Devoted from early youth to the study of natural history, Adanson wished to become famous by the discovery of new species. It was hopeless to dream of obtaining them in Europe, and, in spite of opposition, Adanson selected Senegal as the field of his labours. He says, in a manuscript letter, that he chose it because it was the most difficult to explore of all European settlements, and, being the hottest, most unhealthy, and most dangerous, was the least known by naturalists. Certainly a choice founded upon such reasoning gave proof of rare courage and ambition.
It is true that Adanson was by no means the first naturalist to encounter similar dangers, but he was the first to undertake them, with so much enthusiasm, at his own cost, and without hope of reward. Upon his return, he had not sufficient money to pay for the publication of his account of the discoveries he had made.
Embarking upon the 3rd of March, 1749, on board the Chevalier Marin, commanded by D'Après de Mannevillette, he touched at Santa Cruz, Teneriffe, and disembarked at the mouth of the Senegal, which he took to be the Niger of ancient geographers. During nearly five years he was engaged in exploring the colony in every direction, visiting in turn Podor, Portudal, Albreda, and the mouth of the Gambia. With unceasing perseverance, he collected a rich harvest of facts in the animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms.
To him is due the first exact account of a gigantic tree called the Baobab, which is often called Adansonia after him; of the habits of the grasshoppers, which form the chief food of certain wild tribes; of the white ants, and the dwellings they construct; and of a certain kind of oyster, which attach themselves to trees at the mouth of the Gambia. He says,—
"The natives have not the difficulty one might anticipate in catching them; they simply cut off the bough to which they cling. They often cluster to the number of over two hundred on one branch, and if there are several branches, they form a bunch of oysters such as a man could scarcely carry."
In spite of the interest of these and similar discoveries, there are few new facts for the geographer to glean. A few words about the Yolofs and Mandingoes comprise all there is to learn. If we followed Adanson throughout his explorations, we should gain little fresh information.
The same cannot be said of the expedition of which we are about to give some account. Major Houghton, captain in the 69th regiment, and English Governor of the Fort of Goree, had been familiar from his youth, part of which was passed with the English Embassy in Morocco, with the manners and customs of the Moors and the negroes of Senegambia. In 1790, he proposed to the African Society to explore the course of the Niger, penetrate as far as Timbuctoo and Houssa, and return by way of the Sahara. The carrying out of this bold plan met with but one obstacle, but that was almost sufficient to upset it.
Houghton left England upon the 16th of October, 1790, and anchored in Jillifree harbour, at the mouth of the Gambia, upon the 10th of November. Well received by the King of Barra, he followed the course of the Gambia to a distance of three hundred leagues, traversed the remainder of Senegambia, and reached Gonda Konda in Yanvi.
Walknaer, in his "History of Voyages," says, "He purchased a negro, a horse, and five asses, and prepared to proceed with the merchandise which was to pay his expenses to Mendana, the capital of the little kingdom of Woolli. Fortunately his slight knowledge of the Mandingo language enabled him to understand a negress who was speaking of a plot against him. The merchants trading on the river, imagining commerce to be his sole object, and fearing that he might compete with them, had determined upon his death.
"In order to avoid the threatened danger, he thought it wise to deviate from the usual route, and, accordingly, crossed the river with his asses, and reached the northern shore in the kingdom of Cantor."
Houghton then crossed the river a second time, and entered the kingdom of Woolli. He at once sent a messenger to the king, bearing presents, and asking for protection. He was cordially received, and the traveller was welcomed to Mendana, the capital, which he describes as an important town, situated in the midst of a fertile country, in which many herds of cattle graze.
Houghton was justified in anticipating a successful issue to his voyage; everything appeared to presage it, when an event occurred which was the first blow to his hopes. A hut next that in which he slept took fire, and the whole town was soon in flames. His interpreter, who had made several attempts to rob him, seized this opportunity, and fled with a horse and three asses.
Still the King of Woolli continued his protection of the traveller, and loaded him with presents, precious not on account of their value, but as signs of the good-will which they demonstrated. This friend of the Europeans was named Djata. Humane, intelligent, and good-hearted, he wished the English to establish a factory in his kingdom.
Houghton, in a letter to his wife, says,—