Englishmen first came to Africa in search of slaves. In 1562 John Hawkins carried the first shipload of slaves to the Caribbean in an English cargo-carrier. The Portuguese had established trading posts on the west coast of Africa before 1500; English, French, and Dutch interest in the area rose around the mid-sixteenth century. By 1700 Africa was well established as one corner of the so-called ‘Atlantic Triangle Trade’. European goods went to Africa to be traded for slaves, who were shipped across the Atlantic to the Caribbean (the infamous Middle Passage) to be sold so that the ships could move sugar and other tropical commodities back eastward to England and Europe. By this time England led the world in the trafficking of slaves, tens of thousands of whom laboured in the sugar colonies of the West Indies. Through most of the eighteenth century the slave trade was not just respectable, but seemed a vital ingredient of national prosperity. No one but a few Quakers spoke out against it before the 1760s. By the 1780s, the peak years of the trade, when the abolitionist movement got organized, the politics of slavery began to be fought out in travel writing with the help of slaves like Olaudah Equiano who could contribute a first-hand view. The slave trade was abolished in 1807, but British slave emancipation was not complete until 1838.
By the late eighteenth century British knowledge of Africa was still limited to a thin strip of coast, but that would soon change. In 1788 twelve influential Londoners, led by Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society, who in his youth had sailed to the South Seas with Captain Cook, formed the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Districts of Africa (known as the African Association). They sponsored explorers, who began to ‘penetrate’ the continent (this often-used verb hints at the sexualized, masculinist perspective of much exploration discourse), taking immense risks to provide the Empire with data bearing on the potential for colonizing the interior: geography, resources, natives. Exploration narratives harness the discourses of natural history and sentiment in the service of ‘imperial eyes’ (Mary Pratt’s phrase). The project of interior exploration continued, of course, into the later nineteenth century with such famous explorers as Burton, Speke, Stanley, and Livingstone. Our selections illustrate this imperial project while making clear explorers’ vulnerability to the harsh terrain and their debt to their African hosts—who could be generous and helpful or manipulative and p. 182↵coercive, depending on their interests and their perception of the British intruders.