Soldier courts cruel King to find Kong

The King's Stranger
October 27, 2006

It is hard to believe that there has been no biography until now of the 19th-century explorer John Duncan, whose three expeditions to West Africa are crucial to our understanding of the "slave coast". For that reason alone, The King's Stranger , Derek O'Connor's fascinating and meticulously researched biography, is important. It goes some way to filling the gaps in our knowledge about the state of exploration along this most dangerous region, sometimes known as "the white man's grave".

That Duncan has been so overlooked for so long is something of a mystery.

While the undisputed greats of African exploration, such as Richard Burton and David Livingstone, are reappraised at least every generation, there has been no dedicated research on Duncan published in book form. Even The Oxford Book of Exploration , widely held to be the best and most comprehensive anthology of the literature of the subject, is silent on Duncan's achievements.

O'Connor thinks the answer lies in part with the fact that Duncan was little more than a common soldier made good and did not fit the establishment profile of a Victorian gentleman explorer. He also lacked public appeal. And although Duncan published his memoirs, Travels in Western Africa in 1845 and 1846 , he was not a natural writer. Despite an extraordinary tale of endurance and endeavour, his prose had none of the drama and narrative flair of Mungo Park's phenomenally popular Travels into the Interior of Africa , and so Duncan's Travels went out of print almost immediately.

Nonetheless, Duncan is a good subject for a biographer. The honorific title "King's Stranger" was bestowed on him by the bloodthirsty and obsessively cruel King Gezo of Dahomey (modern-day Benin). On his second journey to Africa, an impoverished Duncan courted Gezo to obtain sponsorship for his expedition to search for what turned out to be the non-existent Kong mountains. It was an unlikely alliance, with Duncan and Gezo drinking the health of Queen Victoria from the skulls of the King's enemies, while Duncan so impressed the King with his military bearing and Life Guards uniform that he was invited to execute some criminals. It was an honour Duncan was to turn down, although he watched the subsequent executions from such close quarters that he was virtually covered with the victims' blood.

This bizarre acquaintance was to be renewed in 1849 on Duncan's third visit, when as an unpaid British vice-consul his mission was to secure an anti-slavery treaty with his old drinking partner Gezo. Duncan lost no time in using the diplomatic visit as an excuse for more explorations. Despite previous amazing initiative and bravery, his luck finally gave out, and Africa, as it had threatened to do on two previous occasions, claimed his life.

When word reached Britain that Duncan had died in the field, the Royal Geographical Society only half-heartedly mourned "our able pioneer, who... explored a great tract of country between the rivers Lagos and Niger, never before visited by any European, in which, though uneducated, his observant mind and prudent conduct produced useful results". But even in its most begrudging praise the society could hardly conceal the scale of Duncan's achievement. It is largely thanks to O'Connor's biography that we can appreciate it today. There is also an extremely welcome footnote, in that Duncan's Travels is being reprinted along with The King's Stranger . These are important and timely books for scholars of West African history and enthusiasts of the golden age of exploration alike.

Nick Smith is former editor of Geographical , the magazine of the Royal Geographical Society.

The King's Stranger: A Biography of John Duncan, Scotland's Forgotten Explorer

Author - Derek O'Connor
Publisher - Classic Travel Books
Pages - 400
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 1 590 48241 7

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