McLeod of the Niger

An old soldier neglected by an ungenerous country. (The Morning Leader, October 1892)

Captain Lyons McLeod, F.R.G.S., 1860

English governments have a rather unpleasant reputation for neglecting the humbler heroes of the nation; and another instance of the kind which goes to support the public impression has been brought before the notice of The Morning Leader. The story of Capt. Lyons McLeod, R.N., is a sad one. At 67 he finds himself penniless, prospectless, and broken in health, although he has served his country by many brave deeds.

HM Brig ‘Arab’ in hot pursuit of a Slaver in 1856

In November, 1841, he entered the British Navy, and while a midshipman on board the Illustrious, he volunteered for service on the West Coast of Africa in the suppression of the slave trade. There he saw some very stirring movements, and one of his own achievements was heroic. While in command of the Albert’s boats on detached service he captured three slavers in one week on the Rio Pongas. The last of the three was the Venus, which was lying securely hidden in a creek with her hull out of sight, and branches of trees lashed to her masts, so that she seemed part of the forest. The young middy had only three white and two black men in his boat, and the Venus had a crew of 26; but when, by signs known only to sailors, they discovered her position the lad and his followers made such a gallant fight that they captured the ship, warped her out of the creek under a heavy fire and got her away to sea. The approach of a vessel with what appeared to be growing trees for masts caused no little sensation at Sierra Leone, and the midshipman and his crew were all promoted. McLeod became a lieutenant at the expiration of his sea time. He again volunteered for service on the African West Coast, and spent some time in doing good work on the Penelope and the Centaur. In 1853 he laid before Sir Roderick Murchison and the Royal Geographical Society a plan for opening the Niger to commerce, by ascending th river on the rising of the waters. He was confident that he knew the cause of the failure of the Niger Expedition of 1841-2, and placed faith in the native story that the bursting and overflowing of the lagoons along the banks at the end of the rainy season raised the level of the river sometimes as much as 60ft. in 24 hours. The delta was then submerged, there was no malaria, and the river was healthy. His theories were justified by the result. His plan was adopted, and an expedition commanded by Dr. Backie ascended the river, and returned with the loss of a man. The Niger was thus opened through McLeod’s agency to civilisation and commerce.

The Niger River Delta

A death blow was struck at the slave traffic, and England secured a great trade in palm oil and other commodities. Peiterman and other German geographers have spoken of the services of “McLeod of the Niger,” as they call him; but otherwise he complains that he has had no recognition. In 1856 he became Consul of Mozambique, and by vigorous action he stopped what was virtually the slave trade under the denomination of a “French Free Labor Emigration.” His dispatches convinced a committee, presided over by Prince Napoleon, that the slave trade was very thinly disguised by this name, and the Emperor of the French paid an indemnity of 15 million francs to secure its cessation. Thereafter, however, McLeod’s Consulate was abolished, and he not only received no compensation, but was considerably out of pocket by his residence there. After being disappointed in the hope of official promotion, he was created Consul of the Niger, and spent several years in that very troubled territory. He took part in many stirring events.

Bishop Samuel Crowther

He saved a warship which grounded on the river; he fought fierce battles with the pirates; he rescued Samuel Crowther, the black bishop, only lately dead, from the clutches of pirates; he suppressed many centres of the slave trade, and opened many avenues of trade. His most momentous experience was nothing less than a war with a fierce and powerful native chief who attacked the Consulate, and, failing to take it, invested it for nine months. In the end the chief was beaten, his force dispersed, and a great obstacle in the way of civilisation removed. The privations Capt. McLeod suffered during this trying time brought on acute dysentery, and he was invalided. He got no further than Madeira on his way home, and lay there six months in a state of prostration.

American Sailors Fighting Pirates, Early 19th Century

When at last he arrived in London he found that his Consulate was to be abolished, and the only compensation he got for the loss of a salary of £700 a year was a pension of £50. Since then the man who opened the Niger has held no appointment, and misfortune has followed him fast. Continued illness and necessity, and the long and fatal illness of his only son, made demands far beyond the power of a pension of £50 to meet; and he was in his extremity obliged to commute it. From that time he has been without satisfactory resources. He has written several books. His “Eastern Africa,” published in 1860, has been placed in the Royal Library at Windsor by command of the Queen. He also published in 1865 a history of Madagascar and its people, which was recognised by the native authorities as a work of great value.

Sir Robert Fowler

Besides these works he has published others of considerable worth, and he is the inventor of some useful appliances. This is the story of the old man, now partly blind and suffering internal maladies brought on by privations in Africa. He is absolutely without means – literally penniless – and he appeals to the Government for a grant from the Civil or some other fund which will keep him in his old age out of helpless dependence and poverty. He submitted a petition for such aid in 1885; it was supported by the then Lord Mayor, Sir Robert Fowler, Sir William McArthur, the Baroness Burdett-Coutts, and many others, but it produced no effect. The poor old man is still bright and cheerful, in spite of all these trials, and he laughed like a boy as he fought his battles o’er again with a representative of The Morning Leader. He is very modestly averse to notoriety, and he asks no charity. All he asks is a slight recognition of his undoubted and undeniable services to civilisation and humanity. Perhaps a generous public opinion will now give his petition the greater weight of its support.



The Morning Leader, article published October 1892, as an attachment to a letter from the  Salvation Army to the Foreign Office, FO 84/2263


About J.F. Gjersø

PhD in International History, LSE.
This entry was posted in Imperial History and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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