Previously to entering upon the immediate subject of the origin and progress of the different voyages, which have been undertaken for exploring the interior of Africa, it may be not only interesting, but highly instructive, to take a rapid survey of the great Peninsula, as it appeared to the earlier travellers, and as it was found by the last of them, amongst whom may be included the individual, whose adventures in the present work, claim our chief attention. It is on record, that the coasts of Africa have been navigated from as early a period, as six hundred years before Christ, and, according to the earliest records of history, the circumnavigation of Africa was accomplished by the Phoenicians, in the service of
On referring to Herodotus, the earliest and most interesting of Greek historians, and to whom we are indebted for the knowledge of many important facts relative to Africa, in the earliest periods of its history, we find, in corroboration of the circumnavigation of Africa by the Phoenicians, "that taking their course from the Red Sea they entered into the Southern Ocean; on the approach of autumn, they landed in Lybia, and planted some corn in the place, where they happened to find themselves; when this was ripe, and they had cut it down, they again departed. Having thus consumed two years, they in the third passed the columns of Hercules, and returned to Egypt. Their relation may obtain attention from others, but to me it seems incredible, for they affirmed that having sailed round Africa, they had the sun on their right hand."
It is worthy of remark, that the very circumstance, which led Herodotus to attach discredit to the circumnavigation of Africa by the Phoenicians, on account of their having the sun to the right, is the very strongest presumption in favour of its truth. Some historians have indeed endeavoured to prove, that the voyage was altogether beyond any means, which navigation at that early era could command; but in the learned exposition of Rennell, a strong degree of probability is thrown upon the early tradition. At all events it may be considered, that the obscure knowledge, which we possessed of the peninsular figure of Africa, appears to have been derived from the Phoenicians.
Herodotus, however, was himself a traveller, in those early times, of no mean celebrity. Despairing of obtaining accurate information of the then known part of the habitable world, he determined to have recourse to travelling, for the purpose of completing those surveys, which had been undertaken by his predecessors, and which had been left in a dubious and indefinite state. He resided for a considerable period in Egypt, during which, he entered into a friendly communion with the native priests, from whom he obtained much accurate information, as well as a great deal that was false and exaggerated relative to the extensive region, which extends from the Nile to the Atlantic. According to his description it is much inferior in fertility to the cultivated parts of Europe and Asia, and suffering extremely from severe drought; yet he makes mention of a few spots, such as Cinyps, and the high tract Cyrene, which, undergoing the process of irrigation, may stand comparison with the richest portions of the globe. Generally, however, in quitting the northern coast, which he terms significantly the forehead of Africa, the country became more and more arid. Hills of salt arose, out of which the natives constructed their houses, without any fear of their melting beneath a shower in a region where rain was unknown. The land became almost a desert, and was filled with such multitudes of wild beasts, as to be considered their proper inheritance, and scarcely disputed with them by the human race. Farther to the south, the soil no longer afforded food even to these wild tenants; there was not a trunk of a tree, nor a drop of water—total silence and desolation reigned.
This may be considered as the first picture on record of the northern part of Africa; a country, which, even after the lapse of two thousand years, presents to the eye of science, as regards its interior recesses, a blank in geography, a physical and not less a moral problem; a dark and bewildering mystery. The spirit of enterprise has carried our mariners to the arctic seas, braving the most appalling dangers in the solution of a great geographical problem; by the same power, civilization has been carried into the primeval forests of the American continent, and cities have arisen in the very heart of the Andes. The interior of Africa, however, notwithstanding its navigable rivers, has been hitherto almost a sealed chapter in the history of the globe. The deserts, which extend from Egypt to the Atlantic, and which cover a great surface of the interior, have proved a barrier to the march of conquest, or civilization; and whatever science has gained, has been wrested by the utmost efforts of human perseverance and the continual sacrifice of human life.
It must, however, be allowed that there are obstacles existing to the knowledge and the civilization of central Africa, which cannot be overcome by the confederated power of human genius. Extending 5000 miles in length, and nearly the same extent in breadth, it presents an area, according to Malte Brun, of 13,430,000 square miles, unbroken by any estuary, or inland sea, and intersected by a few long or easily navigable rivers; all its known chains of mountains are of moderate height, rising in terraces, down which the waters find their way in cataracts, not through deep ravines and fertile valleys. Owing to this configuration, its high table lands are without streams, a phenomenon unknown in any other part of the world; while, in the lower countries, the rivers, when swelled with the rains, spread into floods and periodical lakes, or lose themselves in marshes. According to this view of the probable structure of the unknown interior, it appears as one immense flat mountain, rising on all sides from the sea by terraces; an opinion favoured by the absence of those narrow pointed promontories, in which other continents terminate, and of those long chains of islands, which are, in fact, submarine prolongations of mountain chains extending across the main land. It is, however, not impossible, that in the centre of Africa, there may be lofty table lands like those of Quito, or valleys like that of Cashmeer, where, as in those happy regions, spring holds a perpetual reign.
In regard to the population, as well as its geographical character, Africa naturally divides itself into two great portions, north and south of the mountains of Kong and the Jebel el Komar, which give rise to the waters of the Senegal, the Niger and the Nile. To the north of this line, Africa is ruled, and partially occupied by foreign races, who have taken possession of all the fertile districts, and driven the aboriginal population into the mountains and deserts of the interior. It is consistent with general experience, that in proportion as civilization extends itself, the aboriginal race of the natives become either extinct, or are driven farther and farther into the interior, where they in time are lost and swept from the catalogue of the human race.
South of this line, we find Africa entirely peopled with the Negro race, who alone seem capable of sustaining the fiery climate, by means of a redundant physical energy scarcely compatible with the full development of the intellectual powers of man. Central Africa is a region distinguished from all others, by its productions and climate, by the simplicity and yet barbarian magnificence of its states; by the mildness and yet diabolical ferocity of its inhabitants, and peculiarly by the darker nature of its superstitions, and its magical rites, which have struck with awe strangers in all ages, and which present something inexplicable and even appalling to enlightened Europeans; the evil principle here seems to reign with less of limitation, and in recesses inaccessible to white men, still to enchant and delude the natives. The common and characteristic mark of their superstition, is the system of Fetiches, by which an individual appropriates to himself some casual object as divine, and which, with respect to himself, by this process, becomes deified, and exercises a peculiar fatality over his fortune. The barbarism of Africa, may be attributed in part its great fertility, which enables its inhabitants to live without are but chiefly to its imperviousness to strangers. Every petty state is so surrounded with natural barriers, that it is isolated from the rest, and though it may be overrun and wasted, and part of its inhabitants carried into captivity, it has never been made to form a constituent part of one large consolidated empire and thus smaller states become dependent, without being incorporated. The whole region is still more inaccessible on a grand scale, than the petty states are in miniature; and while the rest of the earth has become common, from the frequency of visitors, Africa still retains part of the mystery, which hung over the primitive and untrodden world.