The 1841 Niger expedition
The 1841 Niger expedition

Royal Navy1841 Niger expeditionpart 2

Between October 1843 and February 1844 Henry Colburn's "United Service Magazine" contained a four part description of the Niger expedition. Pages 223 to 231 of the edition of October 1843 contained the first part.


(Compiled from Official Documents).

(part 1).

On the 26th December, 1839, the then Colonial Secretary, Lord John Russell, addressed a letter to the Lords Commissioners of Her Majesty’s Treasury, on the subject of the foreign Slave Trade, and the most likely means of abolishing it. His Lordship stated that "the honour of the British Crown is compromised by the habitual evasion of the treaties subsisting between Her Majesty and Foreign Powers, for the abolition of the Slave Trade; and the calamities which, in defiance of religion, humanity, and justice, are inflicted on a large proportion of the African continent, are such as cannot be contemplated without the deepest and most lively concern. The Houses of Lords and Commons have, in their addresses to the Crown, expressed in the most energetic terms the indignation with which Parliament regards the continuance of the trade in African Slaves, and their anxious desire that every practicable method should be taken for the extinction of this great social evil." His Lordship proceeded to state the average number of Slaves introduced into foreign states or colonies in America, or the West Indies, from the Western Coast of Africa, annually to exceed 100,000, —no record existing, or estimate being made, "of the multitudes who perish in the overland journey to the African coast, or in the passage across the Atlantic, or of the still greater number who fall a sacrifice to the warfare, pillage, and cruelties by which the Slave Trade is fed." The letter further observes that, with the view of convincing the dealers in slaves that they were engaged in a traffic "opposed to their own interests, when correctly understood," it was proposed to establish new commercial relations with those African chiefs or powers, within whose dominions the internal Slave Trade of Africa was carried on, and the external Slave Trade supplied with its victims. To this end the Queen had directed her Ministers to negociate conventions or agreements with those Chiefs and Powers, the basis of which conventions would be, first, the abandonment and absolute prohibition of the Slave Trade; and secondly, the admission for consumption in this country, on favourable terms, of goods the produce or manufacture of the territories subject to them. "Of those Chiefs (continues his Lordship) the most considerable rule over the countries adjacent to the Niger, and its great tributary streams. It is, therefore, proposed to dispatch an expedition which would ascend that river by steamboats, as far as the points at which it receives the confluence of some of the principal rivers falling into it from the eastward. At these, or at any other stations which may be found more favourable for the promotion of a legitimate commerce, it is proposed to establish British factories, in the hope that the natives may be taught that there are methods of employing the population, more profitable to those to whom they are subject, than that of converting them into slaves, and selling them for exportation to the slave traders."

Such was the original official proposal, and such were the contemplated objects of the expedition. It was found that it would be necessary to build three iron steam-vessels for the service, the first cost of which, including provisions and stores for six months, would amount to 35,000l. The annual charge of paying and victualling the officers and men would be 10,546l., and the salaries of the conductors of the Expedition, and of their Chaplain and Surgeon, 4000l. In addition to this expenditure, presents for the Chiefs were to be purchased, with tents, mathematical instruments, and the like, they being indispensable for the use of the persons engaged in the service, when at a distance from their vessels. Sir Edward Parry prepared a Report, in November, 1839, (from which these estimates of the expenses are obtained) on the subject of the kind of vessels, &c., that would be best adapted for the Expedition.

On the 30th of the same month, a letter was sent to the Colonial Secretary from the Lords of the Treasury, stating that their Lordships were prepared to sanction such estimates as might be required for the service.

