I have ‘explored Africa’ by being flown in a Cessna by a local pilot, picked up in a Toyota by a local guide and cooked for by a local chef, so whilst all our explorers were shown around by locals, when the ‘locals’ are actually officials of the colony and they’re taking you to established towns and government posts, its not exploring. It’s a visit from head office.
John Barrow (1764–1848) – was an English statesman, historian, author, organiser of Arctic expeditions and artist – he painted the picture above, Cape Town ca1800. He started in life as superintending clerk of an iron foundry at Liverpool and afterwards, in his twenties, taught mathematics at a private school in Greenwich.
So Barrow was not really an explorer of the Cape. He traversed known territory accompanied by officials in 1797 when he accompanied Lord Macartney, Governor of the Cape Colony, as his private secretary, in his important and delicate mission to ‘settle the government of the newly acquired colony’ of the Cape of Good Hope. This is not like Burchell in a wagon. This is more like politicians on a guided tour. Still, he wrote a book and drew a map.
His 1806 book had the catchy title of ‘Travels into the interior of Southern Africa in which are described the character and conditions of the Dutch colonists of the Cape of Good Hope, and of the several tribes of natives beyond its limits the natural history of such subjects as occurred in the animal, mineral and vegetable kingdoms and the geography of the southern extremity of Africa comprehending also a topographical and statistical sketch of the Cape Colony with an inquiry into its importance as a naval and military station as a commercial emporium and as an imperial possession.’ A real page-turner.
Barrow was tasked to ‘reconcile the Boer settlers and the native Black population,’ and ‘report on the country in the interior.’ On his return from his journey, in the course of which he visited ‘all parts of the colony’ – not – he was appointed auditor-general of public accounts. My real explorers would have told them where to shove that job.
He now decided to settle in South Africa, married local botanical artist Anna Maria Truter, and in 1800 bought a house in Cape Town. But the surrender of the colony to the Dutch at the peace of Amiens in 1802 upset this plan and they left for England.
During his travels through South Africa, Barrow compiled copious notes and sketches of the countryside he was traversing. The outcome of his journeys was a map which was the first published modern map of the southern parts of the Cape Colony. And a poor one. Especially to real explorers! William John Burchell said so, and probably paid a hefty price for his outspokenness and candour: ‘As to the miserable thing called a map, which has been prefixed to Mr. Barrow’s quarto, I perfectly agree with Professor Lichtenstein, that it is so defective that it can seldom be found of any use.’ He was speaking truth to power and we all now where THAT gets you!
Barrow didn’t explore, but he sure sent others to explore! As second secretary to the British Admiralty for thirty years beginning 1816, he sent elite teams to charter ‘large areas of the Arctic, discover the North Magnetic Pole, search for the North West passage, be the first to see volcanoes in the Antarctic, cross the Sahara to find Timbuktu and the mouth of the Niger.’
He also wrote Mutiny On The Bounty, except he titled it ‘The Eventful History of the Mutiny and Piratical Seizure of H.M.S. Bounty: Its Cause and Consequences.’
Barrow, now Sir John Barrow, 1st Baronet, FRS, FRGS, retired from public life in 1845 and devoted himself to writing a history of the modern Arctic voyages of discovery, as well as his autobiography, published in 1847. He died suddenly on 23 November 1848, leaving his wife Anna Maria Truter, four sons and two daughters, one of whom, Johanna, had married the artist Robert Batty.
These extracts from Fergus Fleming’s book shows that even when sending others to explore, Barrow was not what you would call a brilliant explorer!
After the Napoleonic wars, Barrow launched the most ambitious program of exploration the world has ever seen. For the next thirty years, his handpicked teams of elite naval officers scoured the globe on a mission to fill the blanks that littered the atlases of the day.
From the first disastrous trip down the Congo, in search of the Niger River, Barrow maintained his resolve in the face of continuous catastrophes. His explorers often died, and they struggled under minuscule budgets.
1816: Barrow’s first mission sends a crew up the Congo in search of the mouth of the Niger River. Within 200 miles yellow fever wipes out most of the crew; when the survivors turn around their African guides flee into the bush, stealing most of their supplies. None of the officers survive and only a few crew members limp back to England. The mission is a total failure, setting an unfortunate precedent for the missions to follow.
1819-1822: The legendary John Franklin takes his first overland mission to map Canada’s northern coastline. They run out of food and are driven to eating lichen from rocks, mice, and even their shoes, which are roasted or boiled before being devoured. Some of the men resort to cannibalism.
1825: Gordon Laing, the indomitable African explorer and dreadful poet, crosses the Sahara in search of Timbuctoo, rumored to be a wondrous city of learning and commerce. Attacked by Tuareg tribesmen, he covers 400 miles strapped to the back of a camel with numerous saber cuts, a fractured jawbone, a musket ball in the hip, three broken fingers, and a slashed wrist. He eventually finds Timbuctoo, which turns out to be nothing more than a squalid huddle of mud houses. Laing is murdered by Tuaregs on his way back and his body is never discovered.
1830: Richard and John Lander take up the intrepid task of following the Niger to its mouth. Along the way they are forced to bribe tribal leaders to let them continue, abducted by pirates and delivered into slavery, bought by a drunken chief who sets them free to sail away with a foul-mouthed British captain who desperately needs healthy crew members. They return to England in 1831, having discovered the mouth of the Niger, only to receive the cold shoulder from Barrow, who had long argued that the Niger ended elsewhere and was displeased to have his beliefs disproven. Nasty.
No explorer, Barrow.