The Journey from Hell Part 2 brings us to the town of Jebba. Frankly, there’s very little reason to come to Jebba. It’s a small industrial town on the banks of the Niger, with a now closed paper mill and a hydro-electric dam that seems to do very little to ensure Jebba, only about a mile away, has anything resembling a constant supply of power; like almost everywhere else in Nigeria, power blackouts are frequent, lengthy and, much to the dismay of most Nigerians, tends to come during crucial televised football matches.
From our point of view, the only thing that puts Jebba on the map is the fact that it’s home to West Africa’s most significant memorial to Mungo Park and Richard Lander, the Cornishman who around 20 years after Park picked up where the Scot left off and successfully traced the Niger all the way to its termination in the Gulf of Guinea.
The morning after we arrive in Jebba, Victor, a 15-year old from the dingy little hotel where we’re staying, offers to take us to the memorial. First, though, and for a reason I’m unclear about, he insists we visit the nearby paper mill. I’m not particularly interested in looking at the huge behemoth factory that dominates Jebba’s skyline. But there seems to be no turning Victor, so we fall in step.
Our route to the mill takes us along Jebba’s now almost totally unused rail lines. Like most things in Africa that were built with one purpose in mind but no longer fulfill that purpose so are used for something else, the tracks are today used as a handy footpath by Jebba’s locals. Even motorbike-taxis manage to bump and bounce their way over the sleepers.
Wandering down the lines trying to defy the stultifying humidity that now prevails, we come across the hulk of an ancient looking steam train. Now gathering dust and weeds in some siding, the engine clearly hasn’t been used for many years, but I have a weakness for old steam trains, so we stop for a look.
As we’re poking around, I notice a fenced enclosure next to the train, overgrown with a tangle of bushes. It barely warrants a second glance, but my eyes are drawn to a sign hidden behind the bushes on which I can clearly see written “Mungo Park”. I peel back the foliage. Behind is a hand written sign bearing a message, most of which is incomprehensible except for a reference to Mungo Park and the SS Dayspring.
I pull back more of the foliage next to the sign and find a group of strange metal objects. Most of these are unrecognisable except for one, which is clearly the propeller screw of a ship.
Suddenly, the significance of what I’m looking at becomes clear. The SS Dayspring was a steamer brought up the Niger to Jebba by James Baikie, a Scottish doctor who led the first successful trip up the river in so far as none of his crew died. Baikie had recognised the value of quinine in combating malaria (though malaria was still an unidentified disease at this stage) and ordered all his men to take it twice a day. Baikie’s discovery meant that the curse of the White Man’s Grave was finally broken, and as a result the British conquest of the Niger – and eventually Nigeria – gathered pace.
Sadly Baikie didn’t have so much luck with his journey from Lokoja, his base downstream, up to Jebba. When he and his crew reached the town, their boat hit a hidden rock and sank. Everyone escaped and made it to dry land, but they had to wait one day less than a year for another boat to come and pick them up.
I find it sobering to thing that it is a relic of this ill-fated journey that I have uncovered in a group of bushes behind a fence in an anonymous town in Nigeria. Ok, so it’s just a propeller, but it’s a real, tangible link with a piece of British history that has largely been forgotten.
This sense mounts when, after a largely pointless attempt to visit Victor’s paper mill, which is shut, we hop on moto-taxis across town for the day’s main act, the Park/Lander memorial.
I’m half-expecting this to be in a similar vein to the SS Dayspring relics, shoved in a forgotten to gather dust. But quite the opposite is true: the memorial turns out to be a huge stone obelisk on a hillside overlooking the Niger on the way in to Jebba.
We scramble up the hill to the tower. It’s about 50-75 feet tall in a pale honey-coloured sandstone. Despite its size, the monument is unimpressive, plain save a plaque on one face bearing the inscription: “To Mungo Park, 1795, and Richard Lander, 1830, who traced the course of the Niger from near its source to the sea. Both died in Africa for Africa.”
This last sentence has a great impact on me. Explorers, particularly those of Park’s ilk, are generally remembered for their glorious triumphs over adversity. In truth most probably were driven by a certain amount of hubris, a desire for recognition and fame, but it’s easy to overlook other more modest motivations.
Park’s diary, for example, is an essay in humility, the author’s ego never getting in the way of his objective, unsensational reporting of what he found. The lasting impression is that Park had a genuine passion for what he was doing and for the Africa that he was revealing to the world; the inscription on the obelisk overwhelmingly cements this feeling.
The only aspect of the memorial that doesn’t quite fit is its location in Jebba. Park only made it as far along the Niger as Bussa, about 150km to the north. This was where Lander picked up the trail, so there’s no real reason for the monument to be where it is.