In June 1857, the British explorers Richard Francis Burton and John Hanning Speke set out on what would become one of the legendary quests in the history of exploration: to find the source and map the course of Africa’s White Nile. Their point of departure was Bagamoyo, a coastal town in present-day Tanzania, then ruled by the island sultanate of Zanzibar. Over the next 21 months and a journey of hundreds of miles, they became the first Europeans to discover two of Africa’s great lakes: Lake Tanganyika, and Lake Victoria, which would prove to be the principal source of the Nile.
Burton and Speke’s expedition was just one of 19th-century Europe’s efforts to penetrate the African interior, efforts that left a lasting impression on the cultural memory of the West. Burton and Speke, like many explorers of their era, became heroes at home, remembered for promoting the spread of commerce and Christianity, filling in the blank spaces on the map, and exemplifying national greatness.
But to someone actually observing this storied British expedition, it would have been hard to tell precisely how “British” the effort was. Burton and Speke were accompanied on their journey by nearly a hundred guides, porters, and other personnel recruited in Zanzibar and supervised by an Arab official selected by Zanzibar’s sultan. The sultan also contributed eight of his soldiers to guard the expedition and supplied it with a letter of safe passage and access to credit from Arab traders in the interior. The two Englishmen may have been ostensibly in charge, but the caravan making its way across the plains of East Africa flew the red flag of Zanzibar. Was this a British expedition staffed with Zanzibari helpers, or a Zanzibari one that cleverly made use of British financing?
In conventional Western accounts of African exploration, Europeans stand at the center of the story. European explorers and their promoters tended to portray Africa as the Dark Continent (a phrase popularized by the Anglo-American explorer Henry Morton Stanley), a mysterious and savage land exposed to the light of civilization only through their own heroic efforts. Whether seen as heroes pushing the frontiers of knowledge and humanitarian values—or, as critics complain, as exploiters of African lands and people—those white explorers are still seen as the lead actors in the drama.
But it is also possible to see something else at work: competing empires in Africa using these expeditions for their own ends. Europeans were not the only ones with imperial ambitions in the continent. Some African states, especially the Muslim states of Zanzibar, Egypt, and Tripoli, had similar interests. Each was eager to expand its markets and authority in the African interior. And although they contributed their knowledge, power, and prestige to European expeditions, their own agendas have been all but ignored in popular Western accounts of African exploration—both because they tarnish the image of the explorer as the autonomous hero and because they challenge the notion that Europeans alone are responsible for opening Africa, for good or ill, to the outside world.
To see exploration this way, as a collaborative enterprise involving African states, gives us not only a better appreciation of how relations between the West and Africa unfolded in the 19th century, but a fuller understanding of events in Africa today. Some of the continent’s present conflicts, such as those in Sudan and Mali, can be attributed not only to the dysfunction of African states or the botched legacies of colonial rule, but to the ambitions and influence of vanished 19th-century African empires that strategically used Europeans and their money to further their own aims.
The early 19th century marked a major shift in Europe’s relations with Africa. After centuries of shipping millions of African slaves to the Americas, Britain abolished its slave trade in 1807, as did Holland, France, and other European countries soon thereafter. Meanwhile, as it industrialized, Europe began to look to Africa as a market for goods and a source of raw materials.
This required access to the African interior. Now Europeans sought the heart of the continent, initially focusing their sights on the fabled city of Timbuktu and the uncharted Niger River, which they hoped to use as an avenue of trade with the interior’s inhabitants. But the region was proving difficult to reach from their coastal trading enclaves due to the deadly toll of tropical diseases and the suspicions of local peoples.
A breakthrough came when they found help in the north. Tripoli, located in modern Libya, was a small but ambitious state whose lucrative Mediterranean pirate raids had been shut down by US Marines in the Barbary Wars. It turned its energies to the trans-Saharan trade in slaves and salt, and saw an opportunity in offering European expeditions a home base. In 1822, the British explorers Dixon Denham and Hugh Clapperton set out from Tripoli, using caravan routes across the Sahara to establish contact with the African emirates located in modern Chad, Niger, and northern Nigeria. Denham declared that their journey proved no more dangerous than the one from London to Edinburgh. Alexander Laing left Tripoli a few years later for an expedition that took him to Timbuktu, becoming the first European explorer to accomplish that feat, though he would be murdered soon after departing the city. Tripoli also served as the gateway for Europe’s greatest explorer of West Africa, the German Heinrich Barth.
The explorers gained fame from their journeys, but Tripoli’s ruler, Yusuf Karamanli, gained something else. The British government paid him £25,000 (equivalent to $2.2 million today) to permit Denham and Clapperton access to the interior and promise them safe passage. He spent much of that money on a military force ostensibly intended to escort the explorers, but actually used to capture slaves and project the power of Tripoli across the Sahara. Another hefty payment by British officials on Laing’s behalf served a similar purpose. European exploration, in effect, helped to fund Tripoli’s imperial expansion into West Africa.
