WHILE Crowther was a boy in his village home and a youth growing to manhood in Freetown, a new interest in West Africa was steadily growing in Great Britain, the interest in the great Black River, the mighty Niger. For over 2000 years that river had been veiled in mystery. So early as the fifth century B.C. Herodotus heard how five young men had journeyed westward from Egypt and for many days crossed the desert until they came to a land of fruit trees. After passing "through vast morasses," they reached a city "and by the city there flowed a great river running from west to east" (Euterpe, 32.) It was not until the close of the eighteenth century that real interest began to be aroused in this statement; but in 1788 a company of men of letters and science formed the "African Association" with the express object of finding the Niger. In those days geographers were of opinion that either the Gambia or the Senegal must be the mouth of the great river of ancient tradition, and that Herodotus had been misinformed as to its flowing from west to east.
The early efforts of the newly-formed Association met with no real success. Their first agent, Ledyard, was sent to Egypt with instructions to follow up the clues supplied by Herodotus; others tried to penetrate into the vast unknown from Tripoli, from Sierra Leone, and up the Gambia. One or two of these pioneers heard rumours of a great river far away in the interior, but its whereabouts and its outlet were as mysterious as ever.
In 1795 a young Scottish surgeon, Mungo Park, started on the great quest. The Association directed him to proceed up the Gambia, and search for the Niger in the vast regions beyond. With amazing courage and determination Park faced almost incredible difficulties. Riding on a horse, and attended only by two African servants, he plunged into the Dark Continent. Two fowling-pieces and a brace of pistols were the only weapons for the whole party. Time after time they were attacked and plundered. Chiefs, great and small, demanded "dashes," and one rapacious fellow compelled Park to give him the very coat off his back. But the explorer's good temper and patience never failed, not even when the bigoted Ludamar Moors made him their prisoner, spat in his face, and subjected him to every indignity they could devise. When he sought to quench his burning thirst, they drove him like a dog from their wells though there was no lack of water. He used to fall asleep and dream of the rivers of his Scottish homeland, and then awake to find himself perishing for thirst in the wilds of Africa.
After four months of humiliating captivity, he managed to escape, and once more set out on his quest. He was alone now, for one of his African servants had deserted and the other had been carried into slavery. As he toiled on from village to village he was so dirty and ragged that the people jeered at him. But as he journeyed he heard more and more of a great river that lay beyond, and he found that each day was bringing him nearer to his goal. One joyful day (July 21, 1797) he reached the town of Sego and was told that on the morrow he would see the river he had suffered so much to reach. That night excitement banished sleep, and next morning he rode forward. The supreme moment had come. We must let him tell his own story:--
We rode forward through some marshy ground, where, as I was anxiously looking round for the river, one of them called out: "See! the water!" and looking forward I saw with infinite pleasure the great object of my mission, the long sought for, majestic Niger, glittering in the morning sun, as broad as the Thames at Westminster, flowing slowly to the eastward. I hastened to the brink, and, having drunk of the water, lifted up my fervent thanks in prayer to the great Ruler of all things for having thus far crowned my endeavours with success. (Travels, vol. I, ch. xv.)
So Herodotus was right: there was in the heart of West Africa a mighty river, and it flowed from west to east. To follow its course would have been to risk death and the knowledge of his discovery would perish with him. Park, therefore, made his way back to the coast to give the world the information he had gained.
In 1805 Park went out again hoping to complete his work. The expedition was equipped by the British Government, and when he once more set out from the Gambia he had with him seven European companions and thirty-seven English soldiers and sailors. His purpose was to strike the Niger and sail down it till he reached its mouth, wherever it might be. Park himself believed it to be the Congo, and he was eager to test his theory. But so great were the hardships of the journey that of the forty-five white men who set out, only seven lived to see the Niger. Soon the number was reduced to four, and one of them was mad.
On reaching the river, a boat (styled H.M.S. Joliba) was constructed from native canoes and Park began his voyage down the mighty river, not knowing where it might lead. There were people who believed that it would be found to end in a morass in some great desert, and if it were so the whole party might perish. But Park did not hesitate. Time after time his boat was attacked by fleets of canoes and it was necessary to maintain a running fight. On they journeyed for a thousand miles. Then the end came with tragic swiftness. Passing between the deep, narrow gorge near Bussa, where the river rushes furiously between islets and dangerous rocks, the Joliba was assailed with spears, arrows, and stones. The boat struck a submerged rock; Park and his companions jumped into the water and disappeared for ever.
The course of the great Black River was still a mystery. Other men took up the quest: Horne-nxann set out from Cairo, Roentgen from Morocco, and Nichols from Calabar. Then the British Government sent out simultaneously two expeditions, one to finish Park's journey down the river, and the other up the Congo. It was hoped that the two expeditions would meet somewhere in the interior, but instead both ended in tragic failure. In 1821, the year Crowther was enslaved, Clapperton and Denham, starting from Tripoli, crossed the Sahara Desert, explored the regions around Lake Chad, discovered the great cities of Kano and Sokoto and proved that the Niger was not a tributary of the Nile, as some had supposed. It was not until 1830, eight years after Crowther reached Freetown, that the brothers Richard and John Lander journeyed overland from Badagry, near Lagos, reached Bussa, and completed the perilous river-journey that had cost Mungo Park his life. On November 23, 1830, they reached the mouth of the river and the age-long mystery was solved. Till that moment no one had thought that the numerous streams flowing through the mangrove swamps in the Bight of Benin could possibly be the mouths of the mighty Niger.
The Landers' discovery was speedily seen to be of far-reaching importance. It was recognized that a great highway had been opened into the interior of Africa, and British commerce was not slow to take advantage of it. Foremost among those who saw in the Niger a highway for commerce was a Scottish merchant, Macgregor Laird, who in 1832 organized a trading expedition up the river. His objects were not merely mercantile; he believed that permanent moral results would be achieved by taking advantage of the trading instincts of the Negro peoples, and that honest trade would help to oust the slave traffic. He and many other like-minded people held that the spread of British commerce and civilization were necessary steps towards the uplift of Africa.