The Legendary Explorers Who Unmasked Africa to the World…

Read about how early expeditions by world-famous explorers uncovered the less-known Africa...

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The portrait of Mungo Park, an early Scottish explorer in Africa.

Before the late 16th century, much of Africa was obscured to outsiders except for the very few sea voyaging merchants who only ventured a few miles from the coast, these were the Arab, Persian, Chinese and Portuguese traders. Apart from trading ivory, minerals, and slaves, these merchants had no business going further inside the continent but probably they had an idea of how it looked like from the descriptions by African chiefs with whom they engaged in barter trade. Such encounters propelled its early explorers.

The pre-exploration Africa

Before Africa was ripped open by newcomers with diverse ambitions, what took place inside it was mainly an inter-ethnic affair marked by endless migrations, the conservative devotions to tribe-specific cultures and norms including ancestral spirituality, all in a homogeneous societal setting where all the political, social and economic spheres of life were strictly under the control of hereditary kings and chiefs. Relations between the thousands of ethnicities at the time were characterized by either conquest wars or the barter system of trading goods. Major timelines included the Bantu migration from the west towards the eastern and southern parts of the continent, the Trans-Saharan Caravan trade, and the African-Asian relations along the eastern coast.

The Atlantic Slave trade guided further expeditions inside the continent.
The Atlantic Slave Trade largely guided further expeditions inside the continent.

Explorers uncover the continent

Famous explorers in their quest to discover famous but elusive geographical features such as Congo, Niger and Nile rivers, lakes, and mountains had to endure and then overcome both human and natural impediments to penetrate deeper and therefore exposed the inner jewels of the continent to the outside world. Reports of their discoveries aroused so much interest from the curious Europeans who included settlers seeking a new life, adventurers, academicians, missionaries, traders, and colonialists. Due to the appealing tales of the explorers, many Europeans arrived with the hopes of capitalizing on the incredible prospects they heard about the continent. According to reliable historical sources, the early Asian merchants were closely followed by explorers, then missionaries who allegedly ‘softened’ the hearts of hostile African tribes and consented them into accepting colonialism, after them, the colonialists arrived and started scrambling and partitioning Africa under their dominion.

It is widely thought that early European explorers, most of them sent in by the Royal Geographical Society, were on missions to ascertain whether the continent was viable for other groups to follow suit. Before nice tales emanated from the continent, most Europeans and other outsiders viewed the continent as a hostile and evolutionary backwards jungle and they took it up upon themselves to develop and ‘civilize’ it but with bitter discontentment to its natives who were militarily weak to fend off the imperialistic intrusions.

Mungo Park, an early Scottish explorer opened up large swaths of central-west Africa to outsiders through the accounts of his mostly solo expeditions. According to his book Travels in the Interior of Africa, Park set out on his expedition from an English outstation by trekking upstream the Gambia River and traversing through Senegal and Mali (from where he visited the historic city of Timbuktu) in his two failed attempts to discover the source of Niger River from which he eventually drowned during a hot pursuit by hostile tribesmen. Another one was Auguste René Caillié a French explorer famous for being the first European to visit the two Sudanic cities of Timbuktu and Djenné and return alive to narrate about his expeditions. His book Travels through Central Africa to Timbuctoo details his observations about the life of inhabitants, geography, trade, architecture and the religious life of the Saharan kingdoms.

Dr. David Livingstone explored much of the southern, eastern and central areas of Africa.
Dr David Livingstone explored much of the southern, eastern and central areas of Africa.

Johann Rebmann arrived in East Africa as a missionary and set up various mission posts throughout the region while documenting life among the native tribes he came across. Throughout his missionary expeditions, he paved the way for succeeding explorers into the eastern and central wilderness of Africa and also became the first European to discover the continent’s two tallest mountains of Kilimanjaro and Kenya. Later, David Livingstone, also a missionary following in the footsteps of Rebmann, traversed the continent starting from the south going northwards through the lands of the Sotho people and eventually discovering the famous Zambezi River and its mighty Mosi-oa-Tunya falls (which he named Victoria).

Henry Stanley from England is credited for mapping the vastness of central Africa including the dense Congo basin. In his book How I Found Livingstone; travels, adventures, and discoveries in Central Africa, Stanley outlines the vast African great lakes and rivers and his activities in the region were crucial in the Belgian King Leopold II’s conquest and exploitation of the Congo. Richard Burton, also an English explorer, who according to his book Lake Regions of Equatorial Africa studied the hinterland regions while searching for prospective resources for exportation from the region laid the ground for his fellow explorers through his precise documentation. Also, John Speke who in his book Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile detailed accounts of how he explored the Horn of Africa and then later discovering the much-sought source of the Nile River that flows from the northern part of the lake which he named after Queen Victoria of England.

Other famous explorers whose expeditions equally opened up the continent include Johann Ludwig, Frederick Lugard, James Grant, Hugh Clapperton, Dixon Denham, Oskar Lenz and among many others.

The legacy left by European explorers

The source of River Nile was discovered by John Speke in Uganda.
The source of River Nile was discovered by John Speke in Uganda.

Without the determination of these explorers, perhaps it would have been impossible to understand how life in Africa’s interior looked like. Notwithstanding the accounts of a hostile inland, these gallant explorers were so courageous to venture where everybody else feared to. Their accounts of the interior life and geography opened up Africa to the world which also acknowledged in jumbled ways, some rushed in to forcefully set up colonies, others to spread the word of God, trade in the continent’s lucrative natural resources while others simply came in to settle and establish large plantations especially in the southern part of Africa.

As millions have followed into the pathways left behind by the above great explorers, you also ought to set your own legacy. Can you aspire to be the first from your community to explore the beautiful mountains, lakes, rivers, wild and human life of the incredible Africa? The early explorers did so amidst a myriad of discomforts including suffering from terrible tropical diseases, hiking on the continent’s rough terrain, encountering hostile wildlife and tribesmen not forgetting the unfriendly climatic conditions. With today’s enhanced technology in transport and communication, you ought to leave your lasting individual legacy by exploring the breadth of the world’s most marvelous continent. The time is now…

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