On a blisteringly
hot day in June 1845, a tall Scot on a tiny horse rode into Abomey, capital
of the infamous West African slave-trading nation of Dahomey. In bizarre
defiance of the equatorial heat, he was dressed in the ceremonial uniform of
Her Britannic Majesty’s Life Guards, with glistening cuirass, helmet,
gauntlets and high boots. The Victorian trooper’s name was John Duncan, a
common soldier of most uncommon initiative who travelled three times in West
Africa in the 1840s, a time when this vast fever-ridden territory was grimly
known as “The White Man’s Grave”.
sailed to West Africa in 1841, as master-at-arms aboard HMS Albert,
flagship of the Niger steamship expedition. Ravaged by disease, this
anti-slavery mission soon turned into a debacle that nearly cost Duncan his
Duncan returned to West Africa again in 1844, supported by the Royal
Geographical Society (RGS), on a solo expedition to find the legendary Kong
Mountains. Soon running out of funds, he turned to a notorious slave-dealer
to sponsor his venture into the interior. Duncan’s chosen route took him
into the militaristic state of Dahomey where, once more attired in his
magnificent uniform, he struck up an unlikely friendship with the
charismatic warrior King Gezo, a man whose very name was a byword for
unbridled cruelty. Gezo honoured his new friend with the protective title of
King’s Stranger and together they drank toasts to Queen Victoria from
goblets carved out of human skulls.
never found the Kongs, he did become the first European to explore a vast
tract of uncharted West Africa, marching through swamps and savannah while
hostile tribesmen dogged his footsteps. After incredible hardships and
adventures he came perilously close to death yet again.
visit to West Africa was in 1849. Appointed British vice consul (unpaid) to
Dahomey, tasked with securing Gezo’s assent to an anti-slavery treaty, the
indomitable but ailing Scot made two further gruelling journeys into the
interior before death finally claimed him. For all his courage, physical
strength and amazing exploits, John Duncan was ultimately a tragic figure.
Forgotten by history, disdained by the RGS and the British Government, his
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.
The publication of The King’s
Stranger is the result of years of painstaking research by an author who
believes fervently that the incredible ‘lost’ story of John Duncan,
Victorian superhero, should be told. Illustrated with contemporary images
and maps, this inspiring account of ultimate human endeavour in Africa many
years before the European ‘Scramble for Africa’ began, warrants a place on
the bookshelf of anyone with a genuine interest in exploration.