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For JULY, 1829.
Art. I. 1. A Dissertation on the Course and probable Termination of
the Niger. By Lieut. Gen. Sir Rufane Donkin, G.C.H. K.C.B.
and F.R.S. 8vo. pp. 192. Maps. Price 9s. 6d. London, 1829. 2. North Africa. Correspondence on the Æthiopian Sea and the
ancient Atlantide Island. Part I. 8vo. pp. 16. London, 1829. HOW much does science owe to sheer curiosity! For the
last forty years, we have been actively endeavouring to discover the solution of this great geographical riddle, the course of the Niger; and traveller after traveller has fallen a victim to the African Sphinx. Yet still, this enigmatic river continues to lure the adventurer to pursue her mysterious course; and, having reluctantly disclosed her origin, obstinately conceals the sequel of the secret, as if daring the traveller to come and see. It must be allowed, that there is something strangely adapted to excite the imagination, in the idea of a mighty river totally secluded within the recesses of an unexplored continent, without any known outlet,-inaccessible, therefore, to navigation, sullenly withholding its tribute from the ocean, its lawful liege, and, if certain theorists are right, who make it terminate in sands or swamps, discharging its waters as it were into the atmosphere. The present dissertation, however, assigns to this river a still more unique and romantic character.
• If my hypothesis', says General Donkin, 'as to the final disposal of the Niger, be sound;'-if I have completed what Ptolemy left incomplete, namely, the connexion between his Geir and Ni-Geir; if I have identified these two great streams after they become one, with the Nile of Bornou ; if I have placed and established in the course of my Niger the long-disputed position of Ulil; if I have then traced the same Niger travelling for hundreds of miles under the Libyan sands ; if I have for a moment disinterred, as it were, to the mind's eye, the cities, and towns, and people which once probably animated its banks ; and, if I have laid
bare to the imagination for an instant, the now buried valleys which once smiled on its course ; if I have finally shewn the “ unique and peculiar” Niger to be the cause of the long renowned and fatal Syrtis ;-I think, that if I have been successful in doing these, or some of these things, the Niger will not have suffered in
hands. I do indeed feel that the attempt I have made to unveil the mysteries which have hung over the Niger in its passage through western Æthiopia, and the sands of the Libyan desert, is a bold attempt, but I hope it will not be called a presumptuous one ;--nor could I deny to myself an indulgence in the dream, if dream it be --- which presented to me the great Nile of central Africa rolling forwards majestically to the shores of the Mediterranean, through countries then swarming with people, and animated by intelligence; and through valleys either bespangled by cities, or enamelled by the varied productions of a luxurious soil, fertilized by the waters of a noble stream whose very
existence has been for centuries forgotten; in a climate too, where nature was ever bursting with spontaneousness, and yielding forth a perpetual round of productions, combining, throughout the year, the infant delicacy of vernal freshness, with the luscious fulness of autumnal maturity.'
This may fairly be styled, we think, a literary mirage; not the first instance of the kind that has occurred in traversing the barren regions of science. And it is singular enough, that while the gallant General's fancy has embellished the map of Africa with a new river, a veteran Admiral has done us the favour of chalking out a new sea.
• To revert to the geology of the coast', says Sir Sidney Smith, in a letter to the British Consul at Mogadore, pray inquire particulars as to the districts in the Desert where shells and rounded pebbles are found ; and whether there are any of the latter at the edge of, or under the vegetable earth washed down from the southern slope of Mount. Atlas, all the way to Gadames, or further, from Benioleed to the now dry Bahar bla Ma (water-less sea) south-east of the Great Syrtis, beyond the Fezzan hills and the table land of Barka or Cyrene. If so, we shall acquire a knowledge of the Ethiopic Sea, which Isaiah describes as existing in his time (chap. xviii); and the waters of which were to fail from the sea (chap. xix. 5); which I interpret as having been realized by the growing up of the two bars at the two entrances at the extremes of the Atlas chain, from the effect of surf, under the impulse of constantly prevailing winds and currents in the same direction.' Correspondence, &c. p. 3.
