Very little is known about the African people without whom no European expedition could have been successful. However, through the journals and accounts of European explorers alongside evidence of African migrations, it is possible to recognise these ‘ordinary men’ as ‘men of exploration’ who made significant contributions to exploration projects and to geographical knowledge.
Some of them have featured in past projects on the Society’s Collections such as Crossing Continents, Connecting Communities; Rediscovering African Geographies; and Hidden Histories of Exploration. These projects used archival materials to recover stories of those previously ignored, forgotten or deliberately excluded from the record, and their stories can be used to trouble, complicate and undermine traditional narratives of European exploration. Their involvement also raises questions around agency and recognition, particularly as we untangle the close and complicated relationship between European exploration and colonial exploitation.
Note about captions
Within the Society’s photographic collection there are some historical images (and image titles or captions) which are recognised as containing unacceptable forms of language, or present image content that is considered inappropriate. In such cases, as part of our Collections policy, the Society maintains access to those images and descriptors as a source of context and information for researchers, recognising that the historical language used or image subjects in themselves do not reflect the Society’s contemporary position as an organisation wholly committed to principles of equality and diversity.
Originally forced into slavery in Africa, the group who came to be known as the 'Bombay Africans' were liberated by the British Royal Navy from Arab slaving boats and taken to Bombay (India) or Karachi (Pakistan). Hundreds of Bombay Africans subsequently returned to Africa, either independently or with the aid of the missionary societies. Sir Henry Bartle Frere, Governor of the Bombay Presidency and President of the Royal Geographical Society (1873-74), suggested that British explorers recruiting staff for African expeditions should employ these returned African men and women. Of this group at least 30 can be identified as having taken part in African expeditions.
Sidi Mubarak Bombay
Taken to Asia as a slave, Mubarak gained his freedom in the Bombay Presidency. He later returned to Africa and worked for many of the 19th century British explorers active in Africa, including Richard Francis Burton, John Hanning Speke, James Grant, and Henry Morton Stanley.
As a result, Mubarak became the most widely travelled man in Africa. Over the course of his career, he covered some 9,600km (5,970 miles) overland, much of this on foot. He and John Hanning Speke traced the source of the Nile. Mubarak became the only recorded person to travel both the Nile from its source in Lake Victoria in Uganda to Cairo, and to cross Africa from Zanzibar in the east, to Angola on the west coast. In addition, he also sailed the length of the Red Sea and around the Cape of Good Hope. Mubarak spoke a number of languages, a skill vital to Speke who could not speak Arabic, Kiswahili or any other African languages.
For his role with the Speke expeditions, the Royal Geographical Society awarded Mubarak a silver medal and provided him with a pension in 1876.
After retirement Mubarak worked for the Church Missionary Society. He died in 1885.