Stephanie Williams Author
John Hawley Glover

John Glover goes to Africa – an extract from ‘Running the Show’

In 1857, a young man called John Glover, the son of a vicar from a small village in Hampshire, sailed for Africa on a voyage that would change his life....

Glover was twenty-eight years old when he fell in love with Africa. Sailing south past the Cape Verde Islands on a tiny steamer, 79 feet long, called the Dayspring in June, 1857, he found himself slowly being seduced by the suffocating heat, the damp luminous air, the sea, ‘as smooth as a lake’ and the ‘strange things [that] come up to look at us, the monsters of the deep: sperm whales and porpoises and the pretty dolphins.

‘This morning,’ he wrote in a diary he was keeping for the woman he loved, but whose name we never learn, ‘we sailed through a whole fleet of beautiful nautilus with their delicate sails of silver silk.’ At night the cool air, the ‘phospheric appearance of the water’, the ‘glorious splendour’ of the Southern Cross, the intense brightness of the moon at once soothed and enraptured him.

Glover was part of a ten man expedition funded by the Foreign Office and, at the behest of the indomitable scientist, Roderick Murchison, the Royal Geographical Society, to chart the River Niger, a majestic river of mythical proportions.

The Dayspring expedition was led by Dr William Balfour Baikie, a naturalist who had led a previous attempt on the Niger, who Glover was to meet on the island of Fernando Po, near the mouth of the Niger. Glover, a naval lieutenant and experienced surveyor, had volunteered to be Baikie’s deputy. As Dayspring sailed south through the Atlantic, after an early morning bath and a cup of coffee, Glover spent his days in preparation, reading about the exploration and geography of Africa, and learning Hausa, the language of one of the peoples of what is today eastern Nigeria, from the ship’s doctor.

On 11 June, thirty-five days out from Liverpool, he had his first sight of the African coast. ‘All day we were steaming along with the endless heavy swell that is ever rolling on this to me (though I can hardly tell you why) fascinating shore…The richness and rank luxuriance of its dark green weeds makes a pleasant background under this scorching sun to the sandy shore and the racing surf. [The land is not high but] so varied by slopes between which numberless rivers find their way to the sea, or are lost in lagoons teeming with animal and monster life, while the thick jungle.. and the forest of mango and palm by which the whole country is bound affords shelter to birds of gorgeous plumage which only display their gay colours in the glare of a tropical sun. In spite of its fevers and mosquitoes all this has a charm for me .’

The following day, the Dayspring anchored off Cape Palmos to take on a crew of 50 black ‘Krumen’ for the voyage up the Niger. Dawn broke on a scene of dozens of long canoes setting out from the shore, full of ‘hooting, screaming, fighting and bargaining’ fathers, eager to hire out their sons. Men were so eager to get on board the little Dayspring they jumped into the sea and swam. ‘Arrived on board, the Kru-man takes a cloth and dries himself,’ recorded Glover. ‘He then takes his full dress from round his head’ and wraps about two yards of cotton ‘not ungracefully about his loins… then turns towards you and shaking you by the hand assures you that Prince Albert is glad to see you, or it may be King Tom, Jack Smoke… and suchlike dignified names which distinguish their head men. These are gentlemen, who having saved enough to buy from 2 to 4 wives, are rich men, and have given up the sea.’ The deals being struck (2 months wages and 2 pieces of cloth, 14 yards long in advance), the sons were stripped of every possession by their fathers, and locked in the hold until the ship sailed. ‘Once away, they must remain with us, for it they were to run away the people among whom we are going would make slaves of them,’ wrote Glover. Released from the hold, ‘there is no hardship in their fate. In 3 or 4 voyages they too will have enough to purchase their wives and in course of time will do as their fathers are now doing by them; “It is our custom,” they say.’

After of two days of wild chaotic pleading, laughter and argument with soaking black men, Glover’s love affair with Africa and her peoples was born.