Explorers found a second important African gateway in Egypt. Though notionally part of the Ottoman Empire, Egypt had a military governor, Muhammed Ali, who created his own semi-autonomous dynasty and began conquering neighboring territory, including present-day northern Sudan. His successors extended Egyptian power further south over the following decades. And, like Tripoli, Cairo opened its doors to Europeans.
Among the many explorers who traveled under the protection of Egyptian authorities in the mid-19th century was Samuel Baker, who won fame for his discovery that the White Nile passed through the great lake he christened Lake Albert. He carried an official firman (a kind of passport) from the ruler of Egypt that promised him safe passage and permitted him to obtain logistical assistance from Arab trade caravans. Several years later, Baker returned to the region as commander of an Egyptian army that subjugated the peoples of southern Sudan and annexed their lands to Egypt. This British explorer would serve as the first governor-general of the newly conquered province, appointed by Egypt’s ruler, Ismail Pasha.
The most important gateway for the exploration of Africa in the second half of the 19th century, however, was Zanzibar. This sultanate was the hub of a wide-reaching trading empire that stretched along the East African coast from Mogadishu in the north to Cape Delgado in the south, and which extended hundreds of miles into the interior. Slaves, ivory, and other commodities flowed to Zanzibar through a network of trade routes. The British consul in Zanzibar echoed Dixon Denham’s comments about his trans-Saharan journey when he reported that travel was less dangerous between Zanzibar and Lake Tanganyika than it was in “the less frequented parts of Europe.” What made this possible was the political influence Zanzibar exerted across the region. When a German explorer was murdered on Lake Malawi’s northern shore in 1859, Zanzibari authorities forced the local chief to hand over the perpetrators, who were sent to the island capital for trial and execution.
Far from seeing European explorers as a threat from a more advanced society, Zanzibar embraced them and exploited their deep pockets and grand ambitions. The British explorer Verney Lovett Cameron, for example, spent £11,000 (equivalent to $1 million today) in Zanzibar just to outfit his transcontinental expedition. Explorers were also useful because of their training in identifying commercially valuable plants and minerals. Zanzibar’s Sultan Barghash even hired the British geologist-explorer Joseph Thomson to conduct a coal prospecting expedition on his behalf.
With the money and energy contributed by European explorers, Zanzibar’s commercial empire expanded and flourished. Henry Morton Stanley won great fame at home for his epic journey across the African continent from Zanzibar to the mouth of the Congo River in 1874-77. But the immediate material beneficiary of his achievement was the Zanzibari merchant Tippu Tip, who had supplied Stanley with porters as he pushed westward from the lakes region. Tippu Tip expanded his lucrative ivory and slave trading operations into the Congo River basin along the route that Stanley had helpfully opened up.
This symbiotic relationship between European explorers and African empires would collapse with the “Scramble for Africa.” Starting around 1880, European countries raced to grab a share of the African continent for themselves. Stanley returned to the Congo basin in 1879-80 to claim the region for King Leopold of Belgium’s murderous regime; Stanley’s final mad expedition of 1886-90 massacred countless Africans as it marched across central and eastern Africa. The great African empires themselves became victims of the scramble. Britain occupied Egypt in 1882 and asserted control over Sudan in the late 1890s. Zanzibar’s East African empire was partitioned between Germany and Britain in 1886, while Zanzibar itself became a British protectorate in 1890. The Italians wrestled Tripoli from Ottoman control in 1911.
Today, the African empires forged by Zanzibar, Egypt, and Tripoli are long gone, but their ambitions and influence can still be detected in the continent’s borders, networks, and tensions. The post-colonial merger of Tanganyika and Zanzibar in 1964, which produced the remarkably stable country of Tanzania, was in some respects a reconstitution of Zanzibar’s European-aided territorial dominion in the 19th century. The terrible violence that the Sudanese state has wreaked on the peoples of Darfur and South Sudan in recent years—the new country of South Sudan was established in 2011 to resolve the latter conflict—is largely a continuation of the clashes between Arabs and black Africans that occurred as the Egyptian empire imposed its authority over those regions, with the help of European explorers.
And the current crisis in Mali is not only the result of an Al Qaeda affiliate’s terrorist ambitions or a decrepit Malian government’s dependency on the French who once ruled the country. Its problems go back further than that—to ethnic tensions and competition for resources that can be traced at least in part to Tripoli’s former ambitions in the region. Illicit arms and ex-militiamen from Libya have played a crucial role in the Malian crisis, their destabilizing presence providing an unmistakable echo of Tripoli’s earlier impact on societies south of the Sahara.
When we look at Africa today, it is impossible to ignore the many ways Europeans transformed the continent, not least the political and economic problems they created and left Africans to sort out. But it would be a mistake to trace the roots of Africa’s current condition entirely to the European impact. This is especially apparent when we look at those pith-helmeted explorers who entered Africa as self-styled agents of European agendas. For all their heroism and hubristic claims of discovery, the signatures they left on the continent were not necessarily their own.