If the Prophet was acquainted with any Ethiopian Sea, such a designation would be much more likely to denote the sea of Bab el Mandeb, or some part of the Indian Ocean, than any inland sea or gulf communicating with the Mediterranean; supposing such a sea to exist. The truth is, however, that two different countries are evidently intended in the eighteenth and nineteenth chapters of Isaiah. In ver. 1. of the former chapter,
a people are addressed, whether 'beyond' or 'bordering on' the rivers of Ethiopia, who were accustomed to send embassies by the sea,-a nation of skilful mariners, such as were the Abyssinian and Arab traders, who appear to have carried on the ancient commerce between the eastern shores of Africa and the Indus; and such as the Egyptians were not. These 'swift 'messengers' are directed to bear the prophetic message to another nation, somewhat obscurely characterized, but whose land is described as subject to inundation,-whether spoiled (according to the C. V.) or 'nourished' (as Lowth renders) by the rivers which water it. That by this land, Egypt is not intended, is, we think, very clear; first, because a land communication with that country was the more swift and direct from Judea; and secondly, because the burden or oracle of Egypt is the subject of the ensuing chapter. With still less propriety can the description be applied to Nubia, or any inland territory. But what nation is really meant, which was to send the timely present or gift to Mount Zion, we profess ourselves unable to decide: only, it seems as if it were to be from a remote region l;eyond seas, and one from which no similar present had been received. The whole oracle is, as Bishop Lowth remarks, one of the most obscure prophecies in the whole book of Isaiah; and we shall be thought, perhaps, to have gone a little out of our track, in thus incidentally commenting upon it. But, as the worthy Admiral has led the way, we could not choose but follow him. Having disposed of this matter of the Ethiopic Sea, we return to Sir Rufane Donkin and his great central Nile rolling through the deserts of Libya into the Syrtic Gulf.
There is something so bold and pleasant in this geographical fiction, that it seems almost a pity to submit it to the rude test of fact. Africa is the very land of mystery and romance, 'monstrorum ferax', in which, secure against detection, the ancient poets delighted to lay the scene of their fictions,—their Atlantis or their Hesperides; and from the earliest ages to the present times, curiosity and imagination have claimed a sort
right of common to its unexplored wastes.' In the very map of Africa, in its broad, white spaces of terra incognita, and its deserts spotted with oases, there is something that strangely excites while it appals the fancy. And illusive objects of pious adventure or sordid speculation have not been wanting in modern times, to stimulate the passion for discovery. Putting aside the wonders of Egypt, which scarcely belong to Africa, and the Abyssinian romance of Bruce, the realm of Prester John and the African El Dorado have succeeded to the Islands of the Blessed and the Hesperian Gardens, while the Niger has formed a central object towards which, as a magnetic pole, every adventure has pointed. At the rate, however, at which discovery
has of late proceeded, the domain of imagination is likely to be very speedily contracted within such narrow limits as to leave our theorists no disputable ground to occupy, and our adventurous travellers no more new kingdoms to discover. Timbuctoo, that golden city of African romance, the nucleus of so long a train of brilliant exaggerations, has been seen, not only by poor Major Laing, who did not return to tell his tale, but by Monsieur Caillé, who will tell us all about it. And when the secret is out, we shall find, that this splendid metropolis contains a tolerably numerous assemblage of mud huts, with two or three indifferent mosques; that it is a second-rate Mourzouk or Kouka, where salt is wealth, shells are money, slaves are cheaper than tobacco and muskets, and the fate with which Midas was threatened, is almost realised by the poorer class, who find food less plentiful than gold. There are no gold-mines, however, it appears, in the immediate vicinity of Timbuctoo, which is indebted for all its importance as an emporium, to its situation on the verge of the desert, at the northern limit of the negro population, and the extreme point to which the caravans from Morocco and Barbary advance. As soon as other and securer channels for commerce shall be opened, its consequence, which seems to have been long on the decline, will be annihilated.
