King's College London
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I speak of Africa

William Cook and the Niger expedition

By 1840 it was clear that the West Africa squadron’s efforts were meeting with only limited success, the Atlantic slave trade continuing largely unhindered. Hitherto attention had focussed largely on the slave-buying nations, but the slave trade could not function without slave-selling African kingdoms. How could they be persuaded to abandon the trade?

Extract, from: William Cook. Journal of Mr. William Cook, one of the commissioners attached to the Niger expedition [manuscript]. 1841 [FCO Historical Collection DT360 COO]Extract, from: William Cook. Journal of Mr. William Cook, one of the commissioners attached to the Niger expedition [manuscript]. 1841 [FCO Historical Collection DT360 COO]The MP Thomas Fowell Buxton, founding member of the African Civilization Society, proposed a solution. He suggested the negotiation of treaties of abolition with individual West African rulers, whereby the rulers would renounce the slave trade and permit the establishment of British settlements on their land; on their side, the settlers would cultivate crops, introducing European agricultural methods and thus helping the African kingdoms to develop legitimate export products to fill the vacuum left by the slave trade’s abolition. At the same time British missionaries would spread Christianity among the Africans.

The British government sanctioned Buxton’s proposal and in 1841 an ambitious naval expedition set forth, sponsored by the African Civilization Society, with the aim of establishing a British planters’ settlement at the confluence of the rivers Niger and Benue, in present-day Nigeria. The expedition was a dismal failure. The three British ships, the Albert, the Wilberforce and theSoudan, managed to sail nearly 300 miles upstream, but were defeated by fever. By the time they limped back to Lagos, over a third of the Europeans on board had died.

On display is the journal of William Cook, the most senior government official to take part in the expedition. He reflects on an apparently successful round of negotiations at Iddah with the Attah, or king, of the Eggarah people. The Attah had immediately agreed to a whole raft of demands, including the abolition of the slave trade and of human sacrifice, but Cook doubts his sincerity:

I don’t like this fellow – I am of opinion that he would sign anything we might ask. The question is, how are these Treaties to be enforced? and watched over?

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