In the 1400s, new sailing technology allowed Portuguese explorers to gradually wind their way down and around the western coast of Africa. They were looking for a route to the spices in the East, but they discovered fascinating natural and cultural treasures along the way. In 1482, for example, Diogo Cao stumbled onto an enormous river in central Africa that was, at its mouth, six miles wide. The Congo River dumped 1.4 million cubic feet of fresh water into the Atlantic Ocean every second (Hochschild 17). The Portuguese explorer also learned of the great Kongo Kingdom nearby. But, Cao and the Europeans that followed him down the coast did not explore the interior of Africa. Their goal was to circumnavigate the continent. Africa was just an obstacle in the way of the riches of Asia.
Europeans did stop along the shores of West Africa long enough to instigate on an extensive slave trade that took Africans across the Atlantic to the Americas. Throughout much of the 16th century, for example, over 15,000 Africans from the Kongo Kingdom were enslaved and engulfed in the brutal trade every year (Hochschild 11). In 1526, King Affonso of the Kongo, converted to Christianity by Portuguese missionaries, wrote the first ever letter to a European ruler, the King of Portugal, to protest the trade: “Each day the traders are kidnapping our people—children of this country, sons of our nobles and vassals, even people of our own family . . . This corruption and depravity are so widespread that our land is entirely depopulated . . . .We need in this kingdom only priests and schoolteachers, and no merchandise, unless it is wine and four for Mass . . . It is our wish that this kingdom not be a place for the trade or transport of slaves” (Hochschild 13). Affonso wanted to quickly modernize his kingdom and learn what he could of European religion and education. But, like so many African leaders at the time, he quickly saw the devastating influence European commerce had on his people. Notwithstanding such pleas, Europeans continued to trade enslaved Africans for centuries, shattering the lives of millions.
Despite centuries of interaction with Africans on the coast, Europeans did not penetrate the interior of the continent during most of the 19th century. But, it wasn’t for a lack of trying. In 1816, for example, British explorers set off on an expedition to find the origins of the Congo River. After only a hundred miles or so, they gave up—21 of the 54 men on the expedition had already died (Hochschild 18). Clearly, Africa was not very hospitable to Europeans. Protestant and Catholic missionaries fared no better. In 1825 alone, 52 priests died along the western coast of Africa (Davidson 282). These men died of lethal diseases—yellow fever, sleeping sickness, and, especially, malaria. There was a cure to the worst offender, malaria, but few knew it. Back in the mid 17th century, a Jesuit priest had brought a cinchona tree from the Americas to Europe and reported that Quechua speaking people used its bark—which contained quinine— to prevent or cure tropical diseases (Wikipedia). This remedy was finally rediscovered in the 19th century with severe consequences for Africans.
British explorers, equipped with quinine, cut through the interior of Africa in the mid 19th century. The pioneer was David Livingstone, a missionary, doctor, and explorer, who travelled through Africa for thirty years. He crisscrossed southern Africa and found enormous waterfalls and lakes, including Victoria Falls (Pakenham 18). He traveled light and befriended chiefs along the way. In 1857, Richard Burton and John Speke followed in Livingstone’s path and “discovered” the source of the White Nile, Lake Victoria, which was also the largest lake in Africa (Pakenham 18). Reports of these “discoveries” (Africans, ofcourse, already knew they were there) created a buzz back in Europe and the explorers became celebrities. Livingstone gave a rousing speech to students at Cambridge University in 1857: “I beg to direct your attention to Africa; I know that in a few years I shall be cut off in that country, which is now open: Do not let it be shut again! I go back to Africa to try to make an open path for commerce and Christianity; do you carry out the work which I have begun. I leave it with you!” (Pakenham 1). Livingstone believed that Europeans should help Africans by spreading the three C’s—commerce, Christianity, and civilization. He died in 1873 a national hero and was buried in Westminister Abbey, before the fourth C—conquest—came to Africa.