In 1887, a French lieutenant named Edmond Caron sailed a gunboat down the Niger River to gather information and expand French influence in the western Sahel. After setting out from the colonial capital in Saint-Louis, on the Atlantic coast of Senegal, he traveled inland to the Inner Niger Delta of modern central Mali, an area as of yet outside of French control. This region of West Africa was to become part of French Sudan, a colonial territory within French West Africa, and eventually the independent nation of Mali in 1960.
Caron and his party investigated the political situation in polities along the river and attempted to forge local alliances. He wrote a book describing the journey, De Saint-Louis au port de Tombouktou; voyage d’une canonnière française, suivi d’un vocabulaire sonraï, which was published in Paris in 1891. He also produced a map.
Spanning the distance between Manambougou – just upriver from the modern capital of Bamako – and Korioumé – a short way south of Timbuktu – Caron’s map covers the area travelled by the cannonière in 40 sheets. The copy of this map in the Library of Congress collections, Cours du Niger, is lacking the first sheet, legend, and title sheets. Fortunately, Caron included on each page a “croquis d’ensemble,” an overview of the map and index to sheet numbers.
As a representative of the French military, Caron had specific aims to achieve with his map. He noted the depth of the river all along the route, places where anchorage was difficult, and where firewood could be found. Villages on the riverbanks were recorded, and in some cases, sketched. Caron sometimes noted the ethnolinguistic identity of specific villages and towns and their role in recent historical events.
The detail on these maps allows us to glimpse the landscape along the Niger as it appeared in 1887. Following along Caron’s route, we can see villages such as Yamina on sheet 5 below – today called Nyamina, a town of 35,000 people – where he spent July 3-6, 1887. Its population then was 2000; in annotations he names the head of the village, Sidi Koné, and lists the local livestock (sheep, cows, donkeys, and partridges). Just downriver from the village, Caron notes a baobab tree, “visible from very far away.”
Many of the villages documented on the map – surrounded by fields of crops, hills, and various types of trees – are enclosed by defensive walls called tatas, such as in the detail below.
We can also see many ruins along large stretches of the river, evidence of a recent war between two Fula jihad states: the Massina Empire, which had ruled the Inner Niger Delta since 1820 from their capital at Hamdullahi, and the Toucouleur Empire under the leadership of Tijani Tall, nephew of al-Hajj Omar Tall who had conquered the region in the 1860s. The French government would later exploit the chaos in this war-torn land to further their colonial aims.
Evident on the maps is the marshy, flooded landscape of the Inner Niger Delta. Dozens of braided channels and marigots – backwaters, similar to bayous – branch off of the main body of the river and extend past the edge of the map. At the village of Diafarabé, on sheet 15, the river splits; the two branches join up again briefly at Lake Débo. The shape of the lake changes dramatically with seasonal floods; compare Caron’s map with this map of West Africa from the 1890s.
Indeed, many of the 40 available sheets of Caron’s map mention areas of inondation – floods. Several villages des pêcheurs – fishing villages – can be found along the river.
Central Mali is a linguistically diverse region today, as it was in 1887. This language map of Africa from 1883 gives us an idea of the languages Caron would have heard spoken in the villages and riverboats along the Niger, and by members of his party: Bambara, Soninke (Serekhule on the map), Fula (the orange areas), Arabic, several varieties of Tamasheq (Imoshagh), Tommo So (Tombo), Mossi (Mose), Songhay (Surhai), and others.
Caron and his party didn’t quite reach the city of Timbuktu, their original goal, but turned back at Korioumé. Sheet 30 includes an inset showing the route to that city taken by a different French lieutenant 7 years later. The remaining sheets take a different route back up the river to Diafarabé, where the two branches reunite.
Looking at them more than 130 years later, I find these maps, showing the winding river moving through a tangle of islands, baobabs, tamarind trees, and hautes herbes – tall vegetation – fascinating to examine.