But the Niger-will this unique and peculiar stream' ever be reduced to the rank of things trite and familiar? Will all its interest vanish, like that of some dark, intricate passage in pyramid or catacomb, when we know whither it leads ?-Shall we have nothing then left to furnish matter for Mr. Barrow's entertaining reviews and editorial labours, but the North Pole or New Holland ?-no other field of adventure for our Lyons, and Denhams, and Clappertons ? Such an idea is almost sufficient to deter us from attempting to dispel any illusion which may yet hang over the subject; and we ought rather to be thankful, perhaps, to the inventor of a new hypothesis. Before we close our remarks, however, we shall attempt to shew, that, without sending our travellers on a wild-goose chase after Sir Rufane Donkin's waterless Nile, there is much that remains for them to ascertain and explore.
The present Writer is quite correct in remarking, that no stress can be laid upon the mere name of Nile or Niger. There are Niles and Nigers, blue rivers and black rivers, and great rivers, in all countries and languages. The Indus is a Nile, and is still so called by the Arabs. On the other hand, the river of Egypt was called Sihor and Melas, i. e. Black River, by the ancients. We have the same appellation in the various forms of Rio Negro, Rio Preto, Kara-Su, Black River, and Blackwater. Sir Rufane seems to imagine, that the word Niger is not Latin, because Ptolemy writes it Niyang; and he supposes,
that the names Geir and Ni-Geir were given to the two rivers by the natives, and adopted by Ptolemy, just as Quolla is by us. But we must be allowed to question whether the Alexandrian Geographer knew any thing about the native names; and it is clear, that the Niger was known by that appellation to the Romans, long before he flourished. It is also evident, that, whether the country has taken its name from the river which waters it, or from the complexion of the inhabitants, it has always been known under the name of Black Land, and Nigritia seems only a translation of the Arabic Soudan. The river itself bears all sorts of appellations, but having mostly for their common import, the Great River. No difficulty, however, one would think, could arise, in identifying it as the only great river in Central Africa which has an easterly course. But a question may be raised as to what was the Niger of the ancients,-in particular, of Ptolemy. This Geographer, after observing that all the rivers between the Salathus and the Massa, flow westward into the ocean, goes on to speak of the Geir and the Nigeir, apparently, as exceptions. The latter river, he says, * joining Mount Mandrus and Mount Thala, makes the lake Nigrites in long. 15° E. (corresponding to 10° W. of Greenwich) and 18° N.*; and towards the N. it has two branches upon Mount Sagapola and Mount Usargola; towards the E. it has one branch, which is (or makes) the Libyan Lake, whose position is 35o E. (equal to 10° E. of Greenwich), and 16° 30' N. To the S., one branch or source above the river Daras, according to two positions taken, of which the medium is 25° E. (which corresponds to the meridian of Greenwich).'
· And this is all', adds Sir Rufane, that Ptolemy says of the Ni-Geir!' A tolerably plain indication that his knowledge was hut
very limited on the subject, and that of its ultimate course he was ignorant. But let us first attend to what is said respecting its origin. Adopting the present Writer's explanation of the expression (AISENYvEwr), we must understand Ptolemy as saying, that the Niger has several heads, one of which, apparently the most westerly, has its sources in Mounts Mandrus and Thala ; and that by this head-stream, or head-streams, was formed the lake Nigrites, in lat. 18° N. and long. 10° W. But this would be in the heart of the Sahara, to the N. of the Senegal. Nor will the case be materially mended, if we remove the lake seven degrees eastward, to correspond to long. 15° E. of the island of Ferro. It is not without reason, then, that our Author remarks, that Ptolemy is 'occasionally very wide in his
* Mr. Murray renders it lat. 15°, long. 18°, &c.