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Significant Scots
John Duncan


DUNCAN, JOHN.—Of all the enterprises of travel, none perhaps are so dangerous or difficult as the exploration of that vast and mysterious terra incognita, the interior of Africa, and none have been more tempting to Scottish perseverance and intrepidity. The names of Bruce, Park, Clapperton, and others who either perished in the journey, or returned home only to die, after their expectations had been crushed and their constitutions broken, will here occur to the memory of the reader. One of this intrepid, self-devoted forlorn hope, was Mr. John Duncan.

This African traveller was born in humble circumstances, being the son of a small farmer in Wigtonshire; but the precise date of his birth we have been unable to ascertain. At an early period he enlisted in the 1st regiment of Life Guards, where he served eighteen years with an excellent character, and was discharged about the year 1840, with the highest testimonials of good conduct. After having left the army, he was attached as armourer to the unfortunate expedition sent out to explore the Niger in 1842. His office on this occasion was one peculiarly trying under a vertical African sun; for in all the treaties made with the native chiefs, he marched at the head of the English party, encumbered with the heavy uniform of a Life-Guardsman, and burning within the polished plates of a tightly-buckled cuirass. He was thus made an imposing pageant, to strike the eyes of the astonished Africans, and impress them with a full sense of the grandeur and military power of Britain. But it was a delusive show; for in such a climate all this glittering harness was an intolerable burden, and the wearer would in reality have been more formidable in the linen-quilted armour of the soldiers of Cortez, or even in a tanned sheepskin. He survived to return to England with such of his companions as remained, but with a shattered constitution, and a frightful wound in his leg, under which he was long a sufferer.

After John Duncan had recovered from the effects of such a journey, instead of being daunted by the toils and dangers he had so narrowly escaped, he only felt a keener desire than ever to attempt new discoveries in the African interior. The excitement of peril had become his chief pleasure, while the do-or-die determination to resume his half-finished adventure, and prosecute it to the close, must be gratified at whatever price. It is of such stuff that the hearts of our African travellers are composed, and how seldom therefore are they satisfied with one expedition, however dangerous it may have been? Duncan announced his desire to Mr. Shillinglaw, then librarian to the Geographical Society, and the latter, delighted to find one so well qualified for such a journey, introduced him to the council. The arrangements were soon made, and in the summer of 1844, Duncan set off upon his pilgrimage, under the auspices of the Society, and liberally furnished with everything that could minister to his comfort or facilitate his means of exploration. On reaching Africa, his first attempt was to explore the kingdom of Dahomey, the wealthiest and most civilized—or, perhaps, we should say, the least savage—of all those marvellous African realms which Europeans have as yet reached; and of this country he traversed a large portion, laying open sources of information concerning it which had hitherto been inaccessible to our travellers. But the sufferings he underwent in this journey were excruciating, chiefly owing to the old wound in his leg, that broke out afresh under the burning climate that had first occasioned it; and so serious at one time were his apprehensions of a mortification supervening; that in the absence of all medical aid, he had actually made preparations for cutting off the limb with his own hand. Happily, a favourable turn made such a desperate resource unnecessary; but the mere resolution shows of what sacrifices he was capable in the prosecution of his purpose. On returning to Cape Coast, much impaired in constitution, he resolved to start afresh on a new journey to Timbuctoo, but continuing ill health obliged him to forego his purpose, and return to England.

Our admiration of Duncan’s persevering intrepidity is heightened by the fact, that he was neither a man of science, nor even a tolerable scholar, his early education having been both brief and defective; and thus he was deprived of those sources of enthusiasm which cheered onward such travellers as Bruce and Park to the source of the Nile or the parent streams of the Niger. But he had keen observation and solid sound sense, by which he was enabled materially to enrich our African geography, without the parade of learning; and as such, his communications were so justly appreciated, that after his return to England, her Majesty’s Government appointed him to the office of British vice-consul at Whydah, in the kingdom of Dahomey. Nothing could be more grateful to his feelings, for besides being an honourable attestation to his services in behalf of science and humaniity, the appointment furnished him with ample means for a third African expedition, in which all his previous attempts as a traveller might be perfected. He set sail accordingly, in H.M.S. Kingfisher, but was not destined to reach the expected port; for he sickened during the voyage, and died when the vessel had reached the Bight of Benin, on the 3d of November, 1849.


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