African Association
The Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa (commonly known as the African Association), founded in London
London is the capital city of :England and the :United Kingdom, the largest metropolitan area in the United Kingdom, and the largest urban zone in the European Union by most measures. Located on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia, its history going back to its...

 on June 9, 1788, was a British
United Kingdom
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandIn the United Kingdom and Dependencies, other languages have been officially recognised as legitimate autochthonous languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages...

 club dedicated to the exploration of West Africa
West Africa
West Africa or Western Africa is the westernmost region of the African continent. Geopolitically, the UN definition of Western Africa includes the following 16 countries and an area of approximately 5 million square km:-Flags of West Africa:...

, with the mission of discovering the origin and course of the Niger River
Niger River
The Niger River is the principal river of western Africa, extending about . Its drainage basin is in area. Its source is in the Guinea Highlands in southeastern Guinea...

 and the location of Timbuktu
Timbuktu , formerly also spelled Timbuctoo, is a town in the West African nation of Mali situated north of the River Niger on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. The town is the capital of the Timbuktu Region, one of the eight administrative regions of Mali...

, the "lost city" of gold. The formation of this group was effectively the "beginning of the age of African exploration
European exploration of Africa
European exploration of Africa began with Ancient Greeks and Romans, who explored and established settlements in North Africa. Fifteenth Century Portugal, especially under Henry the Navigator probed along the West African coast. Scientific curiosity and Christian missionary spirit soon were...


Organized by a dozen titled members of London’s upper-class establishment and led by Sir Joseph Banks
Joseph Banks
Sir Joseph Banks, 1st Baronet, GCB, PRS was an English naturalist, botanist and patron of the natural sciences. He took part in Captain James Cook's first great voyage . Banks is credited with the introduction to the Western world of eucalyptus, acacia, mimosa and the genus named after him,...

, the African Association felt that it was the great failing of the Age of Enlightenment
Age of Enlightenment
The Age of Enlightenment was an elite cultural movement of intellectuals in 18th century Europe that sought to mobilize the power of reason in order to reform society and advance knowledge. It promoted intellectual interchange and opposed intolerance and abuses in church and state...

 that, in a time when men could sail around the world, the geography
Geography is the science that studies the lands, features, inhabitants, and phenomena of Earth. A literal translation would be "to describe or write about the Earth". The first person to use the word "geography" was Eratosthenes...

 of the Dark Continent
Dark Continent
Dark Continent may refer to:*A 19th century expression previously used to describe Africa, particularly Sub-Saharan Africa.*Dark Continent , an album by Wall of Voodoo...

 remained almost entirely uncharted. The Ancient Greeks
Ancient Greece
Ancient Greece is a civilization belonging to a period of Greek history that lasted from the Archaic period of the 8th to 6th centuries BC to the end of antiquity. Immediately following this period was the beginning of the Early Middle Ages and the Byzantine era. Included in Ancient Greece is the...

 and Romans knew more about the interior of Africa
Africa is the world's second largest and second most populous continent, after Asia. At about 30.2 million km² including adjacent islands, it covers 6% of the Earth's total surface area and 20.4% of the total land area...

 than did the English of the 18th century.

Motivated by sincere desires for scientific knowledge and the abolition
Abolitionism is a movement to end slavery.In western Europe and the Americas abolitionism was a movement to end the slave trade and set slaves free. At the behest of Dominican priest Bartolomé de las Casas who was shocked at the treatment of natives in the New World, Spain enacted the first...

 of the slave trade
History of slavery
The history of slavery covers slave systems in historical perspective in which one human being is legally the property of another, can be bought or sold, is not allowed to escape and must work for the owner without any choice involved...

, yet not averse to gaining opportunities for British commerce
While business refers to the value-creating activities of an organization for profit, commerce means the whole system of an economy that constitutes an environment for business. The system includes legal, economic, political, social, cultural, and technological systems that are in operation in any...

