Gaspard Théodore Mollien, comte de Mollien, 1796-1872

Travels in the Interior of Africa, to the Sources of the Senegal and Gambia, Performed by Command of the French Government, in the Year 1818. Edited by T. E. Bowdich. London: H. Colburn & Co., 1820. The Julian W. Feiss ‘27 Collection of Africana. [Rare Books Division]

I had already crossed a small part of the Sahara, after escaping from shipwreck . . . This desert commences at the foot of the Atlas, and terminates at the Senegal. . . . What people would have dared to inhabit such a region, had not necessity compelled them there to seek an asylum from their enemies? It was this necessity which obliged the Moors, expelled from Spain, and persecuted in the Barbary states, to pitch their tents here . . . To live in so frightful a country, requires a strength of constitution greatly superior to that of other people. This advantage Nature has bestowed on the Moors. . . . Woe to the man who by chance falls into their hands! Reduced to the most cruel slavery, his fate is truly dreadful, his torments are incessant. Europe may break the chains of the negroes, but Africa has not the least notion of lightening the yoke which her own children impose upon each other. There still exists among the Moors a class of men called tributaries, the remains of conquered nations, who groan under the most oppressive slavery: their flocks, their wives, are at the mercy of their masters, and the slightest resistance on their part is punished with death.

—Mollien (pp. 2-5, 9)

A French seaman, Mollien survived a shipwreck off the coast of West Africa in 1816. Upon safely reaching the shores of Senegal in a small boat, he vowed to pursue a childhood dream of exploring Africa that had been kindled by the historical descriptions of Leo Africanus (ca. 1492-ca. 1550) and the more recent exploits of the Englishman Mungo Park [see PARK]. Because France was then eager to expand its foothold on the coast, Mollien was able to secure local government support for a modest mission of fifteen months. He was charged principally to locate the sources of the Senegal, Gambia, and Niger rivers and to note the topography of the explored country. Shunning the encumberances of a retinue and substantial baggage, which Mollien felt might excite the rapacity (and attention) of natives, he departed from Saint-Louis (Senegal) on 28 January 1818 with a horse to ride, an ass to carry his supplies, and a Marabout (Muslim holy guide) to act as interpreter and traveling companion. For the trip Mollien assumed the character of a merchant.

The party journeyed west via Ouamkrore and Sedo, then turned south, heading into the mountainous district of Fouta Diallon (Fouta Djallon) in today’s western Guinea, where Mollien was guided to the sources of the Rio Grande, Gambia, and Senegal rivers. The trip was anything but perfunctory, however. His narrative’s chapter notes tell a fuller story: “The author is robbed,” “The author is arrested there and confined to a hut,” “The author is obliged to follow the Foutatoro Army,” “Dangers incurred by the author,” “Author turns physician,” “Author falls sick,” “[native] attempts without success to poison him,” “Author escapes.” Mollien arrived in the Portuguese outpost at Bissau (seaport in today’s Guinea-Bissau) on 6 August, from where he was able to sail back to Saint-Louis, arriving on 15 January 1819, roughly one year after his departure. By the end of March, he was home in Paris. As one of the earliest explorers in West Africa, Mollien revealed its unknown variety of terrain and culture to his European audience. For his efforts, he won the approbation of his government and later received several consular posts in the West Indies.