Early European Explorers in Africa


During the late 18th century, more Europeans became interested in sub-Sharan Africa. In 1788, the Association for the Promoting the Interior Parts of Africa was formed by Sir Joseph Banks in London and became known as the African Association. Their main goals included locating the gold rich Timbuktu, diversifying African trade by exploiting African natural resources and promoting trade in commodities other than human beings. While the new formed societies valued scientific inquiry they were unashamed about pursuing commercial gain.

Explorers inherently believed Africa should be improved by foreigners. The growing opposition to the slave trade made trade in natural resources the newest best and most ‘legitimate’ alternative for British explorers. These explorers viewed Africa’s interior as a closed society that needed to be opened. Explorers like David Livingstone described Africa as a place requiring, “examination, diagnosis and cure.”

The African Association later morphed into Britain’s Royal Geographic Society (RGS) which was responsible for many of the British expeditions to various parts of Africa. Explorers like Sir Roderick Murchison successfully convinced the government to fund many of his expeditions as important for the public good. He was careful to promote his expeditions as adventure and drama and scientific inquiry while stoking commercial interests in sources for raw materials and potential markets for finished goods. The Royal Geographic Society managed to combine, science, imperialism and their version of humanitarianism while laying the ground work for colonialism.

Some notable European explorers to Africa included James Bruce in the 1770s, Mungo Park sponsored by the African Association in the 1790s and early 1800s, Rene Caillie, Hugh Clapperton and Richard Lander between 1825 and 1827. Later in the 1850s, Dr. Heinrich Barth traveled in West Africa and Dr. William Balfour Baikie in 1854.

In southern Africa, Missionaries like Robert Moffat and David Livingstone became explorers as well.


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