Hugh Clapperton, the Scottish explorer of Africa, died on the 13th of April, 1827.
Hugh Clapperton is best remembered as a naval officer turned African explorer of what is now northern Nigeria. He was the first European to chart every degree of latitude between the Mediterranean and the Gulf of Guinea, and his discoveries led directly to the opening of sustained European contact with an important region of sub-Saharan Africa. Clapperton also reached the Niger River in an effort to solve the mystery of that river's course and terminal point. The greater part of his remarkable journeys was made on horseback. Undoubtedly, Hugh Clapperton, or ‘Clappers’ as he would’ve been called today, if not back in the day, was a real life adventure hero, whose story would make a great movie. You can just imagine the dialogue. “I say, Clappers, bit of a rum do this jungle, what!” Of course, he should’ve been portrayed by Kirriemuir’s David Niven, but surely Gerard Butler would make a good job of it today.
Hugh Clapperton was born in Annan on the 18th of May, 1788, and at the age of seventeen, he was bound apprentice on the ‘Postlethwaite’, of Maryport. Some time later, he was caught with a few pounds of illicit rock salt (an expensive commodity back then) and given the choice between jail and the Navy. Clapperton chose the later, rising to the rank of midshipman and seeing active service during the Napoleonic Wars. At the storming of Port Louis, Mauritius, in November, 1810, in true Errol Flynn style, he was first in the breach and hauled down the French flag. That was Clappers, the naval hero.
A further incident at sea, recorded in a biography, illustrates Clapperton’s characteristic coolness. An alarm was given that the ship was on fire and panic ensued, because the magazine, with its barrels of gunpowder, was immediately underneath the source of smoke. Seemingly unconcerned, Clapperton was observed sitting at a table, quietly smoking a cigar. On being asked, he suggested that, “being only a supernumerary, it was of no importance where he was at the time the ship blew up”. Fortunately, the fire was extinguished and this pirate of the Caribbean lived to die another day. That was Clappers, the insouciant hero.
After promotion to Lieutenant and service in Canada, Clapperton returned to Scotland, where by chance he met Walter Oudney, who was to lead a British Government exploration to West Africa. The meeting stirred in Clapperton a desire to visit Africa and he volunteered to join the expedition. The Mission began in 1822 and after a sojourn in Fezzan, it crossed the Sahara to Borno, accompanied by a military escort of 210 mounted Arab tribesmen provided by the Pasha of Tripoli. In February, 1823, they arrived at Lake Chad – the first Europeans to do so. During the trip, Denham went of on his own, leaving Clapperton and Oudney to head west, toward the Niger River. Poor Oudney died in January, 1824, and, later in that year, Clapperton went on alone to become the first European to travel across the ancient commercial states of Hausaland to Sokoto, the capital of the most important empire in the central Sudan at the time. That was Clappers, the intrepid hero.
At Sokoto, the Fulani Sultan, Muhammed Bello, disastrously refused to allow Clapperton to continue on to the Niger, which was only 150 miles, or five days’ journey, to the west. So near, yet so far. Nevertheless, the Sultan was friendly and expressed interest in developing trade with Britain. Clapperton and Denham met up again near Lake Chad and returned to England, via a harassing journey across the Sahara to Tripoli and on to Italy, almost three years after they had first set foot in Africa. Back in Blighty, our man Clapperton was promoted to the rank of commander. Three short months later, he went back to West Africa, where he headed inland, intending to establish diplomatic and trade relations with the Sultan of Sokoto. That was Clappers, the non-quitting hero.
Clapperton was determined to find the source of the Niger and started overland for the river in December, 1825, having with him his servant, Richard Lemon Lander, a Captain Pearce, and Dr. Morrison, navy surgeon and naturalist. Tragically, before the month was out Pearce and Morrison were dead of fever. Clapperton continued his journey and, passing through what is now western Nigeria, in January, 1826, he crossed the River Niger near Bussa, where another Scot, Mungo Park, had died twenty years before. In July, he arrived at Kano and from there carried on to the Sokoto Caliphate, intending to proceed to Bornu. However, his plans were frustrated because Bello had engaged in a war with the Shiekh of Bornu. That was Clappers, the frustrated hero.
Unfortunately, during his earlier visit, Clapperton had presented the Shiekh with several Congreve rockets, which he had employed against some of the Sultan’s towns. In addition, to add insult to injury, Clapperton bore some presents from the King to the Shiekh. Not surprisingly, the Sultan became jealous, duly confiscated the presents and detained Clapperton for several months. Sadly, during his enforced sojourn with the Sultan, Hugh Clapperton became ill and, despite the brave attentions of Lander, succumbed to dysentery, on the 13th of April, 1827. By the permission of Sultan Bello, Clapperton was buried at Jungavie, about five miles south-east of Soccatoo, in the Fulani Empire. So that was that for Clappers, the dead hero.
It is perhaps interesting to note how certain incidents in a man’s life can contrive to shape his destiny. The question was posed in his biography, “Where Clapperton’s laurels, his glory, his defiance in the face of danger and death, his place in the annals of Exploration, but for a few pounds of salt?” Though he was denied the opportunity of further exploration, Clapperton seems to have established at least to his own satisfaction that the final course of the Niger led to the Bight of Benin. In a later expedition, his loyal servant, Richard Lander, went on to prove that as fact.