Mastering the Niger: James MacQueen's African Geography and the Struggle over Atlantic Slavery

Mastering the Niger: James MacQueen's African Geography and the Struggle over Atlantic Slavery

by David Lambert

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In Mastering the Niger, David Lambert recalls Scotsman James MacQueen (1778–1870) and his publication of A New Map of Africa in 1841 to show that Atlantic slavery—as a practice of subjugation, a source of wealth, and a focus of political struggle—was entangled with the production, circulation, and reception of geographical knowledge. The British empire banned the slave trade in 1807 and abolished slavery itself in 1833, creating a need for a new British imperial economy. Without ever setting foot on the continent, MacQueen took on the task of solving the “Niger problem,” that is, to successfully map the course of the river and its tributaries, and thus breathe life into his scheme for the exploration, colonization, and commercial exploitation of West Africa.             Lambert illustrates how MacQueen’s geographical research began, four decades before the publication of the New Map, when he was managing a sugar estate on the West Indian colony of Grenada. There MacQueen encountered slaves with firsthand knowledge of West Africa, whose accounts would form the basis of his geographical claims. Lambert examines the inspirations and foundations for MacQueen’s geographical theory as well as its reception, arguing that Atlantic slavery and ideas for alternatives to it helped produce geographical knowledge, while geographical discourse informed the struggle over slavery.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226078236
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/15/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
File size: 32 MB
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About the Author

David Lambert is a reader of Caribbean history in the Department of History at the University of Warwick, UK, and director of the Yesu Persaud Centre for Caribbean Studies. He is the author of White Creole Culture, Politics and Identity during the Age of Abolition and coeditor of Colonial Lives Across the British Empire. He lives in Reading, UK.

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James MacQueen's African Geography and the Struggle over Atlantic Slavery

By David Lambert


Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-07806-9


Mastering the Niger

In 1841, the geographer James MacQueen published A New Map of Africa, later described by the President of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) as the first "approaching to correctness, of the interior" (figure 1). The map was dedicated and presented to Prince Albert, and was among a number of donations made to the RGS that helped MacQueen to be elected a Fellow of the Society in 1845.

The scope and ambition of the map were the culmination of more than two decades of published work on Africa. MacQueen's researches had initially been inspired by the efforts of the explorer Mungo Park. Park had been engaged by the African Association in the 1790s to determine the course and termination of the River Niger, and thus to solve the "Niger problem" that dominated British interest in West Africa from the late eighteenth to the early nineteenth century. Park would not be the first Briton sent to West Africa in this period, nor the only to die in the course of exploring the region. MacQueen's own contribution to solving the Niger problem was his assertion that the river terminated in the Atlantic Ocean, a claim manifest in the first of his published maps of Africa in 1820. This map and those that followed not only represented Africa as an object of geographical inquiry to be mastered, but also proclaimed its importance as a site of commercial opportunity and a potential imperial territory. The rivers depicted on the map were the means of access for British trading interests, connecting the African interior to distant commercial and political centers, and integrating the continent into a wider British Atlantic empire. Indeed, over more than twenty years, MacQueen used maps to make the case for such a Niger scheme to merchants, politicians, and the British public. In so doing, he reflected and encapsulated a wider British interest in West Africa that was simultaneously commercial and geographical.

The vision of MacQueen's New Map also underlay the contemporaneous Niger Expedition (1841–42), which was championed by the antislavery leader Thomas Fowell Buxton and backed by the government. Following on from the ending of slavery across the British empire in the 1830s, the expedition sought to attack slavery in Africa itself and undermine the continuing trans-Atlantic slave trade to non-British territories by promoting "legitimate commerce." MacQueen's geographical knowledge of and vision for Africa were central to this objective and to the public case that Buxton made. The New Map showed the Niger up which the expedition was to travel, sign anti–slave trade treaties with local African rulers, and establish a model farm at the supposedly healthy confluence of the Niger and its main tributary. MacQueen worked closely with Buxton and, although the Niger Expedition was a disaster, it was the nearest he came to having his African scheme realized. The coming together of commercial and humanitarian motives in the expedition—and in their collaboration—was a forerunner of the later Victorian "civilizing mission." Indeed, MacQueen's New Map is a precursor for the travels of the missionary-explorer David Livingstone and the later "Scramble for Africa," as well as the culmination of the earlier effort to solve the Niger problem.

The need to promote legitimate commerce with Africa and suppress the slave trade to the Americas was something that MacQueen and Buxton agreed on, yet the former's relationship with Atlantic slavery was more complex than this suggests. While the New Map was aligned with Buxton's humanitarian project, MacQueen's earlier geographical work had been part of his efforts to discredit other antislavery schemes, particularly the free labor settlement at Sierra Leone on the West African coast. MacQueen had been one of the most trenchant and vociferous proslavery propagandists during the debate about British colonial slavery in the 1820s and early 1830s, something that reflected his own involvement in trans-Atlantic commerce as a West Indian plantation manager, merchant, and slaveowner. The slavery debate in which he participated encompassed claims and counter-claims not only about the Caribbean, but also about other parts of the Atlantic world. Accounts by "on-the-spot" observers, be they West African explorers or missionaries, colonists, and slaves in the West Indies, were used by metropolitan commentators like MacQueen and his antislavery opponents in their struggle over the future of Atlantic slavery.

