- Forgotten Expedition into Guinea, West Africa, 1815–17: An Editor’s Comments
Late in 1818 Major William Gray (Royal African Corps) and Staff Surgeon (Captain) Duncan Dochard (RAC) launched a mission of discovery along the Gambia River, intending to determine the source of the Niger River and follow its course to the point that it flowed into an inland sea or emptied into an ocean. That expedition consisted of no fewer than 62 military personnel, 31 formally appointed civilians, and likely an equal number of unofficial Africans who had taken advantage from a large and well-armed entourage for security along the path. That expedition, which lasted for more than two years, was moderately successful, but it failed in its larger objectives. It returned to the coast eventually without even reaching Timbuktu. Its leaders produced a monograph, published in 1825, that confirmed many observations made earlier by Mungo Park.1
The Gray/Dochard expedition, while admirable in its efforts and intent, was not the first, however, to make this particular attempt. Indeed, planning for this expeditionary cycle began in London during the summer of 1815, and was part of a larger government-sponsored plan to trace the course of the Niger, clarify the circumstances of the death of Mungo Park, and perhaps return his remains and personal property to the coast. The expedition’s planners also hoped to resolve suggestions that the Niger might drain into an inland lake, might evaporate in the desert, or might join with the Nile, Congo, or another river before reaching Africa’s coast. No less important was a concern in 1815 that the end of warfare on the European continent would bring a resurgence of French commercial and imperial interests. [End Page 481] Some in London believed fervently that this was a time for Britain to establish its sovereignty and economic interests along Africa’s coast, bring an end to slave trading, and introduce “civilization” and Christianity to Africa’s western interior.2
In 1815 planners in the Colonial Office, the Quarter-Master-General’s Department (War Office), and the Admiralty proposed the raising of two expeditionary forces—one to be organized and commanded entirely by the Admiralty (with close cooperation of the African Association) that would explore and chart the lower reaches of the Congo River and record scientific discoveries; and another created by the Army to advance inland from some point on Africa’s western coast and focus on the course of the Niger River. The Congo expeditionary force would assist the Niger group should the latter appear in the Congo–indeed a discovery of significant proportion would be achieved if that were to occur. The Congo part of the grand proposal took place as intended—at least to the extent that it happened somewhat on schedule. It resulted, however, as a dismal failure, with nearly all European officers and scientists succumbing to illnesses/fevers fatally during the expedition’s early months. Surviving diaries and journals written by its participants, however, resulted in at least three monograph publications.3
The Army-led portion of the dual-focused plan progressed, but not nearly at the same pace as that led by the Admiralty. In contrast to the Congo component, where nearly the entire complement of personnel and supplies could be obtained in Britain, the Army portion would need to recruit from African sources, and its leaders would need to obtain as much information as possible about paths, economies, peoples, and circumstances of the African coast and interior before even selecting a specific place from which to make its departure into the interior. At least six possible locations were considered as launching sites: Saint-Louis and along the Senegal River, Fattatenda on the Gambia River, Bulama Island near the mouth of the Rio Grande, Kakundy (Boké) in the upper Rio Nunez, the Moria path along the Guinea/Sierra [End Page 482] Leone Corridor, and Port Loko near the British settlement at Freetown in Sierra Leone.4
Arriving at Saint-Louis in November 1815, Major John Peddie (temporarily assigned to British Royal African Corps) landed with instructions about what to attempt, but with significant authority to consider options and to make...