James Kingston Tuckey, 1776-1816

Narrative of an Expedition to Explore the River Zaire, Usually Called the Congo, in South Africa, in 1816. London: J. Murray, 1818. [Rare Books Division]

It may not, perhaps, be too much to say, that there never was, in this or in any other country, an expedition of discovery sent out with better prospects or more flattering hopes of success. . . . Yet, by a fatality that is almost inexplicable, never were the results of an expedition more melancholy and disastrous.

—introduction (pp. xlii-xliii)

Orphaned in his infancy, Tuckey was raised by his grandmother. By 1804, he had risen through the British navy ranks to first lieutenant, having participated in naval actions in the West and East Indies, India, and the Red Sea. On the way home from St. Helena, his ship was captured by the French, and he was detained as a prisoner for nearly nine years, mostly at Verdun, until the peace treaty of 1814. He was promoted to commander on 27 August 1814 and soon afterward published Maritime Geography and Statistics (4 vols., 1815). This impressive publication and the government’s desire to compensate him for his long imprisonment are the reasons often given for his assignment to lead an expedition to explore the Congo River in 1816.

Captain Tuckey and seventeen others (one-third of the crew)—including the botanist, the comparative anatomist, and the collector of objects of natural history, who were brought along for scientific research—succumbed to tropical fever or exhaustion in the short space of the three months they spent on the river or within a few days of leaving it. They sailed in a specially built vessel, the Congo, accompanied by a supply ship, the Dorothy. While the Dorothy remained in the lower river, the Congo pushed up as far as the falls of Yellala (see the map); Tuckey then led a group overland along the river to Soondy N’Sanga, their farthest point. Lack of provisions and poor health forced them to return. Tuckey reached the Congo on 17 September, but was transferred to the Dorothy the next day, where he died a few weeks later. The published account of the expedition, compiled from the various officers’ incomplete journals, contains useful observations on the natural history and inhabitants of the region, as well as appendices on native languages encountered and species collected. The failure of the expedition only stiffened the resolve of the British government to continue African exploration.