The White Man’s Grave

Pioneers of any expedition assume every risk venturing into virtually unknown territory. They are usually ill-prepared and not fully informed on what to expect. European exploration into West Africa was no exception. When the Portuguese explorers first arrived in the middle of the 15th century, they met with hostile reception from the natives who attacked them with bows and arrows. The crew was so reluctant at venturing any further up river that the first expedition was recalled to return a year later.

Expeditions, especially one that ends in colonialism and subjugation is not only devastating for the locals in many ways; the invaders  also get their share of miseries. The Europeans in this case suffered various fatalities in the numerous wars of occupation. we cited in an earlier post the tragic adventure into the ceded mile when the people of Niumi were attacked, 23 of the combined party of 30 soldiers alongside some civilians representing the colonial administration were killed as they were pursued out of native lands under fire. Numerous other examples occurred at several times during the long history of European occupation of African lands.

The causalities were not always of war or hostile encounters with natives, in fact it has been well documented that the tropical environment was more hostile and claimed more lives than did any single war. West Africa was nicknamed ‘the white man’s grave’ due to the severe fatalities they incurred from contracting tropical illnesses like malaria and yellow fever.

In 1869, according to official colonial records, in Bathurst alone an outbreak of cholera claimed 1162 lives out of a population of 4000 including European settlers. This was the outbreak which earned Banyon Point it’s new name; Half Die. This was towards the latter days of colonial occupation and the beginning of official administration over the territory of The Gambia. Before the breakout of that epidemic, there were more devastating tolls on the European numbers inflicted by the hostile tropical climate.

In 1825, a contingent of 199 European soldiers arrived at Bathurst; this was shortly after the founding of the settlement; due to limited accommodation on the new settlement 108 of their lot came on land and 91 remained housed at sea. This new arrival came in May and within a space of under four months; “by September 21, 1825; 87 out of the 108 had died.”  This was a huge number in such a short space of time. Those soldiers who were housed at sea due to the limited accommodations on land were brought on land since the deaths have opened up space but “by December 21, 73 more had died.”

Out of the original 199, only 37 remained by the end of that year. Meaning in the space of 7 months, 162 died. In March of the next year, another batch of 200 was sent, almost half that number would perish in a space of three month; “between 21 June and 21 September in that year (1826), 98 men died. Eighteen more died during the following three months, and of the survivors 33 were permanently unfit for any further service.”

Contracting tropical diseases in the unrelenting heat of West Africa with ill-equipped or non-existent medical care meant certain death for almost all the Europeans who contracted tropical diseases of any sort.

This was one of the reasons why the ranks of the colonial forces were filled with Africans. In July 1827 after 276 out of 399 European soldiers had perished, it was decided that white troops could not be stationed in the Gambia and the survivors were withdrawn and replaced by African troops.

Dating as far back the earliest recorded expeditions, the hostile environment claimed many European explorers’ lives. When the Portuguese returned on their second expedition, they made it to Kunta Kinteh Island which they named St. Andrew’s to honor one of their number who died of a fever and was buried on the Island. That story will repeat itself several times over with the various contingents that were stationed on what later became known as James Island after the British took control of it.

Colonial administrative staff, soldiers, merchants, and missionaries alike, the story would repeat itself over the many decades that the West African shores were occupied.

Works Cited

Gray, J. (1940). History of The Gambia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



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