Dixon Denham, 1786-1828

Narrative of Travels and Discoveries in Northern and Central Africa, in the Years 1822, 1823, and 1824. 2 vols. in 1. London: John Murray, 1826. Gift of M. M. Schwarzschild. [Rare Books Division]

. . . if either here or in any foregoing part of this journal it may be thought that I have spoken too favourably of the natives we were thrown amongst, I can only answer, that I have described them as I found them, hospitable, kind-hearted, honest, and liberal: to the latest hour of my life I shall remember them with affectionate regard; and many are the untutored children of nature in central Africa, who possess feelings and principles that would do honour to the most civilized Christian.

—Denham (p. 311)

On a follow-up expedition to the ill-fated Ritchie expedition of 1819-1820 [see LYON], the British government sent Scottish botanist and naval doctor Walter Oudney, English army officer Dixon Denham, and Scottish naval officer Hugh Clapperton to Africa in 1822. A window of opportunity had opened: the Bey of Tripoli, wanting to ingratiate himself with Great Britain, had offered to escort any traveler to the limits of his dominions. The Bornu Mission, as it was known, was to journey from Tripoli, through the Fezzan territory, and across the Sahara Desert, and then proceed to the kingdom of Bornu west of Lake Chad, seeking the course of the Niger River and possibly reaching Timbuktu.

Reluctant (and unable) to disguise themselves as Muslims as earlier British explorers had done, the men traveled as Britons and Christians and were generally well received. They reached Murzuq in April, but were delayed by the local ruler for months. On 4 February 1823, they had their first view of Lake Chad, which no European had seen before, and soon after reached Kouka, the capital of Bornu, where they met the sultan. Clapperton and Oudney went west to find the Niger; Denham explored the area around the lake and participated in several Bornuese military raids on neighboring tribes. Oudney died from tropical fever in January 1824. Clapperton reached Sokoto (Sackatoo on the map), only five days’ travel from the Niger, but was prevented from proceeding by local Muslim leaders who were wary of British interference in their slave trade. He retraced his steps to Kouka, and he and Denham returned to Tripoli; they arrived back in London via Florence and the Alps in June 1825. Although it was clear from their efforts that the Niger did not flow into Lake Chad (nor did it join the Nile), the British would continue to delve into the river’s mystery [see LANDER].