, the wealthy members each pledged to contribute five guineas
Guinea (British coin)
The guinea is a coin that was minted in the Kingdom of England and later in the Kingdom of Great Britain and the United Kingdom between 1663 and 1813...

 per year to recruiting and funding expeditions
Exploration is the act of searching or traveling around a terrain for the purpose of discovery of resources or information. Exploration occurs in all non-sessile animal species, including humans...

 from England
England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...

 to Africa.

Background and Incentives

The Mali Empire
Mali Empire
The Mali Empire or Mandingo Empire or Manden Kurufa was a West African empire of the Mandinka from c. 1230 to c. 1600. The empire was founded by Sundiata Keita and became renowned for the wealth of its rulers, especially Mansa Musa I...

, from the 13th to 15th centuries, dominated the region which stretched from the West Africa
West Africa
West Africa or Western Africa is the westernmost region of the African continent. Geopolitically, the UN definition of Western Africa includes the following 16 countries and an area of approximately 5 million square km:-Flags of West Africa:...

n coast between the Gambia
Gambia River
The Gambia River is a major river in West Africa, running from the Fouta Djallon plateau in north Guinea westward through Senegal and The Gambia to the Atlantic Ocean at the city of Banjul...

 and Senegal
Sénégal River
The Sénégal River is a long river in West Africa that forms the border between Senegal and Mauritania.The Sénégal's headwaters are the Semefé and Bafing rivers which both originate in Guinea; they form a small part of the Guinean-Malian border before coming together at Bafoulabé in Mali...

 rivers almost to Sokoto
Sokoto is a city located in the extreme northwest of Nigeria, near to the confluence of the Sokoto River and the Rima River. As of 2006 it has a population of 427,760...

 in the east, and from 150 miles north of Timbuktu to the headwaters of the Niger. From Timbuktu flowed exports of gold and slaves
Slavery is a system under which people are treated as property to be bought and sold, and are forced to work. Slaves can be held against their will from the time of their capture, purchase or birth, and deprived of the right to leave, to refuse to work, or to demand compensation...

 in such quantities that the city took on the reputation in the outside world of possessing endless wealth. To Europeans
Culture of Europe
The culture of Europe might better be described as a series of overlapping cultures. Whether it is a question of North as opposed to South; West as opposed to East; Orthodoxism as opposed to Protestantism as opposed to Catholicism as opposed to Secularism; many have claimed to identify cultural...

 fascinated by the discovery of new worlds, Timbuktu was too great a temptation to resist.

The Scotsman James Bruce
James Bruce
James Bruce was a Scottish traveller and travel writer who spent more than a dozen years in North Africa and Ethiopia, where he traced the origins of the Blue Nile.-Youth:...

 had ventured to Ethiopia
Ethiopia , officially known as the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, is a country located in the Horn of Africa. It is the second-most populous nation in Africa, with over 82 million inhabitants, and the tenth-largest by area, occupying 1,100,000 km2...

 in 1769 and reached the source of the Blue Nile
Blue Nile
The Blue Nile is a river originating at Lake Tana in Ethiopia. With the White Nile, the river is one of the two major tributaries of the Nile...

. His account of his travels provoked enthusiasm for further exploration into Africa by Europeans, and the men of the African Association were especially inspired in their own goals.

The location and course of the Niger River were almost completely unknown by Europeans in the 18th century, and most of their map
A map is a visual representation of an area—a symbolic depiction highlighting relationships between elements of that space such as objects, regions, and themes....

s charting it were mere guesses. According to Davidson Nicol
Abioseh Nicol
Abioseh Davidson Nicol was a Sierra Leonean academic, diplomat, physician, writer and poet. He has been considered as one of Sierra Leone’s most educated citizens of recent times, as he was able to secure degrees on the art, science and commercial disciplines.-Early life:Nicol was born as Davidson...