Much opposition was made to the Expedition, however, by some of the merchants of Liverpool, who were engaged in trading up the Niger; and one of them, Mr. Jamieson, published "An Appeal to the Government and People of Great Britain against the proposed Niger Expedition," in which the writer complained that "although no commercial pursuit will be engaged in by Government, yet that merchandize, designed to promote the objects of the [African] 'Society,' may be, and is to be, conveyed up the Niger by such Government vessels, — vessels equipped, manned, and sailed, at the public expense." The writer further proceeded to argue that it was apparent that the private merchant, who conveyed his merchandize to the same quarter, at his own cost, and especially by so expensive a means of transport as steam navigation, must necessarily retire before such unequal competition, — and that thus the Expedition would defeat one of its own professed and principal objects, the encouragement of trade with Africa; while the making of presents to chiefs, in articles of merchandise, as was in contemplation, would further be injurious to the formation of commerce, — as being a direct and unfair interference with the trader in the same articles — and as establishing a precedent which he could not afford to follow. Sir George Stephen wrote "a Letter in reply to Mr. Jamieson on the Niger Expedition;" but no further steps were adopted by Government for some time. It had been resolved, however, to persevere in making commercial treaties, in opening the way for all private traders, and in examining that part of Central Africa — "thus pioneering the way and opening the high road to the lawful merchant, to the man of science, and the missionary."

In September, 1839, according to Captain Trotter’s own account, he was nominated by the Ministry to the command of the Expedition; and, at the same time, Commander William Allen, Commander Bird Allen, and Mr. William Cook were named to be his associates in a Commission "for negociating Conventions with the Chiefs of those states situated on the Western Coast of Africa, within the Bights of Benin and Biafra, and on the parts adjacent to the River Niger and its tributaries." It had been determined that steam vessels should be employed; and, as none in her Majesty’s navy were suitable for the service, no vessels of war having at that time been built of iron, some delay occurred in this first important step in the preparations for the Expedition. It was not until June, 1840, that a Parliamentary grant was voted, authorizing the Government to build the vessels and send out the Expedition. In the same month, the Admiralty entered into a contract with Mr. John Baird, of Birkenhead, near Liverpool, and that gentleman accordingly built three iron steamers (two of exactly similar dimensions, and one of a smaller size) in conformity with specifications and estimates based on Sir E. Parry’s Report. The two larger vessels, named the Albert and the Wilberforce, were each furnished with two engines of 35 horsepower each engine, and measured 457 tons. The smaller, named the Soudan, had one engine only of the same power, and measured 249 tons.

With a view to the health and comfort of the crews, attention was at an early period directed to the ventilation of the vessels, and Dr. Reid having proposed an artificial plan of throwing air into the various compartments by means of fanners, it was finally adopted and carried out under his direction by Mr. A. Creuze, of Portsmouth Dockyard, who was appointed by the Admiralty for the purpose. This, however, caused considerable delay; so that, although all the vessels were launched by the 10th October, 1840, it was not till the end of February, 1841, that they were all assembled in the Thames.

On the 30th of January, 1841, Lord John Russell addressed a despatch "to Her Majesty’s Commissioners of the Expedition to the Niger," (Captain Henry D. Trotter, R.N.; Commander W. Allen, R.N.; Commander Bird Allen, R.N.; and William Cook, Esq.,) giving various instructions for the conduct of that Expedition, and inclosing a draft of the agreement to be proposed to African Chiefs, with whom treaties might be concluded. Authority was also given for making a conditional bargain for a site of land on the Niger, for the erection of a fort; but the Commissioners were instructed "not to accept, on behalf of Her Majesty, the sovereignty over any province or place which might be offered," the question of establishing British sovereignty in Africa being reserved for future consideration and decision. Dr. Lushington and Sir Fowell Buxton, however, had written to the Colonial Secretary, expressing their conviction of the necessity of establishing such a sovereignty, in order to insure the success of the views of an Agricultural Society, who contemplated making the experiment of cultivating a tract of country bordering on the Niger. His Lordship therefore wrote a second despatch, on the same day, instructing the Commissioners to make the proposition the subject of careful inquiry, with a view to their reporting whether a tract of land of the nature required could easily be obtained, and on what terms; whether such a territory might be acquired in a district deemed tolerably healthy for Europeans; whether the neighbouring tribes would be friendly or hostile to the proposed agricultural establishment; and what force would be necessary for the protection of such a territory.

