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The Lewis and Clark expedition: 1804-1806

In the first few years of the 19th century there is much talk in Washington of the possibility of water transport across the entire continent. The northeastern states could perhaps be linked to the Great Lakes (the Erie Canal is begun in 1817 after long preparations), and the river systems of the Ohio and the Mississippi are already the commercial backbone of the regions now being opened to American settlement.

The Missouri flows into the Mississippi from uncharted regions to the west. What if its waters offered a gateway through to the Pacific? The advantages would be enormous. Early in 1803 congress votes funds for an expedition to discover 'water communication across this continent'.

Later in 1803 the completion of the Louisiana Purchase gives the proposed expedition a new topicality. The explorers will be investigating territory which now belongs to the United States, at any rate as far west as the Rockies.

Jefferson has already selected the leader of the expedition - Merriwether Lewis, an army captain who has been the President's secretary since 1801 and who has been preparing himself for the task by taking courses in botany, zoology and the skills of finding one's location by the stars. Lewis proposes that he share the command with an army lieutenant, William Clark.

Jefferson gives the two men detailed instructions as to their duties. They are to keep journals recording information about the Indian tribes they encounter, plant and animal life, mineral and commercial opportunities, climate, temperature and description of the terrain.

Lewis and Clark recruit a party of about forty men, many of them soldiers, whom they assemble in St Louis for a winter of training. On 14 May 1804 they set off up the Missouri in three boats, heavily laden with provisions and with twenty-one bales of presents for the Indians. Progress up the river is more difficult than expected. By November they reach the site of present-day Bismarck, where they make their winter camp among friendly Mandan Indians.

In April 1805 they continue up the Missouri in smaller boats, adding to their party a French-Canadian interpreter who has an Indian wife, Sacagawea. She plays her part valiantly in all the adventures and becomes something of the heroine of the expedition.

In what is now southwest Montana they abandon their boats, procure horses and a local Indian guide, and make their way through a pass in the Rockies to the Clearwater river on the other side of the continental divide. Here they make canoes which carry them down the Clearwater, into the Snake river and along the Columbia river to the Pacific. They spend their third winter in a temporary fort near the site of present-day Astoria.

On the journey east in 1806 the two leaders separate, Lewis exploring the Marias river and Clark the Yellowstone. They meet up again below the junction of the Yellowstone and the Missouri, and are back by September in St Louis - where the returning explorers are given a rousing welcome.

Theough anticipated in the crossing of the western part of the continent by Mackenzie (in 1792-3), Lewis and Clark are the first explorers to bring back a wealth of scientific and cartographic information about the region. Their achievement lays the basis for America's coming expansion through the west. Lewis later becomes governor of the Louisiana territory, and Clark of the Missouri territory.

Sections are as yet missing at this point.

Commerce and Christianity: 1841-1857

In 1857 the most famous explorer of the day addresses an audience of young men in Cambridge's Senate House. He urges upon them an idealistic mission worthy of their attention in Africa. He is about to return there, he tells them, in the hope of opening a path into the continent 'for commerce and Christianity'. He needs young enthusiasts to continue this work. The speaker is David Livingstone, aptly described by a commentator of the time as an 'indefatigable pedestrian'.

Livingstone's first involvement with Africa has been purely as a missionary, sent out to South Africa in 1841 by the London Missionary Society. But he soon becomes interested in other tasks far beyond the responsibilities placed on him by the society.

The challenge which first inspires Livingstone is to establish mission stations ever further north into the unexplored interior of the continent. This in turn brings him experiences which dictate the pattern of his life.

In these remote regions he sees the continent's slave trade at its source, where the victims are captured by fellow Africans for sale to the Arab traders who despatch them to markets on the east coast. Livingstone becomes convinced that this pernicious trade will only be suppressed if routes are established along which European goods can reach the interior of the continent, providing the basis for new and different trading activities.

Along such routes missionaries too will travel, benefiting the Africans' spiritual as well as their material needs - hence 'commerce and Christianity'. But finding such routes requires from Livingstone the skills for which he becomes renowned, those of the explorer.

The great journey which has recently made his name, when he speaks in 1857 in Cambridge, has lasted the best part of three years.

Livingstone's first great journey: 1853-1856

In 1853 Livingstone is provided with twenty-seven men by a friendly chieftain at Sesheke on the Zambezi. With them he sets off west, into unknown territory, to find a way to the coast.

Six months later, after appalling difficulties from disease and hostile tribes, the group arrives at Luanda on the Atlantic coast. There are British ships in the harbour, whose captains offer Livingstone a passage home to instant fame. But he insists that he must take his men back to Sesheke.

Returning by a different route takes him even longer, suggesting that there is no easy access to the interior from the west side of the continent. Instead Livingstone now attempts a journey east from Sesheke down the Zambezi, this time accompanied by more than 100 tribesmen.

Within fifty miles their way is blocked by the Victoria Falls. This brings Livingstone the credit of being the first European to discover this marvel of nature, though to him it is merely an irritating obstacle. However in this direction the terrain does prove easier to cross on foot.