Almost all the European theories of the river’s course hypothesized that it flowed east to west, which contradicted reality. Up to this point, no white man
Western world
The Western world, also known as the West and the Occident , is a term referring to the countries of Western Europe , the countries of the Americas, as well all countries of Northern and Central Europe, Australia and New Zealand...

 had ever seen the river itself. In fact, many Europeans were not even convinced of its existence, though it had been well-known and well-traveled by Muslim
A Muslim, also spelled Moslem, is an adherent of Islam, a monotheistic, Abrahamic religion based on the Quran, which Muslims consider the verbatim word of God as revealed to prophet Muhammad. "Muslim" is the Arabic term for "submitter" .Muslims believe that God is one and incomparable...

s for hundreds of years.
The Niger had long been the major highway of commerce between the kingdoms of Africa’s interior and traders from as far away as Iraq
Iraq ; officially the Republic of Iraq is a country in Western Asia spanning most of the northwestern end of the Zagros mountain range, the eastern part of the Syrian Desert and the northern part of the Arabian Desert....

, and offered significant trade
Trade is the transfer of ownership of goods and services from one person or entity to another. Trade is sometimes loosely called commerce or financial transaction or barter. A network that allows trade is called a market. The original form of trade was barter, the direct exchange of goods and...

 opportunities for Europe
Europe is, by convention, one of the world's seven continents. Comprising the westernmost peninsula of Eurasia, Europe is generally 'divided' from Asia to its east by the watershed divides of the Ural and Caucasus Mountains, the Ural River, the Caspian and Black Seas, and the waterways connecting...

. According to Peter Brent’s Black Nile,

John Ledyard

The first explorer recruited for travel to Africa was an American
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 named John Ledyard
John Ledyard
John Ledyard was an American explorer and adventurer.-Early life:Ledyard was born in Groton, Connecticut, the oldest son of John and Abigail Ledyard and the nephew of Continental Army Colonel William Ledyard...

. He had traveled around the world with Captain Cook
James Cook
Captain James Cook, FRS, RN was a British explorer, navigator and cartographer who ultimately rose to the rank of captain in the Royal Navy...

 and been acquainted with Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson was the principal author of the United States Declaration of Independence and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom , the third President of the United States and founder of the University of Virginia...

 before attempting a voyage across Russia
Russia or , officially known as both Russia and the Russian Federation , is a country in northern Eurasia. It is a federal semi-presidential republic, comprising 83 federal subjects...

, Siberia
Siberia is an extensive region constituting almost all of Northern Asia. Comprising the central and eastern portion of the Russian Federation, it was part of the Soviet Union from its beginning, as its predecessor states, the Tsardom of Russia and the Russian Empire, conquered it during the 16th...

, and North America
North America
North America is a continent wholly within the Northern Hemisphere and almost wholly within the Western Hemisphere. It is also considered a northern subcontinent of the Americas...

. Having failed to complete his journey, he called on Sir Joseph and the African Association, who thought him a perfect fit for their enterprise.

After setting sail from England on June 30, 1788 he arrived in August at Cairo
Cairo , is the capital of Egypt and the largest city in the Arab world and Africa, and the 16th largest metropolitan area in the world. Nicknamed "The City of a Thousand Minarets" for its preponderance of Islamic architecture, Cairo has long been a centre of the region's political and cultural life...

. While preparing for his westward journey inland in search of the Niger, however, he fell ill and, trying to relieve his "bilious
Bile or gall is a bitter-tasting, dark green to yellowish brown fluid, produced by the liver of most vertebrates, that aids the process of digestion of lipids in the small intestine. In many species, bile is stored in the gallbladder and upon eating is discharged into the duodenum...

 complaint", inadvertently poisoned himself with a fatal dose of sulphuric acid.

Simon Lucas

While Ledyard was still traveling, the African Association had enlisted Simon Lucas to attempt a mission from the northern end of the continent, starting at Tripoli
Tripoli is the capital and largest city in Libya. It is also known as Western Tripoli , to distinguish it from Tripoli, Lebanon. It is affectionately called The Mermaid of the Mediterranean , describing its turquoise waters and its whitewashed buildings. Tripoli is a Greek name that means "Three...