Despite the volume of his African work and the confidence with which he mapped the Niger, MacQueen never once visited the continent. Instead, the New Map and those that preceded it were based on collating recent and historical authorities to produce synthetic surveys. The sedentary research of such an "armchair" explorer was not accepted by those who set more store by field observation, however. As a result, MacQueen spent the decade after 1820 trying to persuade others to accept that he had "solved" the Niger problem and, after a British expedition finally traveled down the Niger to the sea in 1830, the decade after that trying to win credit for the priority of his "discoveries." The New Map was part of this continuing effort to establish himself as an African expert. Yet, if MacQueen made much of his ability to map Africa without traveling there, his proslavery propaganda turned on dismissing those antislavery campaigners who claimed to know the West Indies from distance or on the basis of information from itinerant missionaries. MacQueen had lived and worked in the Caribbean for more than a decade and insisted that long-term residence was the only way to understand the danger that emancipation posed to colonial societies and to British mastery of the Atlantic world. MacQueen's dual role as a West Indian apologist and West African expert thus reveals not only the connections between discourses of geography and slavery, but also the complex and sometimes contradictory basis on which claims were made about the Atlantic world.

MacQueen's geographical researches had begun four decades before the publication of the New Map when he was managing a sugar estate in the West Indian colony of Grenada. There he had encountered and had sought to master enslaved people with first-hand knowledge and experience of West Africa. MacQueen realized that these enslaved informants could help to solve the Niger problem and they formed the basis of his geographical claims. Although the traces of this captive knowledge are hidden and overwritten in MacQueen's work, the New Map is partly a product of these exiled lives. It is also a reminder that the system of Atlantic slavery was the basis of MacQueen's livelihood and geographical expertise. The New Map thus represents a troubling chain of links by which enslaved knowledge gathered on a Caribbean plantation became the foundation for a commercial and humanitarian expedition to attack slavery in Africa.

The central argument of Mastering the Niger is that Atlantic slavery as a practice of subjugation, a source of wealth, and a focus of political struggle was entangled with the production, circulation, and reception of geographical knowledge. To this end, I will show that the debate over slavery was informed by, and involved the deployment of, geographical discourses, practices, and representational forms, including maps and regional surveys. The comparison of the British West Indian slave societies with other parts of the Caribbean as well as places elsewhere in the Atlantic world was one aspect of this. Beyond such substantive claims and counter-claims, more abstract arguments were also staged about how it was possible to obtain knowledge about different Atlantic places and who was best placed to do so: long-standing inhabitants, itinerant visitors, or distant commentators. I argue that this question of locational authority was a profound part of the debate about slavery that related not to the content of the arguments made, but to how they could be credible. In Mastering the Niger, I also argue that Atlantic slavery shaped geographical inquiries into Africa. The most profound example was the knowledge gathered from the enslaved Africans who formed the basis of MacQueen's Niger claims. Moreover, I argue that ways of understanding commerce that were particularly associated with Atlantic slavery also found expression in how geographical knowledge of Africa was produced and made credible. In a broader sense, involvement in Atlantic slavery had shaped European knowledge about Africa in that the continental interior was relatively unknown. I will show that plans and proposals for alternatives to slavery, such as legitimate commerce, free labor settlements, and the suppression of the slave trade, created a need for new knowledge of Africa to be acquired through exploration and the collation of existing geographical sources. In short, Atlantic slavery and ideas for alternatives to it were productive of geographical knowledge, while geographical discourse informed the struggle over slavery.

No person better encapsulates the entangled nature of geographical knowledge and the struggle over slavery in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries than the creator of the New Map, James MacQueen (figure 2). Indeed, the central concerns of Mastering the Niger are the West African facts and theories he promulgated, especially his claims about the course and termination of the River Niger, and his proposals for increased British presence in Africa that were founded on these claims. MacQueen argued that this river fl owed to the Atlantic Ocean at least a decade before this was proven to general European satisfaction by on-the-spot explorers. He derived his initial knowledge about African geography from the enslaved people he managed on a Caribbean plantation. After that experience, he became a Glasgow merchant with trans-Atlantic commercial interests, a highprofi le critic of the British antislavery campaign, and an outspoken advocate for the colonization of Africa. He deployed geographical knowledge, methods, and genres, including maps, surveys, and statistics, to further these entangled agendas. His claims about Africa and the responses they received from the British government, merchants, antislavery campaigners, explorers, and other geographers demonstrate how geographical discourse played an important role in contemporary debates about empire, slavery, and the nature of knowledge at this time.