Reaching Portuguese Mozambique, Livingstone this time leaves his tribesmen at the coast (he returns two years later to guide them home). He sets sail in 1856 for England. Here he publishes Missionary Travels (1857), a dramatic account of his adventures which makes him famous. But by the end of 1858 he is back to Africa.

Over the next fifteen years his adventures form part of an intense search, mainly conducted by British explorers, to discover the sources of the Nile and the Congo among Africa's central cluster of great lakes.

Burton, Speke and the Nile: 1857-1876

The quest to discover the source of the Nile becomes an obsession of the mid-19th century. For it is an extraordinary fact that this great river was at the heart of one of the world's first civilizations and yet, 5000 years later, no one knows where its enriching waters arrive from.

It is true that the source of one its two branches, the Blue Nile (which merges with the White Nile at Khartoum), is known with some degree of certainty from the 17th century - for its waters flow from Lake Tana in Ethiopia, a civilized area familiar to many visitors. But the White Nile comes from much further south, in impenetrable equatorial regions.

The first serious attempts to explore far up the waters of the White Nile are made from 1839 on the order of Mohammed Ali, ruler of Egypt and recent conqueror of the Sudan. His explorers reach a point slightly upstream of Juba, where rising land and tumbling rapids make it impossible to continue any further on the river itself.

A land approach by another route towards the elusive headwaters is clearly required. Such an expedition is planned in 1856 by the Royal Geographical Society in London. Chosen to lead it are two young men, Richard Burton (already famous for the astonishingly bold pilgrimage which he has made in 1853 to Mecca, disguised as a Muslim) and the relatively inexperienced John Hanning Speke.

Burton and Speke arrive in December 1856 in Zanzibar, where they spend six months planning their journey into the interior of Africa. In June 1857 they are ready to set off from the coast at Bagamoyo. At first they are able to follow the well-trodden routes of Arab merchants which bring them by November to Tabora, the long-established hub of east African trading routes.

Here they are told of three great lakes in the region. To the south is Lake Nyasa (in western terms discovered in the following year by Livingstone, now back in Africa from England). To the west is Lake Tanganyika and to the north Lake Victoria, both about to be discovered by Burton and Speke.

It is a strange concept that Europeans should be described as discovering geographical features on which the local population are well able to provide them with information. Yet the first description of such places by outsiders does have a real significance.

Travellers returning from remote places to the developed world contribute news of them for the first time to a global pool of ever-developing knowledge. The detailed maps which we now take for granted, and which in the 19th century had many uncharted blank spaces, depend entirely on such second-hand 'discoveries' and on subsequent visits by other explorers to fill in the details.

Burton and Speke first explore westwards, towards Lake Tanganyika, which they reach in February 1858 at Ujiji (the site thirteen years later of Stanley's dramatic meeting with Livingstone - see Stanley and Livingstone). When they arrive back in Tabora, Burton is ill. Speke therefore strikes north alone to reach (and name) Lake Victoria.

Speke conceives the hunch, on no firm evidence, that this great stretch of water is probably the source of the White Nile. It could just as well be Lake Tanganyika, and the issue is hotly debated on the return of the explorers to England. The Royal Geographical Society therefore supports another expedition by Speke to try and resolve the matter.

Speke sets off again in 1860 with a new companion, James Grant. (A disgruntled Burton has meanwhile hurried west to inspect and describe the Mormons in their recently established utopia at Salt Lake City.)

Speke and Grant reach the southern shore of Lake Victoria in 1861 and begin exploring up its western coast. In July 1862 they discover and name the Ripon Falls, over which water tumbles from the northern extremity of the lake towards the distant Mediterranean. With considerable confidence Speke can now maintain that this great lake is indeed the source of the White Nile. But two more pieces of the jigsaw are required to clinch it.

Baker, Stanley and the Nile: 1863-1872

While travelling round Lake Victoria, Speke hears news of another large lake to the northwest. He guesses that the water from the Ripon Falls may reach and flow through this other lake, but he is prevented by a local war from following the course of the river towards it.

On their way north Speke and Grant rejoin the Nile at Konokoro, near Juba. Here, in February 1863, they meet the most eccentric pair of characters of all those involved in the Nile exploration. Samuel Baker and his intrepid Hungarian wife, Florence von Sass, have equipped their own expedition and have travelled upstream from Khartoum with ninety-six attendants in three boats.

Speke and Baker, friends already from earlier encounters, treat each other with exemplary generosity. Speke tells Baker of the reported lake and hands over to him the maps which he has made since leaving Lake Victoria. Baker, forced now by the approaching rapids to take to the land, gives Speke and Grant his three boats for their continuing journey downstream.

Baker and his wife now plunge into two years of extreme danger among hostile tribes from whom their only protection is alliances with unscrupulous Arab slave-traders or powerful local potentates, one of whom even tries to claim Florence as payment for services rendered.

Not until March 1865 are Baker and his wife safely back in Konokoro. But in the interim they have reached the stretch of water which Baker names Lake Albert (thus nominally securing the entire upper reaches of the Nile for the British royal family). Baker has explored far enough round the lake to identify the points at which the water from Lake Victoria both arrives and departs.