. He spoke fluent Arabic
Arabic language
Arabic is a name applied to the descendants of the Classical Arabic language of the 6th century AD, used most prominently in the Quran, the Islamic Holy Book...

 and, having spent time in Morocco
Morocco , officially the Kingdom of Morocco , is a country located in North Africa. It has a population of more than 32 million and an area of 710,850 km², and also primarily administers the disputed region of the Western Sahara...

, was already friendly with the Tripolitanian ambassador. After arriving in Tripoli in October 1788, Lucas found guides to take him across the Libyan Desert
Libyan Desert
The Libyan Desert covers an area of approximately 1,100,000 km2, it extends approximately 1100 km from east to west, and 1,000 km from north to south, in about the shape of a rectangle...

 but their journey was continually delayed by tribal wars blocking the route. Soon his guides abandoned him, and he was forced to limp back to England. He had, however, acquired some valuable information about the southern Libyan region.

Henry Beaufoy, the Association's recordkeeper, wrote down in the Proceedings of 1790 what little information had been gleaned from these two ill-fated journeys: that the Niger
Niger , officially named the Republic of Niger, is a landlocked country in Western Africa, named after the Niger River. It borders Nigeria and Benin to the south, Burkina Faso and Mali to the west, Algeria and Libya to the north and Chad to the east...

 was reputed to be practically non-navigable, and what was known about Bornu
Bornu Empire
The Bornu Empire was an African state of Nigeria from 1396 to 1893. It was a continuation of the great Kanem Empire founded centuries earlier by the Sayfawa Dynasty...

 and the edges of the Sahara. The club’s curiosity had been further stimulated and they quickly renewed their search for explorers.

Daniel Houghton

In autumn of 1790, an Irish
Irish people
The Irish people are an ethnic group who originate in Ireland, an island in northwestern Europe. Ireland has been populated for around 9,000 years , with the Irish people's earliest ancestors recorded having legends of being descended from groups such as the Nemedians, Fomorians, Fir Bolg, Tuatha...

 major named Daniel Houghton
Daniel Houghton
Daniel Houghton was an Irish explorer and one of the earliest Europeans to travel through the interior of West Africa.-Early life and family:...

 was commissioned to proceed from the mouth of the river Gambia on Africa’s western coast, moving inland towards (hopefully) the Niger. He penetrated farther into Africa than any European before him. From the highest navigable point on the Gambia he continued on foot northeast toward Bundu, where the local authorities delayed his passage. Houghton eventually made his way as far as the north Saharan village of Simbing, 160 miles north of the Niger and 500 miles short of Timbuktu, but in September of 1791, he was lured into the desert, robbed, and killed.

In May 1792 the African Association decided to capitalize on their discoveries and enlisted the support of the British government. They authorized their committee to make "whatever application to Government they may think advisable for rendering the late discoveries of Major Houghton effectually serviceable to the Commercial Interests of the Empire
British Empire
The British Empire comprised the dominions, colonies, protectorates, mandates and other territories ruled or administered by the United Kingdom. It originated with the overseas colonies and trading posts established by England in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. At its height, it was the...

." A British presence on the Gambia would "strengthen the bonds of trade", so they proposed to install James Willis as consul in Senegambia
Sénégambia Confederation
Senegambia, officially the Senegambia Confederation, was a loose confederation between the West African countries of Senegal and its neighbour the Gambia, which is almost completely surrounded by Senegal. The confederation came into existence on 1 February 1982 following an agreement between the...

. He was to develop good relations with the king of Bambouk
Bambouk is a traditional name for the territory in eastern Senegal and western Mali, encompassing the Bambouk Mountains on its eastern edge, the valley of the Faleme River and the hilly country to the east of the river valley...

 by a gift of muskets, thereby opening up communication between the Niger and the Gambia and make inroads for trade with all the "gold-rich lands of the interior which undoubtedly lined the Niger’s banks".

Mungo Park

Mungo Park
Mungo Park (explorer)
Mungo Park was a Scottish explorer of the African continent. He was credited as being the first Westerner to encounter the Niger River.-Early life:...