To examine the wider significance of MacQueen's work, I situate him in the Atlantic world of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. An increasingly interconnected oceanic region emerged in the sixteenth century through trade and communication, migration—voluntary and coerced, permanent and temporary—territorial acquisition by expansionist European states, and modes of governance and law. It was constituted by "kaleidoscopic movements" of people and goods, particularly by the trade in and enslavement of African people, as well as the trade in slave-produced commodities. Ideas, ideologies, discourses, and epistemologies also circulated, some helping to underwrite systems of empire and commerce, others emerging in opposition to them. Although the Atlantic world was centered on an oceanic system connecting the Americas, Africa, and Europe, including the colonies of the Caribbean, flows of trade and information also extended into continental interiors via trade routes, and also connected to other oceanic systems, especially in the Indian Ocean. Within this world, particular locations played a key role as sources of goods, sites of consumption, places of knowledge exchange, and centers of command. These included islands like Grenada in the Caribbean and Fernando Po in the Gulf of Guinea, cities like Glasgow and London, and colonial settlements such as Sierra Leone. Moreover, rivers like the Niger connected this ocean-centered world to continental interiors and land-locked cities like Timbuktu.

MacQueen was very much a figure of the Atlantic. He lived and made a living in cities with strong Atlantic (and global) connections—first Glasgow and later London. He crossed the ocean several times, initially settling in the Caribbean for more than a decade and later visiting the United States. Moreover, although he never traveled to Africa, he maintained strong interests in the continent throughout his life. By the late eighteenth century, Britain's Atlantic empire was beginning to change and fragment because of the effects of the American Revolution, and further disruptions would follow in the wake of the French and Haitian Revolutions. Understandably, such revolutionary forces have received much attention. MacQueen, however, represented a counter-revolutionary Atlantic, in that he sought to maintain and reinvigorate Britain's geopolitical position. He did so by opposing changes to the Caribbean, especially the abolition of slavery, defending mercantilism and protectionist policies, and lobbying for governmental support for new colonial ventures in Africa in order to provide sources of raw materials and markets for British goods. I will sketch out MacQueen's life later. For now, suffice to say that through his maps, geographical surveys, and presentation of statistical data, as well as his trading, lobbying, and journalism, Mac-Queen sought to ensure British mastery of the Atlantic world.

The specific historical focus of Mastering the Niger is from the late 1780s to the mid-1840s, a period that encompasses three overlapping chronologies: from the emergence of the British antislavery campaign to the peak of humanitarian influence on the early Victorian state; the intensification of British exploratory activity in West Africa, the solution of the so-called Niger problem, and the subsequent commercial and humanitarian expeditions up this river; and the institutionalization of British geography as a field of knowledge and set of practices. The period also includes Christopher Bayly's "imperial meridian," a period that has been characterized in terms of a "swing to the east" following the revolutionary rupture of the "first" English empire, centered on the Atlantic, and the rise of a "second" British empire in Asia. Africa, too, took on new significance at this time. Part of this interest stemmed from growing disquiet over slavery and utopian designs to establish alternatives in Africa, but also crucial was a desire to develop new markets for Britain's growing industry and to expand the country's commercial and colonial reach. The rise of abolitionist and commercial interests in Africa were not directly connected, although both can be related to the fallout of American independence and there were significant links between them. None of these chronologies exactly match my own, but all are of relevance. Moreover, parts of my argument spill over these boundaries, extending back to consider older forms of British involvement and interest in Africa, as well as "early modern" modes of geographical enquiry and writing. In the final part of the book, "Termination," I also look forward to the Victorian period and the increasing European presence in Africa.


The rise of abolitionist sentiment toward the end of the eighteenth century, and the response from those with interests in maintaining the Atlantic slave trade and the enslavement of people of African descent in the British empire, created a field of political and cultural contention. The struggle over slavery comprised abolitionist and antislavery campaigning—spearheaded initially by the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade (founded 1787) and later by the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery Throughout the British Dominions (founded 1823)—and proslavery lobbying and obstruction. As one of the great debates of the age, the issue of slavery brought to the fore questions about human difference, moral duty, free trade, colonial rights, and Britain's imperial future.

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Table of Contents

List of Figures   Chapter 1   Mastering the Niger   Part 1: Sources Chapter 2   “Mr. Park’s Book” and the Niger Problem Chapter 3   Keeping Account of Atlantic Commerce Chapter 4   Captive Knowledge   Part 2: Courses Chapter 5   Credibility and Truth Making in the Atlantic World Chapter 6   Surveying Sierra Leone Chapter 7   Thomas Fowell Buxton and the Niger Expedition   Part 3: Termination Chapter 8   Beyond the Niger   Acknowledgments List of Abbreviations Notes Bibliography Index

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