The only unsolved question is whether the huge Lake Tanganyika might also contribute to the flow. This is finally answered in 1872, when Stanley and Livingstone explore the northern shores. They discover that the only river at that point flows into rather than out of Lake Tanganyika.

Livingstone, Stanley and the Congo: 1872-1877

When Stanley departs for England in March 1872, he leaves Livingstone at Lake Tanganyika - for the veteran explorer is determined to investigate another river system, west of the lake, which he believes must be linked either to the Nile or to the Congo. In August 1872, receiving supplies and men sent from the coast by Stanley, he sets off south to the marshy area round Lake Bangweulu. Here, exhausted by dystentery, he dies in April 1873.

Stanley, devoted to Livingstone after the four months he has spent with him, is also well aware of the Livingstone legend, contact with which has secured his own fame. He decides to continue on his own account the explorer's final quest (see Stanley and Livingstone).

Stanley raises support in London for a new expedition to explore the Lualaba, the river whose source Livingstone was hoping to find near Lake Bangweulu. In November 1874 he and his party of three Europeans and about 300 Africans (some of them women and children) set off from the east coast at Bagamoyo and head for Lake Victoria.

They have with them a collapsible boat, the Lady Alice, in which Stanley surveys the entire circuit of the shores of Lake Victoria and Lake Tanganyika before moving on further west to the Lualaba. In 1876 he reaches Nyangwe, the furthest point reached by Livingstone in a journey of exploration along the river.

Beyond this is inhospitable territory, of dense rain forest and savage tribes, unreached even by the Arab traders whose routes have long crisscrossed the continent. Stanley presses on till he can launch the Lady Alice on the Congo itself, a meandering river often four miles broad. Eventually he reaches a vast basin which he names Stanley Pool (now the site of Brazzaville on one bank and Kinshasa on the other). Beyond this the river plunges down a long series of cataracts, named by Stanley the Livingstone Falls.

Many of Stanley's men drown here. For the last part of his transcontinental journey, from Isangila Falls, he strikes out cross-country. He reaches the estuary of the Congo, at Boma, in August 1877.

It has been the most dramatic and arduous of all the great journeys of African exploration of the previous twenty years. When the remnants of the party reach Boma, more than half the Africans recruited three years previously in Zanzibar are dead. So are Stanley's three European companions.

The cost has been high. But with the Congo charted, the pattern of the great rivers rising in central Africa is now finally clear. And Stanley's achievement turns out to be a pivotal event in the 19th-century European involvement in the continent. This last instalment of the mid-century saga of exploration is also the first chapter of the subsequent 'scramble for Africa'.

Across the Australian continent: 1858-1862

From the 1850s the two southern cities of Australia, Adelaide and Melbourne, become obsessed with the challenge of crossing the arid centre of the continent to the north coast. Adelaide offers a prize of 10,000 to whoever first achieves this feat. Melbourne raises money to equip an official expedition.

John McDouall Stuart accepts the Adelaide challenge, and does so with a fanatical dedication. Between 1858 and 1861 he sets off five times for the journey north. Each time he reaches further into the barren interior before turning back. Finally, in a journey lasting from October 1861 to July 1862, he achieves his purpose. He reaches the sea at Van Diemen's Gulf, near the future site of Darwin.

He has very nearly been beaten in the race, by an expedition which just fails and does so dramatically. As with Scott in the Antarctic, the tragic failure captures the public's imagination more than the success. When Stuart leaves Adelaide for the fifth time, in 1861, news has just come through of the fate of Burke and Wills.

The departure from Melbourne of Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills, in August of the previous summer, has been a grander affair than any of Stuart's expeditions. Burke leads a cavalcade past a great crowd of admirers, wearing a top hat and mounted on a grey horse. Twenty-four camels, imported from India, carry the equipment.

As with a modern expedition climbing a mountain, Burke decides to leave some of the party in camps while smaller numbers go forward. The main party is left at the Barcoo river, with instructions to wait there for four months. Burke and Wills, the final assault group, eventually come within a mile or two of the north coast in a region of salt-water creeks. But it is so boggy, in the rainy season, that they cannot progress through the swamp to a sea which they neither see nor hear but only taste in the salt air.

Four months have passed by the time they get back to the main camp. A recent fire is still warm. A note reveals that the party has departed that very morning, leaving a supply of buried food.

Burke and Wills by now have only one surviving companion, John King. In their desperate attempt to get back to Adelaide, Burke and Wills die of exhaustion. John King survives, after sheltering for three months with an Aborigine tribe - where he is eventually found by a search party.

The bones of Burke and Wills are brought back to Melbourne in December 1862, carried in procession through crowded streets while a brass band plays the Dead March in Saul. In the same week news reaches Adelaide that Stuart has crossed the continent. The news is shortly followed by the emaciated hero himself. Both expeditions - the famous tragedy and the less well remembered success - emphasize one harsh fact. The centre of Australia is inhospitable.

This History is as yet incomplete.

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