, a Scottish
Scotland is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. Occupying the northern third of the island of Great Britain, it shares a border with England to the south and is bounded by the North Sea to the east, the Atlantic Ocean to the north and west, and the North Channel and Irish Sea to the...

 country doctor, was to travel with Willis to Senegambia, but when Willis’ departure was held up by bureaucratic
A bureaucracy is an organization of non-elected officials of a governmental or organization who implement the rules, laws, and functions of their institution, and are occasionally characterized by officialism and red tape.-Weberian bureaucracy:...

 and logistical problems, Park left England on the trade ship Endeavour and arrived on the Africa coast on June 4, 1795.

Park followed Houghton’s route along the Gambia, and after surviving near-fatal encounters in Muslim territory he reached the land of the friendly Bambara people, who helped guide him to the Niger. The doctor was the first European to lay eyes on the Niger and the first to record that it did in fact flow inland to the east. He vowed to follow the river until it led him to Timbuktu, but the intense heat and besetting of thieves stopped him, and he had to return to England. Upon his return he was an instant national hero, and membership in the African Association swelled dramatically.

Mungo Park’s travels and discoveries had the greatest impact upon Western knowledge of the African continent to that point. Frank T. Kryza (The Race for Timbuktu, 2006), writes:
Park’s expedition lasted two and a half years, and he published the account of the mission in his book, Travels into the Interior Districts of Africa (1799), which was devoured by readers across Europe. Park would take attempt a second expedition to find Timbuktu in 1805, but died before returning. The Niger had been found and its direction recorded, but its final termination had not been discovered. The "golden city" itself, was discovered by Park, but he died before he was able to share his discovery with the world and so it remained undiscovered.

Friedrich Hornemann

During Park’s first journey, Banks had recruited Friedrich Hornemann to make another trip to Africa. He left in summer of 1797 and planned to travel the Cairo path across the Sahara toward Timbuktu while disguised as a Muslim. After finally joining a caravan from Cairo in 1800, he was never heard from again. Nearly 20 years later other explorers learned that Hornemann had died of dysentery
Dysentery is an inflammatory disorder of the intestine, especially of the colon, that results in severe diarrhea containing mucus and/or blood in the faeces with fever and abdominal pain. If left untreated, dysentery can be fatal.There are differences between dysentery and normal bloody diarrhoea...

 after apparently reaching the Niger.

Johann Ludwig Burckhardt

Refusing to give up their quest, the African Association sent out a Swiss
Switzerland name of one of the Swiss cantons. ; ; ; or ), in its full name the Swiss Confederation , is a federal republic consisting of 26 cantons, with Bern as the seat of the federal authorities. The country is situated in Western Europe,Or Central Europe depending on the definition....

 explorer, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt
Johann Ludwig Burckhardt
Johann Ludwig Burckhardt was a Swiss traveller and orientalist. He wrote his letters in French and signed Louis...

 in 1809, tasking him to follow the same route from Cairo. Under orders to maintain a Muslim appearance, Burckhardt spent eight years traveling in Syria
Syria , officially the Syrian Arab Republic , is a country in Western Asia, bordering Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea to the West, Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east, Jordan to the south, and Israel to the southwest....

, learning the language and customs while waiting for a caravan to form. Just as some Arab
Arab people, also known as Arabs , are a panethnicity primarily living in the Arab world, which is located in Western Asia and North Africa. They are identified as such on one or more of genealogical, linguistic, or cultural grounds, with tribal affiliations, and intra-tribal relationships playing...

 merchants were ready to depart for the interior in 1817, the perfectly disguised “Euro-Muslim” died of dysentery before leaving Cairo.

Henry Nicholls

The most bizarre story of the African Association was that of Henry Nicholls
Henry Nicholls
Henry Nicholls may refer to:* H. R. Nicholls Society, a right-wing Australian think tank on industrial relations* Henry Nicholls, explorer and member of the African Association...

 in 1804. Kryza writes, "Having failed in assaults from the north (Tripoli), the east (Cairo), and the west (Gambia), the membership now proposed that an effort be made from the south. The site chosen from which to strike inland was a British trading post
Trading post
A trading post was a place or establishment in historic Northern America where the trading of goods took place. The preferred travel route to a trading post or between trading posts, was known as a trade route....

 in the Gulf of Guinea
Gulf of Guinea
The Gulf of Guinea is the northeasternmost part of the tropical Atlantic Ocean between Cape Lopez in Gabon, north and west to Cape Palmas in Liberia. The intersection of the Equator and Prime Meridian is in the gulf....