Two other despatches (30th January, 1841,) were forwarded from Lord J. Russell to the Commissioners, with reports and letters from Commander Tucker, detailing the results of a mission upon which he had been sent to King Denny, of Sandy Point, in the river Gaboon, together with the following curious letter from that Chief to Her Majesty:—

"To Queen of England"
"Sister, - King Denny, of Sandy Point, River Gaboon, must embrace you for the things you send me by Captain Tucker, your war ship Wolverine, who dashed them me this day with grand ceremony, which much pleased me.
"King Denny was too much glad to save Queen's men belong Lynx, which cost one hundred and twenty dollars, which I too much glad to give Queen.
"King Denny wish very much to be brother to Queen, and will be very glad, suppose Queen no let Spanish ship come for slaves; and suppose Queen send plenty English ships to me for trade for ivory, gum, bees’-wax, dye-wood, and ebony.
"And King Denny wish my sister send me great coat, with secampotos or epaulettes, waistcoat, and trowsers, plenty gold in them; cocked hat, with gold and feather; sword and belt, plenty gold; and two easy chairs: and King Denny wishes Queen health and good bye.
"King Denny very glad he hear Queen got husband.

"King Denny Town, 3rd day of Moon (i.e. 16th May, 1840).
"King Denny
"his X mark"

The above letter ought to receive a distinguished rank among the literary curiosities of royal letters and correspondence! The quiet hint "plenty gold in them" is naïve in the extreme.

Commander Tucker, however, suggested that in consequence of the Slave Trade being still carried on in the rivers Bonny, Nun, and Brass, no presents should be made from this country to His Majesty of Bonny, until the export of slaves from his dominions should have ceased; and Lord J. Russell instructed the Commissioners accordingly, to avail themselves of any opportunity that might occur during the Expedition, to intimate to King Denny that Her Majesty’s Government were determined to withhold all such marks of favour until they should be assured that he had put a final stop to the traffic in question. These instructions were, however, afterwards, suspended, an agreement having been entered into with the Chiefs of the Bonny parts, in pursuance of directions from Lord Palmerston and the Board of Admiralty, for the abolition of the Slave Trade there.

It may be desirable here to state that the Rev. Mr. Schön, a member of the Church Missionary Society, at Sierra Leone, and Mr. Crowther, a native, catechist, were appointed to accompany the Expedition, permission having been obtained from the Government by the Church Missionary Society, with the view of reports being secured respecting the practicability of the Society extending its operations in the interior of Africa. The following civilians likewise accompanied the Expedition, in connection with, and employed by the African Civilization Society: Dr. Theodore Vogel, as Botanist; Mr. Charles Gottfried Roscher, as Miner and Mineralogist; Dr. Wm. Stanger, as Geologist and Explorer; Mr. John Ansell, as Collector and Gardener; Mr. Lewis Fraser, as Naturalist; and Mr. James Uwins, as Draughtsman.

The Harriot was engaged as a transport, and was ordered to proceed to Sierra Leone, to take on board the interpreters, and to return and meet the Expedition at the Cape de Verdes; but a series of southwesterly gales kept her so long in the Downs that this plan was necessarily abandoned, and she was detained to accompany the Soudan. In this vessel were taken out some of the materials and implements that would be required for carrying into operation a model farm that was contemplated by an association formed for the purpose of thus benefiting Africa. In order to assist this project, the Admiralty granted a passage out to Mr. Alfred Carr, a West Indian gentleman of colour, who was to be entrusted with the superintendence of the proposed establishment.

