of travel.
- it is very evident that the first product was worked up later. It is also clear, pace Becher, that one could not possibly have based a finished journal on Richard’s incomplete and staccato notes.
- the published journal was well constructed from the separate as well as joint recollections of both. The individual input of each brother was original, and not cross compared at the time - two views complementing each other with only occasional muddle (for example in the incident of the kite).
- it is also clear when there is reliance on one account only, i.e. when one brother was absent or ill. While the text of Richard’s journal is not legible throughout, dates can be made out and give us an outline of days and periods when Richard, for whatever reason, made no entries at all. If required, cross reference of these dates to the published text would shed more light on the lack of consistency in the Landers’ and Becher’s attributions of source.
- the additional and often gratuitous comments (by John, or possibly Becher), and specially quotations, which abound are much to be regretted and detract from the interest and value of the journal.’

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