". In the cruelest of ironies, the river mouth that emptied into the Gulf, from whence Nicholls was to set out in search of the Niger, was precisely the end of the Niger itself—only the Europeans did not know it yet. The starting point of the expedition was in fact its destination. By 1805 Nicholls had died, probably of malaria
Malaria is a mosquito-borne infectious disease of humans and other animals caused by eukaryotic protists of the genus Plasmodium. The disease results from the multiplication of Plasmodium parasites within red blood cells, causing symptoms that typically include fever and headache, in severe cases...


Meanwhile England was preoccupied with its rivalry
Napoleonic Wars
The Napoleonic Wars were a series of wars declared against Napoleon's French Empire by opposing coalitions that ran from 1803 to 1815. As a continuation of the wars sparked by the French Revolution of 1789, they revolutionised European armies and played out on an unprecedented scale, mainly due to...

 with France
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

, and the government decided to take on a larger role in Africa’s exploration in order to establish a commercial dominance there before the French. Sir Joseph Banks was growing ill, and slowly the African Association’s influence began to diminish. "The torch was passed from the private to the public sector," though the Association continued its involvement in British exploration until it was absorbed by the Royal Geographical Society
Royal Geographical Society
The Royal Geographical Society is a British learned society founded in 1830 for the advancement of geographical sciences...

 in 1831.

The Influence

No explorer sent expressly by the African Association ever did find Timbuktu, though it was a major in the Royal African Corps named Alexander Gordon Laing
Alexander Gordon Laing
Major Alexander Gordon Laing was a Scottish explorer and the first European to reach Timbuktu via the north/south route.-Education and service:...

 who finally walked through its gates in 1826. The findings of the Association’s recruits, however, accomplished much for European knowledge of Africa and its people. Peter Brent describes the common perception of Africa in the years preceding the African Association:
In contrast, according to Brent, "the explorers themselves had no such view of Africans, no simple picture that rejected African reality and denied to Africans their full humanity." Mungo Park’s description in particular contributed to a balanced perspective. George Shepperson writes that, beyond Park's romanticized travel exploits, "his writing indicated that Africans were human beings with their own culture
Culture is a term that has many different inter-related meanings. For example, in 1952, Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn compiled a list of 164 definitions of "culture" in Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions...

s and commerce (and not monstrous creatures), with whom constructive relations would be possible."

This "humanizing" of the African people in the minds of Europeans was no doubt a boon to the abolition of the slave trade, since many of the African Association’s members were abolitionists
Abolitionism is a movement to end slavery.In western Europe and the Americas abolitionism was a movement to end the slave trade and set slaves free. At the behest of Dominican priest Bartolomé de las Casas who was shocked at the treatment of natives in the New World, Spain enacted the first...

 and had ties to William Wilberforce
William Wilberforce
William Wilberforce was a British politician, a philanthropist and a leader of the movement to abolish the slave trade. A native of Kingston upon Hull, Yorkshire, he began his political career in 1780, eventually becoming the independent Member of Parliament for Yorkshire...

. "By the beginning of the 19th century," Brent writes, "the attack on the whole appalling business had sharpened, and Africa had become the subject of the day. And still, despite everything, the European ignorance about most of the continent’s interior remained almost unaltered. It was a situation that had to be put right." The relentless efforts of the African Association over forty-three years certainly contributed to this enlightenment.

Further reading

  • Travels into the Interior of Africa, Mungo Park, Eland Publishing, London, 2003.
  • William Sinclair, The African Association of 1788, Journal of the Royal African Society 1, no. 1, October 1901, pp. 145–149.
The source of this article is wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.  The text of this article is licensed under the GFDL.