Dr Baikie and the Niger

In the mid-nineteenth century, writes Christopher Lloyd, a young naval surgeon from Orkney played an important part in West African exploration.

In the fourth chapter of Bleak House Mrs Jellyby is introduced as a plump little lady ‘with handsome eyes, though they had a curious habit of seeming to look a long way off.

She was a lady of remarkable strength of character, who had devoted herself to an extensive variety of public subjects and especially to the subject of Africa with a view to the cultivation of the coffee berry and the natives, and the happy settlement of our superabundant population in Borrioboola-Gha on the left bank of the Niger’.

She was one of the sillier followers of Fowell Buxton, the successor of Wilberforce and the embodiment of the conscience of Exeter Hall.

Depressed by the amount of lives and money spent on efforts to suppress the Atlantic Slave Trade, Buxton came to the conclusion that the only solution was to get rid of the source of supply by persuading West African rulers that the cultivation of palm oil was a better way of life than selling their neighbours into slavery.

To this end it was necessary to send an expedition up the Niger to establish a trading settlement, which was not - Buxton carefully explained - to be a colony but a well-organized Model Farm situated in a ‘salubrious’ climate.

Only a few years previously the course of this mysterious river had been established by the Lander brothers. Before that, it was imagined that the Niger flowed westward into the Senegal, or eastward into the waters of Lake Chad.

Some, following Herodotus, thought it was a branch of the Nile; more modern geographers were convinced that it flowed into the Congo. Mungo Park established its easterly flow before he was killed at Bussa in 1806, and twenty years later Richard Clapperton, before his death from fever at Sokoto, ascertained that the course of the lower Niger was southerly.

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