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Regency Personalities Series

In my attempts to provide us with the details of the Regency, today I continue with one of the many period notables.

Geographical Society of London (1830)
1830 –

The Geographical Society of London was founded in 1830 under the name Geographical Society of London as an institution to promote the ‘advancement of geographical science’. It later absorbed the older African Association, which had been founded by Sir Joseph Banks in 1788, as well as the Raleigh Club and the Palestine Association.

Like many learned societies, it had started as a dining club in London, where select members held informal dinner debates on current scientific issues and ideas.

Founding members of the Society included Sir John Barrow, Sir John Franklin and Sir Francis Beaufort. Under the patronage of King William IV it later became known as The Royal Geographical Society (RGS) and was granted its Royal Charter under Queen Victoria in 1859.

From 1830 – 1840 the RGS met in the rooms of the Horticultural Society in Regent Street.

The history of the Society was closely allied for many of its earlier years with ‘colonial’ exploration in Africa, the Indian subcontinent, the polar regions, and central Asia especially.

It has been a key associate and supporter of many notable explorers and expeditions, including those of Darwin, Livingstone, Stanley, Scott, Shackleton, Hunt and Hillary.

The early history of the Society is inter-linked with the history of British Geography, exploration and discovery. Information, maps, charts and knowledge gathered on expeditions was sent to the RGS, making up its now unique geographical collections. The Society published its first journal in 1831.

The society also presents many awards to geographers that have contributed to the advancement of geography.

The most prestigious of these awards are the Gold Medals (Founder’s Medal 1830 and the Patron’s Medal 1838). The award is given for “the encouragement and promotion of geographical science and discovery”. The awards originated as an annual gift of fifty guineas from King William IV, first made in 1831, “to constitute a premium for the encouragement and promotion of geographical science and discovery”.

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Regency Personalities Series

In my attempts to provide us with the details of the Regency, today I continue with one of the many period notables.

Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa (African Association)
9 June 1788-1831

Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa (African Association) was a British club dedicated to the exploration of West Africa, with the mission of discovering the origin and course of the Niger River and the location of Timbuktu, the “lost city” of gold. The formation of this group was effectively the “beginning of the age of African exploration”.

Organized by a dozen titled members of London’s upper-class establishment and led by Sir Joseph Banks, the African Association felt that it was the great failing of the Age of Enlightenment that, in a time when men could sail around the world, the geography of the Dark Continent remained almost entirely uncharted. The Ancient Greeks and Romans knew more about the interior of Africa than did the British of the 18th century.

Motivated by sincere desires for scientific knowledge and the abolition of the slave trade, yet not averse to gaining opportunities for British commerce, the wealthy members each pledged to contribute five guineas per year to recruiting and funding expeditions from England to Africa.

Several expeditions were then funded to the dark continent. John Ledyard, Simon Lucas, Daniel Houghton, Mungo Park, Frederich Hornemann, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, and Henry Nicholls all led expedition between 1788 and 1804

No explorer sent expressly by the African Association ever did find Timbuktu, though it was a major in the Royal African Corps named Alexander Gordon Laing who finally walked through its gates in 1826. The findings of the Association’s recruits, however, accomplished much for European knowledge of Africa and its people. Peter Brent describes the common perception of Africa in the years preceding the African Association:
Jungle, desert, mountain and savannah swam into one disagreeable continuity…all the peoples and sub-divisions of the peoples, all the cultures and languages and religions, were forced by the European imagination into one mould. Out of it stepped the “native,” the “savage,” offering the blood of sacrifice to grinning gods, dancing in lunatic abandon around flames and…making a meal of his enemies.

In contrast, according to Brent, “the explorers themselves had no such view of Africans, no simple picture that rejected African reality and denied to Africans their full humanity.” Mungo Park’s description in particular contributed to a balanced perspective.

This “humanizing” of the African people in the minds of Europeans was no doubt a boon to the abolition of the slave trade, since many of the African Association’s members were abolitionists and had ties to William Wilberforce. “By the beginning of the 19th century,” Brent writes, “the attack on the whole appalling business had sharpened, and Africa had become the subject of the day. And still, despite everything, the European ignorance about most of the continent’s interior remained almost unaltered. It was a situation that had to be put right.” The relentless efforts of the African Association over forty-three years certainly contributed to this enlightenment.

The society was absorbed by the Royal Geographical Society in 1831.

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