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“A Wild and Dismal Lament”: Highlights from African History and Culture, 1540-1921

Posted on 12/17/2015

The December release of African History and Culture, 1540-1921: Imprints from the Library Company of Philadelphia includes a collection of works arranged as a travel narrative by Catherine Hutton and two multi-volume publications by Richard Lemon Lander, explorer of western Africa.

The Tour of Africa (1819)

Arranged by Catherine Hutton

Catherine Hutton was a novelist, historian, and prolific letter-writer and receiver; over her 90 years she amassed a collection of over 2,000 letters from a wide array of correspondents. Her interest in such a diversity of perspectives is reflected in her approach to The Tour of Africa:

The design of the following work is to assemble together all that is most interesting relative to Africa; to bring whatever may have been described by different travelers, or mentioned at various times by the same traveler, into one point of view; and to form the whole into a regular narrative. It appeared to me that these objects would be best attained by creating an imaginary traveler, who should speak in his own person. I am aware that truth and fiction should not be mingled, and I have not mingled them. They are distinct, though they constantly appear together; the traveler himself being ideal, and all he recounts true, as far as the best authors can be relied upon.

This three-volume compilation contains accounts “of all the countries in that quarter of the globe, hitherto visited by Europeans; with the manners and customs of the inhabitants.”

Below are two of the maps Hutton includes:



Records of Captain Clapperton's Last Expedition to Africa (1830)

By Richard Lemon Lander

In 1804 Richard Lemon Lander was born in Cornwall in the Fighting Cocks Inn. During his brief life (Lander died days before his 30th birthday) he made three expeditions to western Africa. He begin his first African adventure, the subject of this work, in 1825 as an assistant to Scottish explorer Hugh Clapperton. When Clapperton died in 1827 Lander became the sole surviving European on the excursion.

In this two-volume narrative, Lander covers religious and cultural conflicts among the peoples of the African continent as well as clashes between European powers over the slave trade.

Regarding the inter-African conflict, Lander writes:

The engagements of the Falatahs with their sable neighbors can scarcely fail of being interesting in many points of view; and their manner of making war is characteristic of African customs. That aggrandizing power, like the government of Russia in Europe, is making rapid and gigantic strides towards an enormous despotism; and should it hereafter possess so martial and enterprising a ruler as its founder, Dandfodio, in the course of a very few years the whole of Central and Northern, if not of Western Africa, will be under the surveillance of the restless Falatah; and the worship of snakes and idols be supplanted by the fanatical tenets of Islamism.

Lander’s latent ethnocentrism is again revealed when he quips,

Architecture, as a science, is not cultivated in the interior; and the termites can rear as elegant a mansion as the natives, and in a far more ingenious manner.

However, Lander offers no sympathy toward his European counterparts engaged in the slave trade and suffers no lack of empathy with the enslaved. Describing the method of embarking their human freight while evading capture, Lander writes:

The plan now generally adopted is as follows: as soon as a vessel arrives at her place of destination, the crew discharge her light cargo, with the manacles intended for the slaves, and land the captain at the same time. The vessel then cruises along the coast to take in country cloth, ivory, a little gold dust, &c.; and, if a British man-of-war be near, the crew having nothing on board to excite suspicion, in most cases contrive to get their vessel searched whilst trading with the natives....The vessel then cruises a second time up and down the coast, till the appointed day approaches, when she proceeds to take in her living cargo.

Immediately on sight of her every canoe for miles near is put in requisition by the captain; provisions and water are speedily conveyed on board; and last of all, the wretched slaves are dragged forcibly towards the boats, and received by the European crew, who, as soon as this is effected, crowd all sail, and the vessel quickly disappears. I saw four hundred slaves at Badagry crammed into a small schooner of eighty tons; and the appearance of theses unhappy human beings was squalid and miserable in the extreme. They were fastened by the neck in pairs, only a quarter of a yard of chain being allowed for each, and driven to the beach by a parcel of hired scoundrels, whilst their associates in cruelty were in front of the party, pulling them along by a narrow band, their only apparel, which encircle the waist.

On leaving their native shore in the canoes, the wretched slaves set up a wild and dismal lament, which rent the air, and might have been heard at a considerable distance; but their tears failed to soften the hearts of the relentless Christians, who huddled them hastily into the hold of their vessel; and the cries of the Africans were heard no more.

Lander later describes his “ordeal by poison,” but that is another story.   


Journal of an Expedition to Explore the Course and Termination of the Niger (1832)

By Richard and John Lander

This release also includes two editions of Richard Lemon Lander’s journal, co-authored with his brother John, chronicling his second adventure to western Africa.  Their work is encyclopedic in its breadth and meticulous in its detail. The final entry of May 1830 is but one example:

Monday, May 31st.—It is supposed that the ruler of Wowwow will make war on this state as soon as he shall be made acquainted with the fact of our being in Borgoo without having visited him. Although it is within the dominions of the King of Boossa, who is acknowledged to be the greatest of the sovereigns of Borgoo, Wowwow is reported to have lately received a body of Nouffie horse soldiers, consisting of eight hundred men, which has rendered its chief more powerful than either of his neighbors. These soldiers are the remnant of the army of Ederesa (the Edrisi of Captain Clapperton), who is the rightful heir to the throne of Nouffie:  they deserted him in his misfortunes, and sought a refuge in Wowwow from the fury of their successful countrymen, leaving their leader to his fate. Shortly after my return to England, it is reported that Magia, who is a younger son of the late King of Nouffie, was reinforced by soldiers from Soccatoo; that he took immediate advantage of the panic into which this intelligence had thrown his brother by attacking and routing his army, and expelling both him and them from their native country. Ederesa was for some time after a wanderer; but at length he is said to have found an asylum with one of the chiefs of a state near the kingdom of Benin, where he now resides in tranquility and retirement.

The journal records the brothers’ description of the Niger River, their separation and reunification, and much more.




For more information about African History and Culture, 1540-1921, or to request a trial for your institution, please contact

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