On the 30th of March, 1841, the Soudan, Commander Bird Allen, being ready for sea, left Woolwich, and after some detention at Devonport, by contrary winds, finally sailed from England on the 17th of April, in company with the Harriot transport, for Porto Grande in the island of St. Vincent, one of the Cape de Verdes, which had been decided on as the first rendezvous. The Albert and Wilberforce left Devonport together on the 12th of May; and after touching at Madeira and Teneriffe, in order to prove the rates of the chronometers, and to complete fuel, arrived at Porto Grande on the 3rd June, where they found the Soudan and Harriot, which had only arrived eight days before.

At that place, the steam vessels were thoroughly cleared out and re-stowed, and those stores, for which no further use was anticipated, transferred to the transport before the Expedition reached the Coast of Africa. These duties occupied a fortnight, and during that time many of the officers were usefully employed on shore in taking magnetic and astronomical observations, while the medical and other scientific gentlemen attached to the Expedition were actively engaged in various parts of the island in the pursuits of their respective departments. Commander W. Allen and Lieutenant Fishbourne had charge of the magnetic observations, and lost no opportunity of taking them, before, as well as after, entering the Niger.

The Albert reached Sierra Leone on the 24th of June, and the Wilberforce two days afterwards; and on the 29th, the Soudan unexpectedly put in (having been ordered to go direct to Cape Coast Castle), as she had parted from the Harriot in squally weather, and was consequently in want of coals. Mr. Schön here found a large number of intelligent persons, capable of acting as interpreters, from whom thirteen were chosen from the following nations: — Ibo, Kakanda, Yariba, Bornu, Eggarah or Igalla, Haussa, Nufi, Benin and Fulah or Fulatah (sometimes Filatah, or, as at Egga, Filani). The Fulah interpreter, whose services Commander William Allen secured at the last moment before sailing, was the only individual who could be found in the Colony who had ever visited Tomboktu. The anxiety to join the Expedition was so great that any number of liberated Africans might have been obtained; and many, besides the interpreters, were taken in lieu of Kroomen, the better description of the latter not having volunteered so readily as they generally do for men of war employed to cruise on the coast.

The Wilberforce on her passage from the Cape de Verdes had seriously injured her foremast, the repair of which, together with the coaling and watering of the three vessels, and the fitting and loading of a fourth, the Amelia tender, and taking on board the ships some additional farm implements, fully occupied the time spent at Sierra Leone, lieutenant Harston, with a party of men from the Albert, took charge of the Amelia, on board which were put fourteen liberated Africans whom Mr. Carr, the superintendent of the Model Farm, had engaged as farm labourers and mechanics.

The Expedition put to sea on the afternoon of the 3rd July, the Wilberforce towing the Soudan, and the Albert, the Amelia (in order to save coal), till they reached Cape Mesurado. Hence the Soudan was despatched direct to Cape Coast Castle, and the other vessels anchored till the next day off the American settlement of Monrovia. This place was touched at, to give Mr. Carr an opportunity of procuring men who understood the cultivation of cotton, as he had been unable to hire any persons of that description at Sierra Leone. Mr. Carr succeeded in getting two volunteers for the farm, one of whom, Ralph Moore, an emigrant negro from the Mississipi, had been accustomed to the management of a cotton plantation. Many others could have been procured, had there been time to send to the adjacent Liberian settlements a few miles up the river St. Paul’s. The Albert anchored in the roadstead of Cape Coast on the 19th July, where she found the Soudan and Harriot. The Amelia, which had been swept past the port by a strong current, arrived on the 22nd, and the Wilberforce on the 24th. Here the two Ashanti Princes, who had been brought from England, were landed.

It was found that remittent fever had made its appearance on board the Wilberforce, at this early stage of the Expedition. Seven coloured men, entered in England (one of them a native of Haussa, who had been a long time in Europe), and five of her white crew, had been taken ill. The coloured men had been attacked the most severely, and one of them, a woolly-haired mulatto, born in England, had died of the disorder. While lying at Cape Coast, the Soudan had also one case of remittent fever, which Mr. Marshall, her Surgeon, attributed to exposure to the sun. The Alberts crew were all healthy. "The sickness of the coloured men shows, in some measure (says Captain Trotter) that the constitution of the negro, whether of African or American birth, requires an habitual residence in Africa to be entirely exempt from the fever of the country. This is found to be the case in Liberia, with the emigrants from North America; they all, with very few exceptions, have fever on their first arrival, and many die, but those that recover are said to stand the climate well afterwards."

