Until now John Duncan has been the “lost” explorer, the man who risked his life to investigate Africa’s secrets, only to have his accomplishments and the book he wrote forgotten by a fickle public and an ungrateful society of geographers.
His unlikely story began in 1804 when Duncan was born in Kirkcudbright, Galloway, Scotland. Because his parents were inconspicuous farmers, Duncan received a modest education. Yet his natural intelligence, matched with his exceptional height and great strength, allowed him to enlist in the elite Life Guards cavalry in 1824. For the next sixteen years Duncan toiled quietly at his military duties.
Then in 1841 he was recruited to act as master-at-arms aboard HMS Albert, the flagship of the 1841 Niger steamship expedition. Of the 145 Europeans who started up the Niger 53 perished, and Duncan nearly lost his life, too.
Undeterred, Duncan returned to West Africa again in 1844 in search of the legendary Kong Mountains. This time he was the master of his own fate thanks to a small subsidy allotted to him by the Royal Geographical Society.
Yet his solo expedition soon ran out of funds and into trouble, forcing the stranded traveller to seek assistance from the notorious warrior King Gezo.
The ruler of the militaristic state of Dahomey, Gezo’s very name was a byword for unbridled cruelty. One of the most peculiar meetings in African exploration history occurred when Duncan, the towering cavalryman attired in the magnificent uniform of the Life Guards, was honoured by King Gezo, the charismatic native leader. Together they drank toasts to Queen Victoria from goblets carved out of human skulls and discussed Duncan’s quest to explore further inland. The meeting concluded with Duncan not only receiving aid from the king but also being honoured by Gezo with the protective title of “King’s Stranger.”
Although Duncan never found the elusive Kong Mountains, he did become the first European to explore a vast tract of uncharted West Africa, marching through swamps while hostile tribesmen dogged his footsteps and making important observations regarding the mounted African cavalry culture which flourished further inland. After incredible hardships and adventures he came perilously close to death yet again.
Physically exhausted, he returned to England in May, 1846 to something less than a hero’s welcome. The government disdained his information and the Royal Geographical Society bestowed only grudging praise on Duncan’s book, Travels in Western Africa in 1845 and 1846; this despite the fact that Duncan had uncovered eyewitness evidence regarding the murder of Mungo Park, as well as having made a series of valuable observations in the field. Yet due to his humble birth, the academically exclusive London establishment was quick to disdain the accomplishments of this determined man.
Duncan’s last visit to West Africa was in 1849. Appointed British vice consul to Dahomey, the cavalryman turned diplomat was given the difficult task of securing King Gezo’s assent to an anti-slavery treaty. In an effort to convince the wily ruler to cooperate, the indomitable but ailing Scot made two further gruelling journeys into the interior before death finally claimed him in November, 1849.
For all his courage, physical strength and amazing exploits, John Duncan was ultimately a tragic figure. Forgotten by history, disdained by the Royal Geographical Society and ignored by the British Government, Duncan’s achievements were quickly overshadowed by the titans of African exploration who followed him, notably his fellow Scot Dr. David Livingstone, Richard Burton and Henry Morton Stanley.
If, as the Russians say, “the dead weep for joy when their books are republished,” then John Duncan must be enjoying his long-overdue happiness.