Unsung heroes

Guest post by Bo Beolens

The joy of researching our eponym dictionaries is coming across unsung heroes whose remarkable lives may end up commemorated in a critter’s name. Often the collective memory fades and it is left to later generations to rediscover these heroes. Such a fellow was Richard Lemon Lander (1804–1834)  (Lander’s Horseshoe Bat Rhinolophus landeri Martin, 1838).

Richard Lemon Lander left his home in Cornwall, England in 1813 and walked to London. Between 1825 and 1828 he was in northern Nigeria with Hugh Clapperton, with the intention of traveling down the River Niger. At that time no one knew where it started or finished, or much at all about it, in fact.

Clapperton succumbed to illness in 1827—it seems that Lander was the only European member of the expedition to survive. Survive is very much the operative word. African tribesmen accused him of witchcraft and forced him to drink poison to see if he was a witch or not. Since Lander didn’t die, they concluded he was not a witch after all. (Lucky for him that they did not believe that witches would survive poison and the innocent die!)

He returned to England in 1828 and published two books: The Journal of Richard Lander from Kano to the Sea-Coast and Records of Captain Clapperton’s Last Expedition to Africa, with the Subsequent Adventures of the Author.

In 1830 Lander returned to Africa, accompanied by his brother John. They followed the lower Niger River from Bussa to the sea, traveling in canoes. On their way they had a number of adventures, including being captured by the King of the Igbos. They were sold to another monarch, King Boy of Brass, who held them for ransom.

Lander later recounted all this in Journal of an Expedition to Explore the Course and Termination of the Niger.

The Lander brothers were the first Europeans to discover much about the River Niger, and by doing so they opened up an important trade route into the hinterland of what today is Nigeria.

In 1834 Lander was killed in a skirmish with unfriendly tribesmen while leading the first trade expedition up the River Niger. He was buried on the Island of Fernando Pó in Equatorial Guinea.

Although his story is a worthy one, nothing marks it out as more remarkable than any number of other pioneers that sailed into the unknown. Nothing, that is, until you realize that he was just 30 years old when he died. Lander had left home—alone—and walked 300 miles to London and then shipped out for Africa when he was just 9 years old!

He was only 19 when he led the expedition up the Niger. He packed more adventure and discovery into his short life than anyone before or since!

Bo Beolens is coauthor of The Eponym Dictionary of Mammals and The Eponym Dictionary of Reptiles, both available from the JHU Press. 

(The views expressed in this guest post belong to the author and in no way reflect the official opinion of the JHU Press.)