The steamers here embarked the provisions and stores which had been sent out for them; during which arrangements Mr. President Maclean afforded every facility. He was of opinion that white superintendence would be essential to the success of any similar experiment up the Niger. The vessels, as soon as they were ready, proceeded on their course; the Albert, Soudan, and Amelia sailing for Accra on the 30th July; the Wilberforce and the Harriot on the 31st. The object in calling at Accra was to take in live stock, and also the canoes that had been purchased for the Expedition by Mr. Maclean. Several Fantees joined the Expedition at Cape Coast and Accra. By the 10th August, all the vessels had reached the mouth of the Nun, where they encountered such torrents of rain, and the sea was so heavy in-shore, that the ships were obliged to anchor nine miles out, and even then the rolling was so violent as to make the communication between them very hazardous.

All the three steamers, on their passage to the river, had lost the tails of their rudders; but a sandy beach, with six feet rise and fall of tide, here gave an opportunity of laying them aground to repair. The part of the beach selected was just within Cape Nun, and constantly exposed to the sea-breeze. On the evening of the 19th August all the vessels were ready to ascend the river; but before they sailed, the Harriot was dispatched to Fernando Po. The Nun, from the anchorage inside the bar, presented the same general appearance with the neighbouring rivers, the banks bearing a luxuriant foliage, consisting chiefly of mangroves, interspersed with oil and cocoa-nut palm trees, reaching down to the water’s edge. Scarcely a hut could be seen from the anchorage. The inhabitants, few in number, reside chiefly in two villages on the left bank, near the sea, one of which is called Acassa. They carry on some little trade with the natives higher up the river, and get provisions in return; but their trade with Europeans is inconsiderable.

During their stay, the Governor of Acassa paid a visit to the ships, and received some small presents. The Commissioners availed themselves of the services of one of his pilots to send a message to King Boy (who is so conspicuous a character in the narrative of the Landers' Travels), Chief of Brass Town, whose authority extended over the neighbouring waters. "King Boy (says Captain Trotter) has long been notorious for dishonesty, [no very noble vice for a sovereign!] but although the Commissioners were aware of this, as they were within the limits of his jurisdiction, and as his influence is felt, more or less up to Abòh (Ibo or Eboe), we deemed it of importance to be on good terms with him, and, if possible, to prevail on him to accompany us to Abòh." An invitation was accordingly forwarded, which he declined to accept, on the plea that he was engaged in a "religious service which would occupy him a week!" A small present was sent, with another invitation, but he did not come; sending, however, his son with an offering of two sheep. The impression is that he was alarmed at hearing of so many vessels having come without the intention of trading with him.

By the 20th of August, the different ships of the Expedition got through the channel and came to an anchor seven or eight miles above the mouth of the river, not far from the "village of King Burrow." "We were now (observes Captain Trotter) entering upon the more immediate field of our labours — upon one of acknowledged difficulty and danger — and I thought it a fit occasion for general prayer throughout the Expedition. Accordingly, previous to commencing the ascent of the river, a prayer, which the Rev. Mr. Müller, the Chaplain, had at my desire framed for the occasion, was offered up on board each vessel."

The voyage to Abòh occupied from the 20th to 26th of August; but, as it presented few incidents, it is unnecessary to enter into any detailed report of the daily progress of the vessels through the Delta. The natives of the lower part of the Delta were found to be much more savage than those seen in the interior, "owing, it is to be feared (says Captain William Allen), to the demoralizing intercourse with civilized men, in the inhuman traffic in their fellow countrymen; they consequently received us with suspicion, and some demonstration of hostility, which, however, was less apparent as we proceeded."

