Explorers of Africa

by Aaron Stutz
Class of 1997

Before the age of European imperialism in Africa, the interior of the continent was all but unknown to European civilization. Prior to the colonial interests of the major European nations, the age of exploration in Africa opened up many parts of the continent's interior. Numerous expeditions, notably those of Dr. David Livingstone, Sir Richard Burton, John Hanning Speke, Heinrich Barth, de Brazza, and Sir Henry Stanley, facilitated the rapid colonization of Africa by making known features of potential interest. These explorers were the key that would open up entirely new issues of rivalry and conflict between the European powers of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, ultimately contributing to the opening shots of World War One.

One of the first, and most well-known, explorers to penetrate the interior of Africa was Dr. David Livingstone, a British physician and missionary. He was sent to South Africa as a medical missionary during 1840, and his subsequent expeditions and discoveries caused many parts of the extant maps of Africa to be redrawn. Among his many important contributions are his discovery and exploration of the Zambezi river in its entirety, as well as several African lakes. During a visit to England in 1865, he wrote Narrative of an Expedition to the Zambezi and its Tributaries, exposing the slave trade of the Arabs and the Portuguese, as well as revealing the commercial possibilities of the Zambezi region. Dr. Livingstone marked the beginning of the influx of explorers into Africa's interior.

Sir Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke, both from England, together explored Somaliland during 1854, and located Lake Tanganyika in 1858. Speke, traveling alone, discovered Lake Victoria, the main source of the Nile, a feat which many explorers, even Dr. David Livingstone, had failed to accomplish. Their explorations contributed to the potential desirability of parts of Africa for economic purposes.

During 1850 to 1853, Heinrich Barth, from Germany, explored the middle section of the Niger River and Timbuktu. He published Travels and Discoveries of North and Central Africa in 1858, which contained detailed maps and information on many of Africa's little-known regions. Likewise, his explorations mapped parts of many rivers, which would support commerce by providing a means of transportation.

Pierre-Paul-Francois-Camille Savorgnan de Brazza, an Italian count, explored the Ogowe river from the coast of Gabon to the interior. Being an officer in the French navy, de Brazza secured many treaties with local chiefs in 1880 which would eventually result in a French protectorate over the area that became the French Congo. De Brazza secured France a part in the race for African territory, once it had begun.

Sir Henry Morton Stanley, and Anglo-American journalist and explorer, lead numerous explorations intended to continue the work of Dr. David Livingstone, who he had lead an expedition to find in 1871. Funded by the New York Herald and the London Daily Telegraph, Stanley circumnavigated Lakes Tanganyika and Victoria, and navigated down the Lualaba and Congo rivers between 1874 and 1877. In 1878, Stanley explored much of the Congo, under the sponsorship of Leopold II, and claimed the part that de Brazza had not claimed for France.

Before the age of exploration of Africa had finished, the "scramble" for Africa had begun, with the help of these explorers. Most of Europe interpreted their expeditions as economic, ethical, and spiritual reasons for the colonization of Europe. Indeed, most of these explorers strongly urged the colonization of the interior of Africa by their countrymen. Even Dr. David Livingstone told his assistants in the Zambezi expedition to remember that they went among the river's tribes "as members of a superior race and servants of a Government that desires to elevate the more degraded portions of the human family."[Christopher Hibbert, pg. 426] They opened Africa to European civilization, creating a new source of conflict that would contribute to the conflict that was World War One.