The weather throughout this part of the voyage was remarkably pleasant, with generally only sufficient rain to cool the atmosphere, and there was a refreshing breeze, which was enjoyed the more as it was in the proper quarter, and enabled the use of all the sails. "Every one was in the highest spirits, cheered by the novelty and beauty of the scenery, and by the exhilarating feeling of the air, which to our senses appeared perfectly salubrious, and it was difficult to imagine it could be otherwise." For the first few miles there was a want of animation, few birds or living things of any kind being seen, and only a single canoe, the solitary occupant of which paddled as fast as he could into the mangroves, to avoid the steam-vessels. A lonely hut appeared occasionally, with its floor scarcely out of the water; and the few inhabitants (who were generally quite naked) appeared much alarmed at the approach of, to them, such fearful-looking and strange "fire-ships." The stream, on each side continued to be lined with mangroves, oil palms and other trees appearing occasionally among them. As the Expedition proceeded upwards from Sunday Island, where the influence of the tides gives place to the constant downward current of the river, a marked change took place in the scenery. The banks began to be slightly elevated above the water, and instead of the mangrove, a variety of beautiful palms and other trees formed a forest so dense, that for upwards of one hundred miles, except where spots were cleared for cultivation, the eye could not penetrate more than a few yards beyond the water's edge. These cleared spots, containing yams, cocoas, cassadas, Indian corn, plantains, and occasionally sugar-cane, began to appear immediately after leaving Sunday Island, and gradually became more frequent. Solitary huts were now succeeded by clusters, and clusters of huts by villages, the villages became larger and more populous, while the natives showed themselves less timid, and often came off in their canoes to hold intercourse with the vessels. For the first fifty miles there was little appearance of trade; but afterwards large canoes were seen carrying palm oil, destined for Brass Town and Bonny.

The present division cannot be better concluded than by a brief account of the plan of proceeding adopted by the Expedition, and the mode of life in the progress up the river. The course was to weigh every morning at daylight, which was about half past five o'clock, every man having first received a cup of coffee, and also quinine when recommended by the Surgeon. The vessels continued under steam all day, never stopping but when it was desirable to take observations for ascertaining the latitude and longitude, or when a good opportunity was afforded of communicating with the natives. Their timidity, however, especially in the lower parts of the river (as already intimated) was such, that the intercourse that was held produced little worthy of remark, though their disposition was friendly. The ventilator was always at work; and, on anchoring, which was usually done before it became quite dark, such parts of the drying and purifying apparatus as were recommended by the medical officers were put into operation.

The officers during the day were mostly employed in recording the soundings, measuring the breadth of the river, estimating distances, and in such other operations as are usual in a running survey. Captain Trotter, the First Commissioner, determined to continue this rouine without intermission, except on Sundays, on which day he resolved to remain at anchor, unless peculiar circumstances rendered it requisite to proceed. This he did, not only with a view to the proper observance of the day, but to allow rest to the officers and men, and more especially to the engineers. Captain Trotter did not find in the Delta those indications of an unwholesome atmosphere he had been led to expect; and therefore even while in it he did not deviate from this rule of giving repose to all hands on Sunday. The steamers, owing to the large quantity of stores and provisions on board, seldom made good more than from twenty-five to thirty miles a day.

As already stated, the ascent of the river commenced on the 20th August. On the afternoon of the 21st, Commander W. Allen, of the Wilberforce, was directed by the First Commissioner, by signal, to look into a branch of the river on the right bank, which he accordingly did. But, as it proved, that officer did not understand that he was only wished to go a short distance up and return. The Wilberforce accordingly explored the channel pointed out, and passed round a large island; and, as the Commander deemed it expedient to continue the voyage on Sunday, he reached King Obi’s town before the Albert and Soudan. The three other vessels, in the meanwhile, continued their course, and anchored in the evening at the village of Assassi, ten or twelve miles above the branch which the Wilberforce entered, called by